Random Encounters Yay Or Nay ?
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This week it's time for another random topic : Encounters, expecially of the random kind. Bosses and other scripted encounters are a whole different kettle.
Warning : Following is a heavilly opinionated piece. The points put forward here are personal opinion born from
personal experience as both an avid RPG player, both jRPG and aRPGs, and a tabletop Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master.
First, why do I use random encounters in my jRPG, as opposed to on map random encounters or fully handcrafted non-respawning encounters?
There are some basic reasons why I do it :
1. It's Fast and Easy
2. It's Flexible and Robust
Reasons other people think why I shouldn't or did do it :
1. Not Realistic/Outdated
4. Too Random/Dissalows skilllful play/ Interaction
Now for a little elaboration on these points :
Let's admit it, it is fast, a set and done method. I make some enemies, an encounter list, paint some encounter zones if I'm feeling fancy,
and I'm done. I can churn out a lot of content in a short mount of time, it is 90 % realy streamlined database work, if you have your enemy stats already layed out.
Not having to bother with every encounter, just making sure I have about a target number of encounters per area on a
mildly suboptimal run through, which most beginners will be doing on their first runaround, alllows me to be more productive as the one man team I am.
It makes playtesting way way easier, I can just switch them on and off to my liking. It also makes mapbuilding easier, not having to account for enemy terrain
passability for roving encounters, or an enemy getting stuck and blocking something, wether it be an NPC, a switch or a doorway. I don't have to put up 20 respawn timers on every map.
I often do entire redesigns of certain areas. Random encounters allow me to at least reuse my encounters, freeing up time for the other parts of the redesign.
Now, to discuss some of the downsides :
1. Unrealistic and Outdated
As a short asside, when people use "realism" in a video game, often they mean verisimilitude or appearing real within it's own work.
We accept a lot of things in video games, aka. willing suspension of disbeleief, but then other things that are
just as unrealistic seem to jar us out of it. As a designer, I think we should strive not to be realistic, but just
not to break that willing suspension of disbelief, not introducing elements that we think "do not belong there" and thus do not seem real.
This means many genre conventions, even though they are outdated, are tolerated within their genres, because they seem to belong there.
Things such as ridiculous jumping distances in Mario, or the health regeneration in shooters, the speed boost from drifting in certain racing games. They are in a vacuum totally unrealistic, but because they are part of the genre, we accept them.
As thus I do not see random, instanced, encounters as an absolute problem in top down 32-bit jRPG's, while they would totally seem out of left field in for example Call of Duty, or Skyrim.
Where some might see lazyness, I see efficiency. If I had the time, I would personally and lovingly craft every single encounter the players have, but alas, I am a one man team attempting a game with over 100 dungeons.
Productivity is key here. My personal experience as a D&D dungeon master has taught me much here. It is a way more efficient use of my time to spend 50 hours designing about 20 robust, interesting reuseable encounter templates that
I can for example fill with Brute #A,B, spellcaster C, Healer D and environmental hazard E, slap some paint on the wall and call it finished in 5 minutes, than lovingly spend 2 hours crafting each encounter,
only to have the players trash it in 2 turns, or completely miss or circumvent it. This moves more work to preproduction, but once set up, allows for a lot of things to be done rather fast.
These encounter templates will be explained further later on in my rant/article.
3. Too Frustrating/Frequent/Repetitive
This most often has to do with 3 things : Encounters are too frequent, or they are present in areas where they should not be, like complex puzzle areas, or they are formulaic and boring.
I find that these are both adequately solvable without having to go to map or event based encounters.
The important element is that of player control. He has to be able to , through choice, influence encounter rates, I find. In my game this is a rudimentary stealth system and certain weapons allowing for surprise attacks more often.
4. No Skill involved.
This one I'm going to split up into 2 parts : Avoiding encounters/Pre-emptive strikes and preparation.
The wandering of enemies on the map does give the illusion that the player he can skillfully avoid the encounter,
or in some systems (like the Persona Series) hit the enemy before it hits them and get an advantage in combat.
While in theory this works nicely, in practice this comes down to either it being too easy, and you always evading/suprising the enemy,
or being too hard, in which case, why have bothered. I try and reach the same effect by correct equipment choice and actions in combat.
A player that wants to be stealthy can try to be so, but I don't have to put every enemy on the map, Win-Win.
The other comes down to preparation, thinking that if I can see the enemy/encounter (if they have unique map sprites per enemy type), I can prepare for it.
Now there are RPG's that go heavily of off this model, like the Baldur's Gate series, where each resource is unique, each spell is single use,
and encounters are often save reload retry heavy, but for a standard jRPG, with a flexible, often MP based resource system, I just see a frustrated player spending 5 minutes in his inventory, specifically preparing for every encounter he meets.
For flexible resource systems (MP-Based) I think it is more fun if the player does not know when he is going to encounter what, in the short term, forcing him to improvise from turn to turn, while still allowing for mid-to-long term planning.
What I want them to think :"This cave has bats and snakes, I 'll take my anti-bat weapons and anti-snake ones. Better have a nice mix of both. In the encounters : Hmm, snakes, I should keep him healing poison, while the guy with the anti-snake goes to town on them, and the rest takes down the snake handler"
What I do not want : " The next encounters looks like snakes, everybody put your anti-snake gear on, next encounter is bats, better take off the anti snake, and put on the anti-bat, repeat for every encounter."
One I feel leads to more dynamic play, the other leads to menu overload. That said, like I told you, there are series where this is appropriate, I just don't think it is in my game.
Now after my too long rant defending why I'm using random encounters, Let me explain what I am doing with them.
First of all, all of my enemies are based upon a blueprint of what a monster of their role should look like in combat, like brute, healer, artillery, ...
So my orks are lvl 9 brutes, my flame imp is a lvl 17 artillery, ... (More on the specifics of this in a following article).
Short summary :
Skirmisher : Base
Brute : Low Def, High damage
Soldier : High Def, Medium Damage
Elite : Counts as 2 enemies
Solo : Counts as 4 enemies
Artillery : Multi-target damage
Buffer/debuffer: Raise/Lower stats
Controlers : Take control away from player (stun, sleep, silence, ...)
Summoner : Does nothing for multiple turns then casts high damage spell or summons other enemy.
Sniper: Heavy Single target Damage, with set-up or wind-up turn(s)
Next, I spend time designing Encounter templates.
An encounter template is like an ingredient list, listing all the things that are in the encounter, centered around a central challenge
beyond just kill all the enemies, requiring the player to think how to best do this.
Once you have these, you can pick n mix with enemies you have, and voila, you have an enormous amount of quickly generated content.
This will be clearer with some examples, so here, have some examples:
1. The broodmother.
Enemies: Elite Soldier, and minions.
Challenge: Kill the broodmother, while also killing all the minions she spawns turn by turn.
Abilities required : Multi-target skill, high damage single target
2. Beauty and the beast
Enemies: Solo/ELite Brute or summoner and 1/2 healers/Buffers
Challenge: Keeping one half occupied while you deal with the other half.
Required Ability: Debuff, Stuns or Spike damage
3. X marks the spot
Enemies : 1-2 Debuffer and 3 Snipers.
Enemy AI: Focus Fire
Challenge: Keep the debuff off the targeteted character long enough to kill either the debuffer or the snipers first.
Required Ability : Debuff remover/ Bufffer
4. Artillery Misery
Enemies : 3-4 Artillery, each with a different Element.
Challenge: Stay alive long enough to kill the enemies
Required Ability : Intense healing, elemental resistances
5. Spikey Portal
Enemies: 3 Skirmishers, 1 Summoner
Challenge: Kill the summoner before he summons something nasty that might be a total party wipe, while also not ignoring the other enemies chipping at your health.
Required ability : Spikey Single target Damage, Medium multi-target damage.
6. Sands of time
Enemies : 2 controlers ,a healer and a damaging environmental effect.
Challenge : Kill the enemies before they can just stun all of you and let the environment finish you off.
Required abilities : Spikey Damage, stunbreaking, environmental damage negation.
7. Palace of mirrors
Enemies : 4-6 Brutes, with wildly different immmunities and weaknesses, absorbances and reflects
Challenge : Kill them all with AoE spells, using the correct spells in the correct sequence.
Required abilities : Multiple AoE Spells of multiple elements
8. Down with the King
Enemy : Solo enemy that begins combat with a series of buffs.
Challenge: Stack your debuffs correctly, so you both survive and damage him enough before he reapplies these buffs.
Required Abilities : Spikey Damage, debuffer, Healer.
9. The bubble pop
Enemies : 2 Skirmishers and 2 Debuffers
Challenge : Reapply a buff that is needed for survival (for example: water breathing), while still killing the enemies.
Required abilities : Reapplying the survival skill in combat.
10. The breather
Enemy : 2 Skirmishers
Challenge : None, just a breather
Each and every one of these can be filled in with level apropriate enemies and quickly populate a dungeon , without giving the feeling that the encounters are identical.
Now as a bonus point, you are allowing the player to build a repertoire to handle similar encounters once he sees patterns.
I try not to use more then seven different enemies in one dungeon , but even then , that still gives a whole lot of gameplay.