Character progression in games I

Riding a Dragon is cool?!?

Sometimes character progression sucks in games and sometimes it’s my jam. I enjoy both The Witcher 3 and Shadow of War but I like SoW’s progression way more. They make for a decent case study as the core gameplay is pretty combat focused, it’s third person and they’re AAA fantasy games. All of this is related to tabletop roleplaying I swear.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

In TW3 as you advance through the game you get skills points which can be spent in 4 different trees. For the most part, spending these points gets you statistical improvements.

  • Fast attack damage increased by 5%
  • Increases crossbow critical hit chance by 5%
  • Time is slowed a further 15% while aiming bombs

This facilitates ‘builds’ and specializing in certain areas of the game’s combat system, especially earlier in the game where skill points are limited. It can be quite fun to find combos that work well, especially in the alchemy tree which intersects with the potion gameplay.

But moment-to-moment it’s boring. I fight much the same as I would have before spending my skill points, except I am now aware that my fast attacks do more damage. I don’t really see that damage though. A marginal increase in the rate at which the enemy’s health bar decreases is all and its not really noticeable.

Intellectually, I know that my skill points are having an effect, but that effect is never obvious and material to me in the moment. Sometimes I want to play spreadsheet simulator, I like Paradox Interactive titles as much as the next nerd, but not when I’m meant to be Geralt of Rivia.

Individual statistical improvements which are not appreciable in the moment are boring

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

In SoW as you advance through the game you (again) get skill points which can be spent in 6 different trees. Or maybe one tree with 6 parts. For the most part, spending these points gets you tangible, concrete improvements.

  • When you shoot a bonfire, spiders erupt from it
  • When you shoot an enemy with an arrow from stealth, you can teleport them to your location
  • You can ride a dragon if it is low on health

When I look at these skills in the skill tree, I want to unlock them. And I want to use them.

When I use these skills I feel cool. I like remembering I have just the right ability to deal with the current situation. And there is all the intellectual stuff going on too as you can change your current skill build to counter a particular orcs weaknesses or strengths.

Individual concrete improvements which are appreciable in the moment are great

In fact, all the worst bits of that game are when you can’t use your cool abilities because you have to fight a ringwraith who nothing works against.1

Total War Warhammer II

So this is a fantasy tactics/strategy game (with more of a focus on tactics) where you can get heroes and generals for your army who have, yeppers, you guessed it, skill trees.

It has one foot in the Witcher’s paddling pool and another foot in the SoW paddling pool. I’m not sure that analogy makes sense but I think you get me. Henri Le Massif, who is essentially a french knight trotting around the warhammer fantasy universe has such upgrades as:

  • Melee Attack +5 (for context it starts at 83)
  • Mount: Hippogriff
  • Hit Points +3%

One of these is not like the others. The Hippogriff is cool. It does have a concrete impact, moment-to-moment, because Henri can fly over enemies. It also has statistical effects that you might notice over a duration.

That time my Paladin had a keen blade

Once upon a time I had a Paladin in a D&D game who got hold of a keen weapon which increased his crit range to 19-20. This was a game where crits doubled the amount of damage dice you rolled. He also was an Oath of Vengeance subclass with Vow of Enmity, which gives you advantage against a single target. So I was throwing out 4 attack rolls a round (with my extra attack features) and if one of those 4 rolls was a 19 or 20 (which it was every 2 or 3 rounds) I would burst my highest level spell on a smite, with the smite damage dice doubled.

It was a nice build, particularly against a single powerful enemy. Intellectually, it was appealing. It also didn’t feel too game-breaking since the keen blade had cost about 20,000gold. And it was nice to be the person who looked for the toughest enemy in a fight and charged headlong at them.

But it felt great moment-to-moment. It felt great when I got a hit due to my advantage. It felt great when I got a crit from a role of 19.

And it felt amazing when I scooped up 8d8 and 4d6 and cast them across the table for my damage, hit for 50 or so damage and flexed ‘and now I’ll roll for my second attack’.

5% increased crit chance is boring. But critting on a 19-20 is exciting even though they are statistically the same.

So when designing games I should remember to make the character options interesting in a concrete way that is fun for the players at the table. Bonus points if its fun when they’re overanalyzing the probabilities too.

Joesky Tax

Hippogriff generator: Front part bird, back part ungulate (hoofed mammal). Roll 1d10 for each

1d10 roll

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10

Ungulate

Horse
Camel
Hippopotamus
Zebra
Moose
Mouse Deer
Wild Boar
Sheep
Giraffe
Dolphin2

Bird

Eagle
Seagull
Ostrich
Flamingo
Vulture
Hummingbird
Shoebill
Peacock
Owl
Penguin

  1. Also the ringwraith is Helm Hammerhand and don’t get me started on how immersion breaking it is to have timetravelling ringwraiths and then start doubting your knowledge of tolkein’s continuity and to hop on the wikis only to find out that yes, Helm Hammerhand was born thousands of years after the defeat of Sauron so how can be a ringwraith and this fight is monotonous and boring but its a story fight so I have to do it even though its literally the worst part of the game aside from that stupid balrog fight and all the other ringwraith fights I mean you design an entire game about three things: parkour; the nemesis system; batman arkham style gameplay; and emergent narratives, only to neuter all three of those for many of your set-piece story fights?
  2. Apparently dolphins are ungulates, who knew?

2 thoughts on “Character progression in games I

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