Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 21, 2010
I felt like rambling on today a little bit about CRPG combat, and my philosophy on how combat should work in CRPGs. Of course, all CRPG combat systems are different, so it’s very hard find a enough commonality to compare them all. But we can start with the basics. Like getting your butt kicked. So I’ll focus on that.
My belief is that, as a player, you should TOTALLY get your butt kicked in combat from time to time.
Even if the combat doesn’t kill you (especially if you are playing with permadeath, such as via hardcore mode), it should put you on the ropes and / or force you to flee. But my feeling is that if it is not challenging you, why are you bothering? Not every combat needs to hand you your butt like this, but it shouldn’t be a rare event restricted to boss battles, either.
Now, when this happens, it is probably due to one (or sometimes more) of five reasons. Four of the five are due to good, healthy, challenging gameplay that empathize personal player skill and problem-solving. My philosophy on game design is that failure is good, but the player should be able to recognize what they did wrong, rather than the game being arbitrary, nasty, or unclear.
So, if you are sitting at the load screen, respawn point, or simply at a safe place to rest after running for your life and aren’t sure how you got smacked around so badly, consider the following possibilities:
#1 – You were unprepared
You entered the combat ill-equipped to deal with the challenge. Maybe you forgot to wear your protection-from-poison gear into a battle against the Spider God, or you forgot to change your spell load-out from fire-based to frost-based before staging your raid against the Fire Giant Stronghold, or you simply forgot to stock up on reagents or healing potions. Or maybe you are just past due to cut and run and rest up at the local inn. Whatever. This is a situation that is easily remedied the next time, although certain preparations may require additional questing.
Ideally, you should have received hints as to what preparations might be needed in advance. Note to game designers: getting clobbered shouldn’t be the players’ first and only warning as to what preparations they might need to take.
#2 – You need to use different tactics
This is my favorite reason. As the curtains close on your little disaster, you are already thinking of how it can go differently when you find yourself in a similar encounter. A different approach, the application of more player skill, is all it takes to reverse the butt-kicking direction. While the success or failure of individual actions within an RPG may be dependent upon your character’s skill, player skill should play the deciding role, whether it’s methodical turn-based tactical reasoning or clever, well-executed combos in an action RPG.
Good RPG combat should demand different tactics on the part of the player. But it also shouldn’t render a specialized character useless, either. A creature that is, for example, immune to fire should have some sort of vulnerability that the player’s specialized Fire Mage with the pet Fire Elemental should be able to exploit to still win the battle.
#3 – You were in over your head
I’m not a fan of RPGs scaling the difficulty down to match your level. Or in games doling out the content in a measured, linear manner. You should be allowed to go up against challenges well beyond your character’s ability. In fact, it should be up to you to decide whether or not you are in over your head. Some of my favorite experiences with CRPGs have been when accidentally took content slightly out-of-order, and found myself surviving challenges intended for me a couple of levels later.
This may not necessarily mean more level-grinding is in order, however. Maybe the acquisition of certain equipment may be in order, or certain additional tasks might thin out the pack a little bit. Or maybe, if this is a completely optional encounter, this is really something intended for you to come back and revisit later. Whatever the case, this is one of those times where you should probably do something else for a little bit and then come back to it.
#4 – You weren’t really expected to fight this battle
This is an old-school pen-and-paper RPG-ism. Somewhere down the line, players came to expect that they should be able to “clear out a level,” action-game style. Everything should be beatable and beaten before progressing to the next level. Monsters were always assigned to the proper dungeon level based on their difficulty. Why? Why doesn’t the vampire wander around level 1, taking low-level victims?
In pen-and-paper games, players always had options, explicit or not. Besides tackling a dangerous enemy head-on in a brute-force assault, they could hide, bribe, negotiate, flee, entrap, stage a rebellion, or whatever else it took to avoid or overcome an enemy that was just too dang tough. Unfortunately, too many modern RPGs ignore these kinds of options, requiring a straight-up fight. But sometimes the games do provide some clever alternatives to fighting, or ways to turn the fight dramatically in your favor. If I recall correctly, the Rancor in Knights of the Old Republic was a good example of this.
But if you disregard the other options, jump into a fight and get your butt handed to you, well, it was your choice. If the combat was nasty-hard but winnable, then it was actually an interesting choice as well.
#5 – You were unlucky
This is the least preferable choice, and I believe good CRPGs will work to minimize this outcome. Yeah, luck happens, and every once in a while it’s just gonna hand you a load of lemons. The occasional failure due to the luck of the dice is acceptable. But if the difference between an easy win and a loss is sheer dumb luck, that’s not good game design.
Yes, the old, original D&D rules were notorious about this. Did the vampires get initiative before the cleric? Oh, you were gonna take a beating, even if you won. Did the cleric go first instead? Nevermind – it’s an easy fight. (And yes, I do note that one of my favorite indie RPGs, Knights of the Chalice, had this problem a lot).
Not a Reason – The game is just plain nasty, sucky unfair
This doesn’t come up too often with mainstream games anymore, fortunately. But reading CRPG Addict’s blog has reminded me of just how nasty some of these old games were. Did the designers actually play their own games to completion back then? Indie game developers, take note, and learn from the wealth of historical failures.
As a player, I try not to assume that this was the reason for my failure. It’s usually something else. Then again, I never played Wizardry IV, so I don’t have those scars that have never healed…
I personally feel that a healthy, regular dose of defeats or near-defeats for a good mix of the first four reasons are indicators of a good, challenging, fair CRPG. As long as situation #5 doesn’t come about with too great regularity, the game has a pretty firm combat foundation. The key is that the game should demand player skill, judgment, and problem-solving in combat, not JUST running the numbers.
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