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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Teams Members Entry
If Karin finds out, I'm screwed.
Bludgeon of Inspiration
I'm below those above me.
Why did the statement game ended?
All statements below and above this one just make this one look better. :D
Complexity =/= Strategy
Brotherhood of Evil Statements
If soulkeeper finds out, I'm confused.
Gourdy might not be lazy?
The below statement is false
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The above statement is true if this statement is false.
The above statement broke the chain.
Life is Turn-Based.
Simply complicated ;_;
Fighting to the death with Seiromem!
Oh yes, there will be blood...
If kentona or soulkeeper finds out, I'd be all "whatever."
Kentona still owes me a date.
I'll release my limit break on all of you!
You're fighting with borrowed power.
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Ayane Fanclub
+10 to all enemy stats.
Can't hardly Science
Im not crazy... My mother had me tested!


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:

You can do it! Up and at it : D

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

Yeah, I should start working...
A battle system where there is no randomness and only an hp bar...interesting...(ideas start popping up all over the place)

I'm excited to skip over that narrative! XD
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.
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!
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?
Sounds good.
Expect only the first 5 fights to be judged, though.
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?
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.
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 :)
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.
On the other hand when playing an AI hidden information is often less useful. Since face down cards are often about playing the other player. "So he knows that I know that he knows that I know" For example in the Game of Thrones boardgame you add leader cards to each battle and these cards are "known". Any player can look at another player's cards at any time. Until a player plays a card facedown in a battle. So at any time each player knows the highest value cards the other player has. But does that mean that he will risk burning a lower card in this battle because the other player knows that I know that he knows?

Libertalia plays on the same things when everyone has the exact same cards at any point and it's all about when to play them. (and this is where different objectives come in. One battle might be less important to one player than to the other)

But these are all parts of a larger metagame. Not present in any one battle and all about reading the other player. Something that either cannot be done or is really hard to do when it comes to an AI.
Yellow Magic
Could I BE any more Chandler Bing from Friends (TM)?
My head is completely stuck on randomness though. Every system I've ever made has had randomness in it.
Which is what makes this contest so interesting. Is it possible to create an RPG battle system without randomness? This is, like, P==NP? stuff right here.

YM> Come on, if you don't give us the pleasure of finishing Character, at least do one teeny tiny battle system~
Holy crap, you still remember that? I haven't forgotten your comparison to ABL, but goddamn.

I feel bad about abandoning the idea, but at the same time, as Iain Banks has passed away, I'd feel awful about turning what was essentially his original setting into RPG form so soon after his death.
Well challenging the things stuck in your head is one of the goals in the contest ;) But as Merlandese pointed out a few pages earlier, there's also the dimension of complete vs incomplete information to create risk. There can be non-random things that are hidden, like face-down cards in CCGs, or parts of the map in the fog of war in strategy games.

The difference is that random things can be anything, useful or totally useless, whereas you know that hidden non-random things obey some rules. For instance, hidden actions by the opponent serve a purpose: if they are placing this card face-down, you know they are trying to achieve something so you can at least make an educated guess. For me there's much more risk management involved in good guesses than in "I really hope I'll draw all the cards for my combo right now".

YM> Come on, if you don't give us the pleasure of finishing Character, at least do one teeny tiny battle system~

Aegix and seiromem> If you want to discuss your ideas, openly or in PMs, don't hesitate. I'd hate to see good ideas lost due to implementation problems. (also, breaks are good)

karins> I think there'll always be enough difference between systems that you don't have to worry about this. On the off-chance it happens, I guess we'll either accept ties or force them into a mud wrestling match.
That's a good question.

It falls in both categories whereas it both acts as an initial setting for the battle, but also as a way for luck to be a big factor on your potential. As the cards come closer to the end (and the battle furthers) you have a better idea of what cards you can draw, which makes a sort of risk management thing. And risk management is a valid strategy in itself, but this type still hinges on a bit of luck. If you have six cards left to pull from, and you hope to get Card 1, you might get Card 6 instead. You can see how that's not much different from rolling a D6.

I guess I have a really hard time getting over non-random events. Non-randomness in board gaming is often all about playing a psychological game, something that just doesn't apply when playing an AI. Rock, Paper, Scissors can be played against another player but playing it against a computer is essentially just useless.

Maybe something like the card game Libertalia where the hand of cards is random (random equipment) but the hand doesn't change and everyone gets the same hand.

Hidden objectives can spice up non-random systems. But there's nothing hidden about the objectives in a battle.

One idea I had was having die rolls but them being open die rolls. Like when a number generator generates all the numbers in advance anyway. But this time they are visible. So that the player has to choose what to do when they roll the "1". What can the player do so that a bad roll will do the least damage to himself. Of course it is fairly uninteresting if you get all the numbers (completely non-random, only random setup) so it goes back to the same mechanic that card drawing is. (once you've spent your numbers, you get a new set of numbers. A new set up or a new hand of cards)

But I have some vague setup similar to Libertalia or Card Hunter. Maybe where you have a deck or a number of possibilities. But you don't get more cards. Making it exactly like random equipment. So equipping a certain kind of armour gives you certain cards that have certain abilities. But you don't get to draw new cards into your hand but have to make it with the cards you get. Maybe some mechanic where you lose if you play out your last card and the opponent is still alive. Of course that system has the massive issue that it's very losable. And RPG fights generally shouldn't be easily lost. But I guess there can be factors like the number of enemy cards (so they nearly always run out first) and other things.

My head is completely stuck on randomness though. Every system I've ever made has had randomness in it. Though I greatly enjoy eurogames (elegant designs the lot of them) I've always liked the excitement in a little bit of randomness. Where it's all about the risk management. I guess it's no surprise that one of my favourite games of all time is Blood Bowl.

Some of the random system ideas in my head put down in a massive post.
I would have more makerscore If I did things.
I might just get started today.
Heh, yeah right. I see you up there, Seiromem, distracted!

I've got so much to do I'm going to use a randomizer to determine what I work on next! Cause I can't decide by myself :P

Guess I'll have to go down there and play more Wii instead of actual progress.

But just so you people know, I have an idea!
AN idea!
Just one.
That I don't know how to pull off.
I might just get started today.

Heh, yeah right. I see you up there, Seiromem, distracted!

I've got so much to do I'm going to use a randomizer to determine what I work on next! Cause I can't decide by myself :P