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Taking a look at the classic RPG mechanic of Random Encounters and how we can turn the often scorned mechanic into a beloved part of any exploration game.

Adam Cohen, Blogger

January 23, 2020

11 Min Read

Editors Eric Disque and Josh Wade

The Classic RPG

Hi there, my name is Adam Cohen, I’m a Game Designer.

I absolutely adore classic RPGs: from old school titles like Final Fantasy 4 and Dragon Quest 3 to modern titles like Undertale, Octopath Traveler, and South Park’s The Stick of Truth. Building a diverse party of unique characters roaming across the world is an experience unique to the genre. Through combat, story beats and gear, you create and nurture a sort of virtual family. You throw this party at a variety of challenges, leading to thrilling achievements and devastating defeats. 

Speaking of my party, the four heroes just completed a dungeon. My healer is low on health and they’re out of potions at the moment but with any luck they can ge-
Sorry, we’ve just run into a random encounter. Perfect timing.

Random Encounters

When players think of classic RPGs, the first complaint that comes up regardless of the title will always be how annoying Random Encounters feel. They’re a necessary evil of design. This system, low in player agency and verisimilitude, allows players to explore the world map on foot and encounter infinite mobs of enemies. At its core, it’s ideal for making the world seem terrifying and mysterious and is, in my opinion, a pillar of the genre. Still, players and developers realize that the output randomness of movement (that is, moving without truly knowing the outcome of that decision to move) has poor game feel and always feels like your enemies are getting one up on you. 

In Pokemon Leaf Green, players have no idea when they’ll encounter a monster in grass. The risk is flat based purely on a small palette of “grass” tiles. The player has little agency when they're walking around blind in a dangerous zone, which can become especially frustrating in later, denser areas.

Random Encounters allow for a world full of risk, excitement, and danger. Every movement is a choice and a risk. It can almost feel more visceral to have monsters pop up at a moment’s notice. It allows you, the player, the highs and lows of death and victory: the opportunity to have a moment you never could have setup. I remember fondly playing Final Fantasy X, being at the clutch of defeat, and just barely scraping by as I hobbled back to town. It’s a sensation that almost can’t be beat. Almost.

While this may make sense for the rookie explorer or dungeon delver, when your characters are near max level and about to fight Draccuvo The Immortal Vampire (not a real boss but if you need a mental image think a vampire with a gatling gun, a god complex, and a weakness to the spell “Silence”. That’s a freebie.), it’s incredibly frustrating to have a horde of goblins show up to chip away at your health bar and steal those very important healing items you just bought outside the dungeon. In contrast, when you decide that your party is underleveled for Draccuvo The Immortal Vampire and you want to grind some level-padding out, it’s a tedious chore to roll around the thumbstick, hoping RNG is working against you for once.

Image from the RPG Skies of Arcadia for Dreamcast. The Random Encounters were so reviled that in the “Legends” port to the GameCube, encounter rates were dropped significantly. The fan community would go on to drop it down even further in patches and is now considered the best version of the game to play. 

But has this really been a problem no one has thought to solve? Well no, there are some examples. Considering the idea of Random Encounters is synonymous with major franchises like Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and Dragon Quest,  you would imagine at least one of them has tried to solve this titanic grievance.

Fixing Random Encounters

Pokemon has taken a stab at fixing Random Encounters, though it would be unfair to praise Pokemon for what is essentially removing the mechanic altogether. Instead, in the latest releases, Pokemon simply spawn in the overworld, walk around, and actively chase down the player. That’s the same as winning the game by turning off the console. It also creates unneeded new real-time stress factor where you’re unable to sit and appreciate the visuals of an area. Instead, you have to hide in the menus in order to avoid being punished with inactivity by being chased down by a giant bear that is literally described as being able to hug you to death.

From Pokemon Sword: Once it accepts you as a friend, it tries to show its affection with a hug. Letting it do that is dangerous—it could easily shatter your bones.

The iOS and PS4 ports of Final Fantasy 7 featured 3 easily accessed cheats by clicking the thumbsticks. One of which turned off Random Encounters entirely. Another gave you automatic health and unlimited limit breaks. Oddly enough the third one just made the whole game move at x3 speed.

The same solutions found in Pokemon Sword and Shield can be found in Final Fantasy XV (mobs of enemies roam the world), and in Dragon Quest (mobs of enemies roam the world). It’s something that, used to make Western RPGs (which tended to lack Random Encounters due to a different design philosophy) unique. Putting mobs of random enemies in games that were never designed to include them feels tacked on.

Essentially, the solution across the board has been to toss out the baby with the bathwater and celebrate that the crying stopped. 

Modern Stagnation

Still, some titles have tried to continue the tradition of Random Encounters. Octopath Traveler, a nostalgia-driven mashup of 3D environments and 2D characters still features the mechanic heavily. As does the modern classic Undertale, though the problem is the same, with no innovative solutions to resolve the issue. And the demo for the upcoming title Blue Omen Operation, though, they have done a bit better than most.

A status bar in the top right indicates the risk of walking around, which accumulates and cools down when you stand still, which lets you choose when combat happens almost entirely. It's bound to resolve some headaches but you can skip combat entirely with relative ease.

Moving anywhere here? Risky, unpredictable. Suddenly music, frustration, and dread set in. Tidus begins to laugh in the back of your mind.

So how do we design a classic RPG with Random Encounters that still give the player the feeling of awareness, while improving the potential emotional heights?

Area Tracking

Imagine, in your RPG, every time the player moves, they’re making a choice on what feels like a grand chess board. Each relative area of explorable space, which we’ll refer to as a Tile, has a chance to initiate combat, divided into a series of colored or patterned areas. These Tiles can range from safe Zones (collections of Tiles) of movement on roads or after just exiting combat, to low-risk Zones that begin to encroach upon the dwindling safety as players move forward, until finally combat is all but inevitable. Making this rising chance of combat more visually accessible allows players the opportunity to better prepare for combat and can allow for movement to feel more meaningful. 

Octopath Traveler features a grid-like system of movement but would look off with basic square movement spaces. This game is desperate for a solution to Random Encounters compared to other RPGs because the chance of one side being randomly ‘surprised’ in the first round of combat (and giving the other side a free round to wail on them) is relatively common, sporadically punishing players and enemies impartially. 

The solution is to just use dynamic shapes as opposed to grid spaces. The same outcome but a more fitting expression of the system.

In this system, colored Zones would be visible when activating Area Tracking (AT). Zones with lower risk would only last for so long as risk began to accumulate the longer it’s avoided. The green Zone in this example, would have a near 0 chance for combat; the orange Zone would have a moderate chance, and the red would be instant combat, which the player could choose to engage. Every step would cause the risk to build, with green Zones getting smaller, and red Zones getting larger and closer in all directions.

Players would be given the opportunity to see danger beginning to encroach, and that their chance of danger was rising. That foreknowledge would allow them to not only prepare for a combat encounter, but preempt it. Players could be encouraged or rewarded for initiating an encounter through a “surprised” status on enemies, to bonus exp or rewards, to a possibly full round of combat to freely wail on their foes.

In this scenario, we’ve just added colored stroke lines in a small radius in Pokemon Leaf Green. The purple Zone designates an opportunity the player can act on, to potentially surprise a hidden pokemon.

This subtle change creates an exciting system for developers to work on and a more accessible view of their odds for players. Mistrustful players could either initiate attacks to “get one over on the computer”, nervous players hobbling back to town could take safer routes, and level grinding players would know exactly where to find their next big drop. 

AT could be used to help gamify experience (lowercase e, which describes the actual wisdom garnered from frequent adventuring as opposed to ability scores and numerical Experience for level systems) by showing the instinctive nature of veteran adventurers. A party of high-level characters shouldn’t be as easily surprised by monsters as level 1 heroes. To illustrate this, the visible range of Zones would expand as the players get stronger, showing how far in advance the party can predict danger approaching, and to how many degrees of separation: only seeing dangerous Tiles at first, and later gaining the ability to see orange and green Tiles. Alternatively, the party could only receive these benefits after a certain amount of progress in an area, creating a contrast between new locations and old ones, like in Undertale.

The kill counter in Undertale appears once you’ve cleared the area of enough enemies. Depending on how far into the game you are, that either appears once you approach that number or after each combat encounter. It gives each area the feeling that the player has made some level of significant change upon it.

By giving players information on the potential outcome of their actions, you help them decide if the outcome is worth the chance of and the scale of failure, like in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Despite how radical an idea this might sound, it’s not too far off from currently appreciated systems in modern titles from other genres. Take for example the movement and “enemy opportunity” indicators in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Players are given the opportunity to see their movements full range, the extent of their attack range, and, as they plan their unit’s movement, can see which enemies may be primed for an attack in the following turn. 

Or in a much more radical approach taken by Kojima Productions, Death Stranding features the Odradek Scanner, one of the best additions to an exploration game in the past decade. By pressing a button, players scan the local area and highlight areas of even terrain, risky terrain, and terrain that will cause their character, Sam, to fall if he walks over it. 

Note how despite the open-world terrain, the game managed to incorporate a grid-like pattern on top of it. It's arguably the most powerful tool in Sam's kit. Which says a lot considering the other tools include a baby that can sense spooky murder ghosts.

Final Thoughts

Grid-based RPGs have started to fall out of fashion over the past decade, with major franchises slowly transitioning to full moment systems and dropping the opportunities and experiences that were once unique to the genre. Change is healthy, but adaptation can come in many forms, and Area Tracking sustains the element of mystery while giving the players new agency. If we continue to chip away at everything from turn-based combat (like many rpgs are doing), to grid-movement (like most rpgs have already done), to Random Encounters, eventually we may bury the idea of the classic RPG altogether. It’s a trajectory that should worry fans and creatives alike, who grew up experiencing this beloved genre and see potential for future entries that can still define themselves in it. Include this in your next project, and let me know how much more excited your players are to brave your incredible world.

As always, nothing is designed in a vacuum, and these articles are no exception. A special thank you to everyone I spoke to about this article before publishing (Eric Disque and Josh Wade in particular) and to you for reading it. I encourage you to comment, share your thoughts, and discuss your own approaches to this problem. 

Happy 2020,

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