Spam Spam Spam Humbug: Episode 17 – How Necessary Is Combat In RPGs?

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I’d like to give a shout-out to my brother, Simon.

It was my wife’s birthday last week, and a few people had come over to the house on Saturday for dinner. It was a really good time, overall, but just as we were cutting into the cake, there was a knock on the front door. I opened it to see my brother, Simon, standing there, accompanied by his girlfriend. This seems to be a thing with my wife’s side of the family, and evidently we’ve now adopted it as well: new people, and in particular new significant others, always seem to be introduced to the family at big gatherings. It was the same for me: the first time I met my wife’s family, not only were most of her sisters present at her parents’ house, but so were her grandparents, as well as various uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends of the family. And it was either her father’s birthday or her parents’ anniversary party that day, too.

So, anyway, we had plenty of food to spare — including some delicious salmon, from the B.C. coast — and they dived right in after only a little bit of prompting. I was actually outside on the deck for much of Simon’s visit, watching the kids play in the yard. And of course my wife and everyone else were happily conversing with Simon and (in particular) his girlfriend, getting all the details about how they’d met and suchlike.

At some point Simon started discussing me, I assume for his girlfriend’s benefit. I didn’t catch the entirety of the conversation, but he mentioned some of the recordings I’d done and posted, and how he’d enjoyed them, and talked about passion for the topics (games, in particular). It was good to hear the feedback, even if only in snippets through a screen door.

Podcast Topic(s)

Some time ago, Linguistic stumbled across a discussion thread — the source has sadly since been forgotten — asking the question whether there should be an option to make combat skippable in some RPGs. Would it be worth it, the poster asked, to offer players a way to experience a game’s story even if they found the gameplay itself impenetrable or frustrating? The topic devolved swiftly into name-calling and various other retorts – if you wanted to play a game for primarily story then go read a book or watch a movie instead, that’s what easy difficulties are for and that’s concession enough, that’s what Let’s Plays are for – but it did hold an intriguing question beneath it all. Exactly how important — or even prevalent — does combat have to be in an RPG?

Kotaku explored the same issue a couple of years ago, noting that for many games — they cite Mass Effect in particular, alongside other games — almost serve as storytelling frameworks that support an advanced combat engine. Indeed, there’s even a TvTropes page entitled RPGs Equal Combat, which offers examples both of RPGs that are combat-heavy, and ones in which combat is more optional (although how they missed making mention of Ultima 6 — they do mention Ultima 7 — is beyond me).

Games in which combat isn’t necessary…: Planescape: Torment allows a player to fight their way through most situations, but there’s only two or three that the player is actually forced into combat. Notably, the confrontation with the final boss is not one of them — depending on the player’s choices and whether they’ve built their character with the stats to back them up, one can defeat the Big Bad of the game without having to land a single blow. And it’s just as dramatic and satisfying a final confrontation as a battle proper is – arguably moreso.

Fallout also featured a method to avoid directly fighting the final boss — two, in fact, by means of either convincing the Master to destroy itself or setting off a nuke in its base. In fact, it seems to be in much the same category as Ultima 6, in that there’s remarkably few direct kills that need to be made in order to complete the game.

There’s room for debate as to whether it really qualifies as an RPG, but it’s worth noting at least that Dishonored featured an achievement for passing the game without killing a single person…which, granted, is kind of a weird thing to see in a game about an assassin. (And yes, Dishonored 2 will feature the same achievement.) Deus Ex: Human Revolution featured a similar achievement, at least in its Director’s Cut re-release (the original version had a few unavoidable fights); indeed, that game rewarded players with a lot more experience for navigating obstacles and levels stealthily, without getting into fights. Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol can also be completed without killing anyone (although several foes will evidently have to be tranquilized, for example).

…and games in which it is: Some kind of combat is often essential to an RPG, as RPGs as we know them evolved out of fantasy scenarios for wargames. Combat skills are a key development metric differentiator between character classes.

It’s certainly not difficult to list off RPGs in which some kind of combat is essential or unavoidable. Indeed, there are hundreds upon hundreds of titles to choose from here.

A couple of recent illustrative examples, which have been mentioned on the podcast before, are the Dragon Age titles and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning…excellent RPGs all, to be sure. Rowan Kaiser, who worked on the Ultima 6 Project, praised Reckoning’s combat thusly:

…there are a large number of compromises which are necessary to make massively multiplayer games accessible. Combat is real-time so that slow players don’t annoy everyone, but it’s slowly-paced with cooldowns so that players with better reflexes don’t dominate.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning avoids that combat mechanic trap by making its battles something that could only work in a single-player setting. These take their cues from action games like God of War, with fast-paced combos, dodging, and stylized executions. This makes Reckoning play smoothly – combat is fast and fun, and appropriate to the solo, single-character structure of the game. Since the combat isn’t stressful or dissonant, it’s easier to focus on exploration and the world of Amalur.

And I’ve made my own thoughts on it known:

Combat in Reckoning, however, is anything but methodical; it is hyper-kinetic and brutal, fast-paced and tactical. The key to combat in Reckoning is movement, and also innovation. You can use an array of weapons and abilities, and while you’ll eventually settle into particular patterns for these, the combat rarely becomes boring for it. And in a certain sense, it’s the combat in Reckoning that ties the game together; its frenetic tempo allows the rest of the game — quests, crafting, and the like — to proceed at a measured pace without feeling slow.

Not all of the Dragon Age games handled the idea of combat-as-a-progression-mechanic as well as this. Dragon Age 2 certainly improved the experience of combat in the series (combat in Dragon Age: Origins was a plodding bore), but the wave-based combat wasn’t welcomed by everyone, and didn’t always make sense in context. Dragon Age: Inquisition’s combat is, or seems to be (I’m not that far into it) a nice balance between the two…even if it ultimately pales in comparison to the combat in Reckoning. (Thanks, Ian…you’ve more or less spoiled fantasy RPG combat for me now.)

Mass Effect, mentioned previously, also has really good combat, even if the cover system is kind of broken in the first one. But I’m going to kind of sidestep it in the discussion here, because it’s combat is very different as well, in that it’s (almost) all ranged in nature. I mean, every weapon in the game (apart from that arm blade thingy, but that’s a special case) is some sort of gun, and the battles in the game play out as gunfights. It’s fun combat, generally, but it’s not really easy to make a direct comparison to the combat typical in fantasy RPGs. Even Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare’s previous attempt at a sci-fi RPG, doesn’t really compare to Mass Effect in the combat discussion, because the combination of blasters and lightsabers in KOTOR more or less behaves exactly like bows and swords in a fantasy RPG.

Actually, switching gears for a moment, I think games like Knights of the Old Republic — and other games that use engines based on BioWare’s Aurora Engine (e.g. Neverwinter Nights 1/2, The Witcher, Dragon Age: Origins, and Jade Empire) — serve to illustrate how combat can be an impediment to progression in a game, and even something that turns players off of a game entirely. It’s a problem that you can kind of see in some earlier games, too: the Infinity Engine games all suffer from the same problem, and it’s one thing I’m glad that Obsidian were able to refine in Pillars of Eternity. It’s something I hope is not going to be a problem in the upcoming Sword Coast Legends, which I’m really looking forward to otherwise.

There’s a really great blog post up at Sinister Design, actually, which speaks directly to the issue I’m alluding to here, which is (essentially) the use of (or over-reliance on) Dungeons & Dragons-derived rulesets in combat mechanics. The post at Sinister even seems to imply, in its opening, that it’s the problems with — and the kludginess of — the D&D combat system, and its over-use, that has largely caused modern RPG developers to jump ship and head over to real-time combat.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is the reason; I actually think it’s more likely that the advent of 3D — and, in particular, 3D-capable game consoles — that was the major driver in that transition. But I do agree that the D&D ruleset, while it certainly works well enough in a pen-and-paper setting, is something of a liability when implemented as the combat mechanic in a CRPG. You can see this rather profoundly in games like Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins: the combat is cumbersome to watch, and it doesn’t always make sense why your character is or isn’t able to land a hit on a foe.

This gets back to something I said in the second SSSH episode:

Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t fun, for me, when I first played it; I thought the combat was dreary and boring…and if the game was going to require me to navigate hundreds of combat encounters, that just wasn’t going to do. It was only after I installed a couple of mods that sped up the combat animations and made my character execute more ‘epic kill’ moves that the combat in the game was entertaining enough that I was willing to do more than play beyond the origin story section of the plot. And sure, once I did, I found that the game had a fair bit of social commentary to make…all of which I would have missed being engaged by if I hadn’t found a way to make the combat fun.

Furthering Sinister’s point, there are turn-based combat systems that work very well. The combat in the first two Fallout games was a very exaggerated form of turn-based combat, but it worked because it catered to just about everyone’s play-style. You could be meticulous and plan out each shot carefully, and there were often advantages to targeting specific areas of specific enemies…but you could also just click on something and attack without too much pause. Syndicate wasn’t really an RPG, but it had a pretty solid turn-based combat system as well.

And then there are the Ultima games: Here’s a brief overview of whether any of the Ultima games can be passed without combat. The short answer: it would seem that none of them can be, although you can very nearly do it in Ultima 6. It’s also worth mentioning that Ultima Forever was supposed to have a pacifist option, in the form of the Druid class. Though this was never implemented, Druids would evidently have had to rely on their environment rather heavily, both to bypass monsters (if possible) and to deal damage to them (if necessary).

There’s also the example of Ultima 4, in which it’s absolutely impossible to win the game while avoiding combat, and in fact penalizing you for fleeing from it. Valor won’t increase if you don’t get into fights, and will decrease if you don’t hold your ground against the evil creatures of the land.

Speaking of Ultima 6, one thing to note about that game is that all the movement is turn-based, both in and out of combat. What’s funny about Ultima 6 is that the turn-based movement outside of combat is actually more cumbersome than it is when you’re in combat. If you’re walking around past a swarm of (non-hostile) insects or birds, it’s annoying as heck that your party has to stagger past these other creatures one step at a time, since each on-screen thing gets to move in turn. But then, when you’re walking around, you can normally keep a brisk pace when there’s nothing in view, so you end up hitting these sudden slowdowns when you chance upon wildlife.

But in Ultima 6’s combat, everything moves at the same speed (more or less; fleeing enemies seem to get some extra movement), and it feels natural. It makes approaching enemies a bit slower, but (paradoxically) the actual exchange of blows feels rather quick, and it doesn’t seem too much as though there are a myriad of randomizing mechanics at work behind each sword strike; it’s a very well-paced, well-implemented system overall.

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