When I started getting into tactical RPGs and reading up on them online, there was a term I’d never heard before that I started to get familiar with: RNG. RNG is short for random number generator, the tool in a game’s mechanisms that is used to create random outcomes. While RNG refers to a specific mechanism, it is also used as a catch-all to refer generally to anytime the random aspects of the game influence its outcome. One example of this usage is in Fire Emblem, where a character who is “RNG-screwed” has had such bad level-up bonuses that they become effectively unusable. Conversely, an “RNG-blessed” character performs above and beyond what you would expect from them simply because of how lucky they’ve been when they level up.
Randomness was a key mechanism in many of the tactical RPGs where I cut my teeth, games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. The likelihood of whether or not your attack will hit is based on RNG; your damage is randomly pulled from a range of minimum and maximum power; the likelihood of a critical hit is determined randomly; certain abilities had a random chance of activating during an attack or defense phase; and as we discussed in the paragraph above, the improvements made by a character when he or she levels up are dependent on RNG. Now these trends in tactical RPG design are not good or bad, they simply are – it’s one possible approach to how these games could work.
Lately, I’ve been noticing a different trend in the strategy games I’ve been playing. I noticed it first in a couple of Fire Emblem titles and then to an even greater extent in other tactical RPGs I played. There seems to be a movement towards eliminating some of the randomness from the mechanisms of the genre, finding ways to put control of specific outcomes into the player’s hands. Everything I mentioned above – accuracy, damage, criticals, skills, character improvement – has seen a game in the last three years that experimented with how it could work without randomness. I find this design trend quite interesting, so I want to take some time today to talk about each of the gameplay elements above and how they differ when they are random versus when they are not. I’ll be focusing on five games with (US) release dates from 2016 to 2019: Fire Emblem Fates, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Fire Emblem Echoes, Into the Breach, and Wargroove.
Accuracy refers to the likelihood that a given attack will hit its intended target, and it is a mechanism that is handled on a gradient of sorts. Fire Emblem is on one end of that gradient, Into the Breach and Wargroove are on the other, and Mario + Rabbids sits balanced between them. Accuracy is an interesting concept to attach randomness to because for those playing action games, accuracy being random doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. If you miss, you just need to…aim better, you know? For those who cut their teeth on the RPG genre, though, we’ve been accepting random misses during combat since the Warriors of Light first whiffed an attack with their rapier.
In Fire Emblem Fates and in Echoes, accuracy sits on the random end of the gradient. Each weapon in the game has a base accuracy rating generally between 60-100, with these numbers representing a percentage chance of a successful hit. The accuracy is modified by the Skill stat of the attacker to create Hit. When you attack an enemy, the target’s Avoid value (a combination of their Speed, terrain bonuses, and class traits) is subtracted from Hit to determine a final likelihood of attacking. This number is affected even further by the weapon triangle (in Fates), which gives an advantage to Hit or Avoid based on the relationship between the weapons the characters are wielding. The likelihood is a percentage from 0-100, with 0% being a guaranteed miss and 100% being a guaranteed hit. When the attack goes calculates, a number between those values is randomly generated. If the number is less than the percentage chance of the attack connecting, you execute your attack successfully.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Into the Breach and Wargroove. These games do not have an accuracy calculation at all – if a target is in the attack range of your unit, they will get hit by your attack. Plain and simple. So how does that impact gameplay? Well in Fire Emblem, the significance of unit placement can be softened by their stats. Say I accidentally leave my already badly-damaged commander in the attack range of a group of enemies – this could spell doom for me, but if she has excellent Avoid and an advantage on the weapon triangle, then I probably don’t have that much to worry about. This means that when playing Fire Emblem, I may not think as hard about where to position my soldiers. Conversely, positioning is everything in Wargroove – leaving a wounded soldier in the enemy attack range is almost a guarantee of death, unless you luck out and the enemy prioritizes different targets. When there is no statistic for accuracy or evasion, moving your units on the battlefield takes on greater significance. Into the Breach even takes this a step farther by having the enemies telegraph exactly what they are going to do on their turn. You know when you are choosing your position what the outcome will be if you don’t defeat a particular enemy or move them to a different tile on the grid, so an important aspect of the tactics in that game is choosing which consequences to accept if it isn’t possible to avoid them all.
Mario + Rabbids is an interesting middle ground in that there are really only three possible accuracy values: 100%, 50%, and 0%. These are based on whether your character has no cover, partial cover, or full cover. When moving your units around the battlefield in Mario + Rabbids, you want to try to place them behind cover so that they can avoid attacks from the enemies while still being able to fire at the opponent safely. If enemies are behind cover, you want to try to hit them with weapons that circumvent it, such as rocket launchers that explode and hit the area all around the cover or sentry bots which navigate around the cover to attack. It is only with partial cover that you get the Fire Emblem effect of possibly missing a target that is in your attack range, and this isn’t a desirable situation to be in.
Damage represents the impact of an attack on its target, the natural follow-up to accuracy. Naturally you want to do as much of this as possible while taking as little as possible from your opponent. The two trends with this value are to either have a damage range (Mario + Rabbids and Wargroove) or to have a set damage value that will always be the amount of damage dealt in that particular situation (Fire Emblem and Into the Breach). I’ll also talk a bit about how Into the Breach handles damage against a specific type of target, because this is an interesting element of randomness in a game that otherwise sits the farthest towards “not random” on our scale.
So what is the operational difference between having a damage range and not having one? Since damage is all about impact, having a random element with damage gives you less certainty about your final impact. This is most likely to happen to happen in Wargroove, which includes a damage range but doesn’t show you the minimum and maximum values. I’ve found this to be frustrating when an attack that was supposed to do 101% damage actually turned out to do 99% and the enemy survived my attack. Mario + Rabbids at least does you the courtesy of showing you that you may or may not defeat the opponent, displaying the lowest possible damage you will do alongside the highest possible. Unlike accuracy, where you generally have a pretty good idea of whether you will hit or miss, in these games with a damage range there’s really no way to control whether you end up at the low or high end of the range.
Now let’s compare this to Fire Emblem and Into the Breach. In both of these games damage values are set in a given situation. You deal damage based on the weapon you are using and the defense value of your target (in Fire Emblem factors like the attacker’s strength, terrain bonuses, and the weapon triangle also get factored in). Because you’ll always deal that same amount of damage to that particular target on the particular tile they happen to be on, you can be confident in the impact of your attack, whether small or large. If it looks like you’re going to kill the enemy then you can be confident that you truly will do the amount of damage necessary to do the job. In Fire Emblem, your impact can even be greater than anticipated because of special skills or critical hits. In general, though, these games give you greater confidence that when you make an attack, you’re going to have a specific outcome that you can then adjust your tactics for.
Now there’s a particular circumstance in Into the Breach where a random element is factored into damage. In this game, you have buildings on the battlefield which contribute to the power grid, which serves as the collective power source of your entire mech squadron. Power grid is shared from mission to mission and if it is ever fully depleted, you get a game over (which in Into the Breach means starting over from the beginning rather than restarting a particular mission or chapter). When a building takes damage, there is a chance that the damage will be ignored as a result of a stat called grid defense. Grid defense is a percentage that ranges from 15% to 35%, and when an attack hits a building a random number is generated to see if your grid defenses activate. If they do, the full impact of the attack on your building is canceled, regardless of how powerful the attack would have been. Including this possibility is an interesting choice in Into the Breach, a game which removes randomness from most of the other mechanisms present. It’s a useful feature when it kicks in but just as we outlined above, the lack of reliability makes it difficult to count on this impacting your success.
A critical hit is a blow which deals extra damage, striking the enemy where it hurts most. A critical hit can be the difference between whittling an opponent down or outright defeating them, and their impact varies from game to game. If we were to put critical hits on a scale, I think Mario + Rabbids sits at the most random end while Wargroove sits on the most predictable, with Into the Breach standing out in that there are no critical hits in that game at all. We’ll talk a little about how an absence of crits can be an interesting design choice as well.
Let’s start with Fire Emblem, the middle of our scale. Like the other elements we have discussed so far, critical hit rate is dependent on your weapon but modified by bonuses from character stats, skills, and unit type. These add together to create your Crit stat, which is then modified by the opponent’s Dodge to determine a percentage chance of landing a critical hit. If a critical hit makes an impact, you’ll do three times the damage. One thing of note with Fire Emblem criticals: your accuracy calculates before the critical chance, meaning an attack with 100% crit but 0% accuracy will not be a guaranteed crit – it will miss instead.
Now we move towards Mario + Rabbids, the most random end of the scale. Critical hit likelihood is determined by your weapon, but critical hits don’t just do higher damage. Crits in this game are called super effects, and each type has a different impact beyond increased damage. Some super effects cancel out particular abilities such as being able to move, fire a weapon, or use a special ability. Other super effects dislodge the opponent from their current position, while still others inflict a status problem that you can then use to your advantage. It can be tempting to factor super effects into your strategy, angling for pinning an opponent to a particular position or pushing them out of the boundaries of the stage for some extra damage. However, because critical hits are random in these games, critical hits are an unpredictable bonus that can be hoped for but never strategized around.
Now we come to Wargroove, a game which handles critical hits in a way that I find quite compelling. Critical hits are not random in any way. Instead, critical hits have activation conditions that vary based on unit type. Swordsmen get a crit when they attack while adjacent to their commander while pikemen should be adjacent to another unit of the same type. Rangers get a critical hit by not moving on their turn; knights get a critical hit by moving the farthest distance they can move on their turn. These various activation conditions firmly put control of critical damage in the hands of the player, making them a key part of your unit placement and attack patterns. Where Wargroove adds a random factor that is not present in Fire Emblem or Mario + Rabbids is in the damage calculation; while the latter games indicate to you exactly how much damage you’ll do with a crit, Wargroove’s crit damage varies and is also subject to an undisplayed damage range.
Finally, let’s touch on Into the Breach, a game which lacks critical hits in any form. Not including a form of increased damage is an intentional choice, and it is one that I think makes a lot of sense for the strategy in Into the Breach. This is a tactical RPG where killing the enemy isn’t always a key part of your strategy; there are times when you want to push an opponent into a position where they will block an attack from another enemy, or kill one of their own units with their attack. If you try to set that up and inflict a critical hit, killing your target, now you’ve burned one mech’s movement and action on what may now feel like a fruitless move. This accentuates that while critical hits can be helpful, doing more damage than you planned can sometimes be detrimental rather than beneficial. This can be seen in other tactical RPGs too – I’ve had times in Fire Emblem where a unit in a defensive position actually made things worse by getting critical hits, allowing a new, fresh enemy to come in and deal a lot more damage when a weakened enemy would have bottlenecked the battlefield and stopped the opponent from pushing forward. Wargroove avoids this problem by giving you control of your criticals – Into the Breach avoids it by taking them away altogether.
If every character or unit type in a tactics game operated in the same way, it would remove some of the mechanical depth from the experience. Unique movement patterns, special attacks, or passive bonuses do a lot to help different units stand out from one another and make them feel special. Special abilities work differently in each game and the shift in philosophy from random to controlled has the most significant impact on the Fire Emblem titles. So we’ll address the other three games first and then spend some time talking about how FE has shifted over the course of its recent games.
Wargroove and Mario + Rabbids each feature special moves that are tied to specific characters. In Wargroove, only commanders get these unique abilities called grooves. A groove charges up over time and then can be activated on command. Example grooves are the ability to heal yourself and nearby allies by 50%, the ability to give a second turn to spent units, and the ability to deal a set amount of damage and take an additional turn if the damage kills. Mario + Rabbids gives each character two special abilities which can be activated immediately but then require a cooldown. The most common types of specials are reactionary attacks that activate during enemy movement or shields that reduce certain damage types more than others. In both games, special abilities are activated at a time chosen by the player and they cannot be used all of the time. This emphasizes their role as powerful but limited advantages where the tactic is deciding when to use the special ability.
Into the Breach doesn’t have special moves in this way – instead, each of the time-traveling pilots in the game has a unique skill that makes that pilot’s mech play differently than others. These vary in how much they alter the core gameplay, as some characters just influence the stats of their mech rather than how it operates (such as granting armor or gaining XP faster) while others grant their mech a whole new behavior (such as pushing adjacent tiles when repairing the mech). What is significant in Into the Breach is that the unique move attached to each pilot changes how you use their mech. For example, if I have Camilla on the battlefield, I will always try to place her in a spot to lure enemies with the ability to web her. Their intent will be to pin her to a single spot, but since she cannot be webbed, they’ll have wasted their turn and I have the freedom of movement to stop a different Vek.
Fire Emblem is an interesting case because it has a wider variety of special move types, and because over the course of their last few games they have changed how those moves are applied in significant ways. Let’s start with Fire Emblem Awakening, the game which revitalized the series. In Awakening, characters can have skills that grant them passive bonuses or powerful special attacks. These special attacks are activated at random based on a stat like skill, speed, or luck. This means you can never plan for Chrom to activate Aether and heal some of the damage he’s taken – you just kind of hope it happens. Awakening also introduced pairing up, the act of putting two units together on the same tile to get a stat bonus. More than the bonus, though, pairing up gave the chance of having the second character either make an additional attack or completely stop an enemy attack. These bonuses activated randomly based on the relationship between the characters and could be influenced by their skills. So in Awakening, a character with a special attack who is also paired with an ally could do devastating damage by activating a crazy-powerful move and then having their ally follow-up and negate all damage against them; or you could just do a regular attack and get attacked back, having nothing of note happen at all. Having these factors happen randomly means you could not strategize around them, and in some cases they could negatively impact the plan you were trying to act out.
Fates changed the formula by putting the pair up mechanism into the player’s hands, limiting its effectiveness but making it much more predictable. If two units stood adjacent to each other but were not paired up with allies, they would attack together, the support unit guaranteed to deliver a second attack. If the two units were paired up on the same tile the second unit would block any secondary attacks as described above and also built up a meter overtime that, when full, would stop a primary attack from the main attacker. This made it so that you no longer had to hope for an ally to jump in to defend you or contribute an additional attack – you knew whether or not it would happen and thus could plan for it when positioning your units and choosing who to attack.
Echoes did not feature pair-ups, but it made a significant change to attack skills. No longer did special, powerful attacks activate randomly based on a percentage created by your stats. Instead, skill activation was placed in the hands of the players. In Echoes, specific weapons have skills attached to them with a variety of effects. Some exchanged accuracy for damage, some delivered a single powerful hit in exchange for not getting a second attack, others gave a ranged attack to a melee weapon, and still others granted powerful attacks but cost HP to activate. As with the changes to pairing up, making skills activated rather than random allows players to incorporate those skills into their strategy. While we don’t know everything yet about Fire Emblem Three Houses, based on the early trailer it appears that Intelligent Systems is continuing to favor this approach.
As your units fight and gain experience, they gain better stats or add new abilities that make them more effective on the battlefield. Over the course of a lengthy roleplaying game, your opposition may grow in scale from a slapdash group of highwaymen to an organized military force commanded by an evil monarch – it is expected, then, that your own fighters will grow in kind and become able to deal with this greater opposition. On the random end of the character improvement scale we have Fire Emblem, while Mario + Rabbids sits on the controlled end. Off the scale entirely is Wargroove, and we’ll address that topic too.
I discussed Fire Emblem and the terms “RNG-blessed” and “RNG-screwed” in the opening of this article, but let’s dive deeper into how exactly that works. Each character in Fire Emblem has a number of statistics that each have a growth rate based on the character and their class. These growth rates can sit anywhere from 5% to over 100% but typically hover in the 40-75% range. When you level up, a random number is generated for each stat and if that number is below the percentage of growth, you’ll get a +1 to that stat. Because the improvement of your stats is random and occurs slowly over the course of a long series of battles, it is possible that a string of bad luck can cause a particular character to fall too far behind the rest of the party to continue to be useful. Things can also swing the other way, where you end up with a character who always seems to get tons of pluses and becomes powerful enough to carry the rest of the team. Random character improvement means that no character will ever be the same in two playthroughs, which can be frustrating when the protagonist or a character that you are attached to becomes RNG-screwed and thus unusable.
Into the Breach also has random character improvement, but not quite to the degree of Fire Emblem. Into the Breach has two pieces to every unit: mechs and pilots. Mechs are improved by the skills of the pilots or by purchasing equipment, while pilots gain XP from killing Vek and level up when they reach a specific amount. When a pilot levels up, they gain a skill, and these skills vary from giving an additional mech reactor to increasing the movement or health of the mech to improving your grid defense rating. Because these improvements are random, you never quite know if a pilot will get the skills you want. However, a pilot with less useful skills can still be usable, making the negative impact less devastating than Fire Emblem.
Mario + Rabbids has no random elements in its character improvement mechanisms. At the end of battles, you gain a number of skill orbs which can be invested in each character’s skill tree. Skill trees unlock new abilities as well as increasing the effectiveness of those abilities, and they can also improv stats like health, movement range, and the damage dealt in certain conditions. The most interesting aspect of this mechanism is that you can respec your investments for free. This allows you to custom tailor each character to the particular battle you are preparing for. Need to reach the end of the map as fast as possible? Focus on skills that increase your movement and team jump capabilities. Need to take a defensive approach? Invest in the shield skills of your various Rabbid allies or improve characters with healing abilities. Because you as the player control character improvement and can change your choices at any time, you can craft each member of the party to play the way you want them to for any given battle.
Wargroove is the outlier in this category because Wargroove characters do not improve. Your units are not unique characters but rather random squad members, and even those units who are unique (the commanders) do not have any sort of mechanism for leveling up or getting better over time. In Wargroove, your characters start out as powerful as they are ever going to get, and they become weaker as they take damage. Because you can’t invest in a particular unit over time, individual units are only as valuable as what they can do for you in the present moment. The way Wargroove makes you feel as if you have improved is that it layers new mechanisms over time by slowly introducing new unit types. Because you are always gaining new units to bring into battle with you, you feel as if you are growing stronger even though individual units don’t actually improve from their base stats.
While all of these games feature randomness to some degree within their mechanisms, there seems to be a clear trend in the tactical RPG genre of giving more control to the players. Personally I find that I am enjoying this shift, particularly in playing Into the Breach. The way that Into the Breach has removed randomness from nearly every aspect of the game makes it feel as though it is a true test of tactical ability – if you fail, it feels that you failed because you truly got outplayed rather than a stroke of luck benefitting the enemy. Seeing this trend has made me curious to see how Fire Emblem Three Houses might either continue it or go against it. In what ways will the newest title in the series embrace the randomness of its predecessors? In what ways will it move away from them? I’m excited to find out!
Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers. Do you prefer random chance in your tactical RPGS or do you, like me, enjoy having more control placed in the hands of the player? Are there any strategy games you have played which have interesting mechanisms that are worth mentioning in this conversation? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Randomness in game design as a whole is a touchy subject. Sort of continuing our conversation from Twitter yesterday…one of the big differences between Fire Emblem and Advance Wars is that Advance Wars (as far as I’m aware of) has never used any elements of randomness to it, dating all the way back to its Japan-only NES roots. Every action has a clearly-defined consequence, as the focus on the game is your ability to command your troops and manage your resources.
I generally prefer games with little-to-no randomness. My genre of choice is fighting games, where randomness is largely nonexistent. I want to be rewarded for knowing that I blocked your heavy attack, which is -7 frame advantage on block, so I’m going to counter you with my medium attack, which has a 5-frame startup, is guaranteed to land in this scenario, and I can combo it into a super move for massive damage.
That said, I think the conversation around it is more nuanced than that. Randomness makes sense in places where random things could happen. In Pokemon, it can be frustrating when a Pokemon breaks out of a ball, no matter how much you try and mitigate the escape factor with an Ultra Ball and berries. However, I get it. Random stuff happens when you’re hunting wild animals because the behaviour of wild animals appears more random to us, especially when we’re threatening them. I can’t stand it in XCOM when my soldier misses a clear shot against an alien with no cover, but there’s also the chance in that hypothetical scenario that the alien would dodge in time.
It gets weird when it doesn’t make sense. The one that always bugged me the most were random character improvements in Fire Emblem. Leveling up a character and not getting any stat boosts will always grind my gears, because the “parent” level system said I got better but then I have nothing to show for it.
Mario Party is really hard for me to swallow due to how random its action is, but it’s that randomness that also makes it a huge hit among certain players. There’s always a feeling that you can win, and there’s a sizable chunk of gamers who would rather that than having their experienced gamer friend crush them in every mini game as part of a death march to an inevitable loss. Mario Party with no randomness might be a better game in my eyes, but it would almost certainly sell worse and alienate the intended player base.
Randomness isn’t inherently bad. It’s a tool that can be used for good or evil. It gets a bad rap because its implementation in games digital or otherwise has been hit-and-miss. It’s really a matter of finding the right spots where it makes sense and/or makes the game more fun.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I totally agree. I’m generally one to prefer skill over luck but there’s definitely a place for games where there are random elements, I think it’s particularly valuable when playing with folks of uneven skill levels – my sister is only seven, but she can play Mario Party with my brother and me with no issues because the random elements of the game kind of negate our advantage as more experienced gamers, and she gets the opportunity to perform well or even win as a result. So even though I don’t enjoy it as much from a gameplay perspective, I enjoy that it gives her an opportunity to feel good and see her character in first place.
Now for tactics games, on the other hand, I’ll take as little randomness as possible, thank you very much!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think the randomness makes games more fun. Dark Souls 3 utilizes this element, making it really fun and challenging. I just don’t like it implemented on some game events. For example in Fire Emblem Heroes, the 5★ Special Hero Summon Year 2 event randomly gives me the hero I find less desirable. I’ve suffered such fate two times and it sucks.
And yeah, another awesome post Robert!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you! I think there are games where randomness has a place and those where it doesn’t. For me, tactical games work better without it, but that may not be the case for everyone.