Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Battle That Rages for Centuries – Or Feels Like It.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 30, 2010

I’m a fan of turn-based combat in RPGs. Not to the exclusion of real-time combat, but I love the little tactical mini-game of turn-based combat. I’m one of those people for whom the original X-Com might as well have been brought down from Mount Olympus itself by Promethius (in the hand that wasn’t holding a torch).

But even I have my limits. My number one complaint about Wizardry 8 – which was otherwise a stellar RPG that seemed written specifically for me – was the length of its combat.  The seemingly interminable final battle in Persona 3 almost (but not quite) spoiled the game for me, especially as I failed so close to victory the first time and had to replay the whole thing – which took me well into the wee hours of the morning. Stupid save-points. And my love of the classic “Gold Box” games – and their signature tactical combat in the style of miniatures-based 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons games – is tempered somewhat by the memory of some really long, drawn-out fights against random encounters. Particularly in the first game, Pool of Radiance.

I think that when a lot of people think about turn-based combat, that’s what they think of: really long battles that play out very slowly.

I agree. Of course, we all have our own definitions of “slow.” For me, a ten-minute long battle against a very interesting boss in a turn-based RPG can all kinds of fun. I love that kind of deep, meaty battle. But even a three-minute long fight against a Generic Bandit Group for the tenth time this session can seem far too long.

So I’m not really sure how long “too long” really is, even for me. I don’t usually track the time I spend in turn-based RPGs fighting.  If the battles are fun, the time passes quickly, and the only indication I have of their length is when I look at the clock and think, “That can’t be right,” because there’s no way two hours has passed. On the other hand, the boring ones feel like they take a century.

So battle duration is really kind of a subjective thing for me. All I do know is that it’s hard for any single fight to stay interesting to me after twenty minutes.  No matter how awesome. But those big X-Com battles didn’t rarely felt like single fights.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • Greg Tedder said,

    The reasonable length of a fight for me is directly tied to the number of interesting choices I can make during that fight.

    Personna 1, (the only persona I have played) long fights, lots of choices, you are often backed into a corner and have to start looking for that “save your @#$” option which can be both skill and luck. Very exciting.

    FF3 lies right in the middle having moderate choices and moderate length fights that happen almost too often but things seem to move along none-the less.

    Suikoden for the DS is probably the worst of the repetitive turn based games I have played. The fights are medium length, but the options are limited and boring, and the encounter rate is irritatingly high. Great story line, but even with 22 hours invested I will never see how it ends.

  • Mark said,

    For me, it’s a matter of the frequency of critical decisions. Real-time games have the problem of sometimes delivering critical decisions more frequently than the user desires them; turn-based games by their very nature can’t go too fast. Instead, their problem is that the user must either wait too long between decisions, or must make too many intricate but meaningless interactions per critical decision.

    Ultimately it strikes me as more a problem of interface design than game design.

  • Robyrt said,

    A little hand-holding from developers goes a long way here. Something like 80% of turn-based combat is spent choosing one of these 3 actions:

    A. Everyone does their standard attack
    B. Everyone does their most powerful attack
    C. Everyone does their buffs/debuffs

    Many RPGs let you create macros of some kind, but it would be quite easy to pre-populate the list with basic variations of these 3 and save me the trouble of constantly recreating them.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I gave up on Wizardry 8 because of the long, often boring combat. Too bad because I played and finished most of the other Wizardry games. I found that even Wizardry 7 tended to drag in combat.

    As Greg says, the key issue is how often I am making interesting choices. I’m currently playing King’s Bounty Crossworlds, and according to Steam I’ve put over 100 hours into the game. It’s not an RPG, more of a strategy RPG. Each combat encounter lasts at least 15 minutes, which would normally bore me in a game with less variety. But with the huge variety of enemy troops, very interesting and different spells, unit special attributes that I decide when to trigger, and terrain that plays a huge role in strategy, the time flies by.

    If I find myself clicking without thinking during combat, I know I will soon get bored, no matter how short the combat is.

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree with everyone about the choices.

    In Final Fantasy, random encounters usually take 1 or 2 turns for me… about 30 seconds. Combine that with 30 seconds of your victory screen and fighting every twenty steps… you have alot of wasted time.

    But I also agree that I rarely find long battles to be interesting because most of the time it’s just a long health bar and low damage values. Once I’ve figured out a pattern that will kill an enemy I should not have to repeat it for fifteen minutes to win the battle.

    For me, interesting battles come down to lethality and consequences. Every choice that I make needs to have an impact for better or worse.

    In X-Com, if I took a risk and moved to far… my soldier would die permanently. If I kept my units too bunched up, a grenade would wipe my team. But if I played carefully, I would get the drop on most of the enemies and take them out. I never felt that I wasted a turn because every action had a clear result.

    I also liked the system in Shadow Hearts for PS2. Every character has a SANITY stat. Every turn… you lose 1 point of sanity. If it hits zero, the character goes nuts. This meant that the developers planned every battle to end in a limited amount of time. You deal large amounts of damage, but you also take alot. I killed the last boss in about 10 turns… but every one of those turns was intense and mattered.

  • Corwin said,

    One thing I do like to see offered in TB combat is the option for the computer to play out the combat. Thus if it’s a generic spawn of low level rats I want to be able to allow my PC to handle it while I get a drink. I’d sometimes use this option when only 1 or 2 enemies were left simply to speed everything up.

  • Mark said,

    Many turn-based games, or at least those of the school that has frequent short encounters rather than long quasi-unique ones, have offered strategies to cut out the tedium of manually advancing through straightforward challenges. Powers for reducing the frequency of weaker encounters or causing them to avoid you, autobattle methods of every imaginable level of customization from simply submitting Attack on up to fully programmable conditional macros, just simply killing sufficiently weak enemies without bothering with the encounter, real-time hybridization in the non-combat elements only, even permitting AI advisors to selectively handle certain parts. Hell, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has an autoexplore button!

    There are ways to smooth the rough edges of turn-based, even ways that are fully compatible with altering the balance or mechanics to minimize boilerplate actions.

    Making the animations faster usually helps, regardless.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I grew up playing the Gold Box games, and I remember that I generally found the combat to be exciting and satisfying, except for a few frustrations with fighting a hoard of kobolds or goblins at high level that had no chance of hurting me, resulting in nothing but a long, drawn out fight that bored one to tears.

    Of course, that was then. Now, I feel most random encounters should be other in 5 minutes or less. Bosses that double or triple that time, but anything more is just a time waster.

    The fact is, if combat is balanced, either side should have a chance of going down quickly. I don’t believe a boss or enemy should have to be whittled down. They should have unique and interesting attacks that you have to use strategy to avoid or deal with, and should take normal damage from your party like everything else. Really, the only difference between a boss and a mook should be that the boss requires more strategy and hits harder.

    I personally loved what the console RPG Earthbound did with random encounters – when one was triggered, the game did a quick calculation. If it determined that your party could resolve the combat in a single round without receiving much or any damage and not expending any resources, it simply kept you on the overworld screen and gave you a quick message that you had trounced the enemy thoroughly and gave you the experience and loot you would have received had you actually been made to waste time fighting through the encounter.

    Such a system made every encounter an entertaining one and took the tedium out of random encounters. I mean, what good DM or GM would make his players sit through a fight with kobolds or goblins when they were 10th level or higher? Why not just say: “You all make quick work of the goblin warband, chuckling with each other about the expressions the goblins made upon learning of your skill firsthand.” Boom! On to more interesting and meaningful things while making the players feel legitimately good about the progress their characters have made.

  • name_here said,

    Personally, I really hate any battle against guys with self-healing. Seeing my progress reversed without having any option to prevent that except pounding the giant enemy crab more harder is incredibly irritating.

  • Silemess said,

    X-com is a great example of turn based combat. It did a fair job of giving you an incentive to choose how you dispose of each point a character had, and making full use of each character. Do you spend some getting to safety, or leave it (and your character exposed) so that you might get that lucky shot off at the wandering alien.

    Each decision was important. I don’t like combat where one wrong move and the whole fight is over. But I do like it where one wrong move and you’ve experienced a significant loss to your party. (Provided the learning curve let you learn how to make right moves) Once decisions don’t matter, attention wanders.

    Artificially drawing out the fight to counter the player’s abilities is another of the factor I don’t like. I don’t mind when my character has specialized in fire and winds up having to spend a long time pin-pricking the fire demon because of immunity. I do mind when the ice demon can naturally refreeze – frequently.

    Keeping fights balanced and interesting, while avoiding the pitfalls of auto-leveled foes… “Wasn’t I killing you guys easier three levels ago? Why am I having a harder time now for no other reason?” If you can find the answer, the world will download a path to your door.

  • Vitirr said,

    I love turn based combat too. The problem is not the system itself but the bad designs of the games. Combat is generally overused in most of RPG and TBS games. Even in games with real time combat it becomes tedious most of the times, but the problem it’s even worse with a slow paced system like turns.

    Solution is just as simple as designing the games not trying to fill hours of gameplay with just repetitive, unchallenging and boring fights. I like games with 50+ hours of gameplay, but only if those hours are interesting, if not I’d gladly get only 20 interesting hours.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Wizardry 8 had incredibly long battles until I loaded wizfast: http://wolfie.wiz8.de/Wiz8Fast.html THen the game was just about perfect.

  • Craig Stern said,

    If you’re talking about Baldur’s Gate or Final Fantasy-style turn-based combat, then yeah, those battles get boring pretty fast. Be careful not to lump in strategy RPGs with them, though–Fire Emblem battles, for instance, can take well over an hour, yet be tense and interesting the whole way through.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Skavenhorde – I had Wizfast installed and running, too. I still had battles with random goober patrols that lasted 40 – 60 minutes (I *did* time them). Not so much fun.

    @Craig – You are correct, I may be over-generalizing. A really good tactics RPG may have a combats feel like they are only half as long (or less). Time is very relative that way…

    @Everybody – Thank you for illustrating once again how the most insight on this blog is actually found in the comments section.

  • Whiner said,

    You probably saw my grumbling about certain Avernum 6 battles… But it wasn’t just the length, it was the lack of clear feedback making it hard to tell if you were making any progress at all. For all I know, that fight isn’t SUPPOSED to take that long…

  • skavenhorde said,

    I guess they did last pretty long, but the part I hated was the waiting around for them to get to me. I didn’t mind how long it took after that because I was at least engaged in the battle. Keep my mind occupied and I’m happy. Make me wait with nothing to do and I get annoyed.

    Wiz Gold was by far the worse culprit. That game is huge and the battles took too long because of the sound effects. There was a pause for each hit which drove me up the wall. The only way to make the game somewhat playable was to disable sound effects, but I REALLY hate doing that 😉

    Anyways, great blog. I’m all for TB games, but I can play a good RTwP like KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate or even Dragon Age: Origins and love every minute of it.

  • name_here said,

    Oh, that reminds me: Fighting animations of more than two seconds that cannot be turned off merit internet punching unless they provide useful information in and of themselves.

  • WCG said,

    Yeah, the original X-Com was absolutely incredible. I’m so disappointed that other RPGs haven’t run with that (the Jagged Alliance games weren’t even close).

    I loved the combat in the SSI “Gold Box” games, too, although it did get old. But that’s because the games were nothing BUT combat, I think. Still, I loved them. (I just didn’t finish any of them.)

    It’s not JUST the turn-based nature of combat in these games (as different as X-Com is from the SSI games). But I love being able to position my characters and to use cover.

    “Real-time” games were OK, when I could set them to automatically pause at every round, but I still prefer turn-based, provided it’s not too abstract. I want to use formations, but I also want to move my characters individually, to effectively use cover, to flank enemies, etc.