Realms Beyond – A classic turn-based fantasy RPG

Combat System #3: Battle Crowds

In an earlier post (Combat System #1) that discussed the combat system of Realms Beyond, we wrote that from the beginning, our aim was to make a turn-based game. However, we also mentioned that we carefully evaluated other variants, such as the Real-time-with-Pause (RtwP) combat system of Baldur’s Gate in particular. We are grown-ups that make games in an industry that still focuses mostly on kids as their key demographic and most of us were still teenagers when turn-based RPGs vanished and made room for the new era of real-time games.

Even if the pros and cons of different systems sometimes come down purely to personal taste, we believe that no one would argue that turn-based games tend to be less “action-packed.” It is the nature of the beast. Occasionally, combat can become a drag, as you are forced to wait until every goblin, kobold, and what-not-minion has finished its turn. In large crowds, this can become particularly aggravating. Watching opponents move around the battlefield is kinda boring and it is the reason why some turn-based games have sped up movement, or rather the respective movement animations, to the brink of sheer ugliness.

Players are eager to see their characters’ turns and they are also excited to see whether the main opponent will kill their party during his next turn. And while there is something intensely gratifying in wiping out 12 goblins with a single fireball, no one really cares to watch each of them move and attack, one after the other. In fact, frequently, some of us were tempted to reload and see whether their wizard has a higher initiative this time around, just so he could get rid of the masses of little annoyances in one swoop before combat starts in earnest. So, what to do? It was this particular problem that made us sit down and think about possible solutions to handle crowd movement in combat for less relevant opponents.

The Temple of Elemental Evil attempted to tackle the problem with a menu option that, once activated, allowed enemies within the same initiative group to move simultaneously. It turned out to create cool packs of hobbling and wobbling goblins but, as mentioned above, did not always help. In a battle with a small number of semi-bosses that happened to be in the same initiative group, say, a giant, a werewolf and a demon, you DO want to anticipate their attacks separately. Not to mention that it looks somewhat awkward, if not to say, nonepic, when these individuals go through their moves all at the same time like synchronized swimmers.

Our approach was to properly categorize opponents. Boring minions go in one group, more epic enemies are treated separately. We decided unilaterally, that our level designers would be responsible for choosing which opponents should be grouped together and which ones shouldn’t. Thus, the concept of ‘minion crowds’ was born and we found the idea to provide several, additional advantages.

Rather than rolling the initiative individually for each opponent and then grouping them up accordingly, we reversed the approach and instead group them up beforehand and then roll their initiative only once, as a group. This prevents a group of minions to ‘spread out’ over the initiative list and act individually—a case that the The Temple of Elemental Evil approach didn’t prevent.

Further, we are adding some additional ‘identity’ to the members of such a group that goes beyond the simple fact that they act simultaneously. This means that we are tweaking their AI to make sure they stay together and all attack the same target whenever possible. Not only does this seem more natural, but we also think that it might add to the strategic depth of our combat system—and even if it won’t, it will still be a great deal more atmospheric. As an additional side effect, it will give the player the opportunity to predict a mob’s behavior to some extent. As far as we’ve implemented this, (grouping and movement already look good, but the accompanying AI is still very basic) our idea feels great and we hope we’re well on our way to make turn-based combat a little more appealing.

Playtesting our turn-based combat system the old wayInitial evaluation of the basic idea to group minions originally took place in a non-digital environment

Comments in the forum