So, as promised, my own attempt at a system that is a little different.  A few of you may have already explored the link to my “dream design” FAQ off the Voyages sub-page of the blog here that I posted a while back… if so, you know where most of this came from.

Um, it got kinda long.  Just a bit.  Ok, a lot.  (good luck…)

Basics

This system takes a two-prong approach to defining character ability, a method that I term a “knowledge-centric” approach.  The core functionality is characterized by a collection style of play: the character collects “Concepts”, basic units of knowledge.  Various combinations of these concepts unlock new Techniques, abilities for the character to use.  A single Concept may play a role in unlocking several different techniques, and every Technique requires the collection of a different combination of Concepts to obtain access.

Techniques are also tied to the second prong of the definition system, a mild variant of the typical Skills mechanic.  The chance of success with any Technique, once unlocked, is determined by it’s related Skill.  Skills are developed in multiple ways, but the most straightforward is via the exercise of the various Techniques related to that skill.

Advancement in a Skill is achieved regardless of whether a specific attempt succeeds or fails, and there is no upper limit on advancement: a skill score of 500% or more would be quite possible.  Scores in excess of 100% have two basic purposes: 1) each Technique has a complexity rating which modifies the base score (ranging from +0 for rudimentary actions to -1000 or more for expert maneuvers), and 2) penalties are very commonly applied for such things as distractions, injuries, poor environmental conditions, and so on, further reducing the base chance  of success. 

The rule of thumb for evaluating skill scores in this system is that the base Skill rating indicates the chance of success with a very simple action under perfect conditions.  Most true adventurers rarely enjoy the luxury of being allowed simple actions or perfect conditions, let alone both at once.

Skills in this system will atrophy if not used, but not in the manner that people familiar with Ultima Online would first expect.  Atrophy points are tracked separately from the original advancement points/tallies, instead of reducing them directly.  When a character attempts to use a Skill in which Atrophy points have accumulated, the chance of success is modified for the accumulated Atrophy.  However, there is a 2-for-1 return on the related advancement for the attempt: the advancement total increases, AND the atrophy score decreases by a similar amount.

Example: Assume a Skill at 2000 points of advancement, 100 points of atrophy.  An attempt is made, effective chance of success is based on (2000-100=) 1900 advancement points.  The attempt garners 20 points of advancement for the character: advancement increases to (2000+20=) 2020, and atrophy is reduced to (100-20=) 80.

There is are no maximums or hard caps in the system.  A character could conceivably develop every skill indefinitely.  More realistically, however, the range and depth of skills and selection of concepts collected will be capped by the choices of the player.

There is significantly more to the system than this, but this is probably sufficient as a basis for the following sections.

What Concepts bring to the table

Concepts are meant to provide a different focus, a new style of play to the game.  Unlike previous usage-based systems, simply sitting down and grinding on a specific action to generate “skill” won’t get a player all that far in this system, largely due to the need to acquire more advanced Concepts at various stages.

Using the initial techniques in a skill will only get them to about 100 or so before they stop gaining additional advancement via “grinding”.  Eventually it will become far more advantageous to break off “grinding”, collect additional Concepts to unlock more advanced Techniques, which will then allow them to progress a bit further, and so on, and so on.

Additionally, Concepts are meant to accommodate multiple playstyles (I hope).  As representations of “knowledge”, they have properties that are somewhat unique in comparison to “experience” and/or “equipment”.  Unlike experience, knowledge is relatively easily shared and transferred to others.  Unlike equipment, transferring knowledge to another being does not make it unavailable to the instructor.

In the initial stages of play, it is expected that players will primarily acquire Concepts via NPCs, either by establishing good reputations with specific teachers/masters of the skill through errands/quests, or by the more direct expedient of purchasing instruction.

Eventually, it is hoped that Concepts will enable the growth into something more of a social sub-game, with players sharing Concepts back and forth amongst each other, reminiscent of certain icebreaker/party-mixer style games and activities.  A subsystem which effectively places limits on how quickly Concepts can be transferred between players is planned to try to facilitate and extend this type of activity. 

Allowing players to suggest and develop their own Concepts, Techniques, even whole new Skills entirely via their characters should also be possible to implement, to more fully accommodate certain styles of “Explorer”-type goals, as well.  Allowing characters to write books, manuals, tomes and the like for in-game publication and trade, and enabling occasional “study” of such items to obtain specific Concepts, is another possible sub-activity that might have some draw to certain styles of play.

Addressing the concerns

The following sections simply try to briefly explain how the suggested design addresses the listed concern or achieves the specified goal.

Able to make character choices without fear

This is a bulletpoint that the above system addresses easily, in my opinion.  Characters can develop multiple skill sets, switching back and forth as desired without any significant lasting penalty beyond time spent.  Neither Concepts nor Skill can be lost once obtained, and no path defined for the setting is ever placed out of reach of the player.

Easy to advertise for group and guild play

This is accomplished by a related subsystem, as opposed to the Concept and Skill system itself.  Characters have the opportunity to pursue Professional Titles as one of the subsets of “quest series” made available in the game. 

These quest series require the character to pass a sequence of tests: Warrior titles and ranks would face ever more strenuous tests of physical discipline, injury tolerance, and combat prowess; Clerical titles and ranks would instead test spiritual discipline, piety as measured by the strength of blessings and balms, and so on. 

Passing such tests would endow the character with the associated Title, which could then be made visible (or invisible) in the LFG/LFM interface as the player wished.  Note that a character might have multiple Titles available to them under this option: War Master, Magi of the 3rd Circle, and Burglar-Second Class might all be options for the same character.

In short: in this system, accumulated Techniques and Skills define the Profession, not the other way around.

PvP needs tactical transparency

In this model, tactical transparency is assumed to be achieved at a more detailed level than in the typical class/level system… a character’s capabilities are to be determined based on reputation, visible equipment, and the various preparations they make in mid-conflict.  The system does not make it easy or highly effective to switch “styles” at a moment’s notice: each type of combat role, from Warrior to Mage to Priest to Rogue, requires a series of steps to be completed to prepare for use of the active techniques. 

For example, Warriors need to establish a combat Stance, a specific Grip for each weapon to be used, and will probably want one or more “combat adjustment” techniques active as well, all before taking their initial swing.  Conversely, a Hermetic-style mage needs to assume a Casting Stance, activate an appropriate Symbolic Foundation technique, and have collected sufficient magical energy to be able to trigger the spell he has chosen to cast, all of which may additionally require his hands to be empty and even somewhat limit his ability to move or dodge, but a selection of defensive cantrips might be available in reserve.  A knowledgeable and observant opponent will be able to read the Stance, Grip, and other cues of his opponent to determine in general his likely present tactical options.

This system is further buttressed by the fact that the change in ability across the full range of skill scores is far narrower than typically found in most existing systems.  Increases in efficiency due to obtaining new, more advanced techniques are sizable, but highly targeted.  Additionally, most resolution systems in the game are “contested”: for example, the results of attacks are commonly reduced by a parry or dodge counterresult.  In this model, the most serious impacts by far will usually be obtained when one side makes a successful skill check, while the other side somehow fails.

Finally, it is not a core goal of this design to make PvP combat common or easy. The expectation built into the design is that PvP will be allowed, and under certain circumstances even expected, but not often encouraged.  The hesitation born of uncertainty regarding an opponent’s capabilities has certain benefits as well.

Player roles should offer strongly varied experiences

The core concern here is whether the “flavor of the month” and “tank-mage” phenomena common to previous implementations can be controlled to some degree, at least to a degree similar to that achievable within a class-based system.  Obviously, this is more of a challenge in an open-ended, ala carte system than in one where the roles are strongly pre-defined and limited.

One way in which variation and distinctive roles are indirectly encouraged in this design is in the definition of skills themselves.  True effectiveness in any endeavor is a matter of developing not just one skill, but an entire interrelated set of them: effectively, the intent is to encourage “classes” without forcing them.  Even just the core list of skills for any specific role should number half a dozen or more, and the collection of techniques needed to perform at even an intermediate level of ability should number in the dozens or more.

Warriors
Physical Tolerance: physical critical resistance, injury penalty mitigation
Finesse (by armor type): mitigation of penalties (stamina, quickness), protection adjustments
Brawling: basic weaponless combat, attacks, blocks, grappling/pushing, “dirty tricks”
Combat Style(s): stances, attacks, parries/blocks, combat adjustments
Weapon Handling, by type: grips, readiness recovery, quick draws, weapon adjustments
Evasion: evades, dodges, roll with blow/impact mitigation, balance recovery
Martial Focus: stun/daze mitigation, combat-related observation techniques/adjustments
Intimidation: taunting and intimidation, emotional manipulation of opponent
Spiritual Tolerance: emotional critical resistance, discipline/self-control recovery

Hermetic Mages
(D+D based example, different styles would have rather different skill sets)
Mental Tolerance: mental critical resistance, concentration recovery
Spiritual Tolerance: emotional critical resistance, discipline/self-control recovery
Finesse (Cloaks and Robes): concealment and distraction adjustments, evasion
Mnemonics: improved memorization speed, increased capacity, reduced mental fatigue
Hermetic Fundamentals: stances, symbolic foundations, wanding techniques, spell recognition
Mystic Attunement: activation/enhancement of item-imbedded spells (wands/staves/rods, etc)
Mana Focus Control: energy collection/projection, channeling, pooling, attack deflection
Vocalization: symbolic utterances of various types, can impact effects/results
Somatics: symbolic gestures of various types, can impact effects/results
Materials: symbolic material use, influences amounts/quality needed/consumed, substitutions
Evasion: evades, dodges, roll with blow/impact mitigation, balance recovery

In short, learning how to ever more effectively play even a single role will take significant time and dedication, and the expanded options that become available as the character advances should help create an additional focus, helping to address the tank-mage part of the problem.  The same preparation needs and limits mentioned under Tactical Transparency apply here as well.

The “flavor-of-the-month” effect is more difficult to manage: after all, many class systems suffer from this problem as well.  The hope is that minor adjustments can be made frequently, including the controlled introduction of new/revised techniques under various skills, to maintain a loose, fluctuating “balance” in the utility of varying roles.  This will definitely be an ongoing challenge, however.
Player roles easy to balance, maintain, and expand

This is the “class-related” concern that is hardest to explain how it is addressed.  This is primarily achieved by developing “Sets” of skills that define various roles, as detailed briefly above.  Balancing and maintenance efforts are focussed upon these “sets”. 
Interaction between the various sets is then controlled and limited by various subsystems, such as limits on the number of techniques that can be actively concentrated upon at one time, distinct and exclusive preparatory techniques (like Stances) that are required to use other actions, and thus somewhat restrict “cross-role” play, differing equipment requirements for each role, and so on.  Such restrictions could then be selectively loosened in more advanced techniques, as deemed desirable: an example might be a highly advanced Stance in a “cross-over” Combat Style which also doubled as a rudimentary spell-casting Stance, enabling specific sets of low level spells to be cast.

Quick evaluation of potential allies, rivals, enemies

Evaluation of potential allies could be largely handled through the Professional Title subsystem, but additional information could be offered through a robust reputation subsystem.  The overall system is also designed such that nearly any additional “warm body” is going to be a net advantage in most cases, both in terms of enhanced success and in terms of “productivity” for those to whom such things are paramount.

Evaluation of rivals and enemies is a bit less straightforward.  Reputation systems will play a key role here.  Visual cues such as size and type of equipment will also play a role in terms of raw combat evaluation.  Relative sizes in particular will be more meaningful under this system: basic physical power and resilience is more strongly related to Size in this design.  (Then again, smaller creatures have their own set of advantages: “if you can’t hit it, you can’t hurt it.”)  A basic color-coded combat evaluation option will probably still be advantageous, regardless, if only because of it’s familiarity.

Rewards devotion over skill

This design is actually constructed somewhat in indifference to this concept, though not completely.  The system does essentially reward devotion through the dual collection mechanisms described initially, but effective use of the collected abilities, especially in later stages of the game, is meant to be a moderately difficult test of skills such as pattern recognition, timing, and resource management.  In that respect, it is really not all that different from the existing paradigm, even under class/level-based systems, just more complex.

Needs a reason not to cancel

The same basic psychology that applies to class/level systems applies here as well.

Players respond better to substantial improvement

In this system, it is the attainment of each new technique which will represent a substantial improvement, tho highly targeted. The specific subsystem by which Concepts are mastered will actually make this a somewhat “pseudo-random” reward scenario, vaguely similar to the level-up mechanism tho somewhat less tied to direct character activity (which is a concern).

Since each new technique represents a new ability to be used/tested, and further, typically one which the player has directly chosen to obtain, it should represent a significant reward, although the effect on the character’s overall “power” will likely be proportionately much less than is typically the case under the “level-up” model.

There are also a virtual host of minor background improvements that can be indicated to the player to provide further reassurance of progress.  Skill rating improvements, attribute score threshholds, and obtaining semi-permanent positive influences/conditions (or completing the removal of negative ones) are all potential candidates to play such a supporting role.

Realism

This is a specific knock against usage-based advancement models, bringing to mind the “assassin-in-training, skipping through meadows, picking flowers” joke about Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  By contrast, most class/level/XP systems largely just ignore this entirely, attempting to abstract it completely out of consideration.  Since one of the common arguments for usage-based advancement is enhanced “realism”, such systems don’t get as much leeway on this point as more abstract advancement paradigms.

The design attempts to control such unintended activities by first keying skill advancement largely to technique use, then restricting technique use in a variety of ways to appropriate situations.  Appropriately narrow skill definitions are also important, as are making sure that situations appropriate to each skill under a variety of conditions and roles are provided within the setting.  This is something that really needs to be addressed at all levels of the design, however, and represents a significant ongoing challenge.

Continual rewards for their playstyle

I feel this is an arena where usage-based systems actually have a slight advantage, particularly in serving players for whom combat is not the focus.  Since each reward is tailored to what the player has chosen to do with the character by design, it is somewhat simpler to achieve this goal than in a more abstract reward system. 

Creating significant options and goals within the setting is still a key challenge here, however, largely regardless of the advancement system.  I believe the expansive technique subsystem defined in the design will help create a viable foundation for achieving this.

Confining definition of roles

Since this system does somewhat define classes via interrelated “sets’ of skills, I think there is still a danger of becoming too constricting, and losing the advantage of going with a skill-based definition system in the first place.  This is a challenge that needs to monitored and addressed over time.

Ability to play with characters of widely disparate experience

Since the game does not grant the large universal bonuses of most class/level systems, it should remain quite possible for novice and long-played characters to interact and contribute proportionately to the group effort against most challenges over an extended period of time.  Various subsystems add to this effect in a variety of ways.  For example, since the combat system is significantly balanced around an assumption of active/reactive defenses, even a novice can force an opponent to dedicate defensive actions to him, creating openings for the expert to take advantage of that might otherwise not be there.  Failure to do so might not be instantly devastating, but even a novice can hit hard enough  against a completely undefended opponent, no matter how expert, to injure and disable under this system.

Additionally, since many of the abstract concepts built into hit points back in the days of First Edition D+D are pulled out and made explicit activities and options in this system, the widely divergent hit point totals of the typical class/level system do not exist, and the participation strata effectively generated by needing damage ranges matching these widely divergent point totals are no longer quite so divisive.

Conclusion

Well, it got long, but I think it does a fair job of presenting a basic example of how an alternative character definition/advancement system might be evaluated for possibilities and challenges in an MMORPG.  As always, feel free to comment, particularly if you feel I missed or too quickly glossed over something.  I’d appreciate it.