Fun Combat With Few Battlers ?

Ravenith

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Hey.

I enjoy theorycrafting and designing attribute, skill and character progression systems. Lately I've been trying to develop an open-ended system akin to the skill-based progression seen on the Elder Scrolls games. My target is to have a universal system that can emulate any "class" by mixing and matching attributes, skills and traits.

This system is intended for games where the player mostly controls a single character. Enemy troupes contain 3 enemies at most. There is the option of having followers aid you, but it is not mandatory. On average, most battles are 1v1 or 1v2.

And while *building* your character can be very fun if you're into that sort of thing, *playing* him in combat can be somewhat bland.

How could I spice up things a bit?

Keep in mind that it's a kind of "you-can-be-anything" game, so combat mechanics have to be somewhat universal, without the (often helpful design-wise) limitations of set classes and skillsets.
 

OwenQ

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Theorycrafting and character progression are my main vices as well. I think designing a good universal character system and a single-character turn-based RPG at the same time is a path down which only madness lies, but here are some of my thoughts about it. (I've framed some of it in the context of how the Elder Scrolls series handles things, in particular Skyrim, just to have a common point-of-reference).

The main blandness issue, I think, is action economy. Even if it's not necessarily a balance problem because the player is stronger and/or never grossly outnumbered, a lot of players want to have several moving parts going on in combat (hence the usual class roles/character archetypes/whatever and their interactions). The original Dragon Quest/Warrior is a prime example of not doing this well, since that's entirely 1v1 combat of trading blows. Speaking of commercial games, looking at Pokemon might not be a bad idea, since that series is effectively 1v1 turn-based battles (doubles and so on notwithstanding).

Personally, I'd make sure that it's reasonably easy to get access to something that increases the Action Times+ trait somewhat early on - whether that's a temporary spell, an alchemical buff, a piece of enchanted equipment, or whatever. Ideally all of these would be available so one skill isn't a 'must have', and they probably shouldn't stack. I'd also make it a flat 2x actions or 3x actions since I feel certainty is important, rather than occasionally getting another action you weren't prepared for. Another option is to use something like Yanfly's Instant Cast script so that some skills (most likely buffs and debuffs that don't stack with themselves) don't actually use the main character's action for that round. 

I would also want there to be a fair bit of synergy between skill lines and no ham-handed restrictions (like 'spells cannot be cast in heavy armor', though some sort of reduction in effect wouldn't be onerous). Being good at magic and swords isn't very interesting if one turn you sword a dude for 100 damage and one turn you blast a dude for 100 damage. If hitting him with a fireball sets him up to be hit with a bleeding effect from your blade, that makes things a bit more interesting. You also might be able to be a bit freer with interesting things that put the enemy at an action disadvantage (stunning them, the default way Ace handles countering, magic reflection, etc), since the player will probably already usually be at a disadvantage anyway.

Every advancement option should be viable in combat as well - if you spend a while out of combat working on Alchemy, when you do into combat, you should have some potions that have a potency similar to a spell. If for whatever reason the game does feature extensive non-combat advancement stuff, avoiding combat should also be reasonably doable.

Finally, Followers need to be carefully considered. Even a weak auto-battling character is a second target for the enemies to hit and another action (no matter how ineffective) on the player's side. I'd probably make Followers tied somehow to an attribute or skill line so that they're basically a character asset, just like a spell or weapon. Freely available followers would probably be pretty much just cannon fodder. With a higher Charisma/Leadership/Speechcraft skill or attribute you might be able to attract more and/or better followers.
 

Ravenith

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Thanks for your answer. I'm aware this is maybe a fool's errand, and that's partly why I'm so interested in it - I want to see if it can be made to work.

You raise a number of valid points, which more or less I've considered myself. Action economy is indeed the key factor here. I considered using a Predicted Charge Turn battle system, implementing action speed, delay, knockback et cetera. A whole lot of moving parts, as you said. It's vital to give the player the impression of having a lot of options and doing a lot of stuff during each turn.

Looking up comercial examples was my first step. Dragon Quest was all I was trying NOT to do. Pokemon was, in a way, even more restricted - although it's a tried and true formula.

Synergy is another important part of such a system's viability, since its main selling point is building up and customizing your character. I can think of a slew of intricate effects and interactions among different lines of skills - Block an attack, counter with a Force Push-type spell, take advantage of the knockback to attack with a slow but heavy strike of your axe. (I'm aware of how difficult it would be to balance all that, but we're still theorycrafting, right?)

I'm trying a different angle on advancement, too. The character becomes *more efficient* rather than straight stronger - the same way a martial artist isn't much stronger than the average person, just a hell lot more efficient. As for non-combat advancement, there should be the option to pick your battles, so to say.

Last but not least, followers. I'm not exactly sure how to balance them, as even a weak one, is, as you said, another target to diffuse the enemies actions. Maybe I could come up with some kind of aggro mechanic. One thing is for sure - they are to be tied to skills like Leadership or Conjuration (for summoned creatures and the like).
 

OwenQ

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Sometimes it's the craziest problems that are the most fun to solve, and it's a fun thought exercise regardless. Thank you for listening to my rambling (and moreso if you continue, since this post has gotten long).

Honestly, I think the type of battle system you describe is probably the best way to go about it. As long as the main character has a fair number of abilities that are very fast (or manipulate the enemy speed), it shouldn't be grossly different from designing a multi-character game using the same system. It's certainly a lot more  granular than just granting the PC an extra action, and opens up a lot of options for different skill lines having different feels (one focuses on quick attacks, one focuses on slow but powerful attacks, one focuses on manipulating enemy's turns).

As far as Pokemon goes, I brought it up because a friend has recently been doing a series of 'for fun, but using competitive strategies' set of battles and I do think there's some merit to looking at some of the more esoteric moves or strategies. The fun in that admittedly revolves around a very human element of prediction , but I think concepts like Priority (in a regular turn-based system), moves like Sucker Punch (ending an opponent's turn if they use a damaging move... I think) and so on might be worth considering. Emulating the system exactly against an AI opponent is likely to be just as much a cakewalk as the baseline games (or as frustrating as some romhacks).

Another game that had an interesting take on action economy - though it didn't have a single character - is The Banner Saga. It's a turn-based tactics game, and regardless of the number of units on a side, the turns always alternate. This is combined with a system where attack power and health are the same, so a powerful strategy is to spread damage around the enemy team so that their turns are ineffective. Conversely having two healthy units alive makes sure every action counts.

I'm not convinced that can be converted to a non-tactical RPG, though it might be interesting to have a game where the PC is somehow less affected by attrition than the enemy, and making the game more about whittling foes down rather than 'focus firing' a single enemy as is usually the superior choice. Shifting the goalposts from 'take this guy down as quickly as possible' to 'make his actions less effective than mine, and possibly his friends too' might make the gameplay more interesting, but it would require a lot of fine-tuning to balance, I imagine.

Perhaps it is a bit harder to balance a set of complex inter-locking skills, but you also have a bit more leeway; if something is grossly overpowered, the player doesn't have to use that to have fun (hopefully), and if something is grossly underpowered, it can be ignored (though ideally it still should be rectified). Even if there are several all-too-strong strategies, it can be argued that finding these out in the first place is the fun and crushing the enemy is the payoff. Well-balanced is still best, of course, but as long as the player has to do some thinking and doesn't just hit things with an axe over and over to get better at axing things until everything's axed, the design was worth something, I believe.

What do you mean precisely by more efficient? All I can think of is more efficient use of resources, thus making it easier and quicker to set up a more powerful chain of effects (or improving longevity if there's a resource like standard MP).

Followers are the one thing I feel would be significantly harder to deal with under CTB - it's a bit harder to gauge the benefits of an extra actor when it's all contingent on initiative/speed/whatever. I suppose they could have fewer options than the PC to adjust speed, but that depends on how 'universal' the advancement system is (namely whether or not the player is unique from NPCs or if, like TES, everybody draws from basically the same pool of options).

I hope my rambling helps some, even if it is more confirmation of thoughts you already had.
 

Ravenith

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In a well designed CTB system with many speed altering tricks, I'm beginning to think that followers aren't even necessary. It's, after all, in the designer's discretion to create battle scenarios that can be managed by a single character. I was thinking of implementing auto-battling followers that can be only vaguely controlled, like the ones in Sonny 2 (http://armorgames.com/play/2900/sonny-2). I was unsure whether a single character battle system could work, but now I'm more optimistic.

What I didn't like in Pokemon (although I haven't played any of the latest games) was that, in a strictly alternating turn based system, some actions were simply sub-par. In most cases, using up a turn to reduce the enemy Pokemon's attributes or a status altering move was not as useful as using a damaging attack.  I remember being excited planning to use a Hypnosis - Nightmare - Dream Eater combo. More often than not, I'd spend multiple turns trying to land a Hypnosis. The 4 move limit didn't help, either - my Pokemon was gimped, as there was room for only one other move. Other than that, it had some pretty cool ideas. I'd be excited to play Pokemon with a CTB system.

Balance is tricky. There are bound to be prominent and superior builds and strategies and I agree - finding these is the fun in the first place. Again, it is in the designer's hands to force axe-wielding maniacs to use something different from time to time. Incorporeal enemies, for example, that cannot be affected by normal weapons. Axe McHatchet here would have to learn how to cast some spells, or enchant an axe, or haggle for a magic item.
Having *grossly* over- or underpowered strategies is bad design, though. No player would invest in using Maces, for example, if Axes did exactly the same thing, only better. Why spend time implementing a feature the player will rarely if ever use? Variation is the key here, I think. If Maces did lower damage but had a stronger knockback, Swords dealt damage more consistently and Axes had a lower accuracy but considerably stronger critical damage, the player would have to use whatever fits to his / her playstyle.

When I said progression makes character more efficient than stronger, I might have not been very accurate with my terms.
In an attempt to prevent blatant power creep and balance the difficulty level of in-game content, I considered having static base attributes that do not increase with levels.
What DOES increase with levels is the character's Skills (i'm using the term here the same way it was used in TES games). A higher Axe skill would mean the character is getting *better* with Axes - but in terms of damage, not miraculously so. Something like 1% additional damage per skill level, capped at 100, is not exactly an overwhelming raw damage boost (unless the player is deeply invested in the skill). Being consistently more accurate, however, or being able to equip a different kind of axe that provides bonuses catering to alternative playstyles can potentially be a major boost to the character's efficiency.

In essence, Level 1 Axe McHatchet would kill a wolf in 4 hits, while a Level 100 Axe McHatchet swinging the same weapon would only need 2.
(Equipment progression is likewise balanced - a Diamond Axe isn't much *stronger* than an Iron one, but it ignores a portion of the target's damage reduction - dealing, effectively, much more damage on armored targets).

One could argue that in such a progression system (both character- and equipment-wise) the player would not feel rewarded enough. While this is not wrong, bear in mind that it is supposed to be in a game where a character's strength is a means to experience more of the game's world, not the other way around.

Thanks for your input. This has been a very enjoyable discussion. You've helped me overcome some of the doubts I had. It's always nice to hear someone else confirm what you've been thinking, proving at least that you aren't on a completely wrong path! :)
 

omen613

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For spicing up battles you could look at the new south park game "The Stick of Truth"

Enemies would take stances that made you think about how to hit them. They had a stance that counter attacked all melee moves (your hit never connected as well), they had a Reflect ranged attacks stance, and they had a shield stance that gave them X armor that absorbed the next X attacks against them (using multi strike hits on them wore out their armor really fast).

Simple things like that could be worth looking into.
 

Ravenith

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Indeed. A friend of mine made a Let's Play of the game and I liked the concept. FFX had some nice little quirks too, such as flying or heavily armored enemies. These add variation to the obstacles the player has to overcome. As OwenQ said, the player has to do some thinking. This, along with a rich CTB, might do the trick.
 

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