Much Ado About Random Battles

A quick perusal of any space in which JRPG design is discussed will reveal a common trend: a dislike, if not outright disdain, for random battles.

To clarify for the uninitiated, a JRPG game environment will typically have regions in which hostile monsters roam. “Random battles” refers to the means by which encounters with enemies are activated. The earliest JRPGs, such as the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, utilized this method. As the player moves the character around a hostile environment, each step has some percentage chance of initiating an encounter. In other words, the computer is doing the equivalent of rolling a die and determining with each step if a battle should occur.

As the genre evolved, new games attempted other strategies. Chrono Trigger’s dungeons contain “battle points.” Walking into such a point will trigger a battle, and in most cases, these points can be strategically avoided. Additionally, the points only reset if you leave the dungeon and re-enter it, so once you’ve cleared away the monsters, you have free reign to explore the area at will. Some other games have monster characters roaming around dungeons, and touching them will initiate a battle, but this is really the same concept, except that the “points” are mobile.

These days, it seems, random battles are out, and point-based battles are in. A review of the RPG Maker forums’ game design board or a perusal of Steam JRPGs touting “no random battles” as a point of pride will prove as much.

However, I think the hatred of random battles is unfounded, and point-based battles create problems of their own that are being overlooked.

The cited problem with random battles is simple: they are annoying. Let’s break down exactly why some random battles might have that quality.

Unlike point battles, random battles can’t be avoided or side-stepped. If the game makes the point visible in any way, then a savvy player can “dodge” the battle. Not so with random battles. A player must either defeat all enemies or successfully escape from the encounter.

JRPGs are typically structured so that, as players enter new regions, the monsters are just powerful enough to pose a threat, but not so powerful that they will wipe the floor with the player’s party. As the characters accrue experience, their stats go up, and the enemies of the dungeon become much easier. Random battles force encounters, and fighting enemies whose tactics you know well and whose stats are inferior to your characters’ is boring in the extreme. Point battles solve this problem by letting the player opt out of such encounters.

JRPG players aren’t just playing a game to fight battles. Presumably, they’re also interested in a couple of other things: experiencing a story and exploring the game environment. Both of these aspects, as well as the battles, are fun. So, what happens when the encounter rate of random battles is set too high? The player will move the character a little bit and... battle. Then maybe halfway up a ladder and... battle. Then up the whole ladder and through a passageway and right on the other side... battle. No wonder some players think random battles are annoying! Some games destroy the element of exploration by forcing the player to defeat enemies every five steps. At that rate, the player will almost certainly have to defeat the same kind of enemy many, many times.

Point-based battles are touted as the solution, but to me, these destroy one of the most fun aspects of a JRPG: battle challenge. There is, in a JRPG, effectively one and only one barrier to making progress through the game: the player’s ability to prevent their characters from all collapsing in a battle.

In a game with random battles, it is theoretically possible for the player to enter a hostile region unprepared and die in an encounter. This is because random battles force them into encounters. Point-based battles make it theoretically possible to dodge all battles, leaving bosses (forced encounters against very powerful opponents) as the sole gatekeepers of game progress.

To my mind, point-based battles’ destruction of forced progression in dungeons is not worth what they alleviate, particularly since both of random battles’ annoying aspects can be mitigated through other means.

Let’s first take the problem of what to do when the characters gain enough experience and start to out-level their opponents. A number of design paths suggest themselves:

  1. Make it easier for the player to escape a battle when the enemies are weaker.
  2. Provide an opt-out mechanism for battles, but only when the characters are significantly more powerful than the monsters.
  3. Provide a mechanism of guaranteed escape (an item or a magic spell), but give it a cost so that it can’t be spammed and therefore eliminate challenge.
  4. Provide a mechanism for raising the stats of a dungeons’ monsters, so that they are more of a challenge.

The problem of frequent random battles seems extremely obvious: reduce the encounter rate to something reasonable. The encounter rate should be low enough that the player feels as though they get a chance to do some exploration before they are hit with a battle. However, it should not be so low that they only experience a handful of battles per dungeon. The monsters should pose a significant threat, at least at first.

My game will utilize random battles. I hope to prove that, when done well, they can be quite fun.