We’re frequently limited by one of the very things we’re so focused on in most RPGs – the simplicity of combat and victory conditions. It’s generally a very binary thing. While there may be opportunities for either side to flee, for the most part it’s kill-or-be-killed, using a single indicator (health, hit points, whatever it is called) as the deciding factor.
In the real world, combat is often more of a means to an end. Two or more sides have a goals that they wish to achieve (or deny to their opponents). In fact, there are generally multiple goals of varying priorities being weighed throughout the battle, as “survival” (or “minimal casualties”) is usually pretty high on the list.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were multiple paths to “victory” in combat… even a case where it would be possible for both sides to declare victory and disengage? By interesting, I mean, “more interesting combat choices.” While utter and complete defeat of the enemy forces in the traditional manner as fast as possible might be a handy brute-force approach to full victory, that may not always be an optimal, necessary, or even possible approach. It gets even more interesting when victory isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, but sides could gain partial victories and losses.
Suddenly, things like battlefield mobility, distractions, prediction, counter-magic, and so forth might become far more useful than massive spell-nukes. At this point, even things like negotiation might be key combat abilities, when you can conserve resources and guarantee key goals by conceding some victory conditions to the enemy. Or vice-versa. If goals aren’t completely mutually exclusive, there may be some real strategy involved (even in an RPG) in losing a battle in order to win the war.
This isn’t completely unprecedented on the RPG front. In modern RPGs, we’ve been confronted with escort or protection missions. While very simple (but sadly, often frustrating), they are perhaps a first step into really creating much more interesting conflicts. The upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera promises something even more interesting with their Crisis System, which makes combat just one part of a larger challenge.
I think there’s a lot of fascinating potential to explore, here. If any other indie RPG developers are looking at ways to push the boundaries of the role-playing experience in something beyond mere graphical pizzazz, this might be something to think about.