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Ninjamida

RPG with no levelling / stat growth?

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So, this is an idea I've been considering for the remake of Legends of an Otherworld.

 

For those of you who aren't familiar with my game - in brief, it's a turn-based RPG with a CTB battle system (like in Final Fantasy X). As such, the focus is primarily on in-battle strategy, with pre-battle setup being a fairly close second; levels are actually relatively unimportant. (The final bosses can easily take down a level 99 party if your strategy isn't good, but are very comfortably beatable at level 50-60 with good preparation and strategy.) A huge inspiration was FFX challenge runs, where you generally don't gain stats at all throughout the entire game.

 

As such, I'm considering - why not take levelling out of the equation altogether? This way, the player never thinks "Maybe I'm just underlevelled and should go grind", they know they need to improve their battle strategy and/or better tailor their equipment to the battle. New abilities and items would still become available as the player progresses, and small stat boosts through equipment would remain possible - just no permanent increases.

 

While I definitely see why this wouldn't work for the average RPG, I get the feeling that for one like mine, it might be a very good approach.

 

What are your thoughts on such a concept?

 

(PS: I'd be willing to guess there's probably already at least a couple of games out there that do this - if you know of any, how were they?)

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I think I said this somewhere else, but if you ask me an RPG without leveling/stat growth is less an RPG and more of an adventure game. If there are abilities and equipment that might be enough, but it can be kind of a grey area. After all, there is a reason Zelda games aren't usually called RPGs. Not that I am saying being more of an adventure game is a bad or anything like that, but aren't the design goals kind of different? Think of battles for example. In RPGs battles always give you a little something to make your character stronger. The basic gameplay loop of RPG battles (especially random battles) is satisfying largely because of this. In something closer to an adventure game there is much less importance placed on normal enemies. In Zelda and other action adventure games where dealing with enemies is a big part of navigating the world it makes sense to be there. In something with more traditional turn based RPG battles but without that many RPG mechanics it makes far less sense. Bosses or uncommon puzzle battles are the exception though. Cutting out most of the normal 'trash' fights in favor of only having mostly minibosses and bosses makes far more sense in that case. Without any kind of progressive reward for normal battles they really do seem kind of pointless to me.

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If I could, I would want to rid every Game that has a Level system and replace it with abilities like Kingdom Hearts (2 specifically). The idea to toy around with different strategies is something I grew fond of since I played some Platformers (that aren't mario). Since I tackled the Mega Man series, Games that revolve around you growing stronger by defeating the Stage and Boss, I realized that you really don't need anything too drastic to make your Game something special. Kingdom Hearts 2 can be beaten on the highest difficulty on level 1... that's something incredibly mind breaking once you know about it. I remember when I heard you could actually do that and I couldn't believe it, since I had trouble as a kid on normal on some bosses. 

 

Here's the thing. My advice would be definitely to keep the Level system, for those who just want to... well... naturally get stronger and just grind for themselves to make fights easier for themselves. I think the level system in RPGs just prevents you from getting mauled by some random boss with an AoE attack, since you can't really dodge in a static menu screen lol.

It's for those who don't get the idea of the boss and just want to beat it casually, as opposed to beating it with strategy. And I know some people say they don't like easy things in games, to that I say it's not true. It's either they are too easy or it's too frustratingly hard. So options to have both available is always handy.

Designing a Boss around a level system is always tricky (for me at least). Since the growth might be always different from others. I like to give the boss the ability to kill every possible scenario with some sort of counterattacks and defensive strategies.

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The original Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 might be good inspiration for this.

 

While it did have leveling and tiered gear, the level cap stopped at 20 (roughly halfway through the game), end-game gear was relatively easy to get and focused on cosmetics, and focused much more on the player's build: 

 

* Secondary Profession - As well as your Primary Profession, you could access skills and attributes from a Secondary Profession. For example, Elementalist/Necromancer.

 

Skills - You had to choose 8 skills out of over 1000. You were also limited to 1 Elite Skill which a lot of builds were based around. It was important to choose skills that complemented each other well to work effectively.

 

For example, Shatterstone (an Elite Skill) would deal damage, apply a Water Hex to the enemy then deal damage to surrounding enemies when it ends.

 

That player could then use skills to exploit that Water Hex; for example, Glowing Stone to return Energy (Mana) or Teinai's Crystals to increase damage and apply Cracked Armour (DEF Down) (which could further be exploited with the Water Hex Teinai's Prison which would apply a Health Degen effect to foes with Cracked Armour).

 

Casting Shatterstone and Teinai's Crystals under the effects of Water Attunement would refund Energy allowing you to cast spells more often.

 

Point Allocation - You placed points into 9 possible attributes - 1 Primary attribute, 4 Secondary attributes from your Primary Profession and 4 Secondary Attributes from your Secondary Profession. For example, an Elementalist/Necromancer would have access to: Energy Storage, Fire Magic, Wind Magic, Earth Magic, Water Magic, Blood Magic, Curses, Death Magic. The more points you allocated to that attribute, the more powerful the skills under that attribute would be.

 

* Equipment - Equipment just improved the efficiency of a build; for example, a build based around Shatterstone would benefit from equipment that increased Water Magic as well as damage increases against Hexed foes.

 

The majority of the content also required a certain approach: Minion Master Necromancer's were useless in areas that didn't produce corpses while skill interrupts were essential in encounters where long channel skills could wipe a party.

 

As well as individual builds, you could control and customise Heros - AI characters - in the exact same way you could your character if you didn't want to play with other people; Because of the skill limit, the builds of your companions also mattered.

 

Guild Wars 2 had less of this and was more restrictive and more stat based - no subclass, you HAD to take a heal, three utilities and an elite, level 80 cap and more tiered gear - but introduced a few neat things to the franchise; your first 5 skills were dependent on your weapon, you could equip two weapon sets, and each class used the weapon differently (a Warrior would use a Greatsword pretty much like you'd expect - mostly damage and little defence - while a Mesmer would use it to shoot laser beams).

 

Traits improved builds and added effects to skill types (a Warrior trait would allow Shout skills to also heal allies) and Sigils and Runes would give better, more varied bonus effects that the first Guild Wars; Sigil of Fire would produce an AoE on Crit, while a full set the Rune of the Warrior would reduce your weaponswap recharge.

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Very interesting idea but it won't be an RPG without a leveling system. What I think is that by removing the leveling, the strategy component is removed. It's now entirely based on what gear the player has. Good gear = win, bad gear = lose. Not much strategy besides looking for the best equipment before the boss battle. With the leveling system and a Point Allocation system like @HeckHound mentioned, the player now has the option to choose which stat is most important to him/her. Priorities in choosing your own stats is the best strategy to me.

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There are other ways to make an rpg interesting besides leveling, besides you shouldn't underestimate the versatility and thought required for a robust and varied equipment system. Not all rpgs need a leveling system imo ,but I do think that some sort of character or skill customization is part of the rpg identity.

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1 hour ago, Nirwanda said:

There are other ways to make an rpg interesting besides leveling, besides you shouldn't underestimate the versatility and thought required for a robust and varied equipment system. Not all rpgs need a leveling system imo ,but I do think that some sort of character or skill customization is part of the rpg identity.

 

I see what you're saying. A game like Metroid or Batman Arkham does this well. But those games used more mechanics in combat other than just the equipment. In the case of Metroid, you can jump, shoot at different angles, power up a shot, etc. Unless the OP wants to do something similar to using the tools the player gains in the battle system, I don't think a non-leveling system would work effectively.

 

@Ninjamida What form of combat are you using? I assume you're using a turn-based system.

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The main point you lose without leveling is a sense of progression. It makes each trash battle you fight have at least some value, as it brings you ever so much closer to completion.

If it is bound to skill learning, then you allso lose the "new toy" syndrome, where combat doesn't get stale as fast, because you keep getting new toys/skills.

 

 

But what are we talking about here ? No explicit stat-boosting through levels, or no change to your characters what-so-ever through the course of the game ? There is a broad spectrum in between those 2 extremes.

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My thought is that you won't ever get permanent stat gains.

 

However, your abilities would also be non-permanent, but rather, you equip them - think of it as something along the lines of FF7's materia system, just without all the linked materia stuff. You'd have limited slots, and you'd also only be allowed to equip abilities that match the character's class (though later in the game they could get a second class). There'd also be neutral abilities that, rather than giving a new in-battle ability, might increase a stat.

 

Likewise, your actual weapon and armor could have traits like "10% extra damage" or "reduce damage taken by 10%". Strategy would come from a greater focus on things like status effects and buffs, as well as selecting the ideal equipment with only a limited number of slots available.

 

With that being said, I'm now leaning a bit more in favor of having levelling, but making it have relatively little impact. If you have 5000 HP and the boss's attack averages 5100 damage, you can probably grind a bit. If you have 5000 HP and the boss's attack averages 5500 damage, grinding to survive it will probably take too long and you might want to think about whether you can use buffs (or perhaps negative statuses on the boss) to reduce that damage instead. Or something along those lines.

Edited by Ninjamida

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In my games, I ditched levels for stat distribution. This way the player can build the team they want. Every battle rewards you with a few small increase items/points to allocate, making fighting worthwhile. Combined with my crafting and the need for resources, battles need to be fought. (I am also putting in a fair amount of strategy, too.)

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Interesting concept. I see lots of god ideas on how to implement. I like the idea of ability swapping though you may want to have some limits or cost on how often the player can do so. Tinkering around with different combos is great and should be encouraged as strategy is the obvious focal point. However if the player has basically unlimited, unhindered access to a huge move pool, it can make the game a little too easy. It would be hard to develop skills and enemies in such a way that multiple combinations wouldn't be just as effective. One exception would be puzzle bosses where only one or maybe two very specific strategies are the only way to beat them. 

 

If you're ditching levels, personally, I'd also ditch a lot of gear, too. Or at least their stats. I'd make them focus more on passive bonuses. Having the player work to get better and better gear would be tant amount to level grinding. There can still be tiers that give larger and/or more bonuses, but not to jack up the player's defense stats. If that's the route you go, enemies wouldn't really get stronger stat-wise as the player progresses. If they did, the stat difference could easily become so skewed that strategy becomes irrelevant and the player dies horrible, horrible deaths.

 

I'm a huge fan of customizable stats so I'm always okay with it being a feature. However,  if the player earns them throughout the game, that to is tant amount to leveling up.

One solution would be to let the distribute stat points at the beginning and never or very seldom get additional points. There should also be a way to redistribute them in case the player does a terrible job and ends up with characters that are doomed from the start. Then again, if you're game is really, really well balanced, there would be a winnable strategy with any type of stat distribution. Actually being able to achieve that would be a tall order though. 

 

There's lots of things to tinker around with especially with abilities. My only advice would be if you're trying to make a game truly devoid of character levels, stay away from features that would serve as leveling by proxy. 

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True. Specifically for my game there is a limited amount of skills to equip that raises once certain conditions are met (working on that).

As for equipment they offer different, small stat boosts but also offer certain buffs and passive skills so you don't have to waste a skill slot. I also want accessories to be a good option if you didn't level a certain stat so you aren't grinding or backtracking to get certain points. 

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Somehow, I feel that all this dancing around leveling up just to wind up with a "time goes in, power comes out" system to be a really roundabout way of reinventing the wheel. Not dissing, just pointing out.

Edited by freakytapir

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^^ Yeah, that's essentially my worry. I do think it's possible to make an RPG with no leveling or at least so far from the traditional method it feels unique to the player. The simplest, most straightforward, method would be more a dungeon crawl. Here's your characters and their abilities. Figure out how to use them to progress through the dungeon. Enemies wouldn't really get stronger in terms of stats, but would require more planning and strategy to defeat. 

 

That would be a good jumping off point.

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I always assumed the original point of this topic was more about getting rid of the grind of unneeded character progression systems rather then either making a new system or getting rid of character progression it's self.  I do think Zelda/Metroidvania-style items/equipment/upgrades work the best for that.

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As i said more eloquently in one of my earlier blog posts, I believe level grinding is a way to put control in the hands of the player, letting him decide exactly how hard he wants the game to be. It also allows things like minimum level runs and such, increasing replayability.

 

I heavily believe in the mantra " Everyone finishes, but few achieve greatness." Let evryone see the main ending, but lock extra achievements and true endings behind a skill gate.

 

That said, the people talking about Zelda (I'm assuming old school Zelda in this, not BotW and its ilk) in this thread, remember, the things you found weren't power upgrades per sé, they where more like sidegrades. Opening up possibilities that where previously unattainable. Is the boomerang better than the sword ? Sometimes.

 

Differences in kind feel different than differences in scale.

 

That said, even zelda has explicit leveling in the gaining of hearts. 

 

Personally, in my current game stat boosts come from leveling, but each weapon has a reason to use it. 

For example, guns deal less base damage, but ignore defense, while big two handers are worse against single targets but deal more damage to groups. Dragon armor ? Fine, you get fire resistance and fire breath attack, but ice weakness. Robe vs full plate is a question of magic defence vs physical defence. The amulet that prevents silence ? Good luck at any stealth attempts.

 

The one thing i see in removing leveling is easier balancing, as you decrease variability.

Edited by freakytapir

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