Retrospective Journey – Ability Design


Right before writing this article I took a look at some of the notes I took 5 years ago. They were ideas for an RPG, and the amount of things I’d do differently is staggering – absolute, even. There are so many mechanics or details I’d do more than give a second-thought, but change altogether. Specific to journeys is the moment of retrospection, of look-back – this shall be one of mine.

RPGs have been an impactful influence – one that seems everlasting and never-ceasing as well. They made me see the world differently: they made me see characters in people, stats in their abilities, skills and strategies in the overall gameplay of the world. They made me find beauty in the design of magic skills, of talent trees, of classes – and on that I shall focus today.

All the abilities you’ll read are part of kits of 3 to 5 skills. I made about 200 of these kits for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Some are cool, some are okay. The point I want to make is that one’s ability to design (abilities) does increase, even more when you become aware of the purpose your design fulfills.


Yester-Beauties aren’t that Beautiful

There are certain design principles that grew on me. Most of the things I designed back in the day (some 3 years ago) lack most of those principles. We’ll start with one I hold dear: a kit called Murder of Crows. The one trait that hasn’t changed in my design is the desire of Style. Lots of style – all the style.

Note: P stands for Passives. A stands for Active.

Note: By style I refer to the product of gameplay and thematic alike. Pardon my lack of better words.

Note: I will not write down all the numbers. You can fill most of them. Number-balance isn’t quite the point here. 

Name: Murder of Crows

Type: Two-Handed Staff


20 Mana, regenerate 1 every 3 seconds

12 Max Crows, start with 0

P: Birds Upon Your Grave

– everytime an enemy dies, gain 3 Crows

P: Everwatchful

– gain 1 Crow whenever you are attacked or take damage from an outside source

A: Tear

-consume 1 Crow

– 1 second Cooldown

-send a crow to attack enemies, dealing damage in a line

A: Agonizing Call

– consume 4 Mana

– 4 seconds Cooldown

– call 4 crows which attack an enemy, dealing damage over time

– after the duration ends, gain 4 Crows

A: Volatile Feather

– consume 6 Mana and 1 Crow

– 3 seconds Cooldown

– send a crow in the target direction, exploding on contact with a wall or enemies, dealing damage in an area and inflicting burns


This kit was designed in the summer of 2013. It may or may had been inspired by ‘BioShock Infinite’ and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Whenever I work on a kit, I always try to have a Role in mind. That role refers to the benefits of the kit brought to a party (be it even a party of one). In this case, the role is something between Nuker (or dealer of burst damage) and Sustained Damager.

The Theme of the kit is something I’ve always had in mind as well. Almost all theme-role combinations are valid, as long as they don’t contradict in some shape or form. Replace the crows with balls of fire, and I won’t be nearly as interested in playing the kit.

Not all of us have high aesthetical demands – some prefer the raw gameplay and the process of Mastering it. Resource management is a trainable skill, though I will get back to Resources a bit later. The idea of using Crows alongside Mana felt authentic, unique even. Resources can heavily alter Playstyles. Despite there being only one kit, there are several useable playstyles. In the case of this kit, tanking (in order to get a lot of crows) and ranged damage dealing (be it sustained, or be it in bursts) are both viable options.

If I were to remake it, I’d get rid of the Mana altogether and find a replacement – the Mana, in this case, is nothing more than a second battery to be tapped into when the first one (the Crows) runs out. It obliges the player indirectly to save their resources, and thus use (to be read ‘spam’) their abilities less. Taking out the Mana might require increasing the Cooldowns heavily or finding another form of capping.

I’d also make the two Passives be just one.

This kit also lacks any form of interesting Synergy, and the abilities seem disconnected from each other. The theme and the resource are the main unifying components of the kit.


Old but Cool

This one was designed in the same day as the previous. Here I want to emphasize the concept of Synergy.

Note: S stands for Stance. You can have only one Stance active at a time and can switch freely in-between.

Name: Frost

Type: Two-handed Spear


16 Mana; regenerate 1 every 3 seconds

P: Frost

– Frost is a debuff that slows enemies; it can stack up to 3 times

– lasts 8 seconds

S: Freezing Strike/ Freezing Aura

– apply a charge of Frost whenever you attack an enemy / are attacked by an enemy

 A: Ice Ward

– consumes 3 Mana

– 12 seconds Cooldown

– you thrust your spear into the ground and create a temporary Ice Ward, lasting for 1 minute

– Ice Wards stun nearby enemies affected by 3 stacks of Frost, consuming the debuff

A: Chains

– consumes 4 Mana

– 3 seconds Cooldown

– conjure an ice chain and throw it in the target direction

– if it hits a ward, pull yourself to it; if it hits an enemy, pull the enemy towards you, dealing damage

A: Blizzard

– consumes 8 Mana

– 8 second Cooldown

– create blizzards within the radius of each of your Ice Wards, dealing damage and applying Frost

– lasts 6 seconds


Note two major design flaws. The first one is that Frost, a debuff applied to enemies, occupies a slot in the kit – rendering it to a 4 abilities kit, instead of 5. Never-ever make such mistakes. Commit your design to Consistency.

The second flaw is the Stance. It lacks any kind of Depth whatsoever. When you attack, you push the button to get Freezing Strike; when you don’t attack, or when you are attacked, you make sure you’re in Freezing Aura. It’s an uninteresting button-pressing minigame. What’s worse is that applying Frost is vital to the kit, and thus toying around with this Stance is necessary.

As for the other 3 abilities, those are things I’d still see in a game designed by me. They offer interesting synergy, in the sense that the abilities Combo into one another. The combos do require their time and planning, since positioning the Ice Wards takes time. Chains offer a bonus of mobility for that particular case.

The role used for this kit may vary from Tank, Crowd Controller, Zone Controller to Nuker, even.


By Comparison

By comparison, here’s a recently designed kit that I absolutely love.

Name: The Wayfarer

Type: Two-handed Sword


– 4 Breezes, start with 0; Gain 1 Breeze whenever you use a skill

– when you get the 4th Breeze, consume all of them to reset your cooldowns

P: Lightfeet

– the duration of crowd controls effects is halved

P: Cornered

– 20 seconds Cooldown

– attacking the same target 3 times in a short period of time gives you a short burst of speed

A: Gust

– 7 seconds Cooldown

– reactivate your other abilities

A: Advance

– 5 seconds Cooldown

– lunge in the target direction, dealing damage

– Gust causes you to vault in the opposite direction, twice the distance

A: Whirl

– 8 seconds Cooldown

– you whirl, dealing damage to enemies around you

– Gust causes you to whirl again, dealing damage


The difference is noticeable. When it comes to my Resource philosophy, their purpose is more than just management. Management doesn’t always have to be depowering – in this case clever management empowers the player, allowing them to do one great Combo. Resources also don’t have to be something you wait to replenish, alike Mana. Here, the resource is gained through what the player enjoys doing – using skills and hacking them enemies to shreds.

In order to properly play, the player learns timing their skills to activate the cooldown-reset, as well as have the quick coordinated motions required for not missing the abilities. This refers to Mastery, or Depth (though depth might be associated more with the tactical aspect).

Alike the previous kit, Synergies are highlighted and the combos are dynamic (you can Advance, Whirl, Gust, Cooldown Reset, Whirl, Advance then Gust – for a maximum-damage combo with an evade; you can Advance, Gust, Cooldown Reset, Advance, Gust and Cornered for an escape or a chase).

The two passives fuel the hit-and-runner Playstyle. A hit-and-runner is hindered by crowd control and a hit-and-runner desires more mobility. The main Mechanic of Cooldown Resets increases the upper limit of the kit (thus allowing mastery), it allows more clever combos (thus tougher button-pressing as well) and, more than anything, is Satisfying and Stylish.

Note that the playstyles are centered around movement and the kit’s theme contains ‘Breezes’, ‘Gusts’, and things related to wind and air.


Let’s Recap

Role – The role is the in-game function of the character or a kit, usually in a party. Please refer to the Holy Trinity of DPS/Healer/Tank, or the roles of Initiator/Support/Disabler/etc. in MOBAs.

Theme – The theme is the aesthetic compound of a character or a kit. It can refer to the way the spells look, the symbolism associated with them (earth tends to be bold and protective; crows tend to refer to death and mystery; daggers tend to be associated to rogues and subterfuge). Take note that even if you explore a theme that has already been explored, you can (and should) give it a twist. Please refer to archetypes and tropes.

Resource – Resources are the things which fuel abilities, or are consumed by abilities. Their existence has the function of providing management and decision-making, therefore they are an essential element of Depth. The resources are heavily tied in the Theme of the kit, in the Mechanics, in the Playstyle and in the overall Style – perhaps, this is why I focus so much on them, since I’m more than tired of seeing Mana-bars everywhere. Note that cooldowns and one’s own life are also resources. Please refer to Mana, Rage, Soulgems and others in World of Warcraft and some champions from League of Legends (Gnar, Yasuo, Shyvanna, to name a few).

Synergy – Synergy refers to the trait of abilities to cause effects greater than themselves when used with one another. For example: a buff which increases your Magic Power and a Fireball spell synergize, despite the synergy being quite blank. A dash and a knock-backing blow also synergize, but offering more Depth, however – since it can be used both as a method of escape and as a method of repositioning.

Combos – Combos are sequences of buttons or abilities required for a certain single or composite effect. Combos can be made out of several abilities which have Synergy, or by having to do a certain minigame in order to activate a single ability. Combos are an important aspect of Mastery.

Mechanics – Mechanics refer to certain features of gameplay that a kit is centered on. Certain mechanics are universal (almost), such as the ability to move, or to attack. Some are particular, such as spewing healing orbs around you. Understanding and practicing the mechanics of a game leads to Mastery.

Depth – Depth is the property of a kit to offer tools useable in more situations. For example, invisibility can be used both as a tool of escape and as a tool of flanking. Gathering experience and understanding all the Depth a kit has to offer leads to Mastery.

Mastery – Mastery is the ability to use skills from the kit out of reflex, as well as being able to make complex decision-making quickly. Mastery is a key component to making your kit engaging.

Consistency – Consistency refers to applying the same design philosophy or design direction to the whole kit, or all of the kits. Lack of consistency often-time causes loss of immersion and frustration.

Playstyle – A playstyle is the way a player uses a certain kit. The kit itself offers tools, and based on the way the player makes decisions (be them offensive, defensive, opportunistic etc.), a playstyle is formed. A kit doesn’t have to offer more than one viable playstyle (playstyle which is often the one Mastered), but enabling a variety of playstyles allows more players to enjoy the kit, as well as adding bonus Depth.

Style – Style refers to the ideal state a kit, in which its Mechanics, Theme, Playstyles, everything, work amazingly well. Reading some champion-design blogs from Riot, it seems that they use the term ‘Fantasy’. The style is also the thing a player immerses themselves into.

Satisfaction – Satisfaction is the pleasure a great kit offers. The greater the satisfaction, the closer the kit’s state is to its Style, to its ideal state. Unfair Mechanics, boring Playstyles, lack of Consistency, and many more, can cause frustration, thus lack of satisfaction.


End of the Road

Not quite the end of the road, but the end of the article. The road’s wavering and unending, promising beauty, effort and catharsis for the designer. I do hope that you learned something new and enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it and designing those kits that lead to me writing it.

I also hope that I’ll get to post more often on the blog. Time will tell.

Check out these two previous articles of mine: one on designing Talents, and one on designing Skills.

Cheers! :D


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s