As long as there have been RPGs (particularly JRPGs, though this applies to early western RPGs in a broad sense as well) there has been turn based combat. Games are a world of fun (well, if they’re well made) abstractions that let the player interact with the setting in a meaningful way. One of the more abstract but rather effective systems out there is turn based RPG combat. I couldn’t say for sure if it’s a matter of the genre imposing inherent limits (though I’d argue that it’s not), but there’s been a lack of innovation among relatively traditional turn based combat systems. It’s been around for long enough that I think we could be throwing in some new ideas. So, in that spirit, I’ll talk about some of my ideas for one of my favorite gameplay systems.
Before we talk about some things I’d love to see in turn based combat, it’s worth talking about what turn based combat is and what I’m going to include under that umbrella term. Western RPGs use a turn based combat in a lot of instances, but I’m admittedly primarily talking about JRPG combat in this post (since it’s what I’m most familiar with and the gameplay that I’m most interested in). Though “turn based” implies, well, being based on turns, functionally there is little difference between turn based and active time systems (such as the ATB of Final Fantasy 4+, Chrono Trigger, Septerra Core, Panzer Dragoon Saga, or any RPG with a bar filling up under the character’s name that once full allows them to act). So, in an effort to keep things simple, I’m going to class turn based and active time together.
As far as what a turn based combat system is, it’s rather simple: players and enemies take turns acting, or turns choosing to act (selecting actions from a menu, usually including things like Attack, Magic, Item, and Run), and it continues until the battle is resolved (usually by one party or the other being completely wiped out). Most games, all characters choose their actions at once, and actions are resolved in an order based on the speed stats of characters (which really means it’s more of a round based combat, but I’m going to just not worry about that). For active time systems, speed determines how often the character can act rather than what order they act in. It’s unique from other games (and from other gameplay in the same game outside of combat) in that you simply choose your action and watch it play out. It makes for tactical and methodical (rather than twitch and precision) play.
So, sounds like a pretty darn simple system. At this point, you may find yourself wondering “What sorts of things haven’t already been done?” Well, the simple answer is “Quite a lot, actually.” I’m not planning on imagining every possible new feature here, but I do want to talk a little about some ideas I’ve had that could brighten up gameplay bogged down in tradition.
One last element to talk about, because I may be referencing it a lot and I’m tired of it in its vanilla iteration: typing weaknesses. In most fantasy RPGs, this manifests as elemental spells and resistances against/weaknesses to them. As much as I don’t care for the way it’s handled, Shin Megami Tensei 4 is a very solid example of this: every fight with a new enemy is about surviving and not accidentally using an element on it that it is resistant to, and every fight against an enemy previously encountered is about mercilessly exploiting any elemental weakness it has. In Final Fantasy, it tends to center around “enemies in this dungeon do fire spells, so equip fire resistant armor for an easier time” or “this boss is weak to ice spells, so do that to kill it quicker.” Pokemon does far better than most: mons have up to two types, creating a far more complex rock-paper-scissors relationship while putting a lot more effort on the player to memorize typing weaknesses and resistances. While I don’t think typing weaknesses is a bad element (I actually rather love it), it’s just not a good idea for it to be the only tactical element. Without multi-typing it makes for very shallow and uninteresting gameplay.