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To Live and Die in the River Kingdoms

Hello again! In this, our fourth development blog, we'll be covering the strange and mysterious things that happen when a character dies in the Pathfinder Online MMO. But first, an important announcement!

The Winner Is...

Last month, we asked the community to help us name one of the three major NPC Settlements in the Crusader Road area, the geographical focus of the initial release of Pathfinder Online. After four weeks of voting, and in a squeaker of a victory (winning by just one-half of one percent of the votes!) the wretched hive of scum and villainy hidden within the Echo Wood shall be henceforth known as Thornkeep!

Thanks to everyone who voted!

We'll be describing Thornkeep, and its siblings Fort Inevitable and Fort Riverwatch in future blog posts, as well as the factions that call them home and the way they influence the security and politics of the areas around them.

What Happens When You Die

Death, and the penalties a character suffers for dying, impact a surprisingly large part of the Pathfinder Online game design. Goblinworks has been studying systems used in other MMOs, and we've been thinking about how we can make our own system interesting, and how it can reinforce our design goals. We've noticed that theme park MMOs have evolved toward increasingly minor penalties for character death, while sandbox games have tended toward harsher penalties. We've also paid special attention to the interaction that dying has with looting in player-vs-player (PvP) encounters, which is important since Pathfinder Online will allow unrestricted PvP in some locations.

The ideas described in this blog represent our current game design ideas and directions. They're subject to change as design progresses and as we get playtest and other feedback about them. You're encouraged to participate in the messageboard discussions about this topic as well—Goblinworks is always reading and listening to your comments.

Life During Wartime

Characters will die in Pathfinder Online, and die with regularity. If they died and were removed from the game forever that might be an interesting simulation, but it would make for a very empty and unwanted game. Your character will survive death—it's only a temporary setback.

When your character dies, your corpse will turn into a soulless husk on the spot. At the moment of death, a timer will begin to count down giving you a minute or two before anything else happens. If a nearby friend has the necessary magic, you may be restored to life right on the spot without any further drawbacks. If you are alone, or have no companions capable of resurrecting you, you'll have to deal with the fallout.

At the expiration of the countdown timer (or earlier if you opt to end the counter prematurely), your character will revive at a specific location that you've helped predetermine. Determining this location is a process we call "soulbinding." You will be able to select the location that your character is soulbound to, but only certain locations have the requisite soulstone needed for the binding. The distance between the location of your dead husk and your soulbinding point will often prove meaningful.

Your character will re-enter play at the soulbinding point holding and wearing whatever gear they had equipped when they died, so you won't have to start without your armor, or the weapons, wands, or staves you were using. However, until you return to your husk, you are in danger of losing the rest of your inventory. If you get to your husk before anyone else, you'll be able to get all your stuff back. However, if another player finds your husk before you do, they'll be able to loot it. They won't recover everything that you had in your inventory—just a random selection—but the rest of your inventory will be destroyed and removed from the game. If you die surrounded by allies, they can't just pick up all of your equipment for you, as doing so would cause some of it to be removed from the game, but your allies could attempt to defend your husk until you return to it, so that you lose nothing but travel time.

There is some incentive to strike down other players within this system, but it doesn't reward attackers with the full value of the defender's inventory. And it gives the chance of fully recouping all of their inventory to characters killed in player-vs-environment (PvE) encounters and characters with strong allies.

Many Shades of Grief

One thing that we're deeply committed to at Goblinworks is building a game that has a low tolerance for "griefing." Loosely defined, griefing means taking actions within the game that are designed to harass another player to elicit bad feelings without any other reasonable purpose. Griefing encompasses a wide spectrum of behavior, and there will be players who feel that they have been subjected to griefing while their opponents feel they're engaged in legitimate gameplay. An example is a group who attacks and kills trespassers in a certain area to deny access to that territory to other players. The people trying to get in might feel it's unfair that they keep getting attacked and killed, whereas the attackers feel completely justified in defending their territory. Goblinworks will be creating an organic, evolving policy on griefing to identify practices that we consider abusive. We will take severe action out-of-game against regularly abusive players, while less flagrant issues will be dealt with in-game by way of an innovative bounty system designed to deter unwanted aggression.

There have been attempts at bounty systems in many MMOs in the past, and they tend to have the same problem: If I put a reward on your character's head, you can arrange for one of your friends to kill your character, and you then split the reward with your friend. You're not deterred from doing whatever it was that caused me to place the bounty, and I've ended up giving you and your friend even more of my scarce resources.

Pathfinder Online's bounty system is a lot more selective. When you are murdered—that is, killed unlawfully—you will have the option to place a bounty on your killer's head. The twist is that you can specify who can redeem the bounty: a specific character, a chartered adventuring group, or members of a specific player organization. Everyone who is eligible to earn the bounty receives a notification, and if they encounter a character with a price on his head, they'll be reminded of the bounty outstanding on that character. You'll be able to put a bounty on any character who inflicted damage on you within a limited time preceding your character's death, and on their companions and those who rendered them assistance, so you can ensure that a gang of criminals suffers as much as a lone assassin.

We fully expect that there will be characters who become specialized bounty hunters, tracking down and redeeming bounties and earning acclaim (which will translate into more commissioned bounties). These characters would never want their reputations besmirched by the idea that they'd be splitting the bounties with the targets, so the social reputation of these characters will dictate how successful they are at this role. Furthermore, we expect that some players will form bounty-hunting organizations, and those organizations will also need to maintain scrupulous reputations as agents of vengeance rather than agents of collaboration. Knowing that these experienced and deadly foes may be lawfully unleashed to hunt down and kill murderers will be a powerful deterrent to griefing.

Oh, and one more twist: Each time the bounty is paid, the victim has the option to issue it again. And again. A wealthy victim could maintain the price on the head of a murderer for a very long time—forever, if they like. Murder the wrong person, and you might find your character reduced to a life constantly on the run, or you may need to try to heal the breach via penance and apology (and likely restitution).

Bounties can only be issued when a character unlawfully kills another. Killing an opponent as a part of a declared war, or in an area that does not have laws against murder, will not trigger the bounty system. The intent is to deter characters from arbitrarily attacking and killing others simply for fun. Of course, those who simply wish to avoid any PvP at all will choose to remain within the very high security zones close to NPC settlements where PvP is effectively impossible. Such players will have fewer opportunities to find adventure or to earn treasure than their braver and less risk-averse peers, but they'll be safe from griefers.

Security, Risk and Reward

The closer you come to an NPC settlement, the faster the NPCs can respond to hostile actions taken against you. The NPCs establish a zone of hexes around each NPC settlement creating an area of relative safety (compared to the uncontrolled wilderness). In the hexes containing and immediately adjacent to the NPC settlement, magical effects make it impossible for one character to attack another unless the characters are in war—warfare being a future blog topic of some length!

Outside this immediate zone of total safety, the NPCs of the settlement will respond with a system we are calling "marshals." NPC marshals will respond to acts of aggression near their settlement by traveling to the location of the infraction and killing the aggressor. Because the marshals are dispatched from specific locations, their time to reach the site of the conflict will depend on how far away the fight is from the marshals' barracks. However, the marshals will be relentless—if the transgressors somehow manage to kill the initial team, more will follow. NPC marshals will have not only strength in numbers but access to magical abilities the players don't have, like perfect tracking abilities and the ability to render a target immobile.

The intent of this system is to create a zone where an attack on a target may succeed... but the attacker will almost always be slain as well. At the edges of the security zone, it may be possible for a swift assault to destroy a target and still give the attackers time to flee before the marshals arrive. Those attackers will still be flagged as criminals, and they may also suffer alignment shifts as a result of their actions. There will be a cooldown timer imposed as well, and if the targets reenter the secured area during this time, the marshals will respond again. After the timer expires, the marshals will not respond to the reappearance of the target in their patrolled lands.

This system interacts with the soulbinding system described above. If you've been attacked within the security zone of your settlement, your attackers will likely be dead—or at least long gone—so you have a chance to return to your husk and recoup your lost inventory. Of course, teams of players acting together—but not forming parties or aiding and abetting each other—may be prepared to loot your husk even if the attacking characters flee, so there are no guarantees.

This creates a continuum of risk from total safety to relative danger. Within secured areas, the rewards that are available are scaled as well. The resources that can be harvested from hexes adjacent to NPC settlements are low-value commodities. The PvE locations that spawn in these hexes also have the easiest monstrous creatures holding the least valuable treasure. The more risk you accept by going further from NPC Settlements, the more valuable the resources and the more challenging and rewarding the PvE encounters become, until you emerge fully into the uncontrolled wilderness where the highest-valued resources and PvE content will be found.

Avoiding Exploits

There are several types of PvP-related exploits that Pathfinder Online will implement systems to restrict.

If you choose to disconnect from the game when you come under threat, your character will remain vulnerable in the virtual world for a fixed amount of time, and if engaged during this time, will not be removed until the character is either killed or left alone for an extended period. Logging off will not be an escape hatch to avoid conflict.

If you attempt to heal or buff characters who are in the act of attacking others, even if you are not a member of the same group or social organization as those you're healing, you'll be subject to the same penalties as the criminals you've chosen to associate with. Likewise, if you debuff, dispel, or banish assets of characters engaged in PvP, you'll be tagged with the same penalties as those your targets are fighting if they should die. In both cases, you'll make yourself a legitimate target for retribution during the fight—your opponents won't become criminals by acting to stop you from aiding their enemies.

There will be a strong focus given to the AI mechanics of monstrous creatures to avoid the problem of letting one character "train" or "kite" them into conflict with unaffiliated characters, getting the monsters to do their dirty work. We'd rather see a train of monsters run right past a party of vulnerable characters while they continue to chase the characters who triggered their ire, rather than stop and attack the easier new targets, even though that's a bit of an immersion breaker.

We're going to be especially mindful of the balance between characters who are harvesters and transporters and those characters who may be created as disposable "gankers"—characters designed to hit soft targets repeatedly for grief even though the result may be that the character is banned. The security zone system itself will help with this a bit, but we will also have ways to make potential gankers spend such significant amounts of time and attention that it will dissuade all but the most hardcore griefers from bothering. And those offenders will be dealt with out-of-game.

Our Philosophy of Fun

You can see that we're trying to avoid some of the problems that afflict other sandbox MMOs while still retaining open-world PvP, providing the risks that make your fellow players meaningfully dangerous, and thus a great source of stories! Pathfinder Online is going to be a place where law-abiding characters who just want to focus on PvE and chaotic berzerkers and highwaymen can all follow their destinies.

Death is a setback, not a final rest. The amount of risk you accept in the event of your character's death also determines the glory and rewards the character can potentially find as they explore, develop, adventure and dominate in the River Kingdoms!

Discuss this blog on paizo.com.