Attributes and Skills

  • kentona
  • 09/13/2007 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part II - Attributes and Skills

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story and Worldbuilding
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing

Attributes and Skills in RPGs

The easiest and most common way to represent character advancement in an RPG is to break down everything about the avatar into some form of a numerical statistic and then increment those factors upwards as the player grows stronger, smarter and more efficient at their jobs.

Statistics that reflect innate physical capabilities are frequently referred as attributes, and include such familiar stats like health, mana, strength, defense, dexterity, intelligence, agility, as well as a host of others. More often than not, health, or hit points, measures how much physical damage a character can take before dying (or fainting) and is the most critical of statistics.

Attributes can be set at the beginning of the game and remain fixed, or increment over time (most typically by leveling or distributing acquired points). Attributes are often buffed from equipment, such as your swords, armors, and laser guns.

This is all well and good, but, if a character was nothing more than just the sum of their attributes, there would be many unpleasant deaths awaiting our heroes (plus, it would be boring). Luckily, characters in RPGs can learn and adapt to various situations (such as being confronted by a menacing Slime) by acquiring and using skills. A roguelike character might be able to steal, pickpocket or pick locks. A mage might be able to turn invisible, decipher runes, or hurl massive fireballs into groups of zombies. A barbarian might be able to bash down doors, leap over chasms, or work himself up into a frenzied rage and unleash fury upon his enemies. The set of skills the player chooses to develop in each avatar becomes an integral function of who the character is and what their primary function will be within the game.

The list of skills a character has is called his skillset. This includes, but is not limited to, the innate skills a character has, skills the character has potential to learn, passive skills, temporary skills granted by equipment or some other method, and anything else the charcter can do. These skills are commonly battle related.

Some common battle skill types:

Fire magic
Ice magic
Air magic
Lightning magic
Earth magic
Water magic
Light/holy magic
dark magic
Mystic magic
Healing magic
Remedy magic
Revive magic
Instant death magic/abilities
Poison (drain HP per turn/drain HP per step)
Regen (gain HP/MP per turn/step)
Physical "magic"/martial arts (attack vs 1, attack vs group)
Stat halving spells (vs.1 and
Stat double spells (vs.1
Haste spells
Slow spells
HP/MP stealing spells/abilities
HP/MP draining spells/abilities
Restriction spells (sleep, stun, paralysis, petrify etc..)
Attack allies spells (confuse, chaos, etc..)
Attack enemies randomly spells (no control)(berserk, etc..)
Mute spells
Reflect spells
Evade all attack spells/invisibility
Blindness spells (lower hit %)
Enable combo (x2/x3/x4/x5 attacks per round or spells or other battle commands)
Tools (FFVI style - 0 MP cost, but need to have tool in inventory)
Throwing items (ninja stars, caltrops, etc...)
Traps (0 MP cost, certain % of success)
Steal gold
Mug (attack and steal attempt)
Gold Toss
Chance (random effect)
Geomancy (random spell based on map location)
Dance (random effect based on previously visited locations)
Magic weapons spells (equip special weapon temporarily in battle - fire swords, poison daggers, etc...)
Party member switching spells (summoning - remove char, add dragon to party, shapeshifting)
Hide (remove from party temporarily)
Flee from battle
Dual Wield weapons
Mighty Guard
Resistances (to magic/effects)
Blue magic (learn enemy spells)
Song magics
Weapon-specific abilities
Math/calculator magic (Level 5 Doom, Level ? Pearl)
Mimic (copy last spell/attack cast)
Rage/Learn (Gau from FFVI)
Ignore defense spells/abilites
Stat draining abilities (lowers ATK, DEF, MIND, AGL)
Alchemy (mixing items together to make new stuff)
Alchemy (creating a potion from a known recipe, random number of potions made (Hero's Realm style))
2-handed wielding
Cover (protecting low HP characters)
Transforming/Shapeshifting abilities
Auto-abilities (counterattacks, etc...)
Barrier magic (grants immunities)
Illusion magic
Enemy proficiency attacks (2x damage versus Dragons, Zombies, ect...)
Stat bonuses

Some common outside-of-battle skills

Conditioning (mobility/endurance)
Pickpocketing (stealing, while hidden)
Bashing (doors, chests, locks)
Disarming Traps
Awareness/Detecting traps, stealth units, secret areas, conversation elements
Persuasion (influencing conversations, charisma)
Deciphering (runes, books)
Computer hacking
Demolitions (laying and disarming mines)
Repairing (repairing droids, consoles)

Percentile vs. Threshold skill systems

In a percentile system, an avatar's skill level might be represented as a number between 0 and 100, reflecting their chance to succeed at a given task (whether it be blocking an attack, or picking a lock, or learning a spell). For example, if Karl the Brave has an Arrow Snatching skill level of 20, he effectively has a 20% chance of snatching that flaming arrow streaking towards his heart. If the computer randomly rolls a 13, Karl the Brave will snatch the arrow out of the air. If the computer rolls at 34, Karl the Brave will fail to snatch the arrow (and become Karl the Dead). The percentile system depends heavily on an element of randomness.

In a threshold system, an avatar is assigned a basic skill level that is then pitted against a difficulty rating for a given task. If the difficulty threshold is higher than the avatar's level, the attempt simply fails.

Both have their drawbacks. In a computer gaming environment, percentile systems (and other variations of chance systems) can be rendered moot by saving. If a player approaches a task that requires him to pit his skill level against a task, he saves the game. If the attempt fails, he reloads and tries again. Even if he has only 1% chance to succeed, he will, given enough time and patience.

The threshold system successfully eliminates the Save & Reload cycle, but it introduces an unrealistic rigidity to the game universe. The incompetent thief will never accidentally stumble upon the correct combination for the lock he was picking, the unskilled ranger will never get off a lucky shot that pierces the dragon's eye, killing it instantly. It makes the game less friendly to players you are a hair underprepared for a certain task.

To workaround the Save & Reload cycle, you can restrict the save points in RPGs to certain areas or timeframes (which is common - you often cannot save a game in the middle of a battle, for instance) or you can continuously save the game state (which is what Diablo II does, for example. The game is constantly saving your character's progress, so if you set off a trapped chest, you cannot reload to an earlier point, because that earlier point has already been overwritten by the latest game state).

Character Differentiation

One problem that can crop up without proper design of skill systems is the tendency for all the avatar's in a player's party to develop an overly homogeneous set of skills. If all the character's in a game are unrestricted in the number of skills they can learn and are equally capable of learning all skills, the tendency on the player's part is to act like a concerned parent. They want to see their alter egos optimally prepared for all possible scenarios and as a result try to max out all possible skills. In the gaming world, this results in an environment full of generic characters who skillwise have nothing to distinguish themselves from any other characters. This problem is known as the character differentiation dilemma.

The following is a short list outlining some tried and true solutions to this dilemma:

1. Class system
Avatars are given a class, or the player chooses the class for an avatar. This class has access to a certain library of skills and abilities while restricting access to others. Upon leveling up (or achieving some other milestone), attributes are improved and new skills are leaned according to what class is selected. The skills may be awarded on a set path based on leveling up, or based on distributing points on a skilltree.

Most games opt for this style of character differentiation, including many Dragon Quest and earlier Final Fantasy games, as well as the Diablo series.

2. Skills Limiting System

Avatars are given a limited number of skill slots that can be filled with any collection of skills the player so chooses. The availibility of skills are acquired through various means, but generally, all skills are potentially available to all avatars.

Games like Guild Wars and Final Fantasy V and VII follow this path. By one means or another, the skills a certain avatar has is limited by what they have equipped or selected, but the system remains flexible enough to swap out certain skills for other reserve skills. In FFV each avatar could select a single job, while FFVII uses materia to hold skills.

3. Skills Capping System

In a skills capping methodology, the more skills the avatar possesses, the maximum compentency that an avatar can achieve in any one of the them is limited. Capping is often achieved by either placing a fixed cap on the maximum level that an avatar can achieve in a skill, or by limiting the total number of skill points to distribute.

A prime example of this system can be found in Ultima Online. In UO, if a player doesn't use certain skills for a while, their level of compentency degrades, forcing the player to make a decision about what skills they wish to keep and what skills they wish they'll let lapse into obscurity.

In Diablo II, even though it uses a Class system, the way skill points are distributed is reminiscent of a skills capping system. Due to the limited number of skill points that can be acquired in the game, a player must make a decision to either distribute his points among all his available skills, or focus on a select few skills and max them out.

Conclusion of Part II

When it comes to gameplay, avatars are nothing more than a collection of attributes and skills. In order to achieve an engaging and challenging experience, special care must be taken when designing skillsets and skill acquisition systems.

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing


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That's a very large list of skills. Where'd you find it?
I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.
I compiled it myself with the help of the community when we were brainstorming for the community game Project Generica way back when.
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