This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
Last week's column on changes in role-playing combat systems through history ruffled a few feathers, so I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what, in my opinion, makes for good RPG combat systems. I had no intention of sounding like I hated turn-based combat (since my twofavorite RPGs use it!), or that every new game was better than old.
Responsiveness may be the single most important component of a good combat system. I mean "responsive" in a broad fashion, specifically encompassing four different forms of responsiveness that can all work together: pace, information, animation, and sound.
Responsive pace means that when you press the button to have something happen, that thing happens quickly. In Jagged Alliance 2, one of the greatest tactical RPGs of all time, you click your mouse and you immediately see what happens. Your choices register instantly. Or, in games like The Elder Scrolls: Arena and Daggerfall, your sword follows your mouse when you hold the attack button, and you see the effect instantly. On the other hand, there are games like Anachronox, a fascinating Ion Storm homage to Japanese classic Chrono Trigger. Anachronox does extremely well at setting a tone for the game with interesting characters and narrative, but its sluggish combat is a major drawback and renders the game extremely frustrating in battle-heavy areas.
Games also need to show the relevant information once the player makes their action. Turn-based games have this easier, taking all the time they need to show you the relevant information, although it's extremely important that the player can adjust the speed to a comfortable level. In Diablo II, you can see an enemy's health bar when you hover your mouse over, and each click to attack shows how much closer they are to death. On the other hand, part of the reason I struggle with the Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment) is that their hybrid real-time/turn-based system makes information difficult to keep track of. If there's too little auto-pausing, a character can die out of nowhere too often, making combat a slog.
As games developed better graphics and sound capability, combat animation and noise became important. SSI's tremendously popular Gold Box games were little more than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons combat simulations, but they were tremendously satisfying nonetheless. Pressing the key to attack, seeing your character swing her weapon in a single-frame animation, and hearing the simple "thunk-thunk-ugggghhhh" of two successful swings and an enemy death was extraordinarily gratifying. SSI lost the magic with their later AD&D-based games, like Dark Sun and Ravenloft, in large part because they use the technically superior graphics and sound but end up delivering slower responsiveness to player actions.
Good RPG combat also tends to have a sense of variety to keep the combat from growing too repetitive. Japanese RPGs tended to add boss fights to do this, but that strategy has been less common in the west. Instead, variety has tended to come through character progression and usage, as well as more intricate combat design. (There's even some variety of form, demonstrated by games like Puzzle Quest which attach Bejeweled-style puzzles to RPG-style progression and narrative.)
In Wizardry VI and Wizardry VII, a complex class-changing system combined with new skills meant that almost every fight could lead to a character gaining a level, a new skill, an improved spell, or even a new class. It's a delight when you face a group of enemies who may have given you trouble before, but now? Now your alchemist can lob poison bombs with a chance to choke enemies to death. Or, in a completely different form of progression, your ability to customize your characters in Fallout and Deus Ex allow you to approach enemies how you felt like approaching them. When progression is slow, though, combat turns into a slog. High encounter rates combined with limited character skills can make those late-1980s Gold Box games a test of patience, fighting the same fight over and over.
More recently, games using the BioWare model of one player character combined with a variety of recruitable and swappable party members create differences in combat. In Dragon Age: Origins, the key decision of whether to use the mages Morrigan and Wynne, and if they should be healers or damage dispensers, would dramatically affect each party's balance. Or in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, using Lydia as a heavy fighter or Aela as an archer changes enemy responses.
Beyond that, a well-designed combat system will keep you on your toes, making different decisions about how to proceed on a consistent basis. Wizardry 8 may have dropped the complex class-switching mechanic, but it added a tactical component to its predecessor's menu-based fighting, forcing you to consider your party members' positioning in relation to constantly-moving enemies. Jagged Alliance 2, for example, forces you to consider how much of a turn you want to spend aiming each shot, every time you shoot. The issue I have with most old-fashioned menu-based games is that they don't give these different kinds of combat. It's usually launching your strongest spells at the largest enemy group and having your fighters mop up the remnants, over and over.
Sometimes that's perfectly fine. For the game to be good overall, the combat should be integrated into the game's context. How much combat works for the RPG, and what style should it be?
As a general rule, role-playing games have evolved so that they spend less time in combat. In 1980s games, you'd probably spend 80% or more of your time in combat mode. That shifted over the years, with Ultima unsurprisingly leading the way. Today, it's possible a game like Mass Effect is divided roughly half-and-half between combat and non-combat modes, while Bethesda games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim encourage exploration much more than battle. So, Skyrim's combat, in many ways, is less responsive than Daggerfall's, but it still fits the game's structure effectively. And, as I've argued in the past, it's even possible to have an RPG without combat at all.
This is also probably the most subjective way to judge RPG combat. As I mentioned, I struggle with the Infinity Engine, so no matter how much I enjoy Planescape: Torment's superb writing and setting, I find myself quitting the game in frustration if there are too many fights in a row. Yet I've played through and generally enjoyed Icewind Dale, a game that is almost nothing but Infinity Engine combat. Why? It's partially that Icewind Dale uses a more refined version of the system, but it's also that I was playing the combat simply to play it. I wasn't looking ahead to the plot and being frustrated by the obstacles set in my path.
It can work the other way around, though. A game with relatively unvaried combat can gain strength from the external context. A strong connection with an MMRPG guild, for example, can keep a player interested even when most of their battles are repetitive. Or, to go back to Wizardry VII, the promise of future progression kept relatively unvaried battles interesting.
There isn't a silver bullet that will ensure a role-playing game's combat system will be perfect. High levels of responsiveness, varied decision-making processes, and proper context are all important, but they're all subjective to some degree or another. Still, I think they're useful tools to discuss the best and the worst the genre has to offer. After all, there's some reason that fighting your hundredth giant rat in one game is a slog, and in the next, genius.
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.