Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lessons from VtM Renaissance

Time has passed since Renaissance and it's a great moment to share all game progress and insights (in my usual rhetorical style). Let's begin with a general overview of the game vision.

Bloodlines was a game about:
  1. Questing, 
  2. Combat, 
  3. Dialog, 
  4. Disciplines, 
  5. Sneaking / Hacking / Lock picking. 
You could enjoy Bloodlines without sneaking, but you could rarely enjoy it without questing or combat (which was awfully implemented but mandatory during most of the game). Dialog was beautifully crafted, but never seemed as important as combat. Disciplines were just a stylized form of Combat or power-ups, never catching the true essence of vampire blood powers.

Renaissance, on the other hand, was intended to be a game about: 
  1. Questing, 
  2. Dialog and cut-scenes, 
  3. Action, 
  4. Combat, 
  5. Disciplines. 
Questing still remains as the main element of the game. A good RPG should offer the player plenty of quests to do, allowing you to fail and continue playing to see how failure influences the story. Quests should have a balance between all the other elements of gameplay: dialog, action, combat and Disciplines. An ideal quest, allows the player to use dialog, actions or combat to succeed.

Dialog is one of the most memorable features of Bloodlines. Characters speak though dialogs, using a fix camera that portrays a close frontal shot of the NPC. Dialog choices use the same fix camera with a numbered list of dialog options showing the exact text that your character will "say". The player character, however, never says your lines since it’s omitted from the dialogs.

In order to enhance role-playing in Renaissance it’s vital that the player character speaks his lines. A dynamic system of cameras allows your character to be present in all dialog scenes. Why even bother creating your vampire in the first place if you can’t see him talking during dialogs? Renaissance dialog was intended to introduce dramatic camera angles of both NPCs and your player character, a la Mass Effect (of course without thedialog wheel or the summarized dialog choices).

In addition to regular dialog, Renaissance expanded these concepts to include a new core mechanic: cut-scenes. Dialog represents direct speech between characters in the story, but sometimes a phrase is something more tangible than just words. Instead of saying a line, your character can perform cinematic actions like “run away”, “draw your weapon”, “steal”, “kiss”, etc. These actions trigger a cinematic cut-scene. The outcome of the cut-scene is not determined by a dialog tree or the character AI, instead, cut-scenes rely on dice rolls that are resolved following VtM rules. If you “run away”, there's an explicit Dexterity + Athletics roll, and your successes determine if you gain advantage over your foes or you just get caught while trying.

Action was intended to be a new element in the game that includes all core mechanics that use a Feat roll such as hiding with Sneaking, opening doors with Lock-picking, Hacking, running with Athletics, looting with Streetwise (please note the 2 new abilities!). These core mechanics have two important aspects: they have a purely action part, like pressing the control key and moving your character to the shadows, and they also have a purely RPG part, the Sneaking roll that will determine if the character is hidden, half-hidden or visible. In this sense, action, combat and Disciplines are all different types of action-RPG mechanics. It’s important to make all non-combat actions and Disciplines as action-RPG and meaningful as combat (just to avoid becoming a hack & slash RPG).

Disciplines are supernatural vampire powers and they have to feel like it. Even at level 1, a Discipline should be awesome. Auspex is not just seeing through walls, it’s color-changing auras, crystal-clear vision and audition, etc. Disciplines consume blood and are spectacular, so they need to take some time to build-up. It’s not a switch you turn on and off.
Example: You just right clicked your Auspex and your blood pools starts going down. Your character right hand goes to his head, concentrating while all the images turn bright, as going through the end of a tunnel at ultra-sonic speed, then the sound blasts into silence and all auras start to float and merge while you only hear your heartbeat and the game sounds dimmed in the faraway distance. Time slows down, your character is flooded by all a sensorial overload but you can aim your mouse and see a red human-shaped aura behind the door. You can walk normally, but the Auspex time is ending, auras disappear merging with solid materials, the light fades off, the tunnel goes backwards and you’re back to normal.

Now, let's dwelve into character progression. Bloodlines leveling up system is very fun to play, but has little effect on the core gameplay mechanics, i.e. what actions your character can perform. This is mostly exemplified by zero-point abilities (it doesn't matter if I have no Stealth ability, I can sneak just hitting the control key). Renaissance character progression system was intended to "unlocks" new actions with each point in any of the following abilities:

Level 0: Your character can only walk and jump (you can't run).
Level 1: You can run, jump while running and throw objects and weapons.
Level 2: You can climb fences and walls.
Level 3: You can sprint and jump while sprinting for additional projection.
Level 4: You can double jump off walls. When you fall, you receive half damage.
Level 5: You can perform acrobatic jumps.

Level 0: Your character can only punch, block and feed.
Level 1: You can kick.
Level 2: You can hold and grapple your enemies.
Level 3: You can block melee attacks and you can suffocate your enemies.
Level 4: You can disarm melee weapons upon successfully blocking. You can break the neck of your enemies.
Level 5: You can perform a killer punk.

Level 0: You can't dodge.
Level 1: You can dodge brawl and melee attacks.
Level 2: You can take cover in nearby objects (crates, containers, etc). Effective against firearms.
Level 3: You can dive for cover. Effective against all attacks.
Level 4: You can automatically dodge brawl and melee attacks.
Level 5: Bullet time.

Level 0: Your can't use lockpicks.
Level 1You can lockpick doors (if you have lockpicks). A botch breaks the lock and the lockpick.
Level 2: You can lockpick padlocks.
Level 3You can lockpick safes.
Level 4: A botch only breaks the lockpick.
Level 5: You can repair broken locks.

Level 0: Your can't hide or sneak.
Level 1You can hide in total darkness and perform a silent kill when hidden.
Level 2: You can walk sneaking.
Level 3You can hide in partial darkness and perform more than one silent kills (until you're detected).
Level 4: You can hide against walls.
Level 5: Perma-hide. You can hide while running.

Level 0: Your can pick dropped items from NPCs and dead enemies.
Level 1You can loot dead enemies.
Level 2: You can loot phone booths and trash containers.
Level 3You can break in some houses though the door (with lockpicking).
Level 4: You can loot cars (if you can lockpick the trunk).
Level 5: You can break in all houses through doors and windows.

Note that some actions that were default in Bloodlines now require spending a level in a specific ability. I know this is a polemical issue, but anyways I think it's a small and reasonable prize for progress. Also note that level 5 usually unlocks an extremely powerful action (the equivalent of a specialization).

And finally, here's a bit of a post-mortem: what went wrong with Renaissance.
  1. More than you can chew. Bloodlines is a great RPG which desperately needs a sequel or remake. However, it is so easy to fall in the “bigger, longer, better” fallacy when creating a sequel of a successful game: let’s add more clans, a better combat system, lots of weapons and armors, a custom character editor, more abilities, more and more content. This big sequel can’t be handled appropriately by a small team of indie developers and it's likely to remain unfinished. And what’s the use of an unfinished sequel anyway?
  2. Size does matter. Another big issue during development was team size and project management. In our darkest hours, we were a team of 11 individuals asynchronously working in different countries without a clear set of goals or schedule. 
  3. Realistic scope and areas of expertise. Sky-rocketing has another secondary effect: you need to fill lots of specific positions. In a 2D game you can use a single artist from concept to final art and animation. In a 3D game you need separate artists for concept, modelling, textures and animation. Same goes for level design. In a 2D game you can lay out an entire level with just a bunch of tiles. 
Of course, I'm not throwing the towel on Vampire: the Masquerade. I can't help it. Bloodlines still needs a successor and I'm determined to make it happen. Allow me to explain my next project it in a separate post. 


  1. This project sounds awesome.
    Indeed bloodlines is a milestone in role-playing and it brings me joy to know there is hope of its legacy not being lost to the tragic fall of Troika.
    The 2d version also looks promising.
    Thank you for your dedicated work.

  2. This project sounds awesome.
    Indeed bloodlines is a milestone in role-playing and it brings me joy to know there is hope of its legacy not being lost to the tragic fall of Troika.
    The 2d version also looks promising.
    Thank you for your dedicated work.

  3. (imho) Lvl 0 of Athletics might be quite annoying and it also seems unrealistic to me. Being unable to loot dead enemies also seems unrealistic (I'd just increase the chance of finding special small stuff instead), I'd swap lvl 1 and 2 in "Dodge". Also breaking locks might make an important quest unfinishable for a long time (if you'd even be able to level up somehow), which could be quite annoying.

  4. Thanks a lot for your comment! First of all, I agree with your point about how annoying is not being able to run or loot. But that's precisely the intention of the progression system. If your character has level 0 in a skill, you're not able to use the skill. Each decision in the game is hard and has serious consequences. If you break a lock in a quest you're in serious trouble, and that's fine. Not completing all quest in the game or even failing some quests is OK. I wouldn't like a no brainer RPG where you can't fail. Maybe I've put the level of difficulty a bit too high :P
    Anyways, I'm not happy with this overall progression system since it creates a big amount of specializations (5 x number of skills). Maybe an intermediate approach is better, with just 2 unlockable skills: the basic skill at level 1, and the advanced skill at level 5.

  5. Yeah well, it seems kinda like a hardcore mode (it remembers me a little bit of the optional mode in Fallout New Vegas, where you have to drink and eat). It's optional, because I believe that not many people are into this hardcore stuff (I myself am sometimes :D). I think choice of difficulty is one of the things that will make the game playable for more people...

    BTW I didn't know where to write this, so: We were "working" on a game with my friend but he just lost interest in it. I was the one doing concept art (mostly of characters) and portraits and stuff (he's on an IT university and I'm on a art high school). I kinda miss doing concept art which might make some sense one day :D. I also finished playing Bloodlines and am itching to do some stuff from that world. I usually draw/paint original characters (traditional art - pencils, watercolours, acrylic). Would you mind if I did some concepts for Renaissance?
    Also I write quite a bit (wrote a quest for that friend I mentioned and was ready to write more) - I do so in Czech though, but I know some people who I maybe could persuade to translate it. My stories are usually quite naturalistic and so seemed the script in Bloodlines, so I thought I could give it a try.
    Would you be interested in my services, sir? ;D

  6. Well, thanks a lof for your offer but I'm still in a pretty early phase of development. I'll post more about modding and the level editor in the near future. My intention is to provide a set of simple tools to allow VtM fans to create their own stories and quests in Bloodhunt.

    Also, you're right about the hardcore mode. All difficulty in the game should be optional so people can play at their own level of difficulty. Thanks again for your comments, wampirelli!

  7. Ok, feel free to ask me would you get to the phase where you wouldn't mind a few concepts. :)