The Art of Random Encounters in RPGs
So recently I reviewed the latest Paper Mario game, which is whimsical and fun, but is still ultimately not the direct sequel to Super Mario RPG that we want and deserve. While I was going through it, fighting random encounters with goombas and koopas, it occurred to me that the way the game approached random encounters was both brilliant and ultimately pointless.
Random encounters are the backbone of any RPG. The compelling story makes up only about 75 percent of any real RPG, and the rest is just hacking through a world of monsters either on the way to the next cut scene, to level up or to appease Inconsequentia the Goddess of Side-Quests. How to approach these encounters has been tackled in many different ways, and no one game has gotten it completely right. Today I thought I'd look into what makes a random encounter system good and what ruins it.
One thing I think we can all agree with is that the modern trope of having visible enemies on the field is the best way to go. Back when we were reduced to wandering across a landscape waiting for a battle animation to load after bumping into invisible enemies, there was simply no way to apply any kind of basic strategy to what you wanted to fight and what you wanted to avoid.
Being able to see your enemies, especially the giant high-level ones that games love to throw into random early levels lately, allows a lot less pointlessness in encounters. Think how much easier picking up rare summonses in Final Fantasy IV would have been if you could just avoid everything that wasn't a Mindflayer.
The thing that you lose with visible monsters, though, is easy level grinding. That was what made Chrono Trigger so infuriating, especially if you wanted to level up to beat Lavos early in the New Game Plus mode. One thing you could say about invisible random encounters was that all you had to do was move back and forth. Hell, if you were properly prepared, you could grind with one hand while reading or eating with the other.
So if we are going to continue with having monsters visible, then I hope game makers will consider the need for a few areas where a constant stream of monsters spill out without having to wander all over the map. Or worse, having to move two screens off to respawn the enemies. You wouldn't need a lot of these areas, maybe five at various levels to help gamers shore up any level deficiency, but throw in a few nests where we can have some endurance trials.
Of course, this brings up the problem of a world full of enemies that aren't worth fighting because you've long since surpassed them level-wise. Modern RPGs are lousy with side-quests, so instead of making your way through a world in one direction, you're likely to be revisiting the same terrain over and over again. This means you will be surrounded by random encounters that are as pointless to you as sugar ants are to us. How do we handle that?
Well, an auto-win function like in Earthbound is always helpful, though probably not practical in a visible monster world. Your best bet is to have the enemies ignore you after a certain level like in Xenoblade. On the other hand, it might be nice to combine the two approaches, such as passing low-level enemies you are sure to beat gives you a small amount of experience points or perhaps loot.
That's the crux of the problem in the new Paper Mario: The random encounters are completely pointless. They net you nothing but coins, and you can find coins just lying on the ground. Why bother fighting at all? The real challenge in designing random encounters is to make sure they're relevant throughout the entire game at every point. If you have to travel back to the beginning for some mission, there need to be some additional threats along the way. Otherwise, you are literally just taking a nature hike. At no point in an RPG should random encounters in the field suddenly be irrelevant.
On the other hand, Paper Mario did deliver a new wrinkle that I think a lot of games should consider with their random encounters. Before you start the battle, you can start a sequence of events on the field. For instance, jump on a koopa to trigger the fight, then in the battle they will be curled up in their shell. Use a jump attack and the shell will ricochet off other enemies, enabling a perfect strategic victory.
Some RPGs offer this, like Xenoblade's Shulk sneaking up behind enemies and using Back Slash, but never have I seen it done in so concrete and clever a way. Adding stealth tricks or other handicap-makers like in Hitman or the Batman Arkham games would be an inventive way to make random encounters more engaging. Not all the time, of course, but the game that finds the perfect balance between the simplicity of the Paper Mario system's approach and the more tried and true battle mechanics will be the one that keeps gamers hooked for a long time.
One thing that I think is underused, though, is the idea of actual surprise battles where there are visible monsters. Super Mario RPG was good at this, having enemies jump out from behind objects to attack you. That was 16-bit. Now we can have monsters swoop out of the sky when we're not looking, crash through walls, appear from the shadows. It would be like Resident Evil but with RPG trappings.
You could even use such a system to let regular enemies bypass whatever automatic buffs you have in place. Every time I play an RPG lately, starting a battle immediately triggers a handful of protection spells or debuffs for the enemy even before the first blow lands. That's great and all, and my little OCD heart loves to tinker with things like Final Fantasy XII's gambit system, but every once in a while it would rule to have to deal with something truly unexpected surprising you before you can get your shields up.
One way or another, the random-encounter system is still the basic building block of all RPGs, but it's a practice that continues to evolve and must evolve. One day someone will hit on the perfect combination, and I am looking forward to it.
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