Supposing we want an experience system, must we follow the patterns that have been used for the last thirty years? Or are their different ways we might construct an experience system which might lead to a different kind of game?
Reluctant Hero is the working title for the new cRPG we are working on with our Slovakian friends 3D People. They're small, but have been a joy to work with - a real indie company on the fringes of the industry, eking out a living on small titles and always hoping for the big score. We first worked with them on Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition (a.k.a. Kult: Heretic Kingdoms) - they called us in for some help on the design and story, and we redesigned and rescripted the entire game in a month - probably the fastest cRPG design in the history of commercial games! But obviously there were many things we couldn't do in such a short period of time, including play with the game structure.
Here is the concept for Reluctant Hero:
Your father was one of the great heroes of the Heretic Kingdoms, his name known across the land. On his death bed, he calls you and your sister to his side... he says that he regrets having wasted his life in battle and adventure, and wishes he had spent more time at home with his wife and his children. He begs you not to make the same mistake as him, asks you to get married and raise a family and not to pursue the quest that haunted him in his later years.
Will you heed your father's wishes, settle down and raise a family, work a job, become a pillar of the community? Or will you take up your father's sword and try to complete the quest he could never complete, earning your own place in legend?
You have one life to life - how will you choose to live it?
The game will be built from a number of different systems, including a variety of non-combative career paths, such as Merchant, Seer and Alchemist, and will include the capacity to play the game without fighting, if you wish. For instance, you can bribe brigands to leave you alone, or use magic to protect you when you journey from town to town, whilst learning languages and cultural practices will allow you to turn many potential foes into possible allies.
There will only be one major quest: the one that your father was unable to complete (minor quest-type activities will be generated automatically by the game systems). This uberquest will be made very difficult to complete by means of puzzles and conundrums. The player who decides to walk this path will not find it easy - but then again, that's the challenge of trying to excel one of the greatest heroes of the Heretic Kingdoms, your own father.
You may pursue the grand quest, or develop businesses of various kinds (including thievery and courtesanry), or walk a path somewhere between the two extremes.
But at the core of the game is a slightly different kind of experience system.
The player has only one life to live - the game will start with their character at age 18, and end with their death. If they wish, they can undertake a pilgrimage to the Oracle to find out how long they will live, or they can just take life as it comes to them. There is also the possibility that the player can find a way to extend their life, but in fighting death there can be no happy ending...
There will be no experience points in the game - instead, experience is measured in time.
For instance, a player's Merchant skill path might have 3 months experience at the start of the game, and after playing the game for some time, it might have 10 years of experience. Special abilities will be generated by each skill path as the player progresses along it.
In the combat paths, the player will earn experience for each attack they render in combat e.g. 1 minute of experience per attack. There may not be a reward for killing foes, but there will be a bonus for defeating them (for instance, a foe can be driven to flee or surrender instead of killing them; any of these outcomes might earn between a day and a year of experience). Experience will be affected by relative level, so one can earn more experience by fighting harder opponents.
Because I do not wish to lose the central advantages of a level system (especially in making game balancing monumentally easier - abandon this benefit at your peril!), the player will have a level determined by the sum of all their experience in each skill path - that is, their total experience (e.g. a 30 year old character might have, say, 45 years of experience by totalling their skill paths) will be converted to a level. I have a Fibonacci sequence already drafted that I will probably use as the gearing for this mechanic.
I'm planning to use the nearly ubiquitous 60:1 time ratio, i.e. 1 second of real time = 1 minute of game time (i.e. 24 minutes to a day). The more astute readers will note that at this time scale there's no chance of playing out the player character's life in real time.
Instead, a key element of the game is how the player chooses to invest their time.
For characters pursuing a life of battle and adventure, a lot of time will be acquired in healing. In the field, the player will be able to avoid damage by virtue of their skills (more on this system in the future), and will be largely unable to heal their wounds. To heal, they must find a safe place and allow sufficient time to heal. For instance, if you are beaten to within an inch of your life, expect several months of healing to accrue before you can get back to the field.
For other characters, time advances occur with the various businesses in the game, and with the player's family. For instance, a merchant character may go to their warehouse in the city and opt to manage the business. This scores a time advance of, say, 3 months - which is credited to their Merchant skill (thus earning new abilities!) Similarly, they might choose to spend 6 months with their husband or wife, which will generate a different benefit.
These time advances get longer as the player advances along a particular path. For instance, when one starts being a Hunter, time advances might be in weeks or months. Near the end of the game, time advances might be in years for this same path.
To prevent the player from performing back to back time advances, a task must be completed before another time advance is allowed, but this can be as simple as visiting their sister in the city, or visiting their spouse if they are away from home.
In this way, the game attempts to avoid the traditional grind structure - because it is not about how the player accumulates XP through repetitive activities, but rather about how the player invests their lifetime. You only have, say, sixty years to "spend", so it the game is very much about how you choose to spend this time.
The game ends when the player runs out of time and dies. They will get an ending depending upon how they have lived their life.
Or alternatively, the player may attempt to fight against death, seeking magical powers to extend their life, or following the dark paths of necromancy. But how important is extending one's life? Is it worth throwing away everything of value just to live a little longer? This is the sort of question I hope to imbed into the gameplay.
The result, if all goes well, should be a cRPG with a very different feel, not at all like the classic quest-based linear game, and significantly distinct from the free roaming open structure too. We're going to be on a very modest budget, so we're hoping to court a niche market of players with the desire for something new. Let's hope some cRPG players really are looking for original ideas!
I welcome your viewpoint on this broad concept statement. Does this sound like a fun game to you? Let me know in the comments!