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RPG Design: Declaring Victory. A lot.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 17, 2013

I’ve been doing a little bit of course-tuning of the combat system for Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath, which is to be expected as I’ve radically changed some significant aspects from … well, anything I’ve played before.

The spell system, which is quite possibly the most complicated spell system “under the hood” ever seen in a computer RPG (the same could probably be said of Frayed Knights 1: The Skull of S’makh-Daon), has been the subject of a lot of this attention. As I am trying to balance things out on a rough level and make sure that circumstances may demand different tools, a painful thought came to mind:

All these painstakingly coded spell effects, ultimately, all do the same damn thing.

Not exactly, but ultimately all combat is a “race to go slow” – you are trying to get the enemy to zero health before they get you to zero health. That’s  pretty much it. And so every spell effect – and all the dynamically generated spells in the game are all built around that very simplistic goal. Every effect is about increasing your damage output, decreasing your reception of damage (or its impact on you), or some variation that allows you to better conserve resources (like gold) so you can be more efficient in your damage-dealing / damage-taking.

That third bit is something that was more common in older games, but seems to be a layer of depth that is getting removed from more modern games, in favor of simpler, flashier games. So that’s something. But as a hardcore long-time RPG junkie, my feeling was that the very nature of combat and victory conditions may be a limiting factor.

We’re frequently limited by one of the very things we’re so focused on in most RPGs – the simplicity of combat and victory conditions. It’s generally a very binary thing. While there may be opportunities for either side to flee, for the most part it’s kill-or-be-killed, using a single indicator (health, hit points, whatever it is called) as the deciding factor.

In the real world, combat is often more of a means to an end. Two or more sides have a goals that they wish to achieve (or deny to their opponents). In fact, there are generally multiple goals of varying priorities being weighed throughout the battle, as “survival” (or “minimal casualties”) is usually pretty high on the list.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were multiple paths to “victory” in combat… even a case where it would be possible for both sides to declare victory and disengage? By interesting, I mean, “more interesting combat choices.” While utter and complete defeat of the enemy forces in the traditional manner as fast as possible might be a handy brute-force approach to full victory, that may not always be an optimal, necessary, or even possible approach. It gets even more interesting when victory isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, but sides could gain partial victories and losses.

Suddenly, things like battlefield mobility, distractions, prediction, counter-magic, and so forth might become far more useful than massive spell-nukes. At this point, even things like negotiation might be key combat abilities, when you can conserve resources and guarantee key goals by conceding some victory conditions to the enemy. Or vice-versa. If goals aren’t completely mutually exclusive, there may be some real strategy involved (even in an RPG) in losing a battle in order to win the war.

This isn’t completely unprecedented on the RPG front. In modern RPGs, we’ve been confronted with escort or protection missions. While very simple (but sadly, often frustrating), they are perhaps a first step into really creating much more interesting conflicts. The upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera promises something even more interesting with their Crisis System, which makes combat just one part of a larger challenge.

I think there’s a lot of fascinating potential to explore, here. If any other indie RPG developers are looking at ways to push the boundaries of the role-playing experience in something beyond mere graphical pizzazz, this might be something to think about.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 3 Comments to Read



  • Oasis said,

    “Suddenly, things like battlefield mobility, distractions, prediction, counter-magic, and so forth might become far more useful than massive spell-nukes. At this point, even things like negotiation might be key combat abilities, when you can conserve resources and guarantee key goals by conceding some victory conditions to the enemy. Or vice-versa. If goals aren’t completely mutually exclusive, there may be some real strategy involved (even in an RPG) in losing a battle in order to win the war.”

    This is why turn-based strategy games with RPG elements are so fun. You have to take all of the above into account both in and out of battle, and all of the choices you make have weight. Some amazing RPGs being released next year, my most anticipated is Age of Wonders 3 :)

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m actually fond of Victory Point systems in war games, where certain accomplishments are more worthwhile than others. It lead’s to some interesting strategy when you can either kill loads of little troops… or a few high ranking officers to win the war. Do I focus on holding these outposts to gain alot of points each turn… or fall back and hold one massive defense against the enemy?

    I’ve never thought about using something like that in an RPG though. That could lead to an interesting game play mechanic.

    Each side needs 10 points to win.

    – Killing a Fighter gives you 1 poin
    – Killing a Healer gives you two.
    – The “Defending Side” gains 1 VP per turn.
    – Certain battles may have NPC allies who must be protected.
    – Certain “Party Slots” may have additional VP attached during a battle… such as your party leader is “Guarding the Gate”. If he dies, the monsters take the gate for 3.

    Maybe by adding a map and location objectives you could do more than just “Kill the enemy” rules. But wouldn’t that the game would be a full blown strategy at that point?

    I’m rambling here just because I think the VP system is versatile enough to work, but I don’t know how. Maybe some other genius designer here can find some way to use it.

  • Cuthalion said,

    This really gives me some ideas for handling tabletop RPG scenarios. I already generally give out exp based on quest completion and defeating enemies, whether the enemies die in the process or not. But I could have a short list of victory conditions, primary and secondary objectives, like in a strategy game, each worth a certain amount of exp.

    In the tactical RPG I’m part of, I’ve argued for giving exp to individual units rather than the team as a whole, because I really enjoy that aspect of grooming particular characters and intentionally timing kills or other exp-granting actions to benefit specific units. It adds another layer to the game that can make the smaller battles more interesting and enables me to focus on specific units rather than feeling like no matter what I do, everyone’s going to level up the same anyway.

    Perhaps I could compromise with my fellow designer and push for a hybrid approach that provides exp for individual actions, but also a pool of exp that gets divvied up among all the units that saw action based on meeting objectives.

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