Attack patterns and why you should learn to love them

"So, you finally made it," the final boss intones menacingly from atop his fortress of bone and souls. "I've been waiting for you!"

The heroes, of course, are not intimidated. They stand firm, the resolute determination given to them by the hopes of their people and their newfound friendship allows them to fight without fear. They swear an oath to defeat the villain and return the world back to its true form. The villain chuckles, drawing his sword, which is far too large to be wielded with one hand. He does anyway, because he's just that badass.

The screen flashes, and we're in combat. The music swells menacingly. The villain reveals his true, terrifying final form. The final battle has begun.

The villain opens with his “MegaDeath Hyper Laser Cannon” attack! That really hurt! Our whole party took some serious damage from that. Our healer is gonna have to spend some time next round patching us up, or this is going to get ugly.

Round 2, the villain uses “MegaDeath Hyper Laser Cannon” again! Ugh! My healer didn't even get her heal off yet! Now she's dead, and we'll have to use an item to pick her up. Next round I guess everyone will need to spend some time using some potions…

Round 3, he does it again! What the hell!? Does this guy even have any other moves?! The Game Over screen consumes your monitor, mocking you with your inadequacy. Now we'll never save the hero's true love!

You are frustrated. You feel cheated. There was never much of anything you could have done to prevent that! You were at the mercy of the RNG, and the villain rolled boxcars.

But what really happened is that the designer didn't think to include any sort of attack pattern for his enemies.

This article will explain why he should have, and why you should too.

War of Attrition

Think back to some of your favorite RPGs of old. If you're my age, games like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger probably come to mind. Gamers older than me might prefer FFIV or perhaps Dragon Warrior. And if you're younger, maybe it's Final Fantasy X or XII or hell, I don't even know what you kids play these days. I'm old, get off my lawn.

The point is that if you think of some of your favorite battles from those games, there was probably something recognizable, predictable, or calculated about how enemies, especially bosses, fought. He didn't just toss out whatever move he felt like at any given time! There was a pattern.


It was that pattern that informed you how to approach the boss, and how to fight him. If he had just used MegaNuke every round, that wouldn't be a very interesting fight at all! Chances are he only used MegaNuke once in a while. In fact, he might have even telegraphed when he was going to use it!

Using patterns like this helps your player out a lot more than just having a boss spam whatever move the RNG picks for him. It informs the player’s decisions, gives the player space to breathe between huge attacks, and lets him know what's coming next. Ever fight a Boss battle in an RM game where you were just frantically pounding the button hoping the boss died first before he pulled out some big attack to finish you? That's because the boss had no pattern, and there was nothing else the player could do but try to make the other guy die first. Such a fight might be tense, but probably not for the right reasons, and it probably isn't a mechanically interesting fight.

It might sound kind of intimidating to have to program a boss to use a certain sequence of moves in a certain way. How do you know what's an appropriate pattern? Well, you're in luck, because it's actually pretty easy. In general, there are really only three or four types of moves an enemy can have. Where the move would fall in a pattern depends on which of these types of abilities it is.

A boss's pattern, or an attack cycle is I will call it, will generally have one to two types of attacks in it.

Type I- Constant Damage, Attrition, or Wear-Down Attacks

The most common and basic type of damage. Attacks like this may include basic physical attacks, weak-to-moderate area attacks, or annoying status ailments such as poison. These attacks are not threatening on their own, but they provide a constant source of damage to the heroes that they must react to, and can soften the player's party up for the bigger, scarier attacks that are to come.

Variants might include party-wide damage over time attacks or reducing the party's defenses.

Type II- Spike or Burst Damage, Nukes, or Finishers

The second type of attack is the kind of attack that your player should learn to fear. A spike in the boss' damage output, or a “nuke” to you MMO players, this is the kind of move a boss uses when going in for the kill. A single-strike dealing severe damage to a character, a particularly devastating combo, or a seriously debilitating status effect such as paralyze, petrify, or confuse, might qualify as finishers.

Variants might include an attack that the enemy telegraphs in some way, or might even inform you who he is going to hit with it. You then may have a round or two to figure out how to mitigate the damage or to prepare to revive the hero who is on the receiving end.

Type III- Sweeps, Wipeout Attacks, or TPKs.

The last and most deadly type of attack, herald of the dreaded "Total Party Kill," a sweep or wipeout is the kind of attack that is meant to kill your whole party in one shot. This might take the form of a single, very powerful area attack, or perhaps one that inflicts multiple ailments to your whole party. Such attacks are often telegraphed well in advance, and usually come at the end of a boss's attack cycle, after various other attacks have worn the party down. Magus' Dark Matter, Zeromus' Big Bang and Bahamut's Mega Flare are all examples of sweeps.

Variants might include an attack which counts down from 5 or 10 before going off, giving the player plenty of warning that the attack is coming. The player than may have to spend that time preparing to weather the damage, or, perhaps more dramatically, must kill the boss before the attack goes off or face certain doom!

A boss might have other moves in his arsenal, such as healing or self-support abilities, but these three types of moves form the basis of nearly any boss's attack pattern. How a boss's pattern will go likely depends on when in the game he's encountered.

An early boss will probably only have a one or two minor attrition attacks followed by a finisher. This gives a beginner player plenty of time to adapt to the boss's pattern, and probably will never be in any real danger if he learns quickly. Bosses towards the middle of the game may stagger their pattern of wear-down and finisher attacks to keep a more powerful and advanced party on his toes. Particularly important bosses, major villains or legendary creatures, may follow a cycle of moderate wear-down attacks, increasingly powerful finishers, and may pull out a sweep attack after he reaches half-health or so. End-game and final bosses may forgo attrition attacks entirely and focus entirely on nukes and sweeps.

The threat level of bosses in a game doesn't have to rise linearly with how much INT they have or how much damage they can do. A clever or robust attack pattern can make a very powerful boss more manageable or a very weak boss into a much more serious threat. Your player will likely appreciate the variety in the types of bosses and the various ways they can threaten the player.

A marathon, not a sprint

There's no prize for who can kill a player the fastest, except maybe the prize of “dumbest game designer.” A boss who annihilates a player before he can do anything isn't fun or interesting! (Hi Marquis Elmdor.)

A properly-planned Boss should feel like a marathon. It should be epic, and take skill and endurance to succeed. If a Boss is a race, just to see who can kill each other first, it can lack the level of climactic finality that players enjoy. It can also mean for a Boss who can kill players too easily. A boss with an attack pattern will never catch a player off-guard. They'll always have a chance to prepare.

Let's compare two examples.

Let's say our Boss, Baron Nefarious, has four attacks. He has a basic melee claw attack which will do moderate damage to an appropriately leveled party, a weak area fire spell, a powerful attack called “Rending Tiger Claw” which deals very serious damage, and a powerful ice spell called “Nuclear Winter” which affects the whole party.

In the above example, there is no rhyme or reason to his attack cycle. He might cast “Nuclear Winter” every round! The player can't really prepare for this, except to be prepared to weather the worst of his attacks at any given moment. They never know, from one moment to the next, what he might do.

Now, in this example, I have adjusted the priority and conditions of his attacks to give him a clearly defined attack cycle. Both Rending Tiger Claw and Nuclear Winter have a priority of 10, which means those moves will always be used at the appropriate times. This means Baron Nefarious will alternate roughly evenly between his basic melee attack and Flame Wave on most rounds. On Round 6, and every sixth round thereafter, he will use Rending Tiger Claw. He will never use this powerful move randomly, there is always a six round cooldown.

When Nefarious reaches half-health, he will add Nuclear Winter to his arsenal, casting it every seventh round. He will only start to use this ability when half of his health has been depleted, meaning the stakes rise the more Nefarious is damaged, and it prevents the player from getting complacent in thinking they have the boss's entire pattern figured out.

Note that I didn't even mention Nefarious' stats in talking about his strategy. They aren't really important! His attack cycle is where the meat of the planning out how a boss works should be done. Stats can be adjusted during testing to make sure he is an appropriate challenge.

10x Combo Platter

Such patterns are useful, but when used too much they can become boring and predictable. That's why you should never stop shaking things up and surprising your players with new patterns, or interesting variants on old patterns. Here are a few examples.

The Swarm
A swarm is a powerful boss with a lot of minions. He leaves the busy work of attrition and wear-down damage to his minions, and can concentrate on his finishers. Wiping out the boss's minions will make the boss much less dangerous….but maybe he also has a way to revive his fallen minions if they all die.

The Two-Part Finisher

This is exactly what it sounds like; a finishing move broken-up into two attacks. Maybe it's just two strong attacks in a row against one character, or maybe the first attack somehow “sets up” the target, by lowering his defense or increasing his vulnerability to a certain element, making the next attack all the more devastating.

Royale with Cheese

One of the more infamously annoying types of attacks, which is why I call it a “cheese” attack, a Supernova or Grand Cross style attack, that just hits the whole party with every ailment imaginable and leaves them helpless. There isn't much defense against this style of attack, other than for the player to be psychic and know which ailments to make sure their characters are immune to. But an attack like this can leave a party very vulnerable to any number of follow up nuke or sweep attacks.

The Black Wind

An attack pattern stolen from Magus in Chrono Trigger, a boss like this will use a variety of moderate wear-down attacks, but once sufficiently damaged he will start exclusively using a big, flashy and powerful sweep attack every few rounds. This generally makes for a really powerful attack followed by a few “down” rounds where the boss doesn't do anything. Even if he is doing nothing but charge his next attack during the alternating rounds, it can do a lot to make a villain seem threatening and powerful, even if he is basically wasting rounds doing nothing in the mean time. This can make a boss seem much more dangerous than he is, too, if he has a really powerful attack, even if it is staggered in such a way that he can't use it frequently enough to really kill the party. It's also a cool way to show off if a villain has a stylish signature move.

There are lots of other combinations I haven't gone into here, and I'm sure you can all think of lots of them. Feel free to post any ideas for patterns below!


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Yeah the AI tools for RPG Maker are very limited. I was unpleasantly surprised that I could turn on abilities when he reaches a certain HP threshold, but couldn't turn OFF others!

You can address this with tiered weights; he starts off with a bunch of abilities weighted "1," when his HP gets to 50% you introduce a wave of 3s, and then when he gets to 20% you introduce a wave of 10s. There may be a better way but that's what I've resorted to.
My game's villain a fairly complex AI. Partly because I am trying something else that should also be more common - enemies that are not damage sponges*.

Turn 1: (priority of 1)
  • Cast Blink (+50% EVA to user for the next 5 turns)

Turn 2+5x: (priority of 4)
  • Divine Protection (take half-damage for 4 turns; 33%)
  • Divine Retribution (return all damage for 4 turns; 33%)
  • Madness Field (light damage & confuse (50%), AE; 33%)

Turn 3+5x: (priority of 4)
  • Silence Field (light damage & mute, AE; 33%)
  • Blindness Field (light damage & blind, AE; 33%)
  • Madness Field (33%)

Turn 4+5x: (priority of 4)
  • Holy (moderate damage, ST; 33%)
  • Scathe (heavy damage, ST; 33%)
  • Madness Field (33%)

Turn 5+5x: (priority of 4)
  • Silence Field (33%)
  • Blindness Field (33%)
  • Madness Field (33%)

Turn 6+5x: (priority of 4)
  • Dispulsion Wave (remove all buffs from opposing group; 33%)
  • Mercy Kill (instant death on all opposing fighters afflicted with blind, mute, or confuse; 33%)
  • Madness Field (33%)

If player's party has state Wall (+100% MEV) active on anyone (done through switches): (priority of 7)
  • Shatter (dispel buffs + moderate damage, ST; 33%)
  • Mana Burn (convert target's MP into HP damage, ignores MEV, ST; 33%)
  • Comet (heavy random damage, ignores MEV, ST; 33%)

If target's ATK, DEF, MAT, MDF, AGI, or LUK are buffed (done through dummy states and switches): (priority of 7)
  • Reverse Polarity (invert buff levels for entire opposing party; 100%)

If HP < 25% or MP < 15%: (priority of 10)
Use Elixir (fully restore HP and MP to user, can only be used 3 times; 100%)

It was something of a pain to figure out how to setup this attack pattern this in VX Ace. Please evaluate.

*To emphasize that he has human durability, I made a dummy character, complete with weapons and armor, and gave the corresponding enemy the stats, and equipment bonuses, he would have had as a player character at that point in the game.

Weapon 1: sword (more than that is unimportant)
Weapon 2: staff (more than that is unimportant)
Body: Elemental Cloak (all elemental damage is halved for wearer)
Head: Blessed Circlet (wearer is healed by holy element (Yanfly scripting was involved))
Accessory: Ribbon (wearer has blanket-immunity to negative status effects)
Baron Nefarious can be dealt with just by healing every round. Tank & Spank is appropriate for raid dungeons where even giving simple instructions to your teammates is a daunting challenge, but this shouldn't be the norm for singleplayer RPGs.
I was raised on snes rpg's and basically strats are usually centered around have a character who has an effective group heal skill. It's a boring strat sure but its obviously the most effective. Though having played some games on RMN here, you dont always get a good group healer so you have to come up with different strats.
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