Thursday, December 20, 2007

ClotH: A Closer Look at the Skills and, No Doubt, My Growing Madness

Okay, so, the skills. Each class has its own set of special skills in CloTH. There are five classes as I think I've not mentioned before. It's a nice round number that encompasses all the different archetypes and stereotypes for RPG classes that I want to include that doesn't clog up the page with a lot of useless detail. There's the Fighter who's, well, the big meatshield who stands around yelling at people to hit him a lot or, in other words, the melee tank. There's the Cleric who's the desperately needed box of bandaids, the required healer who keeps everyone else alive. The Sorcerer who's the glass cannon, the fragile spell caster who hurls around the big, costly damage dealing spells and nukes. The Hunter who's the guaranteed overpower class who's, in this case, the ranged, solo friendly class. And then there's the Mentalist who's the weird class that no one really understands because it's just so strange and completely, utterly different than all the other classes that have tried to get outside the healer/tank/damage dealer box in all the other games before and, seriously, is absolutely nothing like a Mesmer or an Enchanter or anything like that, the fictional developers have really, really shown off their creativity with this one, is what I'm saying. They're all classes that should, hopefully, look familiar to anyone who has any passing familiarity with the MMO genre. Maybe not every single detail or specific but enough that they have a basic idea of what they can and will do and the type of player who'd be drawn to that sort of character. Again, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here or to build, in so many words, a better mousetrap but using common tropes and elements to deal with the issues and themes of people who play these sorts of games. I hope I'm doing more than just cutting and pasting but, as I understand it, making these things familiar and comfortable is a plus because it makes it easier for the reader to swallow the rest of the story.

Anyhow, although the game is based heavily on Guild Wars the skills, the special abilities that every character uses to do, well, almost everything are one place where I've diverged from the model a bit, I think. Each of the five classes has 50 skills, in total that are, like GW purchases with skill points. But they can only use 10 of them at a time. Every character gets a primary and secondary class, too, so that's something like 100 skills each character can potentially use (In case you hadn't noticed, I like to keep the numbers nice and simple for the same reason I'm keeping the class roles nice and basic.). Not quite but we'll get to that in a bit. The skills are divided into lines. Groups of similar skills that a player can invest in with their stats that further separate and distinguish their character from every other one of the same type. But here's where we go off the rails because while it's not as simple as spending attribute points like in GW. Instead, each skill has five ranks and players spend their skill points in improving them which also happens to raise their associate attribute.

Let's say, for example, you're a Sorcerer who has five skill lines tied to each of the five elements (We're using the oriental model of Air, Earth, Fire, Metal, and Water here, instead of the western version of four elements. That way we have an element for each class and the number five becomes a thematic design motif with deep significance to the game's lore instead of just a random figure that I've pulled out of my ass because it works. I love it when things work out like that.) and is, therefore, the oddball because the other four classes have but four skill lines each. The Sorcerer gets five, though, and if you went to your non-existent page of statistics you'd see that you have an attribute to go along with each (Along with an attribute for each line from your secondary and five "general" attributes that every character gets - things like Strength, Dexterity, and the like - but never mind that now.). But there won't be any way to adjust them at all. Just a flat figure which, if you're a starting character would be 0. If you want to increase, say, your Pyromancy attribute - which you might want to do since the game tells you it would provide some resistance to fire damage and let you meet the requirements of the items you want your sweet wizard dude to be using, like that starting wand you've got in your pack - what you'll need to do is leave the stat page and head to the skills page.

There, you'll see that you have a skill point or two to spend and several tabs which correspond to the various elements. If that sounds familiar, yes, that's because I stole the idea from somewhere. Spend a skill point to "buy" a new skill from the Pyromancy tab - for example, the simple damage dealing skill Flame Whip which is, well, Flare, it'll do a little bit of damage, has a short cooldown, and doesn't cost a lot of mana so you can cast it over and over again if, you know you're dumb like that (Seriously, don't use Flame whip. It's awful. The Sorcerer, in general, is just a design trainwreck. But an intentional one. It's the class that's been nerfed into oblivion and I have so much fun putting it together and adding new and ever more cruel ways of destroying the class that I'm sure it's not healthy.) - , and you'll not only have a new ability to slot in your bar you'll also raise your Pyromancy attribute by 1. The more skill points you spend in that tab and the higher your Pyromancy will climb.

Now, as I said, each skill has five ranks, each one of which costs a skill point to buy and will improve the skill's variables. They're not tied to the associated attribute, in other words, but to the rank. So let's say your Flame Whip does 5 fire damage per rank. So, at level 1 it does 5 damage and, then, you can spend more skill points to improve it until it does 25. (I'm just making up numbers here. This is the sort of thing I haven't bother to figure out exactly because - I can stress this enough - I'm not that crazy. Close, but not that bad. Yet.). Durations, even cooldowns and casting costs can be affected, too. And each rank you improve Flame Whip also improves your Pyromancy stat. When you run out of ranks or decide that you can live with a Flame Whip that only deals 15 damage when you're out killing five sewer rats on newbie island, you can invest your skill points in another skill. Like, say, Salamander Skin which is sitting right next to Flame Whip on your Pyromancy tab and tempting you with its description of adding burning damage to your weapon hits (If you play Guild Wars think Conjure.). Every skill point you sink into that is added to your Pyromancy title, too.

Your skill attributes, in other words, are the total of all the skill points that you've spent on the related skill line. And where that's important is not just in the secondary effect that, in this case, lets you equip better flame wands and off-hand power items that increase your mana stores or other attributes. Or even the minor bonus that you've become more resilient to the type of damage you're dealing - namely, burnination - yourself (This, by the way, is one of those "This is an example of what your game shouldn't do" mechanics that are litered throughout.). But also to fill out the requirements for getting more and better tiers of skills.

That's right, in our Sorcerer example Flame Whip and Salamander Skin are beginner skills. Anyone who's a Sorcerer - primary or secondary - can spend a skill point to use them at any time. But there are more advanced skills that require you to have a certain level in Pyromancy (Or, potentially, a certain rank in a previous tier's skill or even a specific level in a general attribute. Again, this is the kind of specific detail I haven't really thought out because I'm not insane.). There are four tiers for each line and if you want to use skills from the second tier of Pyromancy, say, you need to spend, say, five skill points total. Any way, any combination you want whether you max out Flame Whip or Salamander Skin or spread your points between them and other skills I haven't mentioned yet, but once you've sunk enough points into them then, and only then, does the next tier of skills open up so you can pick up things like Fireball and Inner Flame for your character to use.

As I mentioned there are four tiers for most skill lines and, although it varies, in general the higher the tier the more skills you have to pick from. They go from an average of two at the beginning tier, to four at the intermediate and, then, six at the advanced. And on the fourth and final, expert tier you have the line's ultimate skills. Literally. They're a take-off on the elite skills of GW in that they're obscenely powerful and you can only use one at a time. These ultimate skills are supposed to be what you'll build your character around, the reason why you want to sink a majority of your skill points into a particular line and most skill lines have two to choose from.

The Sorcerer, again, is a bit of an oddball since it has five lines (And again, it's a wretched class so those lines have fewer skills than the ideal and a lot of them are simple replacement operations where fire damage gets swapped out for, say, cold or lightning attacks.) and each line only has but one Ultimate for a total of five. But take the Fighter, for example, who has a line of attack skills for martial weapons (Rather than follow the Guild Wars model of a skill line for each type of weapon, I just have one. That way I don't have to worry aout coming up with dozens of attack skills or having to redesign every time I decide to add or remove a weapon type.) called Arms which has the standard two to pick from. The first is a skill that delivers a big packet of damage. The other, less damage but more often. One's for +dmg, the other for damage compression so it's the difference between, say, Eviscerate and Cleave. Well, actually, it's more like the difference between Executioner's Strike and an unconditional Protector's Strike sicne there's nothing as crazy as a Deep Wound in this game so the big damage skill is all about the eye-popping numbers and the damage compression skill is more about the reduced swing time than it is about the bonus damage. You can imagine the fictional theorycrafters of the game's fans have filled imaginary message boards with rants about the superiority of one over the other and I'll leave it up to you to imagine which one's going to be more valuable (Here's a hint: I'd run Frenzy if it was elite.) but, the idea is that not only do you have several skill lines to play with you have multiple ways of using the skills within those lines so the ultimates are there to reinforce and guide players along those different paths. Doesn't always work out since the developers are trying to judge how the game's going to develop in that case and, again, it's a trainwreck not a good game. But that's the idea.

Case in point, getting Ultimates to use is a bit more involved than simply opening up your character menu and spending unused skill points once you meet a req. You have to do all that but, first, you have to unlock them those a quest or even a series of quests (And, you can imagine, not every Ultimate is as easy to get to as the next and this is the sort of thing that makes the PvPers of the game gnash their teeth and wail about imbalance.). Afterwards, you can buy and slot it normally. You unlock your other skills, too, the first time you buy them. While respeccing isn't as easy as it is in GW it is possible and the cost is reduced for switching back to skills you've already learned before rather than trying out something new (Trainwreck!!!). But players at least have a way of trying out different builds and forgetting about the skills they never used which is important since there's a finite supply of skill points each character can learn and the fall well short of letting them learn all the skills they have avaiable to pick from. Which, again, is about 100 from 50 from each of two classes.

Now, if you've been following along, you've probably realized something is off. I've said each skill line contains, on average, 12 regular skills and 2 super-special Ultimates for a total of 14. And that the classes have four skill lines except for the Sorcerer who has five. If you do the math that's 56 skills for each class so what gives? Well, each class gets a primary line. A group of skills and an associated attribute that only primary members of that class can use. For Sorcerers it's the one tied to Metal or the element of knowledge and intelligence and technology, it gives them bonus mana/energy. For Fighters it's Durability which gives them bonus hitpoints/health. And so on. The primary lines lack an Ultimate (Meaning that everyone gets six or so to pick from. Sorcerers, being weird and, also, lame, have only five one of which is tied to their primary. Build diversity not exactly a big concern with them, in other words.) and have, generally, fewer skills more of which are found on their lower tiers. They average 8 or so, which combined with the 42 from the other three lines adds up to 50 (Sorcerers have only 6 primary skills and 11 in each of their four main lines, by the way.).

Which means that, unless you're combining with a Sorcerer, each character has 92, not 100 skills, right? Well, no. Because there's also a limited selection of "general" skills. These, like the Resurrection Signet, can be used by any character and they're things like self-heals and rezes and simple attacks that every character needs to function. They're largely forgettable since each profession has some way of dealing with those things with their own skills but they're there and although I have quite bothered to care enough about them to sketch them out, there's enough to push the number to around 100 or so.

With a limited skill bar and Ultimate power and its restrictions, most characters concentrate on one or two lines plus their primary. Depending, of course, on what they're doing. But, in general, you have to sink a lot of points into a line to get to the good stuff and a ton to use the Ultimate you really want to and that generally means you have a significant number of skills you're either going to slot or leave behind uselessly. Say an Ultimate requires an attribute level of 25, that means you need to max out 5 skills (Or more, if you don't) just to use your big stick and that's half your bar already (Assuming everything below is useful which, trainwreck warning again, isn't always the case.). There's a case to be made for going "off-line" and spending a lot of points just to get one powerful skill but most players see skill points they don't slot as being wasted. What's left over is used to splash into a line here and there to pick up the rare low-tier skill that can be still good - Salamander Skin, for example, is much prized by Fighters and Hunters because it's a long duration buff that doesn't cost a lot and adds a decent amount of damage ot their already considerable abilities so it's not rare to see a Fighter/Sorcerer or Hunter/Sorcerer just because they want to use that one skill.

I realize I've just gone on for a horrifyingly long amount of words about the very system I'm trying not to get too detailed about. But I can't help it, it's all so clear in my head but it takes some space to let it all out. And I've definitely been working this sort of things out. Although I haven't gone so far as to work out every last detail I have, at least, the grand sweep of what's possible and what's not with the skills in mind. At the time of this writing, I've fairly well fleshed out the various lines for the Sorcerer, Hunter, and Fighter, and I have a pretty good idea of the others, too. Not, as I said, the costs and exact cooldowns and effects, but at least a general description of what they all do along with the number and kind of skills that you'd find where. Because, sadly, this kind of thing is incredibly fun to me. Next up, attributes. Or maybe a closer look at the classes. I'm sure you'll find out eventually.

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