I had a bizarre brainstorm while watching Pirates of the Caribbean again last night that I couldn’t get out of my head, hence, this post. (This probably won’t even be the last PotC post this week!) But first, the problem with tactical RPGs.

There are basically two ways to structure a tactical RPG, which I’ll call the Fire Emblem Method and the Final Fantasy Tactics Method.

In the FE Method, your characters are basically set. They can do only certain things, and your ability to affect their skills and guide their development is limited. Your healers will heal, your sword-users will be good against axes but not so much against lances, and your thieves will have good move but are light on offense and defense, and that’s just the way of things. Attempting to compensate for these weaknesses ranges from difficult to impossible. Instead, you’re intended to compensate for these weaknesses by thinking about them in terms of the team — it doesn’t matter that your swordsman sucks against lance-users, because you’ve been building up a Fighter or Pirate to take care of the lance-users for him. Your healer can’t fight, but she’s necessary to make sure the people who can stay alive. You don’t think about characters in terms of “how can I make Lyn better?” Lyn is what she is; you can’t change her in any meaningful way. Rather, you think “how does Lyn fit into my overall strategy, and what tactics can I use to make her weaknesses less pressing?” The upshot of this is that the designers can tailor the game’s missions specifically to what you have available, because they know what you can do and what you can’t. They won’t include anything that requires a thief until you recruit your first Thief. Enemies won’t be too overbearing before you get a healer. Promoted enemies don’t begin showing up until you, yourself, have promoted, or at least begun to.

FFT Method games, on the other hand, are quite a bit more flexible. They usually have class systems, and some way of controlling what kinds of skills your characters learn and when. This means that with the proper understanding of the systems in play, you can usually create a team that does exactly what you want and has a minimum of weaknesses. However, as a consequence, such games tend to be quite a bit easier than their more traditional brethren. Once you’ve broken such a game, it’s more or less impossible to lose without blatant cheating on the computer’s part.

Now, I don’t think either of these systems are better than the other… I’ve played great games using both schools of thought. However, both have disadvantages. FE-style games tend to be more rigid and less freeform — there are only a certain number of strategies which can work on each map, and you’ll lose until you discover the right one. In addition, most characters can only really do one thing (usually “attack for a specific kind of damage at a specific range”), so your range of actions feels limited sometimes. FFT games give you more options, but the challenge evaporates as a result — no matter how the designers try to shake things up, once you’ve raised a team of tiny gods (frighteningly easy in some games) no enemy or map will stump you for long. Because of this, they tend to grow repetitive as the game wears on and you’re still shredding enemies with the same tactics at the 50-hour mark as worked back at the 20-hour mark. Badly-designed FFT-style games lend themselves well to “walk up to the bad guys and hit them until they die” strategies, which takes the “tactical” out of the “tactical RPG”.

The main obstacle facing modern RPGs, as everyone knows, is that they’ve found themselves unable to adapt. Every other genre has picked up on the RPG’s strong points (narrative, mostly, but also character customization systems) and adapted them into their own gameplay systems. RPGs used to have a monopoly on sweeping plots and memorable characters, but now everyone has them, or wants to. So RPG developers are trying to give people a reason to return to turn-based battles, MP, and spikey-haired swordsman even though they can now get their plot twists and amnesia storylines in games that are a lot more adrenaline-pumping. Some developers have done this by embracing minimalism — hearkening back to the days when RPGs didn’t really have storylines either, and people played them for the exploration and difficult combat. Other developers have tried to shoot for the hardcore otaku demographic by pandering to their creepy fetishes, about which the less is said, the better.

But no one is trying to change the way RPGs play. Oh, they say they are; they rip off Monster Hunter’s emphasis on quests and ad hoc multiplayer, or they invent some “new” battle system that still emphasizes the same Fight/Magic/Item/Run actions we’ve been using for decades. But they’re not, really. We’re still riffing off D&D, even after all these years.

Which brings us back to Pirates of the Caribbean.

Early in the movie, Captain Jack Sparrow is on the run from the British Royal Navy and hides out in a smithy. Will Turner returns to the smithy and discovers Jack there, and the two have a lengthy swordfight, dodging in and around the smithy’s various environmental obstacles while trading insults. Jack disarms Will, but Will grabs another sword from the forge. Jack launches Will into the rafters using a cart as a catapult, but Will drops a weight onto the cart and launches Jack into the rafters along with him. Will has Jack on the ropes… but Jack blinds Will with a handy bag of sawdust, and when Will clears his eyes again, Jack has a pistol pointed at him. Checkmate.

I’ve watched that scene a dozen times at least, but last night I could do nothing but envision it as a boss battle in an RPG. Imagine this: The player character is Jack (or an analogue; whatever), armed with a pistol. The boss is Will, a master swordsman. The battle takes place in the smithy, and it’s laid out in squares or hexes like a tactical RPG, but there’s a twist — you can use everything you can lay hands on. Everything.

Think of it like this. Will’s a swordsman and will shred you if he gets in range, so Jack’s strategy is to constantly back away, hitting Will whenever he gets an opening. He puts obstacles between him and Will whenever possible. Maybe you could aim for Will’s sword and knock it out of his hands or break it, forcing him to retreat to the forge to pick up a replacement and giving you a turn or two of free shots against him. If you stumble across a bag of sawdust, you can hurl it at Will, blinding him for a moment and preventing him from tracking you for a while. If you see Will standing under a weight hanging from the ceiling, you can shoot it down, stunning him — or maybe you can shoot one down to block a narrow path, forcing Will to take a detour in order to get at you. Finally, instead of Will just randomly collapsing when his HP is too low, maybe the object of the fight is to get directly behind him without him noticing, so you can force him to surrender without killing him. (And let’s face it, Will would be joining our party anyway, so let’s go ahead and kill off the “Oh, we won the battle, but he’s still alive” trope while we’re at it.)

What makes this work, as far as I’m concerned, is that it would be way too complex to do in real time. You’d be too busy dodging attacks and trying to aim to see that there’s all these other objects in the room that can be interacted with and perhaps turned to your advantage. In a turn-based game, you could spend all the time in the world examining the room and planning out potential strategies. Maybe in later fights there are some red-herring stage features that look like they could help, but are actually bait. In an RPG, you could consider all your available options.

This is just a single one-on-one boss fight in a small building. Imagine what a creative designer could come up with given multiple characters on both sides and a more interesting location. Imagine adding magic to the mix — instead of just hitting enemies that are weak to ice, your Ice spell could be used to freeze water or kill plants — Golden Sun, but in combat and to the Nth degree. You characters could be differentiated not just in terms of their stats or their typical attacker/healer/buffer/tank characteristics, but in terms of how they’re able to affect the environment. Most strategy RPGs have terrain features which equate to “can you stand here?” and “can you attack here?”, with maybe a few switches here and there. It seems to me that this is wasted potential.

If this scene showed up in an RPG today, Jack and Will would stand across the room and take turns rushing forward to hit each other. You tell me what sounds like more interesting gameplay.

(Yes, I know that in the movie Jack can’t actually fire his pistol at this time. Bear with me, here.)


1 Response to “Savvy?”

  1. 1 kaisel February 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    I like the general idea, I think the only real issue is that if it’s done poorly, it turns the game into an elaborate puzzle game, of finding the proper steps. I’m also not sure about the red herrings, I think everything should be useful, just that there are decent choices and better ones.

    But still, I think it’d be a lot of fun to play a game using that system.

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