System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 3

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Limited Skill Deck-Building

Most MMOs have traditionally been of the model that every skill your character learns is available to you at will. Certainly, some skills require a particular item to work. And some MMOs don’t really give you that many in the first place. In fact, most MMOs have a very hard time giving you convenient access to more than a dozen skills, because once you have one bound to every number, the rest generally have to be accessed via binds, macros, or clicking an icon with your mouse. WoW and now SW:TOR are the champions of this last fact: by max level you can easily have over 40 power icons on your screen, each of which is useful frequently enough to leave it there.

But, given the way your hands work, the only ones convenient to use are the ones within easy reach of your fingers. In games with dozens of useable powers, high-level encounters might be balanced to need a lot of them. So your ability to play the high level content really comes down to having an amazing spatial memory for your skill bar, good recall about what each of your abilities does, and tricks for getting there fast. I’m sure there are people that love this type of player competence being required to play well, but it’s not really that friendly to a mass audience. I suspect the vast majority of players almost never use more skills than fit in their first row of quickslots.

The first place I saw this directly supported was Guild Wars 1: you can only have eight skills active on your character at a time (accessed with number keys 1-8). You might know literally hundreds of skills, but you have to pick eight to take into an adventure (you can freely arrange them in town). Theoretically, not many skills are drastically better than other skills, but each varies in cost, time to use, cooldown, and effects. Some skills are better if you can use other skills to cause an effect (e.g., a skill that does extra damage to burning characters, but doesn’t, itself, set them on fire). Others are more valuable based on party composition (e.g., a skill that gives bonus HP to every party member for each enchantment is more useful in a party that uses a lot of enchantment buffs). Still others are more useful if you know what you’re fighting (e.g., armor against earth elemental damage is incredibly useful against specific enemies but completely useless against most others). So choosing your skills is a lot like building a deck in a collectible card game: you’re looking for synergy and strategy over raw power.

It’s not surprising that Guild Wars 2 is keeping a similar system. But it’s not the only MMO of this generation that’s doing so: both TERA and The Secret World use a similar mechanism as well. GW2 has changed it up from the previous game: you still only have a limited number of skills, but half of them are based on equipped weapon, one is always a heal, and one is always a high-level elite skill (reducing the deck building complexity considerably). You also often have different class-based effects on F1-F4. This theoretically gives the player less freedom, but probably makes balancing content significantly easier for the designers (currently in GW1 there are skill decks with synergy so good they can allow a prepared player to safely solo elite group content). Meanwhile, TSW is much closer to GW1, in that you have complete freedom to choose your skill deck. Their variation is that skills are unlocked via a tree structure (rather than just captured or purchased individually) and you have an additional bar of skills that aren’t activated, but give you passive bonuses. But all evidence points to skill synergy being at least as important as in GW1. Finally, I only played TERA briefly, but it seemed to be using a similar system more for ease of access than anything else: I recall that you could only put abilities on the first six number keys and the first four F keys, ensuring that you’d never have to reach across the keyboard to use a power.

In general, I really like the trend that seems to be happening. Having lots of skills available at once really makes it necessary to pay more attention to the UI than to the 3D world, even if you can manage all those abilities. It also seems to make a “gotcha” encounter design more common, where you’ll normally be fine with just your first quickbar of skills, but you’ll periodically hit a wall of difficulty if you don’t remember some skill buried on bar six (“Oh, right, I can stun droids! That encounter could have been a lot easier!”). Knowing that you can only have a small number of your total skills available at one time makes it much easier to just pay attention to the 3D game and feel safe that, if a skill selection is doing well in an area, there will probably not be something you forgot to use in a later encounter.

The one downside to it is that it has no particular simulation rationale: it’s entirely a game mechanic, and there’s no explanation for why your character can’t use any learned skill in a pinch. But, given that most MMOs have hugely more severe violations of such immersion, that’s probably not worth getting annoyed about.

Part 4

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D&D: Why Weapon Specialization?

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One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about D&D 3.x/Pathfinder is the high-level power imbalance between casters and non-casters, particularly the Fighter. The core of the complaint frequently seems to boil down to the ramifications of player-directed game pacing: when players can rest and regain spells whenever they run out, the caster with powerful-but-limited attacks gets out of balance with the Fighter and his less-powerful-but-unlimited attacks. But, beyond the core, it seems to me there’s a wider periphery of issues: casters just get more cool stuff to do at high level than Fighters. And I think one of those issues comes down to weapon selection.

The Fighter has always been the class with the widest access to arms and armor (unless you count the Gladiator from Dark Sun). When other classes are trying to make due with daggers and maces, the Fighter can fight with pretty much anything. In the old days, this was a huge advantage: if you found a grossly powerful Trident, Bastard Sword, or Maul, it wasn’t going to the Thief, Mage, or Cleric. A huge portion of the most interesting treasure was reserved for the martial classes. A couple of things have changed since then.

The most recent and most significant is the increasing ease of item crafting. In the old days, if you found a +1 (+3 vs. lycanthropes) dancing bardiche, that might be the most powerful weapon the party had access to, even if it wasn’t as useful as a standard +3 flaming longsword would be. But with item crafting, there’s no reason not to give every character exactly the most commonly useful enchantments on their favorite weapon. Magical treasure ceases to be exciting when you can just make whatever you really wanted by selling it off. Fortunately, this is an easy fix: for my last couple of campaigns, I’ve completely removed player access to item creation. The treasure they have is what appears in the adventure, or a limited set of stuff that might be for sale.

Unfortunately, once you remove item creation, the more subtle change becomes apparent. Since at least 2nd edition, the game has been doing its damndest to make the Fighter’s choice from a variety of weapons a one-time choice. At first level you pick via your Weapon Focus: do you use a longsword, battle axe, greatsword, or longbow? That choice is only likely to become more locked in as you get Specialization, Improved Critical, and greater versions of the preceding. Once you’re a few feats in, a cool weapon drop has to be exceedingly good to compensate for the sunk cost of the feats in something else. If you have five feats in a weapon, you have a +2 attack, +4 damage, and double crit range; a +3 flaming, keen weapon is just a side-grade for you over a +1 weapon you’re specialized in. Once you count Pathfinder‘s Weapon Training (+1 attack and damage in one weapon type every 4 levels), there might not be a weapon outside your specialty that’s an upgrade over a +1 within it .

And, honestly, what does specialization achieve? It seems to have intentions in the realms of both genre emulation and balance. And, for the first, indeed there is some genre precedent for the kind of guy that’s had extremely focused training with a certain weapon. But why not leave that to prestige classes and let the Fighter be the guy that’s good with all weapons? From a balance perspective, sure it’s technically more powerful to give a player a bonus in every weapon than in one weapon, but players are pretty much going to use one weapon all the time anyway unless the situation specifically and dramatically calls for changing. Requiring specialization just makes the player intractable and ornery when the GM would like the player to use a different weapon (an infiltration scenario, escaping imprisonment, or just finding some really cool story-based weapon).

What do you really gain by not giving the Fighter commensurate bonuses in all available weapons? (No, seriously, if someone has a thought, I’d love to hear it in the comments.)

And, as a temporary fix on the problem that only minimally unbalances things if there really is a balance issue at play, I suggest:

Windfall Weapon (Fighter Special Ability)

At fifth level and every four levels thereafter (whenever Weapon Training is available), a Fighter receives a windfall weapon slot. A player may select a specific weapon and train with it for at least a week to assign it to one of these slots (and can “overwrite” and replace a previous windfall weapon in this way). This is literally a specific, unique weapon (e.g., the character could not select a particular +1 battleaxe and then immediately replace it with a different +1 battleaxe if the original was lost); the ability represents dedicated training with the unique balance, peculiarities, etc. of the weapon.

The character is treated as proficient with the weapon (if not already) and applies all bonuses from feats and special abilities that could apply to the weapon as if it were the weapon originally selected. The weapon must have been a valid selection for the original feat or ability (e.g., something that only applies to ranged weapons couldn’t be used with a melee weapon and vice versa).

For example, if a character had Weapon Focus and Specialization in Longsword, +2 Weapon Training in Short Sword, and Improved Critical in Longbow, his windfall weapons would receive a net +3 attack, +4 damage, and doubled threat range.

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