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?
For anyone that’s played Dungeons and Dragons with a very unimaginative GM, video game RPG combat is already a thing they’re quite familiar with. For those with more creative gaming groups and GMs, playing video game RPGs can be a very limiting experience. What if they don’t want to murder every creature or potential enemy that they encounter? Well, they can run away (usually depriving themselves of experience needed to level up (and leveling up is in turn needed to progress), or (if they’re lucky and playing a game without random encounters) they can just avoid combat in the first place (still falling into the no XP trap). But what if there were completely different ways to behave in combat or resolve it? This is very much a continuation of the alternative combat objectives idea, but takes things well beyond the scope of normal RPG combat (and thus gets its own section even though it’s so similar).
For those that play table top or pen and paper game with a creative group, you’re aware of the effectively infinite number of options available to you in any situation (combat included). While it’s not feasible to code in every possible interaction, there are genres that allow for much more interaction and their elements could be borrowed by RPGs. Adventure games are a perfect example of this, and their menu driven everything could easily be incorporated into the menu driven combat of RPGs. Specifically, I’m thinking of two menu options in adventure games that would be well added to the combat menu in an RPG. Specifically, I’m thinking about Look and Use (and also Talk, but we’ll come back to that in another post).
Both could be implemented in one of two ways: menu driven or pixel hunting. Pixel hunting contains two huge disadvantages: it makes no effort to distinguish what is important an unimportant, and it requires a point and click interface. For those reasons, we’re going to stick with the simplicity of menus, which can be so kind as to only list relevant options (avoiding the frustrations of clicking on pointless things) and makes it wonderfully clear what you are selecting (rather than being unsure if you’re actually clicking on the object you want to investigate or are off by a single pixel).
Looking could function just as it does in adventure games – it gives you additional information about the thing you select. Want to know how good the enemy’s armor is and what it resists? Look at it. Want to know if the enemy’s armor will resist ice magic? Look at it. Want to know if there’s something in the environment you can use to give you an edge in the fight? Look around. This would allow you to sacrifice an action in order to gain tactical information. If you can kill an enemy in three spells of an element they are weak to when it would normally take six attacks, wouldn’t it be worth it to use a turn to find out their typing weakness?
Use would give you the option to act based on some of the tactical information gained through Look. The enemy has a loose tie on their armor – Use it to loosen their armor and open them up to more damage (and bind them up, causing them to act slower or attack with less power). There’s a group of rocks barely balanced behind the enemies – Use the stone holding them up to cause them to fall for both damage and bad footing conditions (10% chance to fall prone when acting or when hit). The context for environmental Use options would need to be coded based on the area (if random encounters) or the specific encounter (if you’ve limited the number of encounters and made each one meaningful and unique). The options for enemy based Use could be based on the enemy type (or chosen from a random set available to that enemy type), allowing each enemy to have different things you can find by Looking and then exploit with Use (neatly avoiding the “oh, it’s a bandit – I’ll just use ice spells since they’re all weak to that” and replacing it with “I’ll Look and see if there’s something I can Use or a typing I can exploit”).
Sure, there’s still a massive limit on the available options (they do all have to be designed and coded in, after all), but it makes for a much larger variety of options beyond “what kind of damage am I going to deal?” The possibilities are only limited by the designer’s imagination, and could certainly help make combat feel like a more fleshed out event instead of a damage dealing contest.