What follows are notes regarding the battle engine concept originally conceived for Revolution: Eternal Paradox, a computer-based adventure RPG I probably first conceived of in high school. Later ruminations include merging this system with the Stances system which will be mentioned separately.
1) A Summary of R:EP
The story of R:EP, in summary, follows a converted spy turned resistance operative facing a major government in an etherpunk fantasy world. The government, having invested heavily in human augmentation, has a military branch dubbed the "Siege Corps" which are meant to be so heavily augmented that one Siege Corps operative could take out a dozen normal troops without assistance. They also have a sub-branch, the "Siege Corps Elite", who take augmentation further still and are meant to act as infiltrators.
The spy, Darian, starts the game trying desperately to hold together a small resistance movement, but is stonewalled by its leadership. What follows is a journey through failure and despair as the movement falls apart and he faces the prospect of having to forge a new resistance movement alone in a divisive and hostile world.
Along the way, he has occasional contact with an old friend who disappeared to become part of Project ETERNITY, something so secretive that even the research-spendthrift government refuses to admit to its existence--a project meant to create gods. Fearing what will happen if the myopic researchers gain that sort of power, Darian and those he can gather have to face on the one hand a government that refuses to care about the country they govern, and on the other hand, a sleeping danger that might eradicate them all...
2) The RBE and Elite Defense System
The Revolution Battle Engine as it was originally conceived of is stratified into general range zones. These zones go all the way out to "Artillery range" and in as close as "Grappling range;" the concept being that in modelling the battlefield it suffices to describe what weapons can be used at each range. Character motion in this sense is mostly moving into and out of range bands; melee units have to pass through one or more bands in which ranged units can attack them, but ranged units may not be able to attack under a certain range.
As part of this conceit, recall the narrative conceit that some units are simply stronger than others by means of augmentation or equipment. It is therefore possible that for defensive units to prevent attackers from reaching engagement range, stalling them while ranged units engage them safely. This is the cornerstone of "Elite Defense".
Consider the following two parties: The player controls one elite melee unit, one wizard, and two riflemen. The opposition consists of two riflemen and two melee units.
The Wizard places a barrier around the player's units. This barrier resists low-power ranged weapons but cannot stop melee unit attacks, or equivalently, melee units may be equipped with barrier-breaking weapons. Therefore, while the Wizard is alive, the opposition's ranged units provide very little damage per second (DPS) to the player's units. The wizard, however, must concentrate on this barrier and cannot perform other actions. Therefore, the opposition strategy is to take out the Wizard so that the ranged units can effectively neutralize the party.
At the same time, the player's Riflemen are doing consistent damage to the opposition forces. We will take a standard game conceit here and suggest that the opposition forces have suitably high hitpoints that this advantage is not overwhelming.
What remains are the two opposition melee units and the player's elite. While the Elite can focus on attacking the opposition melee, by splitting his attention he leaves open the possibility of units slipping past and killing the Wizard. Since the Riflemen are doing consistent DPS, the team itself can win the battle by having the Elite focus entirely on denying the melee units the ability to close on the party while the allied riflemen do all the killing.
This system, if coupled with a "Bonus XP for combat / kills" system, allows the elite defender to sharpen the skills of other units instead of focusing on their own development. Over time, and with other concerted efforts on the part of the player, this can lead to creating new elite units, who can go on to defend others, expanding the system. This system can be scaled to have multiple skirmishes on the battlefield with the same general formula in each case, or the system can involve multiple different formulas.
The nature of elite defense changes based on the composition of the sides. While the above situation is a good illustration, not all units can be promoted to melee elite defenders, and so not all elites can perform this man-in-the-middle defense. Instead, for an example, an elite rifleman may focus on disarming or crippling units by shooting them in the arms and legs; they may also focus on breaking through certain barrier types with precision shots or rapid fire shots or by handling particular exotic ammunition and weapons. They may also shoot while moving, drawing the attention of other units to lessen the damage done to the rest of the party. Elite wizard units could combine a number of magical effects to harass and contain the enemy while other damage-dealers focus on killing them.
I would be remiss not to mention vehicles and boss battles. The Elite formula is particularly designed for one or more Elites to bias a fair or losing battle against superior numbers in favor of the player's army, in particular, hoping to limit casualties and injuries. However, boss battles typically are not a matter of superior numbers, but about fighting a qualitatively superior singular foe. Similarly, vehicles and opposing Elites can soak enough damage that it no longer suffices to leave everything to standard equipment. In these instances, the Elites, normally relegated to a defensive role, are forced to attack and leave the party to defend themselves.
Note that the formula of Elite Defense relies principally on characters following a set of orders rather than being given a string of commands. For a small demonstration, the orders can be given once and maintained throughout the battle, as above. However, in a more complicated battle, or one in which the elite defense system does not suffice to protect the party, orders may need to change. For this, I would suggest that a pauseable real-time tactical system be the primary means of issuing these orders. This helps the system scale to multiple parties; more than that, the composition of these orders can be cleverly done to allow some automated adjustment of orders, which is important for the use of Officers, below.
3) The Officer System and Split Parties
Roleplaying games, in particular of the JRPG genre, tend to have a party-based approach where a group of people with dissimilar talents walk together on a larger map from point A to point B, and in many cases except for combats, the actual composition of the party is meaningless. This is not universally true; in the Star Ocean series player characters can learn skills to which they may be more or less suited, which let them shop better, forge weapons, make medicine, forage, and so on. I wholeheartedly embrace this aesthetic and suggest that it should be expanded, and the Officership system is a direct result of this.
Conceive of a player party as a military unit; although from an outsider's perspective all members of a military unit may share a common skillset, they are all human, and each may be more or less useful for each of the many tasks that a unit is set to. For example, it may not be wise for every member of the unit to take turns scouting, as one may be less graceful; nor may all of them be trusted with watches in the dead of night, as they may be prone to sleeping. Nevertheless, someone must scout, and someone (really several people taking turns) must sit watch. In a mercenary company, one or more people will likely take care of logistics, or else keep a very careful eye on their employer's logistics, to make sure that they are not going to die because of a lack of water or bullets.
Since a player party in this sense is very similar to a mercenary company, we will examine all the tasks that a party member should be set to, and set one of the party members to each. Although some of these tasks are best suited to an Elite (for example Scouting), it may well be that a more normal character is far better suited to handling logistics or communications or foraging. It may be, indeed, that the Elite is only good at fighting, and that they alone could not survive in a larger world without other people to handle the day-to-day operations.
Another obvious part of officerhood is information and leadership. In particular, I mean that they can and should contribute meaningfully to the orders given during combat; this is important for things like medicine, taking advantage of elemental properties of enemies, focusing fire on certain enemy types, etc. In this sense, leadership is partly driven by the player, but it can also be prepared for; a wizard as an officer might be well suited to giving other wizards good advice on what spells to best use against what defenses, and a marksman as an officer might be better able to coordinate fire.
All that said, it can very quickly become true that something as large as a revolution needs more than one party's worth of people to have a meaningful impact. While this can be handled narratively, it could also be modeled as multiple parties in the world, of which the player only controls one or a few. While this adds several dimensions to the game, the two most relevant here are convoys and multi-party battles.
In a convoy situation, multiple parties are travelling the same route. The old RPG tactic of "random battles" does not work here; when a unit passes through a forest, monsters will not spawn apropos of nothing in that spot in the time it takes another unit to follow soon after. However, by the same token, no battle takes place in isolation, either; indeed this is usually the reason people travel together. Convoys can sleep better knowing that their potential for ambush is lower; they share common supplies and supply lines; they share intelligence and operational knowledge. At the same time, they are easier to spot, and certain tactics work well against large groups of enemies, such as artillery or bombing. (Recall I mentioned that "artillery range" is a valid part of the combat system)
Similarly, in combat you can treat multiple parties as part of the same engagement. Remember, in concept the battle engine renders the field into strata by range; this means that one group may start far afield from another and be forced to approach a turn at a time. This goes of course for enemies trying to advance on your position, but it also gives a delay if a nearby group of allies should attempt to reinforce you in battle. If you and another allied party are moving and a battle occurs, depending on your lines of communication and your existing orders, they may continue on or try to engage your opponent; you may also help if your allied party is attacked. If the battle starts with more than two sides, instead of a standard layout of two rows facing each other, you get a triangle, square, etc.
Let's declare as a general statement that a small party can only handle two fronts at most, although they may have more than two attacking them. Taking that as a given, the basic layout of a battle remains as mentioned: as field broken into strata by distance from a party, only now instead of flat lines between the two parties, we have circular radii, where three parties engaging each other form a triangle, the third potentially being different distances from each party, and thus in a different strata. This matters when trying to block an advance; an Elite may intercept units from one party, but without help, he cannot block units from two flanking parties, and so a solid defensive line can be made to crumble.
But more than three parties may be in a line; the analogy of overlapping circles and moire patterns only goes so far before it becomes chaos. Therefore, the battle engine can only focus on a small number, with additional lines suggesting other relationships that are not immediately rendered. However, you can refocus the scene to take in different relationships easily, and the front end showing the relationships is less consequential than the fight that is actually going on, which can easily accommodate several parties.
Multi-party battles may be a big confusing mess, but I like the idea of including them when the design of the game suggests they are necessary. Given the overarching themes not only of revolution but also of evolution--of a unit becoming substantially more powerful than others around themselves--being able to literally pit armies together does seem necessary.
And it allows for some truly breathtaking feats, when you pit the system against those who are truly transcendently strong.
4) Summary and the place of the engine in the game
Revolution: EP and other game concepts in the Revolution series were meant to be games about a world that is changing. Although roleplaying games are interesting, they tend to lack scope; strategy games have scope but most modern games I have seen lack any compelling attachment to their characters. While in some senses this is a failure of the writers of these games, I would argue that it comes down to the core of the game engine to enable storytelling. If the engine does not allow characters to be at the forefront of a story, then writing cannot help but suffer; if the engine cannot handle more than a single organizational unit, then the game can only be limited in scope and scale.
Whether the RBE itself comes to fruition, I think that long hours ought to be spent thinking of how a game engine can be made that bridges this gap. A system should invite, need, appreciate, and use character attributes and personalities, while preventing the game from becoming myopically centered on only the few that the writers originally intended to be the focus of the game. Strategy games, due to their scope, repeatedly show us how the world is larger than any one person or even one group of people; however as part of showing us this they tend not to accept that the stories of individuals are worth telling; writers tend to want to only write about characters they care about, and only want to become invested in a few people.
When that challenge has been established, that a hundred or a thousand stories need telling, then perhaps a truly interesting project--a revolution in gaming and storytelling--can be made.
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