Ability and Item Design and Progression

I love reading about and writing interesting systems. I also love playing games with well-designed systems. Unfortunately, I very frequently find that the systems that I encounter don’t make sense to me as a designer and/or as a writer.

This is true both in fiction (e.g. reading LitRPGs) and in reading or playing game systems.

This isn’t to say that having strong systems is necessary for a book to be a good experience, or even for a video game to be amazing. Simple can be best in cases where the systems side isn’t the focus.

I also acknowledge that people design systems with different goals in mind, and things that don’t make sense to me may work perfectly well for other designers, players, readers, etc.

That being said, I’d like to talk about some things that I *like* seeing as a reader/player, and that I try to take into account with my own writing.

When designing the components of a system, one of the first things I like to think about is how it can be interesting for whoever is interacting with it – that is, the reader (if it’s a book) or the player (if it’s a game). I suppose I can add the audience for things like TV, movies, etc.

When I’m talking about systems components here, I’m referring to things like:

  • Spells/Skills
  • Items
  • Monsters
  • Character Classes
  • Methods of Advancement
  • Etc.

For example, let’s say I’m working on figuring out the abilities of a character that’s meant to be a physical fighter. This can be in the context of a book, a video game, or anything else.

When determining the abilities that I’m going to give to a character, I think about what the core fantasy of the character is supposed to be, and the role that they’re supposed to play in the game – both mechanically and in terms of narrative.

A “fighter” can mean a lot of different things to different people, so I’ll narrow the context a bit to a fighter in a traditional fantasy setting.

What are some things that are core function of a fighter in that context?

I’d lay out some things like:

  • General combat ability
  • Protecting other people
  • Being able to endure a lot of damage

These are some foundation points that can be broken down into sub-categories and handled in a lot of different ways, and each of my main fighter characters has different ways of handling these things.

Let’s compare some of them, for example.

Taelien:

  • Taelien is a talented swordsman, but it’s his use of metal sorcery to augment his fighting that makes him unique. By shifting the weight, composition, or dimensions of his weapon (or other metal he comes in contact with), he can make himself an unpredictable opponent.
  • His primary method of “protecting” other people is by deliberately limiting the use of his full strength to avoid killing his opponents outright and to avoid collateral damage. He also can use his metal sorcery to dull or break enemy weapons to prevent them from doing harm.
  • He has above average physical durability (largely from years of using stone and metal sorcery).

 

Velas:

  • Velas is proficient with a wide variety of weapons, but generally prefers the reach of spears. This has excellent synergy with her use of motion sorcery, which allows her to move rapidly around the battlefield.
  • This same motion sorcery makes her excellent at being able to get in the way of attacks aimed at her allies.
  • She often wears heavy armor, giving her high general physical damage resistance.

Marissa:

  • Marissa has a combination of unarmed and armed combat training, including some unusual techniques that are outside of the scope of her academy education.
  • Her Attunement increases her movement speed, allowing her to put herself in harm’s way. Her martial arts also allow her to grapple and disable opponents.
  • Her Attunement also gives her a powerful shroud, deflecting weak attacks entirely and diminishing the strength of stronger ones.

These three characters all have abilities that are completely different, but still allow them to serve the core functions of their roles. Some are better at certain elements than others; Taelien is more of a damage-dealer, Velas focused on mobility, and Marissa is better suited to defensive combat. But they all represent elements of the “fantasy” of a fighter, and they all have room to grow further, both within and outside of their specializations.

I’m mentioning this because in many games I’ve played and books I’ve read, a fighter character basically swings their sword and doesn’t do anything else. Single classed old school D&D fighters often fell into this category, for example, and characters written in that style often reflect that. This is simple for gameplay and writing, but to me, it’s far less engaging than characters who have abilities that synergize with their story role in interesting ways.

This type of thing is possible for any character type. I mentioned fighters because they tend to be the least interesting fantasy character archetypes when used in literature, at least in my experience. It’s much easier to make a wizard or cleric interesting, since they tend to have more utility (depending on the setting and systems used, of course).

When designing items, I try to think about how those items can have interesting synergy with characters.

In a game, the most entertaining items (in my experience) are the ones that change the way you play the game.

Some great examples of items that change gameplay go all the way back to Super Mario Bros.

  • The Mushroom lets you take two hits instead of one. This is something of a gameplay change, because it means you won’t die if you take a hit, but it’s not something you’re probably going to make too many decisions around – because you don’t want to get hit anyway (in most cases, barring things like exploits, glitches, etc.) This is still a pretty good item, but less interesting than the others.
  • The Star makes you temporarily invincible, and it also makes you deal damage to enemies that you run into (rather than them hurting you). This significantly changes the way you can play, and notably, it also changes your appearance and the music while it’s active. This gives using a star a frenetic style that *feels* great.
  • The Fire Flower lets you throw fireballs by pressing a button you do not ordinarily use. This was always my favorite item, because it gave me something new I could do that I couldn’t do previously. Much like the Star, it’s exciting to get one, but requiring a button press makes it even more engaging.

These types of gameplay changes can appear in modern games, but oftentimes they are (in my opinion) neglected in genres like RPGs in favor of things like raw stat increases. This is not to say that there’s no role for a sword that deals extra damage, but having some variety can make gameplay vastly more interesting.

For a good example of this, I’d recommend taking a look at the weapons in Dungreed or Dead Cells. In these games, each broad category of weapon you use plays completely differently. Using a sword feels different from using an axe or a whip or a bow, and there are whole sub-categories of each (e.g. multiple sword types) that feel distinct as well.

There are still varying quality levels of each that have different raw stats, but you might switch to a lower quality axe instead of a higher quality bow just because you prefer the playstyle – or because the axe has advantages against a specific type of opponent. That, in my opinion, is far more interesting item design than just raw stat increases.

(If you’re wondering what I’m contrasting this to, consider classic D&D weapons that are just “Longsword +1”, “Longsword +2”, “Longsword +3”, etc. Even a lot of the cooler ones, like Vorpal Swords, are more passive – they don’t change the way you play much, they just add a chance that something awesome happens when you choose the same action that you always do.

This type of thing is super common in MMORPG weapons, which often just have higher damage per second and maybe some stat increases, like +Strength and +Stamina or whatever. Sure, that 3% extra damage might make you an inch higher on the damage meters, but it doesn’t offer any meaningful or interesting gameplay change.)

In a novel, an item that opens up new options is similarly more interesting to me than something that simply gives an incremental improvement to the character’s existing capabilities. This is especially important for genres that overlap do have a lot of explicit statistics, like GameLit and LitRPG books often do.

For example, I’ve got a lot of magic swords in my books. I like magic swords.

Each of them has a very distinct function.

 

(Some minor spoilers for people who haven’t read On the Shoulders of Titans yet – you may want to skip this part or stop reading here.)

 

There are three “main” swords in On the Shoulders of Titans so far. Each of them is written to be fundamentally different in function.

  • Selys-Lyann has an ice aura, which can be used for both freezing enemies solid on contact, and for utility functions (e.g. freezing water or protecting the wielder from fire). Once Corin learns to manipulate its aura, he can also use it to attack at range.
  • Ceris absorbs magic. This can be used both defensively (e.g. to prevent an enemy from hurting you) or offensively (to store an attack within to provide extra punch).
  • Bright Reflection can reflect spells. This is, much like Ceris, both defensive and offensive in nature. It’s similar, but has the advantage of knocking the spell back instantly (rather than having to absorb it and redirect it), and the disadvantage of lower flexibility. It also presumably has other abilities; we haven’t seen all the functions yet.

In all cases, these items give the wielder new options in battle, and even options outside of combat situations. They also all have enough going on that they have a learning curve where a character can use them to some degree immediately, but they can potentially have more options if the wielder practices with them and learns to use them more effectively.

I’m not going to claim that these items are perfect (nor will I claim that my character designs for the fighters above are). But they’re examples of the general type of thing that I personally enjoy seeing as a reader.

The core philosophy here also applies to other things, like monster (and other antagonist) design. Not every monster has to have higher raw power than the last ones the heroes faced – they can simply be functionally different.

Sometimes a weaker enemy that is specialized in a way that the protagonists aren’t good at handling can be more effective than a raw powerhouse. (Surprisingly, Dragon Ball Super actually did a good job of this with the introduction of Frost, who was much weaker than the heroes but used tactics that most of them weren’t able to counter.)

Now that I’ve managed to digress into Dragon Ball, I’ll say one thing relevant to that particular series that’s related to this general discussion: character progression doesn’t have to increase every element of a character equally, or all at once.

One of the things I feel like Dragon Ball missed as an opportunity is that during the Cell Saga, they showcased a character utilizing a form that sacrificed speed for raw strength. This was quickly abandoned (and considered a useless form), with most future forms following a linear progression of being just faster, stronger, and better at virtually everything.

I think Dragon Ball would have been a much more interesting series if different characters continued to focus on developing and improving more specialized forms and techniques, rather than just getting better at everything – and the same is true for character progression in books, games, etc.

Sometimes having to choose a specialization can make a character much more interesting, especially in settings with teamwork. I’d like to see more series exploring that style in the future.

This post was just a bit more long-winded than I planned. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the post.

11 thoughts on “Ability and Item Design and Progression

  1. These are the type of blogs I like to see, they help peel away the mystery of the authors mind and can help make sense of some of their decisions in an arc better understood.

      1. Please do, you are one of my favorite authors, up there with Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfoss for world builiding. There are few authors I constantly follow and keep updated with but you are one of them

  2. I am hoping to see Marissa pick up the Restricted Attunement Abjuror, on her right fist (of course), that will allow her to break spells and banish monsters and other summoned creatures.

    I am also hoping to see Patrick get Paladin (also a Restricted Attunement).

    Plus Corin really needs the Soul Blade Attunement to be able to really use his Sword, which is probably one of the best Swords that is a Soul Blade weapon. Which will mean that he also needs Spirit and Ice to use that particular Sword. I think that we can guess that Spirit is already in that Attunement, while from the looks of Derek’s Soul Blade Mark it probably also has Transference (we see the V same shape in his Arbiter Mark). So Corin will have to get Ice another way, perhaps as a third Mana type in a higher level version of Soul Blade.

  3. I meant to comment on this earlier but I got lost.

    It seems to me that one of the most interesting things you can introduce to a system (not necessarily a story) is constraints. Like RPG weapons with elemental properties, which are sometimes better and sometimes worse than an unflavored weapon, these constraints give you targeted bonuses and force you to keep a stable of weapons (abilities, characters, etc) instead of one perfect all ’rounder.

    I think that character advancement is the same way, or should be. The typical RPG “Levels make everything better” philosophy is an unconstrained advancement, which (arguably) is uninteresting. If you were to look at, for example, the weapon system in the PS2 game Dark Cloud 2 you would find a highly constrained system where the choices you make lead you down very different paths. And while there might only be one True Path to the absolute best weapon with the absolute best stats, by the far lesser standard of finding a place where you, the player, are comfortable, there is a very wide plain that you might find yourself in, and never hit the same place twice.

    The main problem I think is a lot of games play loosely with time and canon, so investment means something very different because you can continue to invest in a weapon or character and test them against challenges with no chance of losing them forever. In books as in real life, death is (typically) final, so you have limited time and limited chances to overcome some particular obstacle.

    I like games and stories where studious, methodical, and cerebral people can succeed (which of course is why I love the Arcane Ascension books).

  4. This was really cool to read.

    I just got and started reading Sufficiently Advanced Magic this week (very first novels of yours I own!), it took me to the end of chapter 1 to identify you as someone who really understands systems and isn’t afraid to detail that out in writing. Usually I have to go to anime or light novels for this kind of thing, so I’m already really loving reading it.

    I think you’ve done a great job here of putting into words some of my own frustrations with RPGs. I want interesting decisions, if all I’m doing is the exact same actions as before then it doesn’t matter what I just unlocked or gained, it’s not interesting to me.
    I love talent trees in RPGs, but I hate it when I have to spend 5 levels on “Reduce mana cost by 1%” to get an unlock of a spell or modification to a spell that changes how I play.

    I’m definitely going to be thinking on this for how I give out rewards in D&D or write my own characters.

    Thanks for the post 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading the post and the book! I hope you enjoy the remainder of the story and my future posts.

      I’m doubly glad to hear that this might help you build better rewards for tabletops!

      Thanks again!

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