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Combat Systems in RPG Games

October 20, 2000
Branislav "Bane" Babovic

Do you remember those old FRP games in which combat came down to who had more numbers, while two (or more) ridiculous looking sprites were waving "weapons" or rather anything that could possibly be depicted through a couple of pixels? Even older versions are the text adventures, in which the computer would, for a wrong answer, just reply, "Your hero was eaten by a giant spider".

After 20 years of bustling activity on the player scene, we only have the combinations of action, strategy, and RPG elements. Role Playing Game label is "slapped" on most new games, while the definition of genres became very blurred. Another great topic for a discussion is the fact that the three magic letters "AD&D" get indiscriminately added to newer games, but we'll deal with that some other time. The blend of RPG with action and strategy became an everyday event. Everywhere you look, you find games with stickers saying "RPG with action elements" or "a strategy with RPG elements". Back then, you couldn't take an action game for an RPG unless you had a severe need for a white cane and a guide dog (unless you are blind, you dope). For example, you had Betrayal at Krondor, which was a nice adventure with FRP elements, inspired by work of Raymond E. Feist (considered the best FRP game ever). Then there is Eye of Beholder, which was done under AD&D license. There wasn't so much action in this game, either; you could say it came down to planning and shrewd displacement of weapons and characters. The in-game tactics today became Hack'n'Slash, running around the map collecting potions and mighty weapons, solving ridiculous quests, and preparing yourself for a showdown with the main villain. And as if it were not enough, such games are considered the pinnacle of the RPG market. Disgusting...

Apart from the story, the heart of these new RPG games is the Combat System. Or better still, since the Combat System is the basic part of the gameplay, it affects the general impression of a game. Combat Systems in RPG of today are divided into turn-based, semi turn-based, semi real-time, and real-time.

The first imposing question is whether a real RPG can be fully turn-based? This Combat System allows easy programming for developers, and most of the combat related events are determined from characters' displacement on the field. Still, it lacks the excitement that the player experiences when the game is developing quickly, instead of gradually. Naturally, if strong tactical element were included, the combat would become more interesting and exciting, but then you get a strategy, and not a standard RPG. Hence, those stickers saying "Strategy with RPG elements" (remember Odium?). Such games can be appreciated by a certain profile of players, as opposed to real RPG fans that expect something more than a simple strategy. They expect the full freedom of choosing a way. Turn-based systems emphasize combat tactics, but reduce combat down to the number of points and the range of the weapon/spell, i.e. pure statistics. Fallout is the shining example of a good turn-based Combat System, which made the game exciting and challenging for the player. As opposed to PC games, the consoles place the emphasis on the turn-based system. It all boils down to lining characters up, and watching them beat each other silly. Throw in a flashy spell, and you got yourself a blockbuster. An indicative example is the successful Final Fantasy serial, which used turn-based system up until the last two sequels. With a fine balance between the basic story and a multitude of motley opponents, the games might just turn out good, even with this almost obsolete system. I like the turn-based system, but it can't be applied to just any game. Of course, there has to be a particular balance between the development of the story and combat (again, Fallout has to be mentioned as the brightest example).

The second system that is often being used (and we'll see more of it in the future) is the Semi Turn-Based Combat System. Now, what could that be...? Well, it's simply a Turn Based System with a timer, which limits the player's actions. Instead of action points and such, each character in the party has a timer that enables (or disables) a set of options and actions through a certain period. Final Fantasy VIII uses a system similar to this, as well as Fallout Tactics (which is a strategy with RPG elements). This system provides a more realistic approach to battle. This also makes the player think and act faster, which makes the game so much more exciting. Semi Real Time is, at the present, the most popular system. This system made its grand entrance to the gaming scene with Baldur's Gate. It was used before in some games (Lords of Magic, and few others...), but it was rare in the RPG genre. The main reason was that Semi Real-Time means real-time combat with the possibility of pausing the game and giving out orders to characters or character (in case the player is leading only one of them).

Although BioWare programmers have limited the access to the inventory in Baldur's Gate, they have increased the realistic aspect of this game in regard to combat. I mean, how do you expect a player to take an item, or find that amulet that makes d20+1 hits, while a gang of Hobgoblins are beating his sorry ass blue? This Combat System was the best for RPG, because it provides the best atmosphere, it is tactically challenging, and allows the player to consider his next move while playing.

The last one is the Real-Time Combat System. With the RTS/FPS expansion, it became popular on the RPG scene. Real time combat can become very confusing in an RPG. It is impossible to plan a fight and utilize the advantages of an RPG (weapons, spells and such...) in a proper way. Instead, the game becomes hack'n'slash. This goes exclusively for games with isometric view. It is impossible for a modern RPG with the first person view (like Deus Ex, for example) to have an optional pause, since it would kill the action and the atmosphere. On the other hand, the last few releases of the Might & Magic serial have optional pause and the possibility of dealing out commands during combat, transiting from real-time to semi real-time.

General gameplay, regardless of the combat system, is best in real time, because it's fast, gives maneuverability and easy in-game character reaction. Real Time Combat System is best appreciated over the net. The majority of MMORPG uses this system, 'cause we have some slow players (I mean, you can time these guys with a calendar). If you were to mention turn-based in the same sentence as Multiplayer, you would probably get laughed at. Slow paced games have no place on the net, so Real Time rules net games, and it looks its gonna stay that way for a while. Very few games are designed as Single player only, and Multiplayer became the main thing with the expansion of the Internet. But you have to ask yourself--has online gaming become better with this support? Who cares, anyway, the main thing is that the manufacturers are getting rich and the product is adequately marketed. It's only since recently that they started asking us players for an opinion.

Apparently, it is impossible to apply true real-time RPG combat system in a game that has more than one character. When that is the case, the game resembles RTS or an action game. The big difference is that you don't use your "personnel" as cannon fodder in RPG; you make sure they make it in one piece to the end of the game. Because the characters gradually develop and advance through levels, you don't feel easy about losing them in a simple skirmish with a monster just because you didn't give out the order for them to move out of his way, and he squished them with his mallet. The ultimate goal of every developer is to create a hybrid game that will be compatible with all combat systems. Will that ever happen in the future? Lets wait and see.

For now, I am rooting for the BioWare guys and their Infinity engine. The RPG's you play in first person have a long way ahead, and yet to prove themselves and totally replace FPS games as we know them today.

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