DevDiary 7 - Metagame: Character Systems
Ave, and welcome to our seventh DevDiary. In DevDiary 5, we gave you a glimpse into the design of our conquest and legion battle systems. We explained how this made up just a part of our metagame systems, and that we would be dealing with the rest of the meta systems at a later time. That time has come!
Today we will discuss the game systems that pertain to character progression: levelling up and spending your skill points, and finding items and equipment for your characters. These are the systems at the core of any self-respecting roleplaying game - the features that give you that sense of personal growth and ensure a steady increase of strategic and tactical complexity as you grow familiar with the game.
It all starts with good old-fashioned XP, or Experience Points. In Rome, your characters earn XP mainly for completing quests. Since you can only bring up to 6 characters on a quest including your own, we distinguish between two types of XP reward: those which everyone in your praetorian party gets regardless of whether they are around or not, and those where only those who were with you at the time gets the full amount, while those left behind get half. This creates a little bit of a difference between how much XP characters end up with based on how much you use them, while ensuring that the ones you leave behind are still mostly able to keep up.
As you gain enough XP to level up, the only character statistic that increases with every level is your Health. This makes surviving easier and gives you more room for failure. All other stat progression is purely based on your items - this is to avoid the stats increasing too much over the course of the game, so a group of level 1 characters can still be a threat to a level 20 character, as they would be in real life. The aim here is to make the combat feel grounded and deadly from beginning to end.
One other thing that improves as you level up, however, is your unarmed combat ability. Each character class has their own set of unarmed skills that they can use when they’re not wielding a weapon, and each of the companion characters has a unique unarmed skill of their own on top of this. As a character levels up, at certain thresholds they will unlock new unarmed skills and their unarmed fighting stats will improve as well. This is to ensure that unarmed combat doesn’t fall behind. If you’re wondering why you’d ever fight unarmed when you could fight with a weapon, well - sometimes circumstances might not give you a choice, but your unarmed skills can be quite useful, so leaving your 2nd weapon slot empty might not be a bad idea in some cases.
The main thing you get from levelling up is skill points. Each character gets 1 per level, and buying a skill or upgrading one you already have always costs 1 point. Every class has 3 subclasses with 8 skills each, arranged into 4 rows. To reach the bottom row, you must spend 7 skill points in that subclass. In designing these skill trees, our aim was to make the top row contain the skills that define the subclass. These skills should be useful throughout the game, and they should serve a very specific purpose in combat. The bottom row, by contrast, are the “ultimates” - the most powerful skills that you can really look forward to unlocking, which feel like a reward for specialising in that subclass.
The two middle rows are designed to synergise with tools found in the other skill sets, to make it viable to split your points between 2 or maybe even all 3 subclasses. By the time you hit the maximum character level near the end of the game, you may be able to reach the bottom row of 2 of the 3 skill sets. A highly specialised character feels quite different from a generalist, but both build strategies can be very powerful.
The final thing we should mention about skills, is that many of them can be upgraded by investing further skill points into them. Skill upgrades typically make a skill more powerful without fundamentally changing what it does, while certain passive skills allow you to modify the effects of a previously unlocked active skill. For example, the Dodge skill allows you to avoid the next attack aimed at the character - if you unlock the passive skill Slippery afterwards, this adds a probability that the Dodging status effect is not lost when it activates.
Items in Expeditions: Rome advance along two axes: tier and quality. Weapons come in 3 tiers that are simply numbered. The tier of an item accounts for the greatest power spike; when the game starts dropping a new tier of items, you will really feel yourself increase in power - at least until the enemies’ power catches up to you. In addition to this, there are 5 qualities of item: Worn, Regular, Good, Pristine, and Unique. While tier determines power, qualities increase the complexity and versatility of items by giving them more statistics and (in the case of weapons) a greater number of weapon skills. The baseline item quality is Regular, with higher qualities rolling with more affixes. Worn items are like Regular, but with lower stats.
What we’re perhaps most proud of is the way items differ from culture to culture. As Expeditions: Rome spans three separate military campaigns in different parts of Europe and North Africa, each location introduces you to a new people with a vastly different culture from what you’ve encountered before, and their equipment reflects that. Armour you take from defeated Berber warriors in Nasamones will not only look very different from Roman armour, but also offer different types of affixes to match the theme of that culture.
In addition to stats and affixes, weapons also have skills that determine how they are used in combat. Weapon skills are how you attack - as we have highlighted in previous DevDiaries, there is no “basic attack” in Expeditions: Rome, it all depends on what weapons you’ve equipped. Let’s lift the curtain slightly to give you a glimpse of what’s behind there.
Which skills a weapon rolls with are determined by two hidden stats: weapon skill amount and weapon skill rank. The former determines how many skills will be on the weapon, while the latter governs which rank of skill the weapon can have. This means that higher-tier items will drop with more interesting (and often more complex) skills and makes it so you may still be discovering new weapon skills after 40-50 hours of gameplay.
Every rank of weapon skill further has a weapon skill amount, which is used to guarantee that each weapon gets a certain amount of lower-rank weapon skills, since those are often the most straight-forward and broadly applicable skills. When a weapon is dropped as loot, it checks its tier to create the pool of skills that it is allowed to have. Tier 1 weapons can only have rank 1 weapon skills, and so on.
A final wrinkle in this system is the addition of “combo skills”, which require a certain secondary weapon to be equipped in the character’s off-hand. This can be a shield or a dagger. Combo skills can only be found on one-handed main hand weapons, namely swords and spears. Since only the heavy infantry class can wield shields and only light infantry can wield daggers in their off-hand, the matching combo skills are designed to be particularly useful to those character classes.
If you want to learn more about item progression, or about how our skill system was designed, please post your questions as comments on this post, and join us on this week’s DevStream on Wednesday September 15 at 1:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 PM GMT on the THQ Nordic Twitch Channel: http://twitch.tv/thqnordic. On this week’s stream, Senior Producer Brad Logston will host Combat Designer Hans Emil Hoppe Rauer to get really nerdy about stats and skills and all that good stuff.
Until then, Valete!