3 Hidden Game Design Choices that Impact Turn-Based RPGs
Published: December 9, 2020
Turn-based RPGs are one of the backbones of the RPG genre, and designers have iterated on this fundamental idea for years. The concept of breaking combat into turns for each character–player and otherwise–is simple on its face, but today, calling an RPG turn-based is barely a hint about what the overall gameplay will actually be like.
Some turn-based systems aim to follow the paradigm popularized by classic dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder, but then you also have the JRPG approach to turn-based combat that sometimes mixes real-time elements with dynamic action point systems (like the Final Fantasy series) while other JRPGs also incorporate some degree of battlefield tactics and character location (like the Lunar series). Then you have turn-based tactical RPGs and sometimes roguelike or roguelite elements and on and on.
All of these variations of the turn-based idea are focused on combat, which means that players sometimes miss how much impact choices outside of combat have on the genre-defining turn-based elements. Here are three things we consider when we approach designing turn-based RPGs:
1. Character builds and equipment.
This one usually gets a lot of attention, so it’s not exactly a hidden secret, but the nuances of a meaningful equipment and skill progression system are invisible when they are at their best. Because of the influence of Dungeon & Dragons, RPGs have long had a wide variety of skill and gear systems, but these can be really difficult to make interesting. For example, it’s all too easy for each new town to simply have a stronger version of each character’s equippable weapon, making it a no-brainer to buy and equip the latest.
These systems, however, are more powerful when players have an actual choice over what is best. Different equipment may be better for different characters. Status effects, elemental properties, and weapon attributes around range and speed can make a difference. How you outfit your characters and manage their level progression are choices that occur outside of turn-based combat but can have a radical impact on how encounters are experienced.
2. Dungeon design.
Like gear and skill systems, bad dungeon design is much more obvious than good dungeon design. Players can quickly sense when they are underpowered or when they can’t reasonably have enough resources to complete a quest without having to stop and grind. Though it may not be immediately obvious, how good combat feels in a turn-based game could be largely impacted by dungeons themselves.
Dungeons are built from a host of game design choices, such as the following:
- Individual and group enemy difficulties
- Puzzles, traps, and exploration elements
- Enemy encounter rates
- Save points and rest points
- Overall length and duration
- Story and theme
If, for example, a designer puts a save point immediately before an exceptionally difficult boss battle, players may feel less penalized for failure, making it more interesting for players to try different tactics to take down the big boss. But, if that same boss is buried behind relentless random encounters and players are depleted of their resources each time they finally reach that same boss, suddenly the combat feels very different and what players get out of it might change.
3. Narrative structure and world design.
We touched on this in the previous section in the context of individual designs, but how designers blend turn-based combat design with overall world design can turn a standard game system into something exceptional. Final Fantasy VII’s materia system is directly related to the story of the game. In hindsight, that might feel like a small touch, but having the story tie to your upgrade system and having that play out in combat helps to thread multiple pieces of game design into one cohesive unit.
Darkest Dungeon deserves a shoutout here as well. The thematic focus on mental state, dread, and horror ties nicely to the highly intimate structure of a combat encounter. In Final Fantasy VII the camera is zoomed out to show the battlefield and features a variety of camera effects to increase the drama of a battle, but in Darkest Dungeon you are up close to your party and to their foes. You are in their faces when they start to succumb to the brutality of a dungeon crawl. Mechanically, that doesn’t change the turn-based combat at all, but it does change how it feels, and that’s huge.
Zen Studios Turn-Based RPGs
We’ve written before about how important dungeon design was for us in Operencia and how the setting for Dread Nautical was a deliberate departure from classic fantasy settings. If you read those blogs, hearing that those choices also influenced how we thought about combat encounters may not come as a surprise. In Operencia, we expressed our love for dungeon crawlers, but we also have memories of tearing out our hair over scenarios that felt unwinnable, so we aimed to carefully manage enemy placement, save point placement, and the resources our players would have at any given point in a crawl.
Similarly, Dread Nautical was our chance to explore tactical turn-based combat with a new theme, which meant we could mix in new enemies and different kinds of weapons. Fighting thralls on a cruiseship is very different from delving into catacombs, so we wanted the combat experience to reflect that but still be fun and interesting.
What are some of your favorite turn-based combat games and how do the game design choices outside of combat make combat better? We’d love to hear your perspective.