Level-less Gameplay and Player Stats

In thinking about translating the creatures and heroes of the Legend of Drizzt series into a roguelike, the thought comes to mind that it won’t easily translate into a typical level based system of character progression.  Characters’ physical abilities are primarily determined by their race and age, while various skills may be honed to give the different characters and creatures an edge over others.  While there is variation among the races (Belwar seems to be a particularly sturdy svirfneblin, and Drizzt is more agile and aware than his fellow drow), you don’t see any particular creature or character standing out in strength too much above his or her peers.

Thus if I were to make a game based on this underworld, I think I would pursue a system of relative stats instead of absolute stats.  A player would have stats relative to members of their own race, and each race would have stats relative to other races.  When you’re a drow facing a hook horror, it’s really academic to wonder how many points of strength greater the creature is than the player… any single blow could crush your bone and send body parts flying.  You just need to be faster and have knowledge of the creature’s weaknesses.  When facing an illithid, one of the dreaded mind flayers at the top of the Underdark food chain, strength will avail you little while an element of surprise and a strong will are really what you need to survive a mental attack.

I think that players should still be able to boost their stats through use and perhaps lose others through disuse, but I don’t really see many players transcending their racial norms to be able to trade blow for blow with a basilisk, for example.  Statistics that seem to matter in the books are strength (how hard you can hit), agility (how fast you can move), constitution (how long you can run / fight), spirit (your devotion to principles and endurance in spite of opposition), intelligence (your aptitude to learn and grow in your skills), and charisma (your ability to lead others).  I’m sure I’m missing some that are present in the stories…

What really differentiates characters are their specialties, not necessarily their stats.  Drizzt was by all means a very intelligent drow and was destined to become a wizard of the Academy before Zaknafein intervened to make him a weapon master.  His intelligence honed his combat ability, putting his agility to better use and allowing him to gauge his constitution in the midst of a battle.  I’d like to see a game where you don’t necessarily reroll statistics to suit a particular character but where every statistic is meaningful in some way to every type of character.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I still would like players to specialize in a class, but I think your statistics should affect how well you play that class not which class you choose to play.

I think, too, that there should be a set of character traits that transcend specialties, statistics, and skills.  These are things that give different types of characters and creatures an edge in different situations.  The illithid are very communal and thus have an edge in open warfare (aside from the fact that they can incapacitate almost anyone from long range and then suck out their brains).  Drizzt has this hunter aspect that pops up to heighten his awareness and increase his ferocity and agility in combat.  Belwar is incredibly tough and can enchant his weapon-hands in combat.  Clacker’s rage makes him impervious to almost any pain.  Matron Malice is obviously guided by her ambition, allowing her to make great (if not foolhardy) sacrifices in pursuit of her goals.  Perhaps characters have to choose some particular trait that shapes their growth and goals.

I’ll have to think about this more… It’s all about providing a different game experience that remains true to the spirit of the books and doesn’t require mere leveling to be powerful.  To that end, I’d also like to see characters being blessed with some item, artifact, or piece of knowledge at the start of a game – Drizzt has his scimitars, Belwar his weapon-hands, Masoj his astral figurine, Matrons their deadly whips, and so on.

~ by roguewombat on November 16, 2010.

8 Responses to “Level-less Gameplay and Player Stats”

  1. Having stats that affect your character differently depending on their score, and not necessarily always positively when high and negatively when low, is something I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while.

    There are pros and cons to everything, as they say, so I have been kicking around the idea of having low stat values come in useful sometimes, and high stat values sometimes causing a hindrance. For example, a low intelligence might give you high resistance to certain mind control spells; D&D 2e did something like this with not being able to charm creatures with Intelligence less than 2, if I recall correctly. On the other hand, a high score in Strength might mean speed penalties in certain scenarios, when your bulk prevents you from being as flexible or speedy.

    I have a rework of the skill system for Dance of Death planned for the next release; I might experiment with this idea.


    Ebyan “Nolithius” Alvarez-Buylla

    • Ahh, hadn’t thought about the usefulness of lower stats, but that makes sense even in the stories of the Legend of Drizzt. One of his companions for a while is a pech polymorphed into a hook horror whose mind is torn between his two identities. This confusion makes him very resistant to the mental blasts of the illithids that enslave them for a while, even more so when he gives into the primal instincts and rage of the hook horror. In that sense, a decreased intelligence and lack of self-control turned to his benefit.

      I’m sure there are other good use cases for the idea. I’ll keep an eye on the skill / stat development in your next release. 🙂

  2. Personally I never really got the point of levels. Quite a few roguelikes and other RPGs nowadays usually have primarily skill-based systems, and many roguelikes have you exercise stats directly, so what is the point of having character levels? Elona for example (I haven’t tried ADOM, but I expect it’s similar gameplay-wise given how many references and ideas Elona uses fro it) levels seem to do nothing at all.

    It has been my opinion for a long time that experience levels are an outdated and idiotic growth system that only continues to be used because of tradition. I would love to see a roguelike that totally gets rid of it and let’s characters grow using only exercising stats and practicing skills.

  3. That all just comes down to a matter of character-creation preference; whether you want to be given a role to play to your best ability, versus how much you want to decide what role to play.

    Personally, I think a skills tree that gives each “character” a unique head start is a good foundation for this kind of thing; along with a character generator that builds 2-4 of these characters and then allows you to select your choice between them.

    • Hmm, yeah, I like the idea of a choice of characters. You’d essentially end up with a randomized set of classes each time the game started, and it would be fun to tailor different parts of the gameplay to each of the classes. Of course, that might be a game tactics design mistake, as often you want to know more about the scenario you’re in before committing to a particular type of gameplay.

      I like this a lot about Brogue… because “class” is really just determined by which pieces of equipment you choose to enchant, your available gameplay styles will be limited by the equipment you actually find on the first 5 or so dungeon levels. Eventually you have to commit to a gameplay style based on the hand you’re dealt, but there’s a time where you get to wait and see how things will unfold.

      • Personally I think choosing class based primarily on quests done or NPCs known works better, or a system of “guilds” that allow you to obtain skill sets if you join them, but forbids you form joining other ones.

        If you think about it, “class” is not so much a intrinsic character trait as it is a role in society, or a job. Classes learn different skills because they have different training in various fields, so it makes more sense that what you do socially determines your class.

        How well that fits here though, I don’t know.

  4. There are some roguelikes without character levels, for example Cataclysm DDA.

    I must admit I can see the appeal of relative stats, but that’d be a b*tch to code.

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