Tactical RPGs and Exploration

Over on the official RPG Maker forums, user Frostorm asked this question: why do tactical RPGs rarely feature aspects of dungeon crawling and exploration?

I decided to weigh in on the discussion.

While it’s not impossible to combine dungeon crawling and tactics, I think each genre tends to have a different approach with different consequences.

Traditional RPGs and Tactical RPGs must have different densities of encounters.

Tactical RPGs have long, challenging battles. If they didn’t pressure you to consider your actions, they wouldn’t really be tactical.

Traditional RPGs tend to have short, simple battles that you can button-mash through. They use dungeons as an excuse to throw dozens of (often random) battles at the player. If their battles were as long and mentally intensive as a Tactical RPG, this would quickly exhaust and frustrate players.

These different approaches often result in different consequences for the player’s resource management.

Traditional RPGs tend to challenge the player during dungeon crawls by slowly whittling down their resources over dozens of battles that are individually inconsequential.

Tactical RPGs tend to make each individual battle–and even each individual action in that battle–consequential. Tactical RPGs often fully heal you after battle, because the focus is on the individual encounter and not on the long-haul.

Divinity Original Sin 2 has both exploration and combat. However, I would argue it achieves success with this formula through expertly crafted game design and a number of tightly integrated systems that are difficult to replicate in RPG Maker.

Each battle has a unique composition of enemies that have been carefully placed into the world–they never feel like tedious cookie-cutter encounters meant to pad out the length of the game. Position and elevation matters in battle, so ranged characters are usually placed on the high ground, to press the advantages that gives them. If you wander into one of these battles unawares, you’ll be at a significant disadvantage.

Conversely, if you explore carefully and notice enemies before they spot you, you can spin the situation to your benefit. You’re able to strategically place each of your party members before you initiate combat, so they also start in advantageous positions. You can even prepare the battle arena ahead of time by throwing barrels of oil onto the field, and their effects persist.

This tight integration between battles and exploration rewards player ingenuity and expression.

I didn’t mention it in my forum post, but it’s also worth noting that Traditional RPGs often transport the player to a different screen when battles start. This break in continuity can make it easy to lose track of your position in the exploration parts of the game. Which direction were you heading before the battle began? If you don’t remember, you may get frustrated as you wander around trying to re-orientate yourself.

Divinity OS2 has its battles and exploration take place on the same map with no break in between, perfectly avoiding this issue.

If you do find the battles too frequent, the game has well-integrated systems to allow the player to avoid combat. Some battles can be avoided by exploring to find a path around. Other battles can be snuck past using the stealth system. Still other battles can be avoided through taking a diplomatic stance in dialogue.

Divinity is a triumph of game design, and it’s a tough act to follow. I think most games opt for a simpler approach because it is much easier to achieve. Not everyone has a studio with 250+ employees.