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12 ways to improve turn-based RPG combat systems
by Craig Stern on 04/11/13 05:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This piece was originally posted on It is reposted here with the author's permission.


In my last opinion piece, I provoked a certain subsection of the world of RPG enthusiasts by slaughtering a particularly sacred cow: the D&D-style combat system. A surprising number of people wrote in agreeing with me. Predictably, however, others responded in one of two ways: (1) “So you think a real-time, action-centered combat system is better?” or (2) “Name an RPG combat system that’s better!”

The answer to (1) is easy. No, I don’t think real-time is better. Just the opposite: I prefer turn-based combat in my RPGs. Of the six games I’ve released since I started designing games, five use turn-based combat, and I’m working on two more with turn-based tactical combat for good measure. That should probably tell you something about my tastes.

The answer to (2) is more complicated. I don’t think that there is just one way to do a turn-based RPG combat system correctly. I’ll avoid naming particular games, since I don’t want to give the impression that all RPGs should employ combat in the style of any one particular game. I will, however, discuss the features that good turn-based tactical combat systems have in common, and cite games that successfully employ them.


The Four Virtues of a good tactical turn-based combat system

If you’ve read my last article, this list is going to look familiar. A good tactical turn-based combat system exemplifies the following Four Virtues:

(1) Emergent complexity. It creates complex gameplay out of a comparatively simple set of rules.

(2) Clarity. The immediate consequences of various tactical decisions are made clear to the player.

(3) Determinism. The system is sufficiently deterministic that skilled play using a proper strategy will nearly always result in victory.

(4) Tactical tools. If there is some randomness in the system (which there will be in most cases), the player has sufficient tactical tools at her disposal so that skilled play will almost always trump bad luck.


How can we employ these features?

The Four Virtues of a good tactical turn-based combat system are closely interconnected: with a handful of simple rules, a turn-based combat system can exponentially increase its tactical possibility space, thereby achieving the goals of both emergent complexity and skill-based outcomes to battles.

Clarity, in turn, arises organically if you do this properly: which is to say, if you don’t achieve complexity by overloading your combat system with arcane rules, the player should quickly be able to understand exactly how her actions will play out in combat, allowing her to plan ahead and strategize. (Clarity also depends upon good interface design and appropriate visual cues to the player, but those things are basic to good game design in general, and aren’t worth discussing here.)

So let’s get specific. There is a veritable cornucopia of techniques that game developers have used in the past to make their turn-based combat systems sparkle with tactical possibilities, and I want to see new RPGs start using them with greater regularity.

Perhaps the most powerful technique is simply to

(1) Use space. Adding a spatial dimension to combat increases its complexity exponentially without making it substantially harder for the player to understand. Most people have played  games like Candyland or Monopoly, to say nothing of Checkers and Chess. Everyone (even your mom) intuitively understands the concept of moving pieces between spaces.

By using space in your battles, you add a new dimension to combat both figuratively and literally: the concept of attack range comes into play, and the player gains direct control of actions like fleeing and protecting weaker characters behind stronger ones.

Of course, you aren’t required to have a grid-based (or hex-based) map with movable characters to create a good tactical combat system, but it’s an awfully effective way to introduce complexity using simple rules. This alone will put your game far ahead of most jRPG combat systems.

Then again, spatial combat is not exactly a huge achievement: virtually every western RPG has this in one form or another. Let’s be a little ambitious. Here are 11 other techniques for achieving the Four Virtues that have been consistently overlooked not just in jRPGs, but in western RPGs as well:

 (2) Give the player at least six characters. This one is absolutely key, and yet most western RPGs of the past 20 years have missed it. Imagine playing chess with only four pieces–you’d be looking at a game with greatly reduced tactical complexity and far less interesting matches.

Putting more characters under the player’s control pays great dividends in terms of tactics. More characters means that the player can be expected to handle much more involved combat scenarios, and becomes responsible for keeping more characters alive. This naturally gives rise to dilemmas about how to balance multiple objectives with minimal losses, which in turn make combat more interesting.

Also, with more characters under the player’s control, each individual character can be much more specialized. Speaking of which…

(3) Specialize the characters. How dull would chess be if it were played entirely with knights, or bishops? Make sure characters of different classes serve different battlefield roles; don’t just make them all fighters with different hit points, armor and spells.

If you differentiate your classes successfully, your player will have to think carefully about which characters should perform which actions during battle. The Fire Emblem series, especially, does a great job with this.

(4) Specialize the enemies. This should be obvious: if every enemy is a melee bruiser with magical attacks, your player has no reason to prioritize one enemy over the others. Give enemies distinctly different capabilities, weaknesses, and battlefield roles.

(5) Variable distance. Do not always begin battles with enemies 1 turn or less away from melee range! Spacing them out a little will give the player more flexibility to try out ranged tactics, as well as pressuring the player take cover from or flank enemy ranged units.

(6) Directional facing. Make it so that characters are easier to hit and/or suffer additional damage when attacked from behind or the sides. Doing so amplifies the importance of positioning in close quarters, adding another wrinkle to the player’s considerations. It also has a side effect of making faster-moving characters more dangerous, as well as increasing the effectiveness of flanking and pincer movements.

(7) Variable terrain. Used properly, terrain can add new dimensions to player considerations about character positioning, creating natural choke points on the battlefield, providing cover, or even providing bonuses or penalties to the characters who stand on it (Advance Wars and the Disgaea games serve as excellent examples of the latter).

Terrain can also serve as a point of character specialization, with certain classes performing better on certain squares (or being uniquely able to move through them).

(8) Manipulable terrain. But why stop there? Let the player actually manipulate terrain during the battle. Temporary terrain creation occasionally appears in western RPGs in the form of walls of fire, walls of ice, and traps that players can place to form barriers or choke points. Destructible terrain in RPGs is rare, however, and most created terrain lasts for only a short duration.

We can do better than that. Give the player meaningful flexibility to shape the battlefield, creating new avenues of attack and closing off existing ones. This will cause your combat system to accommodate more creative tactical thinking. The player won’t just be thinking about how to place her characters to best make use of the environment: she’ll also be thinking about how to change the environment itself to create those opportunities in the first place.

(9) Resource management. This appears in nearly all western RPGs to a limited extent, mostly in the form of budgeting gold, conserving magic points and hoarding scrolls and potions. However, this standard RPG implementation of resource management isn’t usually too important at the combat level–it’s typically a broader challenge spanning a whole foray into a given area.

To liven up particular combat encounters, use a system that requires players to balance more powerful attacks against other priorities on a turn-by-turn basis. Action Point systems (e.g. the kind used in X-Com: UFO Defense and the first two Fallouts) are great for this, forcing the player to weigh a variety of factors all at once when deciding on character actions. Also good are systems where most powerful abilities use large amounts of magic points, but magic points regenerate over time (e.g. Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together).

(10) Give units multiple attack options. This dovetails nicely with resource management: giving each character the option of more effective but more expensive or risky attacks expands the player’s tactical options greatly. Should the player pin her hopes on her character landing a more powerful blow, or should she have him get in a quick jab and leave some resources for the character to defend himself afterwards?

These sorts of small-scale dilemmas are the bread and butter of a satisfying tactical combat system. (Fallout and Fallout 2 provide a great example of how to use this technique.)

(11) Support multiple objectives. I mean this not just in the sense that your combat system should challenge the player with different win and loss conditions; I mean this in the sense that multiple different objectives (not of the win/loss variety) should be  able to coexist within any given battle in your combat system.

This is a simple extension of the idea that a good RPG should have choices with consequences: there should be post-battle consequences for what happens during battles as well. Did she hit a town guard with a misguided arrow? Make it so the player is wanted for assault. Did she successfully protect the manor of the richest man in town? Make the rich NPC give the player a reward after the battle.

Aside from the obvious benefits such a feature creates for immersion, it also creates a richer tactical experience for the player. The goal becomes not just to win–the goal becomes to win while accomplishing as many side objectives as possible.

Because of the effort involved in setting up custom objectives for each battle, you might instead choose to set up your combat system with persistent side objectives such as maintaining character morale (X-Com) or gathering certain resources that can only be gathered during battle (treasure chests in Fire Emblem, captured majin in Eternal Poison).

In Telepath RPG: Servants of God, for instance, slain characters can only be resurrected through the use of soul charges, which in turn can only be obtained by using one character’s Soul Suck ability on a critically injured enemy during combat. The player is forced to periodically use the character who can Soul Suck in order to maintain a supply of soul charges; and within particular battles, she must weigh the risk of keeping an enemy alive long enough to harvest it against the reward of having a one-shot chance to raise a slain character later on.

(12) Allow delayed attacks. Delayed attacks add a new twist to the turn-based formula, allowing characters to attack even when it isn’t their turn anymore. Counterattacks are an effective (and, at least among Japanese strategy RPGs, common) form of delayed attack. By allowing melee units to only retaliate against melee units and ranged units to only retaliate against units at range, counterattacks further complicate unit match-ups and enforce character specialization. (Players will want to attack melee units at range, and vice versa.)

Attacks of opportunity are another form of delayed attack that encourage the player to pay extra attention to her own unit movement and placement, juggling the costs and benefits of expending all of a character’s actions during its turn versus keeping some in reserve in case enemies wander into attack range later on. These are, in short, an extension of the resource management concept we talked about in #9 above. (You can see the attack of opportunity mechanic at work with X-Com’s reaction fire system and with the guard command in Pool of Radiance.)

Interestingly, a couple of upcoming indie games (Frozen Synapse and Fray) actually use delayed attacks as the centerpiece of their entire combat systems. In these games, combat focuses around the player’s ability to guess which units will be where, when.

Well, that’s twelve. I know of no RPG combat system that uses all twelve of these techniques at once, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I’d want one to! That would be one heck of a complicated combat system. But in an environment of RPGs whose combat systems err on the side of simplicity, that’s the sort of problem I really wouldn’t mind having.

UPDATE: Part three has now been posted.

Author Craig Stern is an indie game developer working on the strategy RPG Telepath Tactics, currently on Kickstarter. He runs the website, and can be found on Twitter.

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Game Designer


Jeremy Reaban
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I think for a tactical combat game, that's true. But I think the mistake is in thinking that most people want a game where tactical combat is the focus.

This actually happened with D&D, in its 4th edition. It was essentially turned into a tactical combat boardgame where each combat would last hours. Some people really like that, but most people didn't and went back to earlier editions (most notably Pathfinder, but even older ones)

That's actually what D&D originally invented. There were tactical wargames at the time, what D&D was to take that sort of wargame and reduce the wargame part of it to a minor role, as well as streamline it (relative speaking).

So I guess my point is, turn based combat is probably best when it's not overly detailed, but at a beer & pretzels style level, where it can be done without thinking too much, and you can get on with the story/exploring/etc. I realize some people think that combat itself is the best part of the game, but I think that's not the reason people play RPGs.

Arthur De Martino
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I love and understand all editions of D&D and I feel the way each edition handles combat interesting to say the least.

However a tabletop roleplaying game is less about it's crunchy combat and more about the drama, the descriptions, the roleplay meeting the crunch.

Even 4e falls under this, and as designers we can and should look for mechanics and inspiration in D&D however we need to understand that eletronic games have other strengths and some weakness; We need to create systems that deal with that hand that we are dealt with.

You are complety right in your assertion but I feel it's a bit incomplete. For video games can, should and must have a interesting experience in all of it's mechanics. If we can make a interesting combat system to go with a interesting story, then we should do it! Tabletop rpgs have a different context, a wonderful, unique context that we cannot replicae with video games, so let's take what it works and build from there.

Craig Stern
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I'm well aware of the history behind D&D. (See:
ished-evolution-of-rpg-character-creation/ )

However, as you might have gleaned from the repeated references to "turn-based combat systems" (as opposed to real-time combat systems), this piece is exclusively focused on computer RPGs. Now, maybe you enjoy swilling beer and eating pretzels while fighting simplistic, dull, repetitive battles alone by yourself in front of a computer, but believe me when I say that not everyone shares your predilections.

Consider: if you're not going to make turn-based combat tactically interesting, why have it at all?

Ben Sly
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I'd agree with most of these, provided you're trying to design a game focused on thinking-heavy tactical combat. There's a few comments I want to make, though.

-2- Give the player at least six characters.
This one isn't one that I particularly like. This makes good sense if the characters are simple, but can easily bog down in complexity if you're moving them independently across large battles (see the original X-Com) or if each has a lot of different abilities/stats. Reducing the character count to 4 (6 with upgrades) was one of the major changes the new X-Com made, and that made the character choice far more meaningful. If the characters were more complex... I'd be much less willing to support 6+ characters.
Also, your comparison to chess ignores two major differences - in chess, you only move one piece each turn, and none of the pieces track any variable outside of their current position. Those occur in few RPGs, and render the game significantly more complex.

-6- Directional Facing.
My major issue with this is that it's an extra decision to make each for each turn for each character, and in the vast majority of cases it's a trivial one. You want to face the nearest enemy. If you've got more significant mechanics keying off of it and the mobility of enemies is limited enough that they won't just run behind the character the majority of the time, then it might be worthwhile. Frankly, I've found that just adding bonuses in for flanking with an ally has most of the benefits benefit for directional facing with few of the drawbacks.

-7 and 8- Variable and Manipulable Terrain
These are excellent. No complaints; I just want to call these out as great advice.

-10- Give units multiple attack options.
A good idea, provided the attack options are significantly different. Giving an option of -10% chance to hit in exchange for +10% chance to crit isn't; neither is having a long list of fire, water, lightning, etc versions of a spell that does only damage and nothing else.

-11- Support multiple objectives.
Regarding using optional objectives to gather certain resources: Make sure that either the actions required to get the objective vary, or that the resources involved are not significantly beneficial to get many times. Otherwise, the player will be motivated to achieve that objective in every battle possible, which makes it less of an interesting way to vary the combat and more of a tedium generator. For example, capturing enemies in the new X-Com lets you research their weapon and them, but the benefit past the first capture of a given type only nabs you the weapon. If every alien was equally valuable to catch, the player would be motivated to try to catch each and every one (which would get old quick.)

Putting significant rewards on killing enemies in specific ways or with specific items restricts the tactics available to the player who wants to play well; that's fine once or twice, but it throws the rest of your combat system out the window if it happens in every fight. Final Fantasy Tactics and the Elder Scrolls games are good examples of rewarding the player for killing the enemies in the least efficient way possible - an example of this principle not followed.

-12- Allow delayed attacks.
If you have choices made on attacks, then this can break the flow of the game. It means that people are making decisions on eachothers' turns which (although it's not a big deal while playing single player) is probably not a great idea in turn-based multiplayer. I haven't seen many games outside of D&D that are hampered by this, but it was a big decision in the one that I'm working on so I figured it might be worth mentioning.

As Jeremy has mentioned, the author's pieces of advice are best when tactical combat is the focus - specifically thinking-heavy tactical combat as opposed to the beer-and-pretzels-type approach. Most RPGs have different focuses by design. Disgaea is centered less on tactical depth and more on potentially eternal grinding, Pokemon is more about customization and catching them all (even though it has a surprisingly deep combat system), and most RPGs in general have entirely too many battles to make each one a complex tactical experience. I prefer the author's style of game myself, but most turn-based RPGs really aren't designed for that style and would need a great deal of modification for these tips to work well.

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"Give the player at least six characters"

I really don't think this is necessary. Plenty of roguelikes have highly tactical gameplay with only 1 avatar. The difference, I think, is that they tend to add complexity by giving your character tons of interesting options via consumable items.

Craig Stern
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The point isn't that all 12 techniques are necessary; they're just tools that you can use to create a clear, elegant system with emergent complexity. If you don't want to use one, don't.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Regarding party quantity, here's how I see you'd balance it: It's by both quantity and quality.

On one end you have RPGs where traditionally you have about 1-4 characters in your team only, but they have *lots* of attack options, special abilities and whatnot. The variation is how you level up each character.

On the other end you have RTS games where you can have about 100-200 (depending on the particular game) units at most, but each of them only have about 2-4 abilities. What's more those abilities are uncustomizable for the most part (you unlock them, but it's not as complex as a level up system). Variation in an RTS game then, instead comes from the composition of what unit types you employ in your army. (And what you replace defeated ones with to counter your enemy's army).

So you can see there's a trade-off and that's by design. You wouldn't want a tactical RPG that has you controlling 100 units where you are required to level-up each of them RPG-style one by one.

Tactical RPGs in my opinion sit somewhere in the middle, but closer to RPGs. So yes, a game with reduced quantity of player characters but reasonably enough quality (like the new XCOM, or as Chase mentioned, a roguelike) is just as viable as a game with high quantity of characters but reduced quality on each one, as most RTS games are. The "realtime" part in RTS in this context is important, as you wouldn't want to play a turn-based game where you have to control 100+ characters one at a time (Ever got exasperated when playing a 4X game and you nearly won but *each turn* you have to manage and attend to dozens of cities?).

It depends on the particular game you make but the main takeaway is don't overwhelm your player with needing to worry about too many things just to be able to play satisfactorily.

Joshua McDonald
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Good article on improving a genre with a lot of unrealized potential. I especially second the multiple objectives point, as I like it to go beyond a binary "you win or lose" system.

I think one of the greatest things you can do for tactical RPGs is to have a design-able army. For example, compare Tactics Ogre to Fire Emblem. In Fire Emblem, you're given a set of characters, and while you have some flexibility in who you bring into battle, you tend to go into each fight with a similar army (with most variety appearing when you're allowed to field more characters).

In Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (My favorite tactical RPG), you're given a set of characters, but you can recruit or persuade others, allowing you to pretty much build any style of army you want (my most effective force was built heavily around faeries and Gremlins--two units that many players never use). Basically, pre-battle tactics can be almost as important as in-battle tactics.

Terry Matthes
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Great read :)

Evan Shimizu
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This is pretty interesting. I'm currently working my way through SquareEnix's The Last Remnant (PC version, 2009) and it actually implements a surprising number of these suggestions in one game. Just for fun, I'll go through each suggestion and point out how The Last Remnant (TLR from now on) deals with it.

(1) Use space - TLR's combat takes place on a field where unions (group of units) must traverse the space in order to actually attack other units. Some unions can do ranged attacks, while others must engage another unit in "Deadlock" (melee attack) in order to attack another unit.

(2) Give the player at least six characters - TLR allows the (eventual) use of 18 units in 5 configurable unions. Each unit has a different class and set of abilities, which brings me to...

(3) Specialize the characters - TLR gives each unit a different set of abilities, generally arranged into "Combat Arts", "Mystic Arts" (Magic), and "Item Arts." Additionally, some units are able to use special "Hidden Arts" under certain circumstances. And then each unit has a Class that is determined by what stats and abilities it has and receives bonuses accordingly.

(4) Specialize the enemies - They're pretty much like your units and unions just with more HP.

(5) Variable distance - Each battle starts with your unions and enemies arranged at, well, variable distances. Some battles, like boss battles, put your unions in a designer-defined position, while random encounters are based (from what I can tell) on how you engage the field-visible enemies.

(6) Directional facing - TLR doesn't do this directly. However, they do attempt to account for this. TLR has a system where a union can be flanked or surrounded. The system is pretty straight forward: Engaging one unit is called "Deadlock," Engaging that same enemy union with up to 2 additional unions is called a "Flank Attack," engaging that same enemy with 1 additional union (4 total) is called a "Rear Assault" and any additional units engaging after that is a "Massive Strike." Unions can also be caught in "Raidlock," which amounts to a surprise attack after a union has broken from deadlock, or is on standby, or has launched a ranged attack, etc.

(7) Variable terrain - Well, TLR doesn't really do a lot of this, but there are a few story battles where different areas of the field open up, typically raising or lowering a bridge after defeating a set of unions. This then causes a hasty rearranging of your unions to account for the new enemies and areas.

(8) Manipulable terrain - Nope. TLR doesn't do this at all. Too bad. Would've been great to see you able to close off a bridge to allow yourself time to deal with other enemies first.

(9) Resource management - Hey look an AP system! Each unit in TLR contributes a certain amount of AP per turn to the union's AP pool. The units in the union will divide the AP amongst themselves as determined by the situation.

(10) Give units multiple attack options - Each Union gets at least 4 options, sometimes 5 if a Hidden Art is available. These options are, unfortunately in my opinion, generated by the computer and encompass a few basic categories: Normal melee attack (does not use AP typically), strong melee attack, melee magic attack, ranged magic attack, heal, buff, heal others, buff others, etc.

(11) Support multiple objectives - There are a few of these if I remember right, but they were typically of the form "defeat this specific union to win" instead of "defeat all the unions"

(12) Allow delayed attacks - There's not really a delay function, unless you count saving AP until you have enough. TLR instead has a QTE system where succeeding the various events can let your units attack before enemies (Critical Offense) or counter-attack an enemy for an extremely large damage bonus (Critical Defense). Critical Offense situations have proven a bit interesting at times. For example, in a particular combat phase, you might have a unit preparing to heal, but a few enemies may attack before the heal actually gets cast. However, that union gets a critical offense chance on the first attack and you can keep chaining them to let your entire union attack before the enemy, though you may want to wait until the enemy moves in order to heal, making that one QTE feature a bit more interesting. It's also interesting to note that you can have the game handle the QTEs itself if you want to just not have them.

By my count, TLR implements ~10/12 of these suggestions. It's combat system was praised as "intriguing" and criticized as "boring" on release and has pretty solidly mixed reviews. I think it's interesting, though I find myself slipping in to the same tactics and strategies in random encounters. Boss battles typically force me to shift a little bit, but usually not by much.

I think it's also pretty interesting to note that SquareEnix chose to _hide_ the vast majority of the battle system complexities, likely in an attempt to make it less intimidating. It does cause quite a bit of frustration though. The systems are mostly opaque: you can't see when your units will learn a new skill, you can't see the requirements for different classes, you can't see the individual level of your units and are instead limited to seeing only a summary of your level that strictly increases, you aren't able to control what items your units equip, you can't assign direct commands to your units in combat (want to use Wildfire instead of Permafrost for Enemy A? Well you can do that for Enemy B but you can't do it for Enemy A), you can't see how far your unions can move on the field (referred to in the union selection menu as "mobility"), some hidden arts are triggered by very specific circumstances that aren't detailed in the game, etc. TLR's Wiki has deconstructed these mechanics and it's quite the system (for example, the leveling:

So there you have it! That was a pretty long post huh. But interesting for me, and hopefully for others just to see that there are indeed designers who have tried a lot of these suggestions. It's also interesting to see these ideas show up in a game that's 5 years old (Xbox version released 2008, PC in 2009).

Pallav Nawani
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"It's also interesting to see these ideas show up in a game that's 5 years old (Xbox version released 2008, PC in 2009)."

Try Baldur's Gate, Released 1998.

Michael Stevens
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"I think it's also pretty interesting to note that SquareEnix chose to _hide_ the vast majority of the battle system complexities, likely in an attempt to make it less intimidating."

It's an easier choice to understand when you realize that TLR is not just a Square Enix game, but also (for all intents and purposes) a SaGa game. Unlimited Saga and Romancing SaGa for Ps2 hid tremendous amounts of information from the player and were still mechanically overwhelming for most.