Wow this place is dusty. Like it hasn't been cleaned in ages. *sigh* reminds me of home.
*cleans the dust of a chair*
Well then lets get down to business. The apparent chances of somebody stumbling over this post is nigh on nil but my mother always called me an optimistic individual. Since the topic is design and since by a miracle of chances my interests lay in that particular area, I would like to bring forth a question, a query if you will. Nay a debate of such fury that the very gods themselves shake in fear of the fan boy might. But enough enough let me tell you a tale.
There once was a Skill Tree based level up system in a popular game. Many people came from far and wide to bask in it awesome power. It had three branches per class and allowed for specialisation in certain areas. For many years this was the norm and the Level Up system was made king. But this king was restrictive, power drove it mad and it would change its mind at the drop of a hat. It power drove it mad and its dictatorship reign cast a dark shadow over the rpg land. People hid in terror as it spread over game after game.
But our tale has a hero and darkness cannot triumph forever.
You may ignore my grandiose way of introductions but this tale is not singular to any game its quite the plague throughout the rpg genre. This skill based tree is my nemesis and I battle it day after day. I find it restrictive and hampers the ability to create my character the way I wanted to create it.
I put it to you brave champions of the new dawn. I have my thoughts but no man can design by himself. I put it to you plainly, if you would design a level up system for a RPG. Lets us see if your idea is better then mine. I will post my ideas up after the first brave sole takes a step forth.
(for the purposes of this topic all ideas belong to their respective posters)
I'd like to know what
I'd like to know what *specifically* you find in the skill-tree based system that is restricting your ability to shape the character the way you want. There's not really any obvious flaw in the tree kind of structure, but it's designed to do specific things (as Soul pointed out) and there are obviously things that it cannot do.
Supplementing the system with whatever you wish to increase your ability to 'shape the character' is a good thing, but you have to weigh up how cluttered and difficult the systems become for the player to understand.
Assuming you DO have a tree-based skill/level up structure ...
Likely scenarios where it comes undone is if the player stumbles upon a situation that they'd like to solve in a particular fashion - however because of the decisions they've made in the past, they aren't specialised in the correct way to execute. If the player has travelled down the tree, and somehow come to a point where they aren't able to play the way they want to play, then
a) the tree and it's impact on play is probably poorly designed in the first place
b) the consequences of 'branch selection' were not communicated clearly to the player,
Remedying either of those is just a matter of taking care with the design and taking care with the presentation of choices to the player, making sure they understand what choices they are making.
If you have any good examples of specific frustrations with the system, i'd love to know more !
Mixture of thoughts
I can see both the pros and cons of a skill tree (as I have played Ragnarok Online and very little WoW [obvious reference in your post]) so:
Skill Trees - the complaint of customising it your way is understandable, especially in such a system as WoW where you're either strong in 1/3, average in 2/3 or weak in all. It is a balanced situation designed to allow "player customisation", but usually creates confusion in new RPG players and entices those who want to plan ahead and strategise. Compare this to the skill tree of Ragnarok Online and you'll see that customisation is heavily reliant upon the class rather than what area of the tree you look at (though some classes have large trees). What are my cons on this customisation however? Well obviously it encourages individuality in an MMO environment. And though WoW is the largest MMO around, people really aren't reliant upon others unless there's a war to be had. What WoW has managed to do, however, is make it that there is no "best build" but a collection of highly viable builds. RO has failed on this point.
Not Skill Trees - RPG's that don't rely on skill trees usually rely on another way to obtain skills (buying, rewards, obtained at certain levels automatically). Without a skill tree, players are left to concentrate on their own skill and the use of any abilities a character may come with as opposed to who can make their flames hotter by four levels. The major problem without a skill tree is that there is a lack of true character-to-character customisation and more focus on skill. Though this is alright in my books, it loses quite a lot of the strategy a player would usually hold in a skill-tree based game.
Of course both paragraphs above mean nothing, because the largest plague of the RPG world is un-understandable statistics. Why any player would care if their defence is 1 higher than another's is beyond me personally, they might as well just make grades of stats.
Oh, suppose I should suggest an alternative. If you wanted to use skills, without the beloved "skill tree" then perhaps a system that awards skills dependent upon your actions as a player. Of course this would almost be overly complex and people would surely cry foul for not being able to make their necromancer pure evil whilst helping quest-giver #1564 build a church for fluffy bunnies.
OK, this won't answer your query....
Ignoring the idea of leveling up, or RPGS in general, what we're interested in here is a reward structure that is (at least) two-fold:
1. It allows the player to feel more powerful/successful/important within the game space.
2. It allows some measure of selection, allowing alterations to the interaction within the game, enabling more "individual" expression through play.
It might be helpful to think of it in terms of agency - we need to both increase it, and potentially change its nature to satisfy the player. From this framing, there are multitudes of approaches we can take, and each are highly dependent on the systems unique to each design. Because this reward structure is but one system within many, and each system *should* be tightly integrated within any design, without further specification it's near impossible to answer the question...