Commitment Anxiety in Skill Selection

In the current revision pass on Dungeons of Dredmor we’ve finally had to make some hard choices about what skills mean to a player’s character. Thus far, all skills have been more or less freely available to select from any point for testing purposes. But if every skill is always available then by the time a player earns a few levels they shall have had the chance to buy a completely new set of skills which would render the importance of their initial choices mostly meaningless. We want every playthrough of Dredmor to be about an experience which is meaningfully different from a playthrough with different starting selections — so far as we are able to make it so.

Which will you choose?

To restate our assumptions: At the start of a game of Dredmor, you must select seven skills to create your character. Yep, just seven. True, some skills are probably more useful than others, for how can ‘mushroom farming’ compare to ‘fire magic’? – Ah, but appearances may be deceptive, and I hope to make mushroom farming a skill to be feared; The fungi from Yuggoth compel me. (But that madness shall come in the crafting skills iteration…)

Why seven skills? I don’t know. Maybe it felt like a good number. It could reflect influence from Dwarf Fortress (whose use of seven dwarves has an obvious folklore connection), except that the foundation of skill selection was implemented before DF was released, if I recall correctly. I’ll have to ask Nicholas about it … and he says: “Oh, I just picked it at random”.

Ah. Lovely.

Let me briefly consider some other games’ approaches:

An old favorite of mine, Ultima Online, had a dynamic advance-through-use system of skills rated from 0 to 100 with a total skill point cap of 700. Once your skills added up to 700, you just shuffled that set number of points around. The downside of UO was that the system promoted rampant macroing; Raph Koster explains this (and more!) in his writing on UO’s use-based system. The capped dynamic skill system fits the theme of an open world and I really like how it is a radical difference compared to the lineage of MUDs that revolve around grossly linear advancement, the influence of which we see today is most MMORPGs (read: WoW). In UO, player power relative to one another was kept within a reasonable range – a new player would start with 1/10th to 1/2th the hitpoints of a maxed out player. Five or six fresh noobs could conceivably fight a veteran character and win (though no Red worth their black pearl would be taken by a pack of noobs).

Dredmor, however, is not an open world sandbox game, nor does relative player power matter because it is a single player game. Roguelikes as a genre tend to be about making a few important choices at the start of a game and then exploring how those choices affect a playthrough which requires relatively little investment compared to an MMO character. What I’m getting at is that I think almost the entire point of starting a roguelike character lies in those choices at creation being a meaningful statement of how you intend to explore the rest of that playthrough – or at least a shot in the dark that will give you a unique experience. This suggests to me that we should be unforgiving about changing skills, as in: you can’t.

I know that modern games like Titan Quest and World of Warcraft are rather forgiving about letting you undo skill selection decisions — in TQ, you may change skill choices for increasing gold cost, in WoW, likewise for picks in the ‘talent’ tree. I see these design choices as a result of wanting to play nice with more casual gamers, alleviating the pain of character optimization mistakes in games that both take more time investment and revolve quite centrally around number crunching. Dredmor certainly has numbers and crunching, but I hope that the spirit of the game comes through: that it’s more about exploring interesting choices within given systems than linearly optimizing DPS numbers and threat/tank mechanics.

A rather poorly organized skill design spreadsheet. We try not to pay too much attention to it.

(Can you defeat Lord Dredmor with just crafting skills? A shiny goat figurine to whoever does it first!)

Funny thing, Diablo 2 was not so forgiving with skill re-allocation while I’m certain that Diablo 3 will have some mechanic for it.

To ramble on tangentially, an interesting point from Diablo 1 is that you read spellbooks to learn spells rather than gaining them via experience; And this is more properly Roguelike, if I recall correctly. Remnants of this book-advancement exist in having to purchase spells in something like WoW, though that’s entirely functioning as a money-sink rather than being loot-based. It’s an interesting thought, with books as spell advancement: This means that a mage’s spell power is attached to item acquisition rather than experience advancement. This gives a Wizard goodies to find in all the piles of loot which are generally armour and weapons and item-based character focused.

At that, learning from books was how spells were originally acquired in Dredmor. And there was this awful system where you had to roll to see if you succeeded learning the spell, otherwise the book crumbles – it seems to arbitrary and punitive, so I argued to have it cut. (Some people just like pain, of course, and maybe that’s why they play Roguelikes.)

… What to do with all these old spellbook graphics …

Right, so to bring this back on topic: We’re having player’s choose seven Uberskills at game start. An Uberskill is a skill category (eg. Swordplay, Fire Magic, Fungus Mastery, Veganism) which has between three and eight sub-skills (Unterskills, if you like) which you may advance linearly with skill points earned through leveling. Swordplay sub-skills, for instance, grant bonuses to combat — especially when using swords — then starts giving special attacks that have status effects and more damage or area effects to give some tactical depth to work with.

I’m not really sure what we’re going to do when someone maxes out the paths on all the skills they’ve chosen. We’ll think of something cool.

[Written for the Gaslamp Games blog]

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