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I'm trying to come up with a combat system for a turn-based RPG that is inspired by pen & paper RPGs, but with more importance on positioning and strategy.

I feel like in games where a good strategy is important, a dice roll for damage calculation like in Dungeons & Dragons, etc is really bad, because your best strategy can and (eventually) will be ruined by a bad roll or a very good roll of the enemy.

The two most obvious solutions to prevent the player from this frustration are to do a fixed damage calculation without dice or to reduce the impact of the dice rolls, but they both just don't feel right.

So is it considered bad design to do a dice-based calculation model or is there a better approach to combine those two key features?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you necessarily need to simulate a random physical dice roll? Many games use pseudo random number generation in order to reduce the amount of "whacky"/extreme ends of randomness occurring. But randomness in and of itself doesn't make for a bad game experience imo. In fact, I love tactics/strategy games that use some randomness, since it gives me as a player an added layer of risk evaluation as a gameplay mechanic when done right. Some people hate it though \$\endgroup\$ – ZombieTfk Jan 4 at 9:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Some of the most popular games out there use damage ranges that apply randomly when attacking. A lot board games use dice as well, to simulate random factors that affect damage. What makes you think this would be bad design? Keep in mind that if nothing on your game has randomness, your game becomes very easy to predict, which can either make it really awesome (as you can plan ahead) or really boring (as you always know what's gonna happen next). \$\endgroup\$ – TomTsagk Jan 4 at 11:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I recommend checking out some previous Q&A about the role of randomness in strategy games, as there may be insights there that can help you refine this question from "is it 'good'/'bad'?" (which looks very opinion-based) toward "what approach to randomness will achieve my specific gameplay goals?" \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Jan 4 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Depends on what your goal is. Lords of Conquest, a land conquest and diplomacy game on the Commodore 64, had a mode with zero randomosity. We played that version a LOT and loved it. It can work, or it can be horrible depending on your other design elements. \$\endgroup\$ – Almo Jan 4 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I personally find that randomness is best for behavior rather than outcomes. Having a chance to miss a target can be a bummer, but having the chance for the AI to use Spell A instead of Spell B can still be variation without the annoyance of negative outcomes. \$\endgroup\$ – Shelby115 Jan 30 at 16:48
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Adding some randomness to a game can make a game less predictable. This can lead to a more varied game experience and a higher replayability due to unlikely events leading to unexpected situations. It also makes the game more exciting, because the player can never be 100% sure how a situation will turn out.

But on the other hand, if you overdo randomness in your game, it might become so unpredictable that it turns into a pure game of chance where most decisions end up being meaningless because the player is just guessing what will happen. You can also have game sessions which end up being frustrating experiences, because even though the player plays well she loses due to a streak of bad luck. Or you can have game sessions which end up boring because due to some lucky events the game becomes far too easy.

Extra Credits made some interesting videos about randomness in games. The Delta of Randomness - Can You Balance for RNG? and More Ways to Use Randomness - What is the Goal of RNG?

So what does that mean for damage calculations in your game?

Having a slight chance of randomness can spice things up, but you should not have so much randomness that the players can't properly plan their moves. Damage calculation formulas in games usually have uncertainty ranges of about +/- 10%.

Another video I can recommend about randomness in games is the GDC 2018 talk White, Brown, and Pink: The Flavors of Tabletop Game Randomness. While it claims to be a board game talk, most of it can be applied just as well to video games. It makes an interesting point: You want your game to be both planable, but also have interesting random events from time to time to make the game more exciting. That means that when you have some game mechanic which is affected by randomness, there should be a very high chance that things play out the regular way, but also a very low chance for something unexpectedly impactful happens.

A common implementation of this paradigm in RPGs is a "critical hit" mechanic. Such systems can be something like "95% of attacks do between 10 and 12 damage, but there is a 5% chance that an attack does between 30 and 36 damage". The players will still be able to plan and execute strategies successfully by assuming the usual damage output, but a sudden critical hit can turn their plan around and force them to improvise.

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A little randomness can add an element of unpredictability to what would otherwise be totally deterministic gameplay, which can become boring. If I know I deal 10 damage on every hit, I can always kill a 100HP monster in 10 hits. Something that deals 9 damage on every hit can never kill me when I'm at 100HP - because I know the outcome, there is no risk, I just have to press attack 10 times without even looking at the screen. If there's even a small amount of randomness, say +1, +0, or -1 to every hit, I am now invested throughout the fight, since I may need to update my strategy as the fight progresses. I'll still win most of the time, but there is a chance for failure, which is exciting.

I agree too much randomness can be a bad thing, but a little bit encourages more adaptive and branching strategies. Without it, every fight against enemy X will be identical. You could allow the player to select their preferred amount of randomness through weapon or ability selection - you might have a regular sword that always deals 10 damage, and a berserker axe that deals between 5 and 15 damage. Both deal the same damage on average, but it allows the player to choose whether they want swingy randomness or constant predictability.

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You can have the good without the bad, but it's more work

While introducing randomness is often the easiest and most effective way to reduce predictability, it is not your only option. You can also

  • give players more tactical choices, add complexity in how those choices interact
  • model characters in greater detail, allow for emergent properties
  • restrict the flow of information, create uncertainty

One big advantage of videogames over pen&paper RPGs is that you're not limited by how many rules and variables players can keep track of or in how much detail you can describe a scene before people get bored or confused. The computer can handle all the calculations, you only need to worry about the presentation. A seemingly straightforward result like "hit or miss", "glancing blow or critical" can depend on a whole host of variables and circumstances, each individually simple to track and understand, but difficult to predict all at once.

I've had this specific problem in a recent project and decided against RNG as it was inappropriate for the (sub)genre I was aiming for. The trick is to look at each interaction (e.g. each action in a fight) individually and ask yourself "how can I make the outcome of this less predictable in a way that adds tactical depth?" Think outside the box. Try to identify popular/effective strategies and think of tweaks to make them "branch off" into multiple different scenarios.

You'll likely come up with a lot of new mechanics, new stats to track etc. That's okay. Don't implement or discount anything yet, make a list. Once that list is nice and long, pick the options that fit your theme and provide the best cost/benefit ratio. Implement a handful, test, reiterate.

Basic suggestions for a "character attacks and does x damage" scenario:

  • Instead of dice rolls, make damage scale with stamina (melee fighters), distance to target (marksmen), distance moved this turn (cavalry) ...
  • Give units an ability to take reduced damage from one direction/target/damage type/... and allow them to switch between these options
  • Add a spell or ability that gets stronger or weaker over time, to mess with target priorities
  • Allow units to damage stamina/morale/initiative/... in addition to hp. Make them choose one.

Note that all but one of these suggestions interact in some way with positioning, which you stated should be important in your game. You'll usually get the most mileage out of new mechanis if they tie into existing ones, preferably ones that are central to your game concept.

Use resources to mitigate bad luck

If you do want random damage rolls, one way to keep it "swingy" but reduce frustration is to give players a limited resource that can be used to "defend" against particularly bad results by, say, allowing a re-roll or shrugging off half the damage from a critical hit. You can also tie this resource into a risk/reward mechanism, where running low or not replenishing it means faster progression. Offer risk-averse players a "path of minimal frustration" and let the firebrands have their unmitigated chaos.

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