As I’ve stated before, turn-based combat systems should be all about strategy. Fights should have meaning, and require thought and strategy, as opposed to simply holding down the attack button. Once we have arrived at a combat system that achieves this, we run into another problem almost immediately when we place it inside an RPG: nobody wants to fight a thousand battles that require actual thought and energy, it’s just too draining. Using myself as anecdotal evidence, I know that when presented with the choice between having random battles and not, people will often choose the latter. Random battles do serve a purpose, but I feel like we can do better. For the details of my implementation, you can skip right to them.
Having random battles serves a number of purposes; it gives a general sense of danger to the world, it gives the player obstacles to overcome outside of the story which fends off boredom, and it balances the two sides of the game so you don’t spend 90% of your time in town or walking around a map. At this point we can achieve all of those things without the downsides that normally come from having random encounters, namely the frustration of an encounter rate that is too high. Let’s start with the sense of danger these encounters can add to the world the game exists in.
Games revolve around struggle; that’s what makes the medium interactive, and more engaging than, say, a book. The players gets to feel that struggle, and how engaging the gameplay is will be tied directly to how sweet success feels over that struggle. When there is no challenge presented to the player, that’s when boredom sets in. In the Cthulu Save the World, I would burn through the encounters for an area so that I could then explore freely. More often than not, I would leave chests undiscovered simply out of boredom. Walking through the maze of a dungeon on a flat map wasn’t challenging in any way, all of the threats had been eliminated and I simply rushed to the end to get to the exciting parts again. Part of this had to do with the nature of the level design, but that topic deserves its own post at a later date.
Enemy forces that pose no real threat make combat boring and leads to the “hold down ‘A'” mentality. Enemies that are significant threats that occur repeatedly make dungeons a game of chance where the win condition is “hope this monster doesn’t show up too often.” I have actually seen that phrase in countless strategy guides over the years. Some games strike a balance here by having the hard enemies occur on a trigger, with trapped chests being a popular trigger to use, and have the normal enemies be fodder for the player to kill.
So how do we create this sense of danger without it getting frustrating? There are a few options. Ambiance helps in this department, scary sounds echoing in the darkness, driving music to build tension, visual effects like people running past you or explosions tearing up the terrain, but by itself that isn’t enough. My solution to this problem is similar to my solution to randomness in combat; make it seem random without actually being random. We can add tension by having dozens of groups of enemies pursue the characters through the map. When the enemies catch up, that’s when you have a combat encounter. Audio and visual clues can help the player know where to go to avoid combat if that’s the goal, or run head-first into the fight, depending on play style.
Obviously, with fights that are draining both to engage in and to get into or run from, these can’t just pop up anywhere. The frequency of the fights will need to be drastically lower than in a normal system, and the times you are in a situation to potentially enter combat will need to be lowered as well. This leaves us with an interesting conundrum. If we make fights too rare the threat goes away, so how do we keep that threat alive without actually putting the player into a fight? Showing the player clues of pursuit will help keep the threat alive, as long is the threats are acted on every so often. This will hopefully cause players to feel a sense of urgency when the bushes around them start rustling, as if they stick around they will be thrown into a potentially long and difficult fight, but they might be able to outrun it before it even happens.
In mulling over the concepts for a while I decided to take things back down to the roots and set out the goals I want my encounters to achieve. These are only for the encounters on the world map or in dungeons and not for the boss fights.
- Put pressure on the players while they are exploring.
- Give players a chance to try out their new skills or combat strategies.
- Balance the time spent in and out of combat.
Since the combat system we have already lined out leads to longer and more involved fights, we need fewer fights to accomplish #3, so we need to ramp up the non-combat threats to the player to meet #1, and somehow still give the players a way to achieve #2 without wandering around for too long or getting in over their heads.
Here is my proposed outline of how to handle the random encounter issue. Note that unlike my two previous articles, this one is pure speculation. I have not actually put any of these into play as I’ve only done the prototype for the in-combat gameplay. I’m sure some aspects will change once I get to that point, but for now I want to put my ideas out there, as it’s important to understand the goal of the random encounters so you can see why I don’t think the heavier combat system will drag the game down.
- Encounters are the result of the player colliding with moving entity. Other games have done this, but usually the entity movements are fixed to an area or a path. I want to have a wolf pack track the player when they enter it’s territory, and through tracking or other skills the players may notice they are being followed and can back off before the fight begins. Pursuing enemies may have a range they will follow to, but can track the player anywhere within that range.
- The world map has a few wandering enemies with large ranges. I want my world map to be somewhat large, and I want players to feel like they can explore it without getting themselves killed in the process. The hints of threats should be enough to keep players on their toes for the most part.
- Dungeons will have many enemies that track the player constantly. In a dungeon, the threat should be great and constant. I almost want to create the feeling of a stealth game here, but not exactly. If the player heads straight to their goal, the encounter quantity will be comparable to a normal game. If they duck into hallways to avoid encounters it will be lower, and if they go exploring it will be drastically higher. The level design will take this into consideration.
- Large cities will have coliseums where the player can grind. I want to minimize grinding, both the need for it and the rewards for doing so, but people need a way to test out their strategies in a safe environment. By taking out the fodder encounters, I have lost this, so the coliseum gives it back. This also justifies why you might earn money for fighting a wolf. The wolf didn’t have it on him, you just won a cut of the bets against you.
That sums up the design concept for my “random” encounters. I feel like this will achieve the pacing and engagement benefits that the old systems strove for, without bogging down the players with endless, mindless battles, and without making the game feel too arduous.