RPG Editorial: The 'right level' experience system

This is the first editorial I’ve written for the site specifically about RPGs. …Actually, I did one on the Columbine RPG, but it was mostly taken from my review, so I consider this the first one.

http://gamerlimit.com/2009/06/rpg-woes-the-right-level-experience-system/

I consider the very mix of “experience levels that matter” and “fun combat” an oxymoron, and that prohibiting grinding is not only good, but pretty much absolutely required if you want to make your combat system effective and engaging instead of just something to button-mash through while you walk through the dungeon.

The fact is that RPGs are pretty much the hardest genre to create difficulty in. Final Fantasy is a perfect example in pretty much ALL its iterations of all that you should never fucking do when it comes to creating challenges in an RPG. The few games I’ve actually found had combat to which I had to pay attention were:

-Games using an active system like Tales, particularly Tales of the Abyss, and even that one could use more focus on how I used my skills rather than how high was my level.
-Games where, regardless of level, you could still get assraped if you used the wrong skills because you weren’t paying attention (Pretty much every MegaTen game ever).
-Games where levels were accessory, and the way your built your character was much more important (Etrian Odyssey).

You should probably see the trend. The point is, when your difficulty boils down to whether you did or didn’t get sufficient training for one guy, I no longer care enough about combat to even register it. And I don’t mean if it breaks the game, just that if having slightly higher or lower stats is what truly matters for the system, then I feel there’s no point. I played that game already. And the second. And III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2 and XII.

I like VtM: Bloodlines’ experience system: You don’t “level up.” You use XP to buy points in Attributes, Abilities, and Disciplines (spells). You don’t receive XP from killing things, either, you only receive them from completing quests.

I doubt it would work for an Eastern RPG, though.

why not make it so that each monster gives a certain amount of experience that you can distribute in any way you choose?
I disagree with this. Characters who don’t fight shouldn’t get experience just for being in a winning battle.

Personally, I really liked FFX’s leveling system. The advancements were more gradual but still big enough to really boost your characters’ effectiveness, and the different “paths” supported character diversity. Lower level characters got more sphere levels from fighting strong monsters but not usually to the point of absurdity, and there wasn’t a stonewall cap on the higher characters either, even though the gains did slow down. I think the key is to downplay the importance of leveling while maintaining the ability to make characters stronger if they need to be. FFX did this by making a HUGE grid that offered a large number of small-gain intervals for stats and abilities.

I think Suikoden’s leveling was fine and pretty realistic. You don’t get stronger by lifting the same amount of weight for 5 years without variation when you’re weight training. Why would you expect to get stronger fighting the same monsters over and over again? Don’t you HATE grinding anyway? I don’t understand what your problem with a more realistic alternative to genocide-induced leveling is :stuck_out_tongue:

Secret of Evermore had a great leveling system too. You got stronger with the skills you actually used. Character levels only accounted for small stat boosts and HP.

I like the Valkyrie Profile approach to XP.

Party characters get experience in battle, typical approach. Lump amount is split among party (I.e. if there’s dead members, more for survivors, dead get 0)

And then whenever you finish an area or a quest, you get XP-in-a-jar (I forget what’s the exact name for it) and you can distribute that experience to whoever the heck you want. Got a new guy you wanna try out but he’s level 1? XP-in-a-jar! Want to power level your main fighter? XP-in-a-jar!

To me it was the perfect mix.

For games that don’t do this, I want the non-active party to get at least 75% of my xp gains just so they don’t fall in utter uselessness and then SUDDENTLY this boss FORCES me to use a dude that is still level 12…yeah, awesome shit. My roommate stopped playing Xenosaga because there’s a boss that forces you to have Jr. and Shion and a handpicked 3rd dude. He never used either, so they were patheticly weak and got 1-shot killed. He STILL beated the boss with only his third dude for the game to go ‘SORRY DUDE THOSE TWO WEAKLINGS HAVE TO DEAL THE KILLING BLOW’

And then he took the disk out of the PS2 and went fuck it.

Another fine article. Good job, SG!

In my opinion, since the only battles that one is required to fight in an RPG are the Boss fights, the minimum amount of experience you need to beat the next Boss should be gained from fighting the previous one. That way, if a player just wants to fight Bosses (and avoids every other encounter) he could do so.

However, I DO believe that grinding should be allowed. If you want to spend several hours battling the same monsters just so you can level enough to beat the next Boss almost immediately, I’d say that not only you should have the option but that you EARNED it!

Some people just want to see the story unfold; others just want to play kill-the-imaginary-monsters, and many people like to do both. They all should have the choices.

As for how experience should be distributed, that’s a more complicated question. It is pretty unrealistic to assume that, for example, a spellcaster’s magic level should go up if they beat a monster using weapons instead. On the other hand, RPGs are abstractions on reality, focusing on some facts but not others; the passage of time in particular often gets abstracted. How real the advancement process should be depends entirely on the setting. I do like the skill-point based systems, because they give your characters customizing options, instead of every character coming with their own list of abilities that can only be gained at specific levels.

I like The Elder Scrolls’ leveling system, where your skills go up upon repeated use, and when your skills have increased by a certain amount, you go up a level and get more HP and MP and such.

On the other hand, prohibiting grinding makes a game more like Suikoden, where you just fight six or seven fights until you’re only getting 50 exp per battle, and then just run away from the rest. Prohibiting grinding CAN make a battle system effective and engaging, but it definitely does not directly correlate with a fun combat system - which was one of the points of my editorial in the first place.

The fact is that RPGs are pretty much the hardest genre to create difficulty in. Final Fantasy is a perfect example in pretty much ALL its iterations of all that you should never fucking do when it comes to creating challenges in an RPG.

Funny you mentioned that - Final Fantasy 4 DS seriously prohibited grinding. But, this pretty much is a textbook example of what I said above. The way FF4DS stopped you from grinding is simple; instead of making it impossible, the incentives were removed by making the bosses’ attacks so powerful that they would one-hit KO almost the entire party (except Cecil), making the level of grinding you’d have to do in order to circumvent this absolutely ridiculous.

In all my days playing RPGs, I can think of almost NO games that prohibit grinding that wound up being fun games, and I can think of a lot more games which forced grinding that turned out to be fun (which is surprising, given my extreme hate for mandatory grinding). I’ll at LEAST grant that sometimes, it’s the actual combat, rather than the experience system (Lunar: Dragon Song). But the fact remains that I can think of maybe one RPG off the top of my head that has pulled off prohibitive grinding to make a fun combat experience.

If you can think of any (and don’t bother posting a Suikoden game), I’d love to know.

The few games I’ve actually found had combat to which I had to pay attention were:

-Games using an active system like Tales, particularly Tales of the Abyss, and even that one could use more focus on how I used my skills rather than how high was my level.

I would argue that the tales/star ocean combat system is stupid, mashy, and halfway in between wanting to be a standard RPG and an action RPG. Action RPGs are different beasts, and the Tales/SO games are epic fails if considered to be standard RPGs, imo. It also has little to do with the experience system used.

-Games where, regardless of level, you could still get assraped if you used the wrong skills because you weren’t paying attention (Pretty much every MegaTen game ever).

That sounds unappealing because it sounds as if it lacks options. Making a game fun by imposing heavy limits on what you can do is also a surefire way to make a game boring, imo. …But, maybe I’m in the minority, here? After all, everyone loved Resident Evil 4! Ironically, though, there’s a lot more hate for Resident Evil 5 - which is exactly the same to me - so go figure.

-Games where levels were accessory, and the way your built your character was much more important (Etrian Odyssey).

I admit I can’t comment on Etrian Odyssey. Most games I’ve played like this were tactics RPGs, and even most of those were not incredibly fun.

You should probably see the trend. The point is, when your difficulty boils down to whether you did or didn’t get sufficient training for one guy, I no longer care enough about combat to even register it. And I don’t mean if it breaks the game, just that if having slightly higher or lower stats is what truly matters for the system, then I feel there’s no point. I played that game already. And the second. And III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2 and XII.

And yet, it probably should matter, since the RPG’s fundamental gameplay systems were derived from Dungeons & Dragons. It’s true that you can just grind your way through any difficulty, but to me, a well-made game will have fun enough combat that you don’t try to avoid battles, and good enough balance that, as long as you don’t avoid battles, the challenge should be there. Then, if you want to grind, you can - grinding is fun to some people, even if it isn’t fun for you or me.

Maybe so, maybe not. It was just a suggestion. But, I think it would go a long way in remedying the problem.

Personally, I really liked FFX’s leveling system. The advancements were more gradual but still big enough to really boost your characters’ effectiveness, and the different “paths” supported character diversity. Lower level characters got more sphere levels from fighting strong monsters but not usually to the point of absurdity, and there wasn’t a stonewall cap on the higher characters either, even though the gains did slow down. I think the key is to downplay the importance of leveling while maintaining the ability to make characters stronger if they need to be. FFX did this by making a HUGE grid that offered a large number of small-gain intervals for stats and abilities.

I do like this. I think it sort of skews the boundaries and roles of each character by the end of the game. For example, why even use Lulu when you can get black magic for Yuna, who has much higher magic power than Lulu? If you do this, Lulu’s only use is to occasionally come out and spam her limit break).

I think Suikoden’s leveling was fine and pretty realistic. You don’t get stronger by lifting the same amount of weight for 5 years without variation when you’re weight training. Why would you expect to get stronger fighting the same monsters over and over again? Don’t you HATE grinding anyway? I don’t understand what your problem with a more realistic alternative to genocide-induced leveling is :stuck_out_tongue:

  1. Yes, I hate grinding, but as I said in my article, I think prohibiting grinding is just as bad. Plus, the OPTION to grind is just fine - some people enjoy it.

  2. You should re-read my article if you didn’t understand what my problem was :stuck_out_tongue: It basically renders the combat inept. Why should I willingly engage in several battles, when I can fight just a few battles, get to the ‘right level’ that the game wants me to be at, and then run away from every battle, knowing I’ll be strong enough to face the upcoming boss fights?

Now, sure, a bit part of this problem is that Suikoden’s combat isn’t really all that fun or engaging in the first place. But, if they’re not even going to make an effort to make it more fun, they ought to give me a better reason to keep fighting after I’m getting peanuts for experience. It’s sad that, in all the games I mentioned in my article, you can easily beat the game by running away from more fights than you complete. Particularly, in Okage: Shadow King, I would estimate that I didn’t even finish 100 battles.

Secret of Evermore had a great leveling system too. You got stronger with the skills you actually used. Character levels only accounted for small stat boosts and HP.

The skill system is a nice touch. The way character levels were handled is a pretty standard way, and I don’t really have any problems with the standard method.

Yeah, this is what I suggested in the editorial - a system in which each monster gives you a set amount of XP that you can distribute in any way you want. Most games that use it call it Party Experience.

For games that don’t do this, I want the non-active party to get at least 75% of my xp gains just so they don’t fall in utter uselessness and then SUDDENTLY this boss FORCES me to use a dude that is still level 12…yeah, awesome shit. My roommate stopped playing Xenosaga because there’s a boss that forces you to have Jr. and Shion and a handpicked 3rd dude. He never used either, so they were patheticly weak and got 1-shot killed. He STILL beated the boss with only his third dude for the game to go ‘SORRY DUDE THOSE TWO WEAKLINGS HAVE TO DEAL THE KILLING BLOW’

And then he took the disk out of the PS2 and went fuck it.

Ironically, this is another thing the Suikoden series could really use some work on, but this editorial isn’t about the Suikoden series, it’s about the experience system it employs. Still, I hate it when games do that, too.

I agree that the story is a big part of the game, but to do what you suggest is crazy! It would take any notion of challenge clean out of the game, and it would actually give a person LESS incentive to fight; after all, why should they? They only need to play the boss fights!

Depending on exactly what you mean, Ogre Battle does a pretty good job, in my opinion. Sure, grinding is possible and makes battles easier, but your ALI goes all to hell right quick, which can be a problem for getting certain classes, drops your Rep which prevents certain classes and NPCs, and makes it so that, when you do win the game, you get a bad ending.

Another thing I think missing from a lot of RPGs is the fact that experience comes solely from combat. In earlier games, it was probably because the programming was too complex to bring over the more peaceful half of D&D in successfully. Fallout probably does the best job of handling this, by allowing one to flee from combat as much as one wants and still progress and level through other means.

Why should you want to willingly engage in several pointless battles? Battle systems aren’t the only gameplay medium in RPGs you know :stuck_out_tongue: All that stuff that happens between them, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to matter :stuck_out_tongue:

I think any problem you have with the leveling system is probably a result of unsatisfying gameplay in general. You probably hated Suikoden’s battle system because you were relying on it to make up for the fact that you weren’t crazy about recruitment. If fights were the entire game to me, I’d be pretty disappointed if they felt meaningless too. Just another way of looking at things.

You seem to be oversymplifying what I said. Prohibiting grinding solves nothing by itself, it doesn’t make combat any more interesting, but unless you start by doing that, anything you can build on top is meaningless.

Why do you want to grind? And more speciffically, why is ever instance of use of the word grinding use so far relates to EXP? Because that’s what determines your power and effectivity. Because that’s how the most popular RPGs work, how most people became certain that it’s how RPGs must be like and why RPG gameplay in general is largely either a joke or a burden.

I’ll go out of order and bring up a latter comment:

Funny you use that word: Limits. You don’t think the archetypal systems are limiting? Think about it: You attack. And attack. Either with magic or physical force. Then your HP gets low and you heal. Then you attack some more. This is the extent of gameplay most RPGs have. Occasionally, they dangle “elemental affinities” in front of you as a carrot to pretend what you choose to do matters, but think about it for a bit and remember how many times exploiting elemental weaknesses truly became a do-or-die case. The great majority of instances I can think of, it usually became a matter of doing 100 points of damage instead of 70.

The system is already limiting. Not because of what it does or doesn’t let you do, but because what you do matters jack shit. There are “wrong” moves, like using Fire against a Fireball, but beyond doing stupid shit, the array of possible strategies amounts to nothing. All that really matters is that you have the raw power to beat the enemy, which you gain outside of that battle. What you do inside, is largely irrelevant.

On the contrary, this is a great step in the right direction. Even if you are allowed to be underleveled if you did not prepare sufficiently, which is not ideal but is more acceptable, you should never be allowed to be overleveled.

Special importance in the word: Overleveled. Stronger than you would be required to be. Most of the prohibitions on grinding you mentioned are there to stop you from reaching this state. Why would you want to reach that state?

And here you bring up another crucial word: Incentives. This goes back to the question I asked before: Why do you want to grind? Or, more accurately, “Why do you want to gain experience points to increase in level and thus gain higher stats?”. To be stronger? And why is the point of that? Your life is not in danger, it’s just a game, whatever you are doing is supposed to be fun. If combat is not fun and you want to get stronger than the programmers intended you to be to get the combat over faster, then there is a pretty deep problem there.

It’s true that a lot of games have far more combat than they should. In ye olde times, it was a way to lengthen the game. Nowadays… it still is, actually, but that is a sepparate issue related to my loathing of random encounters. Supposing a game has the right amount of mandatory combat, that combat then needs to be fun.

And here is the problem: ARCHETYPAL RPG COMBAT IS NOT FUCKING FUN.

With the way it’s designed, you would expect strategy to be the main focus, but it very seldom is. It’s time. Not the time spent studying your available options, enemy skills and other factors, but the time you spent walking back and forth outside Cornelia while you trained your characters to a certain level. Yes, Cornelia. It’s been over a decade and we’re still fucking there. While I don’t entirely reject the idea of such preparation being part of what’s necessary, what boggles me is that the majority of time, that is also where the preparation stops dead. You just get sufficient numerical values on a certain stat and, after that, provided you don’t do anything supremely stupid, you win.

Examples? I’ve got plenty. However, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. I doubt any of my choices are anywhere close to perfect, and can easily think of many things to change in many of them, but they try, and even if the job ends up being lukewarm, I’d rather have that than the usual nonexistant engagement.

Etrian Odyssey does an excellent job of being what is essentially an oldschool RPG, but trying to be fun. It’s a long game, very little to no story and it actively tries to kill you. Superficially, it would seem that it’s all about grinding. That is, until you get assraped enough and wise up to the fact that you can’t possibly grind enough to overpower the bosses. It’d take forever. What you do need is a team with skills that, when used together, can counter and overpower the enemy.

It’s far from perfect, I found many situations where certain skills were simply far more useful than others, and I could come up with about three static strategies to solve most problems. That’s still two more than what I usually get though. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air when I realize that someone at least tried and got a relative amount of success.

Pointing back to Hades’ mention of FFX: I thought it was a good concept, but I agree with you that it didn’t work. By the time you got to go off from a certain character’s section of the grid, you were getting TOO powerful, and the already meagre individuality of characters (“It’s flying, use Wakka”) vanished. The problem was in execution though, not concept.

Mana-Khemia, a game that by all purposes I considered to be fairly lame, created a far more diverse system using (Well, ripping off, really) the grid. I found it far more successful, coupled with a higher degree of individuality in the actual combat. It was just not given a good game to be in, sadly. Ar Tonelico II, following Gust’s trend to make surprisingly great systems in generally shitty titles, also has a very interesting concept, which gets largely wasted by the lack of challenging targets. There is no major conceptual weakness in the battle system (Though I would tweak a few things), the goddamn game just needed enemies with more fucking HP. It almost makes me want to cry.

The Tales games. Again, you won’t find perfection anywhere, but the idea itself is very promising. While tri-Ace titles seem to be getting shittier each time, Tales of the Abyss, while still falling short, at least brought a small sense of order. The execution of combos, linkability of moves and area-effects at least constructed a framework which could be used to create very engaging systems. It is not a fighting game and it does not try or should try to be one, but it managed to mimic the concept while still remaining an RPG and minimizing the need for reflexes to come into play. Abyss needed more diversity in the class and use of skills, since they still fell into the “this is for hurting, this is for healing” major categories with no subdivision, but I still found it far more interesting than the nromal turn-based attack/heal tennis matches.

Older MegaTen is not a place to look for “fun” systems. I consider everything pre-Nocturne to be either borderline bearable of bullshit, and even Nocturne is still high on the bullshit scale. Skipping over P3, which was something of a transition, P4 does an excellent job though. Going back to to elemental affinities, Megaten does something with these that hardly anyone else does: They make them decisive. Exploiting them will not necessarily win you all fights by itself, but not paying any attention to who or with what you are attacking will get you instantly murdered. P4 minimizes the need for grinding (In fact, given the pseudo-roguelike setting, it’s tricky to do), makes it impossible to overlevel and bases its difficulty on whether or not you can procure and use your skills to deal with situations.

A stretch to the point of ridiculousness. Video game RPGs originated with systems varguely based on D&D, with Dragonstomper, Wizardry and Ultima. JRPGs are based off on these in turn. D&D games, even computer games lacking the versatility of a GM like Baldur’s Gate, look absolutely nothing like regular JRPGs in terms of gameplay, and “grinding” is mostly a wasted effort, since the usage of your skills and equipment are of far greater importance.

The problem with this is that, as long as you allow numerical statistics gained through time spent fighting mooks to be the deciding factor, the systems will all look the same, with the same aesthetical-at-best strategy. My whole point is the same as yours, combat should be something fun, not something you bear, but by perpetuating systems where your level is what truly matters, you won’t get this, you get Final Fantasy I again and again.

That’s kind of pussyfooting around the issue though. I’m not going to bash FFVII for having a shitty RTS system in Fort Condor since it was a stupid completely optional minigame. However, even if combat is not the main point of Suikoden, or most RPGs for that matter, you certainly spend a lot of time on it, so it should be refined.

Actually, that sounds interesting about Ogre Battle. I might give it a try some time.

Also, I def agree that there should be more good ways of getting experience points besides combat. It doesn’t seem like a very hard thing to do, but I think it’s something that maybe RPG-makers don’t do, simply out of tradition and startling fear of change. I’m trying to think of other games that do this, but I can’t think of many. I think I’ve played a few Western RPGs that let you do this (Fallout is a good example, yeah), but most RPGs are really stingy about awarding XP for anything but combat.

That idea has merit, and you’re probably right - it mostly comes down to a difference of perspective. I personally subscribe to the idea that a game should still be fun to play even if you just go through it from beginning to end, without worrying about side quests, secrets, mini-games, etc. I think, conversely, there’s something wrong if an RPG relies too heavily on those aspects, especially since I think the core aspect of gameplay is combat.

Still, you’re right that there’s more to gameplay than just combat, and I’ll even say that I think there are games that can be fun to play with bad combat, or games that can be an absolute drag to play with combat that’s just fine.

My biggest problem is just the idea of treating combat like some sort of necessary evil that the developers treat like more of a hassle than anything (which is what I feel the ‘right level’ exp system does). If you’re going to do your best to circumvent combat, Final Fantasy 12, then maybe you should explore a different genre for your game?

I agree that necessary grinding is a convention that should go, but yes, the OPTION to grind is always nice. “Why do I want to grind?” I don’t want to grind, I fucking hate it. But, I know people that like it, whether or not they’re powerful enough to face the coming challenges. My brother, for example, loooooooooves power-leveling in RPGs. It’s not that he can’t beat them without it; that’s just the way he enjoys them - he likes to see how strong he can get before moving onto the next part of the game, purely for the spectacle of seeing how easily he rolls over the next few dungeons and bosses.

Funny you use that word: Limits. You don’t think the archetypal systems are limiting? Think about it: You attack. And attack. Either with magic or physical force. Then your HP gets low and you heal. Then you attack some more. This is the extent of gameplay most RPGs have. Occasionally, they dangle “elemental affinities” in front of you as a carrot to pretend what you choose to do matters, but think about it for a bit and remember how many times exploiting elemental weaknesses truly became a do-or-die case. The great majority of instances I can think of, it usually became a matter of doing 100 points of damage instead of 70.

The system is already limiting. Not because of what it does or doesn’t let you do, but because what you do matters jack shit. There are “wrong” moves, like using Fire against a Fireball, but beyond doing stupid shit, the array of possible strategies amounts to nothing. All that really matters is that you have the raw power to beat the enemy, which you gain outside of that battle. What you do inside, is largely irrelevant.

Okay, that’s true enough. But, I don’t get what your point is? “The system is already limited, so who cares if we impose more limits?” I’m not trying to be a dick; I just really don’t understand what the point is of bringing this up.

On the contrary, this is a great step in the right direction. Even if you are allowed to be underleveled if you did not prepare sufficiently, which is not ideal but is more acceptable, you should never be allowed to be overleveled.

Special importance in the word: Overleveled. Stronger than you would be required to be. Most of the prohibitions on grinding you mentioned are there to stop you from reaching this state. Why would you want to reach that state?

Are you kidding, that was such a TERRIBLE step in ANY direction! You think that sounds cool, but here’s what the game amounts to:

  • Boss fight.

  • Use a physical attack, boss counters with a move that OHKOs the entire party but Cecil. Now, you have to Phoenix Down everyone, and cure them back to full life.

  • Use a magic attack, boss counters with a similar move, causing the same thing to happen.

  • Don’t do either one; sometimes, the boss will just be able to use that move WITHOUT countering.

So, while the game has this appearance of being harder, all it means is that you have to do the exact same strategy to beat every single boss. While this may seem more challenging at first, the end result is the same, except for instead of many strategies that will inevitably lead to an all-but assured victory, there will be just one strategy (one far more boring strategy, even) that leads to an assured victory. It’s just a more boring way of reaching the same point as your average RPG.

Also, you should stop saying that “I” want to be overleveled; I don’t. But, there are people who enjoy the game like that, and it’s not up to us to definitively decide how someone should enjoy the game. Sure, an RPG can lose its challenge if you grind, but it should also be fun and challenging if you just play the game normally, without grinding.

And here you bring up another crucial word: Incentives. This goes back to the question I asked before: Why do you want to grind? Or, more accurately, “Why do you want to gain experience points to increase in level and thus gain higher stats?”. To be stronger? And why is the point of that? Your life is not in danger, it’s just a game, whatever you are doing is supposed to be fun. If combat is not fun and you want to get stronger than the programmers intended you to be to get the combat over faster, then there is a pretty deep problem there.

As I’ve said many times, I do not want to grind. But, there are people who DO like to grind. For them, yes, the option should be available in most games. I’m not saying that a game will be good or bad if it does or does not allow you to. However, if you want to judge a game’s ‘fun’ or ‘challenge’ by your ability to grind in a game, that’s too bad for you.

For one, you say a game is supposed to be “fun”, right? Some people think grinding is fun. Are you saying we shouldn’t be able to grind just because you and I think it’s stunningly boring?

You also keep mentioning challenge, as if grinding takes that away. And, yes, it does. HOWEVER! When real people talk about an RPG’s challenge, they’re talking about just playing through the game normally. Otherwise, every RPG review would write “And, who gives a damn about combat? Just grind yourself silly. SUCH an easy game.” That’s a skewed frame of reference, and that’s why critics don’t do that. To say that an RPG isn’t challenging because you can grind is like saying that people aren’t annoying because you can buy a gun and shoot them in the face.

And here is the problem: ARCHETYPAL RPG COMBAT IS NOT FUCKING FUN.

With the way it’s designed, you would expect strategy to be the main focus, but they very seldom are. It’s time. Not the time spent studying your available options, enemy skills and other factors, but the time you spent walking back and forth outside Cornelia while you trained your characters to a certain level. Yes, Cornelia. It’s been over a decade and we’re still fucking there. While I don’t entirely reject the idea of such preparation being part of what’s necessary, what boggles me is that the majority of time, that is also where the preparation stops dead. You just get sufficient numerical values on a certain stat and, after that, provided you don’t do anything supremely stupid, you win.

I’m not sure if you’re doing this on purpose, but it almost sounds like you’re asserting that every game that allows you to grind necessitates a grindfest. This isn’t really true. And, sure, I’ve already admitted that if you decide to grind in most games, it will become easy; however, this does not mean that archetypal RPG combat is incapable of being strategic. All it means is that developers are not willing to put in the game to make standard turn-based RPG combat into a strategic affair.

Examples? I’ve got plenty. However, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. I doubt any of my choices are anywhere close to perfect, and can easily think of many things to change in many of them, but they try, and even if the job ends up being lukewarm, I’d rather have that than the usual nonexistant engagement.

Etrian Odyssey does an excellent job of being what is essentially an oldschool RPG, but trying to be fun. It’s a long game, very little to no story and it actively tries to kill you. Superficially, it would seem that it’s all about grinding. That is, until you get assraped enough and wise up to the fact that you can’t possibly grind enough to overpower the bosses. It’d take forever. What you do need is a team with skills that, when used together, can counter and overpower the enemy.

It’s far from perfect, I found many situations where certain skills were simply far more useful than others, and I could come up with about three static strategies to solve most problems. That’s still two more than what I usually get though. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air when I realize that someone at least tried and got a relative amount of success.

I’ll believe you. I’ve never played Etrian Odyssey and have little motivation to do so. Still, I think that the biggest problem with ‘hard’ turn-based combat games like that is:

“easy game” = you can do many strategies to beat the boss easily

“hard game” = you can only do one or two strategies to beat the boss easily

To me, it’s virtually the same thing. Perhaps I think about game balance more then the average person does, being a competitive Street Fighter player. However, I believe that the best key skill of an expert in anything is the ability to assess every different strategy of completing a task, and effectively evaluating their efficiency and practicality in relation to other strategies. So, in the end, I’d rather have a game where every strategy is broken and silly (X-Men Vs Street Fighter, or SaGa Frontier) than a game where everything is well-balanced except for two strategies which are far more broken than the rest (Marvel Vs Capcom 2, or Final Fantasy 4 DS). If you really think about it, both types of games are just as hard; it’s just that the amount of things you can do in a game where there are very few ‘best’ strats is far more limited.

Pointing back to Hades’ mention of FFX: I thought it was a good concept, but I agree with you that it didn’t work. By the time you got to go off from a certain character’s section of the grid, you were getting TOO powerful, and the already meagre individuality of characters (“It’s flying, use Wakka”) vanished. The problem was in execution though, not concept.

I pretty much agree with this. I will say, though, that at least for the first 3/4 of the game, this wasn’t an issue. The sphere grid just needed to be bigger, maybe?

Mana-Khemia, a game that by all purposes I considered to be fairly lame, created a far more diverse system using (Well, ripping off, really) the grid. I found it far more successful, coupled with a higher degree of individuality in the actual combat. It was just not given a good game to be in, sadly. Ar Tonelico II, following Gust’s trend to make surprisingly great systems in generally shitty titles, also has a very interesting concept, which gets largely wasted by the lack of challenging targets. There is no major conceptual weakness in the battle system (Though I would tweak a few things), the goddamn game just needed enemies with more fucking HP. It almost makes me want to cry.

The Tales games. Again, you won’t find perfection anywhere, but the idea itself is very promising. While tri-Ace titles seem to be getting shittier each time, Tales of the Abyss, while still falling short, at least brought a small sense of order. The execution of combos, linkability of moves and area-effects at least constructed a framework which could be used to create very engaging systems. It is not a fighting game and it does not try or should try to be one, but it managed to mimic the concept while still remaining an RPG and minimizing the need for reflexes to come into play. Abyss needed more diversity in the class and use of skills, since they still fell into the “this is for hurting, this is for healing” major categories with no subdivision, but I still found it far more interesting than the nromal turn-based attack/heal tennis matches.

I grouped these together, because while I never have (and probably never will) play Mana Khemia or Ar Tonelico, your complaint about “good system, stupid enemies” is how I feel about each Tales game I’ve played. Even Tales of the Abyss, the one that got the closest to “Hey I actually enjoy this”, was a big waste, or at least for as long as I played it (15-20 hours), I never needed to take advantage of any of the more advanced concepts of combat.

Worse yet, though, I’m actually scared to play a Tales game that WOULD force the player to take advantage of these concepts, because I think the controls are consistently bad. I’ll withhold my judgment until I played Tales of Vesperia, but my hypothesis is, if the Tales games really want to make the jump to awesome combat, they should pull out all the stops and become an all-out action RPG.

Older MegaTen is not a place to look for “fun” systems. I consider everything pre-Nocturne to be either borderline bearable of bullshit, and even Nocturne is still high on the bullshit scale. Skipping over P3, which was something of a transition, P4 does an excellent job though. Going back to to elemental affinities, Megaten does something with these that hardly anyone else does: They make them decisive. Exploiting them will not necessarily win you all fights by itself, but not paying any attention to who or with what you are attacking will get you instantly murdered. P4 minimizes the need for grinding (In fact, given the pseudo-roguelike setting, it’s tricky to do), makes it impossible to overlevel and bases its difficulty on whether or not you can procure and use your skills to deal with situations.

That sounds pretty fun. I’ve actually been looking for Persona 4 for a while (now all of a sudden, I can find Persona 3 everywhere, but that one doesn’t sound as interesting to me).

The problem with this is that, as long as you allow numerical statistics gained through time spent fighting mooks to be the deciding factor, the systems will all look the same, with the same aesthetical-at-best strategy. My whole point is the same as yours, combat should be something fun, not something you bear, but by perpetuating systems where your level is what truly matters, you won’t get this, you get Final Fantasy I again and again.

You’ve agreed with me that a system with prohibitive grinding does not necessarily correlate with a fun, strategic battle system, right? Just as well, a game that allows grinding does not necessarily mean that combat won’t be fun and strategic. There simply isn’t a correlation - the grind factor is just a way to circumvent the strategy.

Doesn’t really work as nice as it sounds. It’s bad on two fronts:

You are superficially encouraged to “walk the path of kings”, i.e. fight even, fair battles, which in-universe is retarded since I can’t imagine a situation where the rightful-looking rebels would be regarded as less rightful just because they have stronger forces than the 0%-approval-rate insane dictatorship.

Gameplay wise is still broken because it’s extremely easy to circumvent, and even if you don’t resort to that out of self-imposed challenge, the extreme ease with which you can level too much (While simply defending a post) means you have to make an active effort not to get too strong. The difficulty then lies on distributing your battles among a lot of units so they don’t get too powerful, not in actual fighting.

Something that’s bothered me since I was really young, is the fact that the leveling system in some RPGs allows you to get literally hundreds or thousands of times stronger by the end of the game than you were at the beginning. Take FF6. At the beginning when Terra’s in the Narshe Caves on her own, she’s doing maybe 30 or 40 damage. By the end of the game, even without much grinding, her average damage is approaching 4000. Whenever I’m playing in systems like these, I try to convince myself not to take the numbers literally… but don’t you also think these numbers are fucking ridiculous? IMO the first step in lowering the importance of leveling is to crunch the range of these numbers down. Beginning monsters should still be fairly dangerous at midgame, and end monsters should still be pretty manageable without grinding, if you’re smart. Your characters should grow in strength by 3 or 4 times by the end of the game, but most of the gameplay should be focused on strategy like SE said. I think both of those things combined would make fighting a lot funner and more Zelda- and Megaman-like.

Another thing I wouldn’t mind seeing is more appearances of monsters you just simply can’t kill at your level, or maybe even EVER. In most RPGs the monsters are tailor-made to be killable by you at that point in the story, and generally get stronger as you go along. It’s unrealistic and boring. Like, one dude should just not be able to chop a T-Rex in half with a knife, ever.

Haha, yeah. You should try the Paper Mario series. That game has you dealing 1 HP of damage at the beginning…and, by the end, you’re doing about 3, maybe. But, it’s not because you’re underpowered; instead, the game just bases its bosses HP and strategies on damage in increments of 1. So, 10-15 HP is a lot, because it takes 5-15 hits to kill it. You never feel like Mario & co. are becoming uber godlike, and it really feels like every HP you get counts, as opposed to leveling up and gaining 27 HP, like “who gives a fuck?”

I agree that the story is a big part of the game, but to do what you suggest is crazy! It would take any notion of challenge clean out of the game, and it would actually give a person LESS incentive to fight; after all, why should they? They only need to play the boss fights!

As I mentioned, some people couldn’t care less about the random battles and just want to see the story- and most Boss battles are story-related. As a game designer, my interest would be to give options that appeal to the most varied type of players possible. For example, the “only Bosses” playstyle could be complemented by an advancement system with too many abilities to learn just from the Bosses; therefore, if in addition to beating the game, you also want to learn every ability, you’d need to grind- but it would still be optional.

Personally, I DO enjoy random monster fights- assuming those monsters are varied and I’m not just fighting recolors of the SAME monsters every area. My experience has been that in most RPGs, the number of random battles you need to fight to get to the next Boss give enough experience to beat it. So, as long as you don’t ever run away (and I never do) you can just play your way straight through the game. Only when it turns out that I NEED to do extra grinding to beat a boss is that I feel the game is unbalanced.

What about… a realistic leveling system. In real life we don’t get xp or level up (although that would be totally kickass), instead it happens slowly over time. I hate to bring up a game like GTA: San Andreas when it comes to rpgs, but i just did. Think about it, in SA if you wanted to beat the crap out of people faster you went to the gym and learned moves. You could still grind but it was different, more real. My point is your stats would go up as you did the things you wanted to be better at. just like real life. However, the only problem I see in that is in GTA its based on skill, in RPGs its based on XP. So I guess you can’t really compare GTA to an RPG. I probably shouldn’t even post this, but what the hell i got nothin ta looz.

I mean, if you end up looking like you’ll be just as bad as the dictatorship.

Well, I mean, the actual combat is just done automatically, with attack chosen by a unit’s position and timing chosen by its speed. So, the challenge is totally in the strategy element of placing units within squads and placing squads on the map. Still, this is definitely the main drawback of the system, since squads in strategic choke-points have to be switched out, or they’ll get far stronger than their enemies, and kill weaker, more “defenseless” foes, which loses you ALI.

GSG: That’s basically the system used in The Elder Scrolls games, where I happen to think it works out really nicely. You still “level up”, but that gives bonuses to HP and that sort of thing, not skills. Skills increase from repeated use, which is how you level up, rather than XP.

I have to agree with SG regarding Tales of the Abyss… I never got any of the more advanced aspects of the system, and I was completely fine on Normal difficulty.

Heh, for a really cool battle system… TWEWY? :sunglasses:

I don’t like the idea of only leveling up the things you use, because how do you gain points in (say) defense? Getting whacked over the head? That’ll work well for your white mages…s

Like real life, defense could be decided by agility, strength, skill, and armor. All of those can be improved without getting bashed on the head.