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Happy New Year! In this, our third biweekly development blog, we'll explain how your Pathfinder Online character will grow and develop over time. Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: The ideas in this blog are subject to change based on feedback, testing, and further creativity on the part of the game designers. What we're sharing with you now is the starting point for our design, which represents a lot of our strategic thinking—but real-world development and testing may lead us down a different path!
Leveling Up on the Tabletop
For those of you who have never played the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game or any of its ancestors, a quick description of how characters work in the tabletop game is in order. Your character begins with a set of six ability scores that define your character: Strength, Dexterity, Consititution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. You select a race (such as human, elf, or dwarf) and a starting class (fighter, rogue, wizard, or the like), and you usually begin at "first level" in that class with some basic abilities (racial traits, class features, skills, and feats), a limited capacity to resist certain effects (Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saving throws), a few hit points that represent the amount of damage a character can withstand, some basic starting equipment, and a little bit of money. If you've chosen a spellcasting class, you'll also have access to low-level magic spells.
As you adventure, you accumulate experience points (XP), and at various thresholds, your character "levels up," getting better at specific skills, gaining new abilities, better resistances, more hit points, and—for spellcasters—access to more powerful spells. Every few levels, you're able to increase your basic abilities as well. Each level that you gain in your chosen class provides a somewhat predetermined package of improvements. You always have some choices to make, but for the most part your character's development in a particular class is structured by the game design itself.
At each level you can choose to advance in an existing class, or you can gain a level in a new class, becoming a multiclassed character. Or, if your character meets certain prerequisites, you may be able to add levels in a prestige class, which typically gives you better-than-average advancement in a narrow specialization.
At the earliest levels, characters are learning how to survive as adventurers, with a substantial risk of catastrophe every time they go exploring. At slightly higher levels, the characters have acquired some experience at their craft and can usually take on most opponents and win, especially if they work together with a team. As characters continue to level up, they will eventually become notable heroes, gaining access to all sorts of special abilities such as flight, remote viewing, and the ability to change shape and form. At the highest levels in the game, the characters are practically demigods, getting involved in world-shaking adventures and often venturing into other dimensions and planes to confront the most powerful opponents. At 20th level—the maximum level currently supported by the Pathfinder RPG—characters that haven't multiclassed earn a "capstone ability," a special and really cool power reserved for characters who chose to master a single class throughout their adventuring career.
Bringing Pathfinder to the Virtual World
This system of character advancement has been honed and refined in tabletop RPGs for more than 30 years, and it works very well there. However, it does not translate well to an MMO. The biggest among the many translation problems is that, unlike a tabletop game which may be played for a few hours per week, the online game is active at all times. Development of characters on the tabletop works because of the relatively slow pace the game is played. In the digital realm, that pace would result in characters moving through a 20-level development process in mere weeks, or even days. One of the design goals for Pathfinder Online is that characters should have a viable lifespan of at least five real-time years, so we need a system that has the potential to give players interesting things to do when developing their characters over a very long time, not just a few weeks.
Another problem is that in tabletop RPGs, all of the player characters are heroic adventurers. The things those types of characters do to advance and develop (exploring dangerous places, solving problems, encountering monsters, winning fights, and getting the treasure) aren't suitable for the wider range of character types you'll find in the online version of the game: characters who focus on harvesting, or crafting, or transporting, or managing towns and organizations, or being soldiers or spies or merchants. We need a character development system that will work for all these types of characters (and that will let players change their character's careers when they wish to do so).
Also, Pathfinder Online is going to focus primarily on the kinds of classic adventure content that the tabletop game features at moderate levels—exploring dangerous areas and confronting monsters and villains that are scary and dangerous, but not challenging cosmic horrors or universe-destroyers.
The Standard Models
Current MMOs generally use one of two common design plans for character development.
The first mimics the tabletop experience of gaining XP and leveling up, with the same idea that each level brings a package of improvements. This is the system in use in most fantasy theme park MMOs, including World of Warcraft. In these games, most characters are adventuring heroes, so the classic tabletop system is a better fit. One downside is that characters do eventually reach the "level cap"—the maximum level available in the game—and they can't progress further until the developers add more levels to the system. While players are waiting for that to happen, their characters usually engage in some kind of "end game" experience (such as guild raids) where the path of character development shifts to the acquisition of powerful magical items instead of enhancing characters directly.
The second common MMO design tries to capture a more "realistic" development process where characters become better at doing things by doing them repeatedly: when you swing a sword enough, you get better at sword swinging. This is system was used in the first successful mass market MMO, Ultima Online, and it's the system you'll find in the record-breaking single-player RPG Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. One problem with these kinds of systems is that they often encourage very strange behavior as characters do the thing needed to improve a skill even if doing it makes no sense, like jumping constantly while moving anywhere, or continuously firing spells off into the sky. At the far end of this behavior are macros and bots—software programs that take control of a character and have it do boring repetitive actions on behalf of a human player who is off doing something else with their life. This tends to break the immersive experience for players who are trying to engage with the game "normally."
A major problem with both of these solutions is that people who play more often have characters that are fundamentally better than those of people who play less. There's nothing less fun than finding out that the buddies you introduced to a cool MMO have out-leveled your PC, and you can't adventure with them anymore unless they choose to join you in content that is boring for them, or you play with them in content where your character is unlikely to be effective and is likely to die a lot.
The EVE Model
As many of you know by now, in the past several years, I had the opportunity to work at CCP Games, developer/publisher of EVE Online. EVE has a non-standard model for character development that solves many of the problems with both the classic leveling system and the "earn by doing" skill systems, and we're going to encapsulate some of those ideas into the Pathfinder Online design.
In EVE, characters learn skills in real time. Players need not do anything other than select a skill to train. Even when the player is logged off, the character continues to train the selected skill. Skill training only stops if a character has completed a path of training and hasn't already queued a new skill to start training immediately thereafter.
Skills in EVE often add bonuses to various activities, and are prerequisites for using a variety of in-game gear, so a character with a lot of skill points is usually very flexible, able to do a lot of different things, and able to use a lot of different gear. Yet a character with far fewer skill points can be just as good as the more skilled character in one specific area if the player focuses on training just that set of skills. This means that newer players can compete effectively with older players even though newer characters will never "catch up" in terms of total skill points trained.
There are a couple of downsides to the EVE system. First, it's pretty confusing, especially for new players. Figuring out how all the skills, bonuses, gear, and benefits interact is daunting. The system has been constantly developed for more than a decade and it is rich, deep, and complex. It rewards those who take the time to master its intricacies, but that complexity can be a barrier to entry for the player who just wants a more casual experience. Second, even if you do understand the system it can be a challenge to figure out "how to get from here to there"—that is, in what order to train skills to both maximize the value of the training and to engage in a fun way with the game while the skills are trained. There are lots of helpful advice sites that try to give some guidance in this process, but the sheer complexity of the system means there's no "right" answer for most players.
The upsides outweigh these downsides. One huge upside is that unlike almost every other MMO, your character gets better in EVE even when you're playing another game! That makes it easy to make EVE your "second" MMO, the game you play in addition to something else (like World of Warcraft). It also levels the playing field between people who can only put in a few hours a day (or a few a week), and those who can play continuously. Finally, it encourages characters to specialize, but doesn't inflict overt penalties if the player doesn't do so. No skill training is ever wasted—the worst scenario is that you wasted some time training a skill you're not going to use right away. Your character's advancement doesn't create dead ends or "worthless builds."
Character Development in Pathfinder Online
Now that you've got the background you need, let's take a look at what we're currently planning for our game. Your Pathfinder Online character will be described by four primary types of information.
Taken together, these four types of information describe your character's development. Add in the character's race, alignment, wealth, gear, and social connections, and you have a very complex matrix of potential character types.
But What about Levels and Classes?
We want the Pathfinder Online design to capture as much of the flavor of the tabletop game as possible, and we need to address the issue of classes and levels to achieve that. The Goblinworks team brainstormed on this idea extensively, and we think we've come up with a pretty novel solution.
In the tabletop Pathfinder RPG, you earn the benefits of a level all at once as you hit an experience point threshold. In Pathfinder Online, we've turned the system on its head: instead of using experience points as a prerequisite for improving in a skill, improving skills are part of the prerequisite for gaining new abilities. Your character must earn all the things needed to qualify for a new "level," and then you're rewarded with a special bonus. If you want to be a better rogue, you do roguish things and train roguish skills, and at a certain point, you receive a special merit badge recognizing a development milestone, rewarding you with a benefit for your persistence. Like class levels in the tabletop game, there will be 20 of these rewards available for each class type, creating a way to simulate a 20-level progression within our unique system.
Each of the base classes in the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook will be represented in the online game in this way, and in time we intend to add additional development paths to simulate prestige classes, archetypes, and base classes from other Pathfinder RPG content such as the Advanced Player's Guide and the Ultimate rulebooks.
These are the 11 basic development paths, which we refer to as archetypes. The key to each archtype is a skill tree that encourages characters to train a skill that is directly linked to their development in that archetype, in addition to many other skills.
We also wanted to capture the idea from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game that dedication to one path would have additional benefits. Therefore, if your character chooses to stay committed to one of these archetypes until it has achieved all 20 archetype merit badges, your character will earn an additional capstone ability! (A character can train in many other skills outside of their archetype skill tree and still progress towards the capstone ability—they just need to avoid training in the skill tree of a different archtype. Don't worry—if you accidentally start to train a skill tree outside your archetype, you'll be warned, the consequences will be explained, and you'll have a chance to change that decision before it's irrevocable!)
Of course, if you decide that it would be more interesting or fun for your character to training in the skills of more than one archetype, you'll still earn the appropriate class-type bonuses when you meet the prerequisites—you just won't be eligible for the final special capstone ability when you achieve the 20th merit badge in that archetype.
Reaching 20th Level
It won't be easy or quick to reach the 20th-level capstone in an archetype. Some of the prerequistes for archetype merit badges will be hard to achieve and will require your character to succeed in some extraordinary adventures. In terms of sheer time, I'd like to see the first 20th-level characters emerge around two-and-a-half-years after launch. Capstone-level characters should be unique, powerful individuals not commonly encountered.
And of course, reaching the capstone doesn't mean your character has to retire—you can continue training the same character with a different archetype if you like.
What about Everyone Else?
While we've focused somewhat on adventurers in this blog, it is our intention to give other types of characters similar goals and objectives—and similar rewards. If you choose to focus on crafting, you should be able to become an epic crafter with the perks and recognition due such a character. As development proceeds, we'll share more of our ideas about that with the community, and we'll get your feedback as we shape those plans.
A Quick Note about the Crusader Road
We're still gathering votes for the name of the wretched hive of scum and villainy we described in the previous blog. Be sure to visit this thread on the Pathfinder Online messageboards on paizo.com and cast your vote soon—we'll be announcing the name you've chosen in the next blog on January 18!
Discuss this blog on paizo.com.