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Design Journal #3 –Time, Aging, and Offline Player Characters

Chronicles of Elyria Developer Journals - By Guest Writer on August 17, 2015

Design Journal #3 –Time, Aging, and Offline Player Characters

Welcome to Design Journal #3! If you’ve been following along with our weekly design journals you already know that in Chronicles of Elyria your character ages and eventually dies (permadeath).

In this week’s journal, we’ll focus on what happens to your character while they’re alive. We’ll talk about how the passage of time is measured, how time effects your character, how long you can expect to live, and finally, how you can get the most out of your character’s lifespan by leveraging offline play.

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Before I forget, I promised the very active community over at ChroniclesofElyria.com I’d slip an Easter egg into each design journal. Pay close attention, somewhere here-in lies the subtle hint of a previously (and still) unannounced feature.


Figure 1- Early Concept of Aging

The Passage of Time

When designing Chronicles of Elyria I did so with a pre-defined set of goals in mind. The first of which was “the world must feel truly dynamic.” To help make that happen, we’re building mechanics into Chronicles of Elyria so that players experience the passage of time in real and meaningful ways.

The Life of an Adventurer

When we think of an epic fantasy story we all conjure up a lot of the same imagery. We think of the main characters prepping their belongings for a long, arduous journey. We read about the band of heroes taking shelter in a cave or hovel to protect themselves from snow or sand. We imagine characters making camp and setting up a watch to protect themselves from those things hidden in the darkness. And we imagine the heroes returning home from their journey exhausted, tattered, and unshaven.

We really wanted to bring those same experiences to Chronicles of Elyria and have spent a lot of time adding mechanics which will result in similar situations and elicit the same emotional responses. For example, whenever you leave the city walls things like fatigue, hunger, temperature, and thirst begin to have an effect on your character. Leave unprepared and you could end up with insufficient food, water, or clothing and be forced to either turn back or push on and risk repeated spirit walking.

Next, we’ve introduced creatures into the world, both mundane and magical which only hunt at night. This, combined with the fact that fatigue affects you differently during the day and night means players grouped up for a few hours will likely need to stop and rest at some point. Make sure you light torches. They won’t necessarily protect you from what’s hunting you, but at least you’ll see the light shining in their eyes before they attack.

Finally, time spent out in the wilderness should be worn like a badge of honor. It should be clear not only to you but also to others that you’ve been on a long journey. When out in the wilderness your character’s hair will grow, your face may get dirty, and if your soul does get separated from your body, you’ll return to find permanent scars to remind you of the price you’ve paid. But don’t worry, if you don’t like the “I’ve been to Mt. Doom and back” look you can always stop at a barber shop and get cleaned up.

The Life of a Farmer

While it is true adventurers must keep a keen eye on their sundial, they’re not the only ones affected by the passage of time. Those who choose a simpler life will still need to periodically check their almanac.

In Chronicles of Elyria, four Earth days corresponds with a single Elyrian Year. Like our own world, Elyria years are divided up into four distinct seasons, with each season corresponding with one of our real-world days. If you’re a farmer wanting to plant certain seasonal plants, you may find you need to wait a couple days before you can do so. This doesn’t apply just to plants and trees though. Every good breeder knows that different animals are more likely to reproduce at different times of the year.

At this point you may be thinking “this system sounds great, but it doesn’t apply to me. It’s for farmers and I plan to be a soldier.” Yeah right, ever tried marching in the snow in plate mail? Plan accordingly.

Up until this point we’ve been talking about how the passing of time is visible around your character. Now let’s see how the passing of time effects your character.


Figure 2- Character Model at age 25 and 35

The Effects of Aging

Chronicles of Elyria takes places in another world, with fictional characters you create, in a completely different timeline, but at its core is still about the Human Condition. It’s about the full cycle of life including birth, aging, conflict, our own feelings of mortality, and then ultimately death. It’s about connecting with others, having shared experiences and adventures, and then watching as the current generation gives way as the next generation takes its place, ready to begin anew with renewed vitality.

But, no matter how much we attempt to recreate the Human Condition in video games it’s meaningless without both the promise of death, and the constant reminder of aging.

Lifespan

When creating characters in Chronicles of Elyria you enter the world at either age 12, 15, or in some cases over the age of 18. These three ages correspond with different play styles and cater to different overall objectives. We’ll talk more about the differences in a future design journal when we explore Families. In the meantime, it’s important to note that while there are NPC children running around in the world, players always control a character at least twelve years old.

As we discussed in the previous section, Elyrian time passes at a rate of roughly one Elyrian year every four real-world days. This means that there are approximately 90 Elyrian years per Earth year. By default, characters will live a random age somewhere between 80 and 120 years (approximately 10-16 real-world months). While alive or dead may be a Boolean operation, aging is not. Aging is a process that every character goes through that has both visual and gameplay effects.

Visual Indications

We spend the vast majority of time playing an RPG looking at our character. As a result, it’s arguably impossible to create a dynamic, immersive world if your character remains static. With that in mind, we wanted to give players a visual indicator that their character was growing, maturing, getting stronger, and yes, approaching the end of their life. While the character difference in Figures 2 and 3 may look dramatic when placed side-by-side, it’s actually a very subtle effect when drawn out over a lifetime.

As you can see from the images, your character’s physical appearance changes as they age. Hairlines recede, bald spots appear, their skin will tighten and develop liver spots, and in the later years their height will even change. It is the attention to detail here that really makes you feel like your character is a living, breathing person.

Before you ask, NPCs are effected by the passage of time as well. NPC children you are introduced to will, within a little over a month, become young adults. The apothecary you frequent for your reagents will age into retirement and will instead be found working her loom. And thus over the course of a year, you’ll become attached to multiple generations of NPCs. Ever promised to take care of an NPC’s family line in an RPG before? This puts it in a whole new perspective.


Figure 3 - Character Model at age 55 and 75

Attribute Changes

In Chronicles of Elyria, character attributes are divided up into three different dimensions that also change as you age. The three different dimensions are physical, mental, and social. Within each of those three dimensions your character’s attributes are further subdivided into aspects of force, reflex, and endurance.  Force relates to how strong your character is along a specific dimension. Reflex defines your character’s ability to change the direction of their force or evade an opposed force.  Endurance represents how long you can comfortably maintain or resist a force. Visually, these attributes form a matrix which can be displayed as such:

Each skill in the game requires the use of one primary attribute, and up to two secondary attributes for a maximum of three. As you age, some skills naturally atrophy at a faster rate while others become easier to develop. Strength, Agility, and Stamina all become more difficult to maintain while Will, Reason, and Focus become easier. For social skills, it’s about half and half. Persuasion becomes harder to level (nobody listens to their elders), while both Intuition and Leadership become easier.

This change in attributes creates an interesting game dynamic. Those characters built solely around the physical skills will find they’re most effective in their youth. It’s during this time they are more likely to be out adventuring, risking their lives in the wilderness, or traveling as a merchant on dangerous highways.

At some point those physical activities will become more difficult. You’ll find you’re less able to hold your own in fights against the younger, more virile characters. This is part of the natural order.

In contrast, you’ll find skills that rely on your willpower, or prolonged focus, become significantly easier. You’ll be able to spend more time and become more effective in research and hobbies that require a keen eye. If you were able to build a kingdom, your venerable character will become more influential as your Leadership reaches an all-time high.

Offline Player Characters

Aging and dying in a world where characters pop in and out of existence creates a world of inconsistency. It makes no sense that two characters born at the same time would somehow be decades apart in age, solely because one player isn’t online as much as the other. At the same time, it’s impossible to create a single, cohesive story in a multiplayer world if the actors of the story disappear in the middle of an important scene. To solve these problems, Chronicles of Elyria employs a truly persistent world.

Your character maintains their place in the world even when you sign off, and aging happens whether you’re online or not. But this creates another problem. In a game where your character ages and dies, you want to get as much life out of them as you can.

To remedy this problem CoE introduces the concept of Offline Player Characters (OPCs). Whenever you sign off, Artificial Intelligence takes over and plays your character for you. But, we all know AI is never as good as the real thing, so we’re working on a system that allows you to create and trade scripted Behaviors for your characters.

These Behaviors will let you do things like train character skills, run a storefront, perform weekly trade routes, do some gardening, and many other things. While we plan to provide a lot of pre-canned behaviors at launch, we’re really excited to see what the community can come up with, and plan to provide a lot of support to those players interested in expanding the game in this way.

As to the final question… Yes, it’s possible for your character to die while you’re offline. We recommend either signing off in a safe place, utilizing Behaviors that know how to respond effectively to danger, or hiring other OPCs to act as guards.

What’s next?

Next week’s design journal will go in-depth into maiming, spirit walking, and dying. The last of which, as many of you know, is permanent in Chronicles of Elyria.