The Bard’s Tale IV Update 29: Glorious Combat

kickstarter2016-05-02 08:11:23

Hello Citizens of Caith. My name is David Rogers, and I'm the Systems Designer on The Bard's Tale IV. I know I don't have to tell any of you that combat is a core pillar of The Bard's Tale. It's where all of our choices about race, class, gear, and party composition combine with our own sense of strategy, leading to either glorious victory or humiliating defeat. Combat design is what I've been primarily focused on, and what I'm here to chat with you about. Before we dive into the real meaty bits, I need to give the obligatory disclaimer that what you're about to see is all a work in progress, and changes may occur between now and the final release of the game.

Combat Basics

One of the great things about designing for a dungeon crawler is your ability to quickly build the game on paper before you build it out digitally. We've put a big emphasis on proving out our designs by playing them out on the tabletop. Similar to playing a game of D&D, we're able to play out the bard's tale on the tabletop and make sure what we're doing is fun, strategic, and ticks all the boxes we're looking for in The Bard's Tale IV. We started from a foundation of classic blobber combat, distilling down the parts that truly compel us. But we also make note of missed opportunities for rich strategic decision-making, and brainstorm how to capitalize on them.

One area we really want to improve on is the kind of decisions the player has to make during combat. It was a common trend in older blobbers that most of your decisions were made out of combat and once you entered combat you did the same actions over and over again. That old chestnut of "attack, attack, attack, defend, defend, fireball" is something we want to disrupt. Gaming has come a long way since the heyday of old school dungeon crawlers and we're dead set on bringing the genre back into the spotlight.

We discussed our 4x4 battlefield grid in a previous Kickstarter update. Accentuating the role that the battlefield plays in combat is one element we're focusing on. To briefly recap, during combat our battlefield is a 4x4 grid where the players' party occupies one half of the grid and the enemies' party occupies the other half. Because we want to show your enemies (and the bloody pulp you beat them into) in all of their glory, their half of the grid exists in 3D space. Your party, in classic blobber fashion, lives on your HUD. It looks a little something like this:

This is what our board looks like while we're playtesting our paper prototype. After our art director gave it a little love it started to look a little something like this:

This is an example mockup, not an in-game screenshot, but should give a sense for our intended combat presentation.
This is an example mockup, not an in-game screenshot, but should give a sense for our intended combat presentation.


There's a lot to talk about, so let's start with the grid. As you can see, the grid does a great job of blending the 3D space and the HUD together into a single battlefield. Where your character sits on this grid in relation to the enemy is of vital import. For instance, by positioning a resilient warrior in front of your frail conjurer, you can protect him from direct physical attacks, allowing him to spell-sling with relative impunity. Even beyond the classic front row/back row dynamic, characters can generally only attack enemies that are in front of them. Of course, there are exceptions to this, particularly when we start talking about magic. This heavy emphasis on your party's position has a lot of really cool implications that makes each combat a real strategic puzzle to be solved.

Which characters should I use to tank damage from each enemy? If an enemy is charging up a powerful attack, should I try to move someone into position to interrupt him or should I move everyone out of the way? Should I move my character into position to attack a critical target next turn, or should I just stay put and attack whoever is in front of me this turn? Should I cluster my team together to share short range buffs, or should I spread them out to avoid AOE damage?

These are choices we've not been able to present in past Bard's Tale games and we're finding them to be really fun and rewarding.

Designing Attacks

Positioning is one component of combat, but where things really start to get interesting is how attacks can tie into things like battlefield positioning. To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, let's talk about the anatomy of an attack.

At the core of our design for The Bard's Tale IV is the idea that all attacks and abilities should be interesting to use. We are trying to move away from giving every character the same basicattack ability that just does damage. While doing single target damage is effective, there isn't a lot of strategy revolving around the choice of whether or not to attack your enemy. The answer is generally yes. That's an example of a missed strategic opportunity we wanted to capitalize on. Your weapons, spells, and abilities will offer their own unique attack types that often have different built-in properties to set them apart. You're saving the world, gosh darn it, so you'd better do something heroic! These differences can be minor or major, but the point is that each attack is designed to shine in different scenarios. Throughout your adventure you'll encounter enemies using new abilities and tactics. You'll need to keep evolving your strategy to be victorious.

When examining the anatomy of an attack and making it interesting to use, we have a number of qualities at our disposal. These include Attack Pattern, Damage, Damage Type, Special Effect, and Cost (Just to name a few). In this update, we'll cover Attack pattern, Damage, and Special Effects. We'll cover the other elements in a later update. Let's start by breaking these down one at a time.

First is attack pattern. Keeping in mind the influence the battlefield plays on our gameplay, each attack has a pattern associated with it that dictates who the attack will affect. An attack pattern may look something like this:

This attack pattern is something you'd find on a sword thrust attack, and indicates it will attack forward, striking the closest enemy directly in front of it, up to two grid squares away. Other abilities may be able to pierce multiple targets, may strike from different directions, or be able to directly target an opponent regardless of their position (this is especially true of magical attacks). In game, you'd see a helpful targeting indicator show you the range of your attack, along with who'll ultimately be affected.

Once again, example mockup, not an in-game shot.
Once again, example mockup, not an in-game shot.


Our attack shown in the image above has a range of 2. Since our Warrior is in the front row, he can reach all the way to the enemies' back row. That enemy ogre is in for some poking the likes of which he's never seen! Had the Warrior been sitting in his back row, he wouldn't have been able to reach the ogre. The Hunter, positioned behind the Warrior, has long ranged bow attacks that can strike up to three grid squares away and is more than capable of sniping the ogre from relative safety.

Like we've said in previous updates, we want to allow player to experiment with multiple party compositions, including ones that might not conform to the tank + DPS format. One way this grid system supports that goal is evasion based defense and enemy disruption. Evasion based defense is the idea that I can attack with a character and then move that character in such a way that it makes it difficult for my enemy to effectively re-position themselves to mount a concentrated counterattack. Rogues are particularly good at this sort of hit and run tactic. Enemy disruption is similar, in that some classes are capable of throwing their enemies around the battlefield, disrupting their formation and making it difficult for them to effectively strike back in their following turn.

Now that we know who we're attacking, let's talk about the bloody part: Damage. Damage is a pretty simple calculation. Damage comes from the character's stats, which are sourced from a variety of places including gear, skills, level, etc. Most of the time, damage is a fixed amount instead of a random range. This really allows you to plan out the perfect combo, that will for sure take that ogre down before he crushes your skull in. There are some abilities that do random damage, but that random element is something special about the ability that makes it unique.

Once damage is dealt, then we apply any additional effects. This is where attacks start to get more interesting. An effect might knock an enemy to the side, exposing that frail caster he was protecting. Another effect might be a poison that damages an enemy over time. Yet another might be a debuff that reduces a target's armor, softening it up for your allies. You get the idea - effects open up a world of possibilities for us to play with.

To give you a more real-world example of how attacks can synergize in interesting ways, during our playtesting, one of the synergies that the warriors have been using is a bleed and bash combo. Axe-wielding warriors can cause their target to bleed, which causes them to take damage whenever they move around the battlefield. You can imagine them exerting themselves and gushing blood, leaving a red trail behind them as they bleed out. Once that effect has been applied, shield and club wielding warriors get to work. These blunt armaments can often knock an enemy from one grid square to the next, throwing them out of their ideal position and opening up attacks to the more vulnerable glass cannons they've been protecting. The nice thing is, when you forcibly move an enemy, it also triggers the bleeding effect. If done right, you can get a nice ping-pong combo by bashing a bleeding enemy back and forth between warriors, each time causing them to take bonus bleed damage.

Now, hopefully, you can see how all these elements come together into a really fun and thought-provoking combat system rife with opportunities for combos and counter play. We're continuing to tune and iterate on it, of course, making adjustments constantly based on playtesting.

There are a lot of things we didn't go into here that will also play a huge role in combat; things such as Mana management, combat stances, charge up attacks, and more. However, this should give you some insight into the depth we are building into The Bard's Tale IV. Stay tuned for Glorious Combat Part 2, where we'll cover the even more advanced and unique features of the Bard's Tale IV's combat system.

For now, let us know what you think! We've touched on combat before, but this is the first time we've shown anything in this much detail, so we want to hear your ideas. Also, thanks for supporting The Bard's Tale IV. All hail the Sword Father.

David Rogers
Lead Systems Designer