Designing a Better RPG – Death & Aging

(today’s post: 643 words)

(I honestly am not planning to jump into independent role-playing game development, as I admitted yesterday in my post on Passage, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think about what I would do if I were making a game. I think it’s obvious that this series is a fun hobby for me in its own right.)

One of the things that playing Passage made me realize is that if I were going to make an RPG I’d have to incorporate some type of time limit/aging process.

There are a lot of so-called “hardcore rules” that some RPGs use – such as sleeping or eating requirements. And, most of the time, those rules add little to the game. At best, they’re there as a lazy “drain” – that is, instead of balancing the economy just force the player to constantly buy food and housing. At worst, there is no thought at all given to their implementation. They are there, perhaps, only because the designer think he’s making a more immersive or challenging game – or maybe because the designer played a game where it worked well, but hasn’t given thought as to why it worked.

I think aging not only works in the vision of the RPG I have in my head, but I’ve come to realize it’s likely necessary.

  • For one, my sandbox-style RPG is based upon the idea of time lines. The world itself progresses. Small groups of monsters band together to form large clans – which destroy similarly-burgeoning cities. It only makes sense that time applies across all ements – the character, too.
  • For another, there is the idea of replayability. Consider the amount of potential discovery there is in a world where you can only see so much of it on any given playthrough. If you can see it all on the first go-around, why play again?
  • For a third, I think time limits, as suggested in Passage, come with all sorts of inherent motivations. In any given RPG, I’m trying to resolve every plot. Faced with a time limit, I’m going to focus on what I consider important to my character. That could mean a lot of different things, but it certainly impacts my choices.
  • I like the idea of assigning a random starting age to your character. At 15, he has a head start on disrupting (or taking over) that band of ogres that may eventually destroy our city. Maybe a more wise, well-rounded hero doesn’t leave the nest until he’s in his 20s – well after the wheels of motion are moving to destroy the town. Characters can become legendary for one significant accomplishment or a long life filled with them.

Of course, these lead to the natural question of “how much time is enough?” If the game ends just as you’re getting lost in enjoying the world, you’re angry. If your character dies of old age before you can rescue the one princess you set out to save and marry, you never play the game again. But equate a life span to a play session, and it feels natural. Sit down for an afternoon, create a character, play it through, and try again tomorrow.

Getting killed by trolls doesn’t sting as badly if that death only represents a small investment of time.

Additionally, setting time limits actually helps me-the-designer acknowledge scope.

If I were making this game on my own or with a small pool of volunteers, I have to make a smaller game. I’d also have to worry about game size if I wanted people to play it more than once (most people aren’t going to play a 45-hour game more than once; most people won’t even finish a game longer than that). And if I’m implementing crazy-complex-scripted-but-alterable time lines, I’m going to have to minimize world size.

When you’re looking at something from this high up, you shouldn’t micromanage the little details. But for a point of reference, not knowing even the basics of this “game”, I think I like the idea of starting with a life span of 4-5 hours (with a potential range of 2-12 hours). You could play it all in one shot or quit and resume that game later (no save & reload, though!).


12 thoughts on “Designing a Better RPG – Death & Aging

  1. If you know me then you know exactly what I think of time limits in any game. They are a cheap out that forces urgency on the player without any real benefit. I’d rather have the plot and events in the world drive me forward. Besides, a game that spans 50 or more years? I love most of your ideas but this is one I’ll never agree on because I can’t see it being implemented in a viable way.

    I could babble on about this for a while but why be redundant.

  2. I’m not “sold” on the idea but I see more positives than negatives. Like you said, a lot of times these “hardcore rules” *are* cheap outs with no benefit.

    But my write-up, I believe, shows that this hardcore rule is more seamlessly integrated into the whole and would provide a few benefits.

    It’d come down to play-testing, sure, but the goal is to make a time limit that prods you along without stressing you out, to allow you to have a meaningful play session and then start a new game from a new area and a new starting time (from a small range).

    If it can’t be done, then it can’t be done. I’m not going to force it. And, like you said, I don’t want a cheap out. It has to work and feel meaningful. But at this point, *without having a game* to apply these rules to, I like it. You’d at least try it, wouldn’t you? 🙁 Hahaha.

  3. A time limit that wasn’t based on your character aging and eventually eating earth would work for me. As we talked about before, something more along the lines of events that occur regardless of what you, the player, are doing. Whether you interact with them or not decides the storyline. It would be a lot of variables to take into account, of course.

    I just get hung up on the aging idea. Fable made a weak attempt at it. My guy was 72 or some high number like that but no one else in the world (including my sister?) were any older. Even in something like The Guild where the idea is to continue living your life through your children until you eventually succeed left a sour taste. After you spent so much time building up a character you’re fond of they get old and die. It’s almost like wiping out a save game and using one from someone else. 🙂

    “the goal is to make a time limit that prods you along without stressing you out,”

    That’s the key right there. I just got hung up on the aging thought. 😉

    And yeah, I would try it. Mainly because it sounds like the old idea.

  4. I didn’t actually read your post. Sorry, but I am a bit of an ass.

    Anyway, I hope that this all-too-brief message meets a hale and healthy Bob, regardless of your UT affiliation.

    Bad cess to the Vols. Viva La Notre Dame!


  5. Woo hoo! Nice to see ya, Gromnir. You’re always welcome around these parts, even if you don’t “RTFA”. 🙂

    Life has been treating me pretty well – as well as it’s treating anyone in these dark economic times. Hopefully you’re doing well and still gaming/badgering developers, too.

    Were you always a Notre Dame fan? Or did you just get into them when Weiss turned them into losers? 😉 I could have sworn (if I was going to trust my memory) that you were into UCLA or somewhere California-like…

  6. What if…

    What if the game lasted 20 [units of time – hours, months, decades, whatever]? And a character could expect to live for 3-5 units of time if he wasn’t killed by beasties earlier along the way? And what if the game started anywhere from unit 1 to unit 15? Maybe at random. Maybe you pick. Or maybe even, to borrow an idea from Julian (even if he borrowed it from games like Phantasy Star), you play it as successive generations.

    I really like the idea of exploring the world from different angles at different times to greatly increase unique experiences. Ya know? I jump into the game on the east coast in time unit 3 while my friend starts on the west coast at time unit 14. Then we compare notes and can’t mesh up our recollections because, while there are similarities, there are so many differences.

    Player One: “I loved coming across the ruins of the elven fortress! All the lore about the days leading to the collapse was so interesting!”
    Player Two: “What?! I built that fort! I put so much effort into building it to last!”
    Player Three: “Well, my character died in the great dwarven invasion of that fort, so blame me. But I’m going to start a new game a few years earlier. I bet if I go straight for the neighboring dwarven city, I can talk them into a peace with the elves.”

  7. I actually played at Cal, but I have always been a ND fan. Heck, I was a ND fan even before Fullmer became such a ridiculous doorstop of a coach that the lowly Tyronne Willingham was able to occasionally embarrass the Vols.

    Too harsh?

    I promise to read the article later… honest.

    And yeah, I am still tormenting developers, though Priestly did boot me from bioware about 2 years ago. I had the temerity to suggest that the Mass Effect dialogue wheel was about as innovative as New Coke, and that the genuine innovation was how Bioware successfully had pulled a Dr. Mesmer on the more gullible elements of the gaming community to convince them that the dialogue wheel was little more than a developer device for saving/multiplying vo resources . For some odd reason Priestly was O-Fended.

    Go figure.

    I will email you later.

    ps Please go get a pizza from edwardos or giordanos so that I might enjoy it vicariously. It has been too long since I partook of such elegant fare.

  8. My girlfriend and I went to Edwardo’s with a couple BioWarians friends. Wait, what did you call them? BioWeenies? Ha! Good fun. 😉

    Shame Chris perma-banned you for something like that. To be honest, it’s a pretty fair statement. How is Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel different from, say, Baldur’s Gate 1? Instead of a bulleted list we have a circle? Instead of a random series of statements attempting to convey potential responses, we have a series of archetypes focused on the same goal? Call the Mass Effect dialogue wheel polished, but innovative?

    Ah! I knew you had a connection to Cal! The ol’ memory ain’t as bad as what some might say. 😉 As for Fulmer, not harsh enough. He reminds me of Norv Turner in the NFL. When he’s the coach, your team is always an excuse or two away from winning it all. “Well, gang. We went 9-7 but if we hadn’t gone 2-6 in the first 8 games, we’ be in the play-offs right now!” At first you think “Hey, he’s got a point!” but 5, 10, 15 years into his career you know it’s just a pattern. Still, Fulmer could have padded the ol’ resume if he had ever figured out how to beat Florida.

    So which forums do you haunt these days? Still tusselin’ with Bishop Sawyer? I don’t really frequent any forums, but I do lurk on the BioWare off-topic and RPG Codex forums.

  9. Man, good article.

    And the idea I stole was from Sorcerian. Apparently, you couldn’t expect to beat the game with just one generation of characters. I guess you’d pass super charged items down to successive generations? (one game mechanic was that to enchant a weapon, it took a number of years)

    I like your idea of game play.

  10. You like my idea of game play the same way I like yours. And Greebs. That’s why an RPG made by us would have been awesome. 🙂 Who knows, maybe I’ll get that teaching gig in Chi-town and will be able to put the kiddies to work making our game. 😀

    Sorcerian… I remember you talking about that one but I never did play it. I’m-a have to look it up.

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