A key element to any role-playing game is player-progression. If you’re playing a game over any extended period of time, you want to feel like you’re making progress by playing it. Making progress in a story is always good, but you can easily engage the player further by also allowing them to progress in power.
This has been a core and more-or-less necessary feature for role-playing games since the original Dungeons & Dragons (and probably whatever came before that). You gain experience as you progress through battles, eventually getting enough to level up and improve your skills – do more damage, get more hit points, get more abilities. Money also usually plays a key feature as a secondary advancement system. Get enough money and you can buy new weapons and armor which will also improve your abilities in combat.
In these respects, my game has not deviated too greatly from the norm. There is an experience system where characters will level-up and get the opportunity to add new, more powerful ability cards to their deck to replace old ones. In that sense, it is all about gaining these new abilities, since, as I said last time, all the stats are in the cards. More powerful abilities on the cards allow a character to excel further in combat against tougher enemies.
But let’s talk a little bit about how characters gain experience. Providing a set amount of experience points at the end of each battle didn’t sound all that appealing to me, so I decided to do it on a turn-by-turn basis, making point values low so that it was easy to keep track of.
Basically, if you did something significant on your turn – attacked, healed, summoned a creature, disarmed a trap, etc. – you get a single point of experience. Then, depending on your class, you may get bonus experience for doing something your class excels at. The Brute gets bonus experience for landing a killing blow. The Spellweaver gets bonus experience for targeting multiple enemies with an attack. The Tinkerer (a healing class) gets bonus experience for healing his allies. Stuff like that. I’m still working on balancing things so that classes gain experience at a roughly equal rate when played well, but I’m pretty happy with it so far.
In addition, at the beginning of each battle, each player will be dealt a secret goal that will give bonus experience at the end of the battle if fulfilled. Some of them are rather friendly, like getting a bonus if none of your teammates get knocked unconscious, or if you finish the battle at full hit points. Some of them encourage a more reckless play style, like ending the battle with very few hit points or very few cards left in your deck. Others might end up being rather antagonistic, like looting a bunch of money during the battle or being the only character left standing at the end.
Having specific goals in addition to the main objective of the battle not only spices up the game play a bit, but it can also lead to some amount of antagonism among the players, which I’ll talk more about next time. Basically, if the players aren’t always working towards the same goals all the time, it makes things more interesting, in my opinion.
All right, so then we’ve also got money, which is another way to get new ability cards in the form of items. When a character levels up, they gain cards specific to their class, but items are ability cards available to any character, for the right price. Of course some items may be more suited to specific classes, but there’s nothing stopping the Spellweaver from loading up with battle axes and chainmail. This also adds another persistent element to the game as the players will unlock new items for purchase by finding item designs in dungeons (sort of a call-back to Forge War).
So how do you get money? Whenever a monster dies, depending on their level, they’ll drop some amount of money on the ground. If a battle is successfully completed, all the money laying on the ground will get divided evenly among the players, but all classes also have ability cards that allow them to loot, taking an action to grab all the money around them.
Sure, things will get split evenly in the end, but players always have the option to split things unevenly. Maybe their hidden goal for that battle is to collect money. Maybe there’s an item they really want to buy. Maybe their character’s whole goal in life is to amass a great fortune. I think the fact that you are never quite sure what the other player’s motives are adds some interesting depth to the game.
And since we’re talking about character progression, it’s probably important to touch on the idea of monster progression, as well. If you’re designing a linear game, you can design each encounter in the game based on the expected power level of the characters at the point in which they encounter it. With a non-linear game, however, things get much more complicated. When going through a specific dungeon is as viable of an option at level 1 as it is at level 10, the monsters can’t have a set power level. They’ll either be too easy at level 10 or too hard at level 1.
The simple solution is to scale monsters with player level, so that as the player characters level up, the power of the monsters they are fighting increase, as well. This monster scaling can feel a bit like cheating to the players, as it robs them of a bit of purpose in leveling up, but as long as character progression is interesting and dynamic, such that players feel more powerful as they level up, then it really shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
The Elder Scrolls series is a good example of this idea, but, as a video game, monster scaling becomes a lot simpler since you can handle everything internally so the player doesn’t have to keep track of anything. The problem with a board game is that, if a monster’s powers aren’t static, how do you represent them on a card? My current solution is a dry-erase marker and a special coating on the card, but you could also use sliders or different orientations of the card to represent different levels. It’s an ongoing problem, but one with a solution, I’m sure.
Having monster progression is key, though, because then no matter what level the characters are, any dungeon they’ve unlocked over the course of playing the game will provide a unique and interesting challenge to them, and that is really what I am trying to accomplish.
Next week I’ll talk more about those slightly antagonistic elements of the game and how hidden agendas lead to more interesting and persistent aspects of the game.