This is part two of a three part series, part one can be read here.
Unlike the pathetically meager stat systems of most modern mainstream RPGs, Age of Decadence has almost as many base metrics relating to conversational abilities as combat abilities. There is “persuasiveness,” “etiquette,” “streetwise,” “trading,” “lore,” and “impersonate,” all of which are amplified or diminished by “charisma” and potentially “intelligence.” I had no idea which of these attributes would be more useful than the other for my Petyr Baelish character so I evenly distributed my available “civil points” between them.
I actually think this variety of speech techniques is really damn cool. After all, there are many ways to be a persuasive person. Individuals can be naturally authoritative, friendly, empathetic, alluring, or any combination of the above and can use their own manner of speech to convince others to see the world in their way. No one actually operates like a Fallout 3 character with Level 10 charisma and 100 Speech points, being able to magically change anyone’s mind about absolutely anything with a handful of words. Not only does AoD recognize this reality, but it even gives you the ability to construct your own specialized Petyr Baelish asshole to manipulate everyone around you. Maybe you’d rather be a down-to-earth cynic who uses street smarts, or a refined gentlemen with a strong grasp of the in-game universe’s history and cultural norms, or even a con man (one of the starting classes is “grifter”) who Frank Abagnales his way through the story on a train of lies.
Even better, speech checks are often predicated upon two stats, thereby adding a realistic and dynamic flare to conversations. For instance, if my “streetwise” is high, I can often convince other characters to listen to my advice with my “tell-it-as-it-is” attitude, but if a speech check pairs “streetwise” with “lore,” I may fail the check because my character comes off as an uncultured manipulator. With reverse stats, I would appear to be an aloof, Ivory Tower intellectual detached from the real world, and thereby be equally non-persuasive.
The only real problem with the speech system is the same one that permeates just about every aspect of AoD: a lack of polish. Specifically the lack of polish manifests itself as a lack of balance between the speech skills. I’m sure it varies by character class, but my merchant-turned-diplomatic envoy almost never used “etiquette” despite meeting three kings, numerous faction leaders, and an alien (which would present a true challenge of etiquette). I only used “impersonate” once to pretend to be a military messenger and I failed. And even “trading” was a surprisingly rare option despite literally being a trader (as well as a chronic traitor). It turned out that “streetwise” and “lore” ended up being the most useful stats, with “persuasion” at a close third. Charisma is also a hell of a lot more useful than intelligence, so instead of going the Bill Clinton route of balancing them both at 9/10 points, I probably should have taken the Donald Trump option of tanking the ladder for the sake of the former.
I really admire the commitment on the part of AoD’s developers to creating a game world where the player feels like a real person. The Steam description repeatedly states that the developers purposefully wanted the players to not feel like the generic bad ass hero who can solve any problem with the imprecise application of basic game mechanics, and I really do think they succeeded. Sure, a competent player (and/or one who’s not afraid to save scum) will still be able to accomplish a hell of a lot more than the average denizen of AoD’s world, but the player-character always manages to feel fragile, and the challenges are difficult enough to force a realistic perspective on the player. I love it.
My Petyr Baelish-character had no points distributed to his combat skills, and his strength and dexterity stats were tanked to 3/10 (I was afraid any lower than that could kill my character even outside of combat). So I played a highly intelligent weakling with a silver tongue who would have to solve every situation by a combination of charm, threats, and bribery, or else be swiftly struck down in any open contest of force.
I always tried to use similar builds in modern Bethesda and Bioware RPGs, but they never really worked out. For one thing, the speech-based stats and skills were always so meager that I had plenty of points to redistribute into combat. The other big problem is that talking to victory in those games always felt like short changing me of gameplay, since doing so would cut out combat without any proportional increase in interesting narrative or dialogue developments to compensate for it.
The same is not true in DoA. Actually, the opposite seems true. Combat is a dreary slog of low percentages, equipment-based attrition fighting, and boring visuals. Meanwhile, dialogue trees are exciting, compelling, and sometimes even nerve-wrecking when I’m not sure I have high enough stats to pull off whatever Machiavellian bullshit I’m trying.
And god help me if I actually did try to fight something with my pansy Petyr Baelish-knock off. I probably tried a dozen times and lost literally every single time except once, but only because I stood in the back and skipped my turn until my armed escorts killed everyone. My hit percentage was pathetic, nearly all of the damage I did was soaked up by enemy armor, and I had the Action Point capacity of an asthmatic in Beijing. Talking my way out of fights was a fairly common occurrence and a literal necessity. My first death in the game occurred when I moronically accepted an offer from a random stranger in a marketplace to follow him to an abandoned building to shop through his non-Commercium approved goods (I thought I was heroically standing up for free trade), only to be set upon by two of the stranger’s hired thugs and killed with no chance of escape via conversation. I ended up reloading a previous save.
I love it, I really do. I can’t remember the last game I played where I was actually afraid of combat, and not in the sense that I would run from encounters, but in the sense that I had to entirely avoid even beginning an encounter. I got briefly upset at AoD when I walked down a back ally, got attacked by four muggers at once and was killed in the very first combat turn. I thought it was unfair until I took a step back and realized how spoiled I was. I mean, I could see the shady looking hooligans before I walked down the ally. Why the hell would I risk going there? I have no combat ability, I’m wearing “Noble Robes” and two gold rings, and I have a shit-load of cash on me. What could I possibly have to gain from risking an interaction with such people, especially when there is nothing nearby to where I legitimately need to go.
Clearly I was still stuck in the Dragon Age 2 mindset of being able to slaughter hordes of street toughs around Kirkwall with a yawn. But DoA doesn’t work that way. If I choose to gain all of the benefits of playing as a smooth talking charmer, then I have to accept the repercussions of potentially being curb stomped into oblivion at the slightest hint of violence.
Though I do think the game should have given me some recourse if I got stuck in a fight. I think there is a way to run away, but every time I tried, I would just get chased down and stabbed to death, which is actually pretty realistic. A good solution would be to let the player hire armed guards. It would have given me a fighting chance in these random encounters, and better integrated the game’s combat and monetary systems. Plus it would have been a really damn cool bit of role playing to be able to choose from a variety of types and qualities of sell swords.
At one point late in my playthrough I had what I thought was a brilliant idea of how to inject some blood-pumping combat into my otherwise dry, overly-conversant game. In the biggest of AoD’s three cities there’s one of those proto-typical combat arenas which always seems to exist in medieval-fantasy games. Of course, the player can walk right up to the front gates and become a gladiator, thereby starting down a path of increasingly difficult fights until one day the champion of the city is defeated and the player becomes the new champion. Or at least that’s what I assume happens. I’m not sure, because I couldn’t beat my first opponent.
You see, I had just completed a quest where my typical Machiavellian, convoluted, double-crossing bullshit left me in possession of what I assumed was one of the best pieces of armor in the entire game. I could have given it to the guy who hired me to find it, but he was just as much of an asshole as I was and may or may not have screwed some other guy through some sort of financial deal (which was either fraudulent or had god-awful terms depending on whose story you believe), so I felt even less obligation to honor my word than usual. (Also, I couldn’t find him, which is an unfortunately common problem in AoD).
I figured that the first arena fight would probably be against some scrawny peasant armed with a broken pitchfork or something, so I could just buy the best weapon available with my massive hoard of cash, put on my fancy armor, and sort of brute force my way to victory. Kind of like bringing a Formula 1 car to a horse race, it doesn’t really matter who’s driving with that much of an unfair advantage.
Sadly I couldn’t George Soros my way to victory. My opponent wasn’t quite an emaciated farmer, but he was an unarmored street urchin waving a tiny knife. Even after four attempts via save scumming, I was unable to beat him a single time. The fucker dodged nearly every swing, and even when I did make contact, my baby arms lacked the power to make it count. Meanwhile, he sliced and diced me with his dagger, which, despite being entirely deflected by my armor two out of every three attempts, always wore me down to an inevitable death.
Though I was disappointed in my defeat, the ordeal raised my opinion of AoD overall. What happened in the arena is exactly what should happen when some arrogant braggart tries to substitute ability for wealth. I kept losing the fights, but they weren’t blow outs. I’m sure if I learned a bit more about the game’s combat system and incorporated some supporting strategies (like poisoning my weapon), I could probably win. These dynamics are incomprehensibly more realistic and immersive than whatever is comparable in modern RPGs (a melee fighter using magic?). My character’s strengths, weaknesses, plans, and wealth all feel real in the world of Age of Decadence.
To be continued….