Central to designing a combat system is deciding the strategies and tactics that are available to the player (and also the opponents). Generally speaking strategy is how the player will approach the game as a whole: longer term thinking and planning. Tactics are the more immediate decisions made in battle.
In some RPGs tactical choices also involve positioning units, however positions are fixed in Heroes of a Broken Land. This means that the tactical choices in HOBL are the per-turn actions – attack, use and item, use a skill/spell or wait.
To make combat interesting your tactical choices must be varied, meaningful and interesting.
Variation comes either from each class having access to different skills as well as the ability to learn new skills. Variation also comes from facing new opponents with new and different strengths and weaknesses. Variation makes combat interesting, giving the player choice and allowing them to approach combat as they wish. However too much variation can have negative consequences, too many options make it more difficult to choose, slowing down the pace of combat. Too many choices causes paralysis of choice, a real issue game designers must face. On top of all that, each option makes the game that much harder to balance, I’ll address balance again in another post.
Just having lots of options isn’t by itself good design, the options must be meaningful. To be meaningful actions must have a useful effect on the battle – damage a monster, heal an ally or change the flow of combat. Having 5 different ways of doing 10 points of damage isn’t providing meaningful choice. I strive to always provide a character with a meaningful action at each turn.
One example of giving the player a meaningful choice are the options available to a 1st Level Fighter: Attack and Bash. Attack damages the enemy, bash stuns the enemy for one round (but requires some magic points). The fighter is the strongest attacker available, so by not attacking and stunning the enemy the player does less damage that round that normally. However the stun attack gives the player the ability to prevent damage to the party. The result is the fighter has a meaningful choice or performing an offensive or defensive action. Properly designed you will always have a meaningful choice to make.
Lastly, tactical decisions must be interesting. The fighter’s attack vs. bash choice is also an interesting one: should act offensively or defensively? Sometimes one action is the obvious optimal choice, but more often it’s unclear, making the choice interesting. Similarly, a special action (skill or spell) requires magic points – a limited resource – but generally they do more damage. This is always an interesting choice because the magic points should not be wasted, since they don’t regenerate between battles.
Providing interesting choices means ensuring there isn’t always a “best” tactical choice to make. An uninteresting combat system would always have an single optimal action to take, removing much of the player’s freedom of choice. I’ve played many a JRPG where mashing the A button was the best way to resolve combat. I strive to always provide interesting decisions during combat.
Heroes of a Broken Land doesn’t have many strategic choices during combat. The strategic decisions the player must while playing are in the town management and outpost alliance systems. However the player’s strategies will affect their ability to engage in combat, which heroes are available and how they are equipped.
The strategic choices made are primarily related to party resource management, especially potion usage and magic point management. Heroes of a Broken Land require players to be properly prepared to enter a dungeon, especially during the higher levels. The combat system has been designed so that individual fights are not that deadly, but they are difficult to force you to use your resources – potions and magic points in-between fights.
One unique feature of HOBL is the way party order affects combat. Targeting in combat is based on party order – party members on one side of your party attack monsters on the same side. Normally choosing your target is a tactical choice made each time you choose your action. However by using party order to determining targets, this becomes a strategic choice made outside of a fight.
Additionally, monster levels are balanced to match a fully and properly equipped party. So if you don’t upgrade your weapons and armor between dungeons you might find your party underpowered too.
I’ve tried to design the strategic components of Heroes of a Broken Land to be forgiving. So if you make poor strategic decisions early on you will be able to correct and recover from those mistakes. I’m sure you’ve played games where strategic choices made early on have potentially game losing consequences you only become aware of hours after you’ve made them. That’s not the style of strategic choice I wanted in Heroes of a Broken Land.
Strategy is long term thinking – how you choose party members and how you survive dungeons (prepared with potions, save MP)