The Art of Random Encounters in RPGs
So recently I reviewed the latest Paper Mario game, which is whimsical and fun, but is still ultimately not the direct sequel to Super Mario RPG that we want and deserve. While I was going through it, fighting random encounters with goombas and koopas, it occurred to me that the way the game approached random encounters was both brilliant and ultimately pointless.
Random encounters are the backbone of any RPG. The compelling story makes up only about 75 percent of any real RPG, and the rest is just hacking through a world of monsters either on the way to the next cut scene, to level up or to appease Inconsequentia the Goddess of Side-Quests. How to approach these encounters has been tackled in many different ways, and no one game has gotten it completely right. Today I thought I'd look into what makes a random encounter system good and what ruins it.
One thing I think we can all agree with is that the modern trope of having visible enemies on the field is the best way to go. Back when we were reduced to wandering across a landscape waiting for a battle animation to load after bumping into invisible enemies, there was simply no way to apply any kind of basic strategy to what you wanted to fight and what you wanted to avoid.
Being able to see your enemies, especially the giant high-level ones that games love to throw into random early levels lately, allows a lot less pointlessness in encounters. Think how much easier picking up rare summonses in Final Fantasy IV would have been if you could just avoid everything that wasn't a Mindflayer.
The thing that you lose with visible monsters, though, is easy level grinding. That was what made Chrono Trigger so infuriating, especially if you wanted to level up to beat Lavos early in the New Game Plus mode. One thing you could say about invisible random encounters was that all you had to do was move back and forth. Hell, if you were properly prepared, you could grind with one hand while reading or eating with the other.
So if we are going to continue with having monsters visible, then I hope game makers will consider the need for a few areas where a constant stream of monsters spill out without having to wander all over the map. Or worse, having to move two screens off to respawn the enemies. You wouldn't need a lot of these areas, maybe five at various levels to help gamers shore up any level deficiency, but throw in a few nests where we can have some endurance trials.
Of course, this brings up the problem of a world full of enemies that aren't worth fighting because you've long since surpassed them level-wise. Modern RPGs are lousy with side-quests, so instead of making your way through a world in one direction, you're likely to be revisiting the same terrain over and over again. This means you will be surrounded by random encounters that are as pointless to you as sugar ants are to us. How do we handle that?