Turn Based vs Action in RPGs: A Misunderstanding of Purpose / by Dan Andre

It seems like as of late, Turn based battle systems are falling slightly out of favor among the more famous RPG franchises in the world, and are instead trending towards more action oriented gameplay styles. Furthermore, beyond the bigger franchises, it seems like everyone is trying to smash RPG elements into their non RPG games, and in particular, it seems like ever since Kingdom Hearts came out, everyone has been trying to make the perfect Action RPG.

I am no exception. Ever since I could figure out how to string together basic logic in Game Maker I tried to mash the elements of these styles of games together into one. I've seen countless different attempts that try to mash different bits of the action and turn based gameplay experiences together, seemingly disregarding fun and instead focusing only on the hunt for their Moby Dick, which dooms the entire endevour in the end.

As I look at these sorts of games, and reflect on the design of the classic RPGs that make up many of my favorite games of all time, I realize that mashing the two together haphazardly is bad design. I've taken a step back and looked at what makes these games work, and realized where so many of these people go wrong.

It's the understanding of the purpose for each set of mechanics, and what gameplay experience is trying to be emphisized.

I feel like a misconception held by designers who try to combine these two gernes seem to have is this idea that Turn based battle systems were the result of a lack of hardware capability or something, that they designed these games this way because they were old fashioned and archaic.

In reality though, the design was intentional. In real time you can't really control 3 or 4 people at the same time and have them all take discreet actions, it's just not practical without some sort of AI controlling all but 1 of the characters. And if thats the case, you aren't controlling 3 or 4 people, you are controlling 1, with 2 or 3 AI bots, and lets face it, they aren't doing much.

The truth of the matter is that someone already figured out a way to control 4 characters simultaneously and allowing you to control each of their individual actions in a strategically meaningful manor. It's called a turn based battle system.

This is what the Turn based battle system is for, the strategic elements of the battle.

The appeal of this style is different from that of Action. Action is great for the flashier stuff. Or just the power fantasy of being able to beat 1000 heartless by yourself or do half the wild crap Dante does.

Turn based is fun for more strategic gameplay, more subtle and nuanced. You focus less on moving your characters around and instead issue orders to a group of characters, allowing each of them to specialize and giving you access to multiple styles of fighting at once. Rather than focusing on mastering fighting in a single style, you master the skill of managing the skills of a group. It's more the experience of playing as a general rather than an infantryman. To achieve this, Time is managed in some sort of way, usually splitting it into turns, which are discreet snippets of time where each character can act. This slows down the battle so that you can think clearly about each character's actions one at a time, rather than trying to mix them all at once.

Combining the two in too direct of a way is mixing two completely opposite gameplay experiences. There are elements that can work in both, like equipment systems and stats and such, but these can be shoehorned into just about any sort of game if you're clever about it. But trying to mix elements of turn based time managment with action based combat gameplay always just ends in awkward gameplay that makes no real sense. Usually these kinds of things play out with giving you control of a character in an action combat format, but for a limited amout of time, being treated as a turn, and just when you are start getting into the rhythm of the action, your turn ends and the fun part is yanked away from you, and you watch the computer take a turn. 

What you end up with is basically an El Camino, or a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard being sold as a "two in one laptop". It does stuff that it's two constituent parts do, but not as well as those two constituent parts would do them by themselves. As the two styles don't mix very well, they clash and conflict with each other, and end up making the whole signficantly less effective.

I feel that this is something people need to realize. Turn based systems aren't inferior technology or archaic, they're designed with a spesific type of gameplay experience in mind. They aren't meant to just be replaced by action style gameplay, they represent a classic paradigm that must not be forgotten.