When it comes to turn-based combat systems the bulk of the satisfaction that they derive stems from their mechanics. How you outfit your party members, the ebb and flow of offense and defense, the potential of stringing together synergistic combos, and the way you exploit enemy weaknesses are just a tiny fraction of the factors the myriad of RPG’s have taken into account when crafting their turn-based systems. The aspect that tends to go overlooked, however, is the presentation of battles and how the feeling of damage to the enemies and the party members is satisfactorily conveyed to the player.
Turn-based battle systems don’t have the luxury of instant feedback from the press of a button like action games do. So what exactly makes a hit “feel good” in turn-based combat? Developers of these games have to get creative in how they convey the same kind of satisfaction action titles provides instantly, but in a delayed manner. They employ a variety of techniques that more often than not go unnoticed in the moment but nonetheless play a pivotal role in delivering gratifying turn-based experiences.
The Numbers Game
At their core, turn-based combat systems are all about number manipulation. It’s the inverse relationship of enemy numbers go down, dopamine levels go up. Those numbers, however, are all relative between different titles. A thousand points of damage may be devastating, end-game numbers in one game, like Persona 5 Royal, but simply the damage one does with a basic attack at the start of another. Whether to set this range of numbers, or damage formula, to be small or large is one of the first considerations made that greatly affects perception of damage dealt and received.
This decision essentially boils down to how granular does the developer wants their damage formula to be. When someone thinks granularity they typically think decimal points, like how a game reviewer might score a title as a 7.5 instead of a 7 or 8. Adding decimal points to a game is bound to get hairy, though, as evidenced by the fact that there’s no game that I know of that lets you deal 68.23 points of damage, visibly at least. There are plenty of games, however, that let you deal 6,823 points of damage, and therein lies the strength of a larger range of damage values; they are essentially glorified decimal points that allow for discreet adjustments.
Games that are regularly dishing out damage in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions are typically ones that allow for significant customization of party members and encourage min-maxing to the extreme. The most obvious example of this would have to be the “Disgaea” series, a franchise where even dealing 900 QUADRILLION damage isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
The amount of customization “Disgaea” games allow for can be downright mind-boggling. They’re not satisfied with just grinding for gear, but then grinding the gear you just grinded in an endless cycle of grind known as the Item World… and that’s just one facet of the games’ power structures!
“Disgaea” titles want you to break them; they want you to find the most absurd combination of gear slapped onto the most absurdly specced character and shatter the game balance into the next dimension. You seek out those tiny incremental increases in stats to wring out every last point of damage and that’s possible because “Disgaea” is as granular as you can possibly get for a damage formula.
“Smaller numbers offer less granularity which means less potential for customization.”
The downside to such astronomical figures is that they can easily begin to blend together in normal gameplay when you’re not paying attention to them. They can also skew your sense of scale for damage dealt and received if the gap between the two is too disproportionate, lessening their impact. That’s the main reason why it’s usually beneficial to have enemies deal similar, if not slightly less, damage values to party members as your party members do to enemies. The “Shin Megami Tensei” games — both the mainline and Persona entries — are usually pretty good about this, at least on standard difficulties.
That leads into when and why developers may choose a smaller, narrower range for a damage formula. Smaller numbers offer less granularity which means less potential for customization. Games containing this kind of damage formula typically expect a more patient, strategic approach by the player that isn’t always solved by simply grinding more levels. There are fewer opportunities to power up your characters but that makes the moments they do get a power-boost feel more meaningful.
Take The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, for example. At the start of the game, Estelle is dishing out somewhere between 40-45 points of damage with her basic attack. Buy her the new staff from the starting shop, though, and now she’s putting out around 60-65 points of damage. The numbers alone don’t seem that impressive, but that’s actually about a 35% increase in output. That’s reflected by the fact those Flying Feline enemies with 144HP you’ve been fighting tons of now get downed after three attacks rather than four; that’s a very tangible benefit. New equipment in Trails in the Sky is relatively uncommon, though, making these little spikes in power feel that much more rewarding.
An even more extreme example is Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door where the tiny difference between 4 and 6 points of damage can decide victory and defeat. The means of increasing your damage, though, are greatly restricted throughout the game compared to other RPG’s, heavily emphasizing clever play over brute force numbers.
All these numbers have to stop at some point, though, and that limit is the damage cap. Most RPG’s have a damage cap, sometimes for the simple reason that programming to have more digits visible than is actually possible is unnecessary work; such games don’t actually expect the standard player to reach this cap. Some games actually do expect players to reach that peak, though, and it’s how these games handle what happens at that point that adds a new layer to rewarding damage.
To the Damage Cap and Beyond!
Damage caps represent a veritable wall for character progression. On one level this is a reward in and of itself. Being able to see however long a string of 9’s on-screen is your diploma of graduation. Sometimes that’s where the story ends and the game starts throwing other challenges your way to keep things fresh even with you hitting the cap, like in earlier “Final Fantasy” titles. Other games tell you that you’re not done yet, that you’re ready to “break the limit” so to speak.
Smashing the wall in front of you introduces you to a new world of bigger numbers. Oftentimes the more difficult it was to break that wall, the more exhilarating the outcome. The simplest of methods is to just have ways that allow for more than one instance of attacking. Can only do 9999 damage in a single hit? Just hit the boss three times at once and bada-bing-bada-boom you’ve broken the cap and dealt 29997 damage.
This method usually comes in the way of multi-hit skills and abilities. Plenty of games employ this method, with the “Hyperdimension Neptunia” titles being a prime example. Every single character has flashy skills and special moves with numerous hits that each register as their own damage instance, allowing the player to push way past the 9999 cap without batting an eyelash. Most players might not even think of it as breaking the cap, in fact, since it comes so naturally.
Other games aren’t so simple, though, completely restricting your damage output to the cap regardless of the number of hits in an attack. The methods offered to break the caps in these instances are often costly and/or require dedication to achieve making the moment you finally do so positively intoxicating.
Bravely Default and Bravely Second are both games that harken back to older “Final Fantasy” titles complete with the classic 9999 standard damage cap which players can reach relatively quickly. That cap can be broken all the way to a whopping 999,999 damage but only by using the games’ Bravely Second feature. The catch? Bravely Second requires SP and one SP is only recovered after 24 real-time hours. Furthermore, SP is tracked separately from the regular save file, meaning even if you fail the fight or reload a save, that SP is still spent.
This creates an exceptionally costly resource that has to be spent carefully. Players would spend numerous turns to set up the perfect situation to rain down holy hellfire because SP was so precious and there was a very real risk of wasting it. That made those moments it all came together and shoved a megaton nuke down the boss’s throat so euphoric.
In a similar vein, and by the same developers, Octopath Traveller also has you staring down at 9999 damage for a good chunk of its tale. The only way to surpass that is by obtaining an end-game passive skill found nearly at the end of the Warrior job’s progression. Just obtaining the skill isn’t enough either, as it still needs to be equipped to a skill slot that could otherwise be used for a multitude of other helpful abilities. Is breaking the cap enough of a benefit to forgo a skill that might aid survivability? If after all that effort of just obtaining the skill and doing a cost-benefit analysis to equip it you come out on top of a boss fight with a finishing blow of 14000, you can’t help but feel like you’re on top of the world.
The Art of HP Bars
So you’ve got your damage formula set and potentially a way for your player to manipulate it cleverly by breaking caps, what’s next? Well, like was said at the start of this article, inflicting damage is all to accomplish one thing. Making enemies’ numbers go down and that often manifests itself as an HP bar of some sort. Not all games feature HP bars of course, and whether or not to do so is a decision in and of itself, but there is deliberate thought put into their design and function for the ones that do.
The main factors that go into the reduction of an HP bar are timing and rate, with some other flourishes here and there. Timing is pretty straight-forward and more-or-less universal across most turn-based games. The moment an attack lands is when the HP bar decreases. It provides about as close as you can get to the instant feedback an action game may provide. Equally universally, however, is an area of those same games when that is not true, and that is during special attacks with cinematics.
In nearly every single game with special moves that cut away to a flashy cinematic, HP bars disappear along with the rest of the UI. Instead, the damage is often reflected retroactively with enemies getting “hit” by some invisible source and their HP falling from that, like in upcoming Yakuza: Like a Dragon. This potentially dampens some of the excitement of the attack because you can’t see its results in real-time. A different genre but imagine if HP bars disappeared during supers for fighting games; they’d be quite the different experiences.
One exception to this rule is Megadimension Neptunia VII, specifically. From regular enemies to bosses, HP bars stick around throughout special attacks and over-the-top EXE Drives. You can even compare these attacks to their previous iterations in earlier “Neptunia” games and see just how much weight is lent to them simply by having an HP bar decrease in real-time.
“It’s just further proof that when it comes down to it, humans are creatures that seek drama.”
How that HP bar decreases also affects your perception of the impact of the attack. Does it decrease steadily like a water tank being emptied? Or maybe it flashes the segment in a different shade of color before whisking it away all at once? It’s important for the HP bar to give the player that kind of feedback rather than just plain disappearing instantaneously. After all, seeing an HP bar decrease is the culmination of the damage you worked so hard to deal, you don’t want that satisfaction robbed from you.
An excellent showcase of how this matters is in “Pokémon” titles. Instead of always decreasing at the same speed as in most RPG’s, HP bars in “Pokémon” games fall at different rates depending on the HP pool of the Pokémon hit.
Think back to the time you were battling your friend’s tanky-as-hell Wailord and you nailed it with a super effective Thunder attack from your Alakazam. You’re sitting there for upwards of ten seconds or more staring at those green pixels ticking down, making the moment they fully deplete all the more thrilling or the moment they just stop short all the more soul-crushing. That adds a veritable “will it, won’t it?” tension to Pokémon battles, and they absolutely would not be the same if the HP bars decreased similarly to other games. It’s just further proof that when it comes down to it, humans are creatures that seek drama.
Relatedly, it’s not uncommon for turn-based RPG bosses to have gargantuan pools of HP to chip away at; this usually means you’re making their HP bars decrease in small, sometimes unnoticeable, increments. For the most part, this is an accepted part of the genre but it’s interesting when one looks to the action and ARPG genres where it’s common for bosses to spread their HP pool over multiple bars, such as in “Kingdom Hearts” and some “Yakuza” titles.
Multiple HP bars give the illusion of making more significant progress because you’re seeing larger chunks of a bar disappear at once than if it was cohesive. Outside of Megadimension Neptunia VII, however, we don’t really see multiple HP bars utilized in this way for turn-based RPG’s.
Instead, we’ve seen multi-HP bars take on a different function in recent games: Denoting enemy phases. The multiple HP bars of monster-type enemies in Fire Emblem: Three Houses don’t simply represent a large pool, but indicate different stages of their fights.
Unlike something like the notorious Yunalesca fight of Final Fantasy X whose phase transitions happen at set HP thresholds the player has no way of knowing, the HP of monsters in Three Houses is actively taken into account for player strategies, especially at higher difficulty levels. Depleting an HP bar when you’re not ready for the next phase could spell doom in some instances, so exercising restraint is sometimes the better option. In this way, damage dealt takes on a new meaning when inflicting too much of it at the wrong time can work against you.
At the end of the day, good game design and well-crafted battle mechanics trump everything; no one wants to play something that’s lacking even a good foundation. However, there’s so much thought and effort that’s put into showcasing how those mechanics make an impact on enemies that, unfortunately, go largely unnoticed compared to the action genre. Afterall, complimenting the way a game’s damage formula is calculated or the way its HP bars fall doesn’t necessarily make it sound like the most thrilling experience.
Nonetheless, much of the enjoyment of turn-based RPG’s is derived from these kinds of bells and whistles. So take an analytical eye to your favorite turn-based battle system and look for some of the tricks talked about here. You might just find yourself appreciating its nuance even more than before.