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Design Notes

The following topics are covered in this section:


Isn't turn-based combat slow and boring?

About the open game licence 3.5

Is it not illegal to use the OGL 3.5?

About magic item and weapon crafting

About the appearance and clothing of the player character

About inter-character romance and intra-party dialogue

About hiding statistics from the player

About enemy scaling in computer RPGs

About improving skills through repeated use

About the use of 3D in computer RPGs

About single-character RPGs

Isn’t turn-based combat slow and boring?

The short answer is no. Take chess for example. Chess can be fast if both players have a quick playing style (this type of chess game is called a blitz, I think). In the case of Knights of the Chalice, the computer takes his decisions immediately, or nearly so. Therefore, combat is slow only when the player takes his time to think his moves. And why shouldn’t he?

Additionally, there are in the game two options allowing you to accelerate gameplay. One option makes combat as fast as combat in rogue-like rpgs like ADOM, and the other doubles the walk speed outside combat, reducing the time you take to travel from point A to point B.

As for the question of turn-based being boring, again the answer is no. Compared to other games, turn-based games give more choice and require more decisions from the player, making situations potentially more interesting. As an illustration a character involved in combat in Knights of the Chalice could:

- Grapple the enemy to prevent him from attacking the weak allied wizard.

- Get close to the enemy wizard in the hope of disturbing his spellcasting.

- Bullrush the opponent into a Web or Wall of fire.

- Move behind an opponent so that you and your ally flank it, giving combat bonuses.

- Use the “aid another” action to shake a nearby ally out of magical sleep.

- Shoot the hostile dragon with a Dragon-Slaying arrow.

- Charge an enemy, increasing your attack potential at the cost of your own protection.

- Use a whirlwind attack, damaging every nearby opponent.

- Cast a spell like Fireball, Hold Person or Confusion.

- Activate a magic wand, and so on.

About the Open Game Licence 3.5

Why use the OGL 3.5 combat system, which was designed for humans to use, when a computer is capable of doing much smarter and more precise calculations?

First of all I want to say that the OGL’s combat system is far from simple. In fact, the calculation of attacks and attacks rolls was one of the hardest parts to implement. A creature can have many different types of attack, like a bite, claw attack and wing attack. For each type, you can have several attacks per round. For each attack, you have different damage rolls and attack rolls. Then you add to this manufactured weapons. Manufactured weapons allow multiple attacks depending on the creature’s base attack bonus and each attack has a decreasing attack roll. Attack rolls are also influenced by dozens of modifiers, such as Blessed, Hasted, etc.

Now in response to the question, I chose this system because I like it. The complexity allows each race to be unique. A Vrock is very different from a Greataxe-wielding Frost Giant, for example. Also, many people are familiar with the system. That means a player can spend less time learning how the game works and more time having fun.

Is it not illegal to use the OGL 3.5?

It has been stated explicitly by Wizards of the Coast that one can make a video game using the Open Game Licence provided that the text of the licence is made available and that the open game content used by the game is clearly made available to the game’s user. Obviously the open licence does not cover Wizards of the Coast’s copyrighted names and brand names like Dungeons & Dragons, Mindflayers, etc, so you will not find any of these names within the game. It has also been stated that a product that uses the open game content can not be marketed as “using the Dungeons & Dragons rules”, which is fine by me.

Additionally I want to highlight the fact that although products and proper names can be copyrighted, pure ideas usually may not. You may not copyright your idea of a “goblin cave” or the idea of “4d6 character generation” as anyone could come up with these ideas and use them in their own distinct game. It is also obvious that common names normally cannot be copyrighted, as a result any game could use such names as “magic missile”, “ice storm”, “fire giant”, “minotaur”, “cloak of resistance”, etc.

About magic item and weapon crafting

The game allows to craft magic items and weapons. Crafting is fun and it gives a lot of power to the player, but as a consequence there may be an over-abundance of magic items. When crafting is not possible, it is more exciting to discover new magic weapons and other magic items. So it’s a questionable design choice.

About the appearance and clothing of the player character

A good number of RPGs allow the player to be specific on hair style, size and clothing of characters. Many modern games graphically represent every detail of the player character, including the weapon he is holding, the shield, the armor, the shirt below the armor, the helmet if he has one, the boots, etc. Oblivion, Temple of Elemental Evil, Neverwinter Nights and even the old Gold Box games are perfect examples. Oblivion goes even further in that it allows to define specific features on the face, down to the length of the ears. I just have to ask: does any of this really matters to the game? Does it make the game any better? You could ask the same question of a book. Should a book describe every character down to the colour of the socks they are wearing?

In my opinion, the gains in terms of immersion and gameplay are very minor, while programmatically it can be a real mess to add such details to a game. The best compromise I've seen is in Ultima Underworld and Dark Sun. In Ultima Underworld, you just select a portrait out of around five possible (there are five male portraits and five female). In Dark Sun, the character's sprite is determined by the character's race. The player does not need to make a choice on hair colour and such. When playing, it does not matter what weapon the character holds, Dark Sun represents the same sprite and I have never thought of it as ridiculous or seriously flawed.

About inter-character romance and intra-party dialogue

That is a matter of preference. I personally consider these things non-essential to making a good game. Characters in Wizardry 8 occasionally say something like 'Oh, I am so afraid of this dark cave' or 'Again, we are victorious'. That can be fun the first time but hearing them again and again makes the remarks unnatural.

In Planescape Torment, you can 'upgrade' many of the recruitable characters just by talking to them; somehow they will be enlightened by your wisdom and that will make them perform (usually fight) better. In Neverwinter Nights 1, there are small recruitable-NPC quests (the main character must talk to the NPC after he has joined the party to learn the NPC's background and quest, usually to retrieve an item for him). I felt that these quests were unnatural, awkwardly added to the game after it was finished.

As for romance, I think it can be interesting but only if the romance is part of the storyline rather than added to the game as an afterthought, like the Neverwinter mini-quests were. A great example of well-made romance in a game is the old Defender of the Crown on Amiga. Should the hero manage to rescue a kidnapped Saxon lady, that lady ends up becoming the hero's wife.

Defender of the Crown (Amiga)

About hiding statistics from the player

Some developers have suggested that the more information a game hides from the player, the better the immersion. The basic idea is that a game is more enjoyable if it is realistic. Humans are not defined by ability scores, thus a game should emulate reality, and show only what the character would see with his eyes if he was real.

I consider this reasoning misguided because adding realism does not necessarily add fun to a game. A game does not need to be realistic, it only needs to offer interesting gameplay. Pac Man, Tetris, Burgertime and Q-Bert were absurd games, but great fun. Realism can even make a game worse in some cases (see my paragraph below on improving skills with repetition).

Secondly, how is the player going to make reasonable decisions if most information about game systems, items and character development is taken away? In my opinion, being able to take rational, or even optimal decisions is one of the elements that make a game enjoyable. In the Sim City games, you must link every residential, industrial and commercial block to a power supply by building costly transmission lines. Imagine how the game would be if it did not give any feedback on whether a block actually receives electricity or not.

About enemy scaling in computer RPGs

Scaling is the idea that as the player gains levels and power, so do all his enemies. The idea is intended to provide an appropriate challenge to the player 100% of the time. My opinion is that monster scaling is both unfair and a source of incoherence.

It is unfair because whenever you give new powers to the player, you take them back in the form of tougher enemies. Example: player gains fire attack – all enemies gain fire resistance. Therefore, scaling defeats the original intent of “leveling”, which is to make the player more powerful. With scaling, there is a risk that the player actually becomes weaker as he gains levels. The player realises that and decides to stop leveling. Imagine a pen-and-paper RPG session where a player says “Hey, no! I don’t want to level up. If I do, the Dungeon Master is going to make me pay for it.” Everyone would laugh.

Scaling is also a source of incoherence. That is obvious very quickly. Assume that the player characters used to fight wolves in the Dark Forest at level 1 and 2. As they return to the Forest at level 5, suddenly they encounter Death Wolves from Hell – the traditional wolves have gone. How do you explain that? Likewise, assume that the characters stumble into the Dragon’s lair at level 2. Wonderful, the Dragon is actually a baby Dragon, the party can defeat it! As they gain levels, any Dragon they encounter seems to be much older! How strange!

What, then, is the alternative to scaling? In CRPGs without scaling the nature and strength of monsters depends on where the player is. As a result, it is the player himself who chooses the difficulty of encounters through his choice of places to explore. Regardless of how tough the characters are, some places are more dangerous than others. In Knights of the Chalice, you will find Fire Giants in the Castle of the Fire Giants and you will find Hill Giants in the Castle of the Hill Giants. Hill Giants being considerably weaker than Fire Giants, it is in the player’s interest to visit the Hill Giants first, gaining experience so that the characters can later visit the Fire Giants.

About improving skills through repeated use

Skill improvement through repeated use is the idea that the character(s) should get better at a given skill if the player uses that skill a lot. The idea is intended to make a game more realistic. In real life, in order to get better at something you need to practice a lot. The idea has been implemented in many CRPGs, for example Wizardry 8 and the roguelike ADOM. I don’t think it is a good idea. Games should focus on providing fun, not realism. It is usually tedious to repeat actions. For example, anyone likes to watch a good action film. How about having to watch the same action film ten times, all day long?

Another reason why “improvement through repeated use” is, in my opinion, a bad idea is that it encourages the player to make less-than-optimal decisions for the sake of becoming a jack-of-all-trades. Assume the player has a skill called Whirlwind Attack. The player can get good at Whirlwind only if he practices a lot. The problem is that whirlwind attack is really useful only when you face three or more enemies at a time, otherwise it’s better a full attack. If you have to practice it, you will feel forced to use Whirlwind all the time just so that you can be effective with it when you really need it. Realistic, yes, fun, no.

What is the alternative? To reward the player when he reaches objectives, not when he conducts simple actions. In the Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper RPG, you get experience points when you defeat a group of enemies and whenever you finish a major quest. The experience can then be used to acquire new powers, spells, abilities, etc. You don’t need to train abilities, or cast Magic Missile 50 times just so that you can finally get good at Magic Missile.

About the use of 3D in computer RPGs

These days, most games made by medium-size and large firms use 3D, it’s like a requirement. It does not matter that the gameplay could be better with a 2D representation. If a game doesn’t have fancy 3D graphics then it’s not worth considering. In many cases the more fancy 3D stuff you see in a game, the more shallow the gameplay. I agree that 3D views are good in shooter games. I was addicted to Far Cry so much that I finished the game in spite of the horrendous difficulty. However, for a RPG I think a 2D view is much better.

Albion, a science-fiction RPG, had both 2D and 3D views. When the game was in 2D I enjoyed it; when it switched to 3D it was boring. Why? Maybe because it’s harder to orientate yourself in 3D. When the view is 3D, I often don’t know where in the game world I am. With a 2D view, you can see everything that surrounds the character(s), not just one side. Also, in 2D you can quickly scroll the view to wherever it is that you want to go, and click to tell the character to go there. Then you let the game’s pathfinding do its work. In 3D you just have to navigate from point A to point B using the arrow keys, avoiding all the walls.

Wizardry 8 used a 3D view. In one part of the game you visit a village in the trees (Trinton). That means constantly using ropes to go up and down inside trees, then crossing rope bridges between trees. I was totally lost in that part. Navigation was horrible. It’s not just a problem of navigation, though. Using the 3D view really hurt Wizardry 8’s combat system, in my opinion. Combat was still good as it used a good phase-based system, but whenever your character needed to move towards a monster it was a pain. You could not move an individual character – you had to wait for the entire party to be ready to make a move, and everyone moved together. Had the view been 2D, you could have seen each character and moved each character independently.

Ultima Underworld 2 also used a 3D view. It was different from Wizardry 8 in that you could control only one character, therefore the 3D made more sense. Additionally, the dialogue and story flow were very good and there was a nice variety in the opponents. Bard’s Tale 2 also used a 3D view and was excellent. In my opinion what made the game great was not the 3D (3D and no automap meant that you had to draw all the maps yourself, if you wanted them), but the combat system, which had nothing to do with 3D. Combat was abstracted and described solely through text.

About single-character RPGs

When new RPGs get released these days, they all feature a lonely character (and 3D graphics, see above). In the best case, the main character is allowed to recruit one or two sidekicks. In these RPGs, the character is a jack of all trades, he must be good at everything: lock picking, melee combat, ranged combat, offensive spell casting, healing spell casting, etc.

That’s all right, but in my opinion, a party-based RPG can be more interesting because the player has to make the most out of his various characters, combining their individual abilities to create the best effect. So, I'd like to give special thanks to the few independent developers who haven't given up on party-based games. Here, I am thinking about Spiderweb Software, the maker of Avernum, and Shifting Suns Studios, the maker of Devil Whiskey.

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