Since the first part was entirely focused through the lens of Warcraft’s talent trees, I wanted to spend a bit more time on the topic and give other examples as my understanding broadened over time.
The next targets for this was Defense of the Ancients, League of Legends and soon after D&D, with what I refer to as parallel progression. In DoTA/LoL, your character levels up over the course of the game and you choose the progression of their powers. Additionally, you purchase gear for them, and there are dozens of choices to make. However, once more, the online community was calculating what the optimal builds were.
That moment when you need a flowchart to help you understand the gear system.
Here it began to sink in the multitude of choices being made in rapid succession, say over a 30 minute match, and then in the following match you were repeating the same decisions. The rapid succession as well as repetition were key, whereas in Warcraft, you make the decisions once and you’re done. I began to see each character not as having meaningful choices, but that they build according to the strength or role of the character and that this choice is an inevitable procession. Therefore, why have a choice in the matter.
League of Legends added a meta-level to the game with a player level that was independent of the character’s level during game. The player had access to 2 spells out of several. They also had a talent and glyph system that looked oddly familiar. The glyph system was really a way to milk the free-to-play model as players had to squirrel away currency to buy these. Both the glyphs and talents became an example of parallel progression that I ranted about earlier. They weren’t so much decisions as things you did that mirrored the way you were building the character.
LoL’s talent system
LoL’s glyph system
I felt Heroes of the Storm varied only slightly from this. It has a simplified character level system, but removes the gear choices and the option in what order to select and level powers. There’s no gear and you have access to all powers out the gate with them automatically leveling with you. Instead, you get a talent system that offers a series of choices every few levels. Once more, the repetition come into play and after looking through guides, there were very clearly right and wrong mathematical answers. A few times you had a choice based on something that was situationally better, but not often enough. I liked the idea of some of the melee characters building either as tank or dps based on their talents, but that dichotomy was more of an illusion since the character had a very dominant path they were meant for to be effective. There was a meta-level system that was still linked to the character and not the player. You essentially accrued experience for using the character that opened up new talent options during game and new skins, a way to stagger the amount of information a player needed to learn a character. But there was no outside talent or glyph system to juggle. The best thing that can be said for Heroes of the Storm, it streamlined the genre for a more casual player.
I’ve ranted before about racial abilities in D&D. I pick the race that offers me the stat bonuses I want for my class. I buy magical gear with the same bonuses in mind. It’s a linear number progression, but it’s separated out over not just a number of decisions, but a variety of decisions – race, stats, gear, multi-classing/prestige classes, talents and skills, flaws/merits. If you ever try the 3.5 variant for gestalt wherein you level up in 2 classes simultaneously, you see a whole new absurdity to the game’s math (but it’s an interesting test of how well you can work the system if that’s your thing).
When I began designing my own rpg, Rylera, I found I was still making this mistake, inserting parallel development into the basic character creation. Pick your primary stats, then select skills to focus on, which are already boosted by those primary stats. Pick talents to add flourish to the play style you’re already building for etc. It was the model handed down in most rpgs and I was still at a point as a designer I was mimicking things without questioning them.
So I scrapped the system and started over, each time asking, what does this decision add to the game? I began to think of the design in terms of sculpture. Assuming you had a massive block of marble in front of you, and all you have is a chisel to remove pieces of it and give it shape, you carefully consider each piece you remove in terms of whether or not it is best left in place. Is the sculpture more beautiful with that extra piece of stone in tact? Will removing it detract from the big picture? To be clear, in this metaphor, you can’t add anything, you’re cutting away the imperfections or that which does not serve the design goal.