What Goes Into Crafting Good Skill Trees In RPGs

By this day and age, it seems that the majority of RPGs now involve the use of skill trees. The player has the freedom to decide which skills they want to upgrade and which abilities they want to unlock. However, this is certainly done better in some games than in others, and sometimes skill trees can be vastly disappointing and empty. In this article, I’ll explore some of the arguments for what goes into designing a good skill tree.

“Impactful” Skills Versus Stat Modifiers

One of the most repeated complaints against the use of skill trees is when games require a bunch (or all) of the skill points to go into stat modifiers. While stat modifiers can certainly start to stack up over time, it’s often difficult to notice any direct effect they have on the game as you play, at least for a while. For example, “+1% damage with melee weapons” sounds like a step in the right direction (and technically, it is), but you more than likely aren’t going to see that 1% reflected in the gameplay in any significant way. Some argue that if the skill tree is going to heavily rely on stat-modifying, you might as well just not include skill trees at all and have the character gain stats at a linear rate across the board as you level up.

I can see where they’re coming from in a way; filling in a giant skill tree full of stat modifiers can feel less than rewarding. However, if stat-modifying trees are done right, they don’t have to feel so meaningless. One way to make the stat modifiers feel more meaningful could be both to limit the number of stat modifiers you have to go through and also include a more impactful ability at the end (or some dispersed along the way) of the branch. If I’m building a rogue or assassin character, I don’t mind going through sneak modifiers to be “good enough” to unlock a cool stealth ability once my stats are higher, for example.

Some will argue for the elimination of stat modifiers altogether in favor of an “ability tree,” in which every skill point the player uses unlocks a significant ability that effects the gameplay. I understand the want for impactful skills, but unless the skill tree is going to be on the smaller side, this could end up with an abundance of abilities that don’t get used. I believe the stat modifiers in combination with impactful abilities would make for the most successful skill tree.

Limited Path Versus Fully Completable Trees

If ever we were going to point to a major divide among the topic of skill trees, it would probably be over whether everything should be completable by the end of the game. I cannot stress how much I cannot stand fully completable skills trees. I was under the impression that the entire point of having skill trees was to build up and craft a type of character you want. If the entire thing can be completed by the end of the game, what is the point of having the skill trees at all? To get to decide which stuff you want to use first? That seems extremely empty to me. The feeling of disappointment several hours into a game when I’m thinking I’m crafting a cool rogue and then realizing I could just put on different equipment and be a beefy warrior later on is real. Being a “jack of all trades” is pretty much the exact opposite of what I want to get out of any RPG, considering at all times you’re basically a mage and a thief and a fighter and a… you get the point.

Locked Skills Versus Redistribution

While I fall into the “pro locked skills” camp on this one, I did read some decent arguments against it. If you’re starting a new game, there’s a fairly good chance you don’t go into it knowing exactly what kind of build you’re going for. Even if you’ve decided you want to build a mage, for example, there are often several different paths you could choose to go from there. If you’ve decided on a particular path but then six hours into the game you realize you’d rather do something else… well, you’re going to have to start the game over.

I can’t disagree that that’s a problem, but at the same time, allowing for the redistribution of skills at any time ties into the argument against fully completable skill trees. If my points can be shifted around at any time and with zero penalty, it really takes away from my love for character building and the work I put into morphing my character into the build I set out to do. I can still do this in a way, but it begins to, again, feel like I don’t really have any set build, since I could just morph into a different one at any point.

Conclusion: Impact And Limitations Make For The Best Skill Trees

Skill trees should be designed for the player to work towards navigating a path that is tailored to their playstyles and chosen builds for their characters. A combination of stat modifiers and impactful abilities, a not fully completable skill tree, and a locked path within the skill tree are, in my opinion, the best possible ways to craft skill trees for the best RPG experience.

Next: Relax, Not Every Game Needs To Be Open World

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Stephanie is an Editor at TheGamer, solidly aligned chaotic neutral. Though her favorite game is Fire Emblem: Three Houses, she vows to do everything in her power to one day see a Legend of Dragoon remake. Absolutely nothing can top her immense love for The Lord of the Rings.

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