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Plan for Difficulty and Story "Battles"

Started by lirmont, October 01, 2013, 07:06:39 pm


October 01, 2013, 07:06:39 pm Last Edit: October 15, 2013, 01:35:22 pm by lirmont
So, quick recap. Kickstarter is going on, and I've been taking the month as downtime to do some of the things that are more game-related than engine-related. This is just the next thing in that process that I wanted to accomplish over that 30-day period.

For a long time now, I've wanted to pursue removing the "kill everything" goal from its prevalence (or its in-vogue use) in story events in these types of games. Now, I have no problem with that goal as it relates strictly to battle; getting out alive may necessitate it; clearing out savage monsters may require it; protecting a target may make it a tempting option (for expediency). My problem comes in when games apply it to non-battle scenarios (i.e. situations without appropriate context).

Now, how can the current system realistically be adjusted to avoid over-dependence on kill-everything tactics? For one, provide the player the opportunity to actually plan their own encounters; this process can go easily between the encounter transition and the formation screen. This process can even inform the formation screen's behavior. Secondly, provide a different set of goals. Lastly, plan for failure.

So, what would such a system be called? Anything related to battle seems to presuppose kill-everything tactics. Calling it any variation of "plan" seemed tedious. I settled on "Rendezvous" (in part because of the word's use in the franchise). Here's the mock-up of what the rendezvous system would look like:

A Flattened Top-Down View of the Map

A Flattened Side-View of the Map

How does difficulty factor into that? If you have a really good tactic, such as someone online finding a sure-fire win for a given scenario, that would effectively defeat the system. As an example of that, imagine if you're given access to a winning tactic to place your ranged units on the high ground at the start of a battle versus a host of short-range melee units. There's probably no real challenge in that.

What can be done about that? For one, limit the player to simple tactics if they choose a simple difficulty. Tactics are broken down by potential company counts; this simulates complexity of maneuvers. Simple tactics require a maximum of one company. This relates directly to practically all battles in FFT. Yes, there may be some distance between the units of a company, but they're all still in the same sphere of influence to begin with, with nothing really differentiating their position. This also doesn't prevent the alternative goals from being pursued.

What happens if you increase the difficulty? You have access to more complex tactics; higher difficulties result in more complicated (and potentially more useful) tactical approaches. This happens at the cost of having to deal with much stronger enemies. AI units can be made to appear to plan to handle whatever general observable company size you have. In other words, if you roamed around with 50+ characters at a time for the past 10 battles and took 3 companies into battle each time, you can expect your enemy will have heard of this and heavily fortified their positions if they knew you were antagonistic to them. Because you aren't required to kill everything to win, this is still a balanced situation. However, you might fail several times (at a cost to unit morale and currency, since you'd probably have to pay non-fanatical units to listen to your orders).

So, what are some of the side effects of this system? Most notably, the planning for failure hopefully keeps unwanted casualties on your side to a bare minimum (something probably important for perfectionists) without forcing you to do so if you don't want to (pick an emergency exit tactic that doesn't care about your unit's lives). Secondly, it can support a system where your choices actually reflect your alignment. In other words, if your character is good, it doesn't have to be good in name or just be "on the side of right" or the unassailable protagonist. If your character is evil, it's also not just in name. Decapitate your enemy's leaders, take prisoners, trick your enemy's soldiers into thinking you're surrendering -- then attack them; you're a bad character, and you ought to be given the opportunity to be that (and suffer the consequences of good units disbanding, having to resort to black markets because no legitimate business will sell you weapons after you get a reputation, etc).

Anyway, that's the plan. The basic tactic would be called "Brute Force" with a company size of 1; higher difficulties would get access to a "Brute Force with Reinforcements" tactic (potentially no company size limit depending how far up the difficulty curve you go). The per-company unit counts expand in that area (if you have 3 companies, you'll pick 3 sizes). Exit strategies offer the ability to trap monsters, take prisoners, plunder captured units, search the map for treasure (limited by skilled units available in unit list), and many other things (like specific limitations for airship and boat combat). Emergency exit strategies are for retreating. Commencing advances to the formation screen state. The map I used for this mock-up is the "Inside of Riovanes Castle" map you can find here: http://ffhacktics.com/maps.php?id=7

I have a list of planned tactics, exit strategies, and emergency exit strategies if anyone's interested in seeing those.


I think this is very interesting and thought-provoking.  A couple of questions:

In speaking of "companies,"  are you talking about the standard FFT squad that you take into a battle?

And maneuvers in general:  I may be reading you wrong, but it sounds as if you're implying some kind of larger map that actual battle maps would be a part of.  Is this correct?

I'd be interested in seeing a list of your tactics, etc.


October 12, 2013, 03:08:08 pm #2 Last Edit: October 12, 2013, 05:27:13 pm by lirmont
The usual 5 would be one company. Occasionally in FFT, you have to split things up. That would be considered 2 companies, except, in this scenario, you might have the choice of when that happens.

Here is a list of tactics: brute force (single company), concerted force (single company, but as many units as you can pay for), pincer attack (2 companies), back attack (single company), ambush (2+ companies), feint (2 companies), clear and hold (might require lawfulness; holds position against enemies trying to take over some strategic point), air strike (requires airship), decapitation (requires enemy company to have a leader, requires a unit with class capable of assassination), box-in maneuver (similar to ambush, but companies fan out to link up with each other with the intent of moving inward), turtle maneuver (requires non-player reinforcements being available), cannon volley (requires a target be exposed to the sea, requires a boat with cannons), entrapment (requires a single unit with class capable of decoy, requires certain types of terrain).

Here is a list of exit strategies: take prisoners (requires rope, costs food; idea is to sell them or trade them back, but you could keep them in a prison if you have one), arrest (requires rope; used to acquire monster units and capture bounties), arrest and abandon (requires rope; leaves wounded enemies there), plunder equipment (stay on after fight to take any available equipment), scorched earth (requires arson equipment; idea is to destroy supplies or high-value morale targets), strategic surrender (requires a unit with a class capable of concealed weapons and lock-picking; requires an inside man; let your group get arrested and move the fight right to your enemy's stronghold), arrest and plunder (unlike plunder equipment, this version attempts to keep enemies alive), burial (requires shovels and no time restrictions; pursuant to good if enemies beliefs are upheld; pursuant to evil if they are against burial), cremation (requires axes to get enough wood to build a pyre; pursuant to good if enemies beliefs are upheld; pursuant to evil if they are against cremation), respect the dead (generic option that covers both burial and cremation; requires a unit in the overall unit list with a tradition matching the enemy's; no bonus otherwise), land airship (requires airship; requires landing zone area, which is dependent on airship size), golden bridge (requires a unit with a class capable of battle psychology; attempts to get the enemies to run away by making an option too good to pass up as an exit), dock boat (requires boat; used during cannon volley; phased, and can fail).

Emergency exits: emergency withdrawal (every company falls back towards the exit; exits would be programmatically generated and may include things like windows, doors, and low walls), take hostages (like take prisoners, except you don't win), individual escape (every unit falls back towards the exit, escaping as soon as they reach it), strategic surrender (equivalent to the exit strategy, except only used if things go terribly wrong), diplomatic surrender (requires hostages they're willing to trade for), ascension withdrawal (requires airship), retraction withdrawal (requires boat).

I'm open to more, but those are the ones I thought would be interesting.


I gotta say I never thought of this and I love the idea. Reminds me of dynasty warriors and romance of the three kingdoms type stuff. The idea of morale is pretty cool too - you could have each units morale value affected by the sum of actions taken in battle. This is exactly the type of game I'd like to play... something where you can build and manage parties of units, build and manage their individual skills and classes, have exciting and engaging battle, and of course... treasure hunting =) The idea of protagonistic/antagonistic parity is pretty neat too. I dig it!


This is mind-blowing. Makes you want to play already.

Saving this. It's a good idea to interwine these with the demo's main story.

FFTA had some decent elements too, like cleaning up landmines and the basic escort missions. But those are the most basic ones in the bunch, and best left for filler optional quests, if any.

Now everyone sit down, relax and have a good damned cup of tea.
Then go out into the forest and see the stars.

Then come back and realize it's pointless to be so worked up over what's meant to be our hobby.
That should be my motto here, holy s


Many really fantastic ideas here. I want to break it down into smaller components for further analysis.

1) Basic Mission Variety:
I think mission variety is an interesting double edged sword. Having it can definitely make things more fun and less repetitive, but at the same time these gameplay variations also need to be as engaging as normal battles or their really is little point. For instance, escort missions are a videogame trope that is often despised. It adds variety, but they are often too slow paced to actually be engaging. So while variety for the sake of variety isn't necessarily true, I think creating mechanics that allow for interesting battle objects is a must and then trying out many different things and seeing what works. Capturing locations, protecting stationary objects, grabbing a briefcase from enemies and then escaping, etc. I would love to see just a giant list of potential SRPG mission objectives. Your going undercover story gave me an idea for a battle where you control your team and then character that is pretending to be the other team, and the goal is to have your infiltrator achieve objectives while appearing to fight for the enemy.

2) Choice of Battle Tactic:
This is an interesting one and I think can come in two forms. The more common one is having the ability to choose tactics based on how you act in battle. In classic FFT it would be the difference between an assassination mission where you kill every enemy before the "boss", or just go straight for the boss. The other is where you choose your approach before the battle starts, and the objectives and battle layout adjust so that this approach can be implemented. I like the first approach more because it allows for more dynamic changes, and the outcome may not have even been an explicit choice of the player. However, I imagine it would be difficult to allow all these different approaches and objectives with a single battle setup. The second approach is interesting as well, but if provided in large doses I worry that a player might end up making the game unfun for themselves. Too much freedom can be a bad thing. However, at proscribed points it could be excellent. "Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together" is an excellent example of this kind of stuff.

3) Scalable Difficulty:
More coming soon.

4) Morality System:
More coming soon.
Current Projects:


I'm certainly not suggesting that a system like this be used to inundate a player with non-killing objectives just because it can be used that way. I'm just saying it's foul to have a game where you literally kill every last single thing, win the game without having lost one time (because that's the only way to do it), and then have no ramifications (remember all those characters you slaughtered to win?) at the end that reflect that reality. In that particular scenario, you could just factor the river of blood your player leaves behind into the story. However, that would be a terribly dark, unrealistic game, wouldn't it? So a different way of handling that is focusing on aligning plausible objectives with the story. That way you don't need to justify this ridiculous oversight, unless you want to turn it around into something that makes sense, like playing a bad guy who literally would kill practically everything. But then, you could even take that a step further and allow the person's character the ability to express psychopathies (like how I mentioned choosing to act in contrast to established religious beliefs; another example, how a horrible character, like Kefka, might poison an entire river).

As for actually choosing a tactic, that's too simple. You're literally planning the battle ahead of time in this system. Ever play on a sports team where you try to organize 4 or more other people after walking out onto the field? I seriously doubt that's a viable choice when your lives are at risk. Even more than that, you typically start out as an inexperienced player character (rather than some hardened battle veteran with a group of equally hardened professional mercenaries). This system also tries to line up with the reality of your goals a player (separate from the story). Maybe you don't want to lose units you've grown attached to. You can certainly choose to plan to avoid casualties ahead of time (ex. don't piss off people who aren't dead-set on fighting you, don't choose to make every fight a battle to the bitter end, properly support your team, etc). That doesn't preclude you from losing anyone, but it doesn't expose you to extra risk of losing someone either. Furthermore, there may be times when the story calls for the player not to have control over anyone else's actions but their own (like all of your group simultaneously disagreeing). A system like this is flexible enough to allow that, too.


A response to your response will be coming soon.

3) Scalable Difficulty:
Obviously you can always up the enemy's level, number of units, quality of equipment, and other techniques to simply make the same basic battle harder. My thought here is making battles harder by changing what the player is trying to achieve in the same battle, which relates to items # 1 & 2. I think a lot of the dynamics and enjoyment of the game is adjusting to the shift and change of battles. Planning is great, but it can easily all go to hell once the battle actually starts. I also like changing difficulty for replayability. Additionally, the concept of scoring or grading a players performance to dull out different rewards to encourage multiple replays of the same battle is also very interesting to me.

4) Morality System:
This is a pretty high concept. I think it is really cool, but really increases the scope of a game. For whatever reason I see it working better in a RTS than an SRPG, because it almost seems like your choice of attack plan is more important than the actual battle. It also seems really susceptible to feature drift and could be difficult to balance and keep fun. But at the same time if you could get it right it would be pretty amazing.
Current Projects:


For me, most of the reason for providing a scalable difficulty (which yields you more options) is to either let you take the game seriously or not. Want to plow through content like a snow-plow? Brute force is all yours. Want to actually have the tools NOT to act like a raving lunatic? Up the difficulty, and make it happen.

As for a morality system, it's not there to judge you or to make a social commentary (like, "Woah! Did you just decapitate that guy?"). It would be there to let you express the actions your character might want to express (role-playing), and to have a means by which characters in the story can judge how they should behave. For instance, you want to play as a villainous person who really enjoys using poisons? This lets you do it. Want to play the archetype-style hero who would never stab someone in the back or do anything untoward? This lets you do it. Want to make a switch mid-game/mid-battle? There'd be nothing stopping you. It's not the "fall in line" approach Tactics Ogre used where you wind up on rails. It's more of a reality. Say your character has froofy hair and eggs a noble's house. You ought to be treated like you did that in-game (in-game people should red-flag you for being out of control). Say you drive a motor-carriage around town in a drunken stupor. You ought to be treated like you did that in-game (in-game people should think you're a spectacle and act accordingly). Now, having done either of those things, go try to buy weapons. The weaponsmith's answer to you should be, "No." Whereas, if you selflessly save the town or you buy weapons from the blackmarket, it's business as usual.


I guess you are just moving to player freedom then. As I said I think it is all really cool sounding, but I don't think big budget games like GTA and Fable even get to this degree of freedom and world interactivity. Beyond that, I'm not sure it would necessarily be fun. How would you even begin to wrap a narrative around all this choice. I think Tactics Ogre actually has a great balance, there is player choice explicit (option a or b) and implicit (how individual battles progress) while still maintaining a coherent narrative thread. I'm all for variety and choice to an extent, but you can easily go to far in this direction as well. It just comes back to the balance between gameplay and story, which I really believe is paramount in a RPG. I do love the thought experiment in developing game play variety.
Current Projects:


It's more simplistic than it sounds, because it's not about what you do at a macro-level; it's about how you do it on a micro-level. What you do is determined by the narrative. For example, a common thing that Tactics Ogre had you do is literally takeover castles and forts. However, you had the choice to pick which entrance you attacked from. You also usually had the choice whether to just deal with the leader or to wipe everyone off the face of the planet (because cards and class unlock goals). Let's say a system like the one I've proposed provides the same goal and the same options.

Objective: Capture the Castle

  • Composite choice A: Attack castle from front, kill everybody.

  • Composite choice B: Attack castle from front, only kill leader.

  • Composite choice C: Attack castle from front, only incite leader to run away with damage.

  • Composite choice D: Attack castle from back, kill everybody.

  • Composite choice E: Attack castle from back, only kill leader.

  • Composite choice F: Attack castle from back, only incite leader to run away with damage.

So, to advance the game, you do one of those things. I'm just suggesting that a system be put into place at a local level and a world level to track your behavior so characters can react. Tactics Ogre even had something like this in the sense that characters on your team can choose to leave if you're not following what they want to do, but I'd also like to see it applied to the characters that don't and can't ever join your party. Imagine for a moment that the player chooses choice C. Shouldn't what happens next have the possibility of being at least a little different than choosing choice A or choice D? And furthermore, shouldn't people in the world near that area treat you differently for said choices? I think they certainly should. Again, if you go slaughtering everybody to take over not just one castle but several in the area, who in their right mind would sell you weapons? You probably killed someone related to someone they know if the body count gets high enough. You would need to buy your stuff elsewhere or commission to have it made, instead of the silly grocery-store approach, which I seriously doubt could field an actual request of 99 swords, 99 armor, 99 magic spells, etc.

Let me take it back to some of the other options I've talked about. Say you pick choice A or D, to ameliorate some of the negative vibe you make around yourself, you might pick the choice, "Respect the Dead". To enhance the negative vibe, you might pick the choice, "Disrespect the Dead". People in the game would behave accordingly. Code for that choice could be a simple number check against a composite score (or grade) as a whole or for a specific category. For example, you've been a marauder for the whole local area, and your score for the "Local Humanitarianism" category is -300. A shop seller in that area might choose not to sell weapons after -100, and they might all choose not to sell you anything after -250. Flipping that around, you could try a black market, since the black market sellers only sell after -150. However, they might even reward you with more vicious weapons at -300.


This example is definitely more in a scale I can comprehend. I still hold two assertions.

1) You can have choice just for the sake of variety, but it will also likely be linked to narrative branches that could really complicate things. You could make most of these choices mostly relate to non-narrative aspects of the game, like shop keepers, but eventually how you play the game differently will have to also alter the story.

2) The more of these battle choices that you can have be organic in that they unfold during battle and aren't choices chosen before a battle the better. I personally find the planning aspects of battles in games tedious. As always there is a balance between providing a player with information they can use to prepare for a battle and leaving unknowns so that what happens is still exciting and dynamic.

Having choices in how you play the game influence more than just the narrative is a cool idea. I like the shop keeper and blackmarket examples.
Current Projects:


Well, it doesn't preclude you from using the standard "choose left or right" story branching in RPGs in general (such as Tactics Ogre had). Though, the way you play may need to be considered in what options you can pick, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I mean, is it suddenly physically impossible for a "bad" person to do what a "good" or "neutral" person might?

As for overhead, the way I see this playing out is that standard difficulty offers you only the brute force tactic (because you don't need anything else to win the game). Because of that, you don't even need to see the planning screen if you're not making a change to anything else, and so maybe a setting can be used to ignore it completely. If you find planning (re: clicking through a list of options that have relevance to colorful geometry) tedious, then that would let you not do that step.


In terms or story paths, here is an example. If you decide to negotiate with an enemy general instead of kill him, that could have major implications to your story. In FFT, if you hadn't kill Miluda things would have been real different. If you allow for this much choice in how you play the game I think there would be a corresponding amount of variation in story. Thus, good and bad choices are not physically exclusive; but it does impact the story. Or at least it doesn't make sense for the story to not match your play style.

Your second paragraph. The trick here is that brute force is always the option, because that is what battle is about. Obviously there is some flexibility there and we talked about mission variety earlier, the gameplay of FFT and most RPGs is about the battle system which is about killing stuff. If you want to have alternative ways of conflict resolution, then you need equally engaging gameplay systems to support this play style. This also relates back to how I was pointing out that allowing players this much freedom could make it so they create an unfun experience for themselves. For instance if you as the general chose to sneak in spies to poison the water supply of the enemies instead of facing them in open combat. You can't just have a text box choice to choose this tactics, you need engaging gameplay surrounding this tactic. Otherwise many players are just going to tend towards the most efficient way of finishing a game, because that is part of playing a game, and then they wouldn't really be experiencing the game. So you could design engaging gameplay where you have a stealth mechanic built in around a single unit avoiding being detected and getting poison slipped into all the water wells. The problem is, that for everyone of the vast number of options you are allowing players to make you need another kind of engaging gameplay alternative. Thus leading to feature drift and basically to huge of a game.

The solution I see is as follows, and really it is pretty much Tactics Ogre with more mission variety. Have an in depth and engaging battle system that allows for mission variety and varied tactics, to an extent. Offer players different approaches to battles, not just path A or B, but with meaningful mission variety. Have these choices lead to directed story paths based on player choices and actions during battle. Then add the morality system, or something similar, so that these choices have a cumulative effect that influences aspects of gameplay beyond just story and is visible in the world the player is interacting with. Thoughts?
Current Projects:


Again, I have to stress that it's never about what but how you do things. If your story dictates that a character must die, that character will need to die, whether it's by the player's hands in battle or by some story action. Obviously, when planning such a thing at the design level, you might put in a story branch that predetermines the outcome to the player killing the target if you're hellbent on bloodlust as a designer. However, what really changes if an enemy general is killed? Does that army not have a chain of command to fall back on? Is their military complex hinging on that one character? Sure, we'd like to think one person can make the difference, but the story isn't about the general's actions unless they're a secondary character or a primary antagonist. In which case, you'd make a story branch or resolution, but it's crazy to suggest they're all so important that this system would need to branch that much to stay in line with the story. They may be alive or dead, but, again, unless that aspect is in stark contrast to your story, you don't need to create a story branch. I don't know if you looked at the conversation code for events that I detailed elsewhere on this board, but you can ignore a character's lines or a whole conversation depending on some condition (like PlayerName.IsAlive), and this could certainly be used to put a new general into the mix.

Brute force isn't always an option at higher difficulties. In fact, losing and retreat are always options, since you won't always be able to win by just throwing all your troops until everything is dead at higher difficulties. I find it hard to believe that no one, over the course of the entire game, would look at a main character's actions, have the resources to plan to appropriately defend against the character, and then simply not do that.

As for lacking the quality of fun because of choosing the "most efficient" route, that really says a lot about the player. Maybe they just shouldn't be playing games? You'd really poison everyone every single time if it was faster (and the condition of access to a water supply was met)? Even if everyone in the game decidedly hated you and insulted you at every point (massive negative in Total Humanitarianism)? Maybe even the blackmarket people and domestic animals wouldn't want anything to do with you. The engagement here, by comparison, is that you're playing by a standard, instead of the bogus maniacal standard, "If it moves, it must die." However, most of the options can be achieved in the context of the battle system.

As for feature drift, this is a design to be part of an engine. There's no such drift in a game. There's just the choice at that level to decide what to include. If you don't want anything from this, you don't have to bother with it (force brute force and call your own formation screen state). Remember, the engine is state-based, and you control that, meaning you could have a game that never bothers to even call the battle state.

Offering different missions (re: mission variety) is not the goal of this system. If the story says, "The character takes over Fort X," then you're taking over Fort X; that's your mission. It's just how you do it that changes, which still falls into the context of the battle state, regardless of the option at the planning level. Let's say you try to negotiate, arranging a meeting on the field. When they invariably turn you away, you might think, "Oh, well, it's time to brute force my way in. I should have done that from the beginning." If they have the manpower (or gates that lock from the inside), you won't be able to accomplish the story goal. You'll need to retreat and pick from the options you have left. If someone gets frustrated that a game is "unfun" at this point, even though they're being engaged by the system to solve a critical thinking puzzle, then they can switch difficulties and devolve to brute force for the rest of the game (which strips out the critical thinking/tactics).

Example. The character takes over Fort X by...

  • brute force (single company).

  • concerted force (single company, but as many units as paid for).

  • pincer attack (2 companies).

  • back attack (single company).

  • ambush (2+ companies).

  • feint (2 companies).

  • clear and hold.

  • air strike.

  • decapitation.

  • box-in maneuver.

  • turtle maneuver.

  • cannon volley.

  • entrapment.

The sentence will still read basically the same way: The character takes over Fort X. Story branch before that if you want a different goal. Story branch after that if their choice of how somehow managed to be out of line with the story.