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A drawing of two wolves. The first appears ready to pounce on its prey from atop a stone outcropping. The second lies in the shade beneath it.

Surprise!

The Function of Regular Encounters in JRPGS

Anyone who has played a classic JRPG will likely have stories to tell about dramatic plot twists and challenging boss encounters, but in my experience you’d be hard pressed to find stories about the mid-game drakes they struck down with a couple attack commands. In the vast swathes of land between villages, or while delving the depths of a dungeon on your way to a boss encounter, you can expect to find dozens of unique enemies standing between you and your objective. Most of them can be disposed of easily with the right strategy or even just a strong enough party, and I don’t know many people who get excited about facing off against the same opponent thirty times.

If these regular encounters aren’t memorable or engaging, why then do they continue to exist? We might view this lack of excitement as a design failure (and indeed, the shift to more action oriented RPGs might suggest that even some designers believe as much). Alternatively, we might believe that games are just padding out the strong gameplay with easy-to-design, economical content that will stretch a 40 hour playtime to 60-80 on a budget.

I don’t intend to argue either of those points as there is certainly some truth to them. There is always consideration for the market in the design process; in entertainment, the best design choices will often be the ones that sell well. If the proliferation of the MCU can tell us anything, it’s that high budget spectacle action will sell well. Who wouldn’t lean into that?

Instead, I would like to posit a different reading of these regular encounters: what if they were never meant to be engaging in the first place?

The following is a list of functions that regular encounters can fulfill in a classic JRPG. These are not mutually exclusive and regular encounters will often fulfill multiple functions at once.

A Source of Rewards

The most obvious (and boring) function of regular encounters is to serve as a source for rewards. Players will usually expect to accrue experience, items, equipment, and more from combat encounters. This is usually what provides the necessary incentive for players to fight the same baddie dozens of times back to back.

Although rewards are often have some degree of randomness and probability, we can infer more about the function of the rewards in the scheme of the game by zooming out a bit. At a broader scope, we can think about passing from point A to B in an area as an action that generates a predictable quantity of rewards (with a window of variance) for the player. It becomes a calculation of sorts, whereby accounting for average drop rates and expected encounter quantities creates predictable outcomes for travel.

Questions to ask:
  • What types of rewards available from encounters in this location?
  • How abundant are the available rewards?
  • What am I expected to have by the end of this area?

A Test of Power

The regular encounter acts as a soft level gate, preventing characters who are under-leveled or ill-equipped for what follows from passing to the next challenge. This might be a subtle way to redirect players to side quests, to encourage them to engage with minor mechanics like gearing each character properly, or just to check that they didn’t speed through earlier sections of the game.

Questions to ask:
  • What is the threshold for power in this place?
  • What other paths could I follow if I am not ready for this one yet?

A Drain on Resources

The toll that regular encounters take on the player often accumulate over time and the “game” of it doesn’t come from the individual encounter, but from managing your resources over a long period of time and, when necessary, seeking recovery.

We can easily imagine this in a classic RPG with health points, energy, and a pocketful of items. Wounds are inflicted and need to be healed; spells drain energy and might take time to recover. critical items are consumed and need to be scavenged or bought from a shop.

Resources of one type can usually be exchanged for another, but there are often limits imposed on this resource exchange. For example: spells can be cast to heal, effectively converting energy into health, or items can be spent to restore health or energy, but recovery items can only be reliably found in villages. Resources need to be effectively managed so long as there is some scarcity in this chain or if a restriction is imposed on the conversion.

Questions to ask:
  • What resources do I have access to?
  • How can my resources be recovered? What is the source of this recovery?
  • How can resources be exchanged? What are the limits to this?
  • Which resources are scarce? Which are abundant?

An Exposure of Weaknesses and Strengths

Regular encounters are not always puzzles that can be solved by hitting the attack command repeatedly, and players will occasionally find themselves running into game over screens when an encounter throws a wrench into a reliable strategy. Every once in a while, encounters are designed to mitigate the efficacy of potent abilities or exploit vulnerabilities that the player has not tended to.

This can show up in many ways. Perhaps an undead enemy is resistant to direct damage but extremely vulnerable to healing spells, encouraging the player to use their healer as a damage dealer and their frontline fighters as support characters. Maybe instead the player encounters an enemy type that inflicts incapacitating conditions like stuns on a player that hasn’t built up immunity. As a result, the player might choose to equip stun-resistant equipment, quickly heal stuns as they are inflicted, or use their own stuns to prevent the condition from being applied in the first place.

This function is all about encouraging the player to adapt their strategy or explore new ones to confront the challenges ahead of them. Usually when a sound strategy has been identified, the rhythm of the regular encounters continues as expected, but it is often enough to give players pause before venturing forth.

Questions to ask:
  • What is different here that mitigates my efficacy?
  • What are other ways I can accomplish the same task?
  • In what way am I vulnerable to these opponents?
  • What are the ways I can respond to the threat they pose?

An Exploration of Mechanics

Regular encounters will, on occasion, ask that the player engages with a unique mechanic, minigame, or gimmick. This is much like the exposure of weaknesses and strengths, as above, in that it will often ask players to adapt their strategy to overcome their opponents, but often the solution is self-evident and usually even tutorialized. It simply encourages a different kind of play that is often particular to a location.

Mechanics come in infinite forms, and as a result, this function can take infinite forms as well. Capturing skittish creatures, managing bespoke resource pools, imposing time limits, and equipping the player with a whole new set of bespoke abilities are all examples that fall into this functional category. This is about regular encounters that are employed to make abundant use of mechanics otherwise absent or underutilized, but which nevertheless add texture to the game as a whole.

Questions to ask:
  • What are the new rules invoked by this mechanic?
  • What are the spatial limits of this mechanic?
  • How does this change the quality or texture of play?
  • What degree of detail and complexity is present in this mechanic? (Is this a fully realized minigame? A simple gimmick?)
  • How am I rewarded/punished for engaging/disengaging with this mechanic?

An Expression of Place

Regular encounters are almost always specific to the location you are travelling through and as such they can be read as a storytelling device. We can come to understand a lot about the world through the coherence between our the environment and the opponents we face in these encounters alone. We know something about a place when it matches our expectations (a fortress that pits you against its guards, a forest against the fauna, a crypt against the dead, etc.), and learn something new when it contradicts them (a fortress that pits you against fauna, a forest against the dead, a crypt against its guards, etc.)

It’s not just its inhabitants, however that can communicate something about the world; all of the functions we have covered in this post can also be understood as expressions of place. Rewards can tell us what our opponents carry. The strength of our foes tell us how dangerous a place is relative to others. Resource depletion communicates the ways in which we are taxed in our travels. The exposed weaknesses and strengths create unique relationships with specific legs of the journey. The unique mechanics usually have a whole story embedded within them.

Everything descends from this location-based principle, although the degree to which it is utilized is up for debate. Regardless, regular encounters are rich places to build or decipher meaning through play.

Questions to ask:
  • What ecosystems exists here?
  • What is the relationship between this place and its inhabitants?
  • What is notable about the arenas are you fighting in?
  • How do encounters in this place contrast with others?
  • What encounter elements here are shared elsewhere? What might this connection suggest?

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