"Lumious beings are we, not this crude matter": towards a new RPG paradigm

(i have a lot of problems with this video, e.g. if size matters not, why can't yoda just crumple the death star into a tiny black hole? if 'try not! do or do not, there is no try', how do i deal with uncertainty - somethings just end in failure no matter how hard you try, through no fault of your own, because there were factors you couldn't know about. but anyway, onwards to my new paradigm)

while waiting for a baby that simply doesn't want to drop, i've been playing a lot of desktop dungeons. it's a lot of fun, and very easy to get far too obsessed by. but while wishing that i could throw 'half a fireball' at a pesky enemy who only has a couple of hp left, i am reminded of an old idea i had that i never got around to developing.

imagine a plane of luminous beings. beings with no corporeal element - their spiritual side is their life force. their energy is their blood. they spend their own power, diminishing themselves, in order to hurt or heal others.

i'm talking about a two-fold change to the typical rpg system -

1: a spell's power is determined by how much power the player chooses to invest in it;
2: no mana bar, no hp bar, no xp bar - just one bar of fluid energy.

balancing these ideas would be tricky. it would be very important not to make it a zero-sum game: if i spend 14 energy points on a spell, then it's no good if it just takes of 14 of your energy points, because then it's just a case of 'who's got the biggest health bar?'.

so from the first point: when a player starts the game, all spells are available to them, but being a noob, they can only use them lightly. there would be a bell-curve effect to the strength of the spell - not a deterministic one. so investing a little power would produce anything from a fluff to (rarely) a medium sized explosion, while increasing the power would stretch - not move - the probability distribution, making fluffs rarer and opening up the potential for devastating explosions of energy. they could try to reach beyond their means, overspend their energy, but the more they overspend by, the more likely it is that it'll be a complete disaster.

from the second point: you don't spend your mana, you spend your you. in order to damage your opponent, you must spend the one gauge you have. there's no need for levelling up, as xp extends the size of the gauge; and receiving damage costs you the ability to damage people back. so there's no real difference between a tooled-up beginner and a wounded veteran.

and this may sound like a problem, but maybe it's another strength. being wounded actually hurts you - and i think we have to back to deus ex to find another example where being hurt actually impairs your character's performance. hurting your opponent means they're less able to hurt you back, and vice versa, making battles struggles to the death as characters fire off at each other with less and less energy. now, being low on health doesn't make strong attacks impossible, it just makes them riskier. the powerful energyblast you need to finish off your opponent looks like a safe bet, until they bring you low. you can still attempt it, but what's changed is the probability that you'll get a positive effect.

therefore there needs to be no absolute zero to the gauge - but past a certain point your attacks become entirely impossible and while still alive, you are effectively neutralised. do this to an opponent, and you've won the battle and can receive your xp (i.e., your gauge goes up). lose the battle, and you need to go and find somewhere to regenerate.

spending a small fraction of your power would produce a confident, low-power attack - low impact, but low standard deviation. therefore a powerful being could cast weak spells more confidently than a noob. the larger the proportion of your energy bar, the more risky - postively skewed - your attempt becomes.

here, let me explain with graphs:
So let's consider two characters - a low-power one (Gilgamesh) and a high-power one (Enkidu). they both attempt to cast a green-powered spell, meaning they both need to put in the same amount of energy. the amount of energy is a greater proportion of Gilgamesh's force bar than Enkidu's, so while the maximum output is the same, Enkidu's probability distribution is more skewed towards this maximum than Gilgamesh's. therefore the mean value of the spell would be higher.

In the second half of the picture, we see Gilgamesh over reaching himself to compete with Enkidu, who confidently attempts the high-power spell. There's a very small chance Gilgamesh reaches the heights that Enkidu easily gets to. What I can't easily illustrate here is the negative affects that a player would be risking by living beyond their means; from this illustration it would appear that it's really worth going over the top, but that's not my intention. it's just really hard to illustrate negatives on the electro-magnetic spectrum.

it has to be balanced so that the risks of over-reaching your power outweigh the benefits, effectively cutting off anything beyond what you should be capable of at any point in the game. this basically brings the system back in line with more traditional methods of 'you can't cast that spell because you're only a level 3 wizard' style mechanics (hell, even characters in the book 'nightwatch' complain about that kind of thing) but i like the expandability of it, the fact that what's stopping you isn't the ability to cast it, just the unlikeliness of it having the effect you want, which is more like how our universe works: it's not held in place by absolute laws, but by the sheer weight of probability.

These two ideas could be combined with a modular, diy spell building system like that of magicka, meaning that you could still restrict the kinds of spells users could cast by not letting them have some key rune, glyph, grimoir, or other way of encoding knowledge. thus maybe you had to learn or subscribe to different elemental powers.

in conclusion, i guess what i'm after here is a way of simplifying rpg tropes into one measure of success, plus a way of scaling magic so that it's accessible to all. back an opponent into a corner, beat them down and they'll either flee or try something super-risky, just when you're at your weakest. personally i think this mechanic has a lot of potential, especially for a computer-based game, where the maths doesn't have to be done by hand. it just strikes me as a really fair way to build a universe.
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