It can be tough to explain the appeal of RPG battles to someone not familiar with them. Fights pop up over and over again, interrupting exploration; flipping through menus doesn’t communicate exciting action with the immediate appeal found in many other genres; and fight encounters themselves can be incredibly repetitive. Despite this, a lot of us still think that turn-based RPG battles are a lot of fun… sometimes.
RPG battles can add or detract from the game they’re in, just like any other aspect of a game, and I think that as a community we’ve faced enough of these encounters to have a few ideas about what works and doesn’t. I’m going to share a few of my own thoughts about common encounters—let’s call them “common encounters” instead of “random encounters” so we don’t exclude games that show enemies on the map—but rather than think of this as a speech given from a soapbox, treat it like a springboard from which to launch your own discussions. I’ll be down in the comments myself and I look forward to other people’s examples and insights.
In the meantime, here are a few thoughts I’ve come up with to kick us off:
Common Encounters should be short:
The nature of the common encounter is that the player faces them over and over again, and they’re usually dealt with using the same strategy each time. This familiarity and repetition isn’t a bad thing inherently, but it can become a bad thing if it takes too long to go through the ritual. Some incredibly interesting turn-based combat systems have ended up detracting from the game they’re in, just because of common encounter length.
Consider Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean. I love the combat in that game to death, but it just doesn’t scale down well to unimportant monster bashing. See, combat in Baten Kaitos is card-based and every card has specific properties. There are weapon cards, armor cards, and item cards. Cards have elemental affinities and numerical values in the corners. Each turn the player hopes to draw weapon cards that can be chained into a combo while also saving armor cards to combo up during the opponents’ turn. Combos are absolutely necessary to do significant damage, and if opposing elements are chained together they will subtract from one another, massively decreasing damage dealt.
Throw in random card draws, cards with multiple effects, and card synergies to discover and combat can get hairy quickly. To help the player keep abreast of the situation, every single character’s turn ends with a recap screen showing exactly how the math worked out when considering the attacker’s and defender’s card strings. This check up on the damage values can be helpful but it demonstrates the core problem with fighting in Baten Kaitos. The complex interplay between offense and defense and the fact that the player is at the mercy of a random card draw means that even unimportant fights can take forever. Drew five armor pieces for your first turn? Tough!
Boss fights in Baten Kaitos are some of my absolute favorite turn-based boss fights because the encounter difficulty warrants maximizing each turn. In boss fights, the turn recap screen is a welcome aid, and defensive card picks are necessities rather than annoyances that delay your inevitable beatdown of the enemy. When that combat system gets going and the player is navigating an extended ebb and flow of defensive and offensive combos across multiple characters, it absolutely sings…but that just doesn’t happen most of the time.
What I take away from Baten Kaitos and other games like it is that it’s okay for a common encounter to interrupt the player getting from place to place, but it’s important that they be brief. In Xenosaga Episode II (a more severe offender), I would sometimes even forget the direction I had been headed battles took so long! If the resolution of a common encounter is a foregone conclusion anyway, why take forever getting there?
Common Encounters should incorporate strategy:
I’m going to list some very popular games with very different combat mechanics: Suikoden II, Final Fantasy XII, and Final Fantasy III. Three very different RPGs from three different eras. You know what they have in common? The correct strategy in 90% of their combat is to just use the “attack” command. Maybe pull out a color-coded elemental spell if a bad guy is glowing a primary color.
These three games and many more accost the player with common encounters that are so easily dispatched that whatever strategic opportunities the combat system may offer just aren’t relevant. Having common encounters that are overly easy or simple isn’t annoying the way that dealing with 4-minute fights over and over again is, but it represents missed opportunity all the same.
I’ve been playing Etrian Odyssey recently, and that game illustrates the value of well designed encounters that have some teeth to them. That franchise has simple presentation, minimalist narrative, and really no distractions to speak of outside of dungeon spelunking. On top of that, the combat is dead simple. Each team inputs their moves at the beginning of the fight and the player watches how it all pans out. That’s it.
How can a game succeed if it puts all its focus onto dungeon-rawling that’s so simple it would have been throwback 15 years ago? Yet, Etrian Odyssey is fantastic. It succeeds because the enemies are actually threatening. The games always keep things tough enough to force the player to reach deeper into his or her bag of tricks than just using “attack” for even a standard fight. Buffs, status ailments, and healing are relevant factors in every level appropriate encounter. The result is that Etrian Odyssey encounters play out differently almost every time, a feat that RPGs with budgets orders of magnitude higher have often failed to achieve.
“Mindless” isn’t the most damning description of a game. Many turn to games for exactly that sort of escape. But just like Devil May Cry’s technical real-time combat is held in higher esteem than that of Dynasty Warriors, we should recognize that RPGs benefit from common encounters that force the player to put some thought into his or her actions.
Common encounters should prepare players for the uncommon encounters:
When reading about level design, one theme that pops up again and again is that levels are meant to teach the player. Tutorials should be conveyed through level design, and levels in turn should serve as tutorials. Portal, a modern master class of level design, is really a four hour tutorial. Common encounters in RPGs aren’t usually considered in that same light, but they function in the exact same way. The small scale fights a player faces let him or her try out different offensive strategies, as well teach them how to deal with particular enemy attacks or tactics in a relatively low stress environment.
Ideally, as a player navigates towards the next major battle, he or she is learning how to optimize the party and leverage the game systems in ways that will be needed in said major battle. So, why do so many games make separate rules for boss fights, then?
Status ailments or debuffs not working, unprecedented immunities, crazy difficulty spikes… this issue crops up an awful lot. Rather than common encounters logically training the player for the test at the end, often times regular levels and bosses feel like they’re stuck together at random. If the common encounters are so easy that they aren’t training the player to do anything but attack all the time, this can be doubly the case.
You know what game uses fights as learning tools really well, though? Pokémon. Pokemon often doesn’t get talked about alongside the more common anime-themed quests to save the world, but it’s still a turn-based RPG and it does an awful lot right that other games could learn from. Boss fights in Pokémon absolutely never cheat or bend the rules that the player has learned in common encounters. There is always a sequence of trainers before Gym Leaders that use the same element as the boss, which gives the player a chance to learn before being tested.
Gym challenges in Pokémon always focus on one particular type of creature and demonstrate through fair play that element’s strengths and weaknesses—and tactics that can be used to mitigate those weaknesses. Although the common encounters in the areas leading into each Gym Leader’s city don’t explicitly lead up to the boss fight the way the flunkies in the Gyms do, a keen observer will notice that developer Game Freak is always careful to include wild Pokémon that are elementally viable against the Gym challenge nearby. Because Pokémon games let you capture the enemies you face in common encounters, they’re very thoughtful when it comes to showing you the ropes and then allowing you to apply what you’ve learn in boss battles.
And to end on a positive note…
I realize that a good bit of this has been pointing out things that, in my eyes, a lot of RPGs do wrong. So, before throwing this out to the community, I’d like to call out a few games with great encounter design. I was surprised how many of my favorite games I couldn’t include on this list (I still love you Final Fantasy XII, but your common encounters are so trivial), but Shin Megami Tensei, the first two Paper Mario games, and Etrian Odyssey all manage to have fast-paced encounters without sacrificing tactical considerations and then test your mastery of those tactics with fair and fun boss fights. Hats off, those games are great.
Now it’s your turn. Do you disagree with any of the principles I listed? Do you have any to add? Are there better examples of these principles from games I haven’t played? We’ve played through tens of thousands of these fights as a community. What have we figured out?