Thoughts on character/skill tree design

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Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Brother Laz » Thu Feb 19, 2004 6:43 pm

Six months after the alpha... ehm, final release of 1.10, no one is actually using the new possibilities offered by our dear friend Isolde except for a bunch of people like me, Joel and Char who mod and mod and never release anything. This is intolerable.

So allow me to share my thoughts on character design, compiled from a pile of about thirty character skill trees of mine that never made it into an actual mod. Time constraints.

The Paladin Philosophy

The paladin has exactly 1 skill tree. One of the skills in this tree is a buff, so that leaves all of 9 actual combat skills. Still, the paladin was the most varied character in classic D2 and would still be in LoD if not for the existence of physical immunities.

Why? Because all of his combat skills are different, and usable.

1.1 When designing a character from scratch, do the combat skills first.

You may have a nice balor graphic from god knows where and you can't wait to make a summoning spell out of it. Don't. Wait until you have finished the combat skills - direct damage spells, melee attacks, traps, anything that is primarily intended to do damage.

No matter how reliant on minions, curses, passives and so on your character will be, DO THE COMBAT SKILLS FIRST. I don't care if your minion can teleport, steal life, invert time and dance the macarena.

Combat skills are what determines how your character will play. Get in close or not? Keep moving or stand still? Gather the enemies together in a bunch or string them out?

1.2 Make it as hard as possible to hit enemies.

So you are looking at an empty character tree, and the first thing you do is implement that 'Mega Nova Of Uber Destruction' skill. Don't. The idea is not to make a lot of fireworks, but to make your skills fun to use. Save the fireworks for the summons and all the other irrelevant skills.

Make sure you actually have to aim your skills. Even FO needs to be aimed; it does more damage if it explodes on enemies. Nova has a short range. Most skills in regular LoD need to be aimed in some way, but the less aiming is required, the sooner they start to get boring. Dentist necros don't stay fun for long.

If you make it very hard to hit enemies [very short ranged, missile that accelerates, boomerang effect that does more damage on its way back, etc], it is just more fun to use those skills without missing or getting killed, than it is to just spam Screen-Wide Destruction™ and watch everything keel over.

You need at least eight combat skills, preferably ten or more, and all of them should be as different as possible, and none should become obsolete later on. This is the hardest part of character design. I assume you have a general theme around which your character revolves, but ignore that for the moment. Just invent a dozen different combat skills.

Ranged/mage checklist:

- A couple of skills that get better if the enemies are stacked together.
- A couple of skills that get better if the enemies stand still.
- A couple of skills that hit multiple enemies regardless of placement.
- A couple of short ranged skills, or skills that get better at short range.
- A couple of point-and-click spells [this one mostly applies to mages].

Melee checklist:

- At least two area effect physical melee attacks.
- A melee attack that renders you more vulnerable but increases damage.
- A melee attack that gets better if the enemy stands still.
- A melee attack that knocks the enemy [or an area] backwards.

1.3 If you can't speed its killing power, it appears to be too slow.

Hurricane and especially poison nova are frustrating skills. No matter how good you are, you won't kill faster than a total newbie if you use these skills. Solution: if it's poison, give it some built-in danger factor that makes it hard to reapply before it runs out without getting killed. Poison inferno is better than poison bolts. Poison teeth sucks. Poison boulder would be great. [disclaimer: I'm talking skill mechanics here, not graphics].

1.4 Weapon user means weapon user.

Don't put in so many elemental attacks that your weapon becomes irrelevant, and do not heed the little demon that wants you to ignore area effect melee attacks that do weapon damage, just because they're a female dog to make, and it's very hard to come up with working ideas for them. The assassin's martial arts tree is dire - all the finishing moves are physical oriented, yet the only area effect attacks are elemental. Obviously, this renders one or the other side of the tree useless.

1.5 Melee skills bite.

Get used to it. Melee skills are very hard. So here are some things you can do:

Area effect melee skills: take charged strike, change it to emit 1 bolt, change this bolt to not collide with anything, not move, have a 'range' [duration] of 1, and set AlwaysExplode to 1. Now you can give this bolt any collision function you want. This is the default way to get area effect melee skills. The obvious one is a melee skill that causes a fireball explosion on the target.

Self-buff melee skills: concentrate is a boring attack, but you can change its buff effect to make it a lot more interesting. How about a melee attack that renders you immune to enemy attacks for a couple of frames while you're swinging? Or one that adds a massive amount of damage, but increases the damage you take if someone hits you out of your attack swing? For two-handed weapon users, you can do the same with frenzy, by the way.

1.6 Bow skills sting.

The big problem with bow skills is that unless they are based on strafe or guided arrow, you can't give them enhanced damage per skill level. Bleh. Solution: build some other disadvantage into the skill, and upgrade this with skill level. Range of radius attacks, for example. Detection range for homing skills. Number of missiles fired. Or if all else fails, add % conversion to elemental damage based on skill level.

1.7 If you must have pre-reqs, make them different, not better or worse.

An example would be the assassin's CBS and LS traps. CBS is a pre-req for LS, but both skills are useful, and in totally different places. Likewise, bone spear is a pre-req for bone spirit, but is also a wholly different skill, and very useful in its own right. Charged strike and lightning strike... fissure and volcano...

Avoid doing it the amazon way: there is absolutely zero reason to pick any of the lower elemental arrows, or lightning bolt, or poison javelin, or power strike over their higher level counterparts. That's a lot of wasted slots.

The Necromancer Philosophy

So you have your 10 combat skills, and need 20 more. As mentioned above, they are irrelevant, even if you want the player to rely on them. They don't change your combat tactics. All minions are essentially the same.

Seeing as we're trying to make as many diverse character builds as possible, you need a way to make those 'wasted' minion skill slots count. In other words, make sure your minions do something else than just tank. Damage reflection, cold damage, stun, slow and so on are good options.

2.1 Make yourself suck

A good way to create variety is by adding as many conflicting skills as possible. Make sure there are multiple different skills fighting over corpses, over thorns damage, and so on. Good combinations are cold damage + thorns, stun + thorns, conversion + cursing minions, freeze shatter + corpse skills,... Make sure that your combat skills also participate in this mess. This ensures that you will have a variety of character builds that are totally different from each other.

This is also why it's called the 'Necromancer Philosophy'. Disregarding bad balancing, necromancers can use a lot of different minions and curses, but many of these will conflict with each other, ensuring that a necromancer player will have to choose between several completely different builds.

For example, skeletal mages don't work well with IM due to the chill from the cold mages. What does work is fire golem + IM. Likewise, IG + decrepify is a bad idea, but RS + decrepify isn't.

The result is that a necromancer using skeletal mages and lower resist plays very differently compared to a necromancer using revives and iron maiden. Not bad for those 'wasted minion slots'.

By the way, a mini-example of 'skills fighting each other' is the druid's summoning tree. In an ideal world, people who pick spirit of barbs would avoid grizzly bear because it stuns. Likewise, the bear's knockback doesn't complement volcano too well, and neither does the chill and stun of most wind skills complement spirit of barbs. Of course, in the real world no one uses SoB, but getting the balance right is your problem.

2.2 Nice, but why should I?

You may ask, why try and make those anti-synergies? It only reduces the number of builds.

Answer: because otherwise there is no difference between your builds. An example of a sucky setup is the sorceress' skill tree. Except for the ice blast + firewall combo, everything works with everything. The result is a myriad of builds... that are the exact same. There is no difference between a frozen orb + meteor sorc and a frozen orb + firewall sorc or even a blizzard + firewall sorc. They all play the exact same, require the same items, the same strategies, only the aiming is different. This also gives rise to the idea of uberskills and unterskills.

On the other hand, there is so much difference between a necromancer using IG and amp and one using skeletal mages and LR that you can't really say that one is better than the other, unless it's bleeding obvious as is the case in unmodded Isolde's Balancing Disaster™. Give the iron golem ED% per level and some more hit points, and it's no longer an obvious choice. It's also way easier to balance this than it is to balance two very similar skills, which will save you a lot of headaches.

2.3 By the way...

...you can give your minions hit-skill curses with a radius and duration based on a parameter, and pass this parameter on to the minion in the summoning skill entry. Then add a passive that modifies this parameter. This is how you can make passives that 'Give Crusader Minions the Ability to Slow Targets By XX%' or 'Cause Spirit Bear Minions to Blink Invulnerable for X Frames When Struck'.

The Druid Philosophy

So you have a bunch of combat skills, minions and their passives, now what? Answer: invent 'something cool' that involves stat buffs and/or auras.

In layman's terms: just invent a new way to buff your party.

How about a spell that targets corpses and summons a stationary aura ward? An aura ward that doesn't require a corpse, but has a very short range? Or just slap an aura on the weakest minion in your skill tree.

Either way, if it participates in the Conflicting Skill War™ by requiring corpses or specific minions or perhaps other minions to tank for your weak aura minion, it's game.

Copy this skill 3 times, each time with a totally different aura. Make sure that at least one of these is thorns, to further advance the case of the Conflicting Skill War™.

3.1 Heal the world

Maybe all your characters need a way to heal people or themselves? Don't fall for the trap of giving each char ONE way to heal their merc [think War3 death knight!]. You can have a myriad of different ways to be nice to others and yourself.

Instant point-and-click healing; healing missile; life stealing missile [use the 'life' element, and add some physical damage to make it work]; healing ward; healing spirit; regeneration passive; AoE healing; AoE life stealing missile... there, you have another 2-3 skills per character class.

3.2 Do something totally different.

Is your character a spellcaster? Add a few melee attacks. Is your character a fighter? Add some spells. These add variety, even though they are usually less good than the character's main attacks. But the important thing is that a] it allows players to make a completely different character, something like the meleemancer, bladesin, FoHadin etc.; b] you have another three slots covered.

It doesn't matter if those skills are not very inspired, or just copies of [melee] skills from your other character. That's not the point.

3.3 Conflicting Passives War™

Still need more skills? Then add some passives that only serve to advance the case of the Conflicting Skill War™.

3.4 Still not enough? Add some crap skills.

By now, you should have at least 22-26 skills. Fill the remaining few annoying slots with random useless skills that look pretty. This is how Blizzard invented cyclone armor™ and cloak of shadows™. Who knows, they may be good for something. But if you make them look real pretty, people will see them and praise you and your mod.

A more honest way to fill those last slots is by adding random passives and [de]buff skills. A passive that increases all stats by a percentage, a debuff that drops the red-mag of nearby enemies, an enchantment that increases the target player's damage but decreases their red-dmg...

Of course, these kinds of skills are a last resort to fill those last few damned slots, not the first thing to do. If you remember just one thing of this way too long and confused treatise, this should be it.

Typical skill distribution

- 10 direct damage skills, of which at least 6 are weapon attacks, or in case of mages, distributed over at least 3 elements, one of which is cold.
- 3 summoning skills
- 4 summoning-related passives
- 3 direct damage corpse related skills [corpse traps, CE, etc.]
- 3 non-damaging corpse related skills [aura wards, etc.]
- 3 direct damage skills of the opposite kind [see 3.2]
- 4 random passives

=)

[Edit 10.03.2004: fixed typo [IM -> LR]; removed part about stacking auras because it doesn't actually work]
Last edited by Brother Laz on Wed Mar 10, 2004 9:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Joel » Thu Feb 19, 2004 6:53 pm

/me falls on his knees, thansk Skarra for such a blessing and inscribe Laz name all over his temple \o/

Great piece of work. I think ti's worth a post at the main site :D
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by BorgKing » Thu Feb 19, 2004 8:33 pm

Wow Brother Laz, very nice post. Very informative and well put out. You raise many good points, and I think everyone should read this.

Most Excellent :) :good:
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by ChaoticDeath » Fri Feb 20, 2004 12:21 am

Very Very nice! Im waiting on the sorceress philoshophy. :)

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Rattlecage » Fri Feb 20, 2004 1:48 am

Wow Laz! Good stuff! It's cool to see that we share some of the same phylosophies. :) :spank:
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Myhrginoc » Fri Feb 20, 2004 2:46 am

Very nice, certainly worth a sticky pin. :mrgreen:
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Rattlecage » Fri Feb 20, 2004 5:25 am

You know, after reading this over a second time, I realized that there really is a reason why I find sorcs to be really boring to play as.
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by pmpch » Wed Feb 25, 2004 3:51 pm

Very nice.

The main problem is that barely anybody can manipulate skills like Joel and yourself. Waiting for Joel's Skill Tut..... :mrgreen:
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Char » Mon Mar 01, 2004 1:39 am

definitely a nice post, and thanks for mentioning me, although i just modify the skills that are already existant (and therefore, i dont make the sorceress really more interesting). i found a slightly other way to increase the skill needed to play a sorceress (its called random immunities).

i agree with you in most of the parts, though not all. i guess there are some other interesting ways (like for example the random immunities) as well to get more interesting characters. it doesnt necessarily have to be done all with the skills.
however, i wanted to add an (i think) very important point:

NEVER EVER do a skill that is vitally important.

if you do a character skill that just EVERY build of a certain class has, you did something very wrong. this reduces diversity in character builds. there are some skills in d1 and d2 / lod that are that way, for example natural resistance, or, in diablo1 times, mana shield. battle orders is such an evil skill, too.

another thing: make it possible that your players play the mod more defensive or more offensive. the important part is that both styles have to work. defiance is a nice aura giving really nice defense bonuses, but that doesnt help if noone actually uses it due to the fact that you kill too slow by far if you do.

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by kingpin » Mon Mar 01, 2004 2:30 am

The main problem is that barely anybody can manipulate skills like Joel and yourself. Waiting for Joel's Skill Tut.....
Well, there are quite many I know that can. But, special Laz do this in his own special nice way :)

A very nice post.

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by mouse » Wed Mar 03, 2004 4:51 pm

Brother Laz";p="155815" wrote: 2.3 By the way...

...you can give your minions hit-skill curses with a radius and duration based on a parameter, and pass this parameter on to the minion in the summoning skill entry. Then add a passive that modifies this parameter. This is how you can make passives that 'Give Crusader Minions the Ability to Slow Targets By XX%' or 'Cause Spirit Bear Minions to Blink Invulnerable for X Frames When Struck'.
is what you are talking about doing assigning a critter say, 2 skills, the second of which is a passive set to the same level as the caster's passive, then basing skill one off this passive?

im not sure i see how to make this compatible with hit-skill though?

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Aello » Wed Mar 10, 2004 4:10 am

can i give you (laz) a dollar? ;)
is what you are talking about doing assigning a critter say, 2 skills, the second of which is a passive set to the same level as the caster's passive, then basing skill one off this passive?

im not sure i see how to make this compatible with hit-skill though?
if you have a hit-skill (or other event-triggered skill) called "myhitskill", you would create a set of stats "myhitskillstat[X]" which impact the effects of "myhitskill". then you can apply various "myhitskillstat[X]" to the summon in the skill which summons it.

not sure why you'd need a passive though, since you can assign "myhitskillstat[X]" based purely on your levels in associated skills, unless you need it to apply a formula to the value of "myhitskillstat[X]" prior to when "myhitskill" uses it.

not sure if that was intelligible.

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Joel » Wed Mar 10, 2004 10:33 am

What we do is the following.

We create a minion which monprop contains a get-hit-skill prop based on stat called minion_passive.

Then the minion get passive stat :
minion_passive 10+skill('Minion Passive'.lvl)*par8)
for example

Then we give the player the Minion Passive skill that can be pumped.
So you pump the passive, you summon the minion that get passive stat too that raise his get hit skill ^^
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by DeClineD » Wed Mar 10, 2004 7:15 pm

Laz> Can't you just mail me your brain...? :mrgreen:
I would pay a good deal for it! :mrgreen:
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Brother Laz » Wed Mar 10, 2004 7:29 pm

/me puts that dollar into his personal vault. :)

@ Aello: wah! you will surely be trod by the abhorrent beast, unless you adhere to the secret way preserved by the Sacred Shining Path. :twisted: You can indeed make the hit-skill based entirely on minion skill level, but very often it is better to make it based on a separate passive.

Especially since we're feeding the fires of the Conflicting Skill Wars™. For example, you could give a minion the ability to deal stun damage, and the ability to reflect damage. This will result in two very distinctive build paths, which is what we want [The Necromancer Philosophy™]. Putting both in one skill reduces variety and is thus not a good idea.

Especially in this case. Increasing both stun length and thorns damage with the same skill is something Joel almost did, but not very practical in real life. Think about it.

......

And even if you have just one special effect, it is better to place it on a separate passive because it increases the # of skills, looks sophisticated and is just much more professional.

Would anyone want to see necroskeletons with amplify built in, or necromages with lower resist? Would anyone want to see paladins with no aura skills, but with a fanaticism aura built into their zeal skill, a conviction aura built into vengeance, and a thorns aura built into conversion?
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Aello » Thu Mar 11, 2004 10:26 am

*bork* miscommunication i think.
not sure why you'd need a passive though, since you can assign "myhitskillstat[X]" based purely on your levels in associated skills, unless you need it to apply a formula to the value of "myhitskillstat[X]" prior to when "myhitskill" uses it.
my point was that it doesn't have to be a *passive* skill, any skill will do. so your skeleton could get enhanced attack rate from your fanaticism aura for example. (whether or not you actually want to do this is up to you, but you have the option).

personally, i dislike too many passive skills.

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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Brother Laz » Thu Mar 11, 2004 4:34 pm

Aello";p="159966" wrote:personally, i dislike too many passive skills.
Me too *ahem amazon barbarian cough*

But summoning skills is about the only place where passives are justified, because you can increase the number of different builds based on summoning skills if you put in a couple of Conflicting Passives™. Passives and other buffs that boost direct damage skills or personal stats [natural resist, battle orders, etc.] tend to be big black holes that suck up points and give nothing fun in return, which sucks.

[Edit 1: removed rant about linear fire mastery]
[Edit 2: grammar bugs]
Last edited by Brother Laz on Thu Mar 11, 2004 4:39 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Joel » Thu Mar 11, 2004 4:48 pm

the char stat passives are bad. Even in unmodded game, they are outstandingly better than anything else :|
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Post by Maxx Power » Mon Dec 05, 2005 6:31 pm

The best part of this article is that Median disobeys many if not all of these guidelines. Do as I say, not as I do, aye Laz? :cool:

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Post by SilverShadowHell » Mon Dec 05, 2005 10:42 pm

Maxx Power";p="250266" wrote:The best part of this article is that Median disobeys many if not all of these guidelines. Do as I say, not as I do, aye Laz? :cool:
Oooh but I think it does (exept passives as Median_2 has only one passive), Only that having only one char skill tree he did like a hybrid between caster and mage
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by Incompetent » Tue Dec 06, 2005 1:20 am

Perhaps that's Laz's greatest lesson: however inspired a modder he is, don't take him too seriously ;)

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Post by Brother Laz » Tue Dec 06, 2005 8:52 am

SilverShadowHell";p="250293" wrote:
Maxx Power";p="250266" wrote:The best part of this article is that Median disobeys many if not all of these guidelines. Do as I say, not as I do, aye Laz? :cool:
Oooh but I think it does (exept passives as Median_2 has only one passive), Only that having only one char skill tree he did like a hybrid between caster and mage
:mrgreen:

......

Exactly. I have only a limited amount of skill slots, and don't want to spend any on passives. Passives are a good way to fill up skill slots when you don't have enough real skills, which isn't the problem in M_2 but starts to be an issue if you have actual class-specific skill trees.

Summoning skills tend to be very powerful, which is why the necromancer is so weak otherwise, but then the character should be balanced around the summoning skills, which in M_2's case would force everyone to have minions (not that this isn't the case already - thank you, whiners). A higher skill cap or half a dozen required passives would put an end to this, but again I don't have enough skill slots.

Applying the M_2 skill strategy to a mod with class-specific skills and/or a higher skill level cap would lead to A/ running out of skills, and B/ sorc-like skill trees (pick your fave skills and max them).

;)
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Re: Thoughts on character/skill tree design

Post by SilverShadowHell » Tue Dec 06, 2005 3:14 pm

Laz said that so don't say anything more

*I'm just happy he finaly agreed whit me, feel like a GOD*
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misharohac
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Post by misharohac » Sun Mar 26, 2006 1:07 pm

Sorry to bump this post up to the front again, but I just read it for the first time this weekend, I discovered it in Joel's signature. A great article, but I have one question, Brother Laz:

What do you mean when you write that the Paladin has "exactly 1 skill tree", and that one of the skills in this tree "is a buff"?

Forgive my blunt and torpid stupidity, but which skill is that? Holy Shield?

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Brother Laz
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Post by Brother Laz » Sun Mar 26, 2006 8:28 pm

misharohac";p="264729" wrote:What do you mean when you write that the Paladin has "exactly 1 skill tree", and that one of the skills in this tree "is a buff"?
The paladin has one skill tree, and it's called Combat Skills. There is one buff in the tree, so that leaves him with 9 actual skills. The other two trees contain 20 copies of the 'Put me under the right mouse button and you get stronger' skill.
19.may.2007 | Adun Tori Laz.
Median XL released!
Flesyht sa ruobhgien yht etah.


y dont u play the game the way its supposta be played? -SlothNathan

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