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?
There’s a lot more driving RPG combat than just the mechanics available. Ultimately, the way mechanics are used is in service of the player trying to accomplish the objective of the combat. Why not have some different objectives to accomplish, making combat a whole new game?
The traditional RPG combat objective is a simple one: kill all of the enemies. This generally translates to a single implementation of the mechanics: deal as much damage as possible as quickly as possible without excessively depleting resources for future fights. We see hints of other objectives in games, often unintentional. Final Fantasy 8 is a great example – where at times the objective is resource (drawn spells) gathering – even if the game only acknowledges defeating the enemies as the real goal (i.e. the only rewarded goal).
Instead of killing the enemies being the only goal, you can institute all sorts of other goals (even without taking the focus of combat from dealing and negating damage). Defeating the enemies in a certain order or defeating certain enemies while leaving one alive makes for a couple of simple options. Or you could have a proxy or an escort character, where you need to keep them alive while simultaneously battling the enemy (or the proxy/escort of the enemy characters).
Since the objective of combat informs what abilities are needed, moving away from the “kill the enemy by dealing lots of damage” would open up a whole new variety of skills and abilities. Right now, everything is in service of creating, mitigating, or reversing damage. What if there was an RPG combat where the objective was stealing a certain object from the enemy. When you go to perform the steal action, it lets you choose a body part a a target, rather than just the character overall. Choose the right one, and you steal (or attempt to steal) the object. Choose incorrectly, and you may trigger a counterattack or the enemy realizing what you are doing. Choose incorrectly enough, and they change the place they are keeping the object or just run away.
Alternatively, if the objective of combat is discovering an enemy’s elemental weakness, there could be multiple elements to try as well as various ways to protect the characters against retaliations for trying the wrong element. We could also return to the resource gathering model of FF8 – rather than combat being about defeating enemies through damage dealt, it could be about surviving enemy encounters while gathering resources. You could go so far as to have enemies where they cannot be killed. Deal a certain amount of damage and they’re stunned for a turn, or simply negate their damage while performing resource gathers several times and then escaping.
The list of options goes on. Distract (but do not kill) the enemy for a certain amount of time. Rather than just knocking down HP, you have to keep HP at a relatively steady level all while keeping attention above a certain threshold. Deal too little damage, and you lose the attention of the enemy. Deal too much damage, and you kill them.
The changing of the objective opens up a huge variety of different combat mechanics. Perhaps some of the most interesting to explore are those that radically change the way combat plays out – and our next topic of discussion: creative interaction. But how about we save that for next time?