Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Combat: Good Reasons Why You Got Your Butt Kicked

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.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Indeed… dangerous combat is a big plus for a great RPG.

    That is the biggest problem I have staying interesting in most JRPGs. They use constant battles to slowly wear me down. This makes the battles feel worthless, especially when I am strong enough to deal with them easily. By the time I reach the boss who can finally put up a fight, I’m sick of the combat system.

    I’d love to see an RPG that uses a feature like the Director in L4D. Imagine that you start a battle with the upper hand, things seem to be going great… but because you are overpowering things, it allows the enemy to use their desperate attack, poisoning your party.

    The poison put’s your party into the defensive, drinking potions and casting healing spells. Because the enemy is overpowering you, secretly, the enemies have reduced accuracy. This gives you a chance to recover and try to regain ground.

    Call me crazy, but I’d rather fighting a handful of exciting battles in a dungeon than 1000 waste of time ones.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I’m a big fan of dangerous combat, provided that it isn’t common.

    A lot of RPGs seem to think that combat=fun, and try and pack the game with it.

    Unfortunately, too much combat can get bland (especially for me).

    The original Baldur’s Gate handled this all remarkably well, with tough battles being off the beaten track or further in the game. You were never far from danger, but there were always relatively safe zones.

    Also, the fights were generally challenging and you often got enough information to be able to tackle any problem. Early-ish in the game, there is an area with lots of statues… in the middle of a forest. Doesn’t take much to make you think of Basilisks, so you can adequately prepare before you face the enemy.

    The Ultima games on the other hand were a real mixed bag. There are examples of both good and bad combat in there, in particular the latter games didn’t handle combat brilliantly. Perhaps it was the move away from turn-based that made the difference?

    Turn-based is always my preference, I like my battles to be based on strategy as well as character skill, rather than my reflexes or button mashing ability.

  • Maklak said,

    I guess, I’m not that much of a killer. Sure, some action in an RPG is almoust mandatory, but after a few hundreds of dead enemies it gets tedious. As for difficulty, I usually preffer easy fights to tough ones, as long as I occasionally have a challanging one. I like sandbox, open worlds. TES3: Morrowind was a good example of this. I could wander anywhere I wanted… only to barely escape from cliffracers. To some degree I like meddling with my character stats, gear, and all, but it gets eventually tedious too. To me, cheesing is also sometimes fun, like using flight and a ranged weapon to take down a tough melee enemy, that stupidly runs in circles under me 🙂 or those annoying cliffracers :>

    Overall I’m not that much into combat, I treat CRPGs more like interactive books than kill-them-all’s. Sadly, XP system often forces me to take on unnecessary combats, to munchkin-up. I preffer exploring to killing. I also like taking all the trash I can find to the nearest shop. Heks, it there is a weight limit, I’ll even make some round trips, while using strength-boosting spell.

  • Greg Tedder said,

    #4 is a really cool idea. I love this mechanic, but have angst against it at the same time. A lot of RPG’s are very stingy with experience in an attempt to keep game balance from start to finish. This makes it hard for people like me to simply pass a fight by. And forcing me to go through a ten hour dialog for less experience feels like a slap in the face.

    For this to work I would prefer one of the following to be done:
    1. Do something different with experience and level gains
    2. Monster scaling (shutter)
    3. Allow plenty of “worthwhile” grinding opportunities. (No one wants to grow a beard grinding on boars in the forest for 1 experience each) 🙂

  • MalcolmM said,

    I’m a fan of tough combat. I loved the 80’s hardcore RPGs, where I often had to restart after having my party wiped out.

    For modern RPGs with real time, or pausable real time combat, I would add another reason for having to restart combat – getting wiped out because the brain dead AI didn’t manage your AI controlled party members in a reasonable manner. I had this problem constantly in Dragon Age, I found I had to babysit all my party members, if I didn’t they got wiped out. Not my idea of fun, I gave up on this, to me, vastly over rated game after a few hours. That’s not the kind of challenge I’m looking for.

  • Robyrt said,

    Demon’s Souls (the modern version of the hard RPG) is addictive primarily through heavy use and overuse of these principles. You are routinely taunted by super-strong enemies in side passages, expected to find special items with abstract names like “Dragon Long Sword +1” from area 4 to use in area 2, and put in awkward situations where your favorite weapon is useless. While there’s no explicit “luck” factor (all percentage chances are actually counting up to 100 under the hood), there is the occasional death by awkward camera to get you riled up.

    There’s also a degree of sheer evil that I think they could have done without: the difficulty of an area goes down and co-op mode unlocks when you beat a boss, and difficulty goes up the next time you die. So if you use a couple of your “extra lives” on a particularly hard area, it will rapidly get harder to the point of near-unplayability. You’ll need a buddy to tackle this level… which means using another life. Experienced players will actually commit suicide in town when facing a tough spot to avoid disaster!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Every description of Demon’s Souls tantalizes me. But alas, Sony has lost my loyalty, and I’ve had no interest in getting a PS3 so I can play it.

  • Adamantyr said,

    It’s a tough one, CRPG combat… my own vintage game will have turn-based 2D tactical combat, with all your actions pre-programmed and then played out all in a sequential order based on speed and a little randomness.

    Early on, I realized that unless you have 1-hit kills, this kind of combat could get VERY tedious. So I intend to make combat less frequent than is usual with vintage CRPG’s. Even a great combat engine gets boring if you see it too often.

    Oh, and no experience or level system either, so combat is not necessary to advance in the game. It’s just an obstacle. How well will it work? I guess I’ll find out.

  • Xian said,

    I wholeheartedly agree that a challenge is needed, else combat just becomes a grind. I tend to prefer turn based combat such as the early Ultimas. The combat I have enjoyed the most recently is in the King’s Bounty remakes. You could mouse over the enemy and get a sense of what their difficulty would be, from weak to impossible, but I have still had what I thought would be an easy battle turn against me.

    Ultima Underworld had the best non-turn based system for sword combat in my opinion. Move the mouse forward to thrust, side to side to slash, or down to cleave. That seemed more realistic.

  • UDM said,

    Anyone remember the original Wasteland? Now that’s what a real post-apocalyptic RPG should have been. While Fallout 1 and 2 are excellent attempts in making the game hard and completable at the same time, Wasteland is a class example of how a segregated world is no place for heroics.

  • FuzzyDuck said,

    I rather liked the Icewind Dale games for this – ok not so great for storyline, but one thing that struck me playing through it was that the game was very well balanced – tough enough that you’d have to think, use tactics & prepare the right spells etc, but not so tough as to be impossible in most situations.

    I’ve been playing Fallout New Vegas too, and that has a similar thing going on, a great improvement by Obsidian over Bethesda’s every-encounter-exactly-to-scale-with-you from Oblivion & Fallout 3, particularly the way the game itself will warn you to some extent, whether its a helpful npc who’s taken it upon themselves to warn travellers, or multiple scrawled “deathclaws ahead” signs, which you ignore at your peril 🙂