For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on the design of the character progression system. Now, it’s finally at a place where I can talk about it – meaning, I’ve gotten pretty far along in prototyping/implementing it, and feel reasonably confident the major points will not change… much. Probably. Unless they do. No design survives contact with implementation, and all that.
A player character has skills and aptitudes.
Aptitudes are the character’s core stats, but instead reflecting physical aspects (that aren’t much use in space), these reflect the character’s proficiency in different areas of expertise. The four aptitudes are “Combat”, “Leadership”, “Technology”, and “Industry”. The aptitude level acts as a cap for the level of every skill that the aptitude governs. As they level up, the player can spend aptitude points to increase these.
Skills have a direct impact on how the character performs – a skill may provide a damage bonus to weapons, extra ordnance points to use in equipping their ships, or extra fleet points so they can command a bigger fleet. Skills also unlock hull modifications, with higher skill levels unlocking more important modifications. The effect of a skill is based on its level, and the player can spend skill points to increase the level up to the level of the governing aptitude.
Each skill also has a synergy with up to two other skills. For example, “Ordnance Expert” normally increases the damage dealt by all of the ship’s weapons. But, if the character has points in “Mechanical Engineering”, “Ordnance Expert” will also decrease the ordnance point cost of mounting weapons.
Synergies go in both directions, though that’s not a requirement. It does, however, make for an interesting skill synergy structure – you have loops of skills that depend on each other, and if you’ve picked every skill in a loop, then they will all be fully synergized. For example, here’s what the loop involving most of the combat skills looks like (neighboring skills synergize each other):
Ordnance Expert – Gunnery Implants – Computer Systems – Target Analysis – Evasive Action – Damage Control – Mechanical Engineering – (back to Ordnance Expert)
That’s 6 skills, though – while the player could get all of them, it’d be a heavy investment, and one likely to hit diminishing returns. Getting that extra bit more effective in combat may not be worth nearly as much as forgoing some combat synergies and increasing the fleet size instead. A smaller loop of skills will be easier to get, and I expect that fitting these synergy loops and portions of loops together into a cohesive build is going to be a core part of building an effective character.
As the player’s character advances in level, the player makes choices about what aptitudes and skills to increase. In order for those choices to have meaning in the long run, it should not be possible to max out everything. This brings up a lot of questions. How many skills and aptitudes can be maxed out? Does that mean that there’s a level cap? What should the leveling curve look like?
Assuming half the aptitudes can be maxed out is a good starting point – it allows for the most permutations of aptitude choices. There are 6 pairs of aptitudes that can be picked (not counting character builds that spread the points out in a different way – for example, getting 10 (that’s the maximum) points in one aptitude and 5 each in two other ones).
Around 10 skills per aptitude seems like a reasonable number to aim for. Combat gameplay is mostly finished, and there are ~7-8 skills planned that deal with directly enhancing ship combat performance. It’s more important that skills don’t feel watered down, though – there’s no reason to try to hit a specific number, it’s just useful to consider what that number is likely to be.
So, what does having 10 skills per aptitude mean? Same as with picking aptitudes, once the player decides to max out an aptitude, they now get to pick the skills within it. Being able to max out all the skills would be bad, for the same reasons as before – so, again, let’s say the player can pick about half the skills in a given aptitude. For 2 maxed-out aptitudes, this means 10 maxed out skills.
With the above, we can figure out roughly how many skill and aptitude points the player should get every level – we’re looking at about a 1 to 5 or 1 to 4 ratio of aptitude to skill points gained. Something like 1 aptitude point every other level, and 2 skill points every level might work. Exactly what it ends up being depends on the pacing of the levels themselves and the final skill counts – but now we’ve laid the groundwork to make this an informed decision.
Should there be a level cap? The obvious answer is “yes” – if there isn’t one , then the player could max out everything. However, you could go different ways with it – a hard cap, where level X is the highest the player can get, and that’s that. An alternate way to do it is a soft cap – past a certain point, the experience gains required to advance become progressively more prohibitive. So those extra levels aren’t something you can plan a build around, but rather a small reward for sticking with a character for a long time.
What about the actual level curve? I think it’s good idea for the first several levels to be easy to gain – that way, an experienced player can map out their skill allocations to have a strong early-game build, and be assured of reaching them quickly. From that point to the soft cap, it should slow down – but just how much real-life time is required per level is something that we’ll have to work out when the campaign is finalized.
The goal of this system is to provide the player with interesting choices in building their character. That doesn’t mean the highest possible number of choices – several features of the design actually work to reduce the explosion of choices, or at least guide them into more understandable patterns. Consider that if the player was simply to pick any 10 skills out of 40, we’d be talking about a billion possible combinations.
The key choice the player makes relatively early – which aptitudes they’ll increase – serves to cut down on the possible choices and make them more digestible. If you’ve only got 10 combat skills to choose from, that’s a lot easier than picking from 40 disparate skills. An aptitude pick lets the player make a high-level decision (e.g. “I’d like to focus on combat”) which then shapes the lower-level choices they have. Synergy loops play a similar role – helping create a pattern on which to base the choices.