I really enjoy RPGs and they way they handle combat. It’s a fun system with some excellent abstractions. Unfortunately, so very many iterations of it are the same. That’s all well and good, but how about we look at some ideas for how things could be different?
Traps and AI Manipulation:
One of the ideas that I’d love to see integrated into combat is that of traps and baiting. In Breath of Fire 5, combat is tactical (which is to say that in addition to selecting actions, you also have to move your characters around the battle field), so not entirely applicable to what we’re talking about. That being said, it was possible to set up traps and bait enemies into walking into them, doing lots of damage in exchange for good planning (rather than lots of damage in exchange for selecting options in a menu). This admittedly goes a little deeper than just the idea of simple traps – it’s about clear, understandable, and manipulatable enemy AI.
In most RPGs, enemy AI is either lacking (which is to say a completely random selection of attacks and targets) or extremely punishing (acts based on unfair information that a realistic opponent would not have and at the least should have to devote time or resources to learning). Equipping enemies with similar skills to the player (giving them a chance to learn player weaknesses and make decisions based on that) and making it clear to the player what the enemy knows and how it will behave in response (either through a very clear tutorial followed by consistent enemy behavior or clear telegraphing of enemy behavior).
Part of what makes Dark Souls such a brilliant experience is that every enemy in the game behaves in understandable and obvious ways. This makes it possible to observe, interact, and develop a strategy that allows the player to overcome enemies. RPGs often claim to have “strategic” or “tactical” combat, which amounts to nothing more than leveling up enough to deal adequate damage to win before the enemy does. If the Dark Souls philosophy is followed, and enemies have understandable and obvious behavior, it will change the game drastically.
If enemy AI is clear, then you can open up a whole new layer of strategy by allowing the player to interact with it. On the simplest level, use baiting skills that force the enemy to attack a specific character (taunt, bait, or, alternatively, hide other characters). What if you have an enemy that seeks out what weaknesses characters currently have and attacks anyone weak to fire? Now, give your characters the ability to change elemental weakness on the fly. This way, characters can force enemies to attack specific characters. Add on top of that the ability to lay traps (a literal trap that they can walk into, or a spell that bounces back spells and reverses the element), and you have something fun to play about with.