[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!
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.