Monday, 13 May 2013

Random Encounters: Why They're Bad, and When They're Done Right

You're walking through the grass. You're low on health and you need to heal. You can see the town. You're almost there! And suddenly a pack of monsters leaps out of the bush, right in your path.

I hate random encounters in RPGs. In most games, they serve only one purpose: padding out the game. Sure, random encounters show you that the wilds are dangerous, but there are other ways to do that than throwing random monsters at you. They also typically give you experience and/or loot, but the designer(s) could just as easily compress the levelling curve and remove those random encounters entirely.

But there are examples of games where they're done right.

My main problem with random encounters is that they serve no narrative purpose. Yes, conflict is what makes a story interesting, but that refers to narrative conflict - a clash of personalities, a vendetta, a struggle against time or nature. Not a random thug that jumps out of the alley... and then another... and then another. When every step you take has a chance of turning up a previously invisible monster, or travelling to another town requires you to roll on a table to see what you fight on the way, those encounters aren't serving any narrative purpose, they're just filling time.

For this reason, I never use random encounter tables in my Dungeons & Dragons games. Just like a good movie, I make sure that there's a reason for each fight. I don't want my players to roll their eyes and sigh "not another meaningless fight".

There are a couple of issues that feed into the problem of random encounters. In a good movie, every scene matters. That's partially good writing, but it's also because a movie has a limited amount of time to work with.  If a movie spends too much time on fight scenes, there's no time left for an actual story. If you want both fight scenes and a good movie, you have to make sure that there's a narrative reason to include a fight scene, and you have to try to make it exciting. 

Here's the issue: games are also time-limited, but in a different way. There's a pervasive sense that a game must provide a good money-to-playtime ratio. If a game is too short, many people will tell you it's not worth the cost, regardless of the quality. This is a somewhat ridiculous notion. You wouldn't recommend Battlefield Earth over Monty Python and the Holy Grail just because Battlefield Earth is 30 minutes longer, so why would you do that with video games? It's that money-to-playtime ratio that results in needless padding with random, non-narrative battles that occur in many RPGs.

Many RPGs allow you to run away from a random battle. Oh, well that's all right then! NO. WRONG. You still waste time going through whatever animations and cutscenes play to begin the battle, and even worse, it's pretty common for the "run away" option to have only a chance of succeeding.

But random battles aren't all bad. I'm sure there are other examples that I haven't played, but when I think of random battles done right, I think of Pokémon. Yes, you read that right: I'm saying that a game aimed primarily at ten-year-old children handles random battles better than every other RPG I've ever played.

As a Pokémon trainer, you collect and train various monsters to get stronger and progress through the game. You're also tasked with researching the creatures to complete the Pokédex, an encyclopedia that gathers information on the monsters you catch. To add a Pokémon to your collection, you need to capture it with a Pokéball. And where do you find Pokémon to catch? Random battles in the grass, caves, seas, or deserts of the game world. Pokémon's random battles aren't just for grinding up your experience bar (though they do that too), they serve a narrative function: your work on the Pokédex depends on exploring the region to find all the different creatures that live there, and you learn more about the world, its history, and the interactions and lifestyles of its inhabitants... all by catching the Pokémon you find in random battles.

But that's not all. Pokémon also has a number of systems that interact with random battles. 

  • Some powerful legendary Pokémon roam the world and must be found in the grass, but once you've encountered it for the first time you can track it and manipulate its movements to your advantage, increasing your chance of finding it. 
  • For players on the hardcore end of the spectrum, you can train specific stats of your monsters by battling the right opponents, and clever players will find areas where the random battles are weighted more (or even 100%) in favour of the stat you want.
  • The Pokéradar in Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum versions allows a skilled player to vastly increase their chances of finding rare, differently-coloured Pokémon.
  • Some Pokémon have abilities that will influence the battles you fight, increasing or decreasing the chance of a battle (sometimes under specific conditions) or altering the probabilities of finding certain types or characteristics of Pokémon.

Perhaps the most important element, though, is the cheap and readily-available item called Repel, which allows you to completely eliminate random encounters. Even if all that other stuff weren't in the game, Repel alone puts Pokémon miles above other random-battle RPGs simply because you don't have to have random battles if you don't want to. (as a side note, Repels are also the basis of a neat trick that lets you choose to encounter specific Pokémon)

I'd like to see more games adopt Pokémon-style random encounters, with the priority being on making them optional, and perhaps adding some extra manipulable functionality. When all you want to do is get to the next town, it can be extremely annoying for random monsters to pop up and slow you down. These battles don't advance the plot or provide you with interesting character moments or story updates, they simply eat up your valuable time. Pokémon gives you options. You can manipulate the system to your advantage, or you can ignore it entirely.

Let's see more games doing that.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't played RPGs, and the ones that I have are primarily Pokémon games. Every criticism leveled at random encounters can be applied to these games as well. Often the narrative forces the character into places where random encounters occur every few seconds, radically derailing the experience. In thinking about this, the ideal random encounter would be completely organic to the experience. There would be no cinematic or onscreen cue, just more of the same gameplay, framed in a new context. This is why, for my money, the greatest example I can pull off the top of my head is the decidedly non-RPG 'Red Dead Redemption' for its handling of random encounters. Sure, there are only about nine or ten variations on the theme, but the ways to handle any of them offer way more flexibility than any turn-based RPG. Just my two cents.