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Article - 'Article Grab Bag: Series Two' by Death Ritual

An item about Miscellanious posted on Apr 27, 2004


The second set of articles in Death Ritual's series of series of articles. Again, all very good reads.


Welcome back to the Article Grab Bag. I hope you liked the first issue. In this one, in an effort to cover more ground, I’ll include completely different topics from the first one.

Here I’m going to cover balancing skills, creation of a religion, difficulty factors, and morality (in games).

Skill Balancing
Several articles on GW, especially Brickroad’s famous article on skills and tiers, deal with this topic in a good, overall manner. Once again, since I’m more an active person than I am passive, I’ll get down to the implementation part immediately. In this case, I’ll start by moving away from technicalities – no big numbers, no geometric constructions of development, and so on. Here are tips for skill balancing.

- Check your game at different points. At each point, are all the characters useful? Can they all contribute to the party? If either answer is no, consider making the characters that lag behind more useful, perhaps with more skills, stronger skills or quicker ways of getting them. Or you could do the opposite, by making the characters that are ahead get less skills, weaker skills, or get them more slowly. Of course, you need to make sure that this doesn’t affect your game’s difficulty factor too much.

- How many types of each character (fighter, black mage, etc.) do you have in your party? If your party has a white mage and a paladin (fighter/white mage combo), you have two white mages. Why is this important? Because it reduces the value of each character’s white mage component to have another in the party. Aim to have three decent (or better) physical attackers, three decent (or better) magical attackers, and three good healers. (This applies to games with four playable characters; just subtract one from your maximum party capacity.) For example, you could have the aforementioned paladin, a battlemage (fighter/black mage), a pure healer and a sorceress. That’s just one example; there are many ways this can be done.

- Brickroad wrote a great article on skills, as I said, but in my opinion he messed up when he said nobody ever uses status spells. That may be true, but because most games don’t actually make use of those status ailments. An exception would be Final Fantasy X. There, you practically had to inflict status ailments on your enemies if you wanted to beat them without wasting a lot of MP and items. Another example would be Final Fantasy Tactics Advance; some enemies are almost invulnerable to damage but can be beaten easily with status effects. And for a non-FF line game, let’s try Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. Without using spells like Lower Resistance, Vampiric Touch, and Incendiary Cloud, the game is a lot harder. If you want to bump up the balance of skills in your game, make use of these effects.

- If you’re testing your own game and the enemies are getting tough, check your skill pool. Do your characters possess the right resources to defeat the opponent, skill-wise, or is it that you just suck at RPGs? (Kidding.) Anyway, make sure that your enemies can be defeated and that your heroes have the resources. For example, if your heroes go onto an ice mountain full of ice-based enemies, your party had better have fire-based skills by then.

Creation of a Religion
Learn to do this, or that order of Holy Knights you were thinking about making up won’t work. Most games use “God” or “the Light” or some obscure, generalizing name for their Creator or Prime Deity, but I don’t like it – especially if you try to make an antireligious game; it won’t work if you’re fighting a church that worships some obscure God whose name is harder to pronounce than mine in Geist. I know it’s hard to make a comprehensive religion, but you could do much worse than to spend some time on it. I hope to delve into this topic much deeper when I write an article specifically about this.

- Humans need to explain stuff. That’s why they have religion in the first place. So make sure your created religions explain why the world is the way it is. If you’re using a pseudo-medieval setting, though, you should take care: most Middle Age religions did not accept facts that are nowadays taken for granted. Be realistic. Unless you add in a guy like Galileo or Copernicus, your religion will not know that its world orbits around the sun (they’ll think it’s the other way around). They will also look down on scientists, calling them heretical, blasphemous, and demonic; remember, these scientists are meddling with the “true” explanation of the world.

- Now that I just said that, there should always be intellectuals or theologians within this religion (or outside it, if your story would be better suited by that) who are knowledgeable about the metaphysical realms. Metaphysics is a touchy subject and always has been; it won’t be any different in a game. Just remember the point of this; intellectuals are widely distrusted because when religion dominates thought, science is akin to diabolism. So your scientists should be sages, wise men, but cut off from society, isolated, estranged, even hounded by religious fanatics and assassins, all because they believe that they should explore further while religion wants them to keep to their little box of belief.

- As I was just saying, religions hate to be challenged; therefore, your religions should have some way to defend themselves from heretics. The Divine Knights and such of Final Fantasy Tactics, for example, or the Jesuits, “warriors of God,” in the real-life Catholic Church, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. If you’ve read the Wheel of Time series, there’s also the Whitecloaks/”Children of the Light,” which are really odious, but they’re an example. Your religion can either have that or something else; notice I don’t use the term “church” here because it might not be a church as far as the term is concerned. But this is an important point that you must make. (Interesting note: the religion could call on its followers to slay infidels, like some extremist religions do – or some claim they do. I doubt they tell their followers to pour into foreign lands screaming bloody murder, though.)

- Make sure your religion is overbearing. It has to be, especially if it’s the supreme or ruling one in the world; after all, they don’t want people worming out of their control, and what better way than to force them to obey, through intimidation? Granted it’s not a very fun way, but it works. Your religion should appear benevolent but become steadily more arrogant as you travel up – unless this religion will help the player, in which case you might want to make them softer. If they’re your enemies or neutral, you want arrogance. It gets the player to hate them.

- Always, always, always, have dogmas for your religion. These are the religion’s central beliefs, and depending on who you ask they can apply to all worshippers or just to the clergy of that particular religion. Jesus Christ’s famous “Turn the other cheek” would probably be a Christian dogma at its simplest. You can get a whole lot more complicated on this matter, though, making dogmas much more intricate and elaborated.

- If your religion is demonic or dark at its heart, you DON’T want to tell that to the player. Unless one of his characters knows it already, whether firsthand or no, it’s not a good idea to reveal something like that. Even then, try to work something in that gets you to see that they’re demonic. Maybe break into a dark ritual or something similar . . . it works, because the player might not be surprised but they’ll feel that at least now they know the religion’s evil.

In-Depth: Difficulty Factors
I know this is related to balancing skills; that’s why I included it here. It’s quite interesting when a game maker actually gives you time to get used to the game before you get thrown out there. I played a game called “Soul Quest” and got “GAME OVER” within three minutes because I got attacked every three steps. I don’t think that’s the outcome the average RPG maker looks for, so I’ll include a few general tips on how to bump difficulty factors the way you want them to go (because the game could also be too easy, of course.)

- The easiest way to make a game more balanced is to increase or decrease the encounter rate in high-traffic areas. And balance that, as well; in areas with low encounter rates, you can place more powerful monsters because the player will encounter monsters more rarely. Whereas in a very high-rated area, you should place weak monsters, because the player faces droves of them.

- I mentioned this in skill balancing before; status ailments can be used very effectively to balance out your party members, and just as effectively to balance your difficulty factor. Make monsters that can only be defeated by the use of certain ailments (for example, a monster with a relatively powerful physical attack that can be blinded or weakened easily, a la Iron Giant, or an annoyingly fast – and evasive – monster that can be slowed down). This forces the player to buck down and think about what he or she is actually doing in each battle, not necessarily making your game harder but certainly making it more interesting.

- Available equipment plays a big part in the difficulty factor. For example, while in Final Fantasy X-2 you could not equip weapons. However, a single well-placed accessory could mean the difference between a victory and a “Game Over” in battle. This was largely due to the good stock available at the game’s various shops. In the Thunder Plains, for example, the shops sell accessories meant to make you more resistant to lightning. You must take care to do things similar to this. Taking the previous example, if you’re going to a place where monsters are lightning-based, you absolutely must have one of two things. Either have a skill that does extra damage to lightning-based monsters (i.e. Water, Ice, Earthquake . . . whatever . . .) or have a shop that sells equipment that helps to take the brunt of the lightning attacks. (Note: Don’t sell weapons with the element. That will just be dumb, unless the player is going immediately afterwards to somewhere where he can actually use the thing.)

- This seems obvious, but you’d be amazed. In the beginning, random encounters should be much rarer. Why? The player is getting used to your setting, trying to learn how to fight in this world. You don’t want to overwhelm him with monsters this early on, or the player will get frustrated. Wait until halfway through the game, and even then, increase the number gradually. No jumping from one encounter every thirty steps to one every five. By the end of the game, you should begin to slow down again, because the player will have tough battles on hand; remember, by the end, enemies are almost mini-bosses in themselves.

- Mateui wrote in an article that save points should be found every 15-25 minutes. Depending on the situation, I disagree. If they are a simple save point, then that’s about right. If they are FFX-style, with the ability to heal your party members automatically, you can get away with extending that a bit since the player will most likely stay around the save point to train. I’d say 20-30 minutes, so you don’t have that much wriggling room.

Morality is a very important part of the human condition, and has always been since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Honesty, loyalty, duty – who wouldn’t want to have all these principles? Morally upright people have become heroes since stories could be told, and generally we can see what happens to those who do not abide by an ethical code.

By now you might be wondering what this has to do with games. Everything. Virtue is the main trait of every hero, and evil is essentially a lack of morality. Using ethics and morals in your game deepens the story greatly. It helps players identify with the characters. In fact, morality can pretty much enhance the entire game experience. And if you pull it off right, it teaches something to the player.

- Have a virtue that every one of your heroes embodies. Sometimes these are obvious. The main character is usually determined (though that’s cliché). The best friend is always loyal. The priestess/healer/White Mage is full of compassion and charity. The old wizard may not be strong but is immensely wise. So forth. Yet these clichés work to your advantage, if you pull them off correctly.

- Your villains are also moral, but a villain cannot be moral in the way a hero is. A villain can possess some principles, for example, obedience to law (though they depend on it to protect them from retribution for their evil acts) or honor (though they usually use their word to force heroes into a pincer situation). A villain is really either the lack of morality – which is more often a monster than a full-fledged, emotional, three-dimensional, round character villain – or morality twisted and warped, which is actually a lot more interesting to see. Think Karla from War of Lodoss, or Viola and Anubis from Zone of the Enders (not such a good example, but I got the feeling they had a tangible goal).

- Morality doesn’t always just “come” naturally to the character. Sometimes the most loyal person must be forced to leave or betray his allies. There are times when the most honest among us are forced to lie or cheat. Even the most compassionate must sometimes look away from people she knows she could help. During your adventure, your characters will be forced to put their ethics on the shelf sometimes. They’ll need to do things that are immoral, because they are human (or the equivalent). At the end of the road, though, when your characters look back, they should be able to say that they stuck to their principles.

- Even though I just said that, never be inconsistent with your character. There’s a difference. You see, a character might be forced to commit immoral acts, but he should never do so out of his own accord. If there’s no reason for an honest person to lie, she shouldn’t; if a loyal friend has absolutely no reason to betray his allies, he definitely should not. To commit an immoral act that the character would not normally commit, there should be no other possible solution; for example, the honest character who finds himself in a room of master swordsmen hell-bent on his death might be forced to lie about his identity. The loyal friend who endures torture for days on end might finally break and give up valuable information to her captors. The compassionate young woman who always stops to help might not be able to because her sister has been kidnapped. These are examples of why a character would do something that doesn’t go with their personality. However, doing these things for trivial reasons (i.e., lying because it seems fun, betraying your allies because your captor is friendly) is inconsistency, which kills your game quickly.

Now that we’re done with this edition of the Article Grab Bag, I sign off for the time being. Watch for Series Three. Among the topics there, I hope to cover Magic vs. Technology, a heated debate, and quite probably I will also talk about Da Vinci Code-style puzzles.

Above all, remember: this is your world, your masterpiece, and ultimately, you are its creator. There is no greater power.

- Death Ritual’s credo