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(Don't) Give me that old time RPG combat


This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

The Kickstarter success of Wasteland 2 may be one of the most important developments in Western role-playing games in years. It could re-open the doors to bringing back party-based, less cinematic role-playing games of the sort that have been largely gone since the mid-1990s. The trick, however, will be in using a style of combat that assures both quality and popularity for Wasteland 2. Because if it simply follows in the footsteps of the original Wasteland, it may have problems on both of those fronts.

The original Wasteland was released in 1988, towards the start of a transitional era for role-playing games, both technologically and creatively. The core mechanic of role-playing games of the era -- combat -- started to shift, and lose some of its importance.

1980s RPGs generally served as simulations of Dungeons & Dragons-style combat, with some exploration. Part of this was creative. After all, by far the simplest component of tabletop role-playing to translate to computer was the most mechanical, the statistic and dice-based combat systems. But it was also based on technical restraints. Those early games had to fit on tiny (in bytes) floppy disks, yes, but they also couldn't work with much speed at all. Real-time movement, animation, combat, were all largely impossible.

This led to two primary styles of combat. The first, and most common, was menu-driven turn-based combat. In this, your characters were largely just a set of names on one part of the screen, and the enemies were names and amounts of monsters. You had a menu where you told each member of your party what to do (Fight, Cast, Guard, Run being the most common options), and once you finished you and the enemies did their turn and started again.

This was the Wizardry model, and was followed by most of the biggest games in the west: Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and the original Wasteland, to name a few. It was also followed by most Japanese role-playing games, specifically Dragon Quest, but those early Final Fantasy games had menu-based combat, just from a different visual perspective. Menu-driven combat has almost completely fallen out of favor in the west, but Japanese games like Etrian Odyssey III actually keep it alive.

Part of the reason menu-based combat is dead is that, well, it's not very good. It has a few factors working against it from the start: it's more abstract than most other forms of combat, it's inherently slow-paced, and it doesn't allow a huge amount of variety or depth. Those difficulties could be overcome, but not when attached to huge, repetitive battles. This is one reason that many of those 1980s games are virtually unplayable for many people (including, often, myself). The grind of combat is simply unrewarding. When my fellow game history connossieur Richard Cobbett attempted to replay Wasteland recently, he found the same was true for that game.

The second slow-paced (but still actually popular) mode of combat was the tactical combat utilized in the Ultima series, as well as The Magic Candle and the Gold Box games. The added depth of positioning and geography tended to make this tactical combat more satisfying, and it can still be seen in pure turn-based form in a variety of different game styles (especially Japanese, to be fair), while some components, like the importance of positioning and protecting weaker party members, are part of most combat systems.

The most important game in breaking role-playing games out of these two models was Dungeon Master, a massively important and then-popular game that's largely been forgotten today. Of its many innovations, two components of Dungeon Master in particular helped to shatter the old RPG structures. First, Dungeon Master took place in a continuous world. There was no combat screen or mode that was separate from exploration. Everything took place within the same game.

Second, Dungeon Master took advantage of increasing computer power and utilized a phased combat system, which is turn-based combat where the turns take place in real time. You click to attack, make the attack, and then wait a set amount of time for the ability to recharge.

From this point on, combination real-time and turn-based combat systems became more and more popular, until they became the default. The most famous of these was Japanese, Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system, but there were dozens of PC games as well. Dungeon Master-inspired clones, like Eye Of The Beholder and Lands Of Lore. Ultima Underworld and The Elder Scrolls series were also directly descended from Dungeon Master, utilizing more free movement and closer to straightforward real-time combat. BioWare built its empire on phased combat, specifically with the Infinity Engine utilized by Baldur's Gate, but also Knights Of The Old Republic and Dragon Age. Perhaps it's most clearly seen in Everquest-style massively multiplayer RPGs, with their set cooldown timers and intricate strategies built around maximizing use of turns and timing.

The technological constraints that forced "old school" turn-based combat quickly disappeared after Dungeon Master. Ultima VII and Diablo were almost purely real-time, existing alongside games with phased combat and turn-based holdouts. Other series adapted, like Might & Magic, which sped up its combat pace by its third installment in 1991, or Wizardry, whose addition of positional tactics in Wizardry 8 made one of my favorite combat systems ever.

Here is Wasteland 2's dilemma: how can it create a combat system that manages to appeal to fans of the dense 1980s-style menu-based combat, while also enticing fans of Fallout and its single-character, fast-paced tactical combat? The two may initially seem similar, but there are major differences. And Dungeon Master and its successors opened up a wide variety of different styles of RPG combat of varying depth and degrees, all of which can easily be labeled "old school." And they're all going to have fans ... and detractors.

Me, I vote for Wizardry 8-style combat. That would be completely awesome in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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