A More Interesting Fighter

Games, Design

I play a lot of RPG's, as some may already know. I enjoy both Japanese-type RPG's, such as the very famous Final Fantasy series, and western D&D-style RPGs greatly (I'm at the moment replaying parts of Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, in my opinion one of the best D&D conversions to the PC). One thing about these, though, has always struck me as... well, boring. And that's the Fighter class.

Some times they're called Fighters, some times Warriors or Soldiers; they are the most basic of cannon fodder class present in most RPG's. Whatever you call them, they're good for only two things: taking damage and hitting people with sharp objects (or blunt ones). The Fighter is as simple a character as can be. He can dish out more damage in melee combat than most others, but most of all, he is simple. He can't use many skills (and the ones he can use are usually strictly combat-oriented and usually very simple as well!), and he doesn't have any magic power apart from what comes out of a potion or two.

Now, in a more realistic setting, this might be accurate. In reality, your basic foot soldier wasn't much more qualified than this ? his task was basically to rush into combat, hit a few people over the head and call it a day. But in a fantastic setting, and more importantly, in an interactive game meant to amuse and entertain, this won't hold. You don't want to play a simple character who can't do more interesting things than hit people really really hard with a sword; you want to be a hero, a guy who can do amazing and cool stuff. Sure, it might be nice to be able to cut the head off a baatezu in a single chop, but that's nothing compared to the things a wizard, cleric or even a relatively simple rogue can do.

These other classes, while still fairly vanilla, are immensely more interesting than a fighter. The wizard/cleric can cast spells to immolate his opponents or raise the dead to fight for him. He's usually got a wide variety of magical items at his disposal, and can perhaps craft his own; he's skilled at conversation and can handle the mystical arts and control the fabric of reality itself with the flick of a finger. Even the rogue, lacking magical powers, is interesting; when he's not dealing out lethal backstabs and performing daring feats of dexterity, he can chat up the patrons of a seedy bar looking for important information, or pick their pockets looking for important items. And what can the fighter do? Hit people over the head and grunt a bit.

Granted, the raw muscle power that the fighter represents is useful in the heat of battle. The rogue, should he leave the cover of darkness to deliver a hit or two, would probably keel over after a few hits. The more magically inclined are even worse in this area, and should they run out of memorized spells (or magic points, or whatever your favorite system has). What's worse, some enemies might be invulnerable to magic, and trying to cut the tendons of an undead creature is rarely very effeective; in times like this, a physical killing machine is incredibly useful (not that he isn't normally, of course). The fighter archetype is clearly a required part of any good adventurer group.

So the fighter is a required part of any adventure that involves combat (and these days, most do), but he's not very interesting. What can we do to create a more interesting fighter-type character? Today, it's common to give a fighter a few magical or dextrous powers in addition to his brawn, creating a hybrid character of sorts. This is perhaps fine for a more interesting character, but we want to preserve the fighter as a mainly combat-oriented character in his own right without mixing in traits from other classes too much. Another option is to give him combat-oriented activated skills that perhaps deal some extra damage; but these have always felt somewhat tacked-on; an ad hoc solution to the "boring fighter" problem, not a proper one. Worse yet, since they're so limited, you end up never using them anyway. So far it seems the only place for variation is whether you want to wield a sword or an axe ? or put differently, whether you want to deal 1d10 or 1d8+1 damage. Not very interesting, at any rate.

As usual, I have ideas. Well, in this case, more of a vision, in fact (I'd like to point out that I'm not saying this is all that can be done; but I think of it as perhaps one way to make a fighter more interesting). Since I'm a fan of the concept of a persistent world ? in this context, the MMORPG ? my vision is mainly concerned with a way to implement this in a MMORPG, although it could probably be adapted to other game types as well. It is thus mainly concerned about implementing these things in a computer environment.

Fighters dish out damage. That much we know. They are also good at taking damage, and often these two are in slight conflict ? the more damage you want to deal, the less armor you can wear in order to do so efficiently, and so on. In the end it's all about balance. Some games incorporate a way to adjust this balance in an easier way than tweaking your equipment, by allowing a fighter to choose between an aggressive and a defensive combat mode, some times called a stance. This is an interesting, and realistic concept; in actual combat, you would probably adjust your movement patterns and so on according to what is most important. Fighting a big foe with a ton of hitpoints? Switch to aggressive mode and hack away. Fighting someone who could kill you in a single blow? A defensive stance is probably best.

I'd like to take this concept further. Aggressive/defensive combat stances do mean some space for variation, but they feel a bit tack-on; usually there's only one "normal" stance that's not even called a stance, and then a different one that only adds some defensive capabilities or what have you. If one could integrate stances better, make them more tightly bound to what it means to be a fighter, I think the class would be much more interesting without sacrificing its core; a guy who can dish out damage and take some heat at the same time. Picture this (and be prepared for some heavy asian influence):

Mishima Hayate is a mighty ronin samurai, a noble man with a heart of steel and the spirit of an eagle, and a sword as keen as the mind of a scholar. He's trained for many years in the Ryushima dojo, and is an adept at the Four Flowers school of swordfighting. While out adventuring in the countryside around a small fishing village, he comes upon a pack of goblins pestering a fisherman lost in the woods. Being the good-natured man that he is, he advances to aid the villager and rid him of his trollish assailants. He rushes into the fray and quickly assesses the situation: Four goblins, two on the left and one on the right; the last one standing a bit back, covering their rear.

Goblins are fairly weak, so Hayate slips into a fairly aggressive combat stance; Striking Tiger stance, which allows him to deal strong critical blows to his enemies while retaining some control over his movements and allowing him some leeway in combat. His strategy is successful, and soon two goblins lay dead at his feet; but then something unexpected happens. As the other two turn and flee, a lumbering troll crashes through the bushes ahead. Trolls are significantly tougher than mere goblins, and Hayate must be careful when fighting this new foe. Quickly, he draws back a few steps and moves to a different, more conservative stance; Shimmering Lotus stance. This stance focuses on rapid movement; Hayate is hoping to be able to dodge the troll's slow, but devastating attacks.

The fight goes on, neither side winning much advantage; the troll is too slow to score any decisive hits, but our intrepid samurai can't seem to find any openings, all too busy trying to dodge the troll's massive fists. His stamina is wearing thin, and he knows he must finish this soon, lest he lose by exhausting himself to a state unfit for fighting. With this in mind, he decides to focus his skills on one single attack, hoping to deal enough damage to fell the troll, or at least force it to escape. He backs away from the troll, gaining some time to breathe ? and once again changes stance, this time to the deadly Praying Mantis, a stance from which he can launch many devastating attacks against his foe ? if his timing is right. As the troll lunges at him with a roar, Hayate focuses what's left of his stamina into executing one of the strongest attacks in his repertoire; Blazing Star Strike, which should be enough to finish the troll. A few seconds later, the fight is over, and our hero can reap the rewards of having slain a powerful beast and saving the villager from certain death.

The concept of the combat stance is several-fold. The simplest aspects are of balancing combat to suit the circumstances. In the example above, Striking Tiger stance might provide a percentage increase to damage and a higher chance to make critical hits, but incur a slight defense penalty; a stance suitable for attacking and dealing damage quickly. Similarly, Shimmering Lotus stance might give you a higher chance to dodge attacks, sacrificing opportunities to attack while doing so. In a system like this, you would have to simply choose a stance before going into combat; there's no such thing as a "normal" stance that goes by default. Still, this system feels uninteresting; a few attack/defense tweaks here and there, but nothing that really gets your blood pumping.

This is where some more interesting aspects come into the idea: combat techniques. This has been done before to some extent, but I feel it could be improved on. Combat techniques would be special attacks, some perhaps doing interesting things in addition to dealing higher damage (such as stunning your foe or slowing them down), and here's the kicker: Certain techniques are only available from certain stances. For instance, someone who focuses on dealing large amounts of damage with Striking Tiger pose would have to sacrifice the ability to use some of the more exquisite techniques that require greater focus from the warrior, such as Blazing Star Strike. Another stance, such as the Praying Mantis, might provide exactly this focus, while incurring some other penalty.

Even more interesting scenarios form if you add the ability to chain special techniques together. Picture starting in Praying Mantis stance and executing a three-strike combo technique, delivering you into Striking Tiger stance to finish the enemy off with a powerful Rising Claw technique? As alluded to, it can be quite possible for a special move to end in a different stance than you started; perhaps the same attack can even end in several different stances, allowing for entirely different chain attacks.

The fun doesn't end here, though. As a fighter, you only have access to the stances you know about, obviously; and knowledge comes through hard training. Throughout the lands there is likely to be a number of sword art schools, each with their own techniques and styles of fighting. In fact, some schools might not be sword art schools at all; some might be entirely about fighting with, say staves or spears. Knowledge of different war schools will give the warrior access to new stances and new techniques to execute. In reality, combat stances don't so much represent a particular way to lean in combat; a stance is more of a mindset, a pattern you follow to maximize your power and skill (think old kung fu classics, like the Crane). Seeking out new masters to teach you new stances and techniques from new combat schools adds a whole new dimension to being a warrior.

I mentioned MMORPG's above, but so far this description hasn't been very specific on that part (the way I imagine it is as part of an MMORPG, and we'll soon see how it's easily adapted to this); something I intend to remedy now. Where a mage might have magic schools such as Fire/Air/Water/Earth, Abjuration/Conjuration/Enchantment or what have you, the fighter would have combat schools. Each school might focus in a particular weapon, or a particular method of combat, or a particular type of techniques... the possibilities are vast. As part of each school, you would have a basic skill of some kind, or perhaps several branches of skills, one for each particular mode of combat/stance; a School of the Five Elements might have a stance for each of the five elements (Fire, Air, Earth, Water, and Void).

After acquiring basic knowledge about a stance, the warrior can then go on and learn techniques based on this stance, or perhaps choose to focus on the stance and increase the bonuses gained from using it. Techniques would depend on having a certain number of skill levels in a stance or perhaps another skill for you to be able to train in them. Perhaps another stance is only available after mastering a simple one, or certain techniques. At any rate, having acquired a stance, it's now available for use in combat along with whatever techniques you have practiced (it might be prudent to allow fighters to choose a school and a stance upon character creation; else they wouldn't have much advantage over regular players who don't have such refined knowledge of hand-to-hand combat).

Some sort of quickslot system would be pretty much essential to this system. It's no use having a ton of techniques if you don't have an easy way to execute them in the heat of combat, and stances aren't very useful if you can't switch between them relatively quickly. Furthermore, chains and combos would be a nightmare to perform. This brings up another interesting points, in fact; executing chains. One way to do it would be to force the player to execute each technique in the chain manually, timing being an important factor. This has its plusses; it makes combat less automatic (as it tends to become in simpler systems where the fighter is about as easy to use as 'click attack, wait for monster to die') and allows for some analogness in the efficiency of chains; if you time the next attack well, you might receive a damage bonus of some sort. Fail too badly and you might stumble and fall. Of course there's something to be said for an automatic system as well; with time you're likely to want to use the same techniques a lot, and it will be boring to keep hitting the same buttons over and over (although some would argue that if this ever happens, something's gone wrong anyway and use of more diverse techniques and chains should be encouraged somehow).

Of course, nothing comes for free. Choosing to utilize a particular stance will probably be free (although changing stances in mid-combat might incur some penalty, such as an attack of opportunity), but techniques can't be. Warriors would typically not use up magic points in doing their arts; swordfighting is really nothing magical. Losing health points when performing attacks is absurd (or perhaps some particularly arcane school of fighting has special moves that use the life force of the fighter to boost attack power...). So what's left? One would have to invent some kind of pool that can be used for performing techniques. One way that I personally believe would work well is having a stamina pool. This is nothing unique to fighters, should be added ? everyone has a stamina pool that determines how long they can fight (it would continually drain during combat), how far they can run before they have to rest, and so on. Using attacks would drain your stamina by a bit; this only makes sense, as these special techniques are straining both for the body and the mind.

This has problems, though. The game could easily end up in a state where only the very strongest attacks are ever used, followed by some potion-chugging to restore stamina. Not good; it's an over-powered way of dealing with combat, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense; why would you waste the strongest attack in your repertoire on a little goblin? One idea on patching this up would be having some kind of pool that gradually fills up as you fight a creature (yes, much like the rage pool in World of Warcraft, I suppose); call it focus. Focus would represent how focused you are on your current enemy and how aware of his or her movements you are; how coordinated you are with the current battle (perhaps there can be an 'observing' stance or mode that quickly fills up your focus pool). This makes sense; more complex techniques can't be executed if you aren't fully aware of your enemy's movements, as they might very well miss and botch up the entire fight. In order to prevent spamming of powerful techniques, some kind of 'cooldown' would likely have to be employed as well.

This system doesn't stop at the simple fighter, actually. It can easily be extended to classes like the monk ? someone skilled at fighting only with his bare hands ? without much effort, allowing for a whole range of martial arts moves as techniques. Perhaps one can give in a little and add a touch of magic to the fighter, allowing him to use mystical moves boosted by magic (draining a bit of magic points, perhaps?) to deal extraordinary damage and inflict other effects on his foe.

The kind of fighter described here is obviously more complex than the ordinary garden variety of fighter. He doesn't just hit people over the head; in fact he's imbued with more intellectual and skillful qualities than what's usually ascribed to the classical fighter. This is per design, for exactly the reasons outlined at the beginning; who wants to play a simple, boring soldier? Games are supposed to be about interesting things and doing cool stuff. A guy who hits people with swords and is built like a tank isn't any of that; he's just useful. A necessary evil, in fact, but I don't think it has to be that way. A more sophisticated fighter who takes time to plan and can use a wide repertoire of combat moves is infinitely more fun to play, while still maintaining the strength of the classic warrior. I'd like to see some more of that.

I was sceptical until you mentioned the focus pool. That really put things into... focus, heh, and added that special balancing touch to it all. I like it.

Now... Why must an MMORPG have classes at all? Why not simply have the player choose a particular species and then just have him choose his "class" via how he plays the game?

This could work very well with the stance system you describe. Say, a player starts off as a male human in a city somewhere. He might first get into trading, earn some money, buy a sword, take some swordfighting lessons, later wander off into the forest, come across the magician's tower, become an apprentice there and then be able to combine magic and sword stances. For example, set his sword one fire and deal extra damage.

About combining magic and sword attacks - it kind of reminds me of Chrono Trigger, which used exactly the same word for special attacks: "Techniques", and had "double" and "triple" techniques. But I'm sure that I really don't have to explain it :).

As for the whole idea of stances and techniques, I like it pretty much. However, it would really be hell to stop the player from using the most powerful ones all the time, even with cooldowns and focus power-ups. Maybe a solution to this would be varying opponents' reactions to specific attacks.

For example, a skeleton would suffer much more damage from a "Deadly slash" than from a "Lethal thrust" (because the sword would simply go between his ribs). More things like that could be added to encourage using different techniques and exploring the differences between enemies.

However, this could be really complicated to implement...

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