The submission period for the contest is now over, but the discussion has just begun!

Forum thread here.

The results are in:

Gold - Azalathemad
Silver - Aegix_Drakan
Bronze - NeverSilent

Congratulations to them and to everyone who took part in the contest!

This is a Community episode a contest and an experiment in game design prompted by Sviel's suggestion among the many thought-provoking comments to that article. If you don't take part in the contest for fun, fame and prizes, do it for SCIENCE.

The individual goal of the contest is to design a RPG battle system and showcase it in one or a few battles, while avoiding the usual clutter of mechanisms that is a staple of the genre, with the help of some guidelines given below.

The collective goal is to search together for the essential principles of the RPG battle - the skeleton of decisions that gives them their flavor and depth.

This is more challenging than a normal contest because it rewards creative and analytical thinking rather than just good craftsmanship. On the other hand, I believe the results could greatly improve the future games produced by the community - both in terms of unexplored strategic potential, and of streamlining battle design to make game-wide balancing (which is one of the worst problems in RPGs) considerably easier.

The three elements listed below are the fundamental aspects of RPG battling. (Explanatory figures and details hidden in spoiler tags.)

They are often obscured by overly complex systems and tons of genre conventions. The purpose of this contest to see what happens when you lay them bare. I am convinced that tons of strategic possibilities have been overlooked so far, simply because they were hard to perceive under the layers of fluff.

1) All RPG systems have a common ground: damage per turn, with the goal of killing before you are killed.

Of course, in this mock-up battle with only Attacks, 1) the hero dies first, and 2) the player is bored to tears. So we must add skills and stuff. (Randomness creates variation that you have no control over, so I won't mention it here).

2) All skills/spells/buffs/items are ways of dealing or receiving that damage faster or slower, more continuously or in bursts. They control the way that damage is concentrated or diluted over time, like pushing and pulling on a rubber band. (The basic, fully stretched state is "spamming attack" as above: not exciting but it gets you there eventually).

- the picture above suggests that countless possibilities have never been used (there are many other ways to position and combine these arrows). The most frequent improvement is agility buffs or gaining/losing turns, i.e. ways to do more complicated actions by employing multiple skills at once. But there are lots of other ways to expand on it (see Tips & Inspirations below for ideas).

- usually, healing simply erases some of the enemy's actions in an irrecoverable way. You attack n times, I heal, you attack again, I heal => no net effect, boring. Hence the huge asymmetry in RPG battles: heroes can always heal, most enemies cannot, because there's nothing more infuriating than seeing the enemy heal and erase all your efforts.
It would be more interesting to rethink healing so that the effect of an action was never canceled, but for instance delayed, or spread over X turns, or converted into something else - still there in some form, ready to be reused by future skills.

3) MP, Limit Breaks, status conditions, multiple characters and classes are ways of allowing the player variable access to the skills over time. That's because strategy is not about the winning move, it's about progressively setting up the conditions which allow that move.

Problem: in RPGs you generally have extremely basic (un)locking conditions within the battle:
- "if I have a lot of MP, I can use all my powerful spells"
- "if this character dies/sleeps/is berserk, I lose access to their skills"
- (occasionally) "if I use a weak skill I will be able to use a stronger one next"

I think this is the aspect of RPGs that leaves the largest room for improvement by far. For a battle to have more strategy, every action you take should allow new moves and block other ones, potentially for the rest of the fight. What you can do at any given moment should be the logical product of your past actions and your enemy's, if possible in more evolved ways that a binary question like "out of mana?" or "silenced?".

This all boils down to a simple idea: if you want to encapsulate the feeling of combat, what you need is
- balance of power, represented by any gauge or number (and its evolution in time),
- seizing opportunities, represented by the diversity of available options and how you get or lose access to them.
Everything else is decorative, and there is much more freedom in how you could translate this into a system than what has ever been explored in any game so far.

- Rules with "must" are requirements.

- Rules with "should" can be transgressed at your own risk, if you think your interpretation is more clever than the original rule (feel free to contact me to talk about it).

1) Game:

- The game can be made using any software, but it must contain everything it requires to run on its own.

- You can reuse the Default Battle System in clever ways, use scripts, or make a custom system of any degree of sophistication. You won't be judged on the prettiness of the implementation, only on the strategic depth of the principles beneath.

- The entry can be a single or multiple battles long (but we will judge at most 4 or 5 battles, not 40). It should not contain any cutscene or exploration phase, unless they are entirely skippable.
=> You can make an entire game out of your system, just give the judges a way to play only the 1 to 5 battles you want to showcase.

- There can be as many or as few characters & enemies as you wish. The rules suggested here should make a 1-character 1-enemy duel as complex as a full-scale battle.

2) Skill design:

- The only gauge must be HP. You can work around this rule and make MP/AP/Limit Break equivalents using the rules below, but tons of extra points will be given to contestants who instead try to do something really new.

- There must be no randomness in the effect of an attack or skill. This contest is just an experiment in RPG tactics, so the player should be able to make elaborate plans without computing conditional probabilities in their head.

- Skills should be designed to reflect principle 2) in the Rationale section above as clearly as possible
i.e. skills are ways to change the repartition of damage over time. The effect of any skill in those terms should be very clear, to let players compare skills and conceive strategies more easily. For instance, instead of directly dealing damage, skills could change the number of times a character attacks in a turn (it's easier to compare "1 attack" with "3 attacks" than to have to chose between spells that inflict 70HP on one enemy or 10HP/turn for 4 turns on 2 enemies).

- For more points, every skill should bring something new to the table. No skill should be "the same but stronger". Each skill should provide a different way of manipulating the repartition of damage over time, that cannot be produced by using other skills.

3) Skill unlocking:

- There must be rules to determine when you can or cannot use a given skill. We are trying here not to default to a simple gauge like MP: expending mana/drinking ethers is a very binary way of implementing actions that (un)lock other actions. Ideally, every action could have:
* multiple effects in unlocking other actions (e.g. a feint opens up various attacks)
* multiple conditions for its own unlocking (e.g. an attack requires the right posture, the right distance, and the right weakness in the enemy's defense)
* multiple ways to fulfill these conditions

- As much as possible, the rules for locking/unlocking should not be special cases (e.g. Fire Sword unlocks Mega-Smash), but more general logical principles. Even better if they apply similarly to the enemies' skills!

- As much as possible, locking/unlocking should be long lasting, i.e. not only dependent on the current state of the characters, but also on past actions both by them and by their enemies.

Counter-example to these 3 points: Being "out of mana" is a locking effect that
- depends only on your current state (no matter how you reached it or what the enemy has been doing)
- affects all skills at the same time
- has no real trade-off: more mana always equals more good
- and can be canceled with a single action (drinking an Ether).
By contrast, in a typical strategy game, every time you move a piece, you are closing off some possibilities and opening new ones by combination with the positions of all other pieces, so every move along the way can play some role in your victory.

- You are free to invent the detail of these locking rules, but more points will be given if they are simple and intuitive.
Example: in board games, it's simple geometry that creates these rules (a piece/unit contributes to your tactics by blocking a line of sight, or flanking an enemy...). Here you could use some sort of spatial logic as well, or all sorts of different principles (see Tips & Inspirations below for examples).

- If you have multiple battles, there can be permanent effects transferred from one battle to the next.
i.e. "items" are skills following all the rules above, except their locking/unlocking effects are not limited to one battle (e.g. a consumable item simply locks itself permanently once used, but there could be more elaborate patterns).

General tips and suggestions:

- Anyone who has trouble with the rules can ask questions in a comment or PM. I can help with things such as checking that skills are not reducible to one another, if you want to do it the mathy way.

- "one goal=one action" is the antithesis of strategy. Every action should serve multiple goals and every goal require multiple actions. Real creativity appears when you start finding ways to control the breadth of actions at your and your enemy's disposal, trapping them into predictable moves while extending your own possibilities.

- you can draw some inspiration from CCGs like Magic the Gathering. They are in fact very close to the concepts exposed here for RPG battles: the "skill unlocking" revolves partly around drawing the cards from your deck, with special effects such as reshuffling the deck or drawing more often. Notice that most CCGs contain effects that allow to bring back cards that have already been used/discarded, which is a way of making even past actions relevant to your current tactical options.

- It could be great to have a visual aid for damage repartition/displacement over turns (perhaps a graph of damage over time, in the spirit of what I did in the Rationale section) or some other way to make the effect of any skill perfectly clear and analyzable by the player.

- A suggestion: skills could displace either the same quantity of damage (e.g. 1HP if you're going the small-numbers route), or all the damage dealt in the target turn(s) (including contributions from other skills). This will make elaborate tactics much easier to figure than having a lot of different quantities or percentages. The less math the player needs to do, the more they can make clever plans.

- How much damage is moved around by a skill should not depend on some intrinsic property of the character or the enemy (e.g. elemental weakness). We want strategies to be effective because of what the enemies have done, not because of what they are (i.e. strategy rather than a puzzle that can be solved once and for all). What will differentiate them is their inventory of skills and how they use them.

- You are allowed to "disguise" to some extent the mechanical aspects detailed above to make the game more appealing or closer in appearance to traditional RPGs, as long as damage-moving and locking rules are clearly stated in-game or in a design document included with the game.

Don't go too fancy though: the goal is to expose the skeleton of RPG battles, not bury it under fluff.

Some random starting ideas:

* Why not boil it down to a single HP bar and have each group try to push it in a different direction? (somewhat like Last Word)

* What if a single attack could kill, and the whole battle is a game of counters and feints to try to get that attack in before the enemy does? (Bushido Blade style)

* What if the "rubber band" of damage is elastic, and tends to come back to its natural state over time (so that both bursts of damage and healing progressively come undone)

* Why not use many more status conditions than usual, each one affecting some fraction of the skills (like Silence prevents Magic, but less generic), or even interacting with each other.

* For instance, why not call status conditions "stances" and use concepts from martial arts or fencing to create the skill unlocking logic? (depending on your distance, your weapon, your stance and the enemy's, you can use ground fighting, feints, throws, locks and so on)

* What if there were more categories than just allies and enemies with which to interact through the skills? (for instance neutral resources in the environment)

* For a simple extension of the DBS, you could have a number of different characters with a system for switching them in battle, then group skills that should be locked or unlocked together by giving them to the same character (or make them combos requiring multiple characters), then add conditions to access/summon that character.

* A limited component of TRPG-like motion is not forbidden (think The Reconstruction), although I'd like to see contestants tread newer ground as well.

* For multiple battles, how about having enemies who have the same brute force as you, but are programmed to have an increasingly broad range of tactical possibilities? Every encounter would actually serve the overall gameplay by teaching you how to deal with them in more and more elaborate settings, instead of being its own beast that loses all purpose once mastered.

Recommendations given in the comments section:
An episode of Retronauts literally just came out that discusses RPG battle systems.

Anyone who wants to help me judge can let me know here or by PM, I will require their help depending on how many submissions we get. I will ask the judges to read this conversation if they haven't already, so as to have an idea of what we are looking for here.

Tentative criteria for judging:

Originality (20pts): How much does the system contribute to pushing the boundaries of the genre?

Example: Can you find ways to expand on the JRPG system that are not just adding one more gauge, or one more way to get a stat bonus?

Elegance (25pts): Is the system using as few ingredients as possible to achieve its goals in a precise way?

Example: Is each skill truly different from the others? Have you found a simpler way to achieve what usually requires 3 gauges, 10 stats and 100 different items?

Clarity (20pts): How well can the player understand the system, its strategic stakes, and the reason their actions succeed or fail?

Example: Are the effects of each action clearly labeled? Does the system avoid having the player do mental calculus to evaluate the result of their actions? Is the skill unlocking logic consistent and predictable?

Depth (25pts): How much does the system allow and reward elaborate plans, creativity and tactical intuition?

Example: Can we predict how our actions will guide the enemies' reactions, allowing us to manipulate them? Is the game more than pure HP/MP/Item attrition?

Bonus (10pts): Anything a judge finds especially worthy of praise.

I don't expect that making the game will take more than a couple of days at most; however for the sake of all people with a busy schedule, the contest will run from July 27 to August 27 23:59 EST. (however I won't mind if people get the time zone wrong)

The top 3 contestants will get to choose one of the following prizes:

(x1) Any game under 20 USD on Steam or the Humble store, because I might as well make it rain, FOR SCIENCE.

(x3) A (reasonable) drawing by yours truly. Preferably characters (fanart or original, any style), possibly simple environment shots or short multipanel gag in sketchy style. You can do whatever you want with it, use it as title screen or make a tattoo or sell it on eBay.

(x1) A cameo in my future game (hey, that works for Kickstarters. NB: I'm not really expecting anyone to pick this, but I'll give details if a winner is actually interested.)




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Can't hardly Science
Im not crazy... My mother had me tested!


I think it's time to start, got some ideas ready to implement.

Also tempted by a Card RPG game like Baten Kaitos but then it's not overly original unless I can think up some twists.
Ohmm I think I'll be exceeding that 5-fight limit... Can there be multiple submissiones or maybe 7 fight cap? There are so many ideas and stuff to do... or am I just overcomplicating things?

Anyway, stage 1 complete! Two more to go :)
Treason> You can have more but we won't judge more ;) Give the judges a way to access only the 5 fights you want to showcase most and you're free to do whatever you want with the rest of the game.

Shinan> That's an usual way of using hidden information, doesn't mean you cannot find other applications! For instance it can also be a way of playing the environment, rewarding some sort of exploration.

As for the idea of drawing the random numbers in advance, seeing at least a few of them into the future would help planning although it doesn't prevent failing due to a very bad streak. Having limited foresight plus draw-without-replacement (i.e. if you get a 1, it won't be drawn again until all the other numbers are drawn) improves it even more because then you know that if you endure bad luck at some point, you will be rewarded by success later.

But I really wonder whether, at this point, it wouldn't make more sense to implement rules dictating the success or failure of a given action deterministically. Like, say, having weather conditions which are non-random (and thus foreseeable) but not simple either, and determine which sorts of magic are available or whether ranged attacks will fail or whatever.

Not saying it's a good idea, but it seems to me that it would basically converge to the same effect as the random system above, i.e. variation that you have no direct control upon and that you must deal with as a risk.

YM> I understand. A shame though! You should renounce your principles for the collective good. Like, to press the comparison, if I had Lys86 in front of me I would chain him to a computer because sometimes individual liberties must be sacrificed for the sake of humankind. All's fair in gam and mak.
I have my idea planned out, but I'm not quite sure if it's what is meant by the rules, so here goes:

I'm trying to capture the feel of a mixed martial arts tournament. All battles are one-on-one, with Stamina acting as both HP and MP.
However, what skills you can use are based on two things: 1. which "class" you pick at the beginning, and 2. your current state. For instance, if the opponent has pinned your legs, you obviously can't use any leg, knee, or foot related skills. If your opponent is far away, you can't use close-quarters based attacks, and so forth. Basically an extension of the bindings ailments in Etrian Odyssey.

There are two lose conditions: 1. you run out of stamina, or 2. All your body parts are pinned.

Each class, being a differnet style of martial arts, has a different skillset and a different stat allocation, (each limb's strength and defense and their stamina). You fully recover stamina and all states between battles, and there's no exp - battles are solely about tactics. There are seven battles total, so you can go up against an opponent of each class.

Is this good?
Sounds good.
Expect only the first 5 fights to be judged, though.
Got any Dexreth amulets?
All right. I've designed the playable characters and their skills. Now all that's left to do is balance the stats. And design the enemies that can be fought. Oh, and maybe actually create the whole battle system in RPG Maker.

Pff. Peanuts, right?
Right, peanuts.

I have an idea of what's gonna happen but have not started RPG Maker or decided on any skills. I have my playable characters though!
After taking a break and basically binge-playing Dishonored for a few days, I'm thinking about my entry again.

I'm probably going to go with the combat option that could allow a truly insane player to have ALL the skills unlocked for use if they're that crazy. Pulling that off means you'll be doing a lot of bad moves just to set up a situation where you can use ALL the moves...once each.

It also has the bonus of rewarding smart players by keeping their number of available options high if they play intelligently.

Also, in true Aegix fashion, I am going to try to involve a compelling narrative that the judges will TOTALLY skip over. XD I have a really neat idea for a story here.
I'm excited to skip over that narrative! XD
A battle system where there is no randomness and only an hp bar...interesting...(ideas start popping up all over the place)

Since everyone else is doing progress reports, here's mine:

Yeah, I should start working...
You can do it! Up and at it : D

*motivational beam*
Yellow Magic
Could I BE any more Chandler Bing from Friends (TM)?
YM> I understand. A shame though! You should renounce your principles for the collective good. Like, to press the comparison, if I had Lys86 in front of me I would chain him to a computer because sometimes individual liberties must be sacrificed for the sake of humankind. All's fair in gam and mak.

And I can see where you're coming from! Unfortunately you're gonna have to do some pretty 18+ things to me to get me to work on that again. ;<

Since everyone else is doing progress reports, here's mine:

*scratches head*

Why the heck is my skill unlock system not working? I call a common event to remove the states that seal the skills that are to be unlocked, and the common event somehow goofs up.

All it does is add the state that seals the skill that was just used, and doesn't remove the sealing states it should. Then, I slapped a few text boxes in the event to see where it stops executing...and none of the text boxes show up. 0_o My other battle common event (called at the turn's end) works just fine.

Edit: OH. I think I found why. ...*sigh* let's see if this fixes it

Edit 2: ...I am an idiot. FIXED. *grumbles*
Huh. It really looks like the game doesn't like it when I call 2 common events in the same skill....Need to find ways around this...

EDIT: and I can just nest them. Good. That fixes things.

EDIT: All skills function well, just need animations for the "seal enemy skills" skills.

.....I guess I should start working on the enemy AI Event, ;_;
It may be an out of date question... I've already started working but now I'm wondering:

1) Why are the achievements "Fundamental Hero" and "Fundamental Villian" given? I mean... If I would like to win them what I'm supposed to do?

2) After some work on my submission, and reading what everybody else is doing -which seems really nice. Looking forward to play those systems- maybe the "Minimalistic" adjective is lost... I don't feel that my system or the other described above are minimalistic... they may be fundamental but they take a lot of work to do and use even more stuff, thinking and planing than the usual hack&slash. Yeah, no flashy animations and no 10+ Elements with 3 evolutions each until Whatever-aga but... I still don't feel it like minimalistic. Just wondering and passing by leaving my thoughts here in my work lunchtime.

Still working on my submission and looking forward other's ideas... When it's complete can we post a summary of our system or is it supposed to be in the files we upload?
So, the AI event isn't quite going as planned.

Switching to having the enemy switch to different "moods" as you fight, each one being (behind the scenes) a different enemy unit with different priorities on his moves, with an event each turn checking for the conditions to switch him.

This actually has a lot of advantages, now that I think about it,
Aegix and roses: Cool progress! I'm really glad to read this is coming along well.

NeverSilent> We already have a Marvin Gaye-themed entry, you're free to do one based on Peanuts.

YM> Okay, I'll try to PM calunio for dungeoning suggestions. Jokes aside, I'm looking forward to other games you might make someday, even if you leave RM behind and never look back.

Treason> 1) One for participating, the other for winning (I.. guess; kentona's the quartermaster of achievements)

2) Haha true, well let's say it was a kind of guideline or indication of the spirit of the contest: if you can do the same thing in a simpler way, it will always land you a higher score. Now like everything else it's just a pointer in what we deem is the right direction; if someone comes up with something incredibly brilliant that breaks all the rules and convinces us we were wrong from the start, we'd be magnanimous (although we'd rather not have everyone assume they're going to be that person ;) )

I'd like the summary to be included with the files, but you can also post a copy here or, better yet, make a game page.

Think of it in terms of building a car. There are a lot of complex things that make a car work, run smoother, shift better, handle easier, provide comfort, etc. etc. If you were to design a minimalist car, you'd strip away a lot of things. But, even so, you'd have a pretty complex device. The same could be said for locomotives or rocket ships! Tearing them down to "minimal" doesn't always mean "not complex." Sometimes is just means "the least complex."