What makes a good JRPG combat system?

Ghost314

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Sorry in advance for the giant wall of text, but this has been bugging me for almost a week :rswt.

I've been puzzling for a while now over how to make a good combat system for a JRPG style game. My main gripe with most JRPG combat systems I've encountered is that they tend to become repetitive and boring after a while. For nearly every enemy encountered you can follow a similar sequence of moves and win almost every time. Game makers try to make things interesting by adding enemies that are immune to certain moves/abilities, but once you find a strategy to beat those new enemy types, that strategy will continue to work for all future encounters. Combat inevitably devolves into a simple matter of following a pre-determined formula to win (that enemy has tough armor, use piercing, that enemy is immune to physical, use magic etc...).

I think the combat system of FF XII, stands as strong evidence of this problem. I don't mean to sound like I'm bashing their combat system, I actually liked it. I think the reason I liked it though, was because it spared me the mindless task of following the same old recipe to win the majority of the battles. The mere fact that it's possible for me to write a simple script that an AI can follow and win the overwhelming majority of battles hints at an underlying problem. While not many JRPGs have given us the ability to program in our move set, if they did, I'm certain I could write scripts just as effective for the overwhelming majority of turn-based RPGs that are out there.

I wanted to spark a general discussion about what we can do to try and solve this problem, starting with my own observations. In my efforts to find a solution to this problem I started looking at other JRPGs that people have praised for their combat systems and I feel like 2 common themes keep coming up.

The first idea is to incorporate some sort of mini game into the combat system. Most often this will take the form of some sort of quick-time event where the player has to press a button, or sequence of buttons with precision timing to do extra damage, block an attack etc... This is used in games like Legend of Dragoon and Shadow Hearts, or more recently in Undertale. This makes combat more engaging for the player, but doesn't fully solve the strategy issue.

The second is various different efforts to incorporate positioning into the combat. You can almost put the entire genre of 'tactical' RPGs in this one, but some other efforts have been made by simply having characters slotted into rows and restricting who they can attack. This seems to me like a promising idea, but the challenge then becomes making sure that positioning is actually important enough to matter.

After I heard someone praise Grandia II for allowing players to see an enemy's attack in advance and giving them time to respond/counter it made me think of Into the Breach, which seems to have taken that idea to the extreme. As a result the combat feels extremely strategic and I never feel like I'm just mindlessly going through the motions.

I also spent some time thinking about chess, and how you can often find yourself planning many moves in advance during a single turn. It's also extremely common in chess to have to alter your plans based on your opponents moves.

I think the critical element I'm craving is a combat system that forces the player to significantly change their plan based on what the enemy does. Every turn in Into the Breach requires me to come up with a new plan based on enemy movements. In chess I have to formulate a new plan every time my opponent catches on to what I'm doing and makes an appropriate counter-move. In contrast, with JRPGs, I often know how to win every encounter the second I see what I'm up against.

Any other ideas on how we can make JRPG combat less repetitive?
 

Aesica

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My personal thoughts:
  • A system that keeps you engaged in decision-making rather than just inputting all the commands, then waiting for the stuff to happen. As in, I greatly prefer ATB or CTB over the standard turn-based system.
  • Enemies and skills designed so that you don't want to just spam attack, or spam your strongest nuke ability on everything you fight.
  • Shorter, but punchy and interesting animations combined with quicker character movement. I try to keep my skill animations at around 10-20 frames. Flashy and fun to watch (hopefully) but not something that takes forever to play out. (Hi Sephiroth's Supernova)
  • Not too short, though. Can I spam something and have the battle over in seconds? Okay great, why even have that battle then?
  • Complexity. Lots of elements, status ailments, buffs, debuffs, racial/enemy type modifiers, etc to manage and consider in a given encounter.
  • Cooldowns to manage. Not on every skill, but it's nice on a few to prevent spamminess.
  • "Exciting moments." Things like limit breaks, FF6-style desperation attacks, once-per-battle mega-skills usable after X turns, etc.
  • Decent enemy AI, attack patterns, etc. Does everything just "attack?" That's boring, don't do that. I try to give all of my enemies some sort of unique, themed basic attack as well as several special attacks to keep things interesting. You definitely want a few "kill that [bad word]ing thing first!" enemies to keep players alert.
Basically, if your battle system bores you when you're testing, it'll probably bore your players too. Unless of course you're bugfixing a particular fight and have fought it like 30+ times in an hour, of course!
 

TheoAllen

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No fun battle is going to last forever. At some point, you will find them boring after x hours of playing. Especially if it's a turn-based battle. However, that doesn't mean you can not prolong it.

I don't play many JRPG, not in the form of a turn-based battle anyway. Here are a few lists I could think of:
  • Chaotic moment. I like it when the "input" is randomized. By input, it means the enemy attack, the enemy composition. Not output, like when your skill randomly missed. For every turn, there is a chance for the enemy to screw up your plan, etc.
  • Aesthetic matters. This includes the sound effects and satisfying animations to look at. This has nothing to do with the actual battle mechanic, but it helps. For me at least.
  • More options. You have a range of options to choose from. Let it be skill tree, equipment, and party members.
  • An option is an option. You can not bring all the options you have. You're only able to choose a certain option to bring it with you. For example, before setting off to the dungeon, you have to choose the composition of the party member, prepare the equipment, equipping skill (you can not use all of the skill), etc.
  • No solution fits all puzzles. The strength of JRPG battles is their nature of being a puzzle-like battle system. But that doesn't mean it's a puzzle battle. You could use a combination ABC and it performs well in Boss 1, but not Boss 2. You could still pass it but it will be optimal is you use a different combination.
  • Power fantasy. Unless you really want to focus on the battle aspect of the game. Sometimes, you just need to let go. Your player has already been beating the encounter literally hundreds of times. It's time for them to relax. They have better gear, a higher level, and able one shot every enemy. Simply because they don't want to bother with them anymore. Also, the reason why they grind.
  • Discovery. Aside from power fantasy, there will be discovery. New enemies, new patterns, new tactics to go by. The old tactics may or may not work. This may excite your brain to think "what if I bring this and that to pass this dungeon".
  • Exciting moment. As Aesica mentioned. It can be many things like limit breaks, break bar (you're depleting the enemy's bar and it will get stunned), ultimate skill with a certain condition to activate, etc.
  • Strategic turn system. I personally like the free/instant turn instead of default or ATB/Time Progress since it allows you to formulate the attack sequence with the cost that you don't have agility stat. CTB could be the alternative as it contributes to the chaotic moment. I mean, your healer is behind the timeline and now you're controlling the DPS character but you desperately need healing. What to do? pops up items. That might screw up your plan.
  • Memorable encounter. You know that you will always hate a particular encounter and you have to kill it quickly.
EDIT:
I think the critical element I'm craving is a combat system that forces the player to significantly change their plan based on what the enemy does. Every turn in Into the Breach requires me to come up with a new plan based on enemy movements. In chess I have to formulate a new plan every time my opponent catches on to what I'm doing and makes an appropriate counter-move. In contrast, with JRPGs, I often know how to win every encounter the second I see what I'm up against.
To respond to this statement.

It is better to make them win rather than losing. Because losing is probably not fun except when you can make it fun. I would assume that this is directed to random battles. In that case, you might want to wonder why would you even need random battles in the first place. Do you want them to be challenging every time? Why not make a boss-only game?

Each battle is designed to win, however, the real challenge is usually managing through multiple battles. I personally like it when the battle is intense but no real danger. If you're being dumb several turns (ignoring states, ignoring enemy trigger, ignoring that you're about to KO, you only spam attack), you die. But if you know what to do, you would survive. And I find it fun that way despite I know I will win.
 
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Kes

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A word against QTE. It is not, as the OP suggests, automatically "more engaging" - many people do not have great reflexes. With QTEs the dev has effectively designed the game so that at best they play sub-optimally, at worst they fail. No one likes feeling that they've been set up to fail. If you still want to use QTEs, then fine, that is your decision, some people like them, but you need to make that decision in light of more than just "oh this is engaging because it's different from the usual."

Other than that, I more or less go along with everything that Aesica says, except maybe the limit breaks point. Ordinary battles never last long enough in my games to build up the limit break, unless it is being carried over from one fight to the next. But given how long it takes to fill up the meter, I think a lot of players won't use it, just in case the next battle is the one they really need it for.
 
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duty

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Let's flip this argument around. There are countless ways to make a good, turn-based combat system. However, there's one consistent, sure-fire way to make a bad combat system.

As you so eloquently stated:

My main gripe with most JRPG combat systems I've encountered is that they tend to become repetitive and boring after a while
(my emphasis added)

There's nothing inherently wrong with discovering the correct combination of party members, equipment, and actions that lead to the optimal end of an encounter. It's the excessive repetition of this pattern that diminishes its reward over time.

Adding mini-games and/or tactical movement to encounters helps, but they're just extending the time to mastery. These features still become "boring after a while" when the player can reliably complete the mini-game or discovers an optimal path of approach.

So the simple solution is not to repeat the same challenge too often. And as an add-on goal, give the player the option to decide when enough is enough.

Every player is different, and there's no telling how long someone will feel satisfied beating down blue slimes. The point is to give the player the opportunity to beat as many blue slimes as they want, and then move on.

Pokemon is a great example of really simple turn-based combat done right. There's no mini-game. There's no tactical movement. It's just a 1v1 battle with 4 ways to spend your turn (swap to a new pokemon, execute one of the four pokemon's abilities, use an item, or run away). You have control over what Pokemon are in the party, but each one follows a linear path of progression. So how does this hold your attention for an entire game, let alone be the game's core activity?

With few exceptions, the player is in control of when and what they want to fight at any given time. When the experience ceases to be rewarding, the player can move on to another tall grassy area, or choose to avoid eye contact with other trainers on the road.

When the player gets to a new area, they can count on seeing new content.

Dragon Quest XI does a fantastic job of illustrating the good and bad of traditional JRPG combat in the same game.

It has more tactical depth than Pokemon with a skill point buy system, equipment, and more combatants per encounter, but still boils down to taking specific actions in the right order.

There's a certain novelty to seeing a new type of mob on the screen and discovering if your party is tough enough to stomp it. It's the choice of when and what to fight that keeps it interesting.

When the game switches to the old random encounter mechanism, and you have no control over how many troops of multi-color slimes you have to fight, the combat is frustrating.
 

HumanNinjaToo

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I think a good jrpg is one that incorporates some type of battle mechanics that require the player to learn, similar to someone learning a skill. If the player is constantly learning new things about the game, and getting better at the game by doing so, I think the player will find the game more enjoyable.

The game mechanics don't have to be anything too fancy or gimmicky, it just needs to be something that the average gamer can pick up and learn while playing through the game. I think something like this is one of the features of a game that provides that satisfaction when conquering it.
 

Aesica

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A word against QTE. It is not, as the OP suggests, automatically "more engaging" - many people do not have great reflexes. With QTEs the dev has effectively designed the game so that at best they play sub-optimally, at worst they fail. No one likes feeling that they've been set up to fail. If you still want to use QTEs, then fine, that is your decision, some people like them, but you need to make that decision in light of more than just "oh this is engaging because it's different from the usual."
Just in case there was any room to interpret my previous post that way, I'm going to go ahead and clarify: I completely agree with you--I absolutely despise QTE mechanics and generally find them to be the worst possible way to keep the player actively engaged in the battle. When I'm playing a game with a good strategic battle system that makes me think, suddenly having that "in the zone" feeling interrupted by a stupid button combination to execute within a small timeframe, I find it super annoying.

Thinking back to my flash game days, one RPG series I always liked was Mardek, however I couldn't sit down and play it for long like I would with other games because just about every action (executing a hit and taking a hit) had some sort of time-the-button-just-right mechanic behind it. It was super annoying.

Now I'm not completely against button timing/combination mechanics in games. I enjoy the Street Fighter franchise quite a bit. I just don't really think shoveling it into a genre like RPG works all that well.

Dragon Quest XI does a fantastic job of illustrating the good and bad of traditional JRPG combat in the same game.
One thing about the DQ/DW battle design that I don't think gets enough credit is that they tend to mix in relatively tame monsters with really nasty monsters, and I find that always kept me on my toes rather than encouraging me to sleepwalk through a given area due to every monster being the same relative strength. That sense of potential danger lurking behind every corner would make it feel that much more satisfying to finally make it to the goal, be it the end of a dungeon, the town on the other end of the river, the next save point, or whatever.
 

Tamina

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A word against QTE. It is not, as the OP suggests, automatically "more engaging" - many people do not have great reflexes. With QTEs the dev has effectively designed the game so that at best they play sub-optimally, at worst they fail. No one likes feeling that they've been set up to fail.
This is quite a subjective opinion on QTE. If this "setup to fail" logic works then any game with game over mechanics are technically "setup to fail" since players have the possibility to fail and end the game. I don't see anything wrong with giving players challenge in a game.

Even if a game's target audiences are players with slower reaction speed, it's still possible to accommodate it. Such as making QTE only a "bonus"(you won't miss the attack entirely if you failed a few QTE), or extend the timeframe to input it.

Many turn based JRPG uses QTE or mechanics that forces player input, such as Lost Odyssey, Valkyrie Profile, Shadow hearts and those games were very successful. There are also many ARPG with even more player input requirement such as Tales series.

So player reaction speed isn't really an issue IMO. QTE is fine as a mechanic.
 
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Milennin

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Making sure there's never one way to approach a fight that's always by far the better one, meaning player skillsets are the single most important thing that are going to make or break a combat system, in my opinion. Also a healthy degree of randomised elements can help a lot, just set it up in such a way it won't be able to mess up the player.
 

Ghost314

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I didn't realize QTE was so controversial :guffaw:. When I said it was more engaging all I really meant was that it has the player take a more active role in the characters executing their moves as opposed to simply watching things unfold. Weather that adds to the fun or not will ultimately depend upon the execution. I also feel compelled to point out that the standard 'press these buttons fast' QTE is not the only way to accomplish this. In Final Fantasy X for instance, when using Wakka's overdrive ability you had to play a game of slots. The general concept that I see here is to use some kind of mini-game to let the player affect the combat as it's unfolding.

EDIT:
To respond to this statement.

It is better to make them win rather than losing. Because losing is probably not fun except when you can make it fun. I would assume that this is directed to random battles. In that case, you might want to wonder why would you even need random battles in the first place. Do you want them to be challenging every time? Why not make a boss-only game?

Each battle is designed to win, however, the real challenge is usually managing through multiple battles. I personally like it when the battle is intense but no real danger. If you're being dumb several turns (ignoring states, ignoring enemy trigger, ignoring that you're about to KO, you only spam attack), you die. But if you know what to do, you would survive. And I find it fun that way despite I know I will win.
I don't think making the player change their plan on the fly necessarily requires the game to be hard. Personally I found Into the Breach to be a little too easy for my liking, but I love how it forced me to think and plan on every turn. Even a game of chess can be easy if your opponent is lacking in skill.

One interesting example of a JRPG combat system that forces dynamic planning might be the card-based combat system. It's a bit of an oddity in the RPG genre, but a few games have tried it. In these games you end up forming plans based on the cards you draw, which allows battles with the same enemies to flow differently.

There's nothing inherently wrong with discovering the correct combination of party members, equipment, and actions that lead to the optimal end of an encounter. It's the excessive repetition of this pattern that diminishes its reward over time.

Adding mini-games and/or tactical movement to encounters helps, but they're just extending the time to mastery. These features still become "boring after a while" when the player can reliably complete the mini-game or discovers an optimal path of approach.

So the simple solution is not to repeat the same challenge too often. And as an add-on goal, give the player the option to decide when enough is enough.
I think duty is on to something here as well, a lot of games will include a purchasable item or equipment that allows you to increase or decrease the rate of random encounters. This makes it easier for players to grind, or to skip easy fights depending on what they want to do.

I just want to say I like a lot of the suggestions in this thread, and suspect I will end up taking bits and pieces of advice from multiple people :LZScool:
 

KakonComp

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All I want from combat is lots of customization and enemies that aren't HP Sponges. Whether or not you actually need to use said customization in order to succeed is important too, but the fact that it's there is most important.

HP Sponges are in response to my dislike of long drawn out battles where battle length correlates with how much damage an enemy can tank from you. I don't mind long battles by themselves, but that time should be spent choosing all the things you can do to the enemy, not the time it takes to mash attack to turn any enemy into paste.

QTEs are fine, just don't do what Shadow Hearts did and track just how perfect you were at the system in place. Anything less than perfect caused me to restart, because I'm weird like that >.> It's not like anyone but me would actually see that I don't have the highest score.
 

FoxIt

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What makes a good JRPG combat system is very difficult to define for obvious reasons.
Overall though, I define JRPG combat as having 4 factors:
- Variety
- Difficulty
- Fairness
- Fluidity
Fluidity is how fluid the combat is, how fast does it feel and how long can it keep the player's attenton on average in combat without getting bored.
The king of fluidity is, of course, Persona 5. It may suck in basicallty every other area I'm going to mention, but in terms of fluidity it is unmatched. This is the only game I know which hasn't made me want to have an animation speed-up or animation skip option despite some of these being pretty long overall and has transitions, but the thing pops so well and is so smooth it can get away with it.
Variety is about making the things you fight feel different to fight. You don't want to fight everything in the same way. One of the ways to scurt around this issue is to add customisation of some kind, though that's not the only way. Other games such as the Trails in the Sky games tend to favor a solution to the problem where instead the game is largely about min-maxing your setup so as to get the most out of it when fighting certain enemies. Games like SMT are more about adapting to your surroundings rather than trying to optimize solutions to every problem in much the same vein (well, at least until you hit lategame where every demon can do way too much stuff at once)
Difficulty is how hard the game is as a whole. The harder, the more exciting the game and thrilling it can be.
Fairness is how fair the game is to the player. Fairness is the reason not everything has Fire Emblem Awakening Lunatic+ early game levels of difficulty. If you start adding excessive and repetitive feeling grinding to the game, the game will actually be more difficult by my definition of difficulty, however it will be less fair and/or enjoyable to the player.
Fairness and difficulty are linked at their core. Increasing difficulty will obviously reduce fairness and generally vice versa. The goal here is to gain as much of both of these as possible and in more or less the way you desire.
If you want to have a low difficulty game, optimising for fairnessis more optimal and vice versa.

This is at least how I look at JRPG combat in a very general sense anyways.

Things like QTEs fit into these criteria as well. QTEs are very wide in scope, but they tend to not affect variety at all due to their linear nature (most of the time, making a QTE that adds options to the player is something that could exist), increases difficulty, can reduce fairness (depends on skill w/ the system), and tends to reduce fluidity as it makes combat less snappy.

I don't like QTEs myself as I feel that they don't really add much of substance to the game. They generally add no options, and the extra difficulty/fairness factors to them tend to be comlpletely negated if a player is skilled enough.
They may add a fluidity factor to some players, though, then again, if you're great at it it can reduce fluidity as a whole :/
 

CraneSoft

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I'll start with the golden rule for any good combat system: Pace is king.

QTE is a subjective matter here - personally I use it myself but only because my game is single actor only and I need to allow the player to dodge certain dangerous attacks and score critical hits without relying on RNG too much. However, they are bad for almost ANY normal kind of turn-based battle system where you control a full party via selecting commands one by one, because it absolutely nukes the battle pacing to kingdom come (and you should know how freakingly sluggish the combat of Legend of Dragoon is), and more importantly, most battle systems do not need a QTE if what they do is simply "Do this so your attack actually lands or don't do half the damage" (FFX is notoriously bad for this, especially the slots thing). Games like Valkyrie Profile and Undertale can get away with it because the former has a very fast-paced combat with attacking directly via button inputs, and the latter is purely a 1v1 game in terms of battle mechanics (no matter how many enemies are actually there), otherwise absolutely do not include them unless you have a very good reason for QTE and you can keep battles fast and short even with them.

Nevertheless, what makes a JRPG good is actually not the combat system, but the characters and writing, so don't complicate your battle system for the sake of trying to be interesting, any JRPG player have seen pretty much any kind of combat system possible out there - even the most standard and default battle system can be good as long as it is fluid and fun to play, and good games keep players engaged via interesting encounters rather than the combat system itself. Eg. On paper, Undertale's battle system is just a hybrid between a turn-based RPG and a shoot'em up, but the enemies/bosses all had unique mechanics to them which is what makes them fun to play.
 

Wavelength

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A word against QTE. It is not, as the OP suggests, automatically "more engaging"...

Other than that, I more or less go along with everything that Aesica says, except maybe the limit breaks point.
Just in case there was any room to interpret my previous post that way, I'm going to go ahead and clarify: I completely agree with you--I absolutely despise QTE mechanics...
You are not the OP :p @Kes was referring to the opening post of the topic, and maybe the confusion came from "Other than that", which I think was just meant to say "On another note". :p

About QTE's, personally I'm a fan of the player-controlled variability and skill expression they allow, although I feel like they're best when they happen occasionally and in recognizable situations - when you perform a limit break, when you attempt to capture a monster, when you score a critical hit to score even more possible bonuses, when you attempt to escape, or after you win a battle are each good possible spots for some kind of player skill-based microgame. Not that you'd want it in all or even many of these situations in the same game.

===

The larger topic of "how to make JRPG combat good and interesting" is a really wide one, probably too wide to do more than scratch the surface of in a single post. Ultimately I feel like the most important factor is some sort of skill expression - whether that be strategic skill (picking out the perfect and non-obviously move for a situation, coming up with a brilliant build for a character), organizational skill (getting out maximum DPS in a sequence of skills with varying cooldowns, picking your skills quickly in a real-time ATB ), or more traditional "videogamey" skill (dodging attacks in an Action Battle System, succeeding in QTE's).

Beyond skill expression, a lot of the other things that have been mentioned in this thread are good advice. Here are a few things that haven't been mentioned yet, or have been mentioned but I think are particularly important:
  • Multiple Battle Resources - I usually recommend at least one, sometimes two, additional resources that characters get besides HP, MP, and Items. More resources gives you more design levers to work with in terms of changing up battle flow, and also allows for a wider array of outcomes to combat (maybe you won and preserved most of your HP, but had to spend most of another resource in order to pull that off).
  • Cooldowns - Cooldowns are not always right for every system, but if some of your skills seem spammable (keep using that skill without much thought to win), Cooldowns will force your player to try a variety of different skills in different orders, which keeps things from getting stale.
  • Good Skill Design - Skill Design itself is a wider topic than I could ever fully cover in a single post, but as a designer you should be able to express the "purpose" of each skill and in what situations the skill might be very useful. Any skill which doesn't have a purpose, and any skill whose purpose is achieved better by another skill that the same character learns. If a character (in a party of 3 or more) can basically cover any situation with the sum of their skills, you should consider sharpening their identity so that they have more defined strengths and weaknesses.
  • Lots of Interesting States- States are often a great lever for forcing your player to think about a combat or an individual turn in a whole new light. Create unique states for certain enemies or families of enemies, and make sure you have a good way to explain to the player what those states do. Create some unique positive states for your Actors' skills, too, that they can give to themselves or their allies. Negative states should be moderate enough in their effect that it distorts what the ideal course of play is, but doesn't completely prevent the player from "playing". The worst negative states to make are the ones that take control away from the player completely.
    • Quick example: How about a state that deals damage to the caster whenever they use a skill/spell for a few turns? The player can choose to have that actor keep casting spells and devote the healer to keeping them healthy, he can choose to have that actor stop using spells and use regular attacks or items instead, he can do some combination by having the actor cast one or two spells then Guard while low on HP, or he can spend a turn (and maybe an item) to cure the state.
  • Variety of Setups - Battle is best when it offers tons of different situations, and that should start with the first second of combat. Play around with tons of different troop formations, or even populate the troops dynamically so no encounter is exactly the same. In an Action Battle System (or Tactical Battle System), start the battlers off in different spots. Consider having randomized bonuses that effect the battlefield in some encounters and not in others.
  • Character Customization - All things being equal, trying out a new setup or tactic that you came up with is much more fun than playing the way that the game's tools force you to play. (Counterpoints to this are that highly customizable characters are harder to balance, and if characters can become anything, they can lose their "identity".)
  • Aesthetics and Feel - More important than you probably think. Skill animations should be cool and have a lot of "impact". GUI elements should be fun and tie into the game's theme if possible. Characters should be visible onscreen if feasible, and their sprites should show a lot of emotion and personality. Music and sound cues should be used to reinforce things that happen in battle and enhance the experience.
 

Aesica

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You are not the OP :p @Kes was referring to the opening post of the topic, and maybe the confusion came from "Other than that", which I think was just meant to say "On another note".
I actually figured as much. My post (perhaps a bit strongly worded) was really just my way of making sure I wasn't condoning QTE in any way whatsoever. ;)
 

jonthefox

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Agency, Strategy, Congruence, Functionality.

Agency: The player should feel that that they had the ability to affect the outcome of the battle. If I lost because I was saving up my 200 mp limit break special move when the boss's barrier spell was down, but then the 5% chance to evasion happened and my skill missed...I'm gonna feel cheated and like the result wasn't in my hands. Likewise, if I win because because I have a skill that has a 5% chance to stun the enemy permanently the rest of the battle, and I got lucky and hit it, that's not gonna feel like an earned victory--I just got lucky.

Strategy: I should have different options available to me, and there should be moments where I need to make a difficult choice about how to proceed - do I heal, do I revive, do I buff, do I try to blitz the boss down before the rest of my party is wiped? It shouldn't be straightforward, obvious, and mechanical - all options should have their pros and cons, and I should either have to calculate what is an interesting combat puzzle, or make a decision that is correct given my OTHER choices (if I've geared my party defensively, then maybe the correct play is to make the offensive choice in that moment...or vice versa). Turn-Based Combat is about strategy - you want a system that the player feels is strategically interesting and, therefore, fun.

Congruence: Things should make sense within the boundaries you've set up of the in-game world. If casting fireball costs 5 mp and does 50 damage, and costing meteor swarm costs 7 mp and does 3000 damage, that doesn't make sense - why would this spell be THAT much more powerful and only cost 2 more mp? It's not that your game needs to be realistic - rpg systems are always abstractions and *representations* of reality (or fantasy) - but the rules and logic ought to make sense internally, at least I think so - it's a turn-off for me otherwise.

Functionality - Everything that is happening in the battle should be clean, crisp, and clear to the player - who is attacking who, how much damage is being taken, how much hp you have left. What states people are afflicted with. The player should not have to strain for this information. Similarly, the battle system should not be so complicated that there are 50 different choices, each one with many contingent exceptions. You want to achieve depth and complexity as in chess - here are 12 pieces, this is how they can move - and now combinations develop though the interaction of your and your opponent's pieces.

-edit- of course, I answered the question of WHAT makes a good jrpg combat system - the more difficult question is HOW can we achieve this :) - this is where creativity and good design ideas/choices come into play, as well as knowing the tools and pushing the limits of your engine/system.
 

Wavelength

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Agency, Strategy, Congruence, Functionality.
Are you saying that the key to excellent combat is FASCism?! :eek:

I like your writeup a lot, especially "Agency" which we've discussed in other places but I don't think it's been brought up here as one of they keys to a great combat system - and you're absolutely right that it is.

I also really like the analogy to Chess. Creating a huge possibility space with a very mechanically simple set of rules, and very different (but relatively simple) abilities among your party members... these are dynamics you'll find in Chess, and they are great dynamics to try and achieve in RPG Combat as well. Some popular RPG mechanics that provide a lot of good gameplay do work against this to an extent - for example gaining raw power through level-ups as you beat lots of random encounters, and learning new and often more flashy skills over the course of the game. But I think a lot of great combat systems can still retain the "heart" of chess while delivering these things. (Chess is also particularly interesting in that you can only use one piece per turn, which makes Pace a very valuable asset and allows the player to opt into tactics like rushing once ahead.)

I'm not totally sold on Congruence, or I think I might be misinterpreting what you're saying. If you're dealing 50 damage with a Fireball for 5 MP, versus 3000 damage with a Meteor Strike for 7 MP, is the problem really that it feels unrealistic? Or is the real problem that it's an abomination of game balance and there's literally no reason to ever choose Fireball? Would you be OK with Meteor Strike costing 40 MP and dealing 300 damage, or does it ruin your sense of immersion to think that a character can literally call down a meteor to strike the planet (and that the meteor striking the planet doesn't wipe out all of the enemies, all of the characters, the nearby town, the local ecosystem, and a third of the continent)?
 

jonthefox

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@Wavelength the secret's out!!

Yes, it's interesting to think about how this idea plays out in turn-based jrpg combat. It's usually about resource management. If the heroes can not simply grind goblins until they're level 99 and can brute force anything, then what's the alternative? Well, heroes are able to triumph over powerful monsters because they're capable of "feats" (which are basically just skills and spells) - ok, but then if they can jut do those feats, what's the challenge? Well, they're limited in the number of feats they can learn, and how often they can perform them. Thus the rpg combat system is born - can you use your "feats" appropriately while navigating the different combat encounters thrown at you, without succumbing to death (running out of HP) or having no more feats at your disposal (running out of MP). I don't think this is the only way to make it work - but probably the most common and intuitive. Your thoughts?

Ok, so in the fireball vs. meteor example, I think that a problem of game balance is indeed present as well, but for me, even if the balance issue was solved (maybe casting meteor swarm brought you to 1 hp or something), I would still not like it. Because indeed, for me, there's a congruence problem. Yep, I would be ok with it costing 8x the mp and doing 8x the damage. I wouldn't think of it as a giant meteor hitting the planet and killing the nearby town; I'm able to suspend my disbelief and just think of it as a few flaming boulders falling from the sky near the target - and I can assume my allies are not standing right next to them the same way I can assume they're not when I hurl a fireball at the target - that part, I'm totally fine with.

A good example of the congruence problem for me is when, let's say, the whole game the hero is a physical attacker who starts out doing 25 dmg to goblins, as he gets stronger he's doing 50 dmg to trolls, and by the end game he's doing 100 or close to 200 dmg to the most fearsome of enemies. And then, right before the final dungeon or boss, he learns his new final technique, which does 9999 damage. Even though this MIGHT (and probably does) have a problem in terms of game balance, - if it didn't have a balance problem, I'd still hate it - because I'd be thinking, how the heck can I suddenly be doing that much damage? I have no problem with learning the technique, and it should be powerful - maybe do like 500 damage, maybe even 1000. Another example would be if you start out with a bronze sword and do a certain amount of damage, and then you get a steel sword and now do 3x the damage as you did before. A single, and relatively marginal weapon upgrade shouldn't triple your damage output - even if it was somehow 'balanced' - it ruins the immersion of the experience for me, and just feels arbitrary. I don't need hyper-realism or anything close to it, but anything that sticks out like a sore thumb, does bother me!
 

FirestormNeos

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Regarding QTEs, it's the principle of the matter that's the problem.

The RPGs, Strategy and Adventure genres are the last havens for people with bad reflexes that want to play video games and not feel like "casuals"; over the last several years, they've been gatekept out of the every other genre by the popularity of multiplayer shooters/MOBAs/fighters and singleplayer Soulsbornes.
 

Ghost314

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I also really like the analogy to Chess. Creating a huge possibility space with a very mechanically simple set of rules, and very different (but relatively simple) abilities among your party members... these are dynamics you'll find in Chess, and they are great dynamics to try and achieve in RPG Combat as well.
What fascinates me about chess, especially when comparing it to JRPG combat systems, is that the units involved in the combat, their abilities, and their starting positions are forever unchanging. There is absolutely no variety in the initial setup or in the types of enemies you're facing. Making a JRPG where your character's and the enemies you fight, and your available abilities are the same for every single battle sounds like a recipe for disaster.

This makes me extremely curious as to how chess has managed to make that formula work. It seems to fly in the face of the commonly held belief that we need lots of variety in enemies/skills etc... to keep combat feeling fresh. I'm convinced that if I can crack that secret then I can make a great combat system.

My current theories on how chess manages to avoid getting boring despite it's unchanging nature are:
  • Every move made by both you, and your opponent, has a direct impact on the set of viable moves available to both players for the remainder of the match
  • There are often multiple viable moves available to you in any given position, which move is 'best' is often highly debatable
I think those two factors combined are what allows every chess match to play out differently, even when everything starts off the same. The first is the core of chess' strategy, and the second prevents you from fully computing the entire probability space.

I'm currently mulling the idea of a combat system where player and enemy strengths and weaknesses change dynamically based on the moves made by both parties.
 

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