One of my new, hard-earned rules of design has to do with training your characters. And, since it seems like every game and its cousin has some sort of level-gaining and stat-building these days, I think the rule is getting more relevant every day:
The number of decisions you have to make to build your character should be proportional to the amount of time you've spent playing the game. The more you play, the more you should decide.
Or, to put it another way ...
Whenever you make a decision about your character at the very beginning of the game, you are answering a question that hasn't even been asked yet.
So design wonks, get ready. Here is an example from my game Avernum, released in 1999. I will compare it to the rewritten version, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, out later this year. (And this will also double as a little taste of a preview of the new game, for those who care.)
The Bad Way I Did It Before
Avernum is an old school role-playing game. There are a lot of skills you can train to make your character stronger. There are the base attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance) and regular skills (Swords, Spells, Lore, etc). You start out with a bunch of skill points, and you get more with each level. You should spend these on skills.
You start out with a ton of skill points, so that you can majorly customize your character from the beginning. You can use skill points to increase base attributes or regular skills, but the base attributes are expensive. However, it could break the system if a player put a huge amount of skill points in certain skills. To limit this, I made increasing a skill cost more skill points the higher you trained it. At high levels, you might have to save up for two or three levels to get enough skill points to raise a major skill one point.
Think about this. It's a system where the more you play and learn about the challenges facing you, the less you can do to customize your characters. You have to make most of the big changes at low level, when skills are cheap. Worse, it was necessary to increase the base attributes to survive (especially Endurance, which increases health), but they were so expensive that doing so required careful planning. As a result of this mess, many players had problems with getting halfway through the game and finding that they were not strong enough to proceed. These players got angry at me, and justifiably so.
There was also a traits system. Traits are special character qualities, some positive, some negative, that affected your characters. They could make you better at spells, more vulnerable to disease, and so on. Good traits came with a penalty to experience earned. Bad traits gave you a bonus. You could have at most two traits.
And here's the awesome part. You could only pick these traits at the beginning of the game, and you couldn't change them. Major decisions that affect how you play the entire game, and you make them before you've even fought one monster. It's very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it's mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.
The Better Way I Do It Now
There are still base attributes (unchanged), skills (mostly unchanged), and traits (an all-new, very long list).
When you make your characters, you can increase five skills and pick one trait from the long list. This is far, FAR less customization at the beginning than was allowed in Avernum. Because of this, many gamers will try to make a party, think I have completely dumbed down the system, and ragequit. Price of doing business.
But then, when you gain a level, a base attribute goes up by one point. It's different each level, so every four levels each attribute has gone up by one. In addition, each level you can choose one attribute to increase by one. This allows a lot of character customization while making sure all skills go up gradually so that you won't be hamstrung by completely neglecting an attribute.
Each level, you can also increase two different skills by one point. Thus, you never stop being able to shape your characters. As you get a better idea of the challenges you are facing, you can mold your characters to enable them to proceed.
Finally, every other level, you can pick one trait from the long list. The number of available choices starts out small (to keep from confusing new players) and grows dramatically as you proceed. You will eventually have a lot of traits. Some of them give simple bonuses to your spells or attacks, while others (like Backstab or Swordmage) will affect how you actually play your character.
I plan to take a lot of heat because I allow fewer choices early on, but overall you make more decisions to mold your character in the new system than in the old system, and there are more ways to customize a character. The change means that you make a larger percentage of the decisions later on. As it should be.
Of Course, There Is No Way To Win
I have often observed that people hate change. I have tried to make a more friendly system that provides more customization, but a lot of people will be angry about the loss of the old system (which has been in place for a very long time). I can totally understand this, but I still need to always strive to make things better.
Also, while the old system made it very possible to build a party that would find itself stuck and unable to proceed. Some players actually like that. To them, the challenge of avoiding that fate is part of the game, and the threat of a failed party adds excitement to the game. For them, I can only suggest playing on Torment difficulty. It will provide ample possibility of horrible failure.
But I'm very happy with the new system. I think it allows players to answer the questions the game poses when they understand what those questions truly are. And now I enter beta testing and the actual balancing of the new system. And that, of course, is when the suffering truly begins.