BBR Project: Better Combat 1

Combat in Chrono Trigger

Combat will almost always be a part of RPGs, console or otherwise. In Pen & Paper games, combat is often the most complexly ruled affair, and indeed, this is what was most clearly adopted in the early days of console RPGs. I enjoy combat in my games, but I find that it’s overused and often boring — let’s try not to be that.

So, one of the first things we should be considering when it comes to building a better RPG is combat. Without combat, we won’t intrigue the major RPG audience. Without good combat, we won’t show them that there’s something better, or intrigue people from other genres.

The main reason why I want to explore combat first, though, is because it is the primary reason for disappointment in RPGs. They make you spend a lot of time doing it, but it’s normally not all that fun; thus, fixing this is a good step forward for the BBR Project.

Let’s take a look at the SquareEnix model for combat, classically. This is the basic model most people recognize for RPGs.

In it, players have a number of stats, which we can mostly ignore for now. The one’s we’re interested in at HP, MP, and Speed.

HP, or hit points, and MP, or magic points (or mana points, or Magic Power, or whatever) are both usually displayed as a fractional amount: y/x points. (In the Chrono Trigger screen shot above, they only list the current values rather than current/max. As I recall, you could change that.) If you run out of HP, your character ‘falls’, or otherwise becomes incapacitated until revived. Should all your party’s characters run out of HP, you lose the fight. If you run out of MP, you character can no longer use magic or special abilities.

Speed isn’t always shown. In many games, each participant in battle gets 1 turn at a time, one after another. The order they get these in is determined by speed. In some games, like Chrono Trigger, faster characters act more frequently than others. (It also had an ‘active’ battle system you could use that would let the enemies act even if it was your turn, as to encourage quickly reactions.)

In these combats, players are usually offered 4 choices when their turn arises: Fight, Item, Magic and Run. Fight represents a simple physical attack. Item is to use something out of the party’s inventory. Magic is to use a magic spell or ability (which consumes MP). Run is to flee, which either results in escaping the encounter or losing that character’s turn.

RPGs have functioned like this for quite some time. But Fight usually lets you hit any enemy regardless of position. The kind of weapon you use has no effect on what kind of damage occurs, just how much, and sometimes adding a special effect (called a status effect). The Fight command offers very little input or strategy, which is unfortunate, because should you observe any real fight, ‘just hitting the guy’ isn’t always a viable option. If you try to punch someone, they may block it, dodge it, grab your hand, or any of these things in combination with an attack. You do not just stand two people next to each other and let them hit each other one after another until one them falls unconscious. While that might sound like Boxing, Boxing has a lot more technique and strategy to it than ‘hit the guy’.

The Item command is just as bad. Most games offer only a single, infinite inventory for the whole party, with every item at your fingertips all the time. Fallout got around this, by letting you pick two things to hold (usually a weapon and an item, or two weapons) and put everything else in your pack, which was more expensive to access. Earthbound similarly got around this by giving each party member a single, smaller inventory, which could only be traded freely outside of combat. Very few games give any actual consideration to how their characters, as designed, carry all of their stuff — this to me is as problematic as failing to account for how a punch really works.

The Magic command, or many variants thereof, first assumes that the characters have exceptional powers, and that’s ok. But the idea of MP is dated and kind of dumb. Why should there be a limit to how much magic a person can use, but there be no limit to how many time they can swing a sword without becoming exhausted? Pokemon had a good solution to this by abandoning MAGIC and giving the player the choice of 4 maneuvers for each character — more powerful maneuvers typically came with less uses, but all moves could be exhausted. However, the idea of someone being limited to only 4 maneuvers is a little unrealistic.

The table top game Warmachine had a good solution too — the primary magic using characters (Warcasters) had a pool called focus, which occurred in small amounts; no more than 10. Abilities that used focus don’t cost that much, but more powerful abilities use more focus. However, every turn, the focus pool is restored to it’s maximum; making the decision a matter of how much you wished to do (several small tasks versus 1 large task), rather than a decision of when you wanted to do something (now or later).

The original purpose of MP is to limit the number of super-maneuvers the player can do without rest. However, it too fails to take in to account any realism. If we want to find a way to limit the player from repeatedly using exceptionally potent techniques, we can look to realistic reasons instead — in many table top games, often casting a potent spell means leaving yourself vulnerable and takes a significant amount of time. In actual combat, often maneuvers cannot be repeated because they require a particular opening, or your opponent will become increasingly aware of how to avoid or defend against it. If we want to work with the idea of exhaustion of ability, that’s ok too, but no maneuver should be exempt.

Run is the last menu option normally available (not seen in the screen shot — in Chrono Trigger running was handled by holding the L and R buttons and waiting; leaving yourself vulnerable in that time) and it fails to make sense in most games. With the nature of random encounters, running should actually move you some place, but doesn’t. In almost every game where the encounters occur as a separate environment from the world map (like in most of Final Fantasy, and in Earthbound and so on) running away just makes the encounter disappear. Where do they go? The game doesn’t care, they’re just gone. Considering these are fights to the death, normally, you think there’d be some actual pursuit, but no.

Running is offered because the players need an option for if they cannot or do not wish to complete the combat normally (by defeating their enemies) besides being defeated themselves. But, like the other menu options, Run completely fails to take the reality of its action in to account. It’s simply a means of defeating the enemies without earning the rewards given by doing it the preferred way. Fallout does an alright job dealing with this, by making combat occur in normal space, and letting players escape by using their turns to move to an exit-grid. Not quite realistic, but a huge improvement.

Two more things; First I want to ask: think about numbers. I personally couldn’t tell you how much HP I have, nor how much damage I can do with a single punch. But we know exactly those things in most RPGs. Why? Is that good information for the players to have? In Pen & Paper games, usually players are keeping track of that information so that the number-taking doesn’t all have to be done by the game’s referee, which would be tedious. But when it comes to computers, we don’t need to tell them that information as the computer can track it comfortably. So why do we tell them?

Finally, why are we still using HP? Injury is generally a messy affair. In the Middle Ages, getting a small, open wound could be fatal due to infection. Now, it’s trivial. Additionally, games with HP, like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and Dungeons & Dragons fail to take in to account what being injured DOES. I have great fondness for the World of Darkness Storyteller system for doing damage differently; players have fixed health bars but can resist damage. However, the more damage they do take, the less capable they are of succeeding at any action. Being severely wounded can leave a character crumpled in a heap, unable to fight — quite a bit more believable.

Additionally, the Fallout games take in to account targeting; you could shoot someone in the eyes and blind them, at the cost of increased potential failure, or similarly aim for the arms or legs. Sometimes (rarely) an unaimed shot could produce the same effects by luck. Fallout 3 reduced the severity of these effects, unfortunately, and few games have taken it in to thorough consideration, but injury is an important (and frequently ignored) part of combat.

While the FIGHT/ITEM/MAGIC/RUN system is common and simple to pick up, it is also very stupid, and very dated. Next time, we’ll talk about what can be done to improve it, section by section. (But I’ll admit a spoiler alert now; it involves throwing a lot of it away!)


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One Response to “BBR Project: Better Combat 1”

  1. BBR Project: Better World 1 « The Art of Game Says:

    […] written on the Build a Better RPG project, but it has not been forgotten. Last time we talked about combat — beyond that, however, the second most major element in most RPGs is the world.  It’s […]

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