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Alternate title: Even in RMN, F.O.E.!

If a player is going to be battling a lot in an RPG or really doing anything game-mechanical, it's important to keep them at an appropriate degree of challenge. At least some of the time - I think we've had other discussions on pacing.

Some RPGs do this by restricting the player to a relatively linear flow and possibly giving them self-selecting options to fine-tune things: e.g., grind to make things easier. I include here many games where you can return to previously visited areas; the important question is how laughable the fights are when you do.

But sometimes we want to either allow more non-linearity, or perhaps let the player select a difficulty level more explicitly. And it can be hard for the player to figure out where they want to be on that without trying and risking failure for any new thing. Possibly, trying an entire dungeon and failing at some point. Even in games where recovering from wipeout is relatively smooth, this can cause some pain. (Alternately, a player might also have to run an entire dungeon to find out the boss was too easy.)

So I'm interested to hear if people have methods or ideas for letting people experience harder and easier sections smoothly.
I just went with the idea that the player should have access to everything and all enemies should always have a pretty good chance of defeating the player throughout the whole game.

By giving the player access to all items from the start and all skills when a new character joins it forces them to choose the most efficient ones to use while in different areas. For example, people often go for the best strongest skills when they obtain them and with no MP they are really tempting to use, but when the skill takes as long to cast as the whole is long then you really have to think whether to use skills with shorter cast times to hit more or wait for the stronger ones which you may not get to use if the enemies are too weak and die too fast.

Also the enemies, no matter what their level is will almost always cause constant damage to the player. This means that even when you return to a previous area the fights still cost you resources.

I could keep babbling on, but the main idea is to give the player everything and see if they can manage it properly and keep their party alive by making the normal RPG rules of "better skills/items = better results" into something that could defeat the player.
I could keep babbling on, but the main idea is to give the player everything and see if they can manage it properly and keep their party alive by making the normal RPG rules of "better skills/items = better results" into something that could defeat the player.

Depending on how many characters, skills and items that are, and the depth of your combat system, that could be an instant turn-off if a player is faced with hundreds of options right at the start of the game. Even more-so if your game uses an advanced combat system with all sorts of unusual terms or abbreviations.
In that case, it would depend on the target audience. Some groups love complexity. Giving players tons of options at the start is essentially forcing them to tailor the game to themselves... a task in and of itself. It's a brilliant decision, I think.

As long as players feel like they still have options, even when defeated in-game, they'll keep on playing.
You the practice of self-promotion
There's a couple of games I recall that had different areas that you could access from the world map after being done with another one, but would mention the recommended level to the player for said nw areas. That seems to be a good approach, because you're giving the player a fair warning. For example, if the player's level is lower than recommended, they can either chance it or go back to level up as recommended. That decision in the end depends on what kind of player you are.

Regarding setting a level of difficulty at the beginning, I always go for the normal level the first time around. If I were to replay it again, it is then that I choice a harder level. Some other players, though, want the challenge from the get go. It is useful for the developer to explain the difference between the difficulties, so that the player can make the best choice for them.
Depending on how many characters, skills and items that are, and the depth of your combat system, that could be an instant turn-off if a player is faced with hundreds of options right at the start of the game. Even more-so if your game uses an advanced combat system with all sorts of unusual terms or abbreviations.

Of course, that feels like it should be implied or at least expected that you can't really just give someone hundreds of choices when they start off and on top of that with a complex battle system and expect them to make sense of everything at once.

The battle system I created is a very simple one that doesn't even require the player to input commands and the characters act by themselves and you just essentially nudge them along and use items or change the skills they can use. This means that your job is essentially to keep them alive rather than killing everything.

As for the items, you have access to all the healing items (6) and some food (3) and about 20 skills for roughly 30+ items/skills in the game, which should be a small enough for most people to keep track of or at least easily compare the pros and cons of using them.
I think % spells is a better way to enforce challenge. Sure, you have these powerful spells, but it really takes a cut when you can't use them but a few times, regardless of level. Whereas the weaker spells are not percent, so over time, it makes an actual cost choice (on the other hand, it may not be as strong).
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
Well, the main problem with difficulty pacing in RPGs is, obviously, that doing stuff makes you stronger. With a non-linear game this can be really really difficult to manage.

One method is to have limited freedom. Maybe you can go to dungeon A, B or C next, but you have to complete all three of them (or just two of them?) before you can move on beyond these three dungeons. Or maybe you have optional sidequests scattered throughout the game. A truly open-world game would be another matter, though.

Another idea is to make it simply impossible to become strong enough to do certain areas before others. This method would require you to limit the effectiveness of grinding. I don't mean making grinding unnecessary (although you can do that ALSO), I mean adding a cap, so that the player can't become stronger beyond a certain point without overcoming new challenges. This would work perfectly with a system where 95% of your power came from things you equipped. Maybe level ups are only needed to unlock the equipment and have little to no effect beyond that. With a system like this, going backwards to do easy things you skipped becomes pointless, since you'll only get downgrades out of it. However, if the challenges are hard enough, you'll end up doing all of them, because you'll want the power they provide. Another way to do this would be to have a level cap which increases each time you kill a boss.

If your combat is complex enough, you can do nonlinear challenge a different way: have methods of winning that are specific to different enemies, which turn the battles into puzzles, so that they're challenging no matter how strong you are. For example, one enemy in the water dungeon could be required to be frozen by using multiple combos of ice spells within a certain time period, and then shattered with a charged up blunt melee attack before it thaws. But instead of just doing this a few times for gimmick bosses, do it for almost every battle in the game, and make all the enemies different, so that figuring these things out is basically the entire game. You can't ever overpower the battles, you have to figure them out. You can still get level ups and equipment to become stronger, but being stronger just gives you more chances to mess up before you get a game over. More room for error.
You can also have a nonstandard levelling system, as in, you are literally stuck at level one, and the way to get stronger is to pick up stat seeds (which, guess what? Mainly drop from quest enemies). You can further control this then by having the map switch to non-seedbearing monsters after it's clear of bosses or if you go before before it's appropriate, making grind more tightly controlled.

Or ditch the stat seeds, and do stat changes. (The reason to abandon levelling is that such measures don't generally work, since levelling up from what I've seen resets to the stats it's set to on the class/hero page).

However, any fanbase will probably hate your guts, for making worldmap monsters beat you with no rewards.
You can put a difficulty setting in your menu system. Then when a monster encounter occurs, depending on which difficulty setting is selected, call the easy, medium, or hard monster party (90% HP, 100%, or 110%).
Hello everyone. Haven't been on forums because but I'm really into game design and wanted to share some thoughts.

The general goal of your battle balance is that you want ALL your battles to be a challenge and at the same time not make your game so frustratingly hard that nobody will finish it. Many people fail at this even in completely linear games. This is often because battles depend more on character strength rather than tactic.

So the very first thing you should do anyway is - make battles rely a lot on strategy. If you're weaker than the monster and use the perfect tactic, win! If you're much stronger than the monster but use a completely wrong tactic, die!

Make the strategy interesting, different in every encounter, but DO NOT make the mistake to reduce the number of different encounter to a minimum just because you can't thing of good combination and strategies. Try to design the monsters themselves so they give strategy and yet not require other monsters to be around for the strategy to work. This works well by putting monsters into strategic categories. You have the defender, he is hard to kill, but also does not too much damage. Obviously it's a good idea if the player attack him last. You have the attacker, high attack power but easy to be killed. He is the one to go for first. You also have the loner - who only gets really strong when he's alone. Better kill him before the last other monsters but after the attackers. There are more types than those but those are the basic ones. If you make monster for these categories, you can pretty much combine any of them as long as you at least serve two categories in an encounter.
Now make many many different encounters! This is important to the player feels challenge and not like he just uses the same tactic again and again.
The order of selection is also important here. Two encounters with an attacker and defender can be completely different depending on whether the attacker or the defender is selected by default! Create them both! Make full use of the combinations possible to you. Just attacking the default monster is also a tactic, if that's not happening with all encounters.

Alright so now you have your monsters and encounters done and ensured that tactic is the most important aspect regarding the outcome.

What's next?

If you're making an unlinear game you have two basic ways to approach it.

a) Make the character growth very limited. If you think Pen&Paper, you will probably think how your characters starts out with stats between 8 and 18 and even if you fully max out your character it will only have like 5 bonus points extra in those stats. Instead of stat-increase you should however make the player gain more ability / skills. They might not make you stronger, but they add a lot of strategical elements to the combat again. This allows you to raises the complexity of combat. Maybe you can win an encounter 2 seconds faster by using a much more complex tactic now. But you shouldn't just be able to burn through those ice monsters with a single fire spell.

b) Make monsters grow with the characters. Don't just make their stats increase linearly to the stats of your characters, this, despite being done by many RPGs, is really dumb and just frustrates players (they want to "feel" that they become stronger, this makes them happy, you should be aware of this). Instead make different monsters appear after a player reached a certain level (doesn't really need to be level, some games some kind of time mechanic so for example you could make them harder each day, or you base it on the accomplishments the player already reached), yet combine them still with weaker ones too.

How to do this best? You don't know what monster you will require? You want to ensure you have appropriate monsters for each region?
Okay here's an easy way for this - put your monsters into "race" categories. Make sure you have about the same amount in each race category and make sure you cover all different strategy types in each category as well. Now list your monsters by the race/strategy combination in order of their power with the level range they are a good challenge at. Expand that range little.
Dragon/Attacker - Baby Flamer (1-45), Flame Dragon (30-60), Pulse Dragon (50+)
Dragon/Defender - Baby Scaler (1-30), Scale Dragon (25-50), Gold Dragon (60+)
Now you can also adjust their stats if you see some range isn't covered well yet and stuff like that.
After a lot of work you are now finally done specifying all your monster, you will probably have 200 or more.

Generally I'd probably make the encounters myself here (pure programming), but in RPG Makers I guess you'd probably have to use already premade encounter sets, so just put them somehow together and make encounter with strategy as described above. Now knowing which monsters are in the encounter you can give the encounters themselves an appropriate level range. Also list the races used in the encounter and try to limit the number of different races to 1 or 2.
Now when doing a dungeon, you know which races would fit into the dungeon, so define that also. You are now limited to encounters that only contain monsters of a race that fits into the dungeon, but since you hopefully have designed thousands of different ones, you will still have a good amount available for you. Now just make sure to check the player strength and let different encounters occur depending on how strong the player is. Done!

Now you have your system ready - the player will not only feel that the game keeps staying a challenge to him, no matter which order he uses, he will also feel like he is getting stronger, because easier monsters he remembers will sometimes still be in the encounters and he can now one hit kill them, they come of course a long which stronger monsters now that lets the battles stay challenging. You created the perfect illusion for the player.
Another advantage is that if the player plays your game again and goes a completely different path, he will get encounters he never saw before! Your unlinear RPG with good replay value consequently now has even more replay value.


Those are just the basic ways, but I'm afraid if I go into more complex game design strategies my post will be so long that nobody will read it anyway.

I just want to add one thing - difficulty setting is a BAD BAD idea to solve an issue of not knowing how hard you will want the game to be because you don't know the order the player will visit places. You really can't expect a player to know what the appropriate difficulty is for him and "oh that boss killed me, let's switch the difficulty to easy" is just dumb. Really it is. The player wants to feel good, he wants to feel that he got better at the game and defeated the boss because of that. Yet the player is also dumb and will make use of a difficulty setting to make it easier for him, just like he is using walkthroughs without realizing that he spoils the game fun for himself like this.
Point is: You, the developer, should decide how hard the game is. If you do a difficulty setting, make it once at the start with GOOD and COMPLETE explanations of what the player can expect from each difficult, that can't be changed later. This doesn't really have much to do with the topic though.

Though I guess I should point out something tricky, which is probably not possible in most RPG Makers either, but is actually a good game design strategy - make monster difficulty scale by player strength as explained above BUT secretly reduce the factor for the player strength if the player dies often. Yes! Die at the boss, restart, die again, restart, how about making it easier here? For god's sake do not tell the player that you do it, but do it anyway. Fool him! Make him think he got better! Force him to have fun!

Note: One game that uses these strategies to some extend (not perfectly) is Visions & Voices by Craze. It has both very very minor character growth (start with 100 HP, end with 160 HP, start with 15 damage end with 40 damage) and also increasing monster strength (new encounters) every few days.
b) Low-level enemies don't give experienceYou can force players to seek new challenges by making it so that lower-level enemies don't give experience (or give significantly reduced experience) once the hero reaches a certain level. This is often used in MMORPG games to force the player to move along to new areas (I seem to remember that Conquer Online used to do this really effectively). It's been used in traditional RPGs as well, but none come to mind right now. If the player walks into a new area and finds that they're not getting much EXP, they know that they don't have to waste their time (unless they want to look for treasures). This is a good way to force people to move around a lot, and prevents people grinding too much.

Paper Mario
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