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  1. #1
    Activated Node Wisq's Avatar
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    Risks, rewards, & loot in RPGs (and FPS-RPGs)

    So here's the thing:

    I've been playing Oblivion for the past couple weeks, and I started playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution today. In both, I find myself seriously torn between two extremes: Playing like a real character, and playing like an RPG player.

    I'm pretty sure we all know the RPG player. You walk into a room, and the first thing you do is take everything that is worth anything and isn't nailed down. You go out of your way to find things to kill or places to go for XP. You iterate through every dialogue option to make sure you haven't missed a quest or a reward. You lockpick / hack stuff for XP even if you have the key / code. If you see a door, you're going to open it. Etc.

    And then there's the real character. You're only going to enter someone's home if you've got a reason to do so. You'd knock first (if only they'd give you the option), and you certainly wouldn't start taking stuff. You're going to look for the easiest way to achieve your goals. You're not going to get involved in some stranger's problem unless it's brought to your attention and there's a reward (tangible or otherwise). You'll look for the simplest / best solution, i.e. the one with the least problems (XP) to overcome.

    And you know what? Even if I try to play the latter, I end up slipping into the former. It just seems like how these things are meant to be played. Everyone likes ammo, right? So why shouldn't I open every single locker in a locker room and double my stash? (Never mind that I end up stealthing the level and not firing a single bullet, getting the "Ghost" bonus too.)

    It bugs me because I feel like I've been given this living, breathing character, and turned him/her into a sort of OCD kleptomaniac who won't leave an area until every last enemy is dead / unconscious and every container is searched and emptied. Christ, I found myself breaking into every Sarif employee's office and stealing all their credit chits (and protein bars) and I'm supposed to be the head of security!

    The root cause of all this seems to be a few different things. For starters: Unlikely loot in unlikely places. Ammo and money in every desk? Grenades in the assembly line storage room? Ancient powerful artifacts in some chest or being worn by some radom bandit? Oy.

    Problem is, the loot was the only reason those desks and chests and whatnot were searchable at all. Take away the loot, and you may as well take away the ability to check them at all. Which means if you ever do see a searchable container, you know it's something important, which breaks immersion. (Maybe making them all searchable, but 99% junk, is worth it just to let the important ones blend in?)

    Then there's the character getting experience points for doing stuff rather than for getting stuff done. Meaning that the more roundabout, convoluted means with which you accomplish something, the better. Pretty much everything counts here: Kill XP, lockpick XP, "you found an air vent" XP, etc.

    Granted, you can't really say the XP is 100% unrealistic. You really would get better at taking down thugs if, instead of taking down the one or two unavoidable ones, you swept the entire place and took them all out. Still I think XP overstates how much better you would get, and the fact that it's "just a game" (without any real risk) means that any sort of reward is worth the (zero) risk of taking such a ludicrous approach.

    I guess the real question is, would it really be an RPG if you took this stuff out? Is it worth trying? Could you get all your ammo from HQ + the bad guys, all your credits from your paycheque, and all your skill-up points from completing assignments, and only choose how to allocate them all? Would you just get accused of "streamlining" and "consolising" and whatnot? Would it still be fun?

    Maybe a more bottom-line concern: Are RPGs actually meant to be RPed, or is RPG just a misnomer for "XP & loot" games? Can there ever truly be any realism in these sorts of things, when a player character can progress from novice to world-class expert in a particular skill in just a few game days? Can you have an RPG where your character finishes the game with roughly the same capabilities (but a bit more practical experience) as when they started, and still call it an RPG?

  2. #2
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus soldant's Avatar
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    I can hear Wizardry on his way...

    I agree with your first point about taking everything and just going everywhere. I'd argue that the "talk to everyone" line is also fairly ridiculous as well. I don't know about the rest of RPS, but I don't go up to random strangers standing on the street and go "What do you know about rats in the sewers?" and stuff like that.

    Also the "loot in unlikely places" thing extends to pretty much every game, which is one of my biggest problems with the healthbar mechanic which people cling to. Quite often in games it looks like weapons, ammo, health packs and what-not have got up under their own power and gone out of their way to help us. RPGs are no different in that respect, particularly some of the more action RPGs (and I'd say Bethesda are some of the worst at doing this).

    Then there's the character getting experience points for doing stuff rather than for getting stuff done. Meaning that the more roundabout, convoluted means with which you accomplish something, the better. Pretty much everything counts here: Kill XP, lockpick XP, "you found an air vent" XP, etc.
    Actually I'm not impressed by the "you found an airvent, here have some XP" stuff. It seems pretty lazy to me. I can't imagine how simply going "Oh look, there's an airvent over there" should constitute XP.

  3. #3
    Activated Node Wisq's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by soldant View Post
    Actually I'm not impressed by the "you found an airvent, here have some XP" stuff. It seems pretty lazy to me. I can't imagine how simply going "Oh look, there's an airvent over there" should constitute XP.
    Yeah, I tend to lump "exploration" XP in with kill XP, but it's really a lot worse — all you did was find something, how does that count towards improving your skills / augs?

    Maybe this raises the whole point of what the developers are trying to achieve with XP. At a glance, it's meant to represent your character getting better via, well, experience. In reality, it's more like a progress bar that's supposed to finish roughly around the time the game does. And it seems like Deus Ex uses it to encourage specific behaviour (e.g. non-lethal vs. lethal, close combat vs. ranged), or to reward you for finding things. I thought air vents were supposed to be for saving time / effort (and/or finding items), not as a way to level up.

  4. #4
    Activated Node JohnnyMaverik's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by soldant View Post
    Actually I'm not impressed by the "you found an airvent, here have some XP" stuff. It seems pretty lazy to me. I can't imagine how simply going "Oh look, there's an airvent over there" should constitute XP.
    Well consider a scenario where you have three ways to continue through a map. You can:

    A. Fight through some enemies blocking a path, gaining XP through doing so
    B. Pick/Hack a locked path, gaining XP through doing so
    C. Find a well hidden unlocked path through some exploration, maybe an air vent, maybe something else.

    Why shouldn't the player be rewarded some XP for taking that option as well?

    I agree just being given XP for randomly coming across air vents all the time doesn't really make sense, but if the levels are well designed the player shouldn't be doing that anyway.
    Disclaimer: The above statement or statements are most likely completely incorrect, incoherent and a little insulting to boot. Please disregard immediately and contact the closest person or persons with the ability and will to restore your faith in humanity.

  5. #5
    Activated Node Wisq's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JohnnyMaverik View Post
    Well consider a scenario where you have three ways to continue through a map. You can:

    A. Fight through some enemies blocking a path, gaining XP through doing so
    B. Pick/Hack a locked path, gaining XP through doing so
    C. Find a well hidden unlocked path through some exploration, maybe an air vent, maybe something else.

    Why shouldn't the player be rewarded some XP for taking that option as well?
    But then we're back at my original complaint, which is that it actually makes sense to do all three and get the XP for all of them. And unless you account for that, you're going to get a bunch of reviews whining that the game is too easy because you're giving out too much XP.

    It seems like one possible solution would be to cap each area's XP points. A particularly smart or challenging route might be worth more than a simpler or more obvious route, but taking every possible route wouldn't net you several times the "normal" XP, if you cap the XP at the value of the smart route.

  6. #6
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sinister agent's Avatar
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    I actually think that Oblivion/Morrowind's approach (ie: skills rather than XP) is one that should be explored more fully by other games. It certainly removes some of the dissonance with XP balancing - I get XP more XP for shooting a dude than shooting a mouse? Why? The mouse is smaller and therefore a harder target, surely? And why do I get the same amount of XP for shooting neither but opening a door instead?

    Direct skill development removes those questions. Okay, you still have to find a way to balance the skills, but you can at least see a direct correlation there between your actions and your non-tangible rewards. I improved my shooting skills because I hit x targets. I improved my sandwich making skills because I fed the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

    The other issues you mention are also in need of consideration by games designers, I reckon. I think a major factor for the 'looting' thing is huge inventories that mean stealing EVERYTHING becomes second nature (then you get that tedious moment where you have to go through everything you're carrying and work out which has the least efficient weight:value ratio). Simply reducing the inventory size in, say, Oblivion so that you couldn't carry around 6 swords and 200 potions does help.

    But then of course you have to leave almost everything you find behind, which can be frustrating, as the game isn't balanced for that.

    As for interrogating everyone you meet ... well, on the absurdly long list of Stuff Wot I Will Do When I Can Buy Everything are a number of games, one of which is set on a housing estate in the south of England. Going up to complete strangers in the street and asking them bizarre questions will quickly get you branded as some sort of local nutter.
    Last edited by sinister agent; 24-08-2011 at 06:59 AM.

  7. #7
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus soldant's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JohnnyMaverik View Post
    Why shouldn't the player be rewarded some XP for taking that option as well? I agree just being given XP for randomly coming across air vents all the time doesn't really make sense, but if the levels are well designed the player shouldn't be doing that anyway.
    Maybe because all they've done is just taken a single different route? They haven't, in actuality, done anything. You might as well give people experience for other things, like "Entered through front door." The benefits from taking an air vent or similar stealthy approach are usually in easier dispatching of enemies or removal of automated defences that they'd otherwise have to fight their way through. Arguably a better system would be an XP bonus on completing the objective based on what they managed to avoid if you want to reward the stealth approach. As it stands, you're just giving people XP for going to a particular part of the map and doing nothing.

  8. #8
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sinister agent's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by soldant View Post
    Maybe because all they've done is just taken a single different route? They haven't, in actuality, done anything. You might as well give people experience for other things, like "Entered through front door." The benefits from taking an air vent or similar stealthy approach are usually in easier dispatching of enemies or removal of automated defences that they'd otherwise have to fight their way through. Arguably a better system would be an XP bonus on completing the objective based on what they managed to avoid if you want to reward the stealth approach. As it stands, you're just giving people XP for going to a particular part of the map and doing nothing.
    This is true. In Deus Ex f'instance (the original - not played the new one), you could milk the game for all its XP worth by doing all the air vent crawling, then going back and shooting everyone anyway.

    Perhaps a way around this would be to implement a system where you'd have to announce your intentions before you tackled a particular obstacle/area, so that you could be rewarded XP based on how well you adhered to those intentions. E.g: "I'll sneak through here, no need to kill anyone" would mean you'd get no XP for shooting people, whereas "I'll leave no survivors" would give you XP only for killing people.

  9. #9
    Activated Node Wisq's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sinister agent View Post
    I actually think that Oblivion/Morrowind's approach (ie: skills rather than XP) is one that should be explored more fully by other games. It certainly removes some of the dissonance with XP balancing - I get XP more XP for shooting a dude than shooting a mouse? Why? The mouse is smaller and therefore a harder target, surely? And why do I get the same amount of XP for shooting neither but opening a door instead?
    Agreed, though I really hate how Oblivion/Morrowind implemented attribute gains with respect to skill gains. You were strongly encouraged to very carefully micromanage your skills so that you got maximum improvements in the related attributes. There was a nice Oblivion mod to resolve that ("Realistic Leveling"), which made your attribute level dependent on your skill levels, and your character level dependent on your attribute levels.

    Unfortunately, with either system, it was still possible to create a pretty nerfed character by levelling up some non-combat-useful skill (like alchemy) and making all the mobs tougher as a consequence. Besides which, they're both still all ass-backwards. Your skills define your abilities? Last I checked, my physical fitness determined my ability to run and jump, and my dexterity would affect my ability to pick locks, not the other way around.

    My idea for a skill / attribute system:

    1. Performing a skill contributes towards both the skill and the related attribute(s).
    2. Skills will never exceed the value of the related attribute(s).
    3. The closer a skill is to the attribute-based cap, the slower it improves.
    4. Skills that are far from the cap can improve much faster.

    What would end up happening:

    • Your primary skills would be close to their caps. The more you use something, the closer it's going to be.
    • Secondary skills would be lower, but would still be pretty decent. As long as you use something at least some of the time, it's not going to be extremely far from the cap.
    • If you become (say) a master mage (high int / will) but you've never, ever used a particular magic skill, you'll still start from zero, but you'll pick it up very fast.

    It's much more logical overall. Becoming more physical will help all of your physical skills, learning magic will help all your magic skills, etc. So your skill levels still reflects your overall skill usage, but when an attribute goes up, it tends to rubber-band all related skills and keep them within a certain reasonable distance of the attribute cap (so long as you use them at all).

    If you feel like avoiding the Oblivion "I'll just put a button on the spell key and be an expert in skill <x> by morning" syndrome, make the attribute gains dependent on using the skill in combat, or have "attribute XP" queue up (to a limit) and only apply the queue after a combat victory. You could still sit in your house and practice a skill to get it closer to the cap, but you're only practicing your technique, not exerting and improving yourself under the pressures of combat.</x>

  10. #10
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sinister agent's Avatar
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    Oh, I agree - Morrowin/Obliv's levelling/stat thing had major, major flaws. You had to game the system to stand a chance if you didn't happen to pick a skill set that the devs thought of, and even then there were other issues with the game. Although some mods did a lot to address this.

    Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul did something broadly similar to what you propose - you don't choose or raise your primary stats (strength, luck, etc.) directly at all, but rather, they raise naturally as your skills develop. Raising a skill would contribute towards increasing two or three primary stats, so that over time, if you'd worked a lot on physically demanding skills, your strength and endurance would creep up too, but you'd also find that your agility might go up slightly too.

    Obliv had its problems, but the core idea of "practice=improvement" is solid, and it surprises me that nobody else (as far as I know) has really done it. Although XCOM and friends did, now that I think about it.
    Last edited by sinister agent; 24-08-2011 at 08:20 AM.

  11. #11
    Activated Node Wisq's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sinister agent View Post
    Perhaps a way around this would be to implement a system where you'd have to announce your intentions before you tackled a particular obstacle/area, so that you could be rewarded XP based on how well you adhered to those intentions. E.g: "I'll sneak through here, no need to kill anyone" would mean you'd get no XP for shooting people, whereas "I'll leave no survivors" would give you XP only for killing people.
    Another way would be to just tie certain XP rewards to each other. A vent that bypasses three guards may be worth more or less than killing all three, but taking the vent nullifies the XP from killing them, and killing each of them nullifies a third of the vent XP.

    I'm not sure what the effect on level design would be, though. If the designers have to be able to quantify every shortcut in relation to its equivalent body count and in relation to other possible strategies as well, the net result is that we may not have very many interesting shortcuts or alternate strategies.

    Quote Originally Posted by sinister agent View Post
    But the core idea of "practice=improvement" is solid, and it surprises me that nobody else (as far as I know) has really done it. Although XCOM and friends did, now that I think about it.
    Ha, I never expected to see mention of X-COM in this conversation, but you're absolutely right. Just another example of how awesome it was. Why oh why do game devs not take more ideas from it?

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    Lesser Hivemind Node Keep's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sinister agent View Post
    Perhaps a way around this would be to implement a system where you'd have to announce your intentions before you tackled a particular obstacle/area, so that you could be rewarded XP based on how well you adhered to those intentions. E.g: "I'll sneak through here, no need to kill anyone" would mean you'd get no XP for shooting people, whereas "I'll leave no survivors" would give you XP only for killing people.
    This sounds like a great solution. At the start of every level (or when you rest for the night in a more persistent-world RPG), you choose a bunch of skills that'll you'll 'focus' on next. Perform tasks relevant to those skills, and you'll earn XP. Go about things a different way, you'll earn nothing.

    The one flaw is that some skills are rarely used, but really useful. How would you know to prep them for improvement beforehand?

  13. #13
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sinister agent's Avatar
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    I think it would be less practical in an open world RPG. Something like Deus Ex would be more applicable - how will you deal with Organisation X, for example - will you kill anyone you see on their side, or try to reason with them, or limit yourself to espionage?

    I'd think of it less about which skills you'd prepare, and more about what outcome you'd seek. So you could use hacking to overload a terminal and start a fire, killing the guards, or you could use it to lock them in or simply avoid them. Or you could choose not to kill, but still use combat skills in injuring or scaring off guards. You'd choose the general aims of your situationo rather than what skills you'd use to get there.


    To avoid it becoming episodic, you could make it a major character choice - I understand Baldur's Gate and some of the Ultimas had a system that punished you for deviating from a certain moral/behavioural code. Maybe there's some overlap there.
    Last edited by sinister agent; 24-08-2011 at 09:33 AM.

  14. #14
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Jockie's Avatar
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    The problem with pre-ordaining how you will handle a situation is that it boxes you in to a certain style of play. For instance, I generally try and play stealthy, but I'm not a serial quicksave/quickloader, preferring instead to improvise and adapt to a situation. For me, half the fun in playing stealthy is having to use my wits or shooting skills to get me out of a tight situation when the shit hits the fan. Going by a system in which you only get rewarded for being 100% consistent, is saying that my playstyle isn't a valid one.

    Furthermore, if you decide 'oh I won't kill any of that faction', whats the point of all the e-mails/correspondence etc that give you further understanding of an organisations motivations and ethos as you play? If you decide a particular organisation are the 'not-so-bad guys' and go in at them non-lethal, then through some sleuthing you discover they're actually a right set of bastards, you'd feel like the rug had been pulled from under you by the game developer.

    I really prefer to make these decisions on the fly, rather than decide any of these things in advance and have them rigidly set, just doesn't make sense to me.
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    Lesser Hivemind Node Keep's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jockie View Post
    The problem with pre-ordaining how you will handle a situation is that it boxes you in to a certain style of play. For instance, I generally try and play stealthy, but I'm not a serial quicksave/quickloader, preferring instead to improvise and adapt to a situation. For me, half the fun in playing stealthy is having to use my wits or shooting skills to get me out of a tight situation when the shit hits the fan. Going by a system in which you only get rewarded for being 100% consistent, is saying that my playstyle isn't a valid one.
    That's a good point. You don't want to curtail experimentation or playfulness. I think it can be worked with though. Two solutions come to mind:
    1 - Maybe if it was a significant XP bump when you performed tasks you'd prepared for, but you still get some reward for performing other skilful actions, so your playstyle directly determines your character's abilities without boxing you completely into one style.
    2 - Maybe there could be a separate skill for "Improviser", which enables you to change your mind about which skills'll earn you XP on the fly, or which rewards you for using skills beyond just the ones you'd designated as those you intend to improve.

    I'm sure there're other (better) ways of promoting your style with that spin on XP-rewards though.
    Last edited by Keep; 24-08-2011 at 11:08 AM.

  16. #16
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus sinister agent's Avatar
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    It's a good point. You'd need to either provide a strong impetus to stick to a plan (which might just mean it's extra-frustrating to have to do so or lose out), or balance it with some kind of consolation prize for not doing so. Tricky.

    I think removing XP altogether is a good start, though. That way you could have the 'how I will approach this' system linked with tangible or character/plot/dialogue rewards instead, so it'd feel like less of a straightjacket - I can picture it working with you telling a support character or ally how you'd approach, and how closely you stick to the plan affecting the relationship and/or what they're willing to do for you. A liiiittle bit like Alpha Protocol, only with more emphasis on your desires rather than second guessing what will please the NPC - say your handler would be happy whatever you do, as long as you stick to your word.

    You'd also be defined by how well you can do something, rather than just by what meaningless number is next to your name.
    Last edited by sinister agent; 24-08-2011 at 11:22 AM.

  17. #17
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Kelron's Avatar
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    I wish more games would try to discourage the "do everything at once" approach. It annoys me when I read about people playing TES games as a Warrior-Mage-Thief who joins all the guilds so they can do all the quests. Maybe they enjoy playing like that, fair enough, but I think it ultimately leads to a shallower experience. Where's the conflict between factions, the tough decisions to make, the consequences of your actions? An open world game does not mean you should never restrict your player based on his actions - if I feel there's stuff I've missed out playing a game once I'm far more likely to play it again.

    In DXHR I'm trying to avoid farming XP taking all the different routes. I get some satisfaction out of role playing a bit and going for my objective rather than combing the level for loot, but I also want to keep it fresh for other play throughs. Maybe I'll finish it quicker than other players, but I'll keep the mystery of "what's in that room over there?" or "what happens if I just blast through the front door?" for replaying the game.

    I don't see what was wrong with the upgrade system in the original Deus Ex. It didn't try and incentivise a particular course of action, it gave you regular upgrades just through playing the game, but exploration of levels would net you additional rewards. But the exploration was not really tied to stealth like it is in HR. If you wanted to shoot your way through a level you wouldn't come out poorer than if you sneaked through knocking people out. The whole point was playing how you wanted to, rather than playing how the designers decided was worth the most experience, which I think is an important point HR has missed.

  18. #18
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    I have the same problem myself. I cannot pass on an opportunity to do something in a game. I hate the feeling that I might be missing out on stuff. That forces me to play with a constant focus on completion.

    I enjoy that way of playing, otherwise I wouldn't do it. But it often makes games too easy and therefore not as enjoyable as they could be ONCE I'm past the "getting powerful" phase.

    For instance, when I started playing Oblivion, I got out of the sewers and started maxing EVERY SINGLE SKILL. I planned it, and I did it. And I enjoyed jumping for hours to get the Athletic skill up. I enjoyed conjuring things to get the conjuration skill up, and then hitting my summons with the right kind of weapon to up the right skill. I would play so that both my stats and my skills would end up being at their full potential. Once they were all at 100 (if that's the level cap, I'm not quite sure), I created a spell that was extremely powerful and would give me infinite mana, provided I did not release the spell key.
    Then, and only then, did I start actually "playing the game". It was too easy, I stopped about five hours through (while I'd been optimizing my char for about 30 hours, I believe).
    Did I ruin the game by optimizing my character and making an obviously godlike spell ? Sure.
    Could I have done otherwise ? Nope.
    The game let me do it, so there was no sense in not taking advantage of that. It's as if I were a beginner lumberjack and my boss gave me a choice between a "burning axe of death of cthulhu +6", an average axe, and a razor blade. I would choose the burning axe any day, because it cuts down trees faster and more efficiently. Oh, sure, it'd be more of a challenge to take the razor blade or even the average axe, but why would I ?

    That's the reason why I love games that force you to make choices. That "missing out on things" feeling can be countered by choices that actually force you to keep going. You shouldn't be able to take three equivalent but different paths one after the other to reach the same goal. It doesn't make any sense, not in a single playthrough at least.
    To illustrate that, let's use Oblivion. You should only be able to join ONE guild, not all three of them. You could, of course, choose to start in a guild and then quit to join another. But seriously... I can be the best mage/thief/warrior at the same time ? Come on. Skills should be the same way. Getting for instance 10 skill levels in a magic discipline should take 10 skill levels off of your warriorish/thieving skills level cap. That'd be a fair system that would allow you to either become "DA B3ST" at one discipline, or a balanced hybrid.

  19. #19
    This is a problem I have in general with RPGs. They seem to place attention to stats and min maxing above actually roleplaying. I would like to play an RPG where playing as a farmer is just as fun as playing as a knight. Perhaps it's because of the overwhelming mechanical emphasis on combat and the simple experience system.

  20. #20
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    I'd say the solution to Oblivion's horrible imbalancing vis a vis levels AND skill gain would be to simply remove levels. Enemies start hard, and stay hard until you learn how to fight them, and you learn how to fight them by getting better at weapon/traps technique. I think Witcher and Witcher 2 were close to the ideal in that regard.

    I'd say the solution to the kleptomania you have is to stop putting a merchant right before the Big Boss, selling the Sword of Awesomeness that you can only afford if you broke literally every clay pot in the game up until then. Also, smaller inventories.

    I want more emphasis to be put on acting normally, which basically means a lot more cues from NPCs that you're being weird. Dialogue trees shouldn't be endlessly redone: The person you're talking to should get impatient if you keep repeating yourself and, for that matter, should have a reason for wanting to talk to you in the first place.
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