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Design principles vol. 1: RPGs and strategy

  • Hasvers
  • 07/15/2014 09:02 PM
I tend to like thinking about game design. Articles such as Deltree's (Edit: and Craig Stern's) are the sort of things I read ravenously. But despite there being a lot of good writing on the topic*, not much applied to my case, so I figured I might as well start a series of discussions here.

* (among an infinite sea of meh writing; most game makers are not great at reflecting upon what they do)

Vol 1: Why is there no strategy in RPG battles?

This may seem tangential, but really, it's what prompted me into switching to a whole different design. I mean, I love the idea of RPGs, else I wouldn't be here. But RPG battles are satisfying through their simulation aspects, i.e. because of what they let you reenact; they are not satisfying at all in terms of strategic thinking.

The crucial symptom of everything that is wrong with RPG battles fits in three letters:


Damage Per Second in real-time games like MMORPGs, or Damage Per Turn, is the absolute scale on which you can measure the value of any strategy. Sure, your characters need to stay alive, but only so that they can deal more damage, so the time spent healing them should just be subtracted from the DPS. In the end, no matter how it's distributed over characters and skills and stats and turns and stuff, you're just trying to make a single number go down as fast as possible.

Why is this so bad? Because it means that

1) RPG battles are played on a single line. Multiple stats (like HP and MP) are in fact convertible into each other through skills, so they are just different ways of moving along the same one line.

2) Therefore, RPG battles have no memory: I hit you, you lose HP, you heal yourself, we're back at step one. (Maybe you lost an item in the process, but item consumption is part of the larger resource management gameplay; the battle itself could be replaced by a simple "you lost a Potion" message to the exact same effect)

3) Since there is no memory, for any instantaneous state of the couple {your hp, my hp}, there is always a single optimal move no matter how you got there, and it will work every time I encounter you. There may be some thinking involved in calculating that optimal move (with an arbitrary number of skills and elements and modifiers to complicate it), but once it's found it will always work. By that reasoning, there should never be more than one encounter with any given enemy.

To make this clearer, let's compare it with the case of chess, a thoroughly bidimensional game.

1) Every action is irreversible ; you never come back to the same configuration twice in the same battle (unless both you and your opponent are just derpily moving bishops back and forth).

2) This stems from the fact that, thanks to the second dimension, all your previous actions are "stored" on independent lines. They do not erase each other, they do not act only in aggregate (i.e. simply by summing their instantaneous effects). Thus, they can come back to haunt you later: the position in which you put that pawn in the opening can change everything 30 turns later, not even through an action of the pawn itself, but because it blocks the line of sight of a bishop at the other end of the board.

In slightly abstract terms, RPG battles are chess played on a single row. Characters are abstract bundles of actions, each action is a chess piece that has slightly different rules for how it moves on that line. The order in which you advance the pieces can be important depending on which pieces the enemy has, but you can never circumvent an enemy piece by moving to the side and thus putting the king in check unexpectedly; all you have to do is mow through these pieces until you get there. Some tactics, perhaps, but no strategy.

Now of course, you don't necessarily want a game to be extremely strategic. If every battle in FF7 required beating Kasparov, not many people would have got out of Midgard. But strategy does provide those aha moments that go far beyond the simple tactical calculus of maximal DPS, and they are definitely something I would like to capture in my games.

Next time: I will talk about the basic design principles that I consider especially interesting in the case of a discourse-themed game.


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All of this is great conversation fodder, but I'm going to touch on one point that is relevant to many JRPGs (and WRPGs, often, but JRPGs in particular).

This design aspect you're looking at is battle-centric, but typical JRPGs aren't battle-centric, even if they come off that way. In reality, they're "dungeon"-centric. Think of any set course in a game where you know the next bit of plot is at the end of a cave, and you're almost certain there's going to be a boss at the end. Battles are part of the larger picture that culminates in a Boss Fight to complete the dungeon.

This might seem like a minor point, but it's exactly why battles are designed the way they are. Having consumables, health that doesn't regenerate after every battle, and any variation of enemy placement (from optional encounters that guard treasure chests to random encounters), you can tell that the true value doesn't lie battle-to-battle. Dungeons are obstacle courses, and your ability to prepare for that gauntlet and still defeat the boss (albeit often relying on the linear system you've described above per battle) is the Big Picture.

A real world example would be the World Cup. Some people think that flopping a match is a bad call, but that's only if you look at it as match-centric. The World Cup is a much larger game. Within that game, sometimes you have to retreat from other matches, or flop some, to enable strategic placement or energy conservation. It's the difference between minor battles and the overall war.

JRPGs are dungeon-centric in that same manner. You may be able to pull apart the DPS aspect in each battle and say that RPG battles have no real strategy, but that's a touch myopic. The actual strategy is in preparation, conservation of supplies, and the willingness to avoid optional confrontations until you win the overall battle (the World Cup). The memorization you've described is shown in the HP, Mp, and items (typically) that are carried onward throughout an isolated location. You mention that the item consumption is all part of a larger resource management gameplay but don't mention that the larger gameplay is what often dictates the individual engagements and how you encounter them.

If you were to design a battle system that was strategic in a self-contained way, you risk losing all instances of "carry-over," which is vital to a dungeon. Using chess as another example: if you make every battle in a dungeon a chess match, individual battles become too relevant to necessitate a dungeon, and the game shifts from being dungeon-centric to battle-centric. In doing that, having any sort of dungeon or any gauntlet of repeated combat becomes superfluous.

RPGs may often have exactly what you've described, and lack strategy in each individual battle, but the core of the system is not about each individual battle so much as it is a larger machine that incorporates many small, DPS-heavy cogs. Saying battles have no strategy is fine, but it's a smaller part of a bigger strategy system that does have memory even if it's not nearly as complex as it could be.

I loved reading this, by the way. :) Looking forward to your view on my giant wall of text.
The system you're describing is fairly simplistic, no?

I definitely agree that it applies to many (way too many) RPG battle systems, but I would not agree that it encompasses all of them. Examples like Fire Emblem seem like they might not be what you intended, so I won't make further mention of them, but there are other ways to make battles multi-dimensional as well.

For example, anytime there are several paths that differ tactically but are roughly equal in their overall effectiveness, the battle gains dimension. Even if the overall goal is to reduce the enemy's hp, if you can do it in a manner totally different than the next guy with similar efficiency, there must be something more to the battle than a simple Golden Path.

Consider if a player can choose to buff an ally or make an attack. Assuming both are legitimate options, the player has not only made progress on their goal of eliminating enemies, but, in the case of the buff, may have also made a decision with memory, as it remains for several rounds.

Now, consider that the enemy may also pose a serious threat to the player's hp. Provided that the player can't outheal the enemy's damage, the enemy attacks can be said to have memory.

The problem, then, isn't so much that the battles cannot have strategy, but that common RPG conventions work against that. Things like abundant healing, restorative items and step-up skills (fira->firaga) lend to the issue. But, there are ways to make it shine.
Well, I agree with Merlandese. You are also not differentiating between different RPG genre.
By and large, battles are just a way to buy more time.
How sad that might be, in most instances it is the case. Story-heavy RPGs are a great thing, but story alone does not easily fill 50 hours. Some do a great job of mixing dungeon and story (I loved Tales of Symphonia's banter inbetween)

The major difficulty is mana and item preservation throughout the dungeons. I tend to not use any items at all and do perfectly fine. As long as you pay a little bit attention, that is no problem at all.
Dungeons are a way to implement more puzzles as well(-> time-consumption + variation).

Dungeon Crawler use this exact principle Marlandese described. And there are plenty of them. First person, third person, with a complete team or with single persons. It's usually about surviving long term.
Elemental affinities allow you to have some sort of tactic, but most enemies (talking about you, burning horse) are more than obvious.

As for Action RPGs .. it's all about not immediately dying and surviving somehow.
Usually, the main reason you enjoy them more is because battles tend to be more fun. Not more difficult, but more fun. More buttons to smash and so forth. It usually does allow some difficulty, but not that much.
Hunter games (Monster Hunter, God Eater Burst..) tend to do a good job about it. But granted that battles are all you ever do, they definitely should.

Western RPGs tend to be hard at first, but once you have a solid skill-set and proper armor, they tend to become a breeze (one of the reasons I dislike most).
If you'd tell me Skyrim or Oblivion had difficult battles, I'd laugh.
Not as grand games like Divinity II suffer from the same problems (albeit that one was shorter and much much much more atmospheric, so battles needn't be that good)

Now, there are strategy RPGs that are actually a challange. Not that many, but hey. If you want to form tactics, play Disgaea. You have so ridiculous possibilities (which does include grinding a power-missile-character, too), that's one where you can really play out your abilites.

The only Strategy RPG I enjoyed long-term was SMT Devil Survivor. Which is actually a hybrid, as you have a grid map, but turn to a turn-based battle once you attack an enemy onfield. You also don't have any dungeons (duh.), you need to buy and fuse demon teammates to suit your playstyle and often have conditions to fight under (like not letting civilians die), which require you to adjust your tactic drastically.
Demons have racial skills, some can speed you up, some help you conserve mana, some give you more battle power - choosing demons according to that alone is important. You can use one skill outside and inside a battle each turn, so mana will really be kept short. And items are nonexistent. Plus, infight, you need to go for critical hits and weaknesses in order to gain an extra turn (and not giving the enemy one), so that's actually a pretty simple setup, which works great.

And, btw, SMT (JRPG) is by far the series with the best battle system I've encountered so far. Not only the battle system, though.

While I did not enjoy SMT IV nearly as much as previous installments, its battles are what you would like to have in mind (SMT in general, but this one even more so). Bosses aren't really harder than random encounter. But random encounter will skewer you, though, when you do not pay attention or mess up your turn.
I found it too easy overall, but I should be used to the system. Others certainly beg to differ.

It uses the same pressturn-system as other installments, which you means you get one turn for each member, and by hitting weaknesses you can get up to 4 more turns. Or lose all of them (if something is nulled, 2 are lost, if something is repelled or drained, all are lost). The same works for the enemy as well.

As you have physical + elementals + ailments + dark and light as categories, you will have to memorize a lot longterm. It also allows for much more strategy in both normal and bossfights. The fact that SMT's foes are mythical creatures makes guessing more difficult, although you actually can after a while.

And to come down to your question .. the reason there is no strategy in RPGs is the focus on one aspect (story, explorations) allows to ignore other aspects without breaking the game.
I'm afraid many would not appreciate difficulty in a game that has story-focus, either. And using tactical gameplay means that the game is difficult, should you not use the system.
There are games which allow that (and I beat 30 levels lower than my peers), but they are rare inbetween. What makes it fun for me, means grinding for the others.

As a result, most RPGs tend to have limitless items, healing spots, battle power and whatnot. And apparantly, some do need that to be able to complete a game. I remember reading many positive reviews about Devil Survivor, but people not being able to actually finish it in any way, because it was too hard.

But that's just my rambling :)

Woo, some opposition! (I like dialectic, who would've thought)
Thank you for your ramblings, and allow me to mass my own rant powers for great justice.

First I should note that yes, what I'm saying applies only to the standard RPG battle, not the T/S-RPG or the A-RPG (or for that matter the FPS-RPG a la Mass Skyrim: New Vegas)

Second, I should note that a game having no strategy at all doesn't necessarily make it bad. I'm glad that people can enjoy Canabalt for different reasons than they enjoy go. But strategy is what I, personally, am looking for in something that looks like a battle, so I'm fine with battle-less strategy-less, or battleful and strategyful games.

Merlandese and Kylaila>

Problem 1: Battles serve to whittle down your resources. Fine. But then why do you need to spend a good two thirds of your playtime dealing with them? It's micromanaging to an absurd extent.

There may be a learning aspect to reward the quick-witted with smaller losses. But if the player finds the appropriate actions once, he just has to apply them again and again without any further creative thought - the only point of repeating them is a mental attrition war where the player will eventually make a suboptimal move due to sheer exhaustion (or boredom). That is a possible form of tension, just not a mechanics that I find strategic - or even fun in my own case.

Problem 2: having those two systems in interaction could seem like a good idea, but in many, many cases, it largely obscures the dungeon-based survival part. Because it's hard to have something that is balanced at both levels; well adjusted survival mechanics can become extremely punitive with the added randomness of battles - and let's face it, RPGs are the most terribly balanced of all games, anywhere (as you remark it, Kylaila, it's due in part to the fact that gameplay can be a chore that you do to "earn" story, which means there's something very, very wrong with the genre conventions).

The probability that there's some inelegant, repetitive solution that will outperform every well thought-out tactics grows exponentially with the number of ingredients you try to put in a game (3d RPGs are the worst, because then you can even block your enemies behind a door or throw them off a mountain instead of winning the fight). And in many cases, all you have to do to solve a problem is spend more time on it. The dungeonesque version is grinding, a bug that became pretty much accepted as a feature, like perfect level memorization in shmups (and perfect boss action sequence memorization in SMT) or quicksave/quickload in other provinces of gaming.

Solution: We can keep the learning/reward aspect. The first time you battle a certain group of enemies, you consume X potions and Y ethers. Fine, from now on, every encounter with those enemies is skipped and replaced by the same consumption, unless you want to challenge them again to obtain a better result. Once you're fine with that cost, you just incorporate it in your larger, dungeon- or game-scale planning and stop losing time on it.

The thing is, once again, resource attrition is not really strategy. It is a one dimensional battle on a larger scale - gold converted into potions converted into surviving battles that give gold. I'm not denying there can be some cool tactics, at the battle level or at the game level - I will be excited if I finally understand the sequence of actions to beat that boss, and relieved when I see the light with two characters standing after a terrible dungeon.

But in a sense, winning at tactics is about optimal action, about not making mistakes; winning at strategy is about creative vision, and that part is what I'm more deeply interested in recreating in a game.


If I have an attack that makes the same damage as the difference in damage caused by the buff, then the only result of my choice is a different repartition of that damage over time - spiky versus continuous. It is something that can be used for tactics to some extent - in fact it is the most common form that tactics take in RPG battles, preventing spikes of damage from the enemy to avoid dying (by learning when to duck, basically).

But it's, let's say, 1.5 dimensional - it's not memory in the sense that I was intending, because the identity and sequence of individual actions still doesn't matter, only their summed effect at any given instant is important. Chess also has that time-control aspect plus the non-erasure and non-aggregation of individual moves, which makes it "2.5 dimensional".

And let's face it, a huge lot of choices in RPGs are purely cosmetic. I have a pet peeve with defense and evasion, or magic and skills and items, or stats and classes and characters and equipment and freaking battle formations - they do the exact same thing with different labels. I love Suikoden 5 but it was a terrible offender with 50 different ways of overpowering your characters with the same end result.
NB: If you want a magnificent example of non-RPG gamewide "dungeon survival", play The Void. The survival mechanics is distilled to a single variable, with a clarity and efficacy I haven't found anywhere else. The game is extremely clever and extremely hard.
I fully agree with Problem 1. They should not, but throughout all genres, these morbid conventions have become far too common. Especially in well-known titles.

Although not all games can be beaten by one repeated tactic. Dungeoncrawler usually do fall under this category. Although tactic in those is building and skilling a party for the most part.
Balancing also plays a huge part, as usually one is stronger than the other (I was truly amazed by DDS near-perfect balance) - especially when you can skill your character.
What use is going for mage if you suck when you do?

One problem that comes in addition to it, that often times the battle speed is s-l-o-w ... especially skills and magic. I don't care one bit for fancy spell animation when they destroy any desire to use them. And in most standard RPGs, you get all kinds of spells .. well, because you can have them. No need to use even one of them, though.
It's one of the reasons I actually like the RPG Maker system, because it is very fast by default (if you do not add all kinds of stuff, of course) - it may not necessarily add to tactic, but it allows to make more use of skills. And it's just more fun.

Sometimes I really like no-brain dungeoncrawling, but it's hard to find RPGs utilizing tactic. And I won't ever expect them. Games like Radiant Historia really utilizied the small-grid it was using during turn-based battles (not any formation-crap), but I can count the games that did it fairly well on my fingers' end.

Your solution is very interesting. But it seems more like an idea than a solution. How do intend to apply this effect instantly? Losing health or losing potions / ethers?
I quite like the approach, but you need an actual battle-system that allows for a strategy that is not repetitive in itself (as you explained above), that is not too mana-consuming, either (ethers) and allows you for a large range of results in a classic turn-based battle.
The problem here is the execution rather than the idea.

Haha yes what I called solution is just a random idea that deserves more thought for execution. There are certainly tons of other ways of solving the problem depending on your preferences. Having no battles at all, or only in a very abstract ways, or more integrated into the dungeon-crawling itself (for instance in rogue-likes, with the possibility of using the terrain and such) are other solutions.

Actually this makes me think that another part of strategy is being able to predict the consequences of your actions; you cannot strategize much if you don't know what is coming next, so in a battle you will just try not to spend too many items, but you will never be really sure of what you can or cannot afford to spend (unless you've done the dungeon before).

Maybe this could make battles more interesting, if you could understand in advance what position they occupy with respect to the dungeon as a whole, and this could influence your choices - i.e. instead just having random encounters where you must be economical and the final boss where you can spend everything, you would know that you can afford to lose more HP here, more ethers there... Sort of extending the trade-off choices from the "pre-dungeon planning phase" into the dungeon itself.

(And slowness in battles should simply be punishable by law, it's really the worst contribution of Squaresoft to the gaming world)
I think chess isn't an advantageous example here. Chess is an "abstract strategy" game, as they're categorized, which means that there is no hidden information to any player, nor any random chance. No critical hits, no held cards, etc. Some master chess players will attest that the game becomes memorization, yes, and that in the very end, you have a large selection of memorized paths going against the opponent's memorized paths. That means that chess can (and I think possibly has) been solved--every outcome can be predicted. And if that's true of chess and chess is still strategy, I claim that the same is true for the RPG systems.

Here's an article where someone makes the same assertion I just did about how chess is memorization. This article is actually opposed to my stance, but the reply dwells in this odd sense of "feeling" and "soul" that is so vague and unreliable in the logical value we'd use to define strategy that I think his opposition helps reinforce my position more than harm it. Just because he's so intimate with the memorization of chess doesn't somehow make it defy the reality of it being memorization, I believe. Chess is Memory?

So if the start conditions are the same, and the end conditions are the same, and many paths can be figured out with equal result (excluding failed paths), there's not much difference to the linearity of RPG battles other than the simplicity and execution.

I'll be the first to admit that RPGs are big offenders in Problems 1 and 2 outlined above; the fact that JRPGs often insist that you get a Full Heal before a boss is in exact opposition to the stance I tried to make about being dungeon-centric. The system is riddled with poor implementation, and mostly because of convention rather than intention.

But I don't think that the fact that you can change RPGs into a numeric calculation makes it less strategically inclined than chess. Chess may not be something calculable in the mathematics sense, but it can still be solved. A jigsaw puzzle has just as much of a solution as an equation, and even if you change the tactics of solving either, the end strategy circles around the same notions. For chess, you must checkmate the king, and for RPGs, you must HP = 0 the boss. Pawns will be killed along the way sometimes, and sometimes not, depending on how you approach the final win condition.

The key difference between these two systems in my mind isn't so much the core of what constitutes a strategy, but the actual implementation. Chess is elegant, and has been changing and morphing into its current form for hundreds of years. RPG battles and dungeons are not chess, but there's still an underlying principle of picking paths to the same win condition, whereas some paths are strategically sound and others are Game Over.

Kylaila says it best with "The problem here is the execution rather than the idea." I think there's the issue: the core for a dungeon-centric RPG is still strategy, but it's often executed poorly.

I think the opposite of strategy is luck. If we were to really accuse the systems of being non-strategic, I would point my finger at variance in stats, encounters, and other hidden information. Risk management is an aspect of some games, but when you go too far with the luck, all planning and forethought disappear.

EDIT: I posted this without reading your post directly before mine, but it looks like we're on the same page about getting rid of hidden information.
I find using a dungeon environment is a difficult approach, as it comes down to the same core-tactics. Avoiding dangerous areas (poisoned etc), surprising enemies, fighting inbetween floors and so on.
As in rogue-likes or 3rd person dungeon crawling .. it's all about not being surrounded. Period.

How to use a dungeon is a difficult question in itself. But this idea, too, seems to stray from your complaint of single battles being too easy/obsolete. If I understood correctly, you should use tactic in each and every fight while planning for the entire dungeon.

Knowing where you can afford to lose HP and where not would require knowledge you should not have, unless you are operating with an outer contact/information source (screams stealth game). And I cannot find any tactical thinking in being more aggressive when you know you can be more aggressive, and be more conservative when you know you should be.

My favorite RPG in terms of actual tactic with turn-based-battles (even as hybrid) still remains Devil Survivor. Although the second one already screws with balancing.
If you play it right you can avoid all and any grinding while others are going crazy despite additional grinding. It requires different tactics for different battles and objectives, and allows for team customization as well. (+ story, yay)

While it has a different genre woven in and does not rely on dungeons, it certainly offers ways of expanding the usual battle style.
Limiting the times you can use spells inbetween battles, for example, would require you to keep track of your HP more, as you can't just heal it up afterwards (with less mana-consuming single-target spells anyhow). It would result in healing being needed in battles as well.

Getting and losing additional turns requires you to keep track of your own weakpoints while it makes exploiting the enemies' vital.

Giving different objectives to the "get through the dungeon" might expand upon that as well. If you are, for example, heading to save someone, you might limit the maximum turns you may take in battle in order to be able to rush to the person's side.
If you are defending a certain point, you may not be able to flee. Or you cannot use certain spells, perhaps some magic, because the environment would be damaged if you did (massive fire in forest or gas-filled rooms, for example).
Not in the sense of it being void, but something you need to see for yourself. Taking massive damage as a result or so.

I wouldn't focus too much on item consumption, unless you cannot heal yourself. I certainly rarely if ever use them, and I find they are more of a "last resort" than anything else. And even in last battles, I just use the cheapest ones..

(And slowness in battles should simply be punishable by law, it's really the worst contribution of Squaresoft to the gaming world)

We, sir, are in agreement.
Sviel> If I have an attack that makes the same damage as the difference in damage caused by the buff, then the only result of my choice is a different repartition of that damage over time - spiky versus continuous. It is something that can be used for tactics to some extent - in fact it is the principal form that tactics take in RPG battles, preventing spikes of damage from the enemy to avoid dying (by learning when to duck, basically).

But it's, let's say, 1.5 dimensional - it's not memory in the sense that I was intending, because the identity of individual actions still doesn't matter, only their summed effect at any given instant is important. Chess also has that time-control aspect plus the non-erasure and non-aggregation of individual moves, which makes it "2.5 dimensional".

And let's face it, a huge lot of choices in RPGs are purely cosmetic. I have a pet peeve with defense and evasion, or magic and skills and items, or stats and classes and characters and equipment and freaking battle formations - they do the exact same thing with different labels. I love Suikoden 5 but it was a terrible offender with 50 different ways of overpowering your characters with the same end result.

If it's a buff that only affects damage and the attack in question only deals damage, then yes. As you mentioned earlier, other effects that basically translate into damage would also satisfy your statement. I could argue that there are some things that do not turn neatly into DPS, but what's more important is that there are multiple ways to 'achieve' that damage. Some room for creative vision, if you will.

In the interest of better understanding what you mean by memory and dimensions, maybe I should see if I can coherently relate a decent example. How about three approaches to the same battle, using characters named One, Two and Three.

Player 1 prefers set-up strategies.
-They enter into a battle with 3 enemies and spend the first round with One buffing Three's defenses and Three drawing aggro while Two uses a self-buff (damage) that is dispelled on taking damage.
-In the second round, One buffs Two's offense while Three attacks the beefiest enemy and Two uses another self-buff (-aggro).
-During the third round, Two knocks off one enemy while One and Three dig into another.
-In the fourth round, Two takes out another target while One and Three finish their mark from round three.

Here, rounds 1 and 2 could be interchanged with minimal consequence (defense buff is more effective early), so there's little concept of memory. Round 3 and 4 could be switched, though must come after round 2, so I think it's what you would call 1.5 dimensional?

Now, let's try that with enemies that aren't ragdolls.
Player 1 again.
-They enter into a battle with 3 enemies and spend the first round with One buffing Three's defenses and Three drawing aggro while Two uses a self-buff (damage) that is dispelled on taking damage. The enemies attack Three for a total of 50% of Three's hp.
-In the second round, One buffs Two's offense while Three attacks the beefiest enemy for 20% damage. The enemies bring Three down to 30% and Two down to 50%. Two loses the previous self-buff. Two then uses another self-buff (-aggro).
-During the third round, Two brings one enemy to 30% hp while One and Three cut the beefiest one down to 30% hp. Meanwhile, the enemies bring One down to 50% and Three down to 10%.
-In the fourth round, Two brings the only unharmed enemy to 30%. Three finishes the one that Two hit last round while One heals Three to 40% hp. The enemies bring One down to 20% and drop Three to 30%.
-For round 5, Two drops the beefiest enemy while One and Three team up to finish the other that was at 30%.

This time, no two rounds can be switched around. In addition, since Two's self-buff ended up being dispelled, Two's instantaneous status is not just the summation of previous actions.

It should also be noted that the planned tactic (set-up and steamroll) is abandoned in round 3 due to concern for the player's hp, sparking a change to a less elegant approach.

In round 4, One pauses damage output to heal Three. The heal isn't enough to return the battle to an earlier state altogether, but does buy another turn for Three.

There are some improvements that could be made or some different paths to take, but would this be considered 2 dimensional? Or, approaching that? Non-erasure and non-aggregation are covered, though perhaps to a lesser degree than chess. I would think that with pieces being removed from the board, though, that chess has some degree of aggregation going on, so it does not seem necessary to realize that goal in full.

Don't want to get too wordy, though, as sleep is trying to claim me and neither you nor the world deserves my late-night rambling. Thus, I've tried for simplicity, for better or worse.

Perhaps tomorrow I'll reply to the other points being made here, as they are also interesting.
I think you would like Craze's games, Hasvers. His battles tend to be very complex and strategic, and you rarely encounter the same enemy twice - in some games, every single battle is a unique enemy, even. You may like Obelisk: Devilkiller in particular, as though you have a healer, cooldown times mean she can't actually outheal most enemies, giving battles something of a time limit. It's impossible to revive fainted characters, as well. I'm not entirely sure if that's what you mean by "memory", but it seems to be similar.

This might seem like a minor point, but it's exactly why battles are designed the way they are. Having consumables, health that doesn't regenerate after every battle, and any variation of enemy placement (from optional encounters that guard treasure chests to random encounters), you can tell that the true value doesn't lie battle-to-battle. Dungeons are obstacle courses, and your ability to prepare for that gauntlet and still defeat the boss (albeit often relying on the linear system you've described above per battle) is the Big Picture.

That's what everyone always says, but I've never really seen this done effectively, because battles are so repetitive and healing magic/items are rarely scarce enough to cause actual worry. And, to be honest, I don't think I'd like such a "survival" game anyway, as it sounds very grueling and repetitive (as Hasvers pointed out). I did like gameplay in The Void though so who knows.
Haha such an interesting discussion, I should have made this post earlier!

Of course it is an exaggeration to say that there is no strategy at all in a "1d" (or "1.5d") game, while chess is purely strategic - but an useful exaggeration. Every game is entirely computable in principle, so that's not really the matter.

I think to make my point clearer, I should use a picture. Let's say that the graph below represents the amount of damage dealt by the allies (blue) and by the enemies (red), turn by turn (or action by action) in the battle.

Any combination of skills and items and equipment that produces this sequence will be indiscernible. More powerful attacks increase the current bar, healing skills decrease it, attack buffs trade instantaneous bar height for higher bars in the future, agility buffs move bars forward or backward.

Even worse, the individual height and the precise sequence of the bars is not so important, the only thing that matters is whether the sum reaches a certain threshold representing death. Which means that even more combinations are equivalent.

So sure, there can be some interesting playing around with the bars - although very few games take it that far, the SMT system of gaining/losing turns allows you to move the bars around significantly, and perhaps Craze's games do this as well (I will try them, thanks for the tip!)

But such a game will always have much more action paths that are equivalent than a truly bidimensional game. It's like projecting 3d on 2d: a cylinder can have the same shadow as a sphere (or as a cube, depending on how you rotate it). Likewise, RPG characters have many dimensions represented by choices in skills and equipment and such, but once you project them on the single line shown above, most of it becomes purely "flavor" with no concrete impact on whether you will win the battle or not.

Having many equivalent paths means that people will find different ways of winning, but it also means that few people will ever have to think deeply about what they are doing - there is a high probability that spamming your strongest spell will only be marginally worse than the most clever tactics. Except in boss encounters specifically crafted to prevent that, but then it's more like solving a chess puzzle than playing chess: it's the clever arranging that makes the puzzle, not the basic rules.

Now, the existence of multiple characters is a way to mimick a little bit of the second dimension: if you kill one of the enemies, you reduce the enemy's action potential irreversibly - and action potential, the diversity of (real, non-equivalent) choices that you have at every step, is largely what strategy is about. However that remains extremely basic - I have never seen anything that goes further than "you should kill the healer then the heavy hitter then the tank" or variations.

The other thing that makes chess more strategic is that strategy is about intuition, and human brains have much better intuitions for space than for numbers (especially probabilities).
A better example than chess may be go, because after only a few weeks of playing you can already do something that feels like strategy, without any memorization - because you can see spatially how one stone affects your action potential by blocking off some avenues or allowing future bridges. I'm sure there are more general ways of getting that feeling, ways that are not specific to the abstract strategy games, and that's what I'm looking for.

As for randomness, there was a nice discussion here. You will notice I was already making poor chess analogies at the time, I really had to get that out of my system ;)

Edit: Hey this unscrupulous self-quote might illustrate what I mean by 1.5d better than what I've said before, although ultimately I stand by my point about projecting the whole on a single axis.
author=myself, unashamedly
t's like playing with pawns on a thousand independent rows and allowing them to interact only from time to time (I pay some MP to regain some HP) via snakes and ladders named skills and items. But unless you have as many ladders as squares, you never recover the full maneuverability of a real 2d space (and even then, it means having bazillion of skills which is just clunky and easily broken)
Oh and also, I agree with this
Giving different objectives to the "get through the dungeon" might expand upon that as well.
One of the best ways to make battles and dungeons deeper would be to do away with that single objective, replacing it by a choice between multiple objectives, or better yet, a sort of continuum.

But I'd like to keep this topic for the next design conversation, as I think it's especially interesting for conversations, where it can be good to lose the argument if you win the heart of the audience, for instance.
Hm. This all seems a bit beyond me, but it sounds like you might be interested in the blog posts of Sinister Design, creator of the Telepath RPG series. That author has a similar interest in strategic depth and has offered similar indictments of the basic JRPG formula.
Hey I feel like I've read this blog already. Did you post it in a comment on Tilde-One a long time ago, perhaps? It was interesting indeed, in any case. I just wish the author had had a more thorough approach, since the individual remarks were very thoughtful but also very scattershot.
Holy shit all of this surpasses my understanding on JRPG battles... yeah, they're simple, but I still don't get HOW you can make JRPG battles more strategic, since I always saw JRPG battles strategic enough with their easy system. o~o;

(And talks the girl who never played an strategy RPG and probably never will... =.=;)
Haha sorry I tend to get a little bit carried away by my theoretical tendencies. I've enjoyed RPG battles for a long time, then got more and more frustrated with everything that they wouldn't let me do, so I guess your mileage may vary.

By the way, all my thanks to whoever featured this on the front page!
I think, perhaps, you're taking some things for granted that I am not quite wed to. I don't think that having multiple paths to victory means that any of them needs to be easy. Something like Strongest Skill Spam is a definite red flag in any combat system. Any design worthy of the tag 'decent' should not be subject to that.

Even so, I think you're right in that it's more of a projection than the real deal, but that seems fine to me. So long as there is enough strategy to keep the player on their toes throughout the game, there's no need to go all the way. The goal is to make the game fun and engaging, not create a new set of mechanics to last through the ages.

In addition, it's important that the system isn't too arcane. Like Go (or chess), the rules should be simple to pick up. It is a very small subset of players that want to have to study combat for ten minutes before engaging in it with any hope of success. Simply adding complexity is, in essence, like polishing the turd.

Since combat boils down to juggling those bars, it makes sense to trim redundancy in skills. Moving the bars should happen, yes, but there should be some other motivation to use at least 3 skills at any given time, all of which can make an impact in some way, even if it's just additional bar movement. There should never be a skill that does X damage and nothing else alongside a skill that does Y damage and nothing else. Instead, give one skill an incentive in certain situations and the other incentives elsewhere, but make sure that the situations either overlap or conflict, such as where one skill makes the other less useful (but perhaps you want it to be useful later).

To be concise (is it too late for that?!), I think that a turn-based set-up can be strategic. The problems you've mentioned are real and prevalent, but not unavoidable. Much like Othello, where the players are literally fighting over two 'bars' (black chips vs white chips), the method by which the juggling happens can bear sufficient strategy.
I'm not saying that multiple paths to victory are bad, as long as they are really different. It's having many paths that boil down to the same age-old effects (healer/hitter/tank) that is frustrating in most RPGs.

But really, while I'm using this discussion as a critique of the typical RPG battles, you could reverse the direction and use it as a method for designing them. Try to find the most elegant way to represent this "bar juggling", without obscuring it by false choices. Adding secondary effects to skills is not sufficient, you should check that those effects add something truly new that couldn't be done otherwise in terms of what I've said above.

And at a deeper level you could even push the reasoning to do away entirely with some aspects of the system, perhaps multiple characters or turns or items, that exist only by tradition. What if for instance the system worked better if there were no HP and MP, only status conditions that can combine or interfere with each other? This is what made abstract strategy games so good, they were trimmed down to the essential by generations of people who had seen the big picture.

And by the way, as I said above, this applies to dungeon survival mechanics and gamespanning gold/item/health management, since they are also the same sort of one-dimensional battle.

To be concise (is it too late for that?!)
I think it is too late for all of us ;)
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