After screwing around for the last two posts, I’m actually going to try to tackle this question now. Actually, I can’t really say what makes an RPG “great”, but I can at least define what I like about RPGs. Which is almost like answering the question. Sort of.
This list is going to be very subjective. Opinions will vary. Lots of great answers were already given by readers in the previous post, and I can see that some people like things about RPGs which “ruin” the game for me. This only reinforces the idea that “RPG” is a term applied carelessly to many different games, some of which have opposing or conflicting goals.
1. I know I bring this up a lot, but RPG games should be self-balancing. Having foes “scale” to the player’s level is an abomination that defeats the entire purpose of leveling up in the first place. The same goes for arranging the game so that all players will have about the same relative strength at any given point in the game.
Let the player farm XP if they want to. Let them fight low level foes without penalty if they want to. This is not cheating. This is simply another way to play the game. Maybe the player is new to RPGs and needs the help. Maybe they would rather move more slowly and steamroll over foes instead of moving more quickly and occasionally dying or running away. It’s their character. Let them play it on their own terms.
2. There should be many choices, and they should be interesting. And by “interesting” I don’t mean you earn “good” or “evil” points.
Stupid: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help. Will you help, or murder her and steal her shoes?
Better: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help. If you help her you might anger the baron, which could lead to headaches down the road. However, NOT helping her will aid the baron, and he’s not a very nice guy.
Best: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help, but you sense she isn’t giving you the whole story. You’re not sure if you believe her, or the baron. You’re going to have to talk to some people and investigate a bit if you want to know what’s really going on. Both sides are likely full of flaws, and choosing a side should reveal something about the values or preferences of the player, or their character.
3. Randomized worlds are very good. If you can’t have random scenery, then at least the loot should be randomized. Having the exact same items in the exact same locations every time though the game just kills the replay value.
4. Interesting characters. Villains with no agenda outside of being evil jerks are tiresome and banal. Good characters without some quirks or flaws are usually pretty flat.
5. Skill-based leveling system. This Rampant Coyote post talks about skill-based vs. class-based systems. I’m a big fan of classless systems for sure. For me the ideal system was the one used in Fallout. It was deep, fun, and did a good job of portraying personal growth in the real world. In a good skill-based system you gain “knowledge”, not “intelligence”. You get better at using weapons, not more dexterous. This makes a lot more sense to me.
6. I want to play a character, not a gang. I prefer games where I’m alone. (I’m really put off by games where there IS no central character.) If I have to have some NPC’s with me, they had better be really interesting folks and should not break immersion. They should also manage themselves. I’m busy controlling my character, and I don’t have time to tell them what to do in a fight.
7. I want a good story. No, I don’t want to go on yet another epic quest to collect some stupid sword or bauble.
8. I’m really burned out on Fantasy settings. There’s nothing wrong with magic, wizards, dragons and treasure chests, but we’ve been there and done that a few times now.
9. I like large freeform worlds. I dislike when the “being on rails” metaphor extends to movement within the game world. If I can only go forward or back, then I’m going to get bored. Quickly.
10. “Character customization” does not mean deciding what hat I want to wear. I want to start by choosing age & gender, and end with deciding how I want to shape the bridge of my avatar’s nose.
These are not set in stone, and I’m willing to give up some if they go for broke on the others. For example, Jade Empire had a simplistic leveling system of little consequence, a one-dimensional path through the world, static scenery and loot, and no character customization to speak of. But Bioware hit gold with the story and characters, and so Jade Empire stands as one of my favorites.
Of course one person suggested that the game should just be as much like Fallout as possible. That’s a pretty good answer too.
Here is the follow-up post at Rampant Coyote.
Mr. Halbert has more thoughts on this as well.
Also I’d like to clarify my point #3. When I asked for “random loot”, I’m suggesting thatstuff in containers be nominally randomized at the start of the game. I agree with the comments below that totally random drops just kill versimilitude. An orc wielding an axe should not drop a bow when he dies, and a rat should not drop a longsword.
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