Tired of lame old random encounters but not sure what to do about it? Read this article for ideas maybe.

Four Alternatives to Random Encounters
an RPG design article by that guy Brickroad

<BlindMind> That premise of "not making random encounters" seems too obvious to make an entire article out of.

<Brickroad> That's why I'm a master article-writer guy, and you're not.
<BlindMind> True.
<BlindMind> =P
<Brickroad> The most obvious things in RPG design are so obvious that most people don't give them any thought.
<Brickroad> The goal of all my articles is to make the reader THINK about those very things.

A Brief History of Random Encounters

Way back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and FF1 and DQ1 roamed the NES, all encounters in RPGs were random encounters. This means that the player would be walking around one of the game areas, and suddenly the screen would shift to "battle mode". There wasn't much the player could do to avoid this. Back then there were no puzzles or minigames to speak of... all the gameplay in an RPG was in the combat scenes, which were designed to emulate tabletop gaming by basing the whole shebang on each participant taking turns and resolving everything with imaginary dice rolls.

Random encounters are so named because they occur randomly (well, pseudo-randomly) and without warning. There isn't much the player can do about it. If he doesn't want to fight, he has to pick the RUN command and hope for the best. The only thing certain about random encounters is they are inevitable, and lots of them. Random encounters are far and away the most popular type of encounters in RPGs today.

But are they still the best choice?

RPGs are much more sophisticated nowadays. Dungeons have puzzles, hidden secrets to find, minigames, and other such nonsense to challenge and entertain the player beyond fighting monsters. Most games emphasize character advancement in ways outside of the traditional "kill monsters and gain EXP" method. Many RPGs have shifted the emphasis off of gameplay and onto the story, which is now largely considered the most important aspect of the genre.

There are lots of reasons to not use random encounters. First and foremost, they break the flow of the dungeon. This wasn't traditionally a problem back during the RPG genre's infancy since, again, there wasn't anything to do in dungeon except fight the monsters and hunt for the boss. But now players are expected to flip switches, hunt down keys, raise and lower water levels, and push statues into place. It can be very disorienting to try and solve a major dungeon puzzle when your train of thought is interrupted every couple minutes by creature attacks.

This article looks at a few alternatives to the typical random encounter method.

The On-Touch Encounter

The most obvious way to get around using random encounters is to just do away with them entirely. On-touch encounters are ones which the player triggers by touching an enemy's sprite that is right there on the map.

Many RPGs have used this style of encounter over the years, including EarthBound, Lufia 2 (a personal favorite), and the entire Mario RPG series. On-touch encounters allow the player to avoid battles he doesn't want to fight. Oftentimes the system includes ways to further help avoid combat: in Lufia 2 the player had a whole array of gadgets (bow and arrow, hookshot, hammer, etc.) that could stun monsters on the map. In EarthBound, triggering combat by touching the back of an enemy sprite would guarantee a first strike in combat. In Paper Mario, jumping on a monster on the map gives Mario a free hit once the combat scene loads.

Pros: You can include encounters amidst dungeon puzzles without distracting the player by limiting the number of monsters running around. The player can avoid monsters he doesn't want to fight. An element is added to dungeon exploration above and beyond "fight monsters" and "solve puzzles".

Cons: If it's too easy to avoid combat, the player might find himself perpetually underleveled. Placing more moving events on the map means more care must be taking in map design so as not to interfere with events already in play. Since monsters are directly integrated into dungeon maps instead of abstracted out, running away from combat may pose problems requiring interesting solutions.

The Event Encounter

This style of encounter is similar to the on-touch method, but combat is triggered by events on the map in pre-determined spots instead of wandering creature events. Essentially, there are "trigger points" that shift the scene to combat based on what the player does or where he goes.

In Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest monsters existed as stationary sprites, often directly in the way of the player. Thus there were a finite number of battles in each dungeon that the player had to fight in order to finish the dungeon. You could run away, but the monster stayed put, so you had to face it eventually. Chrono Trigger is probably the best use of this style of encounter I know of. Monsters in dungeons were very animated, and you could trigger combat (usually) just by running into them. But there were many other ways to pick a fight too: just being at a certain spot on the map would do it in some places. Pressing the wrong switch, opening a certain treasure box, using this doorway instead of that one, and in one dungeon making any sound at all (including the "ding!" sound from stepping on a save point).

Pros: Gives even more control over monster placement in dungeons than using on-touch encounters, since you can decide exactly what monsters are where and how you trigger combat with them. Unlike on-touch encounters (where the player always knows where the fights are) you can concot puzzle-like scenarios where certain courses of action will lead to encounters but others won't. Because you have greater control over what types and how many encounters are present, you can get away with stronger and more interesting enemies.

Cons: Could lead to "forced battle" situations where, if there are five battles in a dungeon, the player absolutely must fight all five to finish. A great deal of thought must be put into how each encounter is handled. The running away problem present in on-touch encounters is possibly even more pronounced here.

The Population Control Method

Of course, the meticulous care and planning that goes into creating on-touch or event encounters isn't everyone's cup of tea. Sometimes regular ol' random encounters are still the way to go, although there are still a few ways you can make them a bit less overbearing if you plan on creating dungeon areas with lots of backtracking.

One such method involves reducing the amount of encounters the more the player fights in an area. This is the population control method. One way to do this is to decrease the encounter rate slightly every time the player successfully finishes a fight. Another way is to have a set number of encounters in a given area and, once the player has fought that many battles, he won't find anymore. In either case, the player gets a sense of "clearing" an area of monsters which become less and less of a nuisance the more he explored.

In Breath of Fire 2 the player had, on his menu screen, a little dancing gremlin. The faster the gremlin danced, the more frequent encounters were in the area. In some (but not all) dungeons he'd slow down as you fought more and more battles. Eventually, in some places, he'd stop entirely and go to sleep, indicating you couldn't get into any more fights in that area. Many Final Fantasy games offer a variation of this method by giving the player items or skills that decrease or eliminate the encounter rate like FF6's Charm Bangle or Moogle Charm.

Pros: Puts a limiter on encounters without all the fuss of having to custom-make map events. Gives the player a sense of accomplishment as he systematically eradicates a dungeon's entire monster population.

Cons: A player who actively wants to fight (say, to powerlevel or look for a rare monster drop) might not appreciate the encounter rate slipping away from him.

The Avoidance Method

With the avoidance method the player is given the option to avoid combat entirely before he triggers it. Battle is preceeded by a sound effect, or a screen flash, or a change in the BGM, and the player has the opportunity to avoid the battle by pressing a certain button or taking some other action.

Shadow Madness was a less-than-stellar game, but it used this type of encounter to great effect. You'd hear a loud "ROAAAR" sound before combat and, if you pressed and held one of the shoulder buttons until the roar passed, there would be no fight. This made the long walks over the enormous, featureless overworld map bearable.

Pros: Players have a failsafe opt-out of any combat other than the Run command. Powerleveling players or players searching for a specific monster can grind by running circles, which isn't possible with the above methods. Control over when and how often a player can press the "hide" button gives you another way of handling game balance.

Cons: If players learn to avoid combat, they might find themsleves underleveled for other game content such as boss fights. Care must be taken to introduce it as a game mechanic and use it consistently, since it's not very intuitive and players may not even know the option is there.

That's that.

With these ideas stewing around, hopefully we can finally put the last much-deserved nail in the coffin of random encounters and thus add a new element of design and game balance to everyone's RPG Maker games. Huzzah!

<RPG-Advocate> A puzzle should always have encounters.  It forces the player to divide his attention.

<Brickroad> You're wrong, RPG-A. You're just flat out wrong.
<Brickroad> =)


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Not bad to see some suggestions here but you left out the encounter metre and such. Which is what I commonly use. Or there is the terrain tag option where battles occur when you touch a particular type of terrain.;)
Excellent! You touched upon many (however, certaintly not all, of the encounter systems for an RPG.

Ultimaodin: Those two systems actually fall under population control, and random encounter, respectively. If you only encounter battle when the encounter meter reaches the top, this is a form of population control.

Also, if you only encounter battle in heavily forested areas, for example, are you implying that every time you touch a forest tile you get into a battle? Or would I have to walk around forest tiles and wait for a battle to come to me?
Excellent article, really got me thinking about design.
Do you guys know the game pokemon gold?
In the rocket hideout, there were some tiles, which were traps, and when you walked on them, you had a forced battle, BUT it wasnt a soo bad thing, because it gave a lot of experience...
Call me crazy, i walked into the traps by purpose ;)

Another thing in the same pokemon game, when the camers spotted you, you had another forced battle...

So on-touch battles can be cool...But they should be rare.
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