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RPG skill systems, and roleplay through sub-optimal gameplay

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Hello, I've been thinking more about role-playing in games recently, more specifically how modern games have co-opted RPG's 'skill selections' as a simple buff to the character, rather than a way to shape a character. When trying to imagine what a perfect skill-system would be for an RPG, you always run into the issue 'metagaming' when giving the player more control over their character (e.g. min-maxing the fun out of the game). Just wanted to see what everyone else thought!

So, to set this up, let's talk about skill & roleplay in older and newer games. Games like the original fallout had a 'trait' system when designing your character – a trait contained both a benefit and a penalty. So, picking the 'bruiser' trait would give you more strength, but less action points: (yes these are picked only at character creation, but the point is the good/bad nature of them)

I rarely see modern games do this: make the player character bad at something, as well as good at something else. Instead, the player character just slowly becomes better and stronger through the game, resulting in incredibly similar playthroughs.

Some games seem to actively move away from this: whilst I haven't played it myself, I've been informed that horizon: zero dawn allows the player to unlock every skill on the tree on the same character! This means that the choice of what skill to level is simply a choice of which skill to acquire first, rather than what skills your want your character to acquire. Mechanically, your character will be identical to everyone else's character once you've acquired enough skill points – which to me, is a huge detriment to roleplaying. AFAIK this is somewhat trivial to accomplish too, but I haven't played it myself, so couldn't comment certainly on this.

If we were to design a skill-tree which was great for role-playing, what would that look like? A fallout-esque system where every skill comes with a negative is interesting – but you've limited yourself to set outcomes. For example, the 'Bruiser' perk gives you strength at the expense of AP – but what if I wanted strength at the expense of intelligence, or at the expense of charisma? Without a huge amount of perks, millions of combinations would be missed out.


This got me thinking – what about a separate benefit / penalty tree? When you gain a level, in order to allocate a point in your skill tree, you're also forced to allocate a point in your 'penalty' tree, meaning every level-up brings with it an upside and a downside.

However, allowing players to pick their own benefits / penalties would obviously lead to the vast majority of players simply min-maxing their build & creating an overpowered character. This is where we see the clash between player freedom and metagaming – the more freedom players have to pick their builds, the more broken builds can become. Most players would simply pick skills that worked with their build, and pick benefits that didn't matter.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that playing sub-optimally enhances my roleplaying experience. In dark souls, I frequently come up with weird fun builds where I play a character within the world, and see if I can complete the game as that character, even though sticking true to that character typically requires an absurdly bad build. For example, a knight who lost an arm in a previous battle, and is forced to never equip anything in their right hand – or a bandit who got a bad back and as a result, couldn't exercise and became fat + weak (so no levels into dex/strength are allowed)

These experiences were normally improved by the fact that the builds were so sub-optimal, I was revelling in the absurdity of it all, whilst also crafting a backstory to the character and seeing them grow as they travelled through the world. And dark souls isn't even really built for roleplaying!

What I'm proposing here is that creating a character which defies the meta is consistently more interesting for roleplay than one which conforms to it. To be clear: even if you have a great backstory and clear for your character, if they follow the typical power-curve, roleplaying becomes less fun/interesting

What does everyone think about this? Do sub-optimal decisions make for better roleplay experiences than optimal ones, disregarding backstory & commitment to roleplay? Am I even describing roleplay here, or is this just enjoyment from doing a 'challenge-run' build? Moreover, if this is the case, how on earth do you design a game to steer players into making suboptimal decisions, whilst also knowing that their choices are suboptimal?

Thanks for reading!

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