Ever since I began to collect an all-dragon Magic deck, I have liked dragons. They represent power and will to use it. And also remind me of cats at some level. In the first year of my soon-to-be-over Ammattikorkeakoulu studies I envisioned a roleplaying game where you control a mighty dragon and solve a sociopolitical problem. After playing Ego Draconis and being disappointed with its dragon parts, I revived that idea and worked on it some more. The orignal plan was to use Dawn of War II-style interface in combat, but I realized that it was not intimate and visceral enough. Something as specific as a dragon would require unique controls, so I decided to try and make something completely new.
First, I needed to know how dragons fight. D&D dragons are a close inspiration, so I turned to the Monster Manual. Dragons can claw, bite, sweep with their tail, buffet with their wings, swoop down from the skies and, of course, breathe danger. Most of these things are done on ground, probably because of the difficulties of maintaining flight. The dragons cannot breathe fire continuously, as the fuel secretion process is quite slow.
A dragon would probably fight other dragons for territorial and mating purposes and monsters and humans for self-defense. It will probably rely on shock tactics, like swooping down from the sky to take out the strongest foe, confuse the rest by breathing fire and then keep on biting and crushing until the enemy breaks. Against larger enemies it will probably tire them out with firebreathing and hit-and-run attacks, until finally going for a vulnerable part. Like a throat or anything highlighted in red.
So now that we have spent about a day wondering how a fictional intelligent monster fights, we can start thinking about how to represent them in mechanics. A few days ago I had a vision: The player’s dragon flying in the air in slow motion, the camera behind its head. The dragon looks at a group of griffins that are slowly gliding towards it. Then the player pushes the left thumbstick, and the dragon’s gaze and the camera move to point at the ground, where a group of human archers are pulling their bowstrings back. The player pushes A. The time speeds up back to normal, the dragon starts swooping down. The camera shifts to a frog-eye vision from the archers, who scatter and fly amongst the debris as the dragon impacts the ground. Then the camera shifts back beside the dragon as the griffins swoop down to tear at the dragon, who snaps back at them. And that was it. I knew that I was making a turn-based game, and I smiled.
Free movement is overrated. Why even waste time designing a way to move in a space freely, if the only areas the game has are linear? In most turn-based games positioning is important, as you can be flanked, cornered or have something similar happen. But when you are flying, actual positioning becomes less important as relative positioning. And as you are a dragon, you can pretty much engage whatever under and in the open skies. Therefore, let’s eliminate free movement. This takes away one part of fighting from the player, but elevates others. The only thing a player can do is to get closer to a target, or get farther from a target.
This method of position tracking still necessitates some kind of track of enemies and their relative positions, as it is prone to cause situations where an enemy is both near and far from other enemies. But instead of 2D or 3D-space, let’s use 1D, aka line. The line is divided into spaces, and each space has both air and ground locations. The player and some enemies can thus be either airborne or on the ground. An enemy in the same space can attack the player with melee and vice versa, and enemies one space away can attack with ranged attacks. Enemies two spaces away are far, and any further away are disengaged. The player can move one space per turn, either farther away from a space, or towards a space. When retreating, the player automatically selects the direction where there are less enemies.
Then actual fighting. For some reason I began designing this for the gamepad. This might be because of the four face buttons. Force Unleashed assigned one action per button and kept that coherency in. I liked it, and want to do something similar. At the beginning of a round, first the moves are made and resolved. After the movement, the player selects a target in the same space and selects his attack. The player can breathe fire, either in a wide bellow to disrupt the enemy, or in a narrow spray to burn. The player can make a physical attack, either a wide sweep that devastates unorganized enemies or in a powerful, focused bite or claw to kill powerful individuals. Then he can also defend, either to counter and disrupt a single attack, or to withstand multiple attacks. And lastly, he can move again to speed past or catch up enemies.
Every time the player can make a choice, the time slows down and the camera points at a target, from behind the dragon’s head. The actions are short animations which are played in the order which they are resolved.
This is the basic idea of my little dragon fighting mechanic. I’ll elaborate next time.