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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Aegix, the AI making mistakes thing is going to require randomness so...

The idea is that depending on the buffs and debuffs that the player and the enemy have, the AI will choose a "stance" (aggressive, Wary, etc) which changes the priority of their moves (when aggressive, they're going to prioritize high damage moves and ignore some of their support moves entirely).

And since the enemy has the EXACT same moves as the player, and they unlock in the same way and you can see how many "offense" and "support" skills the enemy has available, the player should have more than enough information to predict what kinds of moves the enemy is likely to use, and the "stances" will help reinforce that.

So a smart player can "bait" the enemy into becoming "aggressive", and then activate a skill to Parry everything the enemy uses the next turn, or, if they realize the enemy has the "does a ton of damage unless interrupted" move available, they can move to punish that pre-emptively since they know it's available for use, and they know that the enemy is "aggressive" (I'm going to show it next to their name), so the enemy is basically guaranteed not to parry or take a defensive option that turn.

By "allowing the AI to make mistakes", I mean that I want the player to be able to bait the enemy into attacking them while they have Parry up, or punish the enemy with a high damage move when they think the enemy will play defensive, but not be able to parry. That said, I'm trying to make each "Stance" play smart in some way. One, for example, will always attempt to break your Parry with a move that ignores it, and will not attack at all if it can't bypass it if it can.

If it sounds too ambitious, it's because it probably is. ;_; It's a huge pain trying to figure out how the AI should take the information available into account when it's time for it to change stances.

EDIT: Figured out how it MIGHT work. I'm making each of his 4 stances have a variable. For every thing that might influence why he should use a stance, the variable goes up. The highest one gets picked. Like...For every debuff he has that increases the damage he takes, he has +1 to becoming WARY or ANXIOUS (and +0 to becoming Aggressive or Focused). That kind of thing.
Thank you!

By the way, I'm actually thinking in a way to being able of checking your stats during the battle, and I'm also going to add a Analyze-style skill to check the enemy's stats.

Would that work?
Aegix, the AI making mistakes thing is going to require randomness so...

I mean, you can't just set a pattern for failure right? Like every three turns, the computer will fail. If the player notices the pattern, it will be exploited. Then, the game will be hopelessly broken. Percentage-based chances have to be used, to assure that the fight remains fair for both the player and the game.
Actually, the hardest part of making the AI is making it so that he can make mistakes.

If the AI immediately and always goes into full defense mode if he sees the player activate Parry, that's not very fun, now, is it? It makes Parry useless, no?
Huh. I guess I'm not the only one that's going the way of dueling. Though, I only use three stats, myself.

:P I'm making a duel as well.

But there are no stats. Well, not REALLY.

The only "Stats" are "Do you move before, or after your enemy?" and "Is the enemy inflicted with any states that make them take more damage?"

Now that I think of it, having the AI adjust it's action-priority mid-duel might be something I will want to look into.
I dunno. I'm not terribly keen on doing this, even if it might not be that bad in implementing it.

I'm doing that kind of thing right now. Suuuuuch a pain in the ass. ;_;
Guardian of the Description Thread
Huh. I guess I'm not the only one that's going the way of dueling. Though, I only use three stats, myself.

Now that I think of it, having the AI adjust it's action-priority mid-duel might be something I will want to look into. The logical thing to do would be to set it up so that the AI would be more aggressive at near, or full HP, whereas it would be more cautious when it's HP is low. Though, if the AI prioritizes the "Guard" action to begin with, it would probably mean removing "Attack" or "Critical" (depending on the action priority) from the action possibilities altogether.

I dunno. I'm not terribly keen on doing this, even if it might not be that bad in implementing it.
Sounds good. If all fails you could have someone else join your team and upload all extra files in your stead. That'd mess with the achievments, though.

I'd say that sounds rather solid. I'd hope you have a short explanation of these stats ingame? Adding a specific icon or color might help to keep them apart (and indicate certain directions such as red for offense, yellow for agility), depending on how you use them, of course.

Is there a way to focus on one stat or do all need to be considered? Well, looking forward to the result!
Guys about the 'Game must run on it's own' rule, can I ask for your consideration on that? I'm using VXAce anyway...

I'm asking because my internet connection here is shared, and sluggish. I doubt I could upload a 60mb file without encountering some issues.
I'm almost done, and I should have something up by this week or the next.

Thank you :D

@Ilan14, the idea is nice! Though the stats are going to be a hassle to memorise. I suggest you either change the names, or add easy-to-remember symbols/color-code each stat.
I've always wondered if there's anything to save in grinding. Perhaps that could be an interesting design challenge for next time: how do you get a level progression without almost certainly screwing up your game's balance. I guess you'd need a weird system where higher levels close as many opportunities as they open, so that both a low- and a high-level playstyle are equally valid and strategic in any battle.

Housekeeping's The Heart Pumps Clay does this! There are no levels, but rather, every battle ends with you losing the HP of your tank. In exchange, almost every battle gives you a powerful piece of equipment. He even wrote a guide on how to fight the final battle in both extremes: one where you get every item and lose most of your HP, and one where you get no items and have max HP until the end.
Ok, I just started working in my entry for the contest. This is what I have planned so far:

There's just going to be a single battle, a duel, to be more precise. There will only be an HP Bar, and there won't be any items. The system will focus in the use of the four stats of the player and the enemy: Matter, Essence, Reflex and Aura.
The availability and the effectivity of the skills will depend of the value of the player's and the enemy's stats. Because of that, there will be many ways of gaining and losing said stats. Also, the player with have a number of action points, that will allow him to excecute many actions per turn, some skills won't cost action points, some will cost one action points and some will cost two or more. I'm trying to make the player use this action points strategically in order to have the advantage in the battle.

So... what do you think of it?
Already wanted to point that out .. you'd need to tone down battles if you do that. No random encounters and few battles. If you go the "monsters don't give anything"-route, they truly become a hindrance and an obstacle.
It's ridiculous, but every little thing you get from it leaves you with the feeling that you at least got something.
With strategy RPGs (grid-based), this is not as much a problem as your goal is finishing the complete battle - and perhaps save allies or loot items on-grid.

In traditional RPGs, it is. Why have battles at all when they do not give anything? And unless the battle system is so fast and so fun you want to battle, that'll remain a question. It requires a story-focus to work, which then puts even more pressure on the annoyance (as you just want to get along, not battle).
There are games where many different actions give exp - not just killing enemies. In SMT IV persuading demons, recruiting one, fusing demons, completing quests, they all give you exp. Practically anything does (albeit some choices give more than others). The battle system is pretty fun, but hell, why kill enemies when recruiting one gives you both fusion fodder AND more exp? When asking items off enemies (yeah, that's in there) gives more exp than killing them? Money isn't a huge aspect, either, as equipment is not the main power source.
You'll battle enough as it all comes down to a brown mush of "I don't care either way", but it still is bugging you.

We all know battles are there to give your mind a break, to think and calm down, to lengthen the game and to set the atmosphere for more crucial battles. Yet we have rewards for all of these little steps that we as players are way too used to.

So it could either be just our tradition and the feeling of "we deserve to get something!", or these rewards need to be given in a different form. Be it dungeon progression, dialogue, or some other details.

You could balance gold and exp out, but then you need to have a carefully planned equipment/gold-spending management. We all know most games suck when it comes to gold, and that usually, armor is distributed in dungeons just as well (often times as good or even better than what you can buy, sometimes worse, but still sufficient).
A great feat DDS (Digital Devil Saga) used is that you need to learn new skill-sets through battle .. devouring enemies, to be precise. Anyhow, that means you buy and set a skill set at a terminal, you fill a bar through battle and gain the skills once you've done that.
As each character can potentially learn any skills (although there is a succession to be done), this prohibits the exploits of this system, while it encourages to use different skill trees just the same, as you need more gold than what you can spend on stronger levels. The battles were balanced, fun and rewarding all the same. (one of the many reasons I found this game to be near-flawless)
Wow this thread got derailed fast :P

Hasvers> I think you answered your own question:

Perhaps that could be an interesting design challenge for next time: how do you get a level progression without almost certainly screwing up your game's balance.

Also, to avoid the usual bloat and redundancy of RPGs, this system should probably be the only way to "gain levels" or "have better equipment", and all battles should be winnable by wits without ever touching it (so gamist players who only care about the challenge can have their fun).
If there is a clear separation of the roles and effects of each system, there should be no unplanned interferences that throw your game off balance.
Answer: make it so that battles do NOT give exp. Therefore, if players do not earn exp from optional quests, they will always be at level 1, which makes it a lot easier to create difficult but balanced battles for the challenge-seeker.

Sure, I meant crafting in the most general sense possible because actual instances so far mostly do suck.

You'd need a "crafting"/evolution system that doesn't require parts (or monsters) that you collect by grinding, and never asks you to do the same operation again and again.

There are tons of games that reward you for doing things that require absolutely no skill or wit (like talking to all the NPCs) or just a bare minimum (like basic resource management) without being hollow time sinks. So I'm sure among all those mechanics we can find one that is appropriate. Even better if it's one that actually makes sense within the game's world (e.g. "crafting" uses some "laws of magic" that are also relevant in battle and as point plots, so that getting familiar with them that way is generally helpful and doubles as a sort of tutorial/advanced commentary).

Also, to avoid the usual bloat and redundancy of RPGs, this system should probably be the only way to "gain levels" or "have better equipment", and all battles should be winnable by wits without ever touching it (so gamist players who only care about the challenge can have their fun).
If there is a clear separation of the roles and effects of each system, there should be no unplanned interferences that throw your game off balance.

In the end it would really just be a convoluted way of allowing powergamers and narrativists to go through "easy mode" without them feeling like they're cheating- but where they're earning power or story by demonstrating their interest in optional plot points and mechanics, not by sheer time spent.

Edit: And now, this is really my last message on the topic of grinding, because srsly.
Well.. except most crafting systems suck.
Atelier Iris (yeah, I only played a few of the later titles, have at me) did a pretty decent job including quality, but given that this is a huge non-battle focus, it should be done well.

Usually, they have too many items and too much useless junk. As in 90% useless junk, 10% potions. And you should know how I relate to potions. (and I'm a completionist by default .. at least trying to get as much on the way as possible)
Usually, equipment is available for purchase as well, so you needn't craft it (and thus usually don't include armor or other battle essentials)
Also, if you want crafting not be a repetitive time sink, then how do you get the necessary parts for crafting?
Searching areas is as repetitive as drops and as repetitive as buying them with looted gold.

SMT handled it fairly well for the most part, fusing new demons was always a smart choice and allowed to set up more powerful and more specific teams (building against certain bosses is possible). You could buy demons you once had directly and expensively, or bet on randomness and dialogue to recruite whole team for little money.
But monster recruiting brings in a whole different level of battle mechanics and gameplay, so that's not a real alternative for most games.
Hmm okay, I know I had promised to shut up, but after reflecting on Louis', Cashmere's and Kyla' comments, it occurred to me that this combination (alternate route for gamers who don't want a challenge + "proof of work" so that it doesn't feel like cheating) that's sought after in grinding is exactly the reason some games have crafting systems.

Now crafting is most often designed as a colossal source of grinding in and of itself, but it could also become our way out: design the crafting system (or some equivalent way of gaining power) so that
- it doesn't require skill or wits, but
- instead of being a simple repetitive time sink, its mechanics actually teach you something about the game world, or clarify parts of the plot, or somehow constantly provide rewards that are optional but interesting in addition to numbers going up
Some inspirations: HQ enhancements in Suikoden, Social Links in Persona.

One problem though: while this solution can satisfy both powergamers and "narrativist" players (who want to read the whole story without failing in fights), it may be a trap for completionists who want to see 100% of the content but still want challenge. So all that additional content should also be unlocked (in a bonus menu, visual novel style?) by succeeding in battles by pure wits - minus the fun of blatantly overpowering the enemy, plus some extra secrets as a reward for people who go that way.

It's a bit convoluted, but I think it would work for pretty much every player type at once. What do you think?

PS: Unraveled was really nice, I just played it a few days ago and it felt right on spot with this contest (although I think the tactical depth is ultimately a bit restricted by some of their design choices). Also, the fact that you can go on even if you lose a fight was a good choice for the narrativist-type gamers mentioned above, though it feels like a cop out for a powergamer. I'll add it to the recommendations on the contest page next time I update it.
@CashmereCat: Haha, the penny's droppped, then :) Yeah, such systems are best.

@Hasvers: Well, you also need to consider that some people simply cannot figure out the right tactics. I've played a couple of games where a few people weren't able to beat the game at all despite grinding (although they did it quite right, difficult-wise)
Grinding also provides an alternative, harder route to proceed by brawns and not by brains.

It is only disappointing when you cannot avoid long grinding sessions at all, or need not think of any tactic to breeze through battles without grinding.
And as stupid as it sounds, if you work for it, anything becomes a heroic deed in the person's eye.

Remember the zodiac lance in FF XII? You could get it easily by .. well .. following a guide. You wouldn't just leave dozens of chests unopened on purpose.
And if you missed that, you can get it at a ridiculous low rate in a certain chest in a certain dungeon as long as I remember correctly.
Getting one is a pain in the ass. Getting multiple ones is, plainly, a waste of time. Yet if you did grind through it, you can be proud of yourself for simply sticking with it.
See our trophy/achievment-culture. You have it. That's it.

Now, these two purposes (alternative battle path, reward) need to be weaved into a different, less time-consuming and innovative system to achieve what you desire.
Actually three, if you count grinding time as breaktime. If I'm not feeling to well or am exhausted (read: can't concentrate properly), a dungeon-crawler or something alike is an awesome way to sit back and simply enjoy playing.

Rewards are easily substituted (one of the many reasons I like visual novels is simply because you can collect and view the drawn scenes inbetween)
But how do you create a possible, alternative route for less skilled players while preserving diffculty and rewards for building tactics? (also often perceived as a sense of fairness) That's where you gotta start thinking if you want to find another way to implement grinding.

Self-proclaimed Puzzle Snob
I'm playing Unraveled and I'm enjoying it so much so far. They actually use a really innovative system where your pool for moves is a single up/down sliding bar. Then you can keep a tabs on the enemy's bar as well to use moves that counter the current mood they're in. It is comprised of simpler rules than most RPGs, but it's more nuanced and easier to understand... after playing that game I think I know what this contest is about lol.
Hahah well I won't blame you for not being brief, and I totally agree that anyone should delve into p&p theory, including GNS and co. But what I'm saying is not that some types of fun are better than others, only that you can do the same type of fun in better ways (e.g. by changing what tricks you use to provide it). It's not a question of enlightening the player, but the dev, and that I think we can agree is pretty much the purpose of game design theory.

Edit: Clearly the powergamers need some sort of proof that they've done a good job before they get access to that power, but I'm sure this can be done in ways that are not so repetitive and time-consuming and basically obsessive-compulsive. Now since I haven't got a brilliant idea to revolutionize grinding right now, I will just (finally) shut up, but I do believe it's a discussion worth having.
can't make a bad game if you don't finish any games
tl;dr of the above

This is a logic trap that is easy to avoid... Once you've identified it.

edit 2: okay I know I said "brief" but look who I am

can't make a bad game if you don't finish any games
I'm going to be brief, because I am only summarizing my thoughts quickly. I have a lot to say on the subject, and I'm partially posting this for my own sake as much as for others to read.

I agree, but I wonder whether you could somehow give that same pleasure without the mindnumbing aspects of grinding.
Make your battles better. Using an MMO (FFXIV:ARR specifically) as an example; I fight Titan-EX partially to grind loot (grinding), but also because Titan-EX is a complicated, difficult, and very rewarding battle (not mindnumbing!)

I'll get all high-and-mighty (again) and say: sure lots of people enjoy it as it is, but ethically I'm not sure it's a good thing to encourage that sort of value system
This particular "player motivation type" is commonly called a power-seeker in tabletop RPG circles. The D&D Dungeon Masters' Guides explain this motivation type in much greater detail than I ever good. In fact, I would say that a DMG is recommended reading for any aspiring RPG developer.

They give a good philosophy that should serve as the only "ethics" you need in development -- Your role, as the developer, is to make sure your players have fun. The only difference between us and a tabletop Game Master is our medium of choice. We are otherwise in the same business!

For the interested, a PDF of the DMG II (v3.5) can be found here. I highly recommend reading at least the section "Style of Play" that starts on page 7, but really, almost everything in the first chapter can be applied directly to RPG Maker, and the rest requires only minimal interpretation. They have been at this for much longer than we have!

So either you find some other, less disastrous/exploitative way to make that group of players feel they deserve being overpowered (perhaps taking inspiration from over-the-top games like Asura's Wrath), or you find some way to make grinding worthwhile beyond a fix of your gamey dope. No idea for the latter, except perhaps those weird language learning games.
Asura's Wrath scratches... a different itch, where the player is immediately overpowered and is swarmed by VASTLY inferior foes, with the occasional cinematic-scale boss. In the typical JRPG, both the random mobs and the bosses are closer to on-par with the player (typically), and that sort of overwhelming power is hard-fought-for and skillfully earned (hopefully!)

Asura's Wrath shares more to its action-brawler, such as Bayonetta and Dynasty Warriors. A wonderful, insanely quotable game nonetheless!

edit: gave the wrong pdf link