That I was unable to get very far in figuring out a good, non-generic combat system for an RPG without laying down at least a basic sort of story premise serves, I suppose, to emphasize just how important the story element is to an RPG. When I someday get around to actually making an RPG, however, I likely won’t write it myself. I mean, I will if I have to, but I’m not the best writer out there, there’s at least one better writer offering to handle it, and the story of an RPG is, in some ways, as much trouble to make as the gameplay.
As a lot of the mechanics of combat would likely be defined by specifics, and I’m only going over a basic premise for now, the resulting battle system here may end up vague, but I want to make it just defined enough to move on to other aspects that build upon said system.
Step 1 in creating the premise should be the protagonist. What sort of person should they be? Last time, I determined that the battle system will have “a lot” of characters, and that not all characters will necessarily be created equal. In that case, then the protagonist should be someone who’d logically be a focal point of the group, so a leader. But who does he/she lead? Good question, since that doesn’t narrow the field much, if at all – RPGs have portrayed leaders as protagonists from the lazy and airheaded Neptune to the selfish Chou-Chou, the blank slates that are Crevanille and Yu Narukami, etc.
In that case, the answer should be more focused on what kind of tale I want to explore. In that case, I have an answer that works. Why not make the protagonist a villain? But not just any villain, a villain who both uses the power of friendship and is in the right. That isn’t something that has been covered all that often, and the few times a villain is the protagonist, using friendship is really rare.
The aforementioned Chou-Chou of Mugen Souls fame is the only example that comes to mind after sitting on the thought for several days and consulting with others. In the strictest sense, Chou-Chou is a divine being who brainwashes and enslaves the strongest beings of a planet and the planet itself, taking it over because she wants to. However, she also cares deeply for those whom she has enslaved. While she will never admit it, they’re her friends.
While that may not make much sense from my simplified explanation of her, it makes sense in-context when you go into the details of how her brainwashing ability works (it’s more of a lingering suggestion in the mind of the target that they should ultimately obey her than complete control over them). This is, of course, excluding her lowest-level minions, the Shampurus (whom anyone under a certain level of power that she brainwashes turns into), who see her as an object of absolute worship and are used as everything from sponges when bathing to live ammo in ship-to-ship combat. But no matter.
Of course, there are other examples of friendship, in some form, within an evil group if you step away from games. Some recent anime examples include World Conquest: Zvezda Plot and Chaika the Coffin Princess. Those could be drawn from for inspiration if stumped writing such a cast.
So let’s set it up like this, for now: You play as an evil mastermind who legitimately cares for your underlings. That should be enough to go back to the combat system mechanics.
Battle System II
So I’ve figured out that I don’t want the characters to be interchangeable. I’ve also figured out part of the flavour for the game. So now I can get around to how to set up the characters so that they’re not equal to one another.
Now, here’s an idea: Why not give every character their own unique mechanic, thus giving every character a pre-determined role in battle?
In an ideal world, that would be a brilliant idea. Realistically, that’s not happening. I mean, it can happen to some extent – there can be a character who’s mission control, and some characters can have various roles of that sort, but there’s an important issue that needs to be taken care of regardless of how I go about things. I need to make sure the battle system isn’t so long-winded and/or complex as to be unwieldy. That’s a pit that many a game I’ve seen has fallen into, throwing in mechanics that don’t add anything because they can.
No matter what I do, the battle system must remain simple but deep. It’s fine to give the characters clear specialization and roles as long as I don’t go overboard. Though a question is brought up by the idea of every character taking part in battle and giving all of them specialized roles.
Most RPGs give the player the need to strategize and select how their party is laid out in battle, deciding who will be used (if you can’t use everyone), in what capacity (if applicable), in what starting positions (if applicable), etc.
One element, selecting who to use, is rendered moot by the decision to use all of the characters available at any given time. If everyone is specialized too much on top of that, making everyone’s role mandatory with no decision by the player, then one runs the risk of completely excising this element of strategy from the game. Luckily, there are two major options remaining that allow this part of strategizing to remain: positioning and character customization. Those are both very different things, so let’s weigh those separately.
I don’t think I need to explain what positioning is, but it’s something that quite a few RPGs seem to feature heavily, but nobody seems to discuss. And I’m not talking SPRGs, though Yggdra Union does handle it in a fairly interesting manner. I’m also not talking about action RPGs, though spacing in certainly something to keep in mind during fights in Tales games. I’m talking about positioning in a turn-based JRPG. Some examples include The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, recent RPGs from Compile Heart (which use a permutation of the same battle system), the Dusk sub-series of Atelier games, the Agarest series, etc. It always provides depth in an intuitive and easily-understandable manner, but it can easily backfire.
Take Agarest, for example. In Agarest Zero, you have six characters in battle and have to move them around on a grid to set their positions into some combination of preset formations if you want to be efficient in battle. The resulting battle system is interesting, but is so long-winded and flawed that combat becomes a chore. Compare this to Agarest 2, where you simply pick a leader (each character has their own formation if they’re leader) and your party automatically moves around to hit enemies and gets back into formation when the leader’s turn comes up. The battle system is far, far more enjoyable and less long-winded as a result.
As previously stated, Compile Heart uses some permutation of the same battle system for all of their recent RPGs, starting from Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2. It’s actually quite simple: Each character has a range they can move about freely within during their turn, and each item, skill and attack has its own range from there. How each one uses positioning from that point varies. Neptunia gives some manner of shape in front of your character that acts as the range for their melee attacks (of differing sizes depending on the weapon type) and lets you hit everything in that range with each attack. Mugen Souls takes the concept of knockback to an extreme with the ability to basically play a good ol’ game of billiards. By which I mean the character you hit bounces around the place, even into the air, knocking into things and bouncing them around the map, useful for racking up damage, delaying turns, and moving enemies in and out of attack range, among other things.
I feel as if I am obligated to bring up Final Fantasy XIII as, ultimately, the worst user of positioning in recent memory, in that you do not control it at all – the AI moves everyone around at their leisure. You can only influence it slightly. I had initially intended to see the game through to the end when I tried it, but what eventually made me stop was a certain boss I kept losing to because my characters were moving to utterly stupid positions at the AI’s behest. The ultimate example of what not to do.
If I add in positioning, it needs to be done in a simple, but elegant manner. I can’t decide specifics until I figure out the other core mechanics, but that I intend to have a large cast playable at any given time means that this will likely involve pre-setting the layout of the party for the start of a battle.
How one goes about this, if one goes about it at all, can be of great importance to how a game plays out. If every character will always play exactly the same way no matter what, combat becomes dull and a game loses replay value unless everything else can redeem it. If handled very lazily, it is as if no character customization was added to begin with, however, so it needs to be something meaningful. That said, I also don’t want to lock players into a certain path for their characters prematurely, and want to avoid excessive grinding and min-maxing.
So a thought occurs: Why not focus on equipment? It’s not like this is is something new, as a great many games primarily give stats from equipment, but I mean to completely remove the concept of levelling up. Why not have a character gain stats by what they have equipped, and have their base stats be gained from actions taken in battle?
Okay, so actions taken in battle is likely a pitfall and I need to examine that idea carefully. Quest 64 comes to mind as a game that did that and ended up being utter garbage. This is because the game raised stats too slowly and had counter-intuitive requirements. If handled with a proper amount of foresight, making all of the requirements something natural, and perhaps having more than one way to raise each stat to accommodate for variable playstyles, the idea has merit. It’s purely execution, not a problem with the idea itself. That said, it may not fit into the system, as it may be a good idea to diminish the importance of individual character stats when dealing with so many characters. Decisions, decisions.
Which brings me to the subject of learning skills. There are plenty of obvious ways to handle this without levelling up, but the one that has the most potential that comes to mind is the method used in Hexyz Force. The protagonists of that game have very few innate abilities, so most of the skills you use in battle (read: everything but their supers) are actually from their weapon. That particular game gives you the ability to equip as many as five weapons at once, letting you cycle between them to access each one’s list of abilities. You don’t get to keep these abilities forever, either, as each one (aside from plot ones) run on magical power that will run out eventually, as there’s no normal attack in the game.
I feel like the whole idea of having equipment and playstyles affect how a character plays is the best way one can go about things, as most games in recent memory have levelling up be the most hollow feeling one can get. Overall, though, how a character can be customized will need to depend on the combat mechanics. I suppose it can’t be delayed any longer – the question one must ask now is how this game will actually play.
I suppose step 1 should be figuring out what sort of battle system to use as a base in the design to avoid issues with having a bunch of characters at once. To figure this out, I’ll need to look at any other RPGs out there involving large amounts of characters. Off the top of my head, the RPG that lets you use many characters at once the most elegantly was Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky. That said, the battle system used there would need to be heavily altered to work here. The biggest thing to glean is that only half of your characters have turns. If all six characters you could use in your party at once had turns in that game, it would play much more slowly.
Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars gives you a party of 11, but these characters are split into one pair and three groups of three, making them effectively four in practice.
Similarly, I should take a look at what the Ar tonelico series does with its non-vanguard character. The character sits at the back, being defended, and doesn’t have a proper turn, but is charging up the casting for a spell or doing something similar – pressing a button lets you give a command to the character at any time. This is an interesting idea that could probably be used to cut down on the game dragging on.
So here’s an idea:
The only characters who directly have turns in an ideal situation are a handful of melee-based characters. Mages and support characters sit around in the back and start charging up spells over time, which you can command them to start charging up at any point and then have them let it loose at any point after it’s done (though there should be a penalty for making them hold the already-prepared spell).
As for how one could handle the “over time” part of it, many games let you see the turn order, and those sometimes have time cards in them between character turns that mean that nobody’s actually making a move, but time is passing in the battle while the game waits for the next person’s turn to come up. That makes an easy way to count effective time. I would merely need to allow the player to control whether these cards are immediately skipped to the next turn (which I can just assign to a button).
Perhaps the support actions that anyone with non-magical support or non-melee moves take would require making them more vulnerable to being hit. For example, a non-magical medic character would need to physically run to where a character is to heal them, or toss a health pack near the character who needs help and have the weakened character need to survive and reach there for support if the medic can’t get over there in time. Or there could be a defending character whose entire job is sponging ranged hits for someone else, and they need to be moved to the general vicinity of a spot between the attacker and the target. Such a character would simply be given the command to move and take time getting there, blocking hits if they get lucky.
That last thought brings a certain game to mind. It is named Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, and it’s somewhat of an RTS RPG, in a way. It got tedious after a while due to difficulty, but characters were moved around in sort of this manner. Except there’s an actual clock running that simply pauses when one of your characters gets a turn. It should be fine if it’s just a character or two being commanded in this manner and not the whole combat system, of course.
As for what the protagonist does, I want to say that they’d be a support character who provides morale and the like for buffs in battle. But wait, does that mean you can’t directly fight with the protagonist? Of course not – I have another idea for that. Remember, I said only an “ideal situation” would have only the melee characters fighting. I’d want to make the mechanics such that the player chooses who’s fighting by default while everyone else is treated as some form of support.
Then, if characters get incapacitated in battle or the player wishes to swap them, one of the characters fighting can take a supporting role unique to them while one of the supporting characters directly fights. Simple, right? Mugen Souls, for example, gives you the ability to keep almost the entire cast in reserve (if you upgrade your reserves) and swap ‘em in at any time – this would act the same except with the other characters doing things.
Peeves to Resolve
Now that the basic idea is down, there are quite a few peeves I have with most RPGs that need to be fielded.
Firstly, status ailments and debuffs. They’re freakin’ useless in nearly every circumstance in most RPGs. Except when used on the player, of course. You see, the problem is that regular fights end too fast for them to be of use (otherwise you have more fundamental problems) and bosses are simply immune. One solution I saw an indie developer pitch is to simply have skills that inflict these ailments cost more to use depending on the strength of the enemy. I think this is a great idea, and would perhaps add in that any weapons or sub-effects of skills that have a chance of inflicting an ailment would also scale by enemy strength. Making it relative to the user instead of in general would be the wisest idea.
The next thing of note is the subject of items and resource management in general. Typically, items and anything that uses MP or a game’s equivalent end up never being used because a player wishes to hang onto them for when they really need them, and that time never comes. That said, there is a way to make this sort of thing work. Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 has the player fully heal between fights, HP and MP. Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky has limited equippable items, but those items are multiple-use and are restored whenever visiting your home base. Some combination or permutation of this would work absolute wonders. Maybe MP should outright not exist and casting time would be the only restriction on magic, for example.
And, finally, animations for moves in RPGs tend to be way too long I eventually turn off or skip animations in a great many RPGs because fights end up lasting too long. An exception to this is any game that generally keeps the animations short, or where it’s tied to a mechanic. For example, the Atelier series does both. Animations are kept short and the player characters can choose to initiate a support attack if a button is pressed during the animations of certain attacks or certain characters’ attacks (depending on the game). I will need to do something with this, but I am presently unsure what.
That should be enough for a battle system concept. It could stand to be more detailed, but details further than that are what you put into a design document, not a blog post like this.
Next time, I will discuss some surrounding systems, such as the world map and just how the player gets items and equipment in the first place.