How Renowned Explorers folds diplomacy into its combat system

Adriaan Jansen of Abbey Games explains the process of designing a sophisticated combat system that accommodates diplomatic strategies, and tracks the shifting mods and attitudes of characters.

Abbey Games created a singular challenge for themselves with Renowned Explorers: International Society. They wanted to create a combat system that wasn’t limited to combat. 

They envisioned a system that took in the breadth of human interaction, so that you could charm, connive, convince or combat your way out of an encounter.

It’s a challenge that’s paid off. The critical reception and the Steam reviews for the game have been overwhelmingly positive, and almost all have praised the combat system as a stand out feature.

A combat system based on attitudes and moods

Renowned Explorers charges players with assembling a trio of characters and then setting off into the great unknown. At first glance, its combat looks very similar to most turn based strategy games, with a list of attacks with their own ranges and modifiers. The trick is in how each of these attacks is flavored; whether they charm the opponent, or undermine their confidence.

Encounters with hostile forces unfold based on attitudes and moods. An opponent may present a friendly face to counter your skullduggery.Suiting your tactics to both your characters and the characters of your opponents is essential for progress.

The strength of the system is in that diversity of personalities. Social relationships that very much exist in the real world map neatly onto Abbey Games’ system, with emotional states like paranoia, naivety, cunning and distrust easily slipping onto the rock-paper-scissors system of friendly-beats-deceptive-beats-aggressive-beats-friendly. It offers Renowned Explorers the chance to include a wider range of characters and situations than the standard motivation of ‘these guys want to kill you, fight back.'

We wanted to give a more systemic approach to diplomacy,” Adriaan Jansen, the co-founder of Abbey Games, tells me. “Most of the time diplomacy is very toned down or simple, just a button press that means you don’t have to fight. We wanted to make it a real gameplay element that involves strategy, that’s the basis of the whole system."

mood bar for each character shows whether they’re happy, sad, enraged, terrified or impressed

An injection of character

"Early in the development we figured out that if we were going to with such an approach, character is very important.” Jansen explains. “That’s the first step we undertook when we started developing the game. Different characters would have different traits available for them. For example, you have the Luchadore, who is good at fighting but also good at intimidating. Being friendly isn’t really her thing.”

In each game, you select three characters from an expanding roster, trying to balance their strengths and weakness. You may be tempted to maximize a certain trait across all of your characters, like deceptiveness or friendliness. But the character personalities are so distinctive that this isn’t necessarily a strong tactic.

“We have this Abbess in the game.” Jansen tells me. “She has an unassailable faith. She surprises a lot of people as they go in thinking they’re going to punch some nuns, and then they leave being terrified of the wrath of God that’s she’s bestowing upon them. But then the Luchadore, the fighter, is also religious, but when people try to impress or terrify her in a religious way, she will actually take more damage. It’s a fun way to put more character into the game"

Exploring social cues

The Abbess is also a good example of how Renowned Explorers uses more ‘high level’ social relationships such as distrust or wariness within its encounters, as you approach different situations in different manners. The Abbess herself can be approached in a friendly manner, or in a stealth attack, or just by bashing her door down. Each of these approaches influences the system in different ways.

"I can actually put things like ‘distrust’ or ‘trust’ into the system as a buff or debuff, and that’s a really interesting way to see how people’s attitudes towards one another can have a gameplay effect.” Jansen explains. “A lot of real interactions that people have actually map to the game systems really easily."

Jansen and his team have clearly stumbled upon fertile ground. Not only does their system allow players to approach an encounter with a different mind-set and goal in mind, but it also allows Abbey Games to insert characters that would otherwise be irrelevant in a combat scenario. It affords a role to atypical game characters, along with atypical emotions.

Diplomatic approaches have always been underserved in games. There’s been the assumption that human interaction is far too complex to map to a game system. But the elegant way that Abbey Games has distilled it and mapped it to a familiar UI serve as evidence to the contrary.

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