I recently wrote a prototype for a turn-based RPG combat system, and it breaks a lot of the conventions normally associated with that genre. It’s still feels very much like a traditional eastern-style role playing game (shortened to jrpg from here on), but I tried to use modern game design concepts to extract the core of what makes that type of game fun and create something wholly new and much more engaging than what you typically see from the genre. I’m going to go into it in more depth in a moment, but first some background on why I chose to do this. If you don’t care about the background and just want to read about the system, you can just skip to it.
Many genres of game have hard-set, long-standing codified rules. Many of these rules were set when the video game industry was still in its infancy, and were created to work with or around the very limited hardware available at the time. Few genres have more of these rules than the jrpg. When you think of a jrpg there are tomes of rules that games must obey to fit this genre: turn-based combat, random encounters, item shops in towns with ever improving levels of equipment (granted, there is a large focus on story as well, but I’m going to focus on the gameplay here, since any genre of game can tell a story.) The list goes on, but most of these stem from one of two limitations.
The first is that a large number of the features were pulled from tabletop rpgs, which simplified things so that a person could keep track of them. Real-time combat is near-impossible to keep track of with pens and paper, so we have turns. Tracking the movement patterns of monsters and wildlife throughout the wilderness is also maddeningly complex, so we approximate the chance encounters with a dice roll.
The second limitation was that game consoles were not capable of handling much more than a human GM was. This is where item shops with set stock and prices, world maps with players the size of cities and towns with five houses come from. It simply wasn’t feasible, or even a good use of anyone’s time to add hundreds of houses and NPCs that did nothing to advance the plot or aid the players.
Conservation of detail meant that every house and NPC, every hallway in a dungeon, and every encounter in the game had to hold some significance to the plot in a very direct way. How many times are the random encounters in those games the result of some great evil causing monsters to start acting up? We’ve come a long way since that screenshot up there from 1987, and neither of these two limitations really hold any weight any more. We don’t need people to place every building or NPC any more, and there’s no reason for random encounters when computers can track the movement patterns of millions of animals.
I’ve deconstructed a large number of the rules of this genre recently as an exercise in design, and to me the most fundamental gameplay element of these games was turn-based combat. Stats and equipment, random encounters and dungeons are all driven forward by what invariably becomes an exercise in how fast you can tap the accept command to blaze through the combat scenes. Bosses tend to be the notable exception, but the number of hours spent mindlessly pressing that button could be much better spent doing something more meaningful and engaging. Recent entries by Zeboyd Games have moved in this direction, and it’s a fantastic way to improve the genre, but I think there is more that can still be done.
One thing that has always bothered me about these games is that many choices aren’t meaningful when it comes to combat. If a character can equip swords, why would they ever choose daggers? In real combat, daggers are smaller and faster, and give the user more mobility, though they sacrifice range for it. Maces are much heavier and take longer to attack with, but the blunt force of the impact can be more devastating to a knight in plate armor than a slash from a sword. For balance, these weapons either all deal the same damage, or the people who use the ones with lower have some other aspect that makes them desirable. Dagger users tend to be able to steal from their enemies, for example.
One of the ways I saw to open this up was to change the concept of what a turn is. Modern day computers are no longer restricted to handling complex combat calculations by turns, many real-time role playing games have proven that. So what then is the goal of using a turn-based system over a real-time system? In my view, the two systems present largely different challenges to the player. In a real-time, or action, system, the player is tasked with not only making snap decisions, but with executing them quickly and effectively. The challenge places more emphasis on speed than strategy, with the strategy usually occurring as a separate layer of the gameplay.
In a turn-based game, the focus is on strategy. Ancient turn-based games like Chess and Go have are great examples of the levels we can take a game to just on simply mechanics and strategy. I’m not trying to create something quite like that, but I do want each fight to feel significant. This change will affect things like how frequent fights are and the whole random encounter system, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
- Turn lengths are variable – Each turn is an action, and each action has both a wind-up and recovery time, based on the action and the equipment the character is using. What this means is that a character attacking with a sword would get two turns in for each turn by a character attacking with a hammer.
- Combat progresses in real time – An action that takes one second to complete will fire off one second of combat time after the command is given. This means that other commands might interrupt the attack, or the target might die before the attack finishes. Depending on what happens, the character will go straight into the recovery period and the players turn will come earlier than expected.
- Combat pauses for input – While all of this plays out on the screen in real time, when the player is prompted for their next command, the action on the screen pauses. This gives some of the flexibility of real-time combat while still letting the player focus on strategy over speed.
- Combatants move around – Not a new feature, games like chrono trigger have used this before, but in those systems it seemed more of a visual feature than a strategic one. If a character has a weapon with a greater range, they can attack from farther away. This means that a spear can keep a sword at bay with much less risk, and archers are mostly safe from melee units. The system will handle the movement to keep this from becoming a tactics game; moving into range is simply part of the attack.
- Nothing is random – Chances to do things like dodge or land a hit will not be determined by a random number generator. The system can model a sufficient amount of data behind the scenes to allow for things to seem random, but with proper strategy a player can control them. Things like field of view and focus will determine how quickly characters react, and movement or parry speed will combine with that to decide if a hit was successful. Two characters going head to head using basic attacks will likely never actually hit each other.
With those five bullet points, I feel like I have addressed the major concerns inside of a combat scene that I brought up earlier. This gives players the flexibility to make meaningful choices regarding their equipment, and sufficient avenues to develop and execute a deep strategy based on those choices.