A Psychologist, a Fire Mage, and a Dickweed Walk Into a Bar…

[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.

Roles

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!

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15 Responses to A Psychologist, a Fire Mage, and a Dickweed Walk Into a Bar…

  1. Anthony says:

    Look forward to seeing the field psychologist werewolf in action!

  2. Andrew says:

    How about “Instigator” as a possible name for the Dickweed role?

  3. Tiber says:

    Looks good. Glad to see you’re keeping the vulnerability system from earlier prototypes. And having monsters use rage seems like an interesting way to sidestep the issue of mob magic (since most MMOs don’t want to deal with making monsters having to manage MP).

    I suppose I’d like to learn a bit more about how you plan to differentiate monsters though. Without knowing what type of skills a monster might possess, it so far sounds like just mixing together variations of few strong monsters and many weak monsters.
    Are there any support-type monster planned, such as one who passively increases the damage of others, or one that generates rage for the group?

    Other ways to encourage cooperation include designing monsters who naturally require teamwork to defeat, or classes and abilities which play off each other. Examples of the former include an enemy who can stun a single player, but another player can come free him, or a blaster who has good armor but likes to keep his distance, which is best handled by having one player root him so a melee-user can take him out. Examples of the latter include a non-healing role being given a skill which buffs others to increase the amount they are healed for, or giving a werewolf character the ability to passively reveal invisible creatures for the entire group.

  4. Juzaba says:

    Dickweed could also be “Dirty Fighter” or “Scoundrel” or “Street Fighter”

  5. David Grundy says:

    Interesting on the role switching. But, why only “whenever they’re in town”?

    Why create an artificial barrier to a player doing something that you as a designer want them to do? I think the question to ask yourself is; do you want players to switch roles pretty easily so that they can contribute in different situations; the answer you’ve put above sounds pretty much like an emphatic yes. Next question, do you want to create an un-fun, time-consuming and ultimately pointless mechanic for the player to be able to do this?

    Looking at games like Rift, which pretty much allows role switching whenever you’re out of combat, never mind WoW, who I (IIRC) remember did *test* the concept of being only able to switch roles in a city on the PTR, but ultimately dropped that requirement, I think we have at least some minor evidence that some other game designers, when considering role switching, have seen limitations on it as a needless barrier instead of a useful mechanic.

  6. Aetius says:

    How about instead of insults, you have the “tanks” (rage-reducers) actually do crowd control? Stuns, knockbacks, knockdowns, slows/snares, etc. I’ve always found the “aggro” mechanic and taunts to be sort of silly. If you’ve got a warrior whose attention is focused on someone, you get their attention by interfering with their ability to get at that person, grabbing them, pushing them, knocking them down. This also opens the door for magic “tanks”, using wind or plants or whatever to interfere with ranged attacks and thus get the ranged mob’s frustrated attention. And let the mobs do it too. :)

  7. J Osborne says:

    You talk a bit about how you don’t want tanks, or even very pure roles. You also talk a bit about 4e. Did you consider how they have adopted pure roles, but are still playable without the “ideal mix” of roles in a party?

    I’m not saying it is better or worse then your method (they are doing a tabletop game after all, so even if it _is_ better, it may well just be better for tabletop, not a computer game), just that it might be interesting to think about.

    In part the “ideal mix” isn’t as critical because the difference between the ideal DPS and a tank (sorry “defender”) in DPS terms is more like a factor of two while in MMOs it looks to be closer to an order of magnitude. For healing (er, “leaders”) it tends to follow a similar patterns. So everyone bring significant DPS to the table. As far as the “other role” a tank largely tanks being able to bring to pain to a monster that ignores the tank, not by directly forcing them to attack the tank. A healer tends to chuck out a lot fewer heals, typically more like 2 “real” heals per encounter (and every other role has a once per encounter self heal that is only a little smaller then a dedicated healer gets).

    Then again the other thing that I think helps 4e handle a sub-optimaly balanced party is similar to you having each player adopt 2 roles at once. 4e tends to slot a particular build into a role with a bit of a leaning towards a secondary role. 4e isn’t as flexible as your system looks to be though, a particular build will be good at a single fixed role and have a single fixed secondary role. The secondary role is very secondary, for example a defender might get an extra heal but one once per encounter, maybe only targeting themselves. Or a non-controller might get a once per encounter ability to do some “area denial”, but a real control will not only get area denial, but also a want to force enemies into an area.

    (yes in 4e there are some more “costly” ways of playing multiple roles, but that is the common one)

    I think the lack of 4e’s flexibility will make it more clear which are the more viable choices, while your system will make it simpler to FIND a choice you want (“I want to herd things around and blow them up so I take the herding guy and the booming guy” as opposed to “which of these 20 classes and 80 builds uses the two things I want”?)

    P.S. your game sounds cool. Hope you have fun writing it.

  8. Ferrel says:

    You earn instant credibility points for allowing werewolves!

    Over and beyond that the system sounds very interesting. I miss the DAoC/Early EQ2 system of “the weapon you use matters.”

  9. Eric says:

    @Tiber – you know, support/healing roles for monsters completely slipped my mind. Dumb! Thanks. I like your examples, too, and will play around with them.

    The biggest issue I’ve had with monster roles is that I want them to be easily identifiable… and I don’t actually have a ton of unique artwork, so I’m having to get creative. And/or primitive: you click them and it says “Orc (Support)” in their name or something.

    @Andrew – hmm “Instigator” is pretty good. @Juzuba’s “Scoundrel” isn’t bad either, but Instigator suggests a more social role, which is nice, because you happen to learn these skills by being a jerk to NPCs.

    @David Grundy – great comment, but I’m going to defer answering until a later post, as my response got too long. :)

    @J Osborne – Yeah, I’m thinking the same way as 4ed’s roles. Their “pure” tanks aren’t very pure — in MMO terms or even compared to the previous edition of D&D — which is why you can get away with not having particular roles. So you can still be a “pure” tank in my game by picking two defensive/crowd-control skill sets, it’s just that that means something different than what it means in WoW.

  10. David Grundy says:

    @J Osborne and @Eric’s reply to J Osborne (if that makes sense)

    Having just finished a 4th Ed campaign and watching our pure D&D “tank”, session after session, struggle with what in an MMO is a pretty easy taunt and threat situation, I can only agree that in that particular game system non-tanks usually have to have some kind of escape, crowd control and/or movement abilities in the mix as well as players very soon become aware that the “tank” can only very loosely actually hold a mob. That said, as someone who’s (for his sins!) played Original Red Box, AD&D, 2nd Ed AD&D, 3rd and now 4th, this still represents a significant improvement in the players ability to re-direct threat and hold specific opponents attention, the best many previous editions achieved, especially for the Fighters, was simply the ability to interpose themselves bodily between the party (the “meat shield”) and hope that the GM didn’t cremate the cleric touching the shoulder (gah, touch range healing spells…).

    A consideration, or at least something to be aware of, for this “non-perfect tank”or “semi-tank” (if you like) approach, is that this could actually produce some horrible party Player on Player interactions and party strife. To explain this perhaps a bit better, for example I’m aware that Guild Wars 2 for example have added in “!” quest symbols to NPC’s and quest givers (more like quest Tom-Tom sat navs tbh), despite their focus on public quests, simply because their alpha testing indicated that players coming from WoW and similar games found undirected public quests, without clear signposting, hard to actually comprehend. In that vein, a consideration (and certainly not a flaw!) within your “tanking structure” if you like, may be that players coming from games which have “perfect-tanks” (pretty much in both WoW and Rift, as long as DPS’s isn’t silly, it’s almost impossible to drag the mob off a half decent tank who’s using their tools correctly) may not cope very well, and complain loudly, with or at, your games “semi-tanks” as you call them.

    What you could end up doing is driving (and/or creating a community pressure that says that) anyone who wishes to “tank” into that very narrow “picking two defensive/crowd-control skill sets” situation you describe as that would be the “optimal tank” in the eyes of players coming from another game.

    Though, on a more simple level I could see how “semi-tank” tanking players could be easily verbally mauled, repeatedly, by players coming from games in which the “perfect tank” situation is the norm. In that situation, who’d want to be a tank?

    I’m reminded here of the game designers addage that players have a great ability to “optimise” the fun out of their own gaming experience. ;-)

  11. Bronte says:

    1. “Join me, won’t you, as I descend slowly into madness?” What if I am already at the bottom, looking up at you, as you get closer every day? I don’t know why you think the Rage concept is uncommon in MMOs, I think it is quite common actually.

    2. Regarding unusual abilities. The armor is cool, I would actually love to see it implemented properly, as an observable, tangible system, and not some numbers crunched behind the screen, with only the main health bar to greet me. The vulnerabilities is a very novel concept, especially if it is truly random, but coolness must be balanced with practicality. I have a feeling the sheer range of weaknesses may make this irritating. Maybe if each TYPE of creature had three weaknesses, one of which would generate for a mob randomly as you engage it?

  12. Eric says:

    @Bronte – wait, which MMOs have monsters with rage? Please share!

  13. Expert Novice says:

    Lol “Dickweed” That’s hilarious, I love it! Why does everyone want to change the name? I think it’s right in the face of those MMO’s who take themselves so seriously. Like, your just a game, people will get bored after a while, and no one cares about your inconsistent lore. Well except those one guys who always bring it up lol.
    “Dickweed”. Nice man. If you do change the class’s name it’s cool though, I’ll still harass NPCs.

    @ David Grundy
    He’s considering the ramifications of allowing on the fly class changing.
    Pretty rough if your trying to impose a limited number of classes at a time.

    What you should do, Eric, is impose a ~20 second charging class change, along with the consumption of a medium costly item, say 20% of the money you’d make that day. (Boy I like 20′s today huh?)
    Then they’d be wary of needless class changing, only changing when necessary to continue effectively. That’s your goal, right? Or maybe it isn’t, but an additional item type would also add some nice economics, just like an additional industry does in RL.
    Allow it to go down in town for free? If you price it too high they’ll just go to town anyway and the item will be a costly convenience. I’ve seen it before. Exclusive to the wealthy.

    @ David Grundy’s post
    David is very right here, Eric. You don’t want people desiring others to tank completely for them, so making it near impossible to do it effectively is the right choice, I think. I was working on a similar design here. The old you tank and I get all the glory thing is… detrimental to society as a whole.
    The players will try and extract WoW and whatever other MMO they’ve played out, typically acceptable, even desirable, you want them to feel at home, yeah?
    The problem is WoW comes with a culture of Tank Bashing, so best to not allow such things, yeah? It also comes with a few other culture to avoid at all costs.

    @ Bronte’s post
    FFXI uses the TP gauge. It does what you suggested, like Goblins will through bombs when it fills us and Monks (i think) get the ability “subtle blow” which makes their attacks induce less TP per hit for the enemy. And for your information it turned out pretty bad ass.
    And again, like Bronte said, it’s kind of a common misconception.

    Oh and my opinion on the armor is that it won’t work. I think your going to give grouping way to much of an advantage here. It’s cool and I’d love to see it work but a werewolf/macedude combo would just be crazy strong compared to other combos. I mean it’s not a bad thing, but it will cause forced grouping if it’s over powered.

    Not the worst thing that you could mess up with lol.

    On the plus side, it gives your fights a transition kind of thing, where you go from armor damaging attacks to health damaging attacks when you mix rolls. Mace up the enemy then use fire. Better if you have to worry about cooldown and get to witness your fire attacks dealing more and more damage with every swing of your mace.

  14. Expert Novice says:

    Oh one more thing, sorry!

    Your pet classes could be really cool if they did some kind of roshambo thing.
    Or if they did something different with armor/health.
    Diversity in pet classes is the best.

    And I really like your other classes, like Psychologist.
    Basically, I really hope to see all of your classes in the game, because I can’t disagree with one of them.

  15. Vatec says:

    I like the direction this is going. The whole tank / heals / DPS / CC mechanism has gotten very, very stale. If characters are “heroes” or “adventurers” they should be able to take on grunts by themselves. Players should not need to focus fire trash, basically. It’s simply not very heroic. Dragon? Focus fire. Demon? Focus fire. Armored Ogre riding a War Rhinoceros? Focus fire. Twenty goblins with spears and axes? Each PC should be responsible for taking out their fair share. Focus firing them one by one, or gathering them all up in a clump to AOE is just kind of silly. Why would all the goblins rush to attack the one guy none of them really has a chance to hurt?

    Yeah, I know, threat mechanics make AI easier. But the first MMO that manages to implement something innovative in this field without failing miserably anywhere else will be the one to get my long-term loyalty ;^)