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Wishlist: Obsidian’s Project Eternity

The hardcore role-playing developers at Obsidian Entertainment currently hold the Kickstarter record for most money raised for a video game. Their upcoming isometric party-based RPG, currently going by the working title of Project Eternity, is envisioned as a direct successor to the Infinity Engine titles of yore – Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Baldur’s Gate. Here’s what we think Obsidian needs to do to modernize the formula.

Don’t be bound by Dungeons & Dragons conventions.

Obsidian is creating its own ruleset for Project Eternity, but one with the explicit goal of recalling the D&D feeling of those older games. I love the classics as much as anyone (and more than most), but even the third edition rules that Icewind Dale II uses have a lot of legacy pen & paper issues that don’t make sense in a computer game context. In particular, the saving throw system – while less stupid in third edition than older AD&D by an order of magnitude – is a terrible design that locks combat into binary outcomes based on the heavily random roll of a twenty-sided die. That the old D&D computer games managed to have interesting combat despite having a selection of spells at every level that may as well read “opponent(s) save or die” in their descriptions is a testament to the skill of those designers – several of whom are working on Project Eternity, which is a hopeful sign.

Let us break the game, at least a little.

Balance is important, but much of the fun of party-based RPGs that offer a broad range of party configurations and player capabilities is in breaking the game creatively using game mechanics to kick monster butt. As silly as it is, learning to give your rogue those two levels of ranger (for the better weapon proficiencies and free dual wielding bonuses, obviously) is a key part of Icewind Dale II’s draw. Loading up on invisibility spells for multiple in-combat backstabs from a fighter/thief in Baldur’s Gate II is probably unfair, but it’s loads of fun – and in a single-player game, who’s to say a few “overpowered” tactics are wrong?

Make the pathfinding not embarrassing.

Commanding a group of adventurers from a birds-eye view is great, but any strategy game that doesn’t rely on a big player-visible grid needs decent pathfinding. Characters in any of the old Infinity Engine games were as likely to take a grand tour of the map, up to and including walking around an entire building to go down a blind alley that doesn’t even connect to their putative destination, as walk through a door. We were barely willing to put up with that a decade ago. Today, not so much.

Don’t tie role-playing to power progression.

It’s too much to ask for the omission of party member romances given their huge (and inexplicable to me) popularity, but at least avoid making powergamers like me do it to unlock better abilities or whatever. Romancing a sadistic dark elf just to make her Turn Undead ability not suck (you see, evil clerics dominate undead instead of blowing them up, and the Infinity Engine has weird bugs with charming monsters, but Viconia is head-and-shoulders better than the crappy good-aligned cleric [Anomen is such a tool, and has unforgivably low dexterity to boot] and so obviously the only way to play is to recruit her and slowly romance her into giving up her evil ways because that is how you get optimum power out of your all-but-necessary cleric slot. But I digress) is a bridge too far.

More seriously, tying role-playing choices in general to getting a sweet ability, item, or upgrade is a recipe for unfortunate outcomes. Encouraging players to kick every puppy and rob every starving grandmother to get their Force Lightning casting cost down isn’t what I think of as good design, as much as I love Knights of the Old Republic.

Make modding easy.

If Project Eternity ends up as big and sprawling and ambitious as the Kickstarter pitch sets out as the goal, disagreements between players and developers about powers, inventory management, party members, and more are inevitable. That’s not a problem, but if my current playthrough of Baldur’s Gate II is teaching me anything it’s that being able to make my own decisions about some of those things is a godsend. I understand that limiting the size to which consumables like potions and arrows stack forces me to make decisions about what to carry with me on any given adventure, but I don’t care – the end result is a ton of inventory management tedium for a trivial restriction on consumable use. Variables like that can be dead simple or nigh-impossible to change depending on how the game is constructed, and a little effort on the developers’ parts goes a long way in increasing long-term appeal.

That’s it for this borderline-obsessed Infinity Engine fan’s top list of requests for Obsidian’s old-school RPG. What do you consider must-haves for this attempt at bringing this style of tactical role-playing game into a new decade?

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