RPG Medieval Punk Combat

Kinetic Combat vs RPG-Like Elements in Video Games

When World of Warcraft (WoW)’s popularity was cresting around the late 2000s or early 2010s, John Carmack issued a challenge to the video game industry. He made a public comment that MMORPG combat has not progressed since NetHack (Please comment if you know the source). When I read his comment it struck me as true. Though I felt validated in my concerns about WoW (I played a couple trial accounts), it also compounded my annoyance. It wasn’t just that I was supposed to “get good” or play many more hours and achieve a high level as other players advised–There was also something fundamentally mind-numbing and unsophisticated about it. I recalled all the times when I was fighting creatures in WoW and I had to make sure:

  1. I allowed all of my skills with cooldowns to recharge before battle, or I would die.
  2. I could not “aggro” (aggravate) more than one creature at a time (I could only fight one at a time, period), or I would die.
  3. I was sure to click every one of my damage and healing skills as fast as humanly (or inhumanly) possible, or I would die.

Lather, rinse, repeat. This grew stressful and boring for me. One can guide their spirit back to their body from the nearest graveyard, and I remember spending a good amount of time doing that. As a Druid, this struggle may be considered as expected at low levels since it is a balanced (attack and healing) class, whereas RPG success usually depends on a team of freaks each with a strength that can pinpoint the weakness(es) of an enemy: I used to think that in Final Fantasy games I should give strength-boosting seeds to the casters since their strength is low, but that is not the case. I became more successful by giving strength seeds to physical attackers and making their physical attacks all the more powerful, and giving magic-boosting items whose primary attribute is magic, and so on. A well-rounded character is generally bad at everything in a game. Your game character needs to bring exceptional abilities that pierce the defenses of the enemy, unless you are playing a support character and even then you must provide exceptional healing or other benefits. Regardless of whether WoW’s Druid class was unsuitable for a new player or not fun at low levels or whatever the problem was, I quit during the ghost-killing mission in Darkshore where I faced the Lather-Rinse-Repeat-or-fail scenario above.

I was sure I could have more fun programming my own game. Combat involving nothing more than button clicking and cooldown bore no improvement over turn-based combat, yet required “twitchy” (fast response, typically under pressure of a pass-fail situation) actions and “micro” (micromanagement) on the part of the player. If I clicked (or used hotkeys) faster, the enemies numbers would go down, hopefully faster than mine. Numbers go down, numbers go up, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. They may as well just remove the clicking part and do it all automatically. I would just be a passive observer. Yeah, we are still at NetHack technology there, folks.

Goodbye Uptodown the Rogue...You died in the Dungeons of Doom on dungeon level 2 with 242 points, and 164 pieces of gold, after 337 moves. You were level 1 with a maximum of 12 hit points when you died.

Except with less useful stuff randomly dropped–The random boosts had to be constrained to something even less interesting than NetHack to sustain multiplayer balance and long-term play.

Kinetic Combat and RPG-like combat being used together can make combat more interesting, unpredictable, skill-based, and stat-based. “Stats” (statistics such as the character’s strength or dexterity) may be tied to the character or even to weapons, and may grow or be augmented based on time spent (winning battles usually) or through specific upgrades. However, RPG-like combat is generally distinct from Kinetic Combat. Kinetic Combat is the idea of basing combat on the player’s skill (using some sort of controller), whereas RPG-like combat depends on the character (stats and weapons, and perhaps even weapon stats) and is geared toward turn-based play. Even many video games utilize these tabletop concepts, turn-based or not. In other words, Kinetic Combat requires the player to move at the right angle or speed toward the enemy at the right time–these are skills learned by the player; whereas RPG-like combat requires the player to develop their in-game character by making strategic choices, such as by gaining experience to increase stats or gain new abilities before exploring a new area or fighting a boss, or by selecting “Attack”, “Spell”, “Defend”, or “Item” based on the player assessing the enemy in a turn-based battle.

Kinetic Combat

Kinetic Combat can be used as a generic term to refer to the timing and relative positions and speed of entities affecting whether an attack hits and by how much. Potentially, angle and other factors can affect which part of the armor or body is damaged or whether a parry (as opposed to a hit or miss or block) occurred. An example of how to implement parry in real-time (kinetic rather than turn-based) would be as follows: If the target starts swinging their sword 0 to .25 seconds after the person striking them, the target parries and neither party is damaged. If the defender strikes before or after that window, it is considered as a regular attack (though could be called a counter-attack in this case) but would likely miss due to the attacker being too far away due to running. Running at a player could give you an advantage on damage but make the timing window for parrying longer for the target. For example, if the attacker was striking mid-stride and runs past, even a late parry attempt is likely a miss (too far away). If the player were dashing, maybe the window for the defender to parry would be 0 to 0.5 seconds (The attacker is roughly less able to dodge due to conservation of momentum). This is a way that multiple kinetic elements (or physics in general, both timing and speed in this case) could add variety to combat beyond random damage amounts and static character and equipment stats.

A sometimes-controversial concept in kinetic combat is cooldown. Due to the kinetic type of combat being based on when the player presses a mouse button, key, or screen, the player can potentially click rapidly or use a cheat tool or macro to click every frame or even more frequently depending on the design of the game engine. To get around this issue, many games utilize some form of cooldown, such as “overheated weapon”, spell/ability cooldown, or similar condition. Kinetics can be used instead, by preventing the character from attacking again before the previous swing has completed (or changing the swing to a combo but not unrealistically restarting the swing nor changing direction). Some players enjoy having a contest to see how fast they can click, but for certain types of players or many mature players this can be more like work than gameplay. Also, even players who prefer action may grow bored after a few rounds of this, preferring to have more ways to affect combat other than clicking fast. Cooldown provides a minimal element of strategy, such as using an ability that is powerful that takes a long time to cast or cool down, or saving an ability that can be used once per day until encountering an enemy that seems especially powerful. In games where there is often a large number of enemies, cooldown, especially on the character’s primary attack, is more controversial unless perhaps there is a way to strike multiple enemies with a swing. For example, the concept was hated in Minecraft but loved in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (where a swing took several frames but could hit multiple enemies, and a spin attack took much longer but could hit even more targets during the swing).

Examples of other ways to expand combat beyond how fast you click would be angle of attack, planning which items to use, and even choosing weapons that are tailored for the specific enemy. Tailoring weapons or attacks to the enemy is common in video games and tabletop games. For example, a mummy may be weak to fire or perhaps a cleric’s abilities. Angle of attack is a “kinetic” aspect whereas item budgeting and weapon choice are RPG-like concepts, but all three can be adapted to video games, even action games.

Angle of attack comes into play in combat with “flanking” which is a form of a more general concept of “advantage”. Any attack angle beyond the defender’s convenient reach, usually from the rear or from two diametrically opposed attackers, is considered flanking. Some games may treat flanking mathematically the same as a surprise attack (such as by giving both “advantage”), and others may consider it a “sneak attack”. How much these two concepts are differentiated depends on which rule or ruleset is selected or invented. One way of giving “advantage” is taking the higher of two dice rolls (or of two random numbers if using a computer). Another is reducing the defense of the defender by a fixed number or percentage, such as reducing Armor Class by 2 in Pathfinder 2e for a creature that is “flat-footed” (renamed to “off-guard” in Pathfinder Second Edition Remaster) which can occur due to flanking. Note that some form of sneak attack is often possible without flanking, such as if the attacker is hidden in the darkness or the defender has been temporarily blinded such as with a spell, flashbang, sand in the eyes, etc. Such “debuffs” (detrimental conditions, as in temporary character attributes) are common in turn-based games as well. Here we begin to see that RPG-like elements can affect kinetic combat.

The details of the weapon “swing” are another kinetic concept in video games. The timing of a swing (or even of a projectile weapon) can be taken into account via timing (when the swing starts, as discussed with parry), “charging up”, speed, or at what point of the swing is most dangerous (implementing damage curve over time or space). Swing speed is implemented in Street Fighter games as the “fast”, “medium” or “slow” punch or kick. A slow attack puts you at more risk but causes the most damage. A fast attack causes less damage but may be more difficult to defend against. The speed of the swing is considered inverse to power in most games using the concept, in that having an extra split second or more to prepare could give the attacker more time to aim, more momentum, or a greater flex of a bow to shoot an arrow with more force.

A damage curve is more rare, but it sometimes is even in popular games such as in Lost Odyssey though arguably is too punishing (timed attacks are rare boosts, easy to miss-fire, and seem necessary to avoid defeat), or Final Fantasy VIII (Squall’s gunblade attack is tied to R1, the “trigger” button). A temporary boost in ability caused by timing, chance, a spell, a consumable item, etc. is generally called a “buff”, and “buffs” are usually temporary but may be induced by a wearable item as well. A “special attack” or “limit break” as described above is usually not called a “buff” but can be programmed similarly. In fact, in Warcraft III, the term “buff” is used in the World Editor for graphics or conditions (temporary character attributes, beneficial in this case) that occur when using certain abilities (even when “self” is not the target of the ability).

“Charging up” is more common than a damage curve, and can be considered as an extension of the “slow” vs “fast” attack concept. Examples include holding down the attack button in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before letting go to do a spin attack, or doing the same for incrementally more powerful primary weapon (energy blast) attacks in Mega Man X.

One general concept to consider when adapting flanking, sneak attacks, and other concepts to a video game is that the computer does the math and looks up the stats, so potentially a video game can have a wide array of variety of inputs and outputs and still be fun, whereas adding more inputs and outputs can bore and confuse players if they must be calculated using paper and dice. Modeling too many details so as to restrict and upstage roleplay and improvisation is arguably a significant reason or the main reason D&D fell in popularity when 4th edition was released (However, it was also more proprietary which largely stifled the growth of 3rd-party content).

RPG-like Combat

Discussions of improving combat often quickly move into the territory of “RPG-like” combat. Discussing how to make combat interesting usually involves some sort of stats gained through acquisition or character development, which is generally derived from RPGs. RPG-like combat requires the player to make choices or keep fighting more creatures over time to gain levels or activate skills in ways such as:

  • Increasing experience to gain levels: You may acquire or choose various skills or stats (ability scores) when you gain a level.
  • Gaining levels some other way.
  • Increasing strength or some other stat in some way other than gaining levels.
  • Increasing skill with a particular weapon (such as by using it or putting skill points from gaining a level towards it).
  • Acquiring items that allow augmenting weapons, armor, or one’s character.

These skills are in the virtual “character” and are not related to the player’s physical skill (but can be affected by the player’s past or present choices). However, some tabletop RPGs have special skills that make the angle of approach or speed matter such as a feat that involves an attack at the end of a “dash” action (running), so there is some overlap between simulating “kinetic” and “RPG-like” concepts. It should also be noted that RPG-like (or turn-based) concepts, at least in regard to combat, could mostly or all be considered as abstractions of kinetics (or physics in general, such as material-based armor “hardness”) but primarily utilize formulas and player choices rather than the player’s physical abilities (moving and clicking the mouse accurately or quickly, or actual kinetic ability in the case of VR). In the case of stats that are static and exist outside of combat, they may be used in combat but model attributes of the character such as strength and speed rather than modeling and abstracting activities via combat formulas, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Concepts that are unique to (or originating from) tabletop RPGs are generally those accomplished by choice rather than timing or speed.

Depending on the tabletop RPG being discussed, one or more kinetic or RPG-like elements may be used in combat. Any number of them could be adapted to a video game (I’ve heard that rules cannot be copyrighted, and those that could be contested from the System Reference Document 5.1 for D&D 5e are Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 as of 2023, but IANAL). Examples video games that seem entirely action based but where progression relies heavily on developing RPG-like stats are:

  • Zelda games (as in container hearts)
  • River City Ransom (stats like stamina and strength, and abilities like Stone Fist)
  • Gauntlet: Slayer Edition (You may need to delay destroying “spawners” [towers] so you can fight more enemies that come out of them to acquire enough experience to defeat bosses).

In certain circumstances, even the Game Master (GM) in a tabletop RPG session may consider kinetics. The GM may bend the rules to make a situation more interesting by giving a player’s character “advantage” to reward roleplay such as creating a trap or using some other environmental factor. Other tabletop RPG players or GMs prefer to utilize rules to make sure that combat is “fair” and may in such cases utilize a rule that decides when a player has a certain type of advantage and only give advantage in the situations the rule states. Some firm rule would have to be selected (or invented) to utilize such concepts in a video game, unless it is an online VTT (virtual tabletop) with a live GM running it. Note that many video games utilize or adapt RPG-like combat, even action games that are also use kinetic combat concepts heavily to an extent that player skill or lack of skill can override character stats in terms of outcome of a battle. If the game uses “bounded accuracy” which is the concept of making the skill gap narrower between the baseline and maximum stats, kinetic choices may fully overcome character and enemy stats. If the skill gap is narrow enough, physical player dexterity and potentially chance can change the outcome of a battle, even one that numerically seems to be slanted in the favor of one side of the battle.

Changing whether an attack hits and how much damage it deals can be based on stats, kinetics, and randomization. A combination of these would be more interesting than calculations in the 3d_armor mod in Minetest, where someone is basically invincible if the specific armor’s “level” is higher than weapon level, or the armor’s “heal” is greater than weapon damage (or something like that–It is somehow both unsophisticated and confusing, partly due to terminology).

One way stats can be implemented is using armor class (AC). The concept of AC is derived from pre-computer naval simulations. Older tabletop RPG editions model the original concept more closely (complex concepts like THAC0: “To Hit Armor Class 0”), but most recent editions of tabletop games use a more simple calculation: A higher armor class is better, and is the “difficulty class” of landing a hit. A difficulty class is a more general concept where you must roll a certain amount and if you do so, you succeed at a task. In the case of AC, you must roll at least the target’s AC to land a hit. If you succeed, you roll for damage based on your weapon and your character’s stats (an appropriate ability modifier in this case). A shield may absorb a certain amount of each hit until it is broken in some systems. In tabletop role-playing games and many video games, there is no effective difference between “block” and “miss” so they are considered the same thing: If a player’s armor is stronger, there is simply a better chance that an attack will do no damage (The hit roll fails, so there is no damage roll). The concepts are unified since it is harder to deal damage to a target with more effective armor, so accuracy is considered within the calculation already but in an abstract way. Considering the concepts separate would be practical for a video game where the computer does the calculations, but modeling them separately using dice and paper would be cumbersome. The kinetic concepts of “block” and “miss” are distinguished or at least calculated into the formula in some games in some situations though, based on kinetics (raising a shield at the right time using a key or button), or based on RPG-like combat choices (raising a shield or defending on your turn). You can start to see that even concepts that are distinctly turn-based may be intended as simplified abstractions of kinetics.

Another way kinetics are modeled in tabletop RPGs (or turn-based video games) is the concept of surprise. If the attacker surprises the defender, the attacker may be given some type of advantage (as discussed earlier) or simply get to attack first. Surprise can be achieved through stealth, hiding, and/or taking advantage of a creature’s low perception or some other weakness. In RPG video games, surprise is often calculated by chance.

One of the ways RPG-like stats can affect kinetic combat is “crit” (critical hit). A crit is one out of so many attacks that is considered especially good or accurate. Generally, this is accomplished through a random number generator, but in games that are fully based on kinetics, a crit (or by other terms, higher damage or instant kill) may occur only from a “headshot”. In melee combat as is common in video games that primarily use swords, a headshot would be too easy to accomplish so it probably isn’t a good crit criteria (unless perhaps the pixels covered by the helmet are considered off-limits to crit). A more common crit calculation for this type of game is to take a random number from 1 to 100 and if it is greater than 95, it is a crit (or to use some similar calculation). The window could vary based on the attacker’s stats. For example, in Pathfinder 2e, if an attack roll or skill check is 10 higher than the AC (or difficultly class in the case of skills), the crit still occurs even if a 20 isn’t rolled on the d20 (20-sided die). In another example, a character with an assassin specialization may gain a skill at a certain level that makes their attack critical even if they roll as low as 19. In some systems there is also a concept called “critical failure” (or “crit fail”). One of several ways using a computer rather than paper and dice can make the variation more fun instead of more tedious is to have crit and crit fail have specific effects based on the situation. For example, a crit could affect the outcome of a parry attempt. A crit by the attacker could break through a parry, or a critical hit by the defender could perform a counter-attack–or if both had crit, maybe neither/both would be damaged and/or they would be knocked back.

Bringing it all together

As long as there is some way to determine the scale of difficulty and use bounded accuracy, an action game can utilize many kinetic and RPG elements. If the game has tiered dungeons, even a game with unbounded accuracy (high level and stat growth) is still enjoyable for many people. Some of the top games in history I’ve mentioned utilize several of these detailed concepts, but the interface presented to the player is engaging and simple. The player can focus on interesting and skill-based trials, while the advanced calculations underneath provide varied and sometimes emergent behaviors. It just feels right.

Related articles:

Ramping in Sandbox Games

Kinetic Combat for Minetest (planning document)