JRPG-Inspired Encounter Design

A-Z 2016 "J"Yesterday I wrote about improving encounter economy and design. Today I’m going to explore how to implement encounters as designed in certain Japanese (console) RPGs.

There are several elements to encounters in these games that stand out, and that I’ll describe below, that I don’t often see in encounters in most published adventures. I suspect this is in part due to limitations of the medium — the JRPGs I’m looking at lean more to the real time tactical (and are often twitch games), while tabletop RPGs are more often closer to turn-based tactical/strategic. There are certainly turn-based JRPGs, but they do not exhibit many of these elements either.

Japanese RPG Encounter Elements

Standard encounters are much the same as in most tabletop RPGs: in a space of some sort, the PCs run into a creature. They might talk with it, there’s a good chance there’ll be a fight and something will die or run away. There isn’t much new here, so I’ll largely ignore it for now.

There are more interesting elements to consider.

Terrain and Theme

Almost all adventure locations have a theme of some sort. This will be reflected throughout the location and include challenges specifically appropriate to this theme. There are few ‘plain dungeons’, most have trappings and dressing that makes it stand out as unlike others.

  • The Fire Temple is indeed made of stone, but in addition to the many fire symbols on the walls there are sources of fire that can be interacted with, barriers of fire (walls of fire or a hallway full of lava) that cannot be passed safely — if at all — until some condition has been met, vision might be obscured by smoke (which an event might clear) or distorted by heat shimmer.
  • The Ice Temple might be made of stone (covered with a glaze of ice), but more likely it is carved into ice, such as a glacier or iceberg. This means the air is cold, and the floor and walls are slippery. Where the walls, floor, and ceiling are thinner, they might be translucent rather than opaque — under the right circumstances it might be possible to get hints of what’s on the other side. They might also be more fragile, especially after being hit by fire — a fireball at the right time might sufficiently weaken things enough to break through, deliberately or not. The ambient cold might make certain metals such as steel brittle, affecting tactics.

Interactive Terrain

Almost always, there are terrain elements that can be interacted with. At the least you can knock things over (*cough* smash pots and cut grass for rupees), but often there are bigger changes that can be made. A particular encounter might cause a sluice to open, draining an area of or filling an area with water (or potentially both).

Often this happens after you’ve traversed the area the hard way. Sometimes it removes a block entirely, so you can get somewhere you previously could not. Sometimes the change will affect major fight arenas.

Even more, various arenas, locations for significant encounters, often have terrain elements that can be manipulated. Sometimes there are weapons or tools you can use to attack the opposing forces. Often there are terrain elements you can use for cover (hide behind or jump on top of, for those cases when the floor catches fire). There might be terrain elements that can win the battle for you if you activate them correctly.

The easiest way to defeat Bowser in Super Mario Brothers is to run under him when he jumps, then activate the drawbridge so he falls in the lava.

In other games the terrain might gradually degrade. In one game — Ys — every time you hit a particular boss, part of the floor collapses. You can get off it before it falls, but over the course of the fight the terrain becomes more hazardous.

Unusual Circumstances

Related to the two points above, there are often encounters that exercise or depend on features, abilities, or other ‘new things’. Shortly after acquiring the clawshot, Link might have a major encounter that either requires or is made easier by using the new tool. Similarly, after learning the spin attack or front-flip smash, Link might run into an encounter that is most easily dealt with using these techniques.

These obviously help as a training mechanism, giving an opportunity to practice with the new tool or technique. I’m not entirely sure how to apply this point in a regular adventure, but I think it certainly has merit in an introductory adventure, where each encounter focuses on exercising a particular rule.

Ablative Defenses and Major Vulnerabilities

Many of the bigger monsters have ablative defenses of some sort. Before you can actually attack the monster, you have to remove some impediment. This might be some kind of augmented armor or ablative cover.

This is often combined with interactive terrain. Doing the Right Thing, whether it’s in this encounter or elsewhere, might render the ablative armor unavailable, or remove it if it was. This can reduce a tedious and potentially difficult exercise (blasting away at the defense) to doing something clever in the right time and place.

Also, many major creatures have some kind of invulnerability, or near invulnerability, to everything except a (fairly obvious) attack. In some of the Zelda games there are encounters where you basically can’t hurt the opponent except by throwing bombs in its mouth, or by attacking it immediately before or after it does a particular action itself and is vulnerable. In other games the creature might not be totally invulnerable, but the special attack makes it much easier to defeat. This is usually pretty easily determined in the encounter itself, or made very clear earlier. This is usually not “rakshasa are killed instantly and automatically when hit by a blessed crossbow bolt” obscure.

Event-Driven Encounters and Telegraphed Actions

Many encounters are very difficult the first time. Often a new monster exhibits traits or behaviors that are different from other monsters. However, whether from multiple iterations of the encounter (save scumming…) or paying attention and recognizing patterns of action, it’s often possible to identify patterns and events that you can take advantage of.

  • Perhaps every four rounds a jet of fire blasts from a pipe in the wall. You’ll probably want to not be there on those rounds, but is it possible to maneuver the opponents there? Can the jet of fire be redirected? Can other fire pipes be opened? Can the fire pipe be shut off? (And what happens when it is? Will it get backed up and eventually explode?) Remember, interactive terrain.
  • Perhaps when a monster gets hit it retreats, calls reinforcements, or otherwise does something to change the situation. It might be possible to beat a monster to death, but maybe hitting it with fire will cause it to go immobile — perhaps long enough to open the other fire pipes and envelope the area in flame, thereby trapping the creature so you can escape. Interactive terrain and using monster reactions to your advantage, so you don’t have to dangerously beat this thing down.
    • Perhaps the event isn’t “gets hit”, but as the monster is affected in certain ways. When its ablative defense is lost, when it takes a certain amount of damage (either in one attack or in aggregate), when something in the environment gets damaged. A dragon might fight pretty normally, but become desperate when its nest and eggs are threatened.
    • D&D 4e models this somewhat with its ‘bloodied’ condition, but it doesn’t have to apply only when a creature’s hit points are first dropped below half.
    • This is distinctly different from a phased encounter, described below.
  • Perhaps the monster has recognizable action sequences. A dragon might lash with its tail to clear space around itself, then throw itself into the air so it can strafe the combat area with its breath weapon. It shouldn’t take long to recognize that when the dragon lashes with its tail it’s time to find cover… and that immediately after breathing fire the dragon’s vulnerable underbelly is exposed.

In short, the opponent can have significant actions available that are either triggered by events or sufficiently telegraphed that a knowledgeable or alert player/PC can take advantage of them.

Phased Encounters

This was the idea that prompted this entire article, but my son identified other elements described above.

In JRPGs, many of the major encounters, especially the mid- and high-level bosses, are phased encounters. The PCs meet the opponent and fight it, and apparently defeat it. At this point the situation changes and the PCs have another fight on their hands, usually quite different from (and usually harder than) the first. Depending on the game and the situation, there might even be a third phase.

The nature of the phases might have little in common with each other. It’s unlikely that you’d beat down a boss, only to have it laugh off the fight and get up again so the entire thing starts over. More often some aspect of the encounter changes.

For instance, in the Wolf Den (in the node-based megadungeon) the Leader of the Pack ‘is an otherworldly, vicious beast who knows more, much more, than he should’. I was originally thinking ‘barghest’, but I can see a two- (most likely) or three-phase encounter here — and if the PCs don’t win all phases, they haven’t defeated the enemy. In the first phase he appears to be what he once was, an outcast goblin. He’s unusually (and perhaps suspiciously) tough and capable, and with his wolf allies has a pretty good fight before he is beaten… sort of. If this is a three-phase encounter then fiendish worgs might come bursting out of his sanctum, bullrushing the PCs off him and (one of them) dragging him to safety while the others cover their escape. The fiendish worg phase is perhaps 2 CR higher than the first phase. In the third phase the PCs have followed the Leader of the Pack (possibly because the fiendish worg that dragged him away came back, making it clear where he went) into his sanctum, where he is finishing a ritual that returns him to his proper form, of an advanced greater barghest and the final battle is on — in the Leader of the Pack’s place of power, where his own advancement and the resources available increase the encounter CR to 4 higher than the original one.

This can of course be abbreviated by simply removing one of the phases (probably the middle one, but removing the first one is valid too: the PCs and the fiendish worgs come together as the Leader of the Pack escapes, then the PCs follow before he gets too far… but perhaps he has….

Closing Comments

Many of the elements above are combined to make encounters fit what I consider a “JRPG encounter style”.

  • Almost always, there is a theme to the encounter (or adventure) location.
  • Terrain is almost always interactive in some fashion. PCs might…
    • … make a change in order to advance (clearing a roadblock) or make travel more convenient (draining a waterway so they can simply walk up it instead of having to swim);
    • … make a change that will change circumstances later, such as triggering an earthquake that causes a tunnel to collapse so an opponent is cut off from a resource or means of escape;
    • … take advantage of tools of their surroundings to attack their opponents or defend against their opponents’ attacks.
  • Major encounters often have opponents with powerful protections, and vulnerabilities that can be taken advantage of to more easily defeat them. In some JRPGs they are more or less absolute (you can’t damage the opponent at all, except for a particular attack that works really well — Zelda games often do this), in others it is a matter of very hard vs. much easier (Castlevania games are often like this).
  • Opponent actions are often predictable once you know about them. Whether the opponent has a particular (and recognizable) attack sequence, reacts in a specific way to certain triggers, or even something as simple as a schedule, it possible to learn to anticipate and take advantage of this knowledge.
  • Major encounters are often phased, with at least one but not usually more than two escalation points as the opposition is defeated. These escalations usually involve not just an increase in the opponents’ power, but a change in location or the arena of the encounter.

Try to avoid applying them in a fashion as linear as the games that inspired this post. If a tunnel is full of water, the inspiring game might consider it impassable until the tunnel is drained (and attempting to swim through it fatal because of drowning because it’s too long). In a tabletop RPG this might still be true, but there are often resources available (water breathing, in this case) that make it possible for PCs to get past the blockage. Be prepared for this to happen, and to not require that any particular event or series of events has happened by any particular time.

Always have at least one fairly obvious way to win at an encounter, besides “beat the monsters to death”. The harder the direct method is, the more obvious and accessible an alternate method should be. For instance, the frozen-by-fire monster mentioned above might be very difficult, but possible, to beat down, but the PCs should quickly learn of its susceptibility to fire, and how to take advantage of it.

The only exception I have to this, really, is in the phased encounters. It’s very easy, and given the trope involved, I think acceptable, to make this a bit more railroady. The PCs can back out of the phased encounter, but it means that ultimately they do not defeat the opponent. As a medium to major boss, this is not inappropriate. I prefer to have the situation more adjustable in order to reward good play. For instance, if the PCs know (or guess) that the Leader of the Pack’s sanctum is on the other side of the door and they block the door, they deserve to not have to deal with the fiendish worgs (yet; they probably still will if they want to loot the sanctum, but it can wait), and the Leader of the Pack doesn’t get to get into his place of power. He might still change form when he reaches ‘0 hit points’ (first encounter ‘defeated’), but he’s not as powerful, and he’s probably more desperate.


  1. Pingback: Improving Encounter Economy and Design | In My Campaign - Thoughts on RPG design and play

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