Words of Power

[This post is about 'Project Gorgon', an MMO in development.]

I needed something for the Lore skill to do. It’s a prerequisite skill (meaning lots of skills will require it), but it felt stupid without a job of its own, too.  So I decided they could research Words of Power. These seem pretty fun so far.

Words of Power are randomly-generated sequences of phonemes. (For example, ‘Twimjot’, ‘Fledbydpal’, or ‘Chruggomdye’. The’re gibberish, but not completely random letters, so you can kind of figure out how they would be pronounced.) To use a word of power, you just type it into the chat window. When spoken aloud, the word’s power is triggered and the word is used up, replaced with a new word. Words of Power only ever work once.

If you have a high Lore skill, you can research Words of Power via the crafting system. When you attempt the research, you can choose items to sacrifice. The more valuable the sacrificed items, the bigger your chance of success. If the recipe works, you discover one of the current words, along with an explanation of what it does. Their effects range from strong buffs to potent debuffs to killing yourself instantly, turning into a harmless animal, and a large number of other random effects. I’ve only implemented a few effects so far, but I intend for this to be one of the dumping grounds for any crazy effects I think up.

One interesting thing about Words of Power, though, is that this is a shared resource. There are (say) 10,000 active words in the universe and it’s possible for two players to research the same one (but unlikely, given the large number of them). Once anybody says a word of power, it stops being a word of power. So it doesn’t make sense to hoard too many words at once — eventually somebody else will discover your words and use them before you get a chance to!

Here I demonstrate the efficacy of the "Word of Death Level 1: Self-Death"

There will be many levels and types of words, their effects becoming ever more arcane and bizarre. Nestled in among the thousands of words will be ones that bend the rules of the game: for instance, there’s a word that can kill everyone in a 20-meter radius, even though this isn’t a PvP game, and there’s otherwise no way to kill players. (So if you want to kill somebody really badly there’s a way to do it. However, it will cost you an exorbitant fee, it works only once, and your victims are likely to thank you afterward because it gives Dying XP from a cause of death they probably can’t achieve otherwise).

Since they’re just words, they can be traded in-game or out… as long as you really trust somebody. Or they can be shouted out in chat: “Somebody say ‘foafulpetzel’, something great will happen!” Words of power are a social device, and not an entirely positive one. I think it’s important for a game to have some sources of player drama like this, as long as the drama is entirely opt-in. But I dunno, we’ll see. Really, this is one of the design philosophies of this MMO: I’m intentionally doing things that are unusual, and combining them together in a complex world where it’s not really possible to predict how things will play out in the end. If it ends up being broken, I’ll just have to roll with it.

But anyway, back to trading them. There needs to be some reliable way to trade words of power. So I think there will be another research method that costs more, but doesn’t reveal the word to you outright. Instead, it gives you a scroll. When the scroll is read, you learn the word, and then the scroll disappears. Internally, it picks the word right when the scroll is read, guaranteeing that it’s still valid. That’s important, since nobody wants to buy a scroll with a used-up word on it. But the down side is that you can’t know beforehand exactly what the word will do. The scrolls have pretty generic labels (e.g. one might be labeled as a “Level 4 word of power”). Somebody looking for a very specific word may have to buy quite a few scrolls to find what they’re looking for. That’s okay — words of power aren’t supposed to be a particularly reliable or commonplace commodity.

Guessable Words? That’s Terrible! Wait, I Mean Great!

The words are generated from a list of phonemes. The more phonemes in the word, the more powerful its effect is (in general). Super-powered words are 30+ characters long and quite awkward to type. Less-powerful words are much shorter. For instance, right now on the test server the words “Follyik”, “Taithig”, and “Chrobog” are all bottom-tier words of power.

When I first implemented this, my instinct was that the above words were too short. People could guess them without researching! Especially after players learn the phonemes that are used, it would become relatively easy to guess. There are only about 100 phonemes, and these low-level words only have two phonemes in them, so there’s only about ten thousand possibilities… hundreds of which will be valid at any given time. You could have a 1-in-20 chance of guessing a word — or even better odds!

That seemed broken, so I fixed it, making all the words longer. And then it hit me: wait, no, that’s not broken, it’s great. If you’re at the bottom of a dungeon, trapped and out of ideas, and you resort to mumbling random phrases hoping to find a word of power, that’s… kind of wonderful, really, in a thematic sense.

The guessable words aren’t powerful enough to damage the game balance, but they can mimic items you may not have on hand. For instance, a low-level Word of Restoration gives a big health-regeneration effect for five minutes.

The server protects against chat-spamming, so you can’t type too many attempts too quickly (or, just as importantly, hack the client to try thousands of guesses per second). Thus it would still take you a while to find a word of power by random guessing. But there is definitely a real danger to this system because it rewards excessive patience. (This is called “balancing via tedium” and is a big no-no in MMO design, unlike other game types like board games, where it’s often harmless.) So I’ve taken pains to make sure that people aren’t necessarily rewarded for just standing around typing words for hours. If guessing random words somehow came to be seen as the “right” way to beat monsters, that would be tragic.

That’s why I added the nasty effects. No matter what you’re trying to do, there’s an effect that will probably ruin your plans. Some kill you instantly, some teleport you to an odd location, some make you unable to wear pants for 30 minutes, and on and on. It’s true that the “good” combat effects might get you out of a jam, but these low-level words aren’t much better than a store-bought item. A Potion of Regeneration is a much saner survival tool.

Toys For The Rich And Powerful

Of course, the high-level words have a different role in the game: they’re where I stick the really weird stuff. For instance, one of the words polymorphs you into a pig permanently. (Yes, forever and ever, unless you obtain a rare dispelling potion. No, I don’t know why you’d want to be a pig forever, I just had the model handy and needed some insane power words. Ooh I know, I should make it so pigs can detect truffles from 60 meters! Let me write that down.) Other top-tier words permanently affect your stats, randomly raising or lowering your max hit points. Some turn boss monsters into harmless mini-monsters, or turn lakes to blood. But these words are insanely expensive to research. They’re money-sinks, in other words: toys for the overly rich.

(But to protect newbies, I’ll add a skill restriction on them… it’s one thing for an experienced player to be tricked into saying the Pig Polymorph word by a guildmate gone rogue, but it’s quite another thing to trick a newbie into saying it without understanding the dangers!)

The lower tiers of words, on the other hand, are generally more workmanlike. If you’ve got a high Lore skill, it might be worth your time to research some good level-two words for a weekend raid or planned boss battle. They’re for that sort of thing: semi-special occasions.

And the guessable lowest tier of words can be just as detrimental as useful. So if I get the balance right, then guessing words will be seen as a pretty desperate move… but if you’re desperate enough, or bored in town and want to experiment, hey, knock yourself out! Or blow yourself up, whichever happens first.

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23 Responses to Words of Power

  1. Jason says:

    Some very interesting and intriguing possibilities in this system. The power of discovery is always a great motivator to players and can be a lot of fun. I commend you!

    I do, however, want to say that the idea that saying the word once uses it up immediately triggers my designer sixth sense. Why? Because you will always have players who will grind to discover (and use) them all so as to deprive other players of enjoyment or fun. If I’ve spent a lot of time and/or in-game money researching a powerful word only to have someone else use it (and thus invalidate my hard work) I’d be pretty upset.

    Otherwise I think it sounds awesome and I look forward to seeing it in-game.

  2. BlindseerJB says:

    I think this sounds like a fun mechanic, however, I think Jason has a good point. It would be very disheartening to drop a lot of resources for a word of power, only to have another player use it up just as I finish researching it.

  3. Aaron says:

    BlindseerJB and Jason,

    If there are enough words, then that’s only really a problem for someone that hoards them, unless there are a very large number of people playing this game. That seems like the type of problem Eric would want to have.

  4. Aaron says:

    If a werewolf permanently turns into a pig, can they still become a wolf? Are they now a werepig?

  5. Josh Winslow says:

    Another major issue is inadvertent hording as players quit the game with already researched (but unused) words. He also needs to be careful about the selection effects that occur. If there are 10k words total and 2 phoneme words are guessable then over time the average length of words will increase over time as the easy words are guessed and the longer words remain un-researched.

    Still, the words of power concept is really, really cool. Coupled with a mechanic like places of power or magical ley lines it could be even more awesome. Imagine a word of death that can kill everything in 20 yards being uttered at the intersection of two ley lines. Bam, everything in the world dies.

  6. Josh Winslow says:

    Let me amend that comment:
    I said: “Another major issue is inadvertent hording as players quit the game with already researched (but unused) words.”

    I intended to say: “If you allow players to own a word via researching it then you open up the door to inadvertent hording as players quit the game with already researched (but unused) words.”

  7. Aaron says:

    Josh,

    It sounds like the same word CAN be researched at the same time, but there are enough that it shouldn’t happen often. An inactive character wouldn’t have an impact in this case.

    It also sounds like the actual words used (not just the effects) get reused over time. So say the word “jorig” makes flowers grow out of your head. On use, this removes the word from the set of active Words of Power on the server. Some months later say the system needs to generate a new word for “give me a 15 minute health regeneration buff”. The set of phonemes hasn’t changed, so it’s possible that “jorig” is selected for this new effect.

  8. Eric says:

    I don’t think there’s real griefer potential in “using up” words… you’ll never research a word that’s invalid. And the sellable scrolls don’t literally have a word on them; instead, when you read it, it picks a valid word right at that moment. So you always have some time to use your word, you’ll never get a dead word from the start.

    But if there’s a really high turnover of words, that would be annoying… I think my go-to fix will just be to increase the word pool; I have a config parameter to let me do that easily. Or else make the words cost more to research, depending on where the problem lies.

    @Aaron – I was just testing the pig-with-lycanthropy scenario the other day! In that case, you become a pig who can turn into a wolf. I have no idea what the proper name would be.

  9. Chris says:

    I can see some pvp styled words from this. It would be hilarious but totally bad to have words that affect anyone who hears/sees the text. Reminds me of the explode all cars code in the GTA games.

    It would be funny to have lotto words. Words known to have power but no meaning. To use them is to understand the meaning but the word becomes useless.

    Perma-buff words will sell for tons of money. Also rare crafted weapons bonded with power word scrolls, to make rune weapons maybe? It would use up the word but grant the weapon some better stats or abilities?

    Awesome system! It has so many possibilities for fun.

  10. Anjin says:

    The level of crazy in this system is astronomical. The cool kind of crazy, though. There is not enough random craziness in MMOs anymore.

    I like the idea that this system defeats any wiki that might spring up about it.

  11. Aufero says:

    Clearly the pig/werewolf would be Manwolfpig.

    That system sounds like a lot of fun. I could see myself wasting a ton of time finding random words of power, just to see which ones are the most amusing.

  12. Rauxis says:

    what I don’t understand – how does your limit of words apply to the game long term? won’t the number of short words run out quickly as the will be used in leveling the skill. So if someone enters the game after a year – no words to find left?

    After all – in a closed system any limited resource will run out given (enough) time.

  13. Eric says:

    @Rauxis – oh, they will get re-picked. So a used-up word will get reused at some point. (Theoretically when a word is used up, it could even get replaced with itself… the replacement word is just randomly generated from all not-currently-in-use words.)

  14. Rauxis says:

    so it’s like – out of a million combinations a hundred words are active at any given time, which are selected from a 1000 spells?

  15. Eric says:

    Basically that idea, but all spell effects are always available. (Just because that’s how it happened to get coded.)

    So there’s 30-50 different effects in each tier of words, each effect having 1-50 words that do that effect. (I decide when I make the effect how many words will be active for it.) When a word gets used up, it’s replaced with a new random word that has the same effect.

  16. Terak says:

    This is a really interesting system that generates so much unconventional gameplay. It seems that this is a great avenue for you, as a designer, to play around. However, from a player perspective I feel like there might be a little too much of a goofing off.

    To really make this shine I think the frequency of wide scale, among the community events should be low enough to facilitate those fond memories and recollections. On the personal level, interesting things should be just often enough to instigate something crazy. The key for me as a player is discovering the exciting among the mundane, not being spoiled with the exciting.

    Is the intention that you earn a sufficient lore skill to use the workmanlike lower tier words? I hope the higher levels come with some huge road blocks that only the most dedicated will work around.

    I really do love this idea. At this point though I think it looks greener from the developer side of things. The more wild occurrences that happen around me, the less significant they will seem. I understand its all in the balancing, but to sum up my concerns: “Who’s a pig this week?”

  17. Karak says:

    > Or they can be shouted out in chat: “Somebody say ‘foafulpetzel’, something great will happen!”

    Would, or should, shouting a word of power also trigger it (inadvertently)? Maybe this would lead to players having to be more clever in tricking/getting players to say a word without actually saying it themselves. Like “Somebody say ‘foafulpetzet’ or was it ‘foafulpetzem’ or maybe it ended with an l. hmm”

  18. kdansky says:

    I’d like to add a few suggestions:

    - Give the words a invulnerability period: After researching, for 24 hours (or modify by stats or whatever), a word is protected and nobody else can research it. That way, you don’t run into the (possibly) rare case of researching something and then not being able to use it ten minutes later.

    - Have a way to figure out what a word does. Not necessarily a complete spell description, but rather something like “works on enemies”, or “harmful”, or “cosmetic”. That way, experienced players can possibly decipher some words very well (which is fine, because it’s interesting), and you don’t accidentally hit yourself with a lightning bolt all the time because you didn’t know that the word will hit your selected target.

  19. Expert Novice says:

    BLIZZARD:
    “it’s broken!”
    “what do we do?”
    *hotfix nerf*

    ERIC:
    “it’s broken.”
    “no… it’s brilliant!”
    *goes on to add more related content*

    I love this man’s philosophy here. Nicely done, Eric.

    ultimately, though, i think you’ll need a way to balance the shared verbage between so many players (ie a couple thousand, probably more with your game lol it sounds rather fun). maybe you could maintain duplicated power words so that any specific word exists as a number of words – like pigform could have two words and instant death could have three, making it both more common and useful for longer.
    this way, you could manage odds and make each word last longer in terms of time before use. someone might’ve used the other death spell, but yours is still good.
    not perfect, obviously, since one copy of each makes it feel more meaningful, but i worry that half the words you’ve learned will get used up before the end of the day!
    just make sure its useful/usable, functional shared resources are hard to build.

    PS sorry for the bad grammer – especially the lack of capital letters (lol caps-lack) i’m writing this via phone.

  20. hugo says:

    I like this idea a lot.

    Another solution to the “newly researched word already obsolete” problem: make low lvl words usable maybe 5 times before being invalid, and high lvl words usable only once. To prevent abuse, limit usage of the same word once per player and per location.

    I have two other suggestions of game mechanics that would fit nicely with the lore skill background:

    1) link words of power with either items or places (as suggested above):
    for example you get a quest item with locked powers or buffs that can get unlocked with a researched word of power. Or put a special dungeon with good stuff inside whose door can only be opened with a word of power (that changes at every uses), a la “sesam open up”.

    2) that would be a lot of work, but putting some logic in the phoneme mechanism, like in AC1 where every spell have a spoken formula, could be great. Looking at your examples of adventurers stuck in the bottom of some dungeon, they want to get healed and they know that the phoneme “cho” appears in words of power linked to health. To prevent abuse, the system could slowly shuffle meanings and phonemes with time and # of uses, or even with places or time of the day, whatever. Players with very high lvl of lore could tell somewhat which phoneme is linked to which kind of effect, or some magic items or consumable could predict the effect. To balance that explanations of the words of power when they are researched could be partially removed, or even wrong or approximate.

  21. Eric says:

    @Terak – I think that’s a good point and something I’ll just need to be reminded of a few times during the development cycle. Sometimes less is more, but that’s not usually how my brain biases things unless I’m really paying attention… I typically want to “get a lot of bang for my buck.”

    @Lotsa people – yeah, I’ll keep thinking about what to do about shared power words and not getting a chance to use them. I don’t think it will be a common problem, but I don’t know for sure yet.

  22. Espoire says:

    Ha, this whole idea is brilliant, and yet so crazy that no one’s going to copycat the idea either. It’s be neat if the 2-syllable words had a fair chance of being something that would crop up in ordinary player chat though. These seem like perfect adventure hooks.

    You could also use the system to subtly alter player vocabulary. For example, if people start calling each other “noob” or “scrub” or something, you could just tag those words as possible valid words of power; I’m sure after enough random craziness, their general usage might drop a bit.

    TL;DR, I agree with some other commenters: words of power spoken in the middle of chat messages or posted in unusual chat channels should still trigger them.

  23. Espoire says:

    “There needs to be some reliable way to trade words of power. So I think there will be another research method that costs more, but doesn’t reveal the word to you outright.”

    Oh, and a PS: I know your gut says this needs to cost more, but it might not have to. Toy around with making it cost the same or even less if you can, I think the ramifications of allowing free trade of these words of power may be positive. Or you could even make the relative price fluctuate with time, being more expensive one week and about the same the next.