I really like RPGs. I tend to favour JRPGs more than Western ones, because to a certain extent I am a completionist, and I tend to get too involved in the sidequests of western RPGs, which ends up diluting the experience of the main story line for me. I’m not saying that JRPGs are necessarily better, just that their more linear structure appeals to me more, in general.

One of the big gripes I keep reading about JRPGs is the monotonous combat systems. I spend a lot of time brainstorming ways of making JRPG random battles more interesting and less samey. One of the major conclusions I’ve come to is that player involvement is crucial. If all you have to do is keep the A button down while the game selects ‘Fight’ for you and autoselects the first target in the enemy group, chances are you’re not going to be very involved in the game. Therein lies the brilliance of combat systems like the ones used in Valkyrie Profile, The World Ends With You, and Star Ocean: The Second Story.

So I was thinking about how I would design a combat system to make it more interesting than just selecting commands from a menu, and came up with the following idea:

Like in the SNES Final Fantasies, each character has an ‘action time bar’ that fills up. When the action bar fills up, the character can perform an action in battle. How fast the bar fills up is determined by a number of factors, of which the major ones are a certain stat (agility/speed/reaction, or whatever), weight of equipped items, and status effects (Haste, Slow). The major difference is that the bar is interspersed with ‘gems’ that light up when the action bar reaches them. Each gem represents an ‘action’, and different characters have different numbers of gems, based on job, level, etc. So, for example, casters might start with one gem, and at the most get two or three at higher levels. Melee characters will also start with one action gem, but will eventually work their way up to maybe 5 or so.

A character can be selected to undertake an action any time they have a lit gem. Most basic actions use up 1 gem: attacking, casting a spell, using an item. The game doesn’t have the usual ‘defend’ command that a lot of JRPGs have. Instead, different classes get different defensive reaction abilities (dodge, block, parry). When a character is attacked, if they have a lit gem, they can choose to take a defensive action, indicated with a Quick-Time like button icon flashing on the screen between the time the monster declares its attack and the time it takes it to perform the attack. Perhaps when the monster initiates an attack, battle-time stops or slows down, giving the player a small window of time to decide whether they want to expend an action defending or not.

As characters gain in levels, they acquire abilities that may require two or more action gems lit to perform. For example, a martial artist might have a special combo ability that uses up two action gems, but which allows for a sequence of attacks initiated with different combinations of button presses. Casters might get extra powerful spells that take longer than normal to cast, and require two actions. And so forth. Certain characters, of the classes usually associated with tanks for example, could also get special defensive abilities that allow them to intercept attacks directed at allies, and then perform their own defensive actions, at the cost of extra action gems. I forgot to mention that when an action is undertake, the time bar is reset to the previous gem, or is placed at the equivalent progression point, but one gem further back, if that makes any sense.

I’m thinking this mechanic would probably not apply to monsters, except maybe story battles, mini-bosses and bosses. This would probably need a good amount of prototyping and testing, but the idea is to make boss battles more interesting without bogging random battles down with ridiculous amounts of dodging and parry on the part of monsters. At the same time, the action gem system could probably apply to monsters in varying degrees, with more powerful monsters having more than 1 action gem, and accordingly stronger attacks that the player has to watch out for and keep some action gems free in order to use defensive reactions.