Is it okay if I adjust this thing from vanilla?
The goal of this post is to articulate my thinking around a common self-imposed constraint that I see frequently with newer hackers, and how you can and should expand your thinking when designing the gameplay of your hacks given the availability of new tech and learnings from previous works to help elevate your own.
This post is not to say “vanilla is bad! don’t design like vanilla!” but rather, depending on the goals you set out for yourself, restricting yourself to vanilla-like systems or behavior will limit your creativity and prevent you from making something as good (or at least as unique) as it could be.
My hope is that by reshaping thinking here, we will be better positioned to have more productive discussions and push the FEGBA engine (and associated fangame engines) to new heights and make memorable experiences for each other and the broader community.
I’ll be breaking down this post into sections:
When I started hacking and working on VQ in 2017/18, I was really focused on “fixing” some of the core issues present in vanilla GBA titles. A lot of the initial design choices I made were specifically with this mental framing – fix the things I felt were “bad” about FE8 vanilla gameplay while injecting some new tech like skills and conventions from other FE mainline titles.
Some of these items included:
- Make archers worth using
- Make armor knights worth using
- Make cavaliers and fliers less insane
- Make the game more player phase oriented
- Make the game more difficult without introducing the frustration that typically follows
I ended up making videos about what I learned and some general tips on how you can do these things better, but it was always framed from the lens of “better than vanilla”.
While this wasn’t really the wrong way to think about it, in retrospect, this limited my own creativity in what I could do and pushed me towards making specific changes within a pre-established framework vs. coming up from my own.
While stuff like classes and items were easier to adjust and tweak, other systems I accepted as is, things like supports, affinities, the general tiering of weapons, the inclusion of S rank, WRank in general, and so forth - there are so many things that I never paid much mind to when designing, feeling obliged to keep as they were if I even thought critically as to why I needed them at all. It was easy to accept the game simply as it was, without thinking critically about why it needed to be there at all.
Part of this was driven by what was technically available at the time. When I started, FEBuilder and Buildfiles were new. I started drafting ideas less than 3 months after Void’s Blitzarre Adventure was released. Skillsystem was new and unlike anything we’d seen previously. You couldn’t adjust numbers manually in skillsystem with FEBuilder at the time, so you were stuck with defaults unless you knew what you were doing (spoilers: I did not)
The only hacks I could reference for inspiration were also very much rooted in vanilla design, in part because of their limitations. In 2017 the only major completed hacks in the west were The Last Promise, Elibean Nights, Requiem, Order of the Crimson Arm, and Road To Ruin. Much of the other popular in-progress stuff at the time was also fairly close to vanilla in design. Bloodlines is the only real exception, but outside of its unique classes, the gameplay was still rooted in a vanilla GBA paradigm like its peers. At the time, simply getting a [complete] hack over the finish line was a hard endeavor. Deviating from vanilla was not a chief concern, we simply wanted more hacks to play (and they’re all still worth playing)
Additionally, because so few hacks ever finished, simply achieving [complete] status was a goal worth pursuing on its own - further pushing me towards sticking with familiar systems and gameplay to help increase the velocity I could work at.
During development of my own work, a lot of new technical innovations were being made. New updates to the skillsystem. New C hacks and asm that added new QoL or mechanics from other games that previously did not exist or could only be achieved through event spaghetti (if at all).
In 2022, the community is a lot different. There are lots of completed hacks, many of which use new tech to great effect. For many newer hackers who want to make something cool and add to the fabric of work this community’s put out for over a decade, sticking closely to vanilla may not drum up interest. You don’t have to look far to see folks working on stuff just hoping someone will actually play it or give them feedback. There are so many things to play, standing out simply by existing doesn’t happen anymore - there is a need to do something more.
There are more and more hacks pursuing different types of gameplay concepts and ideas, using new tech, and shifting hacking from “vanilla edit” into “custom game w/ a GBAFE engine” territory. This is exciting and an important mental shift.
For me, when I started LoT in 2020, I aimed to look at the GBA engine as more of a blank slate for my own design ideas - the limitations were technical, not imposed on me by vanilla. I had the experience now to try something different and use some new tech. While I ultimately felt hamstrung by writing a sequel (and thus those self-imposed limitations) and was never fully satisfied with the gameplay, it showed me there was more we can do to experiment w/ the FE framework.
Standing out on the menu
Today, I still see a lot of folks ask questions and frame decisions within the lens of vanilla: “Is it okay to change this from vanilla from X to Y?” or q’s around feeling obliged to work around specific systems inherent to the vanilla formula that they don’t need to, whether it be how support points are calculated to the type of classes used, very often I still see this thinking of vanilla as the anchor point for design - which it doesn’t need to be.
While this does come down to goals, for folks wanting to make a unique, custom project with their own story, characters, gameplay, etc - vanilla is not a limitation, but a choice. You don’t need to do the thing vanilla does, especially if you don’t like it.
To stand out, don’t be afraid to deviate from how vanilla handles it, especially if you don’t want your work to feel like vanilla.
Some hacks set out to take vanilla and turn it into vanilla+, or like a luxurious vanilla bean ice cream. It’s familiar, but of a higher quality. However, if the entire frozen aisle at your local grocer is vanilla bean, how will yours stand out from the rest? Is this even the flavor you want to make?
Food for thought
If you are still reading, here’s a few ways you can experiment and work on something different from the ground up. I’ll share a few key things I’ve thought of. Some of these I reworked from scratch in my own work.
With any idea, it’s important you validate it through playtesting, feedback, and constantly revising.
Question the need for specific systems. Since we treat vanilla FE8 as a “baseline”, it can be easy to want to bake in what’s there. There is arguably a balance to be struck here, too.
Namely, how much do you want to deviate from what is standard in Fire Emblem. For example, it’s one thing to buff the weapon triangle or remove it, but changing the standard by reversing it (axes > swords) would probably cause more thrash and confusion for your players than is needed.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t critically question the need for each aspect of the game’s systems. Here are a few I’d recommend exploring and determining 1) how much you like them and 2) can I execute this in a different way to better achieve my design vision?
The below list includes many of the things we take for granted and that many hacks don’t change from FE8 or the core FE formula. These are mostly thought starters and not meant to be taken as recommendations. The goal is to point out some things that can be easy to overlook when thinking about how your game works.
- Weapon Triangle
Vanilla’s weapon triangle is +/-15 hit and +/- 1 DMG. The triangle, when it exists, hasn’t deviated too much from this. In some ways, this is among the more impactful WT implementations IS has made. However, given how easy FE8 gets, it starts to matter less once your units outstat others.
When it comes to WT, there are a few q’s you can ask: 1) Do I want a bigger or smaller triangle, and 2) Do I want a triangle at all? In general, the weapon triangle is all about match-ups – emphasizing or de-emphasizing them depending on the contextual bonus and penalty applied to units.
The core gameplay loop will differ pretty heavily pending what you choose, but if you are feeling dissatisfied with how your game plays, consider adjusting the strength of the triangle or its inclusion at all.
- Item stats and progression
This one I think most people will do, but you can adjust weapon stats and more importantly, weapon progression pretty easily. While it can be hard to justify deviating from iron/steel/silver as a tiered system, you can challenge the WRanks you get each at (ie should silvers be A rank?), their stats (ie do steels need to be so heavy?), and so forth.
Additionally, ask yourself: Are there other ways I can differentiate weapons within each type and add new tiers or types of weapons to diversify what’s present in the ROM.
- Weapon ranks, weapon types, and WRank thresholds
Similar to the above, a lot of hacks stick w/ conventions around WRank, weapon types, and thresholds. For example, many folks use E->S system instead of weapon level or scrapping it all together in favor of another system. What could that look like? IDK but I’m sure you could find a different way to handle it if you don’t like the way it’s done in vanilla.
For weapon types, we often think in the lens of the standard weapons available: bows, sword, lances, and axes – little deviation from these outside of the odd manakete stone or knives. Consider if these weapon types serve your needs and if you’d benefit from removing or adding.
Lastly, WRank thresholds are the amount of WEXP you need to get to go up a rank. In vanilla, this is typically 1 per hit and 2 per kill. For some folks, this can go up quickly. It’s not hard to adjust how much WEXP you need to shift from rank to rank as well as how much WEXP you get per combat. Consider slowing this down if you feel vanilla’s system gives an advantage to fast units or simply doesn’t make WRank matter much.
Magic is one of those things that is rife for experimentation. For example, vanilla uses anima/light/dark, but all the mage classes tend to play similarly to each other. There’s a couple of things you could do to differentiate magic and change up how it works.
Creating diversified tomes for each type.
Collapsing into a single tome rank + using class locks
Beefing up the magic triangle (or removing it)
Reskinning magic to suit your story
A lot depends on how you view magic and how you want it to function. There are also systems like Gaiden that you’re able to use for unique spell lists vs. casting from tome items. Regardless, I think it’s important to ask if you need the anima/light/dark convention and if you think you can do something different that would make it better.
- Attack Speed thresholds
Vanilla GBA threshold to double is 4 AS. You should ask yourself if you need 4 or if you want doubling to happen more or less often. For example, some of the other games have a 5 AS threshold, while Gaiden has 1 AS.
- Combat formulae (hit, avoid, crit, etc.)
You can read more about vanilla’s formulae on the wiki, but it’s important to ask how you want the combat in your game to feel. For example, players often lament how bad luck is as a stat. Adjusting combat formula can be a way to make luck more powerful. Similarly, for formula like avoid, reducing the impact of speed can take some of its power away.
The formulae that inform how combat works can give your game unique flair and help rebalance some elements that traditionally are seen as out of whack.
- Class structure and promotion (split promo? single promo? item-based promos? etc)
This one I think most people will do, but it’s still worth mentioning. More critically is the need for having every class type that exists in vanilla and do they need to function as they do there?
- Unit stats (high/low growths, class base stats, etc.)
This is another one that I think a lot of people will do already, but again, consider the stat paradigm you want to follow and how that will impact the feel of the game.
The relationship of growths and bases will be key in giving your game a numeric aesthetic and feel. For example, some players like big, inflated numbers, while others tout their work as having small, deflated numbers. Recognizing the pros and cons of big and small numbers in your game will help you figure out what you prefer to design around and what creates the feel you want to go for.
- Gender specific AID formula / how rescue works broadly
FE8 does this thing where units w/ the female bit have a worse AID formula than men. Why? It is a mystery.
This is a pretty easy change to make, but you may also want to challenge the AID formula more broadly. Similarly, rescue is available out of the box in GBA, but do you want it to function as it does in vanilla? Should the AID formula be different? Should you have rescue at all? What are the penalties? Etc.
- S rank weapons
A lot of vanilla games make their S rank weapons the legendary holy dragon tier weapons of yore, but they can also just be really strong weapons that are buyable. Similarly, many games only allow for your unit to achieve a single S rank – do you want this for your game or do multiple S ranks make more sense? A lot depends on how much you want these traditionally late game weapons to matter and when you suspect units will get access to S ranks and how much they’ll get used.
- Supports & Affinity
We have a number of examples to go into for building supports (a lot of folks would say the GBA implementation is bad), so you can consider how else you can increment support points.
Bonuses are traditionally an aura - do you want to set up a different way for the bonuses to be calculated? Similarly, do you want affinity to determine bonuses, or something else entirely?
Refresher units are a staple of FE, so you may feel obliged to follow this trend (along w/ many others).
Consider: does refreshing need to be tied to a specific unit, or could I create a staff or tome than refreshes units instead? Is there something we can do more interesting than a single unit who exists to let another unit move again?
FE8 summons are free blue units you can get each turn. If you want to include summons, think about the skillset of the summoner and what sort of summons they should have. Phantoms w/ 1 HP are classic, but there are other ways you can implement these.
You could make a much longer post about skill implementation, but I’ll leave this broad 1) do you need skills to enhance how combat works in your game? 2) do you want class skills, generic enemy skills, level up skills, personal skills, etc. and 3) how would the skills encourage the player to think critically about what they’re doing? For example, some skills are activated passively (typically EP oriented skills) while others are activated actively (like darting blow, movement skills, etc.).
Think about what skills will do for your work and if they’d enhance it. Alternatively, can you do what you’d want to do with skills in a more elegant way? Don’t be afraid to ask!
Don’t forget about the tunes!
Designing around permadeath invites its own set of challenges and considerations. While FE’s inclination towards it has waned, you’ll need to ask if your game should commit to encouraging permadeath as a mode of play or leaning more into a casual mode experience. Think about how you want your story to be told and the type of gameplay experience you want. That should give you a sense of whether you want to lean into permadeath as a core mechanic or not.
FE is unique among SRPGs for having counterattacks. To change how FE works, do you think you need this? What sort of opportunities would this open up for the game flow if we removed counterattacks? This would be highly experimental in an FE context, but worth considering
Similar to the above, the turnflow of FE is defined by a player and enemy phase. Each side gets to move all of their units at once. Stan made a hack for Lazberian turnflow to mimic what’s done in Berwick, while other SRPGs use an initiative or speed based system to determine unit order.
If you want to experiment, consider how this change in turnflow would impact how you design maps, enemies, and stats broadly.
With anything, your mileage may vary. My goal here is not to convince you to adopt any particular idea, but rather to challenge vanilla conventions and ask “am I doing this because it makes sense for the game I want to make, or am I doing this because vanilla does it this way?”.
I hope this list of thought starters is helpful as you consider ways to customize your work.
Fire Emblem has longevity and generates interest in part because of its diversity and the team’s willingness to experiment and recreate itself with each entry.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shackled where Intelligent Systems (and especially Kaga) were not.
In short, to answer the question at the top of this post, yes, it is okay to change it. Happy hacking.
(Please add on if you have any thoughts on this topic).