RPGs are just pretty spreadsheets

The latest incarnation of RPG Maker just launched, and it’s got me thinking about RPG game design again. It doesn’t take much, admittedly. There’s a lot to like about RPG Maker MV, and I’m looking forward to working with it, but there’s one thing that really stands out to me – it does a horrible job of showing how to actually balance and grow an RPG.

This isn’t something new to the MV incarnation; they’ve all been pretty horrible at this, but it’s more noticeable now because the default project database is much smaller than in older versions. When you make a new game project, it comes pre-populated with some defaults: some characters and their classes, skills, monsters and so on. In the previous incarnation of RPG Maker, these were quite extensive lists, and you could have feasibly just built a (admittedly not very imaginative) game around them. In MV, there are far fewer default examples provided.

That’s not so bad, as you generally end up tweaking or deleting all of these defaults anyway. But without them there, it does make visualising how they should all fit together much harder, especially for beginners new to crafting their own RPG systems.

Everything is interconnected

How much health the players should have is related to how much damage the monsters should be doing, how dangerous you want each encounter to be, and how many resources (be they healing potions, or MP spent on healing, or whatever) you want to spend per fight. How much damage the player receives is related to their defence statistics and their equipment. Likewise, monster health should be considered in light of the player’s damage output, which is further tempered by resource costs, which ties into gold and item drops from monsters. How many fireballs can you cast before you run out of MP, and how many monster kills does that equate to? What does that make the cost of an MP restoring item? Now multiply this out by a whole party of player characters, all with differing skills and effective niches.

It can be a little daunting – but also fun, if you’re of the right mindset. To the spreadsheets!

But if you’re not so interested in that side of things, or you haven’t ever given much thought to balancing all these numbers, some defaults would be nice to learn from, right? Which is a shame, because MV’s defaults are a little puzzling. Let’s take Fire and Spark, for example. We’ll have to use those, as they’re the only magic-based offensive spells provided in a new project.

Fire costs 5 MP, hits one target, and applies damage based on this formula:

damage = 100 + (caster.magic_attack * 2) – (target.magic_defence * 2)

Some base damage (100), which scales up as the caster’s magic attack stat grows, either through levelling up or gaining better equipment.

Let’s compare that with Spark, a spell which also costs 5 MP, but which hits all enemies, instead of just one. Its damage formula is:

damage = 100 + (caster.magic_attack * 2) – (target.magic_defence * 2)

Wait. That’s exactly the same. For the same cost, you can hit multiple targets for just as much damage, making Spark scale ridiculously efficiently as the number of targets you face increases.

There are other things than just base MP cost that could be used to mitigate this. You could adjust the damage formula and set a much wider damage variance, so you end up with a spell that swings between little fizzles and huge hits. You could make spells crit, and adjust the likelihood of that happening. You could only give powerful spells that scale like Spark to classes with very small MP pools, making it an expensive option.

The default set up of a new project does none of these things. We see similar laziness in the physical attacks and monsters provided; the new game database is a terrible tool if you’re a learn-by-example kind of person. Even VX’s Quick Damage button is gone. When you want to invent a new skill or monster, with no examples to crib from, you’re left with two options: make an educated guess, tweak the numbers, playtest, adjust, over and over until everything feels right, or plan out your own balancing in detail and in advance. I guess it really is time to hit the spreadsheets…

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