Howdy citizens of Caith. David here, back to share some juicy details about The Bard's Tale IV. Taking a short break from combat mechanics, during this update we'll be covering a subject that I'm sure is very near and dear to all RPG lovers' hearts - character progression. Specifically, we'll be talking about character advancement: gaining experience, specializing your adventurer, being judged by the Review Board, and lastly the role equipment plays in your character's growth. The details we go over are all subject to change as we continue to playtest and tune the game, but should provide a good sense of the overall direction of The Bard's Tale IV's character progression system.
Experience is a concept that RPG fans should be very accustomed to. Besting foes, solving ancient riddles, and rediscovering forgotten parts of the old world all grant experience, which naturally leads to leveling up. In The Bard's Tale IV, our goal with character advancement is to find a balanced system that always provides a meaningful amount of growth at even its smallest increments, while also being fun to use. For us, this centers around our skill tree.
The original Bard's Tale trilogy had a character progression system closely tied to your starting class, plus the fascinating idea of evolving into different types as you reached higher levels. A budding Conjurer could progress down that track, or change professions and learn to be a Magician, Wizard, Sorcerer, and ultimately an Archmage. We are retaining this strong class-based focus in The Bard's Tale IV. We’re also opening up this more in-depth character progression to all the classes, allowing each class to specialize into their own set of sub-classes. By merging the sub-class concept into a tree structure, we are better able to give each adventurer meaningful and impactful choices each time you level up.
Each class has access to its own unique skill tree. From here, your adventurer is able to learn how to wield new gear, gain attribute points, learn new abilities, and gain passive effects. Basically, your character can be fully described through their skill tree. At a glance, you can tell a Sorcerer from a Wizard, a Thief from an Assassin, and a Vanguard from a Commander, all just by looking at their skill tree. Each time one of your Adventurers levels up, they are granted a single point to spend on their skill tree, with each skill costing exactly one point.
While skill trees can have a lot of options, their complexity grows along with the adventurer. The very first view you might have of your skill tree as a Fighter might look a little something like this, showing only a smaller number of skills to unlock:
In the above image we see the player has a few choices to pick from for their fledgling Fighter: learning to wield more advanced one handed weapons, learning to wield great weapons, gaining access to battle standards, wearing more protective armor, gaining bundles of attribute points, learning a new passive, or learning to craft basic potions. You'll notice that many of those choices also carry along with them some increased attributes as an added bonus.
For those of you thinking that's all there is, don't worry. You'll be able to view your entire skill tree from the get go. For simplicity's sake we set the default view to show you only what you have available at a given level, and what's just beyond the horizon. However, you can always zoom out to see the full number of options available to your adventurers as they grow into heroes of legend.
As you unlock new skills, you'll begin to also unlock the next tier of options in your skill tree. That's displayed by the counter under each tier header, with each tier requiring a total number of skill points spent character-wide. The adventurer above, for example, has so far unlocked seven out of nine skills needed to progress to Tier 3. These tiers play a role in a character's growth in a few ways, some more obvious than others. First, it helps create big milestones in the career of your adventurer. Just as you've advanced your progression towards one or more sub-classes and your options have begun to taper down, you unlock a new tier and your available options explode out again. It also provides incentive to each adventurer to acquire skills they might not have otherwise, encouraging exploration within your build. Lastly, it allows us as designers to deliver a more balanced experience because we can better ensure that at least some minimum number of points were spent towards defensive and offensive skills in one form or another during the early stages of the game. What kind of armor and fighting style you adopt and eventually specialize in later on is entirely up to you.
Once a character has spent the needed number of skill points to reach the next tier within their skill tree, it's time to visit the Review Board. For those of you who are new to The Bard's Tale series, the Review Board is a returning oldie but goodie – it is a milestone in your journey as an adventurer. We ask you to perform a pilgrimage of sorts back to Skara Brae to come before the Review Board and be deemed worthy (or not) of their blessing. If found worthy, the next tier in your skill tree unlocks, and along with it a whole world of new possibilities.
In older Bard's Tale games you visited the Review Board each time you wanted to level up. Since we'll be traveling far beyond the borders of Skara Brae, into distant lands and realms far from home, we wanted to keep the game moving forward by requiring you to return to the Review Board less frequently while still staying true to this staple of the series. We also know that when you level up, you generally want to spend your new skill points immediately rather than having to wait till you leave a dungeon to see the Review Board.
As you progress through an adventurer's skill tree you'll encounter an increasing amount of choice, some of which comes in the form of mutually exclusive branching. This is when a pre-requisite line branches and selecting one branch causes the other branch to lock, like so:
Here we see that this Fighter is seeking to continue their training in armored combat. They could continue their training in Medium Armor, or she could choose to begin training in Heavy Armor. Medium Armor tends to provide a well balanced mix of offensive and defensive attributes, while also granting special passive abilities that make you a more flexible and supportive fighter. Heavy Armor, on the other hand, tends to be more defensive than offensive and can provide unique buffs to how you move around the battlefield, even allowing you to push allies and enemies around with your sheer bulk. Once that choice is made, the remaining branch is locked off and cannot be selected, and as you continue to invest points that will naturally lead you in directions that play towards certain sub-class archetypes. This will encourage you to make your character choices wisely and specialize your roles throughout your entire party, and will mean that even if you have multiple characters of the same class, they will still end up feeling significantly different.
Reaching the end of one of these prerequisite skill tree paths is the goal for many an adventurer. Much like how Conjurers can specialize to become Wizards, Magicians, Sorcerers, and ultimately Archmages in the classic Bard's Tale games, our other classes are also able to specialize and attain titles of their own to evolve their capabilities. The Fighter, for instance, is able to become a Vanguard, Veteran, Commander, Champion, or Defender – each carrying with them their own game-changing abilities, gear, and passives.
That said, an adventurer can still be a master of many aspects of their chosen profession. While it's impossible to gain every title and master every skill line, a true adventurer of legend may eventually master two or three. This is one of the many important ways we ensure that even max level characters of the same class feel very different from one another. A fully unlocked skill tree looks like this:
For those of you looking closely at the skill tree descriptions, which I'm confident many of you are, you might be wondering where you get your combat abilities from. Many of them, in fact, do not feature in the skill tree directly – instead, the place you acquire abilities is actually from your equipment. As you progress down the skill tree you unlock the ability to wield new and more exotic weapons, off-hand items, and trinkets. You may unlock access to a single item, such as a battle standard, or an entire category of items, such as Tier 2 great weapons. These items each have a specific ability or abilities. By wielding a great club you'd be able to use Lumbering Strike during battle, while wielding a battle standard would allow you to rally your allies with the ability "To Me, Brothers." As a certain weapon is used, an adventurer will eventually master its abilities, allowing them to keep using those abilities even without needing the weapon equipped. This will let you naturally unlock a vast amount of tactical flexibility over the course of the game.
And lastly, equipment such as your helm, armor, and boots also play a major role in your character's growth and progression. Through the skill tree you're also able gain access to increasingly powerful and exotic armor, robes, costumes, garbs, habits, and accoutrement. Your gear accounts for a major chunk of your adventurer's attributes. How many blows your character can withstand, how able he or she is to focus the eldritch forces, and their mental fortitude is heavily influenced by what mystic equipment they've found and learned to use throughout their journeys. These items can also grant you unique passive abilities that can help you form powerful combos. Itemization is an important aspect of The Bard's Tale IV and we've only given you a cursory glance, so we'll be touching on it more later.
By the good graces of the Review Board, wise choices made in your skill tree, and only the most potent of enchanted war gear, your adventurer can become a one of a kind hero whose deeds will be chronicled through song for an age.
RPGWatch Interview, Necropolis
Since we last spoke, I had an interview at RPGWatch, covering a variety of topics from systems design to dungeon design. Give it a read if you want to know more about the game!
We also wanted to take a moment for our friends at Harebrained Schemes, who you might remember successfully Kickstarted their Shadowrun series of games. Now, they have just released their newest title, Necropolis. This co-op roguelike combines Souls-like combat, dungeon exploration and RPG elements. Is it any surprise we had to struggle to pull ourselves away when we got the chance to check it out? If that sounds interesting to you, you can check Necropolis out on Steam or GOG.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the character progression system of The Bard's Tale IV. As always, I'll be eager to read your comments. Your feedback is so valuable to us, as is your support. We couldn't, and wouldn't, do any of this without you. Cheers, and until next time!
Lead Systems Designer