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Replacing Tanking with Smarter AI

Tanking in single player RPGs is on the rise. Knowing who is going to be attacked next turn adds a layer of strategy: the player can actively prepare for and counter what is going to happen. But at the same time, a dedicated tank can easily lead to repetitive combat. So can we add that same layer of strategy of without locking players into a required tank party member running the same skill rotation? Of course we can!

Let's give enemies a strategy

I stumbled into this one by accident. A tester was locked in an encounter against a particularly nasty jellyfish casting two spells: water magic that makes the target wet, and lightning magic that does bonus damage to wet foes. After a few turns of battle, the jellyfish casted wet on a party member. The play tester saw this, thought about it, and in a moment of triumph, casted Reflect Magic on the wet party member. The jellyfish responded with a lightning attack against the wet foe, causing the spell to be mirrored back and striking for critical damage since he, the jellyfish, is wet.

The RPG Maker AI, firing skills at random, had stumbled upon a compelling game play experience. I immediately set to work on a script giving full control of the enemy AI. Now the jellyfish were going to have a strategy. If no one is wet, spend the turn casting water. If a party member is wet, focus fire with lightning magic.

What happened is the encounter jumped in difficulty. Now that the jellyfish were smarter, they would ruthlessly wet and lightning spike a target in 2 turns. But once the player deciphers the jellyfish plan, they can outsmart them. The player knows exactly who is getting attacked and in what manner a turn before it happens, and can react and devise a counter strategy.

This was great. I went back and updated old encounters with new AI. The villainous snakes will try to pick off the target with the lowest HP, the skeleton who does damage through bleed will focus the party members who aren't already bleeding, the pack of zombies will open with an Undead Flesh debuff, converting healing into damage, then focus fire the poor soul afflicted with it.

Coming back to tanking

Smarter AI added something here: predictability. But unlike the dedicated tank, the risk of being repetitive was less. Since each encounter has a different battle tactic, the party member in the tanking hot seat is constantly switched up. This allows each character to have their own flavor of defensive skills: the swordsman can counter physical attacks, the magician can absorb magic attacks into MP, and the selfish thief can hide from battle, causing his allies to become the targets.

Battles aren't decided by forcing enemies to attack the most defensive target. They are decided by deciphering the enemy plan, and figuring out the best tools in the arsenal to diffuse it.


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Tanks are one of my favorite roles in RPGs, single or multiplayer, and it's always a blast for me as a player to flip my strategy on the fly to effectively use them. As a designer, I feel the same.

I definitely enjoyed reading this!
Thanks for the comments! I've been having a lot of fun putting together the game's encounters.
I think RM has always had a shortcoming with AI. At least in the later engines it's possible to script interesting behavior like this, but seeing how much it adds to the game, it's a shame there's not an eventing-like system in place.
Agreed. It's a shame the default system won't even let you give an enemy a healing skill and have them target allies that actually need healing.
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