How to revamp the turn-based RPG combat system

By Alex Alusheff

Hi, I’m Alex and I’m addicted to turn-based RPGs.

It started with Final Fantasy 7 in 1997 (how original, I know). The addiction grew from there –  Dragon Quest, EarthBound, the Mario RPGs, Darkest Dungeon. Then it branched into strategy and sandbox games like Battle Brothers, SteamWorld Heist, The Banner Saga, Fire Emblem and … oh God … hold on, I need to wipe down my keyboard.

So imagine my glee when I first heard about the Final Fantasy 7 Remake and expecting it to be turn-based in all of its revamped-visual glory. Then came the gut punch after finding out the combat system would be entirely rebuilt.

Sure the game turned out great, according to our own review. But I worry about the precedent Square is setting. Sure, it’s been making moves away from turn-based combat since FFXII and it was gone entirely in FFXV (which I played 30 minutes of before noping out), but what if its moves convinced other franchises from ditching turn-based combat as well or convinced future franchises to not include it at all?

While that may be a stretch, it’s not like Square was wrong to ditch turn-based combat. Let’s face it, fellow turn-based combat lovers, it has grown stale over the years. The problem is not the style, but the lack of innovation over the years. There are many great turn-based games that have one or two unique twists on turn-based combat, but those too grow old over time.

The Dragon Quest series hasn’t changed its combat system much over the decades, and while i love it, I understand why people are turned off by it.

Turn-based combat isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of improvements to the system over the years. One or two improvements on the basic system isn’t enough. It should be five to ten.

To demonstrate how this is possible, I’ve dreamt up an intricate turn-based combat system. And by that I mean I’ve hodge-podged a bunch of elements from RPGs I like to explain it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The ideal turn-based combat system includes:

Active Time Battles, but like in Child of Light

ATB originated in Final Fantasy IV, but Child of Light made the wait phase an engaging and strategic part of the battle.

The move order was dictated by a time bar on the bottom of the screen. The icons of each character in battle would move left to right, from the wait section to the cast section. Some enemies were faster than you, some were slower. If you wanted to delay a certain enemy from attacking, you could use the firefly that accompanied your party to blind one of them.

Blinding your enemy would slow down their progress on the bar and could allow one of you party members who were behind the enemy on the time bar overtake them and attack before the enemy could. If the enemy’s icon was in the small casting section of the time bar when you attacked, it would not be able to complete its attack and it would reset its progress. If an enemy attacked one of your characters while they were casting, the same would happen to them.

It was a nice way to break up the monotony of waiting for turn meters to fill up in other ATB games. It adds a layer of strategy during downtime. I like the idea of being able to disrupt or delay an enemy from taking their turn, and I like the possibility of it happening to your own characters too. That’s why I would take some version of this feature and repurpose it into my ideal combat system.

Double and Triple attacks like in Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger has a fun combat system. It’s ATB as well, but the enemy moves around the screen. Sometimes they are spread out, sometimes they cluster together. The positioning of the enemy is crucial for when you are plotting out double or triple attacks. 

Each Character has their own special techniques, called techs, outside of the normal attacks that cost mana. These techs can be combined with the techs of other party members to create a more powerful attack, but both characters’ attack meters have to be filled in order to perform the special move and they both need to have the mana required.

One of Chrono’s techs, Cyclone, allows him to spin around with his sword outstretched, slashing enemies in his radius. When combined with Robo’s Laser Spin, it becomes Supersonic Spin and hits all enemies. When you also add Ayla’s Tail Spin in the mix, it becomes Twister, hitting all enemies with a tornado. 

In Chrono Trigger, there are 45 double techs and 15 triple techs. That’s a lot of fun combinations, but there is no risk aside from waiting a few seconds for all characters to be ready to attack.

Combining this combo attack system with the disruptor system inspired by Child of Light would add a risk/reward feature to attacking. You can try to perform a double or triple attack, which is very powerful, but if one of your characters is attacked during the small casting window, it can set back the duo or trio’s attack progress. This would delay the powerful attack and possibly let another enemy attack again. But you have your own version of a firefly to delay their attack from foiling your powerful combination. High risk, high reward.

Elements and Field Effect like in Chrono Cross

Let’s add even another layer of strategy. You may think I’m crazy, but hear me out. Chrono Cross has a field effect system that made spells of the same element stronger the more they were cast.

The field effect is depicted as three ovular, overlapping tiers shown in the corner of the battle screen. Each time a magic spell is cast, the first tier changes to the elemental color of that spell. The second tier would change to whatever the first tier was originally. And the third tier would be changed to whatever the second tier originally contained.

There are six elements in Chrono Cross – red, blue, green, yellow, black, white. The battle field has a default field effect that reflects the environment you’re in. If you’re on the beach, the tiers will be a mix of green and blue. If you’re in a field, it may be green and yellow.

The field effect is used as a damage multiplier. If the first tier is blue, you want to cast a blue spell so the first two tiers become blue. This makes the next blue spell cast cause more damage, regardless if you or the enemy casts it. If you cast another blue spell, all three tiers would be blue and the next blue spell cast would cause even more damage.

Your enemies are using the same tactics too, and can cast magic that ruins your field effect strategy. You could be aiming for three blue tiers only for an enemy to cast a fire spell and rest the multiplier. You can try for red spells to build the multiplier up faster, or change tactics entirely.

But in order to cast spells, you have to successfully land physical attacks to build up your energy points used to cast magic. The more points you build up, the more powerful spells you can use. This assures that you’re constantly using a mix of physical attacks and magic to spice up the battle.

There’s more to say about Chrono Cross, but I just want to snag a form of this field effect feature to use in my combat system  that buffs certain types of spells cast in succession. It would pair nicely with the double and triple attacks from Chrono Trigger because those attacks would impact the field effect, making strong spells even stronger for both the player and the enemy. Since the enemy is employing the same tactics, it would balance out a system that can lopsidedly favor the player.

You now have to think about the overall turn order strategy, the risk of casting a double or triple attack and your overall magic strategy in every battle. And there’s plenty more to build up from there. 

Afflictions and Virtues like in Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is one of the first games to focus on the mental health of your heroes. Characters get stressed out every time they go on a quest, due to the Lovecraftian-esque horrors they constantly face.

Stress maxes out at 200 points. A character can gain stress from getting attacked in battle, hitting a trap, or the light of the party’s torch dimming as they progress through the dungeon. When stress hits 100, the character either gains an affliction or virtue, but it’s often a stat-reducing affliction.

Your hero can become fearful, which reduces their damage by 25%, but increases their dodge stat. During battle, a fearful hero makes comments that add stress points to the other three party members. They may also refuse to attack during their turn or move backward one position, forcing the character behind them to move up. This can mess with your attack strategy because certain spells and attacks are dictated by a hero’s position. When one character becomes afflicted, you better finish your mission soon because another hero will likely become afflicted and it gets worse from there. Stress points keep building, and when they hit 200, they suffer a heart attack and die.

But sometimes hitting 100 stress can be good. Your character can gain a virtue instead of an affliction. They could become courageous, for example, which reduces their stress and increases their speed, potentially allowing them to attack more. They will give rallying cries to their party members as well, decreasing everyone’s stress, which can really save the day.

You automatically return to town after each quest, where you can reduce a hero’s stress by having them drink at the tavern, gamble, pray or even flagellate, for example. Doing so would prevent that hero from being used in the next quest. You could remove an affliction by placing the hero in the sanitarium for treatment, which would also remove them from the roster for the next quest. Space is limited though for stress relief and treatment, and if you left an afflicted hero untreated for too long, they would become permanently afflicted.

I would like a version of this concept incorporated into my combat system, but it would have to be less intense. Darkest Dungeon is a rougelike that has you constantly questing in the same four areas and returning to the same town to rid it of the evil that infects it. 

I picture my game in the vein of traditional JRPGs that have you travelling all over the world. You wouldn’t just be able to automatically return to town when you abandon a quest. You’d have to circle back to the town you left or forge on ahead to your destination and hope you had enough cash to pay for treatment and stress relief. You could camp in the wilderness, like in Darkest Dungeon, which would provide minor relief, but your best bet is to see the safety of town, where all the heroes you didn’t bring are currently lodged.

Afflictions would be more common than virtues and would help balance out all the buffs and multipliers in the points above. Let’s keep going.

A support system like in Fire Emblem Awakening

If we’re going to stress out our character’s, we should at least give them someone to lean on to make saving the world a little less lonely.

Fire Emblem Awakening introduces the support system, where when two players are paired up next to each other in battle, they do extra damage working together. The more they work together, the more their relationship and damage caused grows.

The support system starts at rank C and progresses through B, A and S. Dialogue shared between the characters you pair off evolves with each new rank. Progress to S rank with certain characters and they can marry and have children. You can even recruit the children of your avatar and other characters into your roster when they reach adulthood. Hell, your avatar can even have a child with one of the other pairing’s children.

This is a great feature to include in any RPG. You get a slight combat bonus and you get more attached to your characters. You obviously can put a lot of time into your main character, but all your side characters deserve happiness too, unless they annoy you.

This system would mesh well with the features mentioned above. The more double and triple attacks characters performed together, the more their relationship would increase outside of battle back at town. Those attacks would also cause slightly more damage as the relationship grew.

How awesome would a triple attack be from a family of three. Maybe the battle animation for triple and double attacks would change each time a new relationship rank was achieved. Imagine how awesome a mother/father/child triple attack would be. Imagine how terrible it would be if that entire family became afflicted and just fell apart during a doomed quest.

We should take this further though outside of battle. Not everyone should be happy campers in your party. Think about all the drama that goes on in the workplace. People have friends and enemies in the office. It should be no different for your cast of characters. Depending on their beliefs, attributes, classes, ideologies, actions, they should conflict with other people in the party. These characters should not be paired together or you will get negative hits to combat and stress. 

But this isn’t something you’d find out right off the bat. Some events would trigger differences between party members that are irreparable. Maybe you were working on building their relationship and it was really high and then the event happened and ruined your plans for them. Some of these events could be tied to the main storyline. Some could stem from random side quests you happened to choose the wrong people for. Their differences didn’t clash until you took them on this side quest that made you choose between something like killing a bad guy or sparing his life. It’s fun when things don’t always go the way you planned and it changes the small story you were building in your playthrough.

Injuries and permadeath like in Battle Brothers

In RPGs you spend a lot of time perfecting your characters. You carefully choose their looks, class, actions, dialogue, relationships, and stats. In my ideal system, you can do all of that. But during one battle, you make a wrong move and they die. They fucking die and never come back.

This happens a lot to me in Battle Brothers, a sandbox strategy game where you build up a band of mercenaries and go questing. The combat is difficult and your characters die a lot. You can die so much that you unlock an achievement for it. Sometimes you luck out and your character is only rendered unconscious, but suffers injuries after battle, like losing an eye, or permanent brain damage. These come with negative stat hits that can change the way you play that character or ruin the entire build and force you to retire them.

I would incorporate this feature into the game. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing a beloved character. But it also creates a unique story for your playthrough. A story within a story. Maybe this hero had a romantic relationship with another hero. It devastates them, triggering an Affliction check in my fourth point. Maybe the hero who lost her loved one becomes depressed, giving her a negative hit to certain stats for a short period of time. Maybe she becomes vengeful and it boosts her strength temporarily. Maybe she becomes an alcoholic and later dies of a broken heart. What if you wipe out an entire family during a quest? How does it impact the rest of the characters?

All these actions have reactions and consequences to the overall party. Coupled with the dynamic relationship feature, the characters will react to each other and what’s going on around them to make everything feel more fleshed out and meaningful instead of getting the same three scripted lines over and over.

The good thing is that you would also have a large hero roster to replace all the people you keep getting killed. Fire Emblem Awakening has 30 characters, Banner Saga 3 has 43, Suikoden has 108. The magic number for me would be roughly 50. Some characters would be central to the story so if they died, you would start at your last save. I’m sure a lot of people would save scum to protect their beloveds anyway.

A leveling system like in Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age

Final Fantasy XII has a pretty engaging leveling system. You can choose between 12 different jobs. Each job has a license board, which is basically a checkerboard where you unlock squares as you level up. 

Every time you level up, you are given license points to activate adjacent squares to ones you already unlocked. These squares allow you to gain new abilities, equip stronger armor and weapons, or boost stats like health points.

Later on in the game you can add a second job to each character. You can have your white mage also become a black mage. You can have your archer double as a red mage. You can beef up your fighter with another tank class.

This system adds more strategy than just the automatic level up system seen in older RPGs or Pokemon games. Having a job system where you can branch off in different specialties of that job, and then also add another job on top of it, lends itself to a lot of strategizing for the optimal combination.

This dual class leveling system would pair nicely with the double and triple attack combo system, adding many different options. When your characters have children, you would be able to choose the child’s starting class from the four that you have chosen for their parents. When they reach a certain level, they could get their second job. Maybe certain classes make heroes more vulnerable to certain afflictions and virtues. It’s all intertwined. I just don’t want to be in charge of the tutorials for this game.

Large scale battles like in … a few games

I’m not blind to the fact that even this amazing system I am presenting will get old after a while. So that’s why combat needs to be switched up entirely from time to time.

I think the system laid out is good for four heroes present in battle at all times. But I also like the idea of expanding that and changing the battle mechanics entirely. I’m sure everything I’ve said so far is a developer’s nightmare, but I’m just the idea guy.

I really like the tile-based combat of games like The Banner Saga and Fire Emblem. You would double or triple your party roster for these special battles and change to a top-down strategic view. The only thing would need to scratch would be the ATB system in the first point, but everything else could stay intact –  the buddy system, field effect, combo attacks, afflictions. The rock, paper, scissors mechanic of Fire Emblem may not work here, or it would have to be expanded to accommodate for the expansive job system.

But two different battle modes aren’t enough. We need to think on an even larger scale, like the army battles in Suikoden. This third mode would have to be very simplistic, as it would pit forces of hundreds or thousands against one another.

Suikoden uses a rock, paper, scissor mode for its battles. Where you can charge with your infantry, use your ranged units or your magic units. Bow loses to infantry, infantry loses to magic, magic loses to bow. 

The game also gives you strategy units to help you in battle. Thieves can anticipate the enemy’s next move, strategists boost your infantry charge, merchants try to convince some of the enemy ranks to join yours, dragon knights launch an aerial attack, but can be repulsed by bow units.

Incorporating something similar to this would be a fun mini-game to break up the more complex combat system used throughout the game.

An Item crafting system like in Breath of the Wild

I typically neglect things like cooking, alchemy or smithing in RPGs. I find it boring. I tired to get into it in Oblivion and I got bored after my poison tipped arrows only caused 2 extra damage. I was not going to grind for that skill.

Then I played Breath of the Wild and the game forces you to cook a recipe to help get you out of the tutorial section. I had to figure out a spicy meat and seafood fry recipe for the Old Man so I could get a warm doublet to survive the cold climate of a mountain to get to a shrine.

I wasn’t happy at first, but then I started throwing random ingredients together to see what would happen. I didn’t get the recipe required, but I made something that would restore stamina, which you use a lot in the game. Then I made something that restored hearts since there were no health potions available. So I went down a rabbit hole for like an hour. I totally forgot what my goal was, I was just having fun throwing random items into a pot.

The problem with many RPGs is that you’re picking up or buying potions from the start so what’s the point of making them when you can always easily restock in town? Being forced to make recipes to progress in the game turned out to be a fun experience for someone who neglected this feature for years in other games.

That’s why I would incorporate this feature into my system. You forage for ingredients while exploring and questing, but can only make them in town, where you could act as a peddling merchant and sell your wares. The town wouldn’t have anything in stock. In fact they’d be looking forward to your visits so you can dump off your extra items and potions. Hell, you could morph this into the simple economy seen in games like Sid Meier’s Pirates! or Mount & Blade: Warband.

Wrapping it up

As I finish this, I am saddened that all these elements aren’t all present in one game. Yeah, I stole all these features from other games and put it in one package that’s bursting at the seams, but that’s the point.

It’s not turn-based combat that’s boring; it’s the developer’s fault for not continually improving it and building off of other game’s successes. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just add some spinners, whitewall tires, and put the pedal to the metal.

Who knows, maybe some developer will see this and figure out a way to make this work. If that does happen, please name a character after me, acknowledge me in the credits, and give me a free copy of the game.

What elements am I missing? I would love to hear what features make up your ideal combat system.

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