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?
Conversation (and nonverbal communication):
I already mentioned Talking in the context of being a typical adventure game menu option. But it’s not just something you see in a menu in adventure games – it’s how most people tend to interact (rather than attacking each other with swords and spells). Opening up the line of communication could drastically change the way combat plays out in RPGs. Giving players the option to solve a conflict/encounter in a non-violent way could let you integrate different sorts of resource management (if soldiers are open to bribes, you could manage your money instead of your HP and MP), or allow different ways to reward the player for resolving the encounter (defeated enemies give looted items, bribed enemies give tactical or strategic information for the current area).
Ending an encounter could be done in several ways through communication – show of force, bribe, or conversation. Conversation is a big one, so we’ll hit on it last. Show of force is fairly simple and straight forward – you intimidate the enemy into giving up and leaving without a fight. This could be done verbally (such as reminding them that you are THE Duke of Daalmir, killer of a hundred soldiers), with a gesture (showing them your big, scary, and bloody sword), or with an actual show of force (cast a big spell or perform a skill to make it clear just how much damage you can do). The gesture and show options could even be done with enemies that aren’t capable of speech. As an added bonus, this could trigger during combat just based on your actions – you do so much damage to one enemy that the others get scared and run away. As an added added bonus, it could have effects even if it fails – they don’t run away, but they avoid attacking the character that showed off the massive spell (or, if they’re very much unafraid but aware of the possible threat, they all gang up on that character to take them out first).
Bribing is similarly simple and direct – you attempt to bribe the enemy in order to convince them to ignore you. For humans (where speech is possible), allow the player to pick a specific amount. High enough, the encounter ends peacefully. Almost high enough, they ask for more. Way too little, and the enemy is insulted and gets a small (and temporary) boost to damage. For added fun, combine this with the Look system from adventure games, and the player characters can try to spot clues as to how well off the enemy is financially (informing how much would be needed to bribe them) or how loyal they are to their cause (informing not just how much, but if it’s even possible). For non-speaking enemies, there could be a variety of possible items that you can bribe them with. Making your way through wolf-infested woods? Better stock up on meat before you leave town to bribe the wolves with (or hunt rabbits in the woods as you go). Suddenly attacked by a sand worm in the desert? Good thing that soldier you bribed earlier let you know that sand worms love water, and a bottle with distract it and let you continue without issue.
Conversation is where this system has a chance to really shine. Before I go into too much depth on it, I just want to point out that I am aware there’s a conversation system in the SMT games for interacting with demons. Trouble is, that system is driven by luck, not by good decision making, and that’s neither fun in general, nor intellectually enjoyable for someone looking for a tactical experience (an experience most RPGs want/claim to deliver).
As I mentioned above, conversation is how the standard human interacts. Rather than fighting to the death, an RPG could let you try to talk your enemy down. If they’ve heard of you before, mentioning who you are could help convince them to walk away. If they’re already scared (or you’ve already dealt a lot of damage), they’ll be easier to convince that they should give up. More importantly, knowledge of their area, their culture, their working/living conditions would give you conversation options that could build empathy and let you sway their opinion.
For games with random encounters, a lot of this would need to be randomized for each encountered enemy. That being said, you could have enemies working for a local bandit lord that have a lot of national pride (discovered by Looking and seeing their nation’s emblem on a pin they are wearing), letting you point out that their illegal actions harm their nation. For specific encounters, you could do all sorts of things. While sneaking/wandering through town, you investigate all sorts of homes and talk to all sorts of people. When you infiltrate the castle later than night, the different guards (each hired townsfolk) have different interests, concerns, and goals, letting you navigate conversations with them rather than just running them through. Ward happily stands down when reminded of his wife and child and how much they love him, Jace can be convinced that he is better off pursuing his dream of being a bard than getting blown up with a fire spell. There’s no denying that the amount of work involved could be massive, but the impact it would have on gameplay and game feel would be similarly huge.