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.