Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dark Souls: Recovery and Exploration

One thing I particularly enjoy about Dark & Demon's Souls is that they are under no obligation to explain how being impaled only lowers your HP by so much.  The characters are already dead, either as phantoms, hollow zombies or soulless bodies so physical punishment and pain are negligible.  That said I particularly like how Dark Souls handled healing and ditched the clumsy method in Demon's Souls.

Demon's Souls allowed you to heal by eating various kinds of lunar grass, each restoring a larger swath of HP.  Grazing took a very long time so doing so in combat could easily leave you open for some prime-time-skewering.  Grass was often hard to find early on but in some levels where delicious moon grass was overflowing you got to the point where your character could be permanently stocked and at full HP whenever he finishes a skirmish.  Sound familiar?  Sounds like a Wand of Cure Light Wounds (CLW) with plentiful charges to me.  The 4th edition of the worlds most popular roleplaying game decided to get around this by giving out personal healing surges (which also set a cap on how many potions one could quaff) and an extended rest that fully healed everyone.  In addition it introduced a milestone system that encouraged you to press on rather than full healing after every fight creating a 5 minute adventuring day.  Rife with flaws it did try to address the problem.  Dark Souls does this one better.  Allow me to explain.

Estus Flasks
In this small flask contains the spark of life, the flames of beginning that can restore even the most battered and damaged hollow.  When the flames disperse it sometimes travels to other worlds, healing travelers in similar locations but on different planes.  It is the bottled lifeblood of your character and without it you must walk on eggshells to order to survive to the next place of warm respite.

Estus Flasks and Bonfires are a perfect solution to what 4e tried to do with milestones.  You have a set number of flasks you can use that can be refilled whenever you visit a bonfire.  Like healing surges there exists a set cap on how many you have at one time and unlike healing surges you may blow them all at once rather than rationing one at a time.  (Long time players aren't always aware that you can drink multiple swigs at once for a massive heal)

This seems like a perfect time for a drink!
Naturally there are ways to manipulate your flasks as well.  You may offer Humanity, another key resource you want to keep in supply (but have good reasons for spending as well) to kindle a bonfire increasing the number of flasks you can carry by 5.  The maximum number of flasks you can carry is 10 until you defeat a certain skeletal boss, acquire the 'rite of kindling', then kindle a few more times for a maximum of 20 flasks.  There also exists a way to increase the potency of your Estus flasks.  Your flask can be reinforced using Fire Keeper Souls, there are a few to be found within the depths of the game, sometimes gingerly placed on altars, other times hidden in watery graves, some lost in a miserable sewer in town of exile.  You may also take them yourself, by its name it is the soul of a firekeeper, one who tends the flame and whose life is tied to the bonfire you rest at.  The temptation exists to simply take it from them, extinguishing their life but also dousing your safe area of respite.  Who knew evil actions could have such direct and humbling consequences.
Think twice before you let avarice ruin your home base

A bonfire refreshes everything in the world.  The warming welcome flame, the integral theme of the world, fills your flask, your health, refreshes your spell casts but also repopulates and resets the world.  The idea that you need to go as far as you can while using as little resources is built right into the game.  If you take too many hits, make too many mistakes, get too reckless you use too many flasks you can decide to refill them but in doing so you are resetting all the enemies and traps in the game.  The goal here is to make it to the next bonfire/milestone because who cares if everything reset behind you; destiny is calling you forward chosen one, no time to look back!

No seriously don't look back
This works perfectly for a world built on fractured timelines and failing barriers between realities.  In your classic OD&D game though, it is often expected that the dungeon repopulates and resets its traps between expeditions.  To take the Dark Souls approach, whenever your PC's find a safe place to rest in a dungeon it is time for the dungeon denizens to restock, reshuffle and reset; that'll teach those mangy PC's to press on or start over.  Of course an option to completely clear out a level will also be a tantalizing reward for those wishing to press on.

Death, Bloodstains and Recovery
All in the name of exploration Dark Souls presents a highly connected milieu of gorgeous set pieces. Many are tempted to explore every nook and cranny but know that straying too far from a bonfire means they will have to backtrack quite a bit over treacherous paths and untold peril in order to recover their bloodstain.  God help you if you're maneuvering through a pitch black catacomb.
Oh there's worse waiting to be stumbled upon

You see, when an undead dies in this game it leaves behind a bloodstain.  When you examine another player's bloodstain you get to see what they were doing moments before they died.  This is very helpful when some careless fool fell victim to a trap up ahead or a maniac has decided to leap off the edge for an enticing treasure down below but chose the wrong place to drop.  Learn from the mistakes of others or your blood will be added to the mix.
Going to need some fine sleuthing skills for this one

Now if the hollow undead were to find it's own bloodstain it then reacquires all the Souls and Humanity it has previously had before dying.  Souls are the all-purpose currency in this game, equivalent to both Experience and Gold  so naturally you wish to make it back to where you died and reclaim your vital essence.  As a side note having Souls encompass both creates a most interesting economic force that dissuades you from purchasing too many ranged ammunition until souls are plentiful and the cost of ammo is by comparison negligent, however, by that point ranged weapons have far outlived their usefulness for all but the most talented of archers.  Now, getting back to where you died can be an exercise in frustration but it will teach you patterns you may have missed on the way there, and provide experience for the player on how best to dispatch the foes along the way (or the best way to outrun them!)  Furthermore, by pushing you to reclaim your body you get back right to where you left off, often carrying even more souls and the added weight of all that value makes you doubly cautious.  A very fun way to apply Psychology in Game Design.
A bonfire below and one past the beast if you're quick on your feet

The real purpose to exploring is to find another bonfire, a place to rest safely and spend those valuable Souls.  Some are hidden by illusions, other in dank caves, a few in plain sight and some under a bridge.  Getting yourself to that next anchor point is the primary purpose of exploration, afterwards you can explore for pleasure or for profit.  I plan on incorporating this design mantra into my dungeon design from now on, and I've already begun testing it out briefly in the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Continue to part 6 here:

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