[This is about Project Gorgon, a fantasy MMO I am making. It is an insanely difficult project and easily the most ambitious undertaking I have ever made. Join me, won’t you, as I descend slowly into madness?]
You may remember a couple weeks ago when I was trying to figure out if I should have hordes of monsters or just one big monster: after some thought, I realized that 4th edition D&D had the right approach for me here.
4th edition D&D has a pretty well-done combat system. (Shame about the roleplaying parts!) The combats are usually pretty intense and interesting, and more importantly (for my purposes) they are easy to snap together from parts.
In 4th Edition D&D, you build an “encounter” for players to fight based on a point-buy system — the more people in the group, the more points the DM spends. So a dragon costs a lot of points, and you won’t be fighting multiple dragons at once. But an orc is a modest amount of points, so you might fight a number of them at once. But not all orcs are the same: they are broken up into roles, such as damage-dealers, tanks, sneaky guys, and so on.
That’s about where I stop cribbing from D&D, because its point-buy system and its roles don’t fit an actual MMO very well. But it gave me the general idea: snap together encounters from a collection of enemies in different roles. I like that.
Here are the roles I’m using:
- Skirmishers: tough creatures with a mix of weak and strong attacks. This is the archetypal monster role.
- Blasters: weak critters with ranged attacks or other ways to do damage without dying.
- Brutes: very tough monsters that are very predictable (only one kind of attack), very in-your-face, and very hard to kill.
- Fodder: reasonably high DPS, but with trivially low hit points.
- Boss: supertough creatures that are effectively two or three monsters stacked together.
I’m also fiddling around with ratios, like:
1 Blaster = 1 Skirmisher
0.75 Brutes = 1 Skirmisher
4 Fodder = 1 Skirmisher
1 Boss = 3 Skirmishers
The average fight will contain roughly 1.33 “monsters-worth” per player. (The actual number seems to change constantly, but I’ll figure it out eventually.) It’s an average, though, so sometimes your fight will be really easy at 0.5 “monsters-worth”, and sometimes hard at 2 “monsters-worth”.
This lets me have interesting “canned encounters”: the goblin patrols wandering the dungeon have these roles assigned, so they aren’t just clumps of jerks with spears — they’re spear-men, archers, and axe guys, each doing different things. And the exact make-up of the encounters can even be semi-randomized, if I want to go there. (Not sure yet.)
Tanks, But No Tanks
I’ve known for a while that tanks won’t fit into my game very well. Not pure tanks. Actually there are no “pure” classes, because if there are pure classes, players optimize themselves around the pure role and consider hybrids to be useless.
Plus, the role of tanking (while fun), has a lot of issues in an MMORPG:
- While soloing, everybody has to tank anyway, which means that heavy plate armor is pointless against a solo creature. Tanking is a role that only happens during grouping.
- The “fun” part of tanking is crowd control: understanding what is going on in the battle around you and directing it so that you win. There are more fun ways to do this than spamming a button that makes every monster come and punch you in the face.
- It creates a single point of safety for an entire group, which means that the other players have no danger of dying unless the tank “screws up” — or at least, the other players will see it that way!
As you can glean from my comments about the monster system, I really want group and solo combat to be related, not completely different games like they are in most current MMOs. It’s more intuitive, for one thing. For another, it’s less work: I don’t need to make two completely different sets of monster stats like WoW does. (They have a whole team of designers. I just have me!)
Much like in D&D, then, everybody is responsible for holding their own against a typical enemy, say a skirmisher. But that doesn’t mean everybody is equally able to survive against multiple enemies at once. Crowd-control still exists — taunting, among other things, are still in the game — but they are special buttons you press when you see the need, not constantly.
As such, nobody would be a “pure” tank, but a semi-tank will benefit a group well — an off-tank, in some MMO terminology: mostly DPS but with the ability to take control of a wayward enemy (and survive better than other people).
If anything, this makes the tank role more difficult: you can’t just spam the taunt buttons, you have to think carefully about when to use your abilities, and how to use them. I don’t know that that’s a big problem though… will have to see.
New Combat Mechanics
Let me take a second to describe a couple of mechanics that are unusual for MMOs. These help distinguish Gorgon’s combat system.
Armor and Health: monsters (and players) have an “armor bar” separate from their health bar. The monster still dies when its health reaches zero, but, the armor bar makes it harder.
Some attacks, like sword attacks, deplete armor first, so you can’t damage health until the armor’s all gone. Other attacks “bypass” armor and directly damage health, but their effectiveness is reduced based on how much armor remains. So armor acts as both “a second health bar” and a damage-reduction mechanism, depending on what kind of attacks are happening.
Rage: monsters (and only monsters) have a “rage meter” which gives them damage bonuses. When it caps out, the monster can do an extra-potent attack. It’s designed to be pretty fluid, so that monsters can deal out several Rage Attacks even in a short fight. Rage comes into play as part of crowd control (see examples below).
Vulnerabilities: monsters each have a particular vulnerability, randomly chosen from a list for that species. These vulnerabilities activate dynamically: an icon flashes over the monster’s head while they’re vulnerable. Not all vulnerabilities are very useful in combat: while some are vulnerable to fire (very convenient if you’re a fire mage), others are only vulnerable to shellfish (very difficult to take advantage of in combat… though if you’re an expert fisherman and brought some bait buckets along…).
The chances of a vulnerability showing up on its own are somewhat low. But some skills can increase the chance of these vulnerabilities showing up. And some people can even change the built-in Vulnerability to a different one: turning the rather useless Fear of Snakes into something more useful, such as a Weakness Versus Stabbing… though it’s never 100% reliable.
Player Roles in Gorgon
The point of those mechanics I just mentioned is to help give people different roles and different ways to overcome enemies. Without them, the game felt too much like Diablo: everybody could tank and DPS, so there was very little synergy between players. You ended up just “soloing near each other”. Meh.
Instead, there’s more than one kind of DPS, multiple ways to debuff, and so on. I tried to avoid having a pure rock/paper/scissors deal, too — I’m hoping that the systems interact to give an organic feel to combat strategies, as opposed to it being cut-and-dried “oh, he’s rock but I’m scissors, this is going to be a hard fight.”
How do I accomplish that? Part of the trick is that every player can pick two very different roles at once, plus a smattering of free-floating abilities to round things out, and can swap their roles for other known roles whenever they’re in town. Here’s some example roles:
- “Swordsmen” are equally good at damaging Health and Armor. They also have the ability to keep monsters too distracted to really build up a good head of anger. In other words, Swordsmen can reduce a monster’s Rage to keep it from doing as many super-rage attacks.
- “Archers” directly damage Health. Their damage is reduced by the amount of Armor that’s left, though. Archery’s range and potent damage is counterbalanced by the fact that being shot with arrows is intensely Rage-inducing, which means monsters get to do more of their super attacks on you.
- “Fire Mages” have to get through armor to do the bulk of their damage, but their damage-over-time effects bypass armor. In many cases this means they can cook an armored foe alive even without the armor being depleted. However, Fire Magic is another extremely Rage-inducing technique, and a fair number of creatures are resistant to fire, too (or can use an ability to become resistant). On the third hand, Fire Mages are good at killing lots of little guys quickly with their AoEs.
- Werewolves are good at rending raw flesh — they’re very effective against Health, but take a long time to chew through Armor. They have an easy time sussing out an enemy’s Vulnerability, though they may not have a way to take advantage of it. (For instance, if a monster turns out to be vulnerable to Fire, werewolves don’t inherently have any fire attacks.)
- “Field Psychologists” can attempt to induce Vulnerabilities: causing monsters to fear fire and take more damage from it, for instance. They can also fast-talk monsters into running away, or use hypnosis to keep a monster standing still for a bit.
- “Mace Fighters” deplete armor quickly, but then have a hard time going in for the kill. However, they can also stun an enemy, which is quite deadly.
- “Staff Fighters” are a mix of offense and defense. They can help pull monsters off of foes, and help deflect some attacks at the expense of damage.
- “Psions” use mental power to heal and buff themselves and their friends.
- “Dickweeds” use insults to enrage enemies into fighting them for a while (taunting, in other words). However, this naturally causes a severe Rage build-up. Dickweeds are also good at underhanded maneuvers, such as throwing sand in peoples’ face for a quick debuff. (Actual name still pending.)
- “Chemists” have horrific AoE attacks, but aren’t very effective against single tough monsters. However, their healing and buffing potions easily make up for it.
- “Shield Fighters” are experts with the shield; they can use it to redirect aggression, go into “turtle mode” briefly, or even throw it in ridiculous Captain America fashion to stop a fleeing foe.
- “Animal Handler”, “Earth Mage”, “Weather Witch”, and “Necromancer” use pets to create extra targets on the battlefield. Each kind of pet has a particular specialty which I haven’t figured out yet.
Plus a whole bunch of other ideas that are even fuzzier than these. This is just my list of possibilities… I’d love it if all of these work out, but in reality some of these will be a flop, and at some point I will say “that’s enough for now” and stop adding more until after the game launches.
Some combinations are restricted by weapon requirements. For instance, you could pick Sword Fighter and Staff Fighter at the same time, but since you can’t wield both a sword and a staff at once, that’s not very smart. Fire magic requires a wand, but you can wield wands in your off-hand, so you could do Sword+Fire Magic at the same time, or Sword+Shield. And if you’re a werewolf fighting in wolf form, you don’t have any hands, so you’ll want to take a second combat skill that doesn’t require any wielded implement, such as Psionics, Animal Handler, or Field Psychology.
In terms of UI, I think your “skill bar” is broken up into three separate groupings. You have one group of slots for the first combat skill, a second group for the other combat skill, and a third that can contain items or one-off special abilities (such as the fishing skill that lets you chuck chum at people — yes, a real attack).
This UI grouping helps teach people that they’re supposed to mix things up. It also helps me organize the content a little better, because I know at a minimum I need to fill that many boxes with abilities. So each of these “roles” is comprised of four or five basic abilities, plus a couple of alternates so that players can tweak their play-style a tiny bit. As you level up in the skill, you get more abilities, but they’re basically just powered-up versions of the originals (possibly with slight flavor alternatives, but nothing too crazy).
In other words, each skill is pretty shallow. But there are a lot of skills, and I want you to keep unlocking them as you go. The problem I haven’t quite figured out yet is, “why would people be excited to unlock level 1 Earth Magic when they’re currently relying on level 10 Fire Magic?”
The answer is probably some sort of synergistic skill-up system, but I haven’t quite got my finger on how it should work yet. (My earlier design was a failure when I actually worked out all the details.) Obviously more thinking needs to go into this part.
Conclusion: Back to Work!
I’m sure many skill combinations will turn out to be useless once the game ships; that’s life. It’s too much to hope that all permutations are fun and distinct. My hope is that we get seven or eight different common pairings, plus a handful of more esoteric (but still effective) combos.
So far I’ve got Swords, Staves, Animal Handling, and Fire Magic in a very early state. They’re enough to make me excited to see it all coming together, but not enough to be confident that I’m going down the right path in the end.
I’ll update again soon, hopefully after seeing more of this plan in action. In the mean time, if you have any comments, concerns, or anecdotes that might be illuminating, please share!