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How to Make Turn-Based RPGs Engaging

Musings on Turn-Based RPG Combat

The appeal of turn-based RPGs for me has always been how they can prompt the player to come up with different strategies to achieve the most efficient use of their turn. However, this hardly describes most of the turn-based RPGs that I have played, which are often just about finding the optimal strategy and repeating it in each battle. That's why, when other people don't share my enthusiasm for turn-based RPGs, I actually sympathize with them. Though while talking to some friends, I made the curious discovery that, while they find most turn-based RPGs dull, they do enjoy turn-based strategy games and deck-building card games. This made me think that maybe the reason some don't enjoy turn-based RPGs isn't that they're turn-based, but rather because they don't have interesting battle systems or battle scenarios.

Battle Systems

Battle screen in Dragon Quest

A battle system is the rules that govern combat, which includes all the actions a player can take during battle. An engaging battle system is one that has enough complexity to give the player lots of choices to consider during combat. Decisions that don't just boil down to when to attack and when to defend, but what attacks to use and how to defend.

The reason why I and so many others have trouble playing any turn-based RPG on the Nintendo Entertainment System is because the battle systems aren't complex enough to allow the player to make meaningful choices. Most attacks in these RPGs don't really serve any purpose other than dealing damage, and that makes the decision of what attacks to use rather easy. This is why turn-based RPGs with a simple battle system opt for party-based battles rather than individual ones, because having more choices to consider each turn breaks up the monotony of the combat. Modern turn-based RPGs aren't as lacking in complexity as older ones, but I believe more can be done to differentiate the roles of party members to make them truly feel like playing different characters. More complex battle systems means more tools for the player, but this is meaningless unless the battle scenarios themselves are ever-changing and challenging to accommodate for the various amount of strategies.

Battle Scenarios

Battle screen in Pokemon Blue

A battle scenario is the equivalent of an enemy encounter, but I think this term is more appropriate because, in my mind, it's more akin to a chess problem; in other words, a challenge that is set up to test your understanding of the game's mechanics. Now, battle scenarios are not something that turn-based RPGs always get wrong, but this kind of attention to detail is rarely paid to every battle.

To highlight this point, I would like to take a look at my favorite turn-based RPG series of all-time—Pokémon. Pokémon is actually an interesting case because, while its battle system has enough complexity to promote a multitude of strategies from both the player and the computer opponents, the game hardly makes use of it. The reason why something as basic as a trainer using an item or switching their Pokémon makes such an impact is that, normally, the computer opponents don't behave in an intelligent manner. While Pokémon varies the battle scenarios by giving computer opponents different Pokémon with different weaknesses, it doesn't get harder because the battles get more complicated but rather because the opponents have increasingly higher levels. My most memorable battles in the Pokémon series either come from the Stadium Mode in Pokémon Stadium or the Battle Tower in Pokémon Ruby, which both feature computer opponents designed with specific strategies in mind. Setting up situations that force the player to change their strategy makes combat engaging because the player has to consistently learn and grow.

Comparison image of Final Fantasy VII and Remake

Of course, I can't guarantee that these suggestions will make turn-based RPGs appeal to everyone who doesn't like them, but I think they at least make these games more enjoyable for fans of the genre. It is also important to note that these suggestions aren't only applicable to turn-based RPGs and can be applied to other genres, as well. However, I think it is crucial for turn-based RPGs because there is a growing stigma of the genre being boring and outdated, with one of, if not the biggest turn-based RPG franchises, Final Fantasy, in its latest iteration abandoning turn-based combat in favor of real-time action to appeal to a larger audience.

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How to Make Turn-Based RPGs Engaging
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