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Encounter design is king

Discussion in 'General RPG Discussion' started by Zanzoken, May 10, 2016.

  1. Zanzoken Arcane

    Zanzoken
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    Encounter design -- meaning what enemies you'll face in battle, how many, their skills and tactics, etc -- is the most important aspect of RPG combat design.

    People will sperg on for hundreds of posts about mechanical things like die rolls, attributes, classes, skills, and all that. And that's fine -- systems are important, and they should be analyzed and improved upon where possible.

    But content is what separates the wheat from the chaff, and in a combat-heavy game -- which let's face it, pretty much all RPGs are nowadays -- encounter design is the most important content there is.

    Great encounter design can take a simplistic, mediocre, or even bad system and elevate it into something good. But the reverse just isn't true. A game with boring encounters can't be saved even by the best combat system. Even if it's fun in the beginning, smashing the same old trash mobs over and over inevitably loses its luster.

    So my two questions are:

    1) Do you agree?
    2) If so, what do you think are the keys to good encounter design, and what are the things to avoid?

    I'm eager to hear everyone's thoughts because I don't see this get talked about very much whenever we're discussing games or general theory.
     
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  2. Ivan Arcane

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    I would also like to learn more about this. For the most part, the RPGs I've enjoyed are mostly about setting and narrative, not combat (Fallout, Torment, Arcanum).

    The only one game I've played whose combat I particularly enjoyed was Divinity: Original Sin. Also, are we strictly talking isometric style RPGs?
     
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  3. Telengard Arcane

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    Do I personally agree? Oh yes, definitely.

    Would the average RPG player, even the average Codex RPG player? Not really. Even if we exclude the mainstream RPG player, the actual encounter part of encounter design isn't what people are looking for.
    I) In the prime position for what encounters need is relative power balance between the two opposing sides. This should absolutely NOT be parity in class/level/stats/number appearing. Expeditions: Conquistador is not the way to go. If all you do is fight a parallel of yourself over and over, the only thing left to cause a change-up from one fight from another is terrain. With proper parity, the enemy can have any number of differing variables from the party, but the combined power output of their variables must be close to the party's combined variables. And it must be so simply because that's the only way for the combat to ever actually be a challenge. Anything else is just pretend challenge. Of course, not every fight should be at full parity, as there should be ebb and flow to build tension and interest, but all encounters do need to be within a relatively close range of parity. For rest-anywhere modern games, the parity lines MUST be relatively close for all encounters. Attrition-based combat is better at this, as the ebb can be steep, with tiny easy encounters possible, there for the sole purpose of draining little bits and pieces of the party's resources (before the game goes in for the kill with the big battle).

    On the other side of things, terrain is the primary component for player interest from the regular RPG crowd. In other words, a combat that not only occurs in a unique location, but in which the player must interact with that unique location in order to defeat the enemy. For instance, the tried-and-true arrow-slitted murder hallway. Throw in an a giant ogre in the center of the hallway whose attacks shake the screen (but who can't really do enough damage to defeat the party with his awesome swings), and you have the classic awesome encounter that everyone loves that feels challenging. It feels like you have overcame a tough situation, when the encounter was actually specifically designed as a kind of jump-scare. Ogre attacks shake the screen, arrows firing from places unseen and that you can't easily get to - spooky stuff. And then you slaughter everyone with your awesome special overpowered weapons and abilities. No real challenge, but it feels unique and special and challenging.

    II) Secondarily, the enemy needs a reason and means to fight the party. They need some hook that can allow them to defeat the party, some attack or some trap, some something that makes it possible for them to actually kill the party despite all of the party's suped up weapons and powers. Or, in attrition-based games, they need some ability to damage the party at least slightly. If the enemy don't have this hook, then the combat is automatically just rote routine, essentially the party getting rid of a fly level of combat.

    On the other side of things, fly-level is what regular RPG players want from their bulk combat, it's only their boss battles that they want non-fly-swatting duties. For the current crop of RPG players, divide encounters into three groups - minions, henchmen, villains. Henchmen and villains are the boss battles. Minions are drek. What people want is to walk all over the minion fights, stomp stomp stomp, dead. Then when the player encounters a henchman, that's when they have to think, not a lot, but just take a few extra moments of consideration to make a few extra clicks. Fail to do that, and the henchman has a chance of defeating the party. And then finally, there's the villains. The villain fights are where it's at, where players are required to make use of their full suite of abilities. Essentially what this all means is: your current core RPG player wants ebb and flow in combat quality, lots of stuff that they can scoot right over that makes them feel powerful, a few simple henchmen combats that make them feel both clever and powerful, and then only a handful of challenging villain encounters, with the villains spread out through the game.

    III) Thirdly, the different combat encounters should require different sets of tools to complete successfully. Some encounters should start at long range, some at close. Some should occur in tight, close quarters where large weapons and ranged weapons can't be used, and where area-of-effect is king, others in wide open areas where the enemies are spread out and area-of-effect is nigh useless. The player should need to adapt to the situation, not be able to one-size-fits all power their way through every encounter with their awesome avenger, ember, vorpal two-handed sword of beast slaying.

    On the other side of things, your current RPG player hates everything in that paragraph above. They want to be specced out with their favorite weapon and favorite armor and have all their favorite feats and powers and special abilities set to max, and use combat as just a kind of illustration of how awesome their character-building prowess is. Take any of their favorite things away, even just for a couple of combats, and they will declare your game to be the worst ever. What they want is to have a variety of types of encounters, each one of which can be bent to defeat with their favorite things. This requires a careful balancing act, since the combat has to be physically different and appear to be challenging, yet at the same time must be defeatable through any number of different methods, as long as the player has chosen to max out one particular method. That means your villains have to be powerful, yet highly vulnerable at the same time. Like an allergic vampire with poor eyesight and mental issues (deep mental issues, such as whatever it is that keeps him from adequately using his minions to protect himself).
     
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  4. Lyric Suite Converting to Islam

    Lyric Suite
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    Poor encounter design is why Torment had shit combat. There was nothing wrong with the system as such, at least for what it was. Standard RTwP with neato spell and critical strike animations.

    So yes, i guess i agree.
     
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  5. TalesfromtheCrypt Arcane

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    I agree, and I think PoE is another good example. Its rule system was teared to shreds here, but I doubt the criticisms would have been as severe if the encounter design didn't suck so much. In fact, the few well designed encounters showed that combat can be a lot of fun in Pillars.

    What is good encounter design? The most important thing is diversity. Facing homogenous groups is boring in general. Have the player face groups of monsters and humans where individual enemies have their unique roles, skills, strengths and weaknesses. Give the enemy group a hierarchy, from identifiable powerful leaders too weak but more numerous goons.
     
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  6. vivec Self-Ejected

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    I could not agree more. However, I have reservations. Absolutely terrible base design for the mechanics *does* hamper the game. It can be made repetitive and boring. Think of per encounter stuff and think of what you do every encounter. That is degenerate design right there.

    I have always partitioned the two aspects when I think of a good game. Indeed, content in Single Player RPGs is the king. Good storytelling and meaningful, challenging encounters can take the game far. But to keep doing that for long, the mechanics will be a crucial supplement. bad mechanics can make the game feel tiresome. It makes every encounter an obstacle instead of giving you the feeling of being integrated into it. That should be avoided.

    And that is not easy.

    Unfortunately, the industry is full of differently abled who think otherwise.
     
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  7. Trashos Arcane

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    I agree, encounter design is extremely important. I also agree with the analysis of the situation by Telengard above.

    Yes, I think DAO is a good example. There was obviously some effort to design several unique encounters, but the whole thing broke down due to the awful system and the lack of enemy variety.
     
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  8. Lilura RPG Codex Dragon Lady

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    The best encounter design is rendered meaningless by OP itemization and non-existent resource management and rest restrictions.

    Of course, Swordflight is one of the rare RPGs that avoids those pitfalls. I can't think of any others that concertedly enforce such things campaign-wide: most of them buckle and break midway through, giving the munchkins just what they want.

    To the gallows with those who self-impose rest restrictions and think the RPG is suddenly good if they do that. Wrong. The RPG is still shit, the devs are spineless, and you're an idiot for DMing your own party.
     
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  9. Lhynn Arcane

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    I think its a bit close minded to only count combat as an encounter. But yes, i agree, quality content is king, and its not actually hard to do. Its basically thinking about what youd like to live tru if you were an adventurer and thats it. A bit of imagination, a bit of love for the subject at hand and its impossible to fuck it up.

    Even the scrubs at beamdog got it mostly right.

    Good encounter design actually takes these things into consideration, so no, yer wrong there.

    I really have to play that module.

    Rest restrictions can be good, but it takes so much job to implement them correctly that you are better off just diverting your time somewhere else.

    I think theres something to be said for self imposed challenges. But i mostly agree, if you are playing a game to win, you should be playing it to win.
     
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  10. vivec Self-Ejected

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    Reposting what I wrote in the expeditions sub-forum thread. Also, advertising to come join there and give the devs good feedback for making a game we can all get behind.

     
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  11. AMG Arbiter

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    Both things are important. It's just that the traditional cRPG formula, which is 60+ hours combat romp with some quests sprinkled in, is not conducive to making interesting and interlocking mechanics that would make the game fun on it's own. Most people won't replay the game to tinker with the systems anyway, so that's why hardly anybody puts effort into them.
    So I agree, content is king and is what carries these games. You rarely see someone praising how much fun he had character building or whatever. Usually people praise story/important fights/quests.
     
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  12. Lhynn Arcane

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    This is nonsense, enemy composition was very important in diablo. Sounds like youve never played the game.

    But you dont really have to slog through anything. IE games encounter were either well done or ended quickly. Shit, if you were into the combat it was always a joy to fight.

    Sure, a lesson that could be learned form CYOAs.


    This is nonsense, turn based combat can be a lot faster than real time combat. In fact the whole point of turn based combat should be that you pick the speed at which you get to act and that you can stop and think at any time. Also plenty of turn based games filled with trash mobs that are still fun to play.
     
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  13. vivec Self-Ejected

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    yeah. I liked how you fought the same exact enemies every encounter.

    That's autism. Anyone who enjoyed IWDs for the combat is probably mentally ill. However, BG1/2 were objectively better made for the most part in the encounter design. Even there, we have moments of trash.


    I don't understand.


    As I said, autism.
     
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  14. Lilura RPG Codex Dragon Lady

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    BG2 has shit encounter design, then.

    Everyone should!

    To expand on this, there are ways to implement rest restrictions without simply arbitrarily greying out the rest button; f.e, Punishing on-rest spawns in which you incur stat penalties upon awakening (and if you are killed, then there is a respawn system, tied into the plot, that also punishes you), limited runes for magically resting, strategically placed safe havens in which it makes sense you would not be waylaid. Consumable use also helps to keep a party on their feet and fighting, reducing the need to rest: wands and scrolls for Vancian builds, f.e.

    Not rest-spamming is not "a challenge": it should be built in to every RPG that uses Vancian Magic and resting to heal; i.e, standardized.
     
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  15. CyberWhale Arcane

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    I think you meant homogeneous. Heterogeneous groups are diverse in character and have different roles/abilities.
     
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  16. Lilura RPG Codex Dragon Lady

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    In most cases it was not more important than positioning - backs to the wall and all that.

    Why are you such a BG2 fanboy, Lhynn? BG2 has OP itemization and non-existent resource management/rest restrictions...
     
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  17. vivec Self-Ejected

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    Also,
     
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  18. InD_ImaginE Arcane Patron

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    Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Well to address OP questions: Yes, I agree. Regarding what good encounter is Telengard pretty much take the cake with his well done explanation.

    To be fair, although BG have non-existent resource management (bad system in vancian magic system), like OP said, the encounters makes it shine. Sure you can unload the hell of your spells on the enemy, but that in and on itself doesn't make many of the encounters easy and boring. Compare to PoE, a vancian magic system (with per encounter and per rest spells) with limited number of rest. While most the systems are probably fine, the boring encounters make the flaw even more apparent because it ended up boring.

    I do agree though that Swordflight(well, chapter 1, has yet to play the 2nd) is a shining example on how to handle vancian magic system and resource management in an rpg.
     
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  19. Lilura RPG Codex Dragon Lady

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    Actually it sort of does. My in-depth retrospective cited many ways, in BG1 alone, that itemization and spells are obscenely OP. BG2, as we all know, is even worse. And we all know why combat encounters ended "quickly" (as Lhynn said): it's because the resources are dumped on the enemy and then resting replenishes them for the next encounter. Rinse repeat.

    More like a beacon.
     
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  20. InD_ImaginE Arcane Patron

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    Sorry and thanks for the correction! English is not my first language. Should practice better for that TOEFL test latter this year.

    Maybe I just sucks at RPG then :negative:
     
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  21. vivec Self-Ejected

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    Lilura If you can open another thread for Vancian magic, that would be great. It's a topic in itself.
     
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  22. DeepOcean Arcane

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    Good encounter design force the player to change tactics from time to time. Not every single fights NEEDS to be unique or clever but the designers should think the most obvious tactics the player will use and throw something that disrupt that at frequent intervals:

    Do you like to spam fireballs on every single encounter and rest afterwards? I have bad news for you, if you rest now, the halfling village will be burned to the ground as the orcs won't patiently wait 8hs for you. You can play however you want and rest spam as you will but you won't have the best quest outcomes on time sensitive quests. Maybe you resting to get those nice OP spells of yours maybe have the undesired effect of enemies calling for reinforcements and you having a much nastier fight than you expected or if you rest too much, the daughter of the king that paid you for the rescue will be taken away by the bandits as they spotted your camp and just got away. Boy, people still ask why I hate cooldowns so much, a vancian system offer alot of interesting reactive possibilities, okay, Bioware was lazy as fuck and didn't implement that on their DnD games, fine, but that doesn't mean you need to be even more lazy than them and use fucking cooldowns.

    Do you like to spam crowd control spells and rely too much on your mages?

    How about having you being ambushed because on your 6 mage team didn't have a single thief with high enough search to spot the ambush and avoid being surrounded by archers with poison arrows? How about having to fight on an antimagic field and you only counting with your fighters while you frantically seek the antimagic field device to shut it down? You don't like fighters because you think mages are OP? How about being locked on a dungeon level with a lich and the lich instead of facing you directly decides to wear you down with an horde of undead minions and dispel magic traps? The undead aren't hard to kill for a decent AC and THACO fighter but I wonder what will happen when your OP kensai/mage run out of spells and scrolls when you finaly have the last fight with the lich and he gates a nasty demon to say hi.

    This is fun encounter design, throwing some curve balls to the player to make him go OH SHIT! Obviously you need to balance that out so you don't have a situation where only one kind of party can win but unfortunately most designers go: "Dude, thinking that will take too much effort, cooldowns and nerf everything man, this is how we solve things the easy way."
     
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  23. mondblut Arcane

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    Temptation to cheat the system for the sake of muh challenging encounter design. Case in point, most boss encounters in Knights of the Chalice or pretty much the entirety of M&MX with its ubiquitous invisible enemies popping up to surround you.

    If you need to wrestle control from the player and inexplicably dump his party into disadvantageous battlefield location, or invent ad hoc shit like "lol, magic suddenly doesn't work here", because muh challenge - you are doing it wrong.
     
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  24. Tigranes Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    Encounter design is king, but that's also because encounter design is often so dependent on other properties that it can be pretty difficult to isolate it. Take Shadowrun, for example. Two moves for the party and one moves for the enemies basically kills every kind of challenge, and you end up playing a bunch of Matrix Neo's running circles around the enemies, who can only put up a fight at vastly superior numbers / powers. Is that an encounter decision or a systems decision? Either way, it has knock on effects. Fixing that would also require fixing, say, how LOS / combat start works in Shadowrun, so that straying a bit far doesn't cause the enemy to alpha strike half your party.

    Encounter composition and immediate environmental setup are, however, things that most games do very poorly and could have a major impact on the quality of the gameplay. And here I think the key is, there's not as much point carefully crafting encounters individually if you don't pay attention to the dungeon as a whole, or if players can destroy the cohesion of the various encounters by, say, resting after every fight. I think in recent games things like E:C's general attrition systems, or POE's health/stamina and limited camping supplies, were well intentioned efforts are reintroducing degrees of attrition into RPGs after the decline. The former worked better than the latter because it was more thoroughly embedded into the game, and in both cases it could be improved, but...

    ...I think giving developers some degree of control over a given area or dungeon is a necessary and acceptable payoff to achieve more meaningful encounter design. I would absolutely support even arbitrary barriers - rocks fall caving in the only entrance to this dungeon - as well as more sensible ones, e.g. you cannot rest inside the enemy stronghold r u crazy, etc., to ensure that developers can funnel players into smaller controlled environments, and then design the encounters in that area knowing that they can plan out attrition to a degree. Imagine the Severed Hand if you could not rest or leave, except in controlled circumstances. That's not really feasible to do in the existing IE distribution of player/monster power and even the Vancian implementation, but one can imagine POE's per-encs and health/stamina systems becoming more meaningful there than it is currently.
     
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  25. Crooked Bee (no longer) a wide-wandering bee Patron

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    For me, good encounter design is one that makes you diversify your builds, adapt tactically in-combat, not use the same abilities against every enemy, and significantly punishes you for the mistakes you make in character and party building. It makes you go "oomph" and "damn" when you witness the tricks the enemy has up its sleeve for the first time, and think about how you can counter that. It also makes your party composition and equipment actually matter, in that differently built parties approach the same combat differently.

    In that regard, Labyrinth of Touhou 1/2 have the best (or possibly the only good) encounter design of all RPGs I've played in the past couple of years. (Thankfully, I don't only play RPGs for encounter design, otherwise I'd not have anything else to play.)

    Resource management is a great thing, too, but that's a different issue, I think.
     
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