Casting a Seine ep1: Progression SystemsBy Danny Nissenfeld
A new series. While the “well” is more about a deep dive into my own design work and the “help files” is about identifying a specific design and its flaws and what could have been done differently “Seine” is going to be about casting as wide as possible; eg with a seine net. Marine puns are partial to me what can I say.
There is already an article about progression systems but I feel like this is somewhere that can always have innovation. I’m only going to dive into one example per type but several examples of each may be listed. I’m certainly going to miss some as I have not played literally every game in existence but I’ll try here. None of these systems is wrong or bad in any way they simply are.
The House of Gygax (class-levels)
Nearly everything started here and quite frankly almost every design still has at least one foot in his door. Everyone is familiar with this system and in many ways no matter what game you play it’s hard not to think of things in terms of his initial designs.
This is a design of races, classes and levels driven by experience points. You choose a road to walk and you walk it getting stronger the further you get. Strength lies in party balance with components getting better at protecting, dealing damage and support. Individually players might be able to complete some tasks on their own but the design is centered around the holy trinity that is present in so much design even today.
Examples are *everywhere*. Most MUDs use this system. Most MMORPGs in general use this system (World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc) with some minor changes. Many offer further choice but their underpinning is that of gain experience->gain level->obtain new abilities.
Multiclassing (a side note)
Multiclassing and remorting aren’t exactly systems unto themselves. They open up the field of diversity for players and increase player agency but mechanically is just an expansion of the class-levels system.
Feats in many ways is a common bolt-on for the class-levels system but shares some traits with the next system so I’ll start out with a distinction. Feats here in whatever form are driven by point-buy and you gain points to spend by gaining levels (which in and of itself is through xp gain).
Feats represent a secondary system that define your individual character. The common thought of “Feats” is the AD&D system that has evolved over time. Sprawling (looking at you 3.5) tables of names with affects. You get a certain number of points each level and spend them on these feats to get extra damage with swords or extra spell slots or better chances to dodge. Some are purely mechanical (+1 here, +2 there) while others open up major opportunities. (new usable abilities)
This system is seen in a different form in the skills tree as well. Originally World of Warcraft had a feats system in the form of branching trees. Each level you gained a point and click on the icon on your trees to gain +5% healing or a new ability like silence or healing well. World of Warcraft still has a feats system but it’s “culled” nowadays and far more obvious. Every N levels you get to choose between 1 of 3 more significant abilities and passives. Rift also had a similar, albeit more complex, feats tree bound by class-levels.
Feats trees are a method of adding diversity but in many ways can make balance a sticky issue. Players prone to min-maxing will find ways to combine elements of this freeform system into something entirely unintended and in many ways overpowered. In table-top systems this can be avoided through house rules and proper GM oversight but in static systems like MMORPGs it generally leads to hurt feelings when things are brought into line mechanically or “culled” as Blizzard has done with World of Warcraft over the years.
Skills Tree (skill-tree)
Skills tree, unlike feats, is its own system. Whether you have classes, levels and xp or not the underpinning of the skills-tree system is that you gain abilities through a point-buy system within an expansive tree structure. Some (like Discworld MUD) retain the basic elements of class choice and experience point gain. Some (like what my twinMUD used to have) opt for a pure “on-use” system where instead of spending from a generic pool of points to advance skill tree leaves with a trainer you have a chance to gain every time you use a related ability passively. The formula for such gain is generally on a logarithmic scale giving advancement a fairly difficult softcap at some point.
Another point of skills-trees is how to curtail players from grinding out a super character with max of all skills. Discworld utilizes its guild (class) system for this. Choosing a guild grants a much more sane formula for point buying in specific areas such as combat, magic or stealth. My twinMUD utilized a specialization area system. The advancement formula not only took into account your progression in that skill but also your progression in every other skill group (branch) making it effectively more expensive to advance all branches rather than specialize in one or two.
Diablo 2 also used a skills tree similar to what World of Warcraft implemented but made an interesting distinction with its expansion: each skill passively added value to other related skills within its tree. A major criticism in the Diablo 2 and vanilla World of Warcraft days was “junk skills”. In a tree structure to get to the “powerful” choices you have to put at least 1 (or more) point into an earlier skill to unlock the later ones. Some of these end up being boring (+5% per point to damage of one ability) or entirely wasteful. (in diablo 2’s case, entire abilities you’ll never use) The synergy introduced with the Lord of Destruction expansion made those early points significant and in many cases open up a larger diversity of builds for the players.
Now we’re getting out there and quite frankly there is one example of this that I can find: Warframe.
Warframe has an entirely unique system for leveling. There is a mostly esoteric “cumulative level” in the mastery rank (MR) system. Warframe is a game of 4 things: Frames and weapons (primary, secondary, melee). Each of these things individually have a level range of 1–30. You gain levels by using them in missions. You gain more of them within a crafting system of parts gained by doing missions and completing story quests. (or trading)
Your MR goes up every time you gain levels on your gear for the first time. You *can* have more than one copy of a frame or weapon but only the first 30 levels counts as having “mastered” it. Some of the weapons are MR locked so you must gain MR by leveling the frames and earlier weapons.
This does lead to a few undesirable mechanics. You need to use things you may not want to simply to gain mastery. Some players are not big fans of sniper weapons and bows for general use with warframe being mostly a game of large group combat but if you want to reach top MR you’ll have to obtain and level all of them at some point anyways. Additionally, Warframe has a set number of missions. At some point (between MR7 and 10) you’ll be done with all story quests and have the entire starchart cleared but you’ll still have literally hundreds of weapons to master and more than likely a few dozen frames. Warframe is very much like an action rpg game in that you will be doing the same thing over and over and over so if you’re not a fan of the core combat system it’s likely not going to be fun.
It also leads to some desirable mechanics. The game forces you to try every option available and allows you to switch at will to any setup you want for any mission. You can swap inside of missions but you’re carrying two different guns, a melee weapon and your specific frame’s ability set so it’s not hard to have a diverse kit. The game also ties advancement with play. If you want to master your sidearm simple use it more in a mission. Your gear advances not only with general play (ie stuff being killed near you) but with specific use as well.
There is no esoteric system involved. You’re not adding a point to “combat.weapons.sword” with experience points you gained from chopping down trees to get generally better at using swords you’re literally advancing use in the Strun Wraith shotgun by shooting enemies in the face with the Strun Wraith shotgun. It is a ridiculously clear system with piles of intent.
Biological Attributes (attributes)
Much like the MR system in Warframe my own current design is evolving along similar lines: https://www.reddit.com/r/TwinMUD/comments/7rd3n2/progression_more_in_depth/
While I do have an “equipment leveling” system it’s more for the equipment itself and handing off your highly used sword will leave it highly used for the next person. The new underpinning here is attributes. This is essentially a merging of the skills tree system with the classic character stats. (strength, constitution, etc)
Your biological aspects such as strength and dexterity muscle memory become anatomical attributes set per location. You’ll have an “Arm-Power” which grows as you do things that require arm strength such as chop trees or swing swords. Performing dexterous actions such as crafting and backstabs advance your “Finesse-Arm”. Gaining in either after a point will degrade the other slightly and complete disuse over time will degrade anything to a minimum cap.
The advantages and disadvantages are similar to that of the mastery rank system in Warframe. The degradation mechanic wont sit well with many players as very few systems involve ability loss over time. It also may feel like a loss of agency to many as they don’t have a points pool that fills giving them a sense of control when they spend it at a trainer.
There is no perfect system, of course. If there’s one I’ve missed give me a shout on the MUD Coders Guild slack and I’ll have a look into it.