Here we come to the nuts and bolts of character progression. This is where I’m likely to get really fussy and obsessive. If you’re one of those players who uses “auto level-up” in a game, or who hurries past the stats page to get to the more visceral parts of the experience, then this post is going to be as compelling as doing your taxes. Adjust your reading habits accordingly.
Character progression in Eschalon is fun and interesting. My biggest complaint is that the much needed in-game minimap is bound to the “cartography” skill. That is, if you don’t spend skill points on it, you don’t have a minimap. The map is pretty limited until you’ve reached about five ranks in cartography. It costs three skill points to acquire a skill, and then an additional point point for each additional rank. So, it will cost you about seven skill points to make the minimap do what you want. Considering that you only get three skill points each time you level up, this represents a major investment of points. Once you know the game you’ll discover a few ways to acquire points without sacrificing so much of your potential performance in battle, but I still dislike this idea of spending in-game skill points to make the game interface more useful. I also don’t see a need for it from a gameplay perspective: There are already lots of great skills in the game. If the minimap just worked and the cartography skill was taken away you’d never miss it.
Aside from cartography, the skills are interesting and varied. I often found myself wishing for more skill points and agonizing over tradeoffs. The points you spend at level up matter. This scarcity forces you to focus on a few core skills and forego most of the rest, or augment these lesser skills with NPC training and magical gear. I like that the system is tight and that choices feel meaningful. It pretty much demands that you give the game more than one play-through if you really want to see everything. This is as it should be.
In comparing Eschalon to other roleplaying systems, the ubiquitous D&D has six attributes that define your character. (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) Most other RPG’s have that many or less. Fallout was a bit of a renegade and introduced us to a deliciously complex system of seven attributes. Eschalon’s system is broader still, with an astounding eight attributes in the game: Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Speed, Intelligence, Wisdom, Perception, and Concentration. Eight in all, and it doesn’t even include Charisma, which is good because it’s very often a complete waste in a computer RPG.
The division of Dexterity and Speed confused me at first. Most games combine these two concepts. But I can imagine cases where you’d have one but not the other. A jeweler or a locksmith might be capable of lots of fine detail work even if they have slow reflexes. A boxer might be very quick yet imprecise. The distinction makes sense, although I’m still unclear on how it works in practice. Since this is a turn-based game and everyone gets a single turn no matter how high or low their speed is, I have trouble understand exactly what the payoff is for putting points into speed.
Mental prowess is now spread out over three attributes: Intelligence, Perception, and Concentration. There’s certainly some overlap with these concepts, but I don’t mind the division if it leads to interesting gameplay and compelling character choices. My first character to go through the game was a dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks fighter who neglected or ignored all three of the mental stats. I haven’t finished my second run through the game yet. So, I don’t really feel qualified to judge on how these stats behave yet.
(You could also make the argument that Wisdom is another form of the intelligence stat, since it’s merely applied intelligence. At any rate, I’ve never been a fan of the “wisdom” stat in any game, because wisdom is a matter of behavior and therefore should be an emergent part of roleplaying. Like alignment, this should be something to guide you in playing your character, not resolve dice rolls. The way it ends up getting used in most games it should be renamed to “devotion”, “faithfulness”, or “tenacity”. The word “wisdom” implies all sorts of things to which you can’t assign a hard numerical value.)
Eschalon gives you three attribute points (different from skill points) to spend at level up. If you read the forums you’ll see lots of (usually conflicting) advice on how to best spend these. Dump them all into the stats you directly use in combat? Or spread them around and round out your character? My secret shame is that I’m a min-maxer at heart, so I can’t really comment on the usefulness of spreading the points around.
The last few posts on the game have spawned some lively discussions of strategies for character development. That says a lot about the appeal of the underlying system. I like it.