Building the Perfect Turn-Based Battle System

When you’ve played video games for nearly 25 years, you’ve just about seen it all. In my case, RPGs are a relatively new installment into my video game repertoire. Sure, there were some RPGs that snuck into my SNES, N64, or PS2 throughout my life, but for the most part I was all about the fighting games, racing games, sports games, platformers, action games, shooters, you name it. Action RPGs were even far and few between, to be honest. But turn-based RPGs? Hardly on my radar.

Like a fine wine, it took years for my tastes to age to perfection when it comes to the turn-based RPG. The art of the turn-based RPG really comes down to the battle system. The look and feel of the portion of the game that will be taking up most of your playing time is extremely important. Think about it – in a 30 hour-long RPG, how many of those hours are you actually spending doing something other than murdering bad guys? I’ve studied all the RPGs that ever existed with an abacus at my side and a few pots of coffee – I’ve crunched the numbers, people. I studied the topic with top scientists in all fields, and I’ve come to a conclusion. This graph should illustrate my point.

rpg-pie-chart.png

That’s a whopping 50% of the game time spent battling! So that battle system has to be pretty awesome.

The turn-based battle system has seen lots of changes over the years, even offering some dramatic changes with subsequent installments in the series. Final Fantasy comes to mind as the most obvious. It’s also the only one I can think of because I’m still relatively new to this turn-based RPG thing. Strategy-RPGs (or SRPGs for short) put battle participants on a grid system, turning fighting into a board game. Personally I’m not interested in these, and the reason why will most likely become evident as I talk about some of my likes and dislikes.

Of all the different styles of turn-based combat, if I had to create an optimal battle system, it would pull in different traits and components from lots of games I’ve played. For fun, and because I can’t think of anything of actual importance to write about at the moment, let’s assume that I have started a new job at a gaming company. My position is the Grand Dictator of Battle Systems, and it is my one and only duty to craft the perfect battle system.

I do hereby declare…

…No More Random Encounters!

Something about me: I cannot stand random encounters. I believe that the very concept was created by the Nazis when they realized they weren’t going to win the war. I can only assume their line of thinking was “this is really going to piss people off when video games are invented.” Random encounters exist to wear down your party and simulate the dangers while traveling through certain areas. This makes sense to me, but the random aspect I cannot handle.

There’s nothing more rhythm breaking that a jarring screen lock that teleports you out of exploration a beautiful RPG world to fight an owl. Because it’s always something stupid like an owl, something that outside of an RPG would never be any sort of threat.

It’s important to note when I say “random,” I really mean when you get thrust into combat out of nowhere. An example of where this is acceptable is 7th Dragon III Code: VFD. It essentially gives you a heat counter – the more you move, the more ‘red’ it gets, which means you’re about to get into trouble. See what I mean? It’s not random if you know it’s coming, and you have a decent idea when an encounter is about to happen. This is the starting point I’d like to take.

…Once It’s Time to Fight… Make it Quick!

Nothing frustrates me more than a slow battle system. Recently I’ve begun playing Final Fantasy X and I love how fast it puts you into the battle mode. I hate the random encounter screen crack because it startles me every single damn time, but it is quickly forgiven when I realize how snappy the whole combat system actually is, at least before it ends.

There is simply no need for a long, 10+ second cutscene at the beginning of every battle. Yes, I know we’re still in the woods. Ok, I figured we’d be fighting frogs. Great, yeah, very important to see them from a few different angles.. camera pan on the scenery…

just let me fight, dammit!

final-fantasy-vii-frogs

…Each Move Should Happen Once it’s Selected!

One of the reasons I could never get too far into Etrian Odyssey IV, aside from it requiring grinding as a core mechanic which is on my list of “oh no-no’s,” is a seemingly small part of the battle system. And I’ve seen this in a few games. What I don’t like is when you have to choose moves for the whole party, and then they all attack in a sort of “animation phase.” I much prefer moves to be executed as soon as they are selected. This keeps the action ongoing.

In my glorious battle system, each character involved in the battle is slotted into an order determined by their Speed stat. This order can be modified by outside influences, moves, items, status conditions, etc, but it’s important for the excitement of the battle that moves are happening as soon as they are selected.

There was a part in Etrian Odyssey IV that officially made me quit, and it was trying to manage a party of five. I had a healer, and she always went dead last in the turn order. The issue became that if I was fighting hard-hitting enemies, by the time it was her turn to heal someone, one of two things happened: a) the person she was supposed to heal is already dead, wasting MP, or b) she heals someone who didn’t end up getting attacked and still has full health, wasting MP. This happened constantly and it drove me up the wall.

In other words, I prefer a reactive battle as opposed to a proactive one, and making decisions based on things that haven’t happened yet doesn’t make sense to me. Having characters perform actions that don’t make any sense because the landscape has changed doesn’t feel like poor strategy on my part, it feels like artificial difficulty on the game’s part.

…Combo Attacks – I’m For ‘Em!

One of my favorite features of the Chrono Trigger battle system is how once you had two (or all three) of your characters fill up their Attack bar, they were able to perform dual-techs (or triple-techs). As my battle system doesn’t have an Attack bar (instead focusing on attack order), this would be possible if two (or three) characters all have a turn before the enemy moves again.

Combine this with moves that have the ability to delay an enemy turn, and you could delay an enemy turn with Player A, setting up Player B and C for a sweet combo. I think it would add a cool dynamic to the battle strategy, in the same way that volleyball requires a set up to be maximally effective, as opposed to each player hitting the ball as hard as they can.

…and After the Battle?

One of the things that can really take the wind out of my sails after a quick battle is the slow victory dance. Don’t get me wrong, go ahead and give me the song and dance after I take down a boss or something, but there’s no need for a 20 second battle cooldown time showing me that everyone earned 19XP for killing a few evil snails. This kills the time and artificially inflates play time for no reason.

As soon as the encounter battle finishes, play a quick victory chime, then fade back into the overworld. You can show the XP gains and any item pickups somewhere else on the screen after the user regains control, but it doesn’t need its own damn screen. Just let me get back to exploring!


You  can probably tell that the theme here is to stop burning the players time. Random encounters end up being a huge part of these monumental RPG gameplay times, and I think it’s cheap and artificial. It’s part of the reason that I don’t think I can ever play those old JRPGs. There are tons of excellent adventures that I’ll most likely never have, and I’m okay with that – but let’s not pretend that sluggish battle systems add anything to games except cutting into your gaming time.

At the end of the day, I’m not big on grinding, but a snappy system like the one I just made up would still allow you to grind – it would just be a lot faster. And tolerable. But that’s just my opinion!

I’ve been mulling this article over for a while, and going back and making adjustments. But, I’m curious as to what others have to think! Do you have a favorite battle system, or some changes you’d like to make to an existing one to make it “perfect” in your eyes? Leave it in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Building the Perfect Turn-Based Battle System

  1. My perfect turn-based battle system would virtually be the same as yours, except for one point: Random Encounters. I don’t mind them at all; in fact, I even like them, because they’re so conducive to grinding. In the case of an RPG with visible foes, it can also be quite exhausting to have to decide constantly if you’ll be fighting that mob or just avoid it; I’d really rather let the game decide for me and take what comes.

    I also discovered Turn-Based RPG quite late, probably because there were so few of them released in Europe until very lately. And to be honest, this fighting style still feels a bit foreign to me. I’m much more at ease playing Action-RPGs; and not matter how hard I try, I cannot get used to the more complex aspects of Turn-Based combat, such a Buffing/Debuffing and Status Effects. I tend to stick to powerful offensive moves backed with strong equipment and metric tons of level-grinding, and it usually works like a charm.

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  2. Random encounters are annoying I very much agree, some games have a good way around it though. Cthulhu Saves the World had a set number of random battles per zone. After that limit was reached they stopped. A few others have a slider to adjust the regularity of random battles, giving the player control. I like these ways of handling them. I do prefer being able to see enemies in the over world though!

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    1. If you combine enemies on the over world and keep them persistent throughout the map, that would also work. I mention persistence because one of my biggest gripes with Earthbound is how you would fight a huge battle, then move a bit to the side of the screen, come back, and everything respawned!

      Drove me nuts.

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