The reason I found AA originally was searching for Action RPGs. I've always had a healthy obsession with games like Zelda 2, Secret of Mana/Evermore, and Willow (NES). So finding AA was a natural progression. So the topic of Action RPGs and what they mean in the Indy world of action RPGs today has me thinking.
There's a few data points that I draw from with a lot of the following examples. So if you want to check them out, it's a good exercise for A&A's era of RPGs and how there were being interpreted into first person shooters.
The main topics will be Hexen, the Wrath of Cronos mod
for Hexen, Amulets and Armor, Hexen II, and a Hexen II mod of my own called Game of Tomes
So the topic starts on Hexen and how it relates to a board game called Heroquest. In most RPGs, monsters are made out of delicious experience points. It tastes like candy and the best way to eat it is bashed into a bloody pulp with a spiked mace.
Heroquest was a GamesWorkshop colaboration based on Warhammer and didn't have a concept of XP. Similarly, so does Hexen. Every monster that you fight is a risk. You spend HP, Mana, and Items to pass by them, and skipping a fight is good. Without the incentive to kill monsters for XP, it becomes more creative. Which is both good and bad. "Yay" for more role play than game. "Boo" for no XP and leveling.
Hexen II tried to add missing RPG elements. Players had stats, had starting HP, could increase HP and Mana limits. Gained lovely XP from killing monsters. They even got skills that helped them fight. The problem is that the XP was scarce, levels were rare, and the bonuses were flavor not features. Hexen II simlpy had MORE rpg flavor but no calories. Killing monsters was a burden on resources that mattered and didn't provide any incentive for fighting. And with the level design, there was no skipping monsters through clever means. Not that the levels were bad, just not supportive of the game play. And the biggest issue with the RPG part was there was no way to level grind. There is a finite amount of XP in the game.
Enter Wrath of Cronos. A Mod for Hexen. It's a pretty big T.C.. It includes tons of features from other mods. New weapons. Tons of skills. An alchemy system. Leveling. And new monster types. It's actually so featureful that it forces a relatively simple strategy to succeed, instead of encouraging players to explore their options. But overall, a really solid implementation of an action RPG.
So why is this significant? Because that's the story of Quake. The original game design was to be some kind of Hammer totting RPG character who brained bad guys in a fantasy setting. Partway into development they realized that it wasn't fun. What they wanted to do was really difficult in 3d. And that's where Hexen II left itself. It was a mod of Quake and turned out to be the best attempted to make an official quake-like RPG.
So there I saw myself at the 20th anniversary of Quake. It needed an RPG. Something simple enough that you want to explore all of the features, not find a single winning strategy. So I started with grand ideas of making a Quake RPG only to realize that the Hexen II source code (scripting) was available. So off I set on Game of Tomes.
Game of Tomes is an attempt to accentuate the RPG features of Hexen II. To take them out of the background and put them on the front. There were a lot of challenges. A lot of weird little wrinkles, but in the end it was a great learning experience.
So the first influence was obviously Wrath of Cronos. Along with an older mod called Korax, it represents Hexen RPGs done right. So little by little concepts of thate game were taken. Suddenly players could gain attribute scores instead of just hp and mana. Player's were healed back to full at every level. XP requirements were reduced and made managable. All of the weapons were refactored to run off of attributes. New little "skills" (like the crusader draining health) were added. It became a game where you WANTED to smash monsters for squishy, delicious XP. (I should point out that I used a similar stat distribution method as A&A because of how well it works, and probably should be expanded upon in future discussion.)
But there was still one big issue, and after that long introduction, it's the main topic for this particular post. (but all game design discussion is welcomed in this thread) There still were not enough monsters to kill in order to grind.
The neat thing is that Wrath of Cronos has a brilliant level grinding mechanic. Wandering monsters! Built off of the way that Hexen already respawns monsters after a given time, this mod spawns more and even bigger monsters. The longer a player fights through a map, the more chance that wandering XP bags will come by.
But there's more. The problem with all RPGs is finding a way to scale the challenge with the player levels. Most games simply boost health. It's an effective way to make an individual monster tougher but it doesn't necessarily up the challenge. And if monster health scales equally to player advancement, then player advancement is meaningless (I'M LOOKIG AT YOU DIABLO II!!!!!!!). So Hexen did something AMAZING with monsters. Most monsters have about the same health as the basic monster (the ettin). The next tougher monster (the afrits) has significantly less health but can fly and shoot fireballs. The next up has the same health but can block shots with a shield. Monster skills establishes the difficulty, not stats. Just like in Tabletop games. Sure health goes up, but you don't see a lot of metal eating goblins in D&D. You have to RISE to that challenge.
Wrath of Cronos enhanced this feature by making every monster that you encounter have a chance of becoming stronger. Sometimes they were big and tough, sometimes they could shoot fire spells, sometimes they could spawn other monsters. It added a level of difficulty that ramped up as more monsters appeared. The more monsters, the higher chance of getting a tougher version. I borrowed this in Game of Tomes. Every monster had about a 10% chance to spawn as a special monster (spectre, ghost, giant, leader). One addition was that all monsters respawned anywhere between 2 and 7 minutes after dying. So there was a randomized restocking of monsters. And as players gain levels, the chances of a tougher monster increases. So the difficulty scales with the player on top of the fact that progressively stronger monsters are encountered along the way.
So that feature boils down to two things. First, the strength of monsters is random. Second, the restocking happens in unpredictable ways. It's not so much about having a new experience, as it is about taking the stale difficulty scaling of health and damage (I still blame you, Diablo II) and replacing it with an advanced way of distributing the challenge. It's less about being random and more about making the distribution better.
Back to A&A. I don't think that respawning monsters is a good idea. It would definitely throw off level design. Plus, scripting allows map makers to add this feature in when they want (which is exactly how Hexen did it). But, understanding the impact on randomized monsters can direct where we go with future advancments.