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Sinister Design on 6 Ways to Improve Turn-based RPG Combat

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Sinister Design on 6 Ways to Improve Turn-based RPG Combat

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 20 July 2012, 19:24:43

Tags: Sinister Design

Craig Stern of Sinister Design, the developer behind Telepath RPG and the upcoming Telepath Tactics, shares his thoughts on some ways to improve turn-based RPG combat systems, meant to complement his older article on the same subject. Among the proposed ways are:

(2) Movement-focused special abilities. Movement tends to get short-changed when it comes time for special abilities in RPGs. Most RPGs give their characters damage-dealing attacks, some buffs, some de-buffs, maybe a few summoning spells, and then call it a day. It’s strange that we don’t see more movement abilities, particularly so given that war games—themselves the progenitors of role-playing games—originated with chess. Chess not only distinguishes pieces almost entirely through their unique movement patterns, it also throws in special movement abilities for good measure. Pawns, for instance, get an optional bonus space when first moving forward from their starting spaces. There is also castling. It’s a little odd to see so few turn-based RPGs employ special movement abilities, given their long and distinguished heritage.

It isn’t necessary to introduce a huge number of disparate movement patterns à la chess; just one or two special movement abilities can do the trick. Recent Fire Emblem games, for instance, give larger (particularly mounted) characters the ability to rescue smaller characters and drop them elsewhere. Games in the Disgaea series let human characters pick up and throw allies and enemies, or even stack characters in a tower to set up elaborate throw chains. The rules in these latter examples themselves are simple and easy to grasp, but their tactical implications are far-reaching, opening up many new possibilities over the course of a single battle.

(6) Character-centric consequences. I touched on something related to this in the last article under the rubric of providing multiple battlefield objectives. That was about giving battlefield events plot consequences. Here, however, I want to suggest to you that we should be doing everything we can to make our decisions on the battlefield have character development consequences.

Party RPGs with perma-death necessarily have a touch of that, provided that character deaths play a role in dialog and cut scenes going forward. (This happens in Fire Emblem games and in Telepath RPG: Servants of God.) But that’s just scratching the surface of what is possible.

I’m going to talk about a game that isn’t an RPG for just a second: Crusader Kings 2. Crusader Kings 2 is a recently-released strategy game that does exactly what I was talking about back in 2010: it models characters in an emergent way, then lets the game’s story grow organically out of their interactions. This sort of emergent personality modeling completely sidesteps the supposed incompatibility of narrative and gameplay, and sports the potential to make combat interesting on a level that few (if any) games have attempted to date.

Now, I’m not suggesting that RPGs should go whole hog and ditch their hand-crafted narratives in favor of an approach like this; rather, just consider for a moment the possibilities opened up by a hybrid approach. Suppose that characters in your party had certain personality attributes, and that those attributes would impact their performance on the battlefield. Maybe one character is “jealous,” so her accuracy drops if another character of the same gender gets between her and her love interest. Maybe another character is “greedy,” and gets angry if another character finishes off an enemy he wounded. Maybe a character who gets close to death one time too many gets a “traumatized” attribute and starts having flashbacks in cut scenes outside of combat. Maybe a character subject to a missed attack that would have otherwise been fatal will become convinced that (the) God(s) protected her, changing her dialog out of combat and making her less careful in combat. I’m just rattling off examples; the possibilities here are absolutely limitless.

Fire Emblem and its imitators have a very narrow implementation of character-centric consequences in so-called support systems, where characters that spend a lot of time near one another in battle can develop closer relationships and give each other bonuses in combat by fighting together. A different (also very narrow) implementation of this can be found in the “level up by doing” systems of the Elder Scrolls games and X-Com, where having characters perform specific actions makes them better at those actions over time.

Those sorts of implementations are elegant, but limited both in scope and in approach. A more robust, simulational implementation–a combat system which models character personalities and motivations, then impacts them dynamically over the course of a battle based on events as they occur–has enormous potential to lead to extremely interesting emergent situations in combat, both tactically and narratively.​

That makes it 2 out of 6. For the full list, you should consult the original article.

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