Today, I'd like to talk about running away in RPG's. These games give lots of attention to battles, but usually downplay the means of avoiding or escaping them. This is quite different from our everyday lives as well as the natural world, where flight is usually preferable to fight. Combat risks injury and often death, and the defeated generally don't explode with cash and prizes sufficient to justify the conflict in the first place.
Since video game conflicts carry less risk, there's less need for an escape mechanic than in the real world, and some don't allow escape at all. Today I'll be analyzing the approach classic RPG's have taken over the years*, ending with a fascinating new approach in an Indie RPG that breaks a lot of new ground.
*I'm not nearly as well versed in CRPG lore as Jay, so I'm sure I'm going to leave out a lot of your favorites. Also, I'm pretty sure that most of my examples didn't originate the concepts I'll be exemplifying below.
A Reason to Run
First of all, there has to be a reason to escape. If your party regains all their health and mana after a battle, and the game autosaves every step of the way, you've got nothing to lose from defeat other than your time. This is how Defender's Quest works, and thus it doesn't need an escape mechanic - just an option to quit or restart the battle.
Most RPG's are different, since they rely on endurance challenges. It's pretty much a given that your party can defeat 5 imps in the early game or even 4 red dragons in the late game. The real question is whether you can get from one save point to the next, surviving dozens of battles and crawling through dungeons without running out of supplies and getting wiped out.
This is where escape comes in. Sure, you can probably take on 2 ogres in the short term, but you can't afford the gradual wear and tear on your party. But what if you can't pull off the escape? Then you'll be forced to fight anyway, and at a disadvantage. This is the fundamental risk/reward dynamic of running away.
Final Fantasy : the "RUN" command
Let's start with the original Final Fantasy, which has one of the simplest escape mechanics.
To successfully escape, a character's luck stat must be higher than a die roll of (0 ... Level+15). At least, that's what's supposed to happen. According to this GameFAQs guide, a weird bug in the original NES version makes running away instead check against (0...WTF+15), where WTF is a different value depending on the character's position in battle.
The upshot is that only characters in slots 1 & 2 have a reasonable chance of running away. In those cases, the WTF value is the status byte for characters in slots 3 and 4 respectively, so in the above picture, Matt's chances of running away decrease if John dies, gets injured, is poisoned, etc. Perversely, this bug makes running away harder the more your party gets into trouble, so you have to commit to escaping before you get overwhelmed.
With our without bugs, running away in Final Fantasy is an all-or-nothing thing. If you make the die roll, your entire party escapes at once, and if you don't, the character's turn is wasted. There is no sense of making "progress" towards escaping. Since running is an individual character's action, you can hedge your bets, sacrificing only one or two character actions on running while the rest try to beat back the enemy.
Running away improved substantially in future Final Fantasy games. In Final Fantasy IV, holding down the L & R keys makes the characters all attempt to run away. From what I can gather, you must hold down the keys for a certain amount of time, at which point all the characters will escape. However, they will drop an amount of money equal to 1/4 of what you would have gained from winning the battle.
Final Fantasy IV uses an active-time battle system rather than a strictly turn-based one, and you can start and stop running away independently of choosing battle actions. Thus, running away risks losing money and being distracted from fighting rather than leaving yourself completely exposed. Characters also had the ability to decrease the time taken to run (Porom's "cry" ability), as well as use items and spells to escape immediately with no financial penalty.
Almost without exception, you cannot run from boss enemies in any Final Fantasy game.
To sum up, in Final Fantasy escape is a simple on/off affair, and there is no concept of retreat, ie, moving towards escape but having not yet achieved it.
Fallout : Retreat
In the original 2 Fallout games, escaping from combat was a bit more straightforward - just get all your characters to the edge of the map. This adds board position and retreat to the mix.
Like Final Fantasy, Fallout's battles are turn based, but making an effort to escape gets you closer to the goal whether it succeeds on that turn or not. Furthermore, as long as you're not killed or blocked, if you keep retreating you will eventually get away.
The risk/reward dynamic here is much more tactical - as soon as you start running away, you're ceding the best position on the battlefield to the enemy. Furthermore, your characters might be in different places and some of them might be trapped, so whether you can even escape at all has a lot to do with the specifics of the fight you are in.
Secret of Mana : Organic Escape
SNES classic Secret of Mana was an action RPG where there was no separate "battle mode", monsters just appeared on the overworld and you fought them in real time. This made escape rather simple - if you wanted to get away from a fight, you just kept running. In the CRPG world, Baldur's Gate took a similar approach.
This is much closer to escape in the real world, and it's lack of formalism adds both subtlety and sloppiness. There's a lot of depth and nuance to running away when you can engage and disengage at any time, but in these games it essentially boils down to just running in one direction for a while until you can't see the bad guys any more. As long as you have a viable exit and you can run faster than them, escape is trivial, and inescapable battles are usually ones where the exits are all locked.
Adding depth to escape
In real life, escape involves more than just running away, a full list could look like this:
- Gain distance / retreat
- Deny pursuit
- Avoid detection after escape
That's where Indie CRPG gem Neo Scavenger comes in. At least in my play-throughs, the combat engine is more of a "running away system" than a "battle system." And it's awesome.
This game is basically about being a homeless person in a dystopian future filled with ferocious dog-men, looters, and disease. Early on, the simple discovery of a pair of pants and something larger than a plastic grocery bag to hold your things in feels like true riches indeed.
Combat in this game is closely modeled on real life, which is to say that fighting to the death will usually get you killed or horribly injured, even if you win. Instead of managing simple hit points, you have to deal with blood loss, fatigue, hunger, cold, as well as specific diseases and injuries like diarrhea, hypothermia, and head trauma.
I'm reminded of that scene from Fight Club, where the members are given a "homework assignment," to get in a fight and lose. Edward Norton narrates, "This is not as easy as it sounds. Most people, normal people, will do just about anything to avoid a fight."
Of course, tons of thing in Neo Scavenger will try to kill you at first sight, but as soon as it's clear who has the upper hand, the loser will try to flee rather than fight to the death. Usually the loser is you.
Although battle is turn-based, it embodies escape in high detail. Furthermore, running away is a process you have to master. First, you need to put sufficient distance between yourself and the enemy - this value, "range" is one of the central battle variables. You can't even attempt to escape battle mode unless you are a minimum distance from the enemy. You can move away at various speeds, and faster actions like running and sprinting carry higher risks of making you trip and fall. Once you've gotten far enough away, you can try to make your escape.
Usually the enemy will catch up to you once or twice when you have an unlucky fall or they have a lucky sprint. When you're in a vulnerable position like this new options become available - do you want to try to get up so you can run on your next turn? If they land a hit while you're getting up, you'll fall back down. On the other hand, you could stay down and try to kick them in the leg, which will knock them down, forcing them to lose a turn, giving you time to get up and try running again.
If the enemy loses sight of you and you have the hiding skill, you can take cover and then slowly retreat while remaining hidden. On the flip side, if an enemy attacks you at night you might not be able to detect them and have no choice but to flee blindly in a random direction.
Once you've escaped battle mode, the fight isn't over. The enemy will still pursue you on the overworld map, and now it's up to you to keep gaining distance, covering your tracks, and finding a place to hide and lose them for good. This is easier if you choose skills like "hiding" and "tracking" like I usually do.
Neo Scavenger is the first game I've seen put this much thought and depth into escape mechanics. I've never had this much fun running for my life.