Hello all. This is a bit of an experimental article, so bear with me. While having a random argument online, SNES Master KI and I actually ended up being really intrigued with the topic and decided to use it as a basis for a new series of articles, written collaboratively through an online conversation. This isn’t exactly the first time I used this style of format, but this one was far more casual than my previous attempts. – Professor Icepick
Professor Icepick: The reason I believe that turn-based RPGs are luck-based is simple: many of the game mechanics themselves rely on random number generation. The amount of damage, the hit rate, the ability to dodge, all of these elements are often tied to random numbers, which while they take static statistics into account still comprise the majority of the gameplay. The player cannot willfully manipulate these elements in order to dodge an attack or do more damage at will, they are held to the whims of the machine itself.
SNES Master KI: Those elements are to some degree luck based, but they only affect a small percentage of the actual outcome. A fight has to be extremely close in order for a critical hit or miss to determine the winner, preparing for this is part of the process in single player games. Luck isn’t any more of a determining factor than it is in action games where enemy AIs aren’t 100% scripted.
Furthermore, in multiplayer turn based games (where battles being close is preferred) risk assessment is a vital part of the strategy involved, and plays into the mind games that are a large part of the experience. Just like playing poker well is a skill despite the huge luck element, accounting for the random possibilities is part of the preparation and strategy in a turn based competitive game.
Icepick: I like that you brought up the existence of multiplayer RPGs to help your argument. While most of these battles are generally only considered fair when character level is close, this seems to favor strategy over skill. In video games, skill is generally considered the great equalizer. After all, beating Symphony of the Night at max level isn’t impressive, but doing so with as low of a level as possible definitely is. In video games, skill is generally associated with deliberate instantaneous movement. Ideal planning is generally associated with “strategy”: important but separate from skill.
KI: I would consider strategy to be a part of skill, I would define skill as anything under the player’s control. Strategy is the core skill in a turn based game, and is still a part of the skill used in real time games. Although it has to be done much faster, thinking several jumps ahead in a platformer is strategy and a vital part of the skill needed to play them.
Strategy and preparation aren’t the same element, if you gave someone who didn’t know anything about the Pokémon meta-game a tournament winning team, they would still lose spectacularly to an experienced player. Preparation is what you do before the battle, strategy is what you do during it.
Icepick: Perhaps, but I think we can both acknowledge that there is a difference in what is considered an achievement in single-player and multiplayer games. Within the realm of single-player, there are three categories that are most commonly considered when discussing mastery of a game: the speed run, the no-death run and its more extreme counterpart, the no-hit run. While speedrunning is technically possible in single-player turn-based RPGs, there are no strategies that can absolutely guarantee a no-death run, let alone a no-hit run.
There are far too many random variables involved in order to certainly, with a small measure of doubt, avoid taking damage throughout the entire game. This is especially prominent when we take random battles, a fairly common gameplay element in the sub-genre, into account. Matters are only exacerbated when random battles come with specific conditions — take for example, the “back attack”, where the player’s party is assaulted from behind by a random assortment of monsters. Again, I must ask, when so many elements of the gameplay are reliant on events that are literally random, skill, as it is traditionally classified when discussing video games, is substantially less prominent in the traditional JRPG than they are in pretty much any other genre.
KI: While no hit runs in most turn based games aren’t practical, they do have an equivalent. Level 1 runs of turn based JRPGs are a common mastery goal, and through strategy and full understanding of the battle system they are usually possible. Luck may mess up some attempts, but there is still immense strategy and preparation required. Dealing with the luck element is just an added layer of risk management.
As for no hit runs being impossible, that isn’t about luck. Turn based games are designed around the idea that both sides get turns aside from massively one-sided battles where one side wins in a single turn. There’s no luck aspect there, the player knows enemies will get to attack going in.
Icepick: Perhaps, however, if I may use a different genre as an example. In the early days of implementing online play into fighting games, many developers would attempt to handle input lag the same way they did in other genres: simply slowing down the game itself in order to allow the information to catch up. Later, rollback netcode – a method that involved “rolling back” the game’s status to the last time both players were in sync – was utilized to much greater effect. Unfortunately, both methods have one major flaw: at times, players often take one action, assuming that they are correctly in sync with their opponent, while in reality, they are out of sync and rolling back an allow their opponent to capitalize on their unwittingly bad decision. When faced with poor connections, players are often forced to make poor decisions due to a lack of information, effectively causing a change in strategizing within the game itself.
This same problem is generally the case in turn-based RPGs, meaning that players generally fight with both their literal opponents, but also the game’s mechanics in general. Maybe you have a perfect attack lined up to defeat your opponent, but you randomly miss. Then your opponent strikes back with a hit you could normally survive easily, but they score a critical hit on you, killing you in a single hit. You might argue that the way to avoid such a scenario would be to create a substantial advantage over future opponents by grinding to a much higher level, but in reality, that’s more of a timesink than proper strategy. If powerlevelling can be considered skill, then what about using cheat codes or paying microtransactions?
KI: Fighting games are built around quick and immediate reactions, while using prediction to counter lag could technically be considered a skill, it is one antithetical to the genre in question, which isn’t the case in turn based games. Similarly to how fighting game style jumping would ruin a platformer, but is not a flaw in fighting games.
The issue with cheat codes and microtransactions is that they break the game’s balance or give one player an unfair advantage. Paying for microtransaction style benefits with in-game currency or choosing skills from a skill tree that resemble cheat codes are considered completely legitimate. The scenario where the luck based mechanic hands the battle to one player is unfortunate, but the ideal counter to it isn’t power leveling in a multiplayer game, it’s having better strategy and risk calculation to avoid such a scenario. There are scenarios in other genres where an extremely close match essentially comes down to luck, such as two players searching for each other and hoping to spot their opponent first in an FPS or trying to predict what rock paper scissors style attack your opponent will use in a fighting game, they just aren’t as prominent because they happen so quickly.
Icepick: The difference between those instances of luck is that they are more dependent on things that were consciously manipulated by the players in the first place. Returning to fighting games, many fighting games’ metagames revolve around “tier lists” – effectively comparing the chances one character has over beating another one, with all other things being equal. Yet, this is not an exact science: many upset victories have been achieved by players who chose characters that logically had no chance against their opponent’s choice. Meanwhile, even in multiplayer RPGs, the ability to perform well generally comes down to character stats, elements that are generally set in stone before any competition even begins. While upset victories are also possible in these scenarios, even these can generally be traced back to specific choices made in preparation of the match.
This is also prominent in the JRPG’s ancestor: the pen-and-paper RPG. Stats are determined before the scenario even begins and dice rolls – literally considered one of the most basic elements of a game of chance – are used to fully determine the success or failure of the player’s actions. This is no different from the traditional JRPG: predetermined stats and abilities, complimented with a random number generator acting as a digital stand-in for a dice roll.
KI: Creating your team/characters is something in the players control, hence why I described it as preparation and strategy. The dice roll is a luck element, but I contend that it is only part of the experience and strategy is still vital and the deciding factor the vast majority of the time. Overcoming bad preparation is harder in a turn based game, but that’s fully intentional, since preparation is part of the game while a fighting game is working towards the ideal of every character choice being equal (even if that never happens in practice).
Icepick: In the end, turn-based RPGs often rely upon preparation, strategy and luck. There is nothing that relies upon instantaneous feedback in the traditional iterations of the genre. As such, I can’t really say they rely on skill, as from the origins of video games themselves, skill has generally been associated with a combination of quick reflexes and the knowledge of what needs to be done in order to succeed. While RPGs often employ the latter, there are only rare instances where the former are even remotely relevant.
KI: I still define skill as anything in the player’s control. Turn-based RPGs don’t require every skill type found in other genres, but there are skill types they greatly surpass most other genres in (preparation). I think this mainly comes down to a difference of opinion on the definition of the word skill as it applies to video games, so there isn’t really anything left to argue about unless we get into a definition battle, and no one wants to see that, at least a civil one.
So, in the end, we just essentially decided to agree to disagree. Who do you think was right: does beating a turn-based RPG rely on luck or is there skill behind it? Sound off in the comments section below. – Icepick