Elemental Simplicity

So today I’m going to ramble a bit about part of one of the projects I’m working on this year, this one with my wife. It’s a video game, retro RPG style, with some deliberate choices being made to break traditions and sacred cows of the games in that overly broad genre. You’ll likely get rambles from me about various design bits until we get it finished. Today, it’s the existence of elements.

If you’ve ever played a JRPG, you’re familiar with the ridiculous profusion of elements that tend to crop up; we go well beyond the Greek or Chinese models, with peculiar elements like Holy, Death, Gravity, and so on. They all interact in different ways, and give rise to all sorts of game design silliness as the designers try to give you reasons to use all of them. You’ll likely see some basic enemy reflavored into each of them, over and over, so that there’s an excuse for you to use whatever they’re most vulnerable to. Most of the time you won’t bother, unless your preferred abilities are something they’re immune to.

This is the kind of thing that can easily get out of hand; do you really want to worry about packing around a spell, weapon, and armor for a dozen different elements so that you can be sure you can handle anything the game throws at you? Probably not; it’s an artificial barrier to progress, and exists to slow you down so the publisher can say the game is n hours long when it’d be half of that without the artificial difficulty and grinding stacked onto it. (Alternately, it could be an attempt to model a complex world to video game standards, or a way for the developer to justify Really Cool Spell Effects. These are both valid, if not really needed.)

We’ve batted around the options; I started with an 11-element system before deciding it was overly complicated and silly, then we pared it down to an option of 3, 4, or 5 element sets, possibly mirroring familiar systems, before settling on three for the sake of simplicity and ease of use. Given that there are just the two of us, keeping things as uncomplicated as possible seems like a good plan, because it gives us more room for the story.

After noodling around with variants on a familiar theme (fire, ice, and lightning, the ‘holy trinity’ of many damage sets), we’ve settled on Storm, Volcano, and Forest as our elements. This lets us group elemental effects under three damage types while keeping visual variety. Storm contains ice, water, wind, and lightning; Volcano handles fire, earth, and metal; and Forest handles plants, poisons, animals, and so on. It also allows for a fairly simple and logical elemental dominance cycle; Volcano beats the Forest, the Forest beats the Storm, and the Storm beats the Volcano.

This detail is important, because it simplifies everything related to damage effects. An enemy with the Volcano element attached will be vulnerable to Storm magic, regardless of what it is, and resistant to Forest magic. This simple book-keeping allows for a great deal more effort to be put elsewhere, making for what will hopefully be a richer experience all the way around. We’ll also have to worry less about producing items with elemental themes, since players won’t need a Void Sword to defeat a Holy Angel in the only Holy-themed dungeon in the entire game.

Ultimately, when designing a game like this, a campaign for tabletop play, or a setting for a story, this is something to think about. You don’t want to make things more complicated than they absolutely need to be; cosmetic effects (like lightning and chunks of ice visuals on a Storm power) can add the details and nuance to simple bases.

Today, maybe look at something of yours and ask if “Because I Can” or “That’s How It Is” are getting in the way of your gaming being better via simplicity.

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Elemental Simplicity

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