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Side Quest: The Great Debate

by Corwin, 2007-02-14

After tackling the issue of can we really roleplay in a CRPG with my previous side quest, I’m now ready to tackle the most discussed issue in every RPG forum - what I have termed The Great Debate: which is better - Turn Based (TB), or Real Time (RT) combat?

Let me state my personal bias immediately, so there is no confusion. I much prefer TB to RT. For me, Fallout had the best RPG combat ever. However, in the interests of fairness and provoking animated discussion, I will attempt to present the strengths and weaknesses of each. Further, I will treat SP games separately from their MP counterparts. Let’s consider MP first.

The concept of TB combat in an MP environment is both impractical and nonsensical. Who wants to wait around for ‘their’ turn when faced by a horde of monsters, or even ‘real’ enemies while each and every one of them takes their individual turn? Give me a kick and wake me up when it’s my turn. YAWN!! No, it just won’t work. RT combat is the only thing that makes sense; it’s hopefully fast, furious and fun (as all the box blurbs claim.) That’s really why people play MP campaigns and why they are so popular with a large section of the RPG playing market.

That leaves the SP game as a viable place for TB combat. Now, there are fundamentally two broad types of SP RPG’s - solo and party - but the line between TB and RT isn’t always so clear.  On one side are the totally TB games such as the recently released Gods: Lands of Infinity and the other are the click-fest Diablo clones - but there is also a range of other alternatives, such as Phased, RT with pause and so on, to cloud the issue. I don’t wish to enter into a ‘definition’ debate here, as nitpicking is something I leave to others. Let’s therefore agree for the moment, that if the game pauses between rounds and you can’t immediately switch your choice of action, you are playing some form of TB combat. If your skill and timing are an integral part of the combat (as well as, or even instead of those possessed by your Player Character), then you are engaged in a form of RT combat. I realise that these definitions won’t please everyone, but they are mine for the purposes of this article and can be torn asunder in the forums.

For many people, the key element of this debate is whether or not your personal skills should be a part of your roleplaying. People will argue that that it’s not the skills of your avatar that wins the battle, but your own timing skills and speed with the controls. Therefore, they will state quite forcefully that this can’t really be roleplaying, at least in the same sense as, say, table-top gaming. One popular counter to this position is that if we are going to eliminate a player’s physical skills from the equation, then isn’t it only fair to eliminate their mental ones as well? This is a very interesting constraint. When playing an Orc fighter with an Intelligence score of 8, should the player actually be able to solve any of the game’s puzzles, or deduce a winning strategy? How many people simply ignore such considerations? So much for a genuine RP experience.

Should we be comparing table-top gaming to computer gaming, though? Is this really an apples and oranges comparison? If so, then none of the arguments for player skill vs avatar skill really apply. Does my avatar choose his spells, action, armour, etc? No, I do, using my intelligence, not his. With a TB combat system, I still make all the relevant decisions on strategy - not my character - so while I have taken out the twitch factor, I have emphasised the mental aspect of the player instead. So, does that simply mean that TB games cater more to the cerebral among us, while RT is more of a sop to the dextrous? Either way, it’s the player’s personal skills that matter. Therefore, it would seem to me that the comparison to table-top gaming is actually moot and should be ignored. They are two different types of games with perhaps the same roots, but like Rugby and Gridiron, they can’t really be compared in a valid way.

So, where does that leave us? Is true roleplaying possible? Again, we need to consider the differences between party and solo games. If the player is in control of a party, unless there is at least some form of pause available, it is near impossible to effectively manage the combat unless you allow the game’s own AI to take over. This can frequently lead to disaster. Do I really need to mention NWN2 and a certain female sorcerer? This is where TB shines. Not only does it allow you to control the combat, it permits a very high level of strategy to operate. This strategic combat is not the same as you find in most ‘strategy’ games, but it does offer an extra layer to the gameplay. Using ‘puppet mode’ and the pause function, you can curb even Qara’s excesses.

Does TB work just as well in solo games? For me, yes, though the element of strategy is not as evident. Why then is ‘action’ combat seemingly more popular? There are several reasons for this. Many people feel that going to a special TB screen destroys the ‘immersion’ of the game. This must be a personal response, since it doesn’t do that for me. Other people find TB too slow for them: they want the adrenalin surge of fast RT combat. Some come from the FPS genre and want a similar experience. The bottom line, though, is the Bottom Line. Action based games sell better and that is what counts to the people who make games. However, that doesn’t make them better.

Turn Based, Real Time - which should it be? In the end it’s nothing more than a personal choice or preference. I don’t have fast reflexes and I enjoy thinking about what might be the best approach to a fight, so TB suits me best. Others prefer to simply jump in and blast away. Yes, I do enjoy some RT combat in certain games where it is appropriate, but I’d much rather be able to press a pause key and think about it. Unfortunately, I can’t see many true TB games being produced in the future, but there’s always Fallout 3, isn’t there?

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