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Article - 'Skill Set Theory' by Brickroad

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004


Brickroad's article on Skill Sets, originally entitled "Anything you can do, I can do better!". Discusses the usefulness of abilities, their worth and purposes behind them.


(Note: this article appeals mainly to individuals creating games that will have dynamic parties, as it involves balancing characters in terms of usefulness. If the project you are working on does not allow the player the option of which PCs to use, I am afraid this article will serve no purpose save to be an interesting read.)

The stuff on the menu.

Magic spells, sword techniques, PSI powers, prayers, incantations, weapon skills, thieving abilities, class abilities... these are all different names for the same thing: character abilities. Character abilities are one of the most vibrant ways to set one PC apart from another; two characters with different lists of abilities offer the player some variation to his current battle party.

The list of abilities a character has is called his skillset. This includes, but is not limited to, the "built-in" abilities a character has (like Vivi's black magic), abilities the character has potential to learn (like learning magic from Espers), passive abilites (such as how Cecil will automatically take damage for a hurt ally), temporary abilities granted by equipment or some other method (such as how a character with a Genji Glove can equip two weapons), and anything else the charcter can do. As you can see, skillsets are a big part of a character's makeup.

This article analyzes some of the finer points of designing and implementing skillsets, why it's important to diversify them, and how they can throw off game balance. We'll look into what makes some skillsets interesting, and others virtually useless.

Don't shed a tier.

Tiers are groupings of PCs by their usefulness. High-tier characters are mathematically better than low-tier characters, outside influences notwithstanding. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, for example, characters like Marth, Fox, and Jigglypuff are simply better than characters like DK, Bowser, and Link.

Let's look at that for a moment. All this really means is that, when you weigh the pros and cons of any of the PCs, top-tiers will have more pros than cons and low-tiers will have more cons than pros. In SSBM, this tends to mean that low-tiers are slower characters without a good aerial game, whose moves leave them prone to counter-attack.

But lo! You might be really great with Link. In fact, you might consistantly beat down your friend, who plays as Marth. How is that possible? You're introducing an outside factor into the equation: your skill level. You're simply a better player than your friend. Were the two of you at the same skill level, you'd lose much more often. Played equally, Marth's got a stronger skillset than Link, and thus will come out on top in a one-on-one game.

This translates to RPGs like so: some PCs are simply more useful than others. It's a virtual impossibility to make all the PCs equal. There are outside factors at work here too: experience level being the biggest. Also, most RPGs come with the built-in option of having more than one character on a team, with the high-tier characters picking up the slack of the low-tiers, thus making the low-tiers seem less useless.

The best possible team in the original Final Fantasy is three Fighters and a Red Mage. This isn't up for dispute; it's a solid fact. Fighters are virtually unstoppable; they have incredible defence and offence, piles of HP, and later on they even get their own heal spells (not that you'll ever need them). The Red Mage isn't shabby in the fighting department either, and he'll use all the magic you'll ever need in the game (mainly the Fast spell). The addition of powerful equipment (like Ribbons and ProRings) makes the team invincible. This team is able to finish the game very quickly, at a low level, and for a very small cost in gold.

Fast forward a decade to FF6, and tiers are still present. In FF6, there are fourteen characters. Thirteen of them can learn every single magic spell in the game (only two have the limited ability to learn them innately). Skillsets are further augmented by character-specific skills. In FF6, when everything else is leveled out, Sabin is a high-tier character and Relm is a low-tier.

Both Sabin and Relm can use any spell they want, from Fire to Life 3. However, you get Sabin much earlier - by the time Relm becomes available, Sabin'll likely already know several spells and Relm will have to catch up. Sabin beats Relm in specific skillsets too - Blitz is simply a better command than Sketch or Control (and that's assuming Sketch/Control works). Even after all that, Sabin is undoubtedly a better fighter than Relm. Sabin has an equipment configuration that allows him eight attacks per round with well over 1000 damage per attack - and that's without excessive powerleveling. Relm can never hope to match that.

So why would a player use Relm over Sabin? Or a Thief over a Fighter? Or Bowser over Fox? The simple answer is, if he wants to take advantage of everything he can to better his game, he won't. And that's the danger of tiers - unfair gameplay. There exist games where there are only one or two top-tier PCs; these games become increasingly boring as the player leans more and more on those characters alone and ignores everyone else. Poll a hundred people who have played Breath of Fire 2 and count how many use Jean, Sten, or Spar in their active party with any regularity. Nina, Bleu, and Katt will come up much more often, because they're just more advantageous to have around. Now I'll explain why.

Show me the bouncing numbers!

Skillsets, with a very few exceptions, are geared towards combat. The way RPG combat works is each participant (PC and enemy alike) has a numerical value indicating their health. When that value reaches zero, that character is eliminated. When all fighters on one side are gone, that team loses and the other team wins. Every RPG in existence, without exception, uses that exact same system. Using a skill of any kind to lower the health of an opponent results in damage.

Here's what it means: the team that deals the most damage in the shortest amount of time has a better chance of winning the battle. There is also the implied secondary priority of assuring your party stays alive long enough to deal that damage. Every single action your PCs take in a typical RPG combat (scripted or otherwise unwinnable battles notwithstanding) is geared towards dealing more damage. When you heal, you're raising the survivability of your PCs so they can, in turn, deal more damage. When you defend, you decrease the damage dealt for one character so he can deal more damage later (or, you're passing the turn to someone else who can deal more damage now). When you use a status effect ability, you do so with the understanding that it will, in the long run, result in more damage dealt.

In other words, damage is the most important factor of RPG combat - without exception. The logical extension of that is: abilities which do not result reasonable amounts of damage being dealt either now or later are of no worth to the party.

Revisiting the cast of Breath of Fire 2, some characters deal damage better than others. In the area of physical attacks (which will no doubt be the single greatest source of damage throughout the entire game), characters like Ryu and Katt have a distinct advantage. Nina and Bleu have the monopoly on magical attacks. Rand and Bow (who are both capable attackers) carry most of the healing needed in the party. Ryu has extremely powerful dragon transformations which deal insane amounts of damage in short stretches of time.

Note who isn't on that list: Sten, Spar, and Jean. Spar and Jean's skillsets are comprised mainly of status effects that, in BoF2, are typically not as useful as direct damage-dealing methods. Sten has several magical spells, but they're all outclassed by those of Nina and Bleu. If it weren't for the fact that those three characters had to join your party at certain times for storyline reasons, people would never use them at all... and with good reason.

Another thing this means is that well-rounded characters are often better than specific ones. In FF4, your endgame party has five heroes with different skillsets. Three of these characters are powerful physical attackers. One uses powerful attack magic. The fifth is almost exclusively a healer. Anyone who has played FF4 will tell you that the bulk of the damage is dished out by the first three, supplemented by the fourth, and the fifth generally sits around not doing much of anything except when healing is needed.

They'll also tell you that the first three don't have any expenditures, while the last two do. Which is a nice segue into my next point.

The price of victory.

Expenditures are losses in power the player must pay in order to take an action. In most RPGs, casting a spell costs MP (or some variant thereof). Some games burn up ammunition with each shot. Some games have fatigue or endurance systems in place, allowing characters to take x amount of actions in y amount of time. Each strike with a weapon in some game carries a chance of that weapon breaking.

Sticking with the FF4 party: the first three characters (Cecil, Edge, and Kain) are able to deal fair damage using their Attack command. Attack has no expenditure attached. The second two (Rydia and Rosa) are much weaker, and must rely on magic to deal any great amount of damage. In addition to that, Rosa's simple Attack command costs arrows, and when she runs out she gets even weaker.

As a general rule, characters with expenditures are worse off than characters without. Rydia can match (or beat!) the amount of damage Cecil does on a regular basis, but only at the cost of MP every round. When she runs out of MP, she becomes useless unless the player uses Ethers to restore it. Ethers are quite rare and particularly expensive, and as such Rydia's magic takes a hit in usefulness.

Another type of expenditure is the chance that a particular ability might fail. If the player casts Death and it doesn't work, he's wasted MP and a character's turn. As a result, the player will forego the Death spell for something more reliable, like Fire3. Death might work 25% of the time, but the player will use it 0% of the time. A nice counter-example is Nina in Breath of Fire 2, whose Death spell succeeds more often than not (around 80%-90%). Thus, Death is a worth both expenditures associated with it (both the MP cost, and the chance of it not working).

Expenditures are useful as safeguards against players using powerful attacks too often. In FF6, Ultima is a crazy powerful spell, but a moderately leveled character will only get a handful of uses out of it before their MP supply is tapped. In BoF2, Ryu's devastating dragon transformations always deplete his entire MP supply, ensuring the player will save them for when he really needs them.

There are likewise other types of expenditures, such as convenience. Say a hero can deal thirty damage with an attack, but has an item (with infinite uses) that can deal forty. To attack, he needs only press the button and choose his target; minimum of two button presses. To use the item, he needs to scroll down to Item, select it, then find the item, select it again, and then choose his target; minimum of four button presses, assuming Item is right next to Attack on the list, and the item he wants is in the first slot. This might seem trivial, but it gets tedious to go through all those motions just for a measly ten damage increase.

Auxiliary artillery!

While all combat abilities have the assumed end result of damage, some have a much more indirect take on it. A Steal command, for example, is pretty much standard issue in RPGs these days. It doesn't (usually) deal any damage by itself, but using it nets the PCs more powerful equipment and free items, which in turns raises their power level and increases their potential to deal damage later. These auxiliary abilities are a cool way to further individualize a character's skillset.

However, it is important to keep in mind the expected result of abilities when dreaming up auxiliaries to include. There's an ability in Breath of Fire 3 called Feign Swing, which has no combat effect whatsoever other than to waste a turn. It an entirely useless ability. It probably should not have been added to the game at all.

Auxiliaries have the benefit of being different than typical abilities, but they must be held to the same standards. Quina's Eat ability allows him/her to kill enemies who are at very low health. However, it has the added bonus of giving him/her new Blue Magic, which in turn increases his/her skillset and the potential damage s/he can deal. Without that added bonus, Quina's Eat command would be useless (why Eat something one more attack will kill anyway?)... but with it, it becomes absolutely crucial to his/her character development.

Designers must me more careful giving their PCs auxiliary commands than regular commands for that very reason. It can be tempting to create elaborate and flashy abilities in order to break up the hum-drummery of the typical attack/healing abilities, but no amount of "different" can make up for "useful". No matter how cool or innovative a skill is, or how long it takes to implement, or what its expenditure is, if it is not useful it will not be used!

How often do you honestly use any of those status ailment spells against the opposition? Yeah, me too.

Rock, paper, scissors...

In RPGs, abilities are often tied to elements. Elements are special properties attached to an ability that alters the way the ability interacts with its target. Elements oftentimes allow the player to take one basic skill and turn it into many different skills. Remove the elemental attributes from magic spells in FF8, and you'll notice many spells are now equal. There is no longer any distinction between Fira and Blizzara... they might as well both just be called -ra.

The reason elements are important to skillsets is because they act as a way to help make otherwise low-tier characters more useful. I mentioned earlier how Sten gets only a few fire spells. This is key. Say you're going up against a normal, average, everyday boss - in this case it's probably to your advantage to stick with high-tier characters. However, if you know the next boss is weak to fire, it's to your advantage to add Sten into your party... suddenly, his "useless" abilities have become more viable options.

Elements also add a new layer of complexity to a game. The player must know his enemy's weakness if he wants to maximize his chances of winning. This gives the player incentive to experiment with different abilities against different creatures. As he learns from his mistakes and builds new strategies, he will be able to maximize the amount of damage he deals.

Taking this idea to its extreme, you end up with a system like Vagrant Story. Vagrant Story simply is not possible without capitalizing on the strengths and weakness of three different classes of elements. Elements become a constant thought of the player, and indeed is the very cornerstone of the game's combat systems.

Happy hunting!

I have discussed various types of character abilities and how the net goal of them is to deal damage to the opposition in combat. I have shown that characters who can do this well become much better choices for the active party than those who cannot. I've also touched lightly on abilities that deal damage only indirectly, appropriate measures to build expenditures into abilities to curb their use, and how the addition of elements can mix things up and encourage experimentation.

It bears repeating: no set of PCs in any game are ever balanced. For a set of PCs to be completely equal, they would all have to be the same. However, it is possible to design a set of PCs in such a way that the player can be successful with whichever decisions he makes; in the FF6 example I gave above I showed Sabin is better than Relm, but doesn't mean the player can't win the game with Relm on his team!

RPGs are heavily combat-driven, and a PC's skillset goes a long way to diversifying that combat. It is one of the most powerful tools an RPG designer has to make his game fun and challenging.