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Building a Better Random Battle

Tyler Willis

Random Battles. These are a staple of the RPG genre. Without them, long walks between dungeons would be dull and uneventful. Powerleveling would cease to exist. Most likely, characters would never be strong enough to fight the Big Bad if they had never sharpened swords against the vast array of imaginary underlings. Random battles have a purpose within the genre, but precious little purpose within a game setting.

Of course, this purpose might be circumvented in imaginative ways. I do not advocate that random battles are a necessity to every RPG in existence; I merely state that most past RPGs (and in the foreseeable future) will utilize some form of random battle.

The question I ask: how can random battles be made better?

See Player, See Monster, See Player run

On a personal level, I wish that more RPGs would allow battles to be avoided; ie, see a monster on the landscape and avoid it (Grandia, Tales). This seems a plausible method that mostly mimics a real situation: seeing baddies and choosing to either hightail it or kick some tail.

Such a method has been around for a good long while (Link's Adventure), but many RPGs insist on throwing unexpected random battles at players - even to ad nauseum levels (Skies of Arcadia). Clever game programming can make enemies hide around bushes, or be surprised when you ambush them - making immersion that much deeper.

Alternatively, the danger meter (SMT: Nocturne) at least gives some warning of impending doom.

Button Mashing Is Button Boring

It's a situation that most RPGers have faced at one time or another: I can't beat the Big Bad, so I need to wail on some Little Bads in order to get some arbitrary levels. Unfortunately, I can kick the Little Bads' collective tail without even thinking about it.

What ensues? Usually wandering in a circle until a battle happens and then hitting a button (A, X, whatever default) as rapidly as possible in order to get the exp. Rinse, repeat, and try not to fall asleep.

While there are many factors at play, the unavoidable fact is that this will happen. So what can make it better?


Not an automobile (though running some monsters over ala Carrmageddon might be amusing), but the simple press of a button that makes characters act in a predetermined fashion. Some series have used this to good advantage (Suikoden, Growlanser), but it would be nice for this to be a standard feature.

Give me Purpose, or Give me Death

Most random battles are simply that: random battles. But what if there was more to random battles than simply drumming evil spawn into the ground? What if there was a reason, a purpose behind the madness?

A recent playthrough of Growlanser III showed me something that I do not believe I had seen before: random battles that occasionally had a point beyond simply living to tell the tale. Sometimes the party would encounter a cute monster being attacked by noncute monsters - if the cute one was saved, it gave a reward; additionally, choosing to save or not affected the main character's attributes.

Sometimes the party would find a chest, but the monsters would try to grab its contents and run off the screen, thus necessitating the premeditated early death of such a larcener. Sometimes the party helped fend off monsters from a merchant caravan; the merchant showed his gratitude by offering wares at a discounted price.

All three of those examples could happen instead of a meaningless random battle. They didn't happen all the time, but they were a refreshing break from the mindless tedium of most Growlanser battles - no auto button usage for these.

While those examples might not be able to applied wholesale across the RPG spectrum, the principle behind them is a worthwhile story device. Have characters save merchants, rescue the farmer's daughter, or raid enemy campfires - but don't necessarily make it such a big deal to count as a sidequest. Just have it as part of the normal scheme of things.

This idea opens up a wide realm of possibilities: imagine trying to fend off Bigfoot while avoiding an avalanche because your mage decided to fire off a level 3 fireball. Beating enemies at an oasis within a time limit so they don't poison the water which will heal your party. Making a certain kind of enemy so mad (by killing large numbers) that an uberenemy will show up to beat you down.

Random battle events could be strung together: saving a merchant in four different areas will have him open up a powerful shop in a city. Random battles could have events dependent on their location - such as the above mountain/desert examples. Even something as simple as a reward for killing a certain number of enemies by a grateful farming guild.


Some RPGs have incorporated elements of these ideas to good effect, but most RPGs still have a standard random battle scheme with no tweaks. There's not anything necessarily wrong with the standard scheme, but it is an untapped potential within the worldbuilding.

Such ideas will require more effort (for both programmers and players) than simple random battles, but will ultimately yield a greater variety to immersion.

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