A DEEP DIVE INTO PAPER MARIO'S DESIGN PHILOSOPHY

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Last year, I played Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for the first time in about a decade. I found myself fascinated with the underlying design and wondering how it could be applied to a more traditional RPG.

Whenever I find a review or analysis of Paper Mario, there's always two points that people love to talk about in regard to its combat: the timed button presses and the use of tiny integers. I don't care about either of these things. I believe a well-designed abstract combat system doesn't need to hide behind twitch gameplay elements to hide a lack of meaningful interactions. Also, you could multiply all the numbers by 5, or even 100 and it would still play exactly the same.

The thing about the first two Paper Marios is that there's a lot more going on under the hood, and no one ever talks about it. I want to start by looking at what is in Mario's toolbox of moves from the get go. In most RPGs you start with the attack option - a small physical attack. In Paper Mario TTYD, you have two basic free to use attacks: a jump attack and a hammer attack. I said twitch elements didn't interest me, so let's imagine a version of Paper Mario without them, the effect you get for hitting the action button during the move is now just the normal effect of the move. So you're two attack options become a move that deals two damage across two hits or a move that deals two damage in a single hit.

The game is quick to establish a meaningful difference between multi-hit attacks and single-hit attacks in a system with subtractive defense. Honestly it does this better than most "real" RPGs. I've seen plenty of games have my attack come out as multiple hits but it always felt just aesthetic (Xenosaga and Radiant Historia for example). There's also games that have subtractive defense but muddle it up by factoring skill modifiers after the subtraction (latter Dragon Quests handle physical skills this way). I suspect the lack of variance in your damage numbers helps make it clear when an enemy is defensive. I'm not exactly against variance though, I think it has it's place but it's something I've considered not bothering with.

It doesn't stop there. With just these two starting free-to-use moves, the game not only teaches us to play differently with defensive enemies, it also teaches us the difference between aerial and ground based enemies. The jump attack hits from above and thus can hit any enemy on the field. The hammer is a ground attack, it can only hit ground enemies and it can't reach enemies behind the first ground enemy in the opponents' party line-up.

Next up is the difference between body attacks and weapon attacks. Your jump hits with your characters exposed body while the hammer is long disjoint (in fighting game terms). Spiked or flaming enemy will thus hurt characters who attack with their bodies. Additionally, aerial attacks can knock down armored enemies like turtles exposing a weak spot to bypass their defense.

You start with two moves each with a full set of intuitive properties. Most RPGs start with, Basic Attack: hits once for some damage, but Paper Mario has:
Jump Attack:
- 2 hits of 1 damage
- Hits from above
- Hits with exposed body
- Stuns and exposes weakpoint of turtle type foes

Hammer Attack:
- 1 hit of 2 damage
- Hits from the ground
- Hits with a long disjoint

With just your two beginning moves, the game introduces all of its main mechanics and gives you multiple ways to interact with enemies. Just two move - how do you do that? How can other RPGs do it? How can I? I really don't know. I like the slow progression of power in RPGs and like starting with very few skills. I usually end up with four starting skills when I try to get all my main mechanics across at the start. I'd love to slim it down to two and even forego the basic attack.

The party members you acquire in Thousand Year Door all have their own bespoke toolbox of moves building on the basic properties that Mario's starting moves introduced and mixes them up. Flurry's body slam hits from above, and topples turtles like other aerial moves but it deals 2 damage in 1 hit - combining properties of Mario's jump and hammer attack. The other party members have similar moves being analogues to or cocktails of Mario's moves, and I love it. It's elegant. Creating a large amount of depth out of a simple set rules is the platonic ideal of game design.

A counterpoint to this is that it all falls into the trap of lock-and-key design: interact with the thing in the only way you can interact with it. Is hitting aerial enemies with an aerial attack a meaningful interaction? Hit defensive foes with high power single hit attacks and low defense foes with multi-hit attacks can feel like foregone conclusions. This is something I worry about a lot with designing my own system. Paper Mario covers this by making it cost a turn to switch partners or having more enemies in need of shutting down then you can in one round and having to choose which to go for - typical solutions for hiding lock-and-key design and that works fine. I'm always open to hearing new solutions to this problem, it's a big concern I have.

What's really fascinating, after the game drills the rules into your head, it does something wonderful: it allows you to break them. With the badge system you can equip passives that bypass the negative side of attack properties. Spike Guard prevents you from being hurt by spikes. There's a delicious number of 'builds' for your Mario that lessen the effect of lock-and-key design by allowing creative expression on the part of the player without making the rules become trivial. You can only equip so many badges thus you can't break all the rules at the same time, you have to choose which ones to break.

What I really want to dig into and discuss is this: in what ways could we apply the design principles of Paper Mario to a more traditional RPG? I don't want to limit this to a verbatim interpretation either. I mean not just "aerial vs ground, exposed body vs long disjoint", but rather the more abstract essence of what Paper Mario is going for. Being able to stick a number of properties on to move sets that allow for a variety of interactions with enemies in ways that feel organic and easily understandable based on strong visuals(jumping on a spiked enemy and hurting yourself instead of the enemy is a clear visual).

Can things like this even work in a game with combat that looks like a SNES Final Fantasy with detailed non-animated enemies drawn at different proportions than the player characters? I'm doubtful the spiky enemy thing can work within that visual setup. I've also wondered if any of these things would just fall apart in a game with actual stat growth. Hitting defensive enemies with moves that bypass their defense threshold is less meaningful if your gaining more and more attack from just leveling (Paper Mario only let's you increase attack power through the badge system - and it's costly).

Does anyone think the first two Paper Marios' combat falls to heavily into the trap of lock-and-key design? Does anyone think the games are just shit and their design ideas should be avoided? Does anyone have deeper more insightful views on how these games are designed or can think of reasons why they shouldn't be applied to a more normal RPG despite liking them in the context of Paper Mario? I've been scratching my head over this for while now and would love to hear some varying input. I'd also like to welcome general discussions on how and why Paper Mario works or doesn't work.
It sounds like you want to look into possibility spaces, that this recent article covers. Basically even if mechanics gel and work together there's a way to make it feel too regimented (see pokemon weaknesses chart) where the possibility recognition becomes really repetitive. Thinking of ways on how things should interact or how player mechanics scale with enemy mechanics is key to navigating that sort of stuff. Though I don't really have much to add other than really wanting to make more games that attempt this sort of stuff.

I think the Mario RPGs do just enough to keep the possibility space interesting. I haven't played Paper Mario in awhile (but I have been playing Alpha Dream's Mario and Luigi series) and I think they play well to the crowd that are sick of conventional RPGs. Could the formula be better? Probably. I mean one value proposition is to just make a similar game that's just way harder since likely the reason why the mechanics are so brilliant and simple is because they were intended for kids. Which is a good starting point.
Thanks for the response and thanks for directing me to that article, it goes over a lot of what I've been trying to aim for. You're first paragraph sums up my problem in a very nice and concise way.

I like your proposition, and agree it's a good starting place. Though, the general idea may have been done already. After writing this, I remembered hearing about an indie game a year ago that was trying to be a spiritual successor to Thousand Year Door with bugs. I went looking around for it and found Bug Fables. It's not out yet, but there's a demo.

I found a video analyzing what it does with the combat:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VALBg-Hzws
I don't exactly like the presentation but no one else seems to be talking about the game. Looks like an interesting game. The video points out some problems with Paper Mario, they essentially fall into the lock-and-key design that I was talking about (or possibility recognition as you referred to it). I don't agree with every conclusion the video comes to, but it does nice job going over what's all going on with this game's combat without actually playing it.

Interestingly, the difference between attacking with a weapon or exposed body is gone. It seems the designers of Bug Fables boiled that down to an extension of the aerial vs. ground attack difference. That largely holds true for Paper Mario, though characters like Vivian and Mowz hit from the front with exposed body attacks. They then cut it down even further to a difference between direct and indirect (throwing) attacks. It's a little weird there doesn't seem to be aerial attacks as the characters are bugs with wings, but I suppose that's a trivial thing.

I'll try to make time to play through the demo myself this week. It's neat to see another game trying to work inside the same framework as PM.

You mentioned Mario RPGs playing well to the crowd tired of conventional RPGs. The thing is, I'm not really wanting to play to that crowd myself. I do think my idea for a game would generally be considered to be on the more conventional side of things, I'm not really one of those people that think RPGs need to re-invent the wheel to be good.

After really thinking about it over the last few days, I could boil what I want out of a combat system down to this: I want a player to get into battle with a new group of enemies they've never seen before, but be able to form a smart strategy how to shut enemies down and mitigate damage taken in a few turns as possible based on strong visual ques, positioning, and understanding the tools in their possession as well as the interactions possible with those tools.

Too many times in a game, I'll meet a new enemy and just have no idea what actually works on it or how it's going to behave. So, I just spam basic attacks and - if it's a game where status effects are reliable - have one party member rotate through the usual crowd control effects until one sticks. Then at some point I'll say to myself, "Oh I guess I should've sapped it's defense and tossed blind on it". But by the point it's already half dead and so I just take it as knowledge for the next time I fight one of these and go ahead spamming basic attacks to finish this one off. I hate this sort of trial and error design where you end up just spamming basic attacks until you see the enemy do something warranting a little more strategy.

I feel in Paper Mario, even if it's the first time I'm encountering an enemy, I can usually immediately tell I'll need to do some different stuff just by looking at it. If there's nothing else I take from Paper Mario, it's this. If I can just get this down, I feel a lot more confident in my game.

I like how you put: figuring out how player mechanics scale with enemy mechanics. A very succinct way to express what I'm trying to accomplish. I suppose I should really just start building encounters and see if ideas come. No better way to learn something than just jumping into it.

Thanks, again for your response!
It's been ages since I've played Paper Mario 2 (and even longer for PM1), and most of the stuff I remember is the charm and presentation instead of the combat. I do agree the combat basics aren't very deep as you described, but good for casual players to try and keep the player engaged during regular fights. If Paper Mario is the successor of Super Mario RPG for the SNES then PM is an advancement. Jumps and hammers being the tool to defeat certain enemies based on visual cues vs SMRPG which was just using your strongest attack.

(Mind, Paper Mario does has the obscenely overpowered Power Bounce which stacks marvelously with ATK buffs. Peril Mario, ATK buffs, and Power Bounce wrecks Paper Mario but getting the most out of that requires knowing the damage enemies do and some perfect blocks. Also not getting screwed by the RNG since the max number of power bounces you can do in one turn is determined by RNG.)


I don't got shit for expanding Paper Mario's categorization of attacks (although I'm a fan of adding spatial components to games, it's intuitive and there's multiple ways to have abilities have a variety of effects in range or manipulation positions).

For clarity of enemy actions there is value in enemy archtypes / palette swaps that help show evolved versions of enemies the player already knows. I like outright stating what enemies do, like Into the Brach I mentioned in the other thread. It's the same deal as FF14 AoEs, the enemy has decided to take an action and tells the player. The player has time and information on how they want to respond, then the enemy acts. Revealing enemy counters/reactions/traps can add to the battle too: Hit the Behemoth and it'll hit you back. Plainly state what the enemies will do and what it does. idk how best to convey that information at all though.


Also that Bug Fables looks cool as hell, I'm gonna have to keep an eye on it! I just hope they don't keep showing leading zeros, that stuff really irritates me
...I'm actually looking forward to Bug Fables purely based on that video. It's insane how games pushing the boundaries can be obscure at times.

I guess if I were to really break down the aerial/ground stuff the main difference from most elemental key/lock designs is that the locks have a way of changing after you unlocked them. Obviously it'd be really abstract with for some reason casting fire on grass type were to change it to water, so the aerial/ground is a much better tell to go by (Though "enemy is now wet/frozen" is sometimes done). Also I guess there's eventually an "end state" to things. Meaning after a point the lock may only go back and forth or just never change after you solved grounding them or blasting their defenses.

Some ideas even though my memory on Paper Mario is spotty and Bug Tales might already have them anyway:

-One possibility is that your party members have locks on them, that can also change depending if they've been unlocked or not. Which might have the design problem of forcing the player to tend to more defensive play, but it could make healing less linear. Persona sorta has this but being knocked down as a punishment was the only thing that usually happened.

-To add to the last, party members can only use certain skills when in certain locks. Though this is sort of like stances I guess in other RPGs. Except enemies can change those stances might make for weird nuances. For example a heal spell may heal you, but also keep your own lock from changing for 3 turns. Could be a good thing or a bad thing!

-Trading your own lock for an enemy's lock, could be a good thing or a bad thing!

-Environmental hazards, rarely see this kind of effective use in RPGs but there could be rules on whether or not a state could change based on where the battles take place. Wind could prevent aerial enemies from falling, which is a visual way of adding a spin on a battle without having to make a brand new enemy with that rule built in. So abstractly, circumstances where certain locks can't be changed, but in ways that creates interesting problems.

-Some sort of utility that lets you put any enemy into any state you want, even if it doesn't make logical sense. Mainly to just multiply the possibility space in select scenarios. You could probably apply this to equipment where you get to choose what state you end up in if your lock is keyed. In PM for instance, is there ever a reason you'd want an enemy put back into the air?

If you added all these at once it'd probably be a bad convoluted game, but this is mostly trying to think outside the box for a moment when it comes to key/locks.
Thank you both for the responses, you've been very helpful!

@GreatRedSpirit:
Paper Mario is definitely an improvement over the original Mario RPG. I know a lot of people love that game to death and the Geno character has gained something of a cult following always asking for him in smash bros, but I never saw it as anything special. It just doesn't do much that seems worth talking about.

I'm a big fan of spatial/positional stuff too. I love when RPGs have targeting options beyond single or all enemies. I was thinking about doing the Dragon Quest thing where multiple of the same enemy in an encounter are considered one group. You have attacks that hit one enemy, one group, or all enemies with the latter being rare and expensive to do. This might make the system too convoluted with the separation of ground and aerial positions added on top of that. Rows might work as well, then enemies can have more targeting options too.

I read what you and Darken wrote in the other thread about Into the Breach. I haven't played it but heard a lot of praise for it. I saw there's a GDC talk with one the game's designers, that might be worth a watch. While, I see value in the idea of hidden information (at least to an extent), being able to clearly communicate what the enemy's about to do while maintaining difficulty sounds like a wonderful feat to pull off. Usually you have to rely on patterns or the enemy taking a turn to charge up which means you need longer battles and typically have to learn by getting hit with the big attack (the khalamari boss near the beginning of Dragon Quest 8 can easily wipe your party before enough rounds have passed to see his 5-turn pattern for instance).

I agree about the usefulness of palette swaps. You can even do things where you add extra visual elements to the same enemy to portray different interactions. A slime enemy could be squished when they're hit preventing them from acting next round. A slime with a helmet will need to have it's helm broken before they can be squished. Dealing an attack that hits twice will be able to break the helmet and squish the slime in one turn. I'd like to do stuff like that.

@Darken:
Great suggestions, they've given me a lot more directions to consider, I especially like the stance idea. That suggestion, along with the Mario & Luigi examples you offered in the other thread, got me thinking of a system where enemy react to being hit or having their fellow monsters perish. Kill one slime, and the other slimes become enraged next turn boosting their attack and defense. The first slime was a one-hit kill, but other two won't with the defense boost warranting stuns or defending.

Paper Mario sort of does that first bullet point with its turtle party member. Just as enemy turtle can be flipped over and stunned by aerial attacks, so can your buddy turtle. When playing the game, I remember thinking it'd be nice if they did that sort of parity for more party members.

And no, PM doesn't have advantages for keeping enemies in the air or throwing them back up, though it's not hard to imagine some ways I could do that. Atmospheric-themed spells that only effect air enemies or having a physical skills like a jump kick that stuns enemies when hit from beneath them so it would only be useful against flying or large-sized enemies are ideas I've had.

General idea I've cooked up:
So, now I'm thinking of a system where hovering the cursor over an enemy when selecting which to target shows who the enemy is eyeing and the name of the skill they'll use on their next turn along with a symbol denoting a physical or magic skill.

Take the example above and apply to the beginning of a game where you start with only one party member. The first battle is against two creeping slimes. Both are one hit kills. Killing one causes the other to enrage boosting it's defense by a small amount and causing it to use the move "Body Slam" which deals more than double damage. The player will see the enemy's next move listed as Body Slam instead of normal attack and can probably figure it'll be strong move and maybe choose to defend a round instead of attacking knowing it's no longer a one-hit kill (defend will reduce damage by 75% instead of the usual 50%).

The second battle would be against two creeping slimes and a brutish hobgoblin. The hobgoblin always uses Body Slam on its first turn. The player will see this when they target the enemy. They've generated enough TP from the first battle to use a stun skill that deals no damage but puts one enemy out of commission for two rounds. They recognize the name Body Slam as the strong attack the enraged slime used last battle so they can figure out to stun the hobgoblin on round 1, one shot a slime round 2, defend round 3 to deal with the enraged slime, and then either one shot the slime on round 4 or deal with the hobgoblin since the slime's damage output will ne negligible without a way to get enraged again.

I think I could continue to build on an idea like that. There would be a small pool skills shared by a bunch of enemies like Body Slam so players would be rewarded for paying attention and recognizing ones they've seen before to know how to act. There would be more ways to shut down enemies as the game went on, not just crowd control but debuffs and skills that deplete/steal enemy TP.

Throw aerial/ground positioning and rows on top of this as well as defensive enemies that are strong to multi-hit attacks and evasive enemies that are dealt with by magic or highly accurate attacks, and do you think a system like this could work without being too convoluted? Would it be giving too much information away or is the information given too obscure?

It would also be nice to start with only two skills in this system: a basic attack that builds TP and a stun that costs it while still having some variety and different things to consider.
LockeZ
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.
5143
Paper Mario is a nice first RPG for preschoolers who are still learning to read. If you're making a game for a higher age group, not much about it is really worth emulating.

Its biggest fatal flaw is only having two party members at a time, one of whom is invincible. Other than that, though, it at least doesn't make many other serious mistakes that make players wince in pain, like so many other bad RPGs do. It avoids a lot of pitfalls. The game doesn't have any overpowered options that ruin the decision-making, it doesn't have systems that are misleading or confusing, it doesn't reward the player for playing in a more boring way, it doesn't trick the player into making irreversible bad decisions. It just doesn't do anything good either. There's nothing there to make it worth playing, or worth caring about.
Yeah it addressed a lot of fundamental problems the turn based RPG genre has but it's not worth caring about or taking inspiration from.
author=LockeZ
Paper Mario is a nice first RPG for preschoolers who are still learning to read. If you're making a game for a higher age group, not much about it is really worth emulating.

Hi, thanks for your response! I was interested to see if anyone had a negative outlook on PM's design. I feel you're being somewhat vague, however. You present the conclusion it's for kids and not worth emulating, but haven't shown us your work on how you got there.

The only criticism you point out is the two party member system and the way the front member can be used as a meat shield. I agree it's problem. The Bug Fables video I posted above mentioned this problem. That games looks to get rid of the system while still maintaining the overall design ethos of Paper Mario.

The big takeaway ideas from PM we've be discussing - as stated in the opening post - are things like the separation of attacks that hit with exposed body vs. a long disjoint, the ground/air positioning, the meaningful difference between multi-hit attacks and strong single hit attacks in a system with subtractive defense, and moves having multiple properties that open up to a number of different interactions which can be communicated to the player with intuitive visual design. That's a lot a lot to sweep under the rug as not worth emulating or looking for inspiration from.

It's tautological to say Paper Mario is for kids. I'm certain we all understand that it is. This gets to the heart of what I'm asking. When I wonder if these design elements I like can be applied to a "real" RPG, I'm asking what a grown-up Paper Mario would look like. Darken offered the proposition above about making similar game just harder, I think it's doable, and Bug Fables looks like it's heading in that direction.

Do you feel these elements fall to heavily into the lock-and-key design problem I talked about in the opening post? Are you saying these design elements intrinsically create childish and simple gameplay because the lock-and-key design - or possibility recognition as the article Darken linked to called it - are too obvious? I get the sense you feel these elements can't be divorced from childish gameplay because childish gameplay is the inevitable result of laying down a system like this in the first place. Is that an accurate summation of what you're trying to get at?

EDIT: It struck me your post might've been meant as a reaction to what I said regarding Super Mario RPG as I said it wasn't worth talking about and then you used similar language regarding Paper Mario. Even if I'm wrong about that, I will concede it was unfair of me to be so dismissive about it. Here's a proper explanation for why it doesn't click with me:

SMRPG does usual visuals in the enemy design to communicate ideas like not jumping spikey enemies, but the mechanics surrounding that are too abstract. Jump isn't an action that shares properties with other aerial actions, it's just an element for specials no different than fire or thunder, and Mario is the only party member with access to jump-elemental skills. It's not that jumping on spikey enemies will hurt you, the enemy just has immunity to the jump element. Flying enemies don't need to be taken down with aerial attacks, they just have high defense and a weakness to the jump element. It lacks the elegance Paper Mario has. I personally can't find much to say about the game because I just see rough draft for Paper Mario when I look at it. I'd love to see a good argument in it's favor if anyone feels different.
author=LockeZ
Paper Mario is a nice first RPG for preschoolers who are still learning to read. If you're making a game for a higher age group, not much about it is really worth emulating.

What you are saying is things that should be true, but isn't. Despite the rather low level decision making, it still manages to have a higher level of decision making than most JRPGs, including every Final Fantasy I've played.

That said, I do agree you shouldn't emulate it. However, starting with some of Paper Mario's principles and then figuring out ways to increase the depth could be worth it.
LockeZ
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.
5143
Well, the lock-and-key design is an intentionally ultra-simple type of gameplay, where all of the player's skills lack any kind of depth. None of them interact with each other. None of them have drawbacks. No turn affects anything that happens on future turns in any way that isn't 100% predictable, and even the predictable things your abilities change are limited to either preventing enemies from acting for one turn, or simply running out of MP. The game has no buffs or debuffs, no abilities which do multiple things. Tanking is nonexistent and healing involves no actual choices, both because you only have one character who can take damage. The total number of skills in the game is incredibly tiny, leaving a very tiny number of meaningful choices in any combat situation - in fact, the player almost never has more than one option of what they can do.

That last part is the worst problem, really. At no point almost anywhere in almost any battle in the Paper Mario series does the player think, "OK, I have these five or six different attacks, and each of them has a different upside and a different downside. I also have a number of buff spells or control spells which can influence the state of the battlefield. Which do I want to do, based on what I know about this enemy?" In Paper Mario, there's no reason to ever think about what to do because there's always exactly one answer. If your HP is below half then you heal, otherwise you attack the enemy's weakness. That's every turn in the game.

Plenty of other games have damage elements, which are essentially the same thing as the lock-and-key design, except that the skills in good games do more than just elemental damage. They have depth. If you rename the different damage types from hammer/jump/flying to fire/ice/lightning then maybe the problems become more obvious. The only attacks Mario can do in the entire game are essentially Fire 1, Ice 1, Bolt 1, and then once every few battles he gets a non-elemental limit break. The fact that elemental weakness and elemental immunity can do more than just change the amount of damage Mario hits for doesn't really change anything meaningful about how the player plays, since you're still always just going to perform whichever of those three attacks the enemy is weak to. Sometimes they change weakness mid-battle (and explicitly tell you so), and so you use a different one instead that round. That's it.

The areas are way better than most other games though, I'll definitely say that. It's really just the combat I hate. The solutions to interactive parts of the environments are often obvious, but often is not the same as always, and being interactive at all is better than 90% of RPGs. The only types of interaction in your typical RPG's areas are dodging enemies, finding invisible passageways, and one dungeon that has a hellish teleporter maze.
The predictability is my biggest concern. I'm really struggling to find the sweet spot between predictable enough for everything to be forgone conclusions and not predictable enough where everything feels like trial and error. Is more RNG the solution?

Take status effects. Part of me feels like I should just make the resistances binary. Some enemies will have 100% immunity, but nothing will have a 35% chance to resist. In Final Fantasy XII where the status effects feel impactful, I tend to spend the beginning of tough battles throwing out dark and slow until they finally set. If it takes too long, I can always just try the fight again and see if I get better dice rolls. I really want to avoid that.

Above, I described a system I've been stewing over based on Paper Mario's predictability and my desire to have - as someone else eloquently described as - getting enemy mechanics to scale with player mechanics. In that hypothetical battle system where I had two slimes, kill one slime and the other gets enraged by boosting it's defense and preparing for a strong skill, now the player knows what happens when they kill a slime with other slimes around and can plan for that. Would it be better if other slimes only had a 50/50 chance to enrage at the sight of their kin dying?

I get what you guys are saying when you say not to emulate it. In the opening post, I said wasn't interested in a verbatim interpretation, but it's possibly I'm simply not discerning enough to dig out the parts that are worth examining. Should I ditch the ground/air positioning in favor of rows or Dragon Quest style grouping?

I did consider making it so any attack can hit aerial enemies, not just specifically designated aerial attacks, but you would be put into a state of vulnerability. Of course, if I go too far in this direction, I fear losing that design elegance I really want.
author=LockeZ
That last part is the worst problem, really. At no point almost anywhere in almost any battle in the Paper Mario series does the player think, "OK, I have these five or six different attacks, and each of them has a different upside and a different downside. I also have a number of buff spells or control spells which can influence the state of the battlefield. Which do I want to do, based on what I know about this enemy?" In Paper Mario, there's no reason to ever think about what to do because there's always exactly one answer. If your HP is below half then you heal, otherwise you attack the enemy's weakness. That's every turn in the game.

There's built in assumptions based on that hypothetical ideal you brought up, because it sounds a little skewed from what Paper Mario even aims to do. The predictability comes from the the information being very elegantly displayed. I see a lot of RMVX games that focus on synergy and stuff but really mess up on the communication (relying on tons of icons / status popups) or even lacking a clear combat goal where upfront damage feels like a bad decision. PM really wants you to think in terms of hits and not abstract numbers, buffs and debuffs often feel like a lack of interaction at times (though I'm pretty sure PM does have moves that affect later turns) There's also the pitfall of 'every skill is useful therefore there is no wrong answer' that you can fall into. Not to say that tradeoff gameplay is fundamentally flawed, but I think there is something poignant to a game where the optimal choice presents itself clearly because of how well information is presented. It's a bit like arguing the merits of super linear games like NES platformers where yes you're simply going through a very rigid obstacle course the designer set out for you, sure there's a ton of variance in running and jumping - but goals like "go right" and "shoot anything that moves" gives a huge purpose for those interactions.

The biggest excuse you can make for RPGs (especially old ones) is that they were never meant to be flowchart skill-rotation battle simulators but convoluted cookie clickers where its fun to see the numbers go up on characters you're invested in. Which I think complicates the discussions of "this is what a turn based rpg should be" because it's worth rewinding a bit and approaching things practically. Final Fantasy will have the most random shit that has no coherent balance (Wow a death spell! I'm sure that's self explanatory and has no strings attached) but because it has so much of it there's still a game in knowing what should be ignored and what's worth spamming. A lot of RPGs will simply be inspired by that furthering the plague of really mixed priorities.

On the extreme side of things if every battle was a chess match where you have to think 5 moves ahead the length and frequency of the battles (meant to progress your character) would get tiring. Paper Mario keeps that problem to a minimum while also asking you to pay attention once in awhile. People complain about Mario Odyssey for having its collectible Moons be really bite sized activities but they at least don't overstay their welcome. For better or worse it's very Nintendo(tm) brand design. A game like Gwent accomplishes the "thinking man's game" stuff but uh, not everyone wants to make a card game. Which I think is what EtherPenguin struggles with.

author=Darken
On the extreme side of things if every battle was a chess match where you have to think 5 moves ahead the length and frequency of the battles (meant to progress your character) would get tiring.


This resonates with me. As much I don't want the battles to be mindless, the opposite extreme isn't particularly attractive either. I loved Radiant Historia, but I ran from nearly everything because of this. The combat system led to some pretty great fights and boss battles, but it could've used a few chill encounters.

And yes, Paper Mario has stuff that effects later turns. Some notable examples being Bombery's ability to lay down traps that explode a round or two later being good against encounters that summons adds, and Vivian's DOTs being useful on enemies that clones themselves and make you pick the real one. The burn damage will go off on all clones at once, hurting the real one and dissipating the clones before the player even has to guess which one is the real one. That was a pretty satisfying interaction even if it was a simple one (If you don't find them too annoying, you can see the Game Grumps accidentally stumble on this tactic at around 10:20 in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp6eHrkAMu8&list=PLRQGRBgN_EnrzdGqBL9mP7crrIWd1zM6D&index=122&t=0s). Granted, I don't think the above poster was in doubt of this, rather he was saying the set ups that effect later turns lack unpredictability.

Paper Mario has buffs/debuffs as well. For my own playthrough of TTYD, I went all in on the jumpman badge (boosts jump power at the cost of disabling all hammer abilities) and got a fair bit of mileage out of shrink/soft/sleep stomp. Also, that star power that boosts your attack and defense is a lifesaver in the latter half of the game.

Most you're typical spell effects like buffs/debuffs and crowd control come from items and star powers. I recognize your partners only gain a maximum of four skills, but items are still stuff you're using in battle to gain an advantage. It doesn't need to cost MP to be a skill. In all RPGs, items are really just skills with a different cost system. Even among your four partner skills, there's a few interesting utility ones like Shell Shield and Rally Wink. I think four partner skills, the ability to switch partners at the cost of a turn (or you could freely swap in battle by converting the previous cost into badge points), items, and star powers gives you decent enough sized toolbox where just about everything fills some niche.

For example, here's a video of all the boss fights (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjFWuQJCIRE). Skip to 3:03:00 where the Bonetail (the optional superboss) battle begins. The player uses an interesting strategy based around the charge ability to stack attack buffs. He uses Rally Wink to give Mario an additional turn to stack buffs faster and Shell Shield to keep Mario alive while he buffs. I know these sort of tactics aren't usable in most the normal gameplay, but I think this shows that some more complex actions and strategies are still possible inside PM's system.

You can probably see why I'm getting some mixed messages when I see people say things along the lines of "it requires more decision making than most RPGs, but you don't want to emulate it." I think that's my fault. I started a topic asking about how to bring PM design to a more normal RPG, but I never gave any sort of a priori description of what a normal RPG is. I never had interest in just sticking to a leader and a partner. I was imagining maintaining a four person party and queuing up commands at the start of a round to then play out based on agility stats, all of that would still be there.

To generate ideas, I've been doing a thought experiment on what the first few areas of Dragon Quest III would be like with my ideas applied. I picked the game as it's a favorite of mine and the most quintessential jrpg in my eyes. It's long so I'm putting it in spoilers, but to give you an idea of what I'm envisioning of a traditional RPG with PM design principles, I thought I'd share it:


You would still have a party four. There wouldn't be the strict party line-up where only the first member of the line-up can be hit with ground attacks, the only positioning would enemies on the ground and those in the air (we are ditching DQ's usual enemy grouping for this). Combat has you decide your commands at the beginning of round and then they act out based on the agility stat like DQ and unlike PM's phases.

Now I did apply some of my original ideas to this that aren't in either Dragon Quest or Paper Mario. Every character has a maximum of 20MP that doesn't change for the whole game and there's plenty of skills the generate MP. I find traditional MP that slowly dwindles throughout a dungeon ridiculously hard to balance, and I like the pacing between phases of generating and expenditure, it gives a sense of flow.

At the beginning you pick your party. We'll ditch the goof-off and add in the thief from the SNES version. We'll give each class four abilities and a passive to offer us an idea of their playstyle. This wouldn't have to be the maximum, and I would probably have the game start with just two, but for this experiment let's just keep four skills the whole way through:

Hero (Erdrick/Loto/Roto - whatever you want to call him)
- Slash: One hit of 8 damage to a foe. Builds 3MP on hit. (Weapon attack)
- Pummel: Leap at a foe from the air to deal two hits of 4 damage. Builds 1MP per hit. (Fisticuff attack)
- Cleave: One hit of 14 damage to a foe. Costs 5MP. (Weapon attack)
- Heal: Restore 10HP to an ally. Costs 8MP.
- Gifts 5HP to all party members whenever buffed.

Soldier
- Bash: One hit of 8 damage to a foe. Builds 4MP. (Weapon attack)
- Taunt: Draw aggression of all enemies and reduce the attack power of the targeted foe. 50/50 chance to gain 1MP when attacked for two rounds.
- Cyclone: One hit of 8 damage to all foes on the ground. Costs 8MP. (Weapon attack)
- Shield Slam: One hit of 6 damage to a foe. Stuns target for two rounds (plus another turn to get up). Costs 5MP. (Weapon attack)
- Increase attack power by 2 when MP is over 10.

Fighter
- Jab Combo: Three hits of 4 damage to a foe. Builds 2MP per hit. (Fisticuff attack).
- High Kick: Strike a target from the air with one hit of 8 damage. Steals 4MP. (Fisticuff attack).
- Intimidate: High chance to stun foes on the ground and reduce their MP. Costs 10MP.
- Battle Soul: Reduce own HP by a third to instantly generate 10MP.
- Evasion chance drastically improves as HP goes down.

Pilgrim
- Blaze: One hit of 6 damage, inflict fire DOT. The pilgrim receives 2MP every time the targeted enemy takes damage from the fire dot. (Indirect attack)
- Buff: Increases an ally's defense by 3-6 for two rounds.
- Dazzle: Drastically reduce all enemies' accuracy for the rest of the current round and all of the next round. Costs 5MP.
- Heal: Restore 10HP to an ally. Costs 8MP.
- Recover 3-5MP after battle.

Wizard
- Crack: One defense-piercing hit of 8 damage to an enemy. The target's defense is reduced by up to 4 points for one round. (Indirect attack)
- Drain: Steal 4-6 MP from an enemy. Steal 8 at full health.
- Sleep: Put an enemy to sleep for two rounds. Costs 3MP.
- Sizzle: Hit all enemies for 12 defense-piercing damage. Costs 16MP. (Indirect attack)
- 50/50 chance of gaining 1MP whenever an ally generates MP.

Merchant
- Clobber: Two hits of 4 damage to one target. Builds 2MP per hit. (Fisticuff attack)
- Oomph: Double an ally's attack power for a turn.
- M-Pathy: Gift all MP to an ally. The receiving ally gains even more MP than the merchant has to give when their health is full.
- Baton Pass: Give your turn to an ally. MP costs will be reduced for the selected ally. Costs 6MP.
- 50/50 chance of enemies dropping double the gold.

Theif:
- Lacerate: One hit of 6 damage to a target. Reduce target's defense for one turn. Builds 3MP. (Weapon attack).
- Air Slash: Two hits of 4 damage from the air. Builds 1MP per hit. (Weapon attack).
- Tranquilizer: One hit of 4 damage that puts an enemy to sleep for two turns. Costs 3MP. (Weapon attack)
- Victimizer: One hit of 8 damage to a target. Damage is more than doubled against sleeping targets. Costs 6MP. (Weapon attack)
- Fleeing from battle is always successful while in the party.

Then for enemies we could have:
- Slime: 8HP, 4ATK, 0DEF. Become enraged when fellow slimes die, gaining 1 defense for a turn and performing a heavy attack.
- Raven: 12HP, 4ATK, 0DEF, flying, boosts agility of fellow monsters.
- Spiked Hare: 8HP, 4ATK, 0DEF, spike on head hurts characters using fisticuff attacks from the air, high agility, high chance of starting battle with a strong attack.
- Poison Frog: 16HP, 4ATK, 0DEF, jumps up and down every other turn alternating whether it's on the ground or in the air, inflicts poison dot, can put a player character to sleep.
- Putrid Pup: 12HP, basic attacks hits twice for 4 damage, 0DEF, little to resistance against accuracy debuffs.
- Iron Crab: 12HP, 8ATK, 4DEF, can summon more Iron Crabs.
- Dracky: 10HP, 4ATK, 0DEF, basic attack steals HP.
- Fire Spirit: 8HP, 4ATK, 0DEF, basic attack inflicts a fire dot, can't be hit with any fisticuff attack ground-based or aerial. (From 8 not 3, but they work for the Paper Mario mechanics).

In this system you have the ground/air separation, aerial enemies can only be hit by aerial attacks, there's the exposed body vs. long disjoint difference. All the main things I like about Paper Mario. Here you would take these things into consideration when developing a party.

On top of that, there would be interactions to consider. The merchant may be useless in and off himself but his attack power buff not only doubles an ally's attack, it also heals the party when cast on the hero due to his passive. The fighter has stuns and abilities that steal/reduce MP to try and shut down enemies which works with his high agility and the fact he'll likely be acting first each round. The Soldier has a stun the much longer than the fighter's but he also is likely to act last every battle. I made the pilgrim here more of a sustained magic attacker while the wizard is all about burst damage and relying on his party members to help him gain back his MP.

The numbers obviously aren't tweaked. I just threw out a general estimation of what gave the general picture. You can see there's an idea of weak attacks gaining more MP than stronger ones to offer some tradeoff to consider. Some skills neither generate nor costs MP directly. They instead costs it indirectly by taking a turn you could've spent on a MP-generating skill.

Some stuff is still a little murky to fit in with Paper Mario. The idea of some characters generating MP from DOT ticks is hard to communicate unless I make sure every skill with a DOT is portrayed as a different element.


For anyone who took the time read this, do you think these ideas could work or do they fall too far into the lock-and-key trap? Hopefully this serves as an example we can keep the essence of PM's design while offering more interactions between party member skills and resource-cost/generation to offer more considerations beyond just "hit aerial monsters with aerial attacks" while not ditching it entirely. If not, then it's back to drawing board for me.
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