Character Design: Fire Archer

The Fire Archer was the first ranged character I designed. While designing the melee characters, I kept a brainstorm of ranged character abilities. The most straightforward of these abilities form a unified strategy: kiting. For anyone who doesn’t know, kiting is a term for the strategy of keeping a distance between yourself and a shorter ranged enemy.

Take Aim 9.15.13-01 Trick Shot 7.25.13-01 Strafe-01

Because all of the damage ranged characters deal is tied to their runes (rather than dealing some base damage) ranged characters also benefit more from leveling up, and this feature of ranged characters is especially clear with the Fire Archer. Playing a Fire Archer is a careful balance of protecting yourself by kiting, leveling up, and knowing when to convert your extra fire runes into end game damage output. The clarity of these choices are part of what makes the Fire Archer interesting to play.

Fire Arrow-01 Rapid Fire-01 Blaze-01

One of the primary challenges in designing this character was that I had so far imagined the runes in terms of melee characters. Thinking through how to differentiate each of the seven runes for the Fire Archer helped me to clarify their functions across all of the classes. It really helped me to think about each of the runes, but the impact was especially dramatic for the blood rune. Designing Hunter Shot prompted me to design a cycle with this effect for all seven characters.

Hunter Shot-01 Trap-01 Blinding Arrow 7.25.13-01

Very recently, I’ve done a realignment of what each of the runes represent. Previously there had been a lot of muddling between the runes. Steel and Blood were difficult to distinguish as they were strongly associated with single target melee attacks, and they were especially problematic for ranged characters. Steel and Sun were both associated with stuns and burst attacks. Steel, Sun and Moon were all associated with preventing damage. Each rune now has a primary effect: Sun stuns; Moon moves your foe; Steel is used for single target and burst melee attacks; Blood increases your focus; Fire gives bonus damage; Lightning is used for high movement abilities and for extra turns; and Eye lets you look at your runes. Overlaps still exist, but by identifying primary effects for each rune their identities have been clarified, at least for me. I’m particularly happy with the change to the blood rune, because it now has a clear identity of a rune that draws on inner strength rather than referring to the blood drawn from your enemy.

Reaction Trap-01-01I designed Trap to both advance the kiting strategy, and to give the Fire Archer a flavorful way to use the steel rune. I talked in the previous entry about adding reactions to characters other than the Duelist. Trap was an ability that translated well into a reaction. When looking at the Fire Archer’s ability set as a whole, changing the Trap into a reaction has one problem which is that it restricts the Fire Archer to a single +1 focus ability with movement (Take Aim). However, Hunter Shot has been added since identifying this as a problem, and may help to alleviate the issue. While Hunter Shot itself doesn’t let you move, the extra focus it provides can be used to move. I plan to test both versions moving forward and see which one makes the Fire Archer more fun for more people. I am also debating changing trap to revel 4 cards and knock down and deal 3 damage instead of stunning. Trap is a placeholder name; if I get the opportunity to expand the game, I will want to design additional traps. If I go with the knock down version, I’ll change the name to Caltrops.

Recently I’ve taken the step of identifying seven starting abilities for each character for new players. In designing these starting sets, I’ve discovered some things that are essential to a new player’s experience of the game. For example, having access to a level up is important to the feeling that you have some control over the course the game takes. Also, not having access to a high movement ability would leave a new player with the impression that ranged characters have no way to escape from melee characters. On the other hand, high damage game enders are not very important to a new player’s experience, but they are intriguing cards to gain access to in the second game.

Onward

Next up, I’ll go through the design of the Lightning Mage, and the process of redesigning the Lightning Mage into the Storm Caller. The Storm Caller inspired a new mechanic, which I’m now using for several of the characters.

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Designing for Fantasy

In my first entry, I described the bottom-up process I used to design the core mechanic of my game, the rune deck. Now it’s time to see what that mechanic can do. Once I had a core mechanic, I could turn my eye to the top down concepts I wanted the game to convey. This is where the runes will become fleshed out and become less abstract. Before I get too far, here are some pictures so you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about.

Slam Fire Arrow

(Top left is focus “cost”, top right is number of runes revealed, and the text box shows effects depending on which runes are revealed.)

Representing Armor

One of the things I knew I wanted to be able to represent was armor. In the very early stages of designing this game, before I had designed any abilities, I had the notion that each character might have varying amounts of armor. You could reveal cards from a deck to see how much damage you absorbed. This was before I decided to lose the hit cards, and base all the abilities’ effects on the abstract cards. Once I hit upon the idea for seven runes, I realized that each of the runes could be primary for a particular class, which would help me to determine what sorts of bonuses each rune would grant. One of the first characters I designed, was the Paladin.

The Paladin’s primary rune would be the sun rune, which would also be used as the Paladin’s armor. The Paladin would be the only armored character, at least in terms of the game mechanics. Any time the Paladin would take damage, the player reveals three rune cards. If any of them are sun runes, the Paladin takes none of the damage. This is a very powerful ability, that greatly reduces how powerful the Paladin’s attacks can be. The effect is also very flavorful and gets across clearly that the Paladin is a heavily armored warrior.

Increased Flavor, Decreased Complexity

Each of the four melee characters was designed around a class feature. Each of these class features was something I knew I wanted to represent, but had originally imagined as various features of a single character. They are armor for the Paladin, rage for the Berserker, stealth for the Assassin, and responses for the Duelist. One of the great things about breaking these features up into different character classes, was that it greatly reduced the complexity of the game. Only one character has to worry about how armor works, and it won’t be hard to remember, because it’s such a major feature of the character. More to the point, that player won’t have to worry about stealth, or any of the other class features.

Designing the ranged characters was more difficult for me. Designing the Fire Archer came to me easily, but the Lightning Mage and Wolf Shaman were much trickier, and both eventually got scrapped. The two characters that replaced them are now two of my favorite characters, but I didn’t design them until I had already been playtesting the game for about a year.

Ranged Attacks, Increased Complexity

Before I could design any abilities, I had to decide whether the game would have a board, and how I would represent ranged attacks. Having a board was the simplest most evocative way to represent movement and ranged attacks from a flavor perspective. From a design perspective though, it increased the complexity. I consider simplicity a virtue in game design, but I’ve learned that complexity has its place. In this case it’s become one of the primary dynamics of the game. I’m still a believer in the virtue of simplicity in game design, but the process of actually designing a game from scratch has taught me that simple design is only better when it does the job just as well as a more complex design.

Another way that ranged attacks are represented in this game is that they can miss. Melee attacks always deal some amount of base damage, and have a chance to deal bonus damage depending on the runes you reveal. In contrast, ranged attacks deal damage only if you reveal a certain rune. In exchange, ranged attacks deal more damage when they hit – from a full rune deck the averages are the same. The potential to miss entirely with ranged attacks but not melee attacks is another evocative way to represent ranged attacks.

Taking into account the board and the runes, melee attacks and ranged attacks can both be unreliable. It’s much easier for an opponent to move out of range of a melee attack than it is for an opponent to move out of range of a ranged attack. They are unreliable in different ways, which means that the characters need to be played differently. Ranged characters need to pay close attention to their rune deck and know when to use which ability, while melee characters need to pay close attention to the board and know when to spend some resources on movement, or when it’s safe to go for a strong melee attack based on positioning. Of course both types of characters need to keep track of both, but these different play styles were totally unexpected outcomes of combining these two game elements. Let’s see those pictures again:

Slam-01 Fire Arrow

The Resource System

Before I ever play tested the game, I had lots of ideas for resource systems, but one of them stood out as the best. It’s no secret that the resource system is based on Planeswalker loyalty from Magic: The Gathering. For those of you not familiar with the resource system, you begin with a certain amount of loyalty. Some actions increase your loyalty, others spend it. This was a natural fit because you already can only play one action per turn, which is necessary to make the system work. The advantage of this system is that it is linked directly to your actions, which means that the cost and generation of the resources can be printed directly on the action cards. I noticed after designing this system that it’s become very common to do something similar in video games like Diablo III. Even though each character in that game technically has a different resource system, they all share in common that some abilities generate the resource while others spend it. It’s a fun feature for a system to have, because you always have options.

Plans for Future Entries

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this entry. In future entries I plan to write about: the difficult process of resolving timing rules for a game with simultaneous play and movement, and the simple solution it took me months to design; why the board wasn’t fun at first, and what I did to make it fun; major changes I’ve made to the game and the characters; the story concept and the artist who will be illustrating the game; ideas for the game that might be implemented in the future; and maybe some day I’ll talk about my personal life and how it relates to designing games.