What Makes a Great RPG, Part III

By Shamus Posted Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 81 comments

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.


From The Archives:

81 thoughts on “What Makes a Great RPG, Part III

  1. MintSkittle says:

    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.

    Sorry Shamus, but I’m kind of a fan of epic stuff. Now if they can make it a good epic story…

  2. The funny thing is that I didn’t enjoy Fallout because of the implied time limit. That just cooked both of the Fallout games for me, because it was taking me a long time to figure out what to do and how to get around.

    How about this one: side quests should always be *short* and *fast* to complete. If it isn’t, it should be tied into the main plot some way.

    Or: If you’re going to have a “good” path and an “evil” path, make them substantially different. You can arrive at the same end through different means, but the stops along the way should be completely different not just cosmetically different.

  3. John says:

    I think that the class vs. skill mechanic discussion isn’t nearly as important as the plot/setting discussion. If you do a good, consistent class system that supports the genre you’re going for (like a D&D clone) then your players will appreciate that. For us D&D players, it was cool that Temple of Elemental Evil and Neverwinter Nights captured that, for instance. It’s choosing the right mechanic for the game feel you want to create that I think would be most important.

  4. John says:

    Oh, and…

    Some of us (many of us) can’t play a game for 3-4 hours in a row anymore. Heck, we’re happy to play the game two hours on a weekend night and may have to pause to tend to a child in the middle. Don’t make that impossible for us or we’ll never be able to play the game.

    Which brings up a rule that a friend of mine’s wife imposed: any game bought *must* have a pause or other way to immediately step away to take care of real world things.

  5. Alex says:

    It’s not finished yet, and it’s only tenuously an RPG, but if you really want to be able to choose the shape of your character’s nose, check out Mount and Blade.

    It’s currently freeware (ish*), being developed by a husband and wife team in Turkey, plus a few more guys who chipped in on the forums. There are pretty frequent updates, a really active modding community, and the best use of horses I’ve yet seen in a game.

    Sadly there isn’t a story yet, but there is a whole continent waiting to have its ass kicked…

  6. Snook says:

    Alex: Agreed. I have M&B, and I absolutely love it. It’s got a much different leveling style, and you have an *enormous* amount of customization with regards to your character.

    It’s at http://www.taleworlds.com if I recall correctly…

  7. nilus says:

    Shamus, I said it in the first RPG post you did last week. You are basically describing here what Biowares new game Mass Effect is going to be, at least thats what it sounds like it will be. Its coming out for the X-Box 360 but I would not doubt that it will get a PC release eventually(KOTOR and Jade Empire did). As far as your points

    1) Self Balancing – Don’t know on this but most Bioware games have been

    2) Intersting choices – Supposedly the way conversation structure works in Mass Effect is that you have several different choices and can choose to cut off your NPC mid sentence. And yes that will begin to piss them off. They said they are trying to go farther away from the good/bad dynamic there other games have.

    3) Not sure on Random worlds

    4) The world itself sounds interesting. I here all teh characters have there own agendas. The main villian has his own agenda but is not all together evil. In the prequal novel he seems to be all about the needs of the many out wieghting the needs of the few. He tends to take it to far, killing innocent people to get his job done.

    5) There are classes in Mass Effect, so one strike against it

    6) You play one character, you do have people on your team but you direct them via issueing them commands. Like a leader. Not actually controlling them. They seem like interesting people

    7) Bioware games always have good stories

    8) Sci-Fi space Opera. Not even psedio Sci-Fi but really Fantasy like Star Wars is(I love Star Wars but its basically fantasy in space). Its more Star Trek then Star Wars. But much grittier then Star Trek. Maybe Babylon 5ish.

    9) Supposedly you are allowed to basically go anywhere you want in the game. Any planet that is opened to you and run around them. Not sure if it is as freeform as GTA.

    10) You pick where you are from, how your military career was. Your personality. How you look and all that stuff.

    I might just be a bioware fanboy excited about a game that isn’t even out yet. But if the real game is half as good as the hype this looks like it will be the next big RPG.

  8. Rabbitambulance says:

    I Think I’ll have to second the comment about Fallout. Best damn game ever.

  9. Krellen says:

    And I stand by my “like Fallout” stance. :D

  10. Mordaedil says:

    “I might just be a bioware fanboy excited about a game that isn't even out yet. But if the real game is half as good as the hype this looks like it will be the next big RPG.”

    Well, yeah, it’ll be the best thing available, but honestly, the contest isn’t that great. If you listen to Peter Molyneux, you’d believe Fable 2 is going to rock the socks off the President, but you know how much he talks and how much he delivers.

    Bioware does have a tendency to deliver right on the money, but awaiting their games has become somewhat of a no-brainer, unlike say LucasArts Studios, which seem to produce little or nothing other than Star Wars products these days. Practically living off it too.

    Now the problem for Shamus here is that getting an RPG for a console is not really the intimate experience he’d really want from a game. As good as Jade Empire was, it’s a fact that it did suffer in a way from it’s console background. There’s just a different level of expectations coming from PC games over console games. Most genres manage this transition fine, which is observed by generations of FPS games and fighting games on the consoles developing their own brands, while old school RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout were dubbed too complex and deep for the market of console gamers (see Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance).

    This has come to the point that I bought the latest Megaman series cartridge for the DS and I felt it had more RPG elements than any RPG released this year.

  11. Snook says:

    I’d get a 360 for 2 games: Oblivion, and Mass Effect. But from what I hear, Mass Effect suffers from the “everyone loves lesbians!” syndrome. I liked that in KOTOR, if you were a female character, your love interest would be *gasp* MALE.

    I’m fine with lesbians and all but whats the point if you’re not getting anything from it? ;)

  12. lxs says:

    Stompin’ post at the Coyote.

    I would add: No major decisions upfront. I hate more than anything getting 3/4 through a game and then having to replay the whole story because I screwed up my character. DDO failed.

    When Le Revolucion arrives, WoW will bow to Avatar:

  13. Rob says:

    All I have to say is: dare we give in to hope…

    Fallout one: awesome
    Fallout two: even better
    Fallout tactics: Meh. not too painful
    Fallout three: ???

  14. gedece says:

    About point 3:

    It should be a semi random item generator, and be generated the moment you press Start New Game.

    Semi Random: this means that you will not get uber items in starter areas, and you will not get tiny items in end areas. The game gets a list of posible items in every area and select from it. It’s even posible to add some items in some specific places, that need to be there for plot needs.

    New Game Start: this is only to avoid the “I don’t like what I got, let’s load a savegame again and see if I get something better” scenario.

  15. Krellen says:

    Fallout 3 is, thus far, not looking to be much like Fallout. This is because Bethesda Softworks does not know how to make a game like Fallout. More’s the pity.

  16. Lee from Sheboygan says:

    See, that was my biggest problem with Oblivion. Absolutely loved the game, but everyone was scaling to me. I’d get my butt kicked in a cave, so I’d gain a couple levels and go back, and I’d still get my butt kicked even though I’d have Gauntlets of Don’t Kill Me and my Boots of Wicked Fast. It wasn’t fair at all.

  17. Craig says:

    As someone disillusioned with games who still harbours dreams of being a game designer, I have definatly thought about this a lot. One of the biggest points I agree with is the skill levels instead of character levels. I hated being shunted into one little group. If I’m a wizard, why the hell can’t I swing a sword if I want to? It’s right freaking there! It’s not like I need to study a tome on how to hack at things!
    Aside from that the story is ridiculously important. It CAN’T be contrived, full of itself or a messy cliche of an excuse for the action. It needs to be well thought out, and if dramatic, with a dose of comedy, violent, with a dose of humanity and so forth. The NPCs should kind of be like the ones in a Shakespear play. Sure, in Hamlet, everyone is depressed and talking about death, but they still have lovers, bystanders, and comedians. Perhaps I should end my rant now…

  18. Lee from Sheboygan says:

    BTW, I came up with an awesome idea for an RPG. It’s long.

    When you’re young, you’re taken in by a family. They’re nice parents, but one day, troops come to the door and say that they’re sorcerers and must be arrested. Do you a) help your parents escape, or b) help arrest them? This decides whether or not you’re a magic user or weapon user.

    Second, once you’re grown, if you’re a weapon user, you’re in the army. If you’re a magic user, you’re underground with your mom and dad. Your sibling is on the other side. (there’s a sibling, yes. I’m typing really fast.) The king is kidnapped by the magic users because they’re pissed about the restrictions, and they decide to ferry him to the mainland. You follow/assist.

    Now, there was some reason people didn’t go to the mainland. No one remembers, but it was always a bad place. It turns out that the mainland has been overrun with monsters, and there are only a few small enclaves of people left on the mainland. They’re all starving a defenseless, but trying to hide as best they can.

    You find an enclave, and end up assisting a specific one, rebuilding their walls, finding weapons for them, helping them to thrive, and establishing contact with the other enclaves. I haven’t really thought past that, though.

  19. Dev Null says:

    2. There should be many choices, and they should be interesting. And by “interesting” I don't mean you earn “good” or “evil” points.

    More than that, I want the choices to _matter_. I don’t want playing the game through on “evil” to be exactly the same as playing the game through on “good”, but with a choice between killing the villain or letting him live and a different closing cutscene. I want to (to go back to a previous thread) choose between saving city A or City B from destruction… and then spend the next 2 days exploring the city I saved, with the other forever out of reach. I want my different ending for taking a different path to be on a whole different planet! I don’t just want replay value, I want to _have_ to play the game through several times to see any significant part of the content, not just to watch the other set of cut-scenes.

    The problem with this is, its very difficult to write a good story if the players choices have real consequences. In effect, you have to write a whole series of good stories, let the player choose which they want to follow, and be content that everything else you wrote remains unseen. Game designers don’t like writing things that don’t get played… you’d have to trust that you were writing a game that only took 10 hours to get through but you’d play a dozen times, instead of a game that you’d play for 100 hours.

  20. Craig says:

    Lee said
    “BTW, I came up with an awesome idea for an RPG. It's long.

    When you're young, you're taken in by a family. They're nice parents, but one day, troops come to the door and say that they're sorcerers and must be arrested. Do you a) help your parents escape, or b) help arrest them? This decides whether or not you're a magic user or weapon user.

    Second, once you're grown, if you're a weapon user, you're in the army. If you're a magic user, you're underground with your mom and dad. Your sibling is on the other side. (there's a sibling, yes. I'm typing really fast.) The king is kidnapped by the magic users because they're pissed about the restrictions, and they decide to ferry him to the mainland. You follow/assist.

    Now, there was some reason people didn't go to the mainland. No one remembers, but it was always a bad place. It turns out that the mainland has been overrun with monsters, and there are only a few small enclaves of people left on the mainland. They're all starving a defenseless, but trying to hide as best they can.

    You find an enclave, and end up assisting a specific one, rebuilding their walls, finding weapons for them, helping them to thrive, and establishing contact with the other enclaves. I haven't really thought past that, though.”

    Believe me, there are plenty of game plots floating around. Especially in midieval fantasy setting. It isn’t nessecarily the generic idea for the game, it’s the excecution of it’s development.

  21. Phlux says:

    As for the lesbians in Mass Effect, it’s not as gratuitous as it first sounds. You have the option of a relationship involving either a human male or a humanoid female when you play as a human female character, so it doesn’t necessarily have to involve homosexuality at all. it’s based upon your choices.

    The way I like to think of it, these are aliens. It’s weird that any human is having sex with any alien, regardless of gender. It shouldn’t be any more weird that a human female is interested in a alien check than it is for a male.

  22. clodia says:

    My question about Mass Effect is whether men can be involved with other men? Might as well go for real equality, right?

  23. nilus says:

    More on Lesbians in Mass Effect.

    Technically if you are a female in Mass effect you can have a relationship with either a human male or an a-sexual Alien. Sure they are a female looking a-sexual Alien but who knows what they are hiding under there sci-fi jump suits.

    Also someone commented about PC rpgs vs Console RPGs. I have played both and honestly I don’t see something like KOTOR to be any less deep or RPG like then Baldur’s Gate was(PC Baldurs gate, not the console crap). I think the argument that console RPG’s are dumbed down or less intimidiate comes from generally uninformed people. Games like KOTOR, Morrorwind, and Jade Empire are great games on any system. I don’t think they are any less intimidiate then what is out on PCs right now.

    I think we all want another Fallout. And lucky for us one might be coming soon(although I am not happy that its going to be first person). But like all games now a days it is also being designed first and foremost as a console game because that is where the money is. I just hope it is as good as Fallout 2 was.

  24. Dave H. says:

    Ah, see… I’m THRILLED that the next Fallout will be first person. As I said in my comment to Part I of this series, 1st person is my number one criterion for RPGs. But, again, YMMV.

  25. Jack says:


    If you’re looking for almost all the items on that list, but don’t mind playing a mid-1990’s game that’ll require a few tweaks to work on modern systems… …check out Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

    Yes, it’s fantasy, and yes, you get a party. However, you can choose your party size (or whether you even pick them up). Further, the characters are all interesting. Most of them are old acquaintances, so there’s friendly banter between them that you won’t find in many RPG’s. They run into old flings, get into arguments, and flatter you mercilessly. They are also moral people, so if you commit crimes around them they eventually get ticked off and leave. Finally, you can set general commands (Attack Strongest, Flee, Defend Other Member, etc.) so they do their own thing without micromanagement.

    The world is not randomized, but it is both huge and completely open. It takes you about 20 minutes to get out of the first town, and then the world is your burrito. Go walk through some swamps and see how a level 1 does against the local alligators, or buy a ship and really get in over your head on some of the islands.

    For an interesting villain, try this: an organization has risen up which has improved the lives of many, has fed the poor, has raised up strong leaders and made a positive benefit in everyone’s life. And its leader is one of the main villains in the game.

    The leveling system is not very detailed, but it has an exorbitant magic system with well over 50 spells, and your character can both fight and cast equally. You can specialize or go balanced. It’s a wonderful combo.

    The far strongest part of the game, however, is the incredible deep and immersive storyline. The main line is fun to follow, but you do it at your leisure. Along the way, every single NPC has something to say, and they lead to dozens of side quests to go through and explore. It’s all story-driven, so there’s no “I need you to kill 3 rats in my basement!” quests. More like “Someone has defaced the statues outside our castle, and it may be racially motivated, so please investigate” style.

    Obviously, I’m a bit biased since it was my first RPG, but all these things make me go back to it every few years, find the file around the web that makes it compatible with XP, and play through it again. It has an add-on as well as a complete second act, and it’s all golden RPing. Check it out.

  26. Jeff says:

    I’ve been replaying/retrying a few RPGs lately.

    Tried Oblivion, marveled at the pretty, got through the first dungeon, saw how leveling worked, realized I’d created my character in an intuitive but precisely wrong fashion, said “screw this,” and uninstalled.

    Tried Fable, marveled at how the appearance change system worked, got through the first couple quests, had a quest crash on me right before completion, tried to restore, realized how broken the save game system was, said “screw this,” and uninstalled.

    Now I’m going back to Arcanum. I don’t remember the problem I had with it last time around; I think it was just that I was playing it on an old machine that was too slow for it. I remember needing to have combat skill to survive the beginning, but that was true for Fallout 2 as well.

  27. Jeff says:

    My question about Mass Effect is whether men can be involved with other men? Might as well go for real equality, right?

    As far as I can tell, the answer is an unsurprising no.

  28. Takkelmaggot says:

    These days I *insist* on the ability to wander around the gameworld. Morrowind was delicious, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate were delightful too… And Daggerfall, which rather shows my age, had the biggest gameworld I’ve ever seen outside of a flight simulator. But I have yet to see a flight sim that lets me break into people’s houses.
    This is another reason why I have no time for console-style RPG, or rather RPG-esque, games which are so firmly railed.

  29. Wylderwolf says:

    What about logical AI? I know that it’s something still being worked out in many systems, but if they can start putting some sort of adaptive AI into sports titles, why not push it into RPGs? After all, the same tactic used over and over again by a character should eventually lead to the baddies knowing what tendencies the character uses. Doesn’t mean that they can stop those tendencies, but the NPCs can prepare for it.

  30. Takkelmaggot says:

    I think the majority of the core videogame demographic will be happy with the, er, Sapphic possibilities of the game. There’s equality, and then there’s undeniable facts of marketing. I know which one I’m betting on in this fight.

  31. nilus says:

    According to the UK rating board leak(which is where we heard about the in game slight nudity and the Lesbian action.

    If you are male you can hook up with a Female human or a female looking(but according to the game a-sexual) alien. If you are a woman you can hook up with a male human or the same before mentioned alien.

    Personally am I offened by the pseudo lesbian action. Nope, but I am drooling over it like a 13 year old would. Am I offended that there isn’t a male homosexual option. Nope, but I can see why the developer would avoid it. Would I be happy if they included it as an option. Yep, the more options in an RPG the better. Again though I see why the developer might stay clear of it.

    In this day in age for the most part people are okay with interracial coupling and can handle interspecies(ie aliens, not animals) couplings but there are still a lot of people(Right wingers, Religious extremist, Jack Thompson) who would get all upset if the character could have a male homosexual relationship. No matter how many other choices the player had they would say that the game is teaching kids to be gay.

  32. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    MintSkittle Says:

    “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.

    Sorry Shamus, but I'm kind of a fan of epic stuff. Now if they can make it a good epic story…”

    I think what shamus was criticizing were stories that ask you to find some uber sword or some such,not their scale.I too enjoy epic quests,but when such a quest ends in you finding some big ass sword,its kind of a let down.

    As for lesbians,I remember that in NWN:HotU,playing a female you could have a relationship with quite a few males,and one female.Although,there were no male-male relationships.

    As for #10,I prefer the customization to be more about your history or perks(like the mark in morrowind,or perks in fallout)then the looks.I usually dont care for my characters appearance,but more about his/her past,state of mind and body,etc.

  33. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Btw,Im a fan of skill-based leveling system,and I use it in my campaigns.But its quite a pain to track.Any good tips?

  34. James Blair says:

    I’m a bit more “old school” than Shamus, I guess, because the RPG’s I kinda miss are turn-based RPG’s with a party of at least 6. Needless to say, I really enjoyed Final Fantasy Tactics, the old Gold Box games (I wrote mod tools for Unlimited Adventures back in the 90’s), and Ultimas 4-7 (in my book it essentially stopped being Ultima at game 8, and let’s not even talk about 9). Fallout 1 and 2 was also excellent, though sometimes I wish I could control the NPC’s like I could in old Wasteland…

  35. Zaghadka says:

    Interesting. I can’t agree with you more on point 1. Oblivion falls short of being a true “great” RPG because of the damnable sense that leveling is pointless, and the utterly messed up and ill thought out level/skill mechanics. I held it up as an example of the mutability required to make an RPG great, but it utterly fails on so many other points that it only gets an ambivalent (love/hate) “good” grade from me.

    In an RPG, I expect to be in waaay over my head at the beginning, carefully exploring to make sure that I don’t wake some god forsaken horror, or even a lair of bandits, and then master of my world by the end, able to crush demons and barter with demigods. That’s an essential characteristic.

  36. Bogan The Mighty says:

    Now for the most part I would have to agree with you Shamus, but there are two points you make that I think clash and can’t work together well. A free roaming world is awesome and all, but when the baddies don’t level with you you end up following a path whether you like it or not. I mean if KOTOR was like that say Tatooine was easy and Korriban was hard you’d go to Tatooine first and do the quests there while you are leveling up to be able to tackle Korriban. I just don’t think you can have both ends of the spectrum with that unless there is a game that works out that I’m not aware of.

  37. GuardianLurker says:

    Shamus, points 1-4 and 6 are why I don’t bother with any CRPG. Roleplaying is about a lot *more* than advancing your character’s abilities, it’s about all those options you mention.

    Another word for it is “content”, and ultimately, no CRPG can really provide enough, because the consumers greatly outnumber the creators. Even online experiences that fully incorporate fan-material (like Second Life) have trouble keeping up.

    If you really want all of what you’re asking for, there’s still no substitute for the original: a tabletop roleplaying game with a reasonably competent GM. Even a reasonably competent one can usually provide enough varied content and ah-hoc interaction to compare favorably to an online game. A *good* GM can consistently beat them. Even a bad GM isn’t usually bad because he can’t generate content, but because he’s an absolute b****** of an a******. (I’ll admit there are GMs that can’t generate content either, but my gut feeling is that they don’t stay GMs for long.)

    In all fairness, a TRPG does have its weaknesses – it probably won’t be as pretty, and combat will almost definitely be slower. But that isn’t what you’re complaining about either.

  38. Jansolo says:

    This is what I want:

    1.- I want to play a role…
    [Oblivion was good for that. I spent very much time without fighting but acting as I desired)

    2.- …so I want to customize my character. I mean, I wan to CHOOSE race, gender, “profession”, skills, atributes. I don’t care avatars, or it can be the last.
    [Oblivion was great for that]

    3.- …so I want to decide my way. I don’t need a linear plot.
    [Oblivion & Final Fantasy XII. The second a little bit worst, because certain level is required for certain places]

    4.- …so I want some exciting worlds. Medieval, SciFi, Apocalyptic or a combination, with magic, swords, blasters and everithing that I can’t find when I’m not playing (fortunately)
    [Final Fantasy: VII, VIII, IX, X, XII are the best for that. I’m expecting for Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and FFXIII]

    5.- …so it is necessary to have a good story. The best could be one without good nor evil. Just freedom for making choices, of course, paying consequences.
    [Oblivion is too simple. Gothic III the worst (what about if I want to be an orc?). Again, final fantasy has the greatest approach, but it has lacking in originality: it’s always evil vs good, and good always win]

    7.- Additionally, a good system is always required.
    [Action-RPG is one of the best approachs for me: I love Kingdom Hearts II, I want to play Final Fantasy VII crisis core and I really bored with the “tactics” games. At PC, a human cannot manage more than 3 or 4 concepts at the same time, so I don’t need 24 shortcuts in my keyboard or a character sheet more complicated than a book of programming (teach yourself RPG games in a nutshell)]

    6.- Above all, I’m searching for fun.
    · Oblivion desperated me at the end. :(
    · I played every Final Fantasy ’till the end :D
    · Let’s see Mass Effect (in Europe, it will be released in 2 months), Fallout 3 and FFXIII :)

    Final bosses, leveling, side quests and so on are distinctive of each game. A good decission of the designers become a game to a great game. For instance, I really enjoy the new system for Final Fantasy (XII). Another example, it is said that Shadow of the colossus (well, not a RPG game) is one of the best, and all the monster are final (or at least, huge)

  39. Zaghadka says:

    At the risk of flogging a dead horse, here is my “reader review” of Oblivion at IGN:


    That better expresses my feelings on the game balance issues in Oblivion, and why it fails to be a “great RPG,” while, on the whole, being quite good.

  40. Ralff says:

    There are a few things I’d like to see more often.
    1. Less giant boss fights. Now, this doesn’t mean make all games like FEAR (I mean, I like fighting the dragon/giant/etc as much as the next guy), I just mean less fights that amount to “party of four vs. really big singular enemy.” This can mean fighting a swarm of smaller enemies, a rival/opposed adventuring party, or even a duel between two characters.

    2. More steampunk and cyberpunk. This is mostly because I can’t think of any steampunk RPGs besides Arcanum (which I didn’t really like for some reason) and I can’t think of any cyberpunk RPGs unless you count, say, FF7 or something.

    3. NPCs taking a dynamic role in the story, perhaps based on the player’s decisions. By this I mean NPCs or party members besides the main character making their own choices. For example, let’s say that Johnny is a character in your party. Let’s say that you drop him from your party in favor of another character–Johnny could perhaps then start his own adventuring party, occasionally meeting or fighting with yours. Or, if you treat him like crap and, for example, steal all of his stuff and kill his family, he could leave your party and then attempt to kill you later on. The problem with this is that it’d be pretty difficult to keep it from devolving into something very simple (such as “evil acts will make the paladin leave” or “if you attack someone they will attack you back”).

    I’m not going to touch moral choices and good/evil, because Shamus has said pretty much everything I could.

  41. Snook says:

    Zaghadka: I liked your review, spot on. I adored Morrowind, and although I’ve enjoyed the little I’d played out Oblivion, the leveling system really takes alot out of the game.

    PS: Did you add this?

    “Oblivion features an unprotected DVD disc for easy backup. Please support this corporate ethic.”

  42. Daemian_Lucifer says:


    If there is a place with tough monsters in a free world,nothing prevents you from scouting the place on a low level.Chances are you will die,but hey,youre still free to push your luck.So if you want to sneak around vampires with a fresh from the bin character,go for it.Maybe you get lucky.If you are carefull,then youll level up before you go there.Free world doesnt mean you can easilly travel the whole globe with a level 1 character,but that each area is accesible if you have the right skill(some doors will be locked,but all doors are pickable/smashable).

  43. ngthagg says:

    5 and 6 are imply a contradiction for me. 6 implies action elements, where you are making decisions in a limited time frame. But action elements mean success in the game is determined by the players skill, not by the game’s mechanics. (ie Ability to dodge is controlled by me dodging in the game, not by my evade% ability). The problem is that this conflicts with stat development. What’s the point of being able to improve combat stats if success in combat ultimately depends on my skill with a mouse and keyboard?

    Other than that:

    1) What makes non-self balancing games so crappy is that it is so easy to create a self-balancing gameplay, through the means you describe: make later enemies higher level, and allow players to farm low level enemies to improve.

    2) This is a dividing point between western rpgs and japanese rpgs. Being a fan of jrpgs, I don’t really care about having control over the overall storyline. A crappy story is a crappy story and a good story is a good story whether or not I can choose the path it takes. But if there are going to be choices, they should be reasonable, and not black and white.

    3) Randomized worlds are good if the expectation is that the game will be played multiple times to get enjoyment out of it. But I think that a decent world designer will get more out of creating one excellent world rather than an infinite number of mediocre worlds. Dragon Quest VIII or WoW are great examples of this. It’s fun to wander around just to see the sights. Compare Diablo II, where I doubt anyone ever played to see another random “The Pit” dungeon.

    4) Good characterization is essential. Characters should all have motives, and take actions that back them up.

    5) I’m not a fan of skill based systems in general, unless the increase is automatic (ie, I improve my ability to use swords by using swords). Point buy skill based systems are brutal for anyone new to the game. As a noob, you are faced with two choices: try to figure it out yourself and end up picking one of the many crappy development paths, or look online for a good build, in which case you may as well play a class based system.

    6) I already covered this a bit, but there is a basic scale: the more action, the fewer characters. The more strategy, the more characters. I like a bit more strategy in my rpgs, so I don’t like single player games where you very few interesting options.

    7) There’s nothing wrong with a quest to collect some uber item. Good story is decided by the implementation, not the subject matter.

    8, 9, 10) Not a big deal to me.

  44. Civilis says:

    It’s fun to read these three posts and look at the one overall question that needs to be asked, namely:

    If you play both tabletop and electronic RPGs, is there some difference between what you expect from a good tabletop game and a good electronic game?

    I see some posters that immediately write off the whole idea of electronic RPGs as not being real roleplaying. I’m a veteran of many a D&D campaign, and have played probably a dozen other systems, and agree nothing electronic has matched the feel to me of a good tabletop game. But the last couple of tabletop games I’ve played in haven’t been good tabletop games, as competent GMs are hard to find. (The last couple of games I’ve run haven’t been good, either. Again, competent GMs are hard to find.)

    For me, electronic RPGs are a separate genre from tabletop RPGs. While there are similarities, there are insurmountable differences that are probably impossible to overcome for the foreseeable future. I don’t expect my elecrtonic games to have the same freedom that tabletop games have, but I expect them to run much quicker.

    One thing that any roleplaying game must have for me, whether electronic or tabletop, is that I must own my character. For Dave H, this requires first person perspective. For Shamus, this is character customization. In a proper first person perspective, you’ll never really see your character, so these two are both valid and contradictory points. I can deal with a precreated character I can see if there is no personality involved; eg, I can map my own emotions onto the character. If I create the character, the plot needs to be either open enough or well written enough that I don’t lose that sense of ownership when my character does something out of character.

    In a tabletop game, my character has to be more than a collection of stats, and I’ve seen games, both GM campaigns and rulesets, that ridiculously force characters on me that I can’t identify with and don’t care for. Those always end up bad for everyone involved.

    Above all, any game is acceptable if it meets my number 1 requirement for a great game: it’s fun to play. All else is secondary.

  45. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    42 ngthagg Says:

    “5 and 6 are imply a contradiction for me. 6 implies action elements, where you are making decisions in a limited time frame. But action elements mean success in the game is determined by the players skill, not by the game's mechanics. (ie Ability to dodge is controlled by me dodging in the game, not by my evade% ability). The problem is that this conflicts with stat development. What's the point of being able to improve combat stats if success in combat ultimately depends on my skill with a mouse and keyboard?”

    Not true.NWN fulfills #6 completelly,yet the outcome of combat depends a lot of the skills of your character,and not so much your fast reflexes.

  46. GuardianLurker says:


    I think we share a point in common – CRPGs and TRPGs are very, very, different beasts. And you do both a disservice if you try to deal with one like the other.

    Ryan Dancey has a great series of posts where he analyses the differences between CRPG/MMORGs and TRPGs, and how the latter can compete. I don’t agree with all of his analysis, but his core argument is sound.

    And maybe I’ve been luckier than I thought, but the worst GM I’ve had in recent memory wasn’t incompetent, just an overreactive drama king.

  47. Bogan The Mighty says:

    Ok I guess I should really say more that yeah it is a free world, but in the end most players will end up going in a set order anyway almost every time they play it. Of course that doesn’t mean everyone either. I do think a good rpg can stay railroaded though.

  48. SimeSublime says:

    I missed out on the previous two installments, so here’s my two cents. I should probably point out that I started with CRPGs and moved onto TRPGs from there, so my expectations for CRPGs seem to be rather different then Shamus’.
    Ordered list go!
    1. Self balancing. To be completely honest, I’m not a huge fan of your self balancing system, because it for me it seems to kill immersion. When playing a story driven game (usually more linear) I like to keep the pace of the game going. That means I enter an area, clear it of quests and enemies, then move on. If I go to a lot of work killing all the orcs in this section of the mountains, only to find that they’re all back again the moment I leave and return, then what was the point of killing them in the first place? Also, the need to farm experience to continue is game ruining to me. I remember playing the original Final Fantasy. I found that I spent ages just running around in circles in the same four squares of forest waiting for random encounters so that I could get the three or so levels that I needed so that I could enter the next area without being slaughtered outright by the first enemy attack me. I believe that each area should have enough xp (or equivelent for rule set) to ready you for the next area. A good example of this would be KotOR or NWN, I found for the most part the enemies were well matched. True, they were a challenge with a badly made character, but they were still surmountable with a bit of effort.
    2. Choices: No complaints here. I’d love a bit more moral ambiguity and grey areas. One example I particularly liked was in Baldur’s Gate 2, one of the Paladin quests. You have to choose sides in a land dispute between a Lawful Evil baron and some Chaotic Good squatters. Although the choice had little baring in the rest of the game, but it did help to flesh out your Paladins beliefs.
    3. Randomized levels. I thoroughly disagree with you here. Randomization does nothing but detract from detail and realism, and hence leads to a less immersing game world. Look at Morrowind, Fallout or Baldur’s Gate. The worlds are static and all the better for it. Nothing looks out of place. As for randomised loot, I’m not a huge fan. Firstly, if you kill an enemy, it should drop all the loot it was equipped with. Nothing feels worse then having an orc rum at you with a huge glowing battleaxe, only to find a non-magical dagger on his corpse. If he used it against me, I expect to claim it as a reward at the end of the fight. Conversely, if I’m rewarded with an awesome item after a fight that the enemy didn’t use against me, I’m just going to feel confused. As for loot in chests, I prefer it to be static (especially with the major stuff)but a bit of randomisations acceptable. For example, I don’t care too much if I open a money box and find 3 gold or a silver ring or a crappy gem, they’re all about the same value and have no practical use. But I do mind if that heavily guarded chest which had the kick ass weapon last time this time had a large deal of money, it just seems unfair. On one playthrough I would have been gypped. Though one intersting use of semi-random loot I’ve seen is in NWN:HotU. As all your equipment was stripped from you at the start of the game, you start off with mostly useless stuff. So to help you out there are a couple of places (one chest and one monster) that will drop strong magical weapons of whatever type you have weapon focus in. That’s neat, as it’s annoying to find a good item that you just can’t use. It’s not quite believable, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.
    4. Good characters. Probably the most important characteristic in any game. One of the reasons I don’t much like Icewind Dale or Temple of Elemental Evil is that your party have no personality, whereas all your companions in Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment are well written and voiced with complex backgrounds and often conflicting views on the situation.
    5. I’m rather ambivilant on this point. It really depends on how the situation is implemented. For example, class based systems work better with parties. Sure, fighters and mages can’t deal with traps, that’s why you drag a rogue along with you. The problem with skill based systems is that you can end up in a catch 22 situation if it isn’t implemented right. For example, I can’t hit anything with my sword because my skill is too low, and I can’t level it up because I can’t hit anything with it. Another problem with classless systems is that you may not be able to create the type of character that you want. Arcanum is an example of this. I wanted to play a fighter/diplomat. In a class system that’s easy, just pick the Knight/Paladin class. In arcanum, I needed to put points into Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Dodge and Melee to use a blade, plus Charisma and Speachcraft to become a diplomat. It wouldn’t be too bad, but these didn’t overlap in the slightest. Then take into account that I wanted to make my own armour, and so would need points in Intelligence to gain ranks in the smithing technologies and my character concept was killed. That being said, the problem with classes are they often limit your growth. Although the Paladin class makes a great Fighter/Diplomat, they’re limited to Lawful Good. Of the other options, monks are still limited to lawful alignments and fighters and rangers find diplomacy to be a cross-class skill. So in conclusion, although skill based systems have the potential to be superior, they can be easily crippling.
    6. Going Solo. I’m leaning against you on this point, though I feel there’s a bit more wiggle room then the previous one. Having a party of faceless heroes a la Icewind Dale is no fun at all. But playing Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment without followers robs you of one of the richest experiences in the game. Imagine Knights of the Old Republic without HK-47’s unique world view? That being said, there are some games in which companions would be nonsensical. Bioshock would have been ruined if you weren’t going it alone.
    7. Story is paramount. Although I prefer epic over small reaching (who wants to save some village from kobolds when they could be charging through the hells to free some captured deva’s) a well written small scope adventure trumps a by the numbers world shattering one.
    8. Other settings. Amen to that.
    9. Both freeform and rails have their place. A lot of storys require a great deal of control to tell, and as long as I have a good motivation for my character to follow that story, then I’m happy to jump aboard the train. Jade Empire would be a perfect example of this. Of course, free worlds such as Fallout and Morrowind are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong. I just believe that both have their place and neither should be discriminated against.
    10. Character customisation is dependant on the plot/setting. Sure, it’s nice to have the option to play 200 year old elf, but that just wouldn’t fit in with the timeline of Baldur’s Gate. Hell, Planescape: Torment gave you no choice on the age or gender of the PC, it didn’t even let you name him. BUT, after the game starts, you have full control over everything he does to grow him like you want. It all depends on the situation. Of course, in a TRPG I would be offended if I couldn’t create my own character, but in that environment you can negotiate with your GM on why your choice doesn’t fit in with their setting. In a CRPG you don’t have that connection with the developers, so they have to limit you as they see fit. Though looking back at your point, I think you were instead complaining about games that limit how your character looks due to laziness rather then story reasons, in which case I completely agree with you.

    That was a lot longer then I expected it to be, I hope somebody reads and finds it interesting.

  49. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    SimeSublime Says:

    “That was a lot longer then I expected it to be, I hope somebody reads and finds it interesting.”

    Some of us even want to comment:)

    1)Nothings wrong with a few farming areas.For example,a crypt of ghosts that can be attacked every night.Its plausable,yet not mandatory.You could have a quest ending the haunt,but until you finish the quest you can kill zounds of ghosts and still theyll appear each night.

    But what you described about KotoR and NWN is exactly what shamus is saying:You have the option of clearing each area of monsters for loads of XP and easier battles later,or just go for some quests,skip half the monsters and have it harder later.You dont have to have farm areas for the game to be self balancing.NWN is a game like that,but it doesnt have respawning enemies.Same goes for planescape and BG.Opposing games are morrowind and oblivion where you being level 1 or level 30,even the simple rat is a chalenge.

    3.What youre complaining about is not randomization,but poor value.For example:If one well guarded chest gives you either a +3 long sword,a +3 bow,a +3 axe or a wand of fireballs,you wont complain what you get out of those.But if the same chest offers either a +3 sword or a +1 dagger,of course youll complain if you get the crappy dagger.

    And even if you can loot everything your enemies are attacking you with,that doesnt mean they cant have random equipment.You could have a few orcs attack you with axes,some with swords,and some with bows,and every time you replay,the number of orcs and their composition would change.

    5.You could end with no means to fight your enemies with a class based system as well.For example,you play a thief specialised in bows and backstabing,and end up in an area full of skeletons.

    Its not a system based flaw,its an implementation flaw.The problem of skill based system appeares if the skills arent balanced properly.This happens more often with this system because you usually have more skills than youd have classes,so you have more things to look after.

    But with a skill based leveling system you could still have a few predefined classes,whereas in a class based leveling system,if you want to play some hybrid that doesnt exist,youll have loads of penalties.

    6.Actually thats what shamus was refering to as well.In BG you are going solo,but you can hire some help if you need it.

    I hope you read this and find this as interesting:)

  50. Tuck says:

    #25 Jack wrote:
    >If you're looking for almost all the items on that list, >but don't mind playing a mid-1990's game that'll require a >few tweaks to work on modern systems… …check out Ultima >VII: The Black Gate.

    Get Exult and it (and the expansion and sequel) run 99.9% perfectly under Windows XP.


    This is well worth the playing, Shamus!

    Or if you want to take a change from swords and sorcery fantasy in RPGs, try the Worlds of Ultima games Savage Empire and Martian Dreams (if you can get your hands on em)!


  51. Russ says:

    Shamus, you should do the free trial of LOTR Online…I know you’ll enjoy it even though you aren’t an MMO kind of player. If you want, I’ll even send you one of my Lifetime Member referrals for 10 days free and if you end up subscribing, I’ll give you the 30 day free play code I get. I’m a lifetime member, so I don’t need the free 30 days from the referral. Just email me if your interested.

    Even just ten days would give you a good chance to get into the game and review it at your own pace, and at least see the landmarks of Middle Earth “from the books”.

  52. Stranger says:

    See, Morrowind had the “balancing levels” for random spawns, and there were a few areas in which creatures would respawn for me to go back. (Daedric monsters, or Dwemer ruins) I was fine since I’d gone out of my way to find some . . . REALLY good . . . armor. No, I didn’t peek at the guide and grab The Best Armor from around places. I followed my guild quests for the Legion to Grand Duke’s gear. It is a servicable set.

    I continue to offer Morrowind to people to play because it, to me, is one of the best fantasy games out there. I haven’t tried Oblivion but it sounds as though its system is different from Morrowind’s by a lot.

    I enjoy playing Final Fantasy 12, it’s a great style of game. If it had multiplayer support (player 2 got to control another party member within a couple limitations, for instance) I’d be screaming in joy since it would remind me of Secret of Mana (always fun for a romp in that game!)

    Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights both were amazing for me, though I had a questionable feeling about some of the mechanics of both games. In BG I went Paladin. In NWN I chose a CG Fighter, and almost went back to try Ranger until I got so . . . engrossed in my Fighter it wasn’t worth it.

    I’m sorry to disagree with you Shamus, but I’m big on medieval/fantasy settings and not so much on Sci-fi. I won’t touch KOTR (mostly for being too close to NWN, a game I’ve already played) but I am willing to try them if they stand out far enough. I missed playing Fallout when it was floating about out there . . . I don’t know the year but I might have been head-down in Stonekeep or Warcraft 2 at the time. Maybe even Diablo.

    No, I have no apologies; I didn’t even know the game EXISTED until I was 20.

    I have, for note, fallen for the Shin Megami Tensei “brand”. Digital Devil Saga and Nocturne notably. I would recommend them, as well, to anyone . . . who likes a compelling setting and some challenges (the second game I would not offer up to ANYone other than the hardcore RPGers). Nocturne is . . . damn close to falling for what’s on that list. I’ll add Nocturne in it’s own Wall O’ Text if you like but if you poke at it yourself you’ll see the “choices” part of the game is REALLY well done.

  53. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    I recommend you try fallout nevertheless(if you dont mind the outdated graphics).I tried it for the first time some 5 or 6 years ago.Thats the game that showed me that cyberpunk can indeed be as fun(or even better sometimes)than fantasy seting.

  54. Burning says:

    Self-balancing, hmmm. I guess I’m on the balance for it.

    Level grinding bores me, and I really dislike it when my party can beat all the random encounters leading up to a boss and can’t even scratch the boss. I don’t need to beat the boss on the first time, but I should be able to get close if I don’t play stupid. If my performance against the random encounters is no clue to my readiness for the boss, I feel the self balancing is to a certain extent broken.

    On the other hand a broken scaled encounter system is much worse than a broken self balancing one. You can eventually, if you grit your teeth and grind, get strong enough for that boss in a self balancing system. FFVIII had a scaled system and it was badly done. Many of the boss battles were nearly impossible to beat at any level without insane luck (e.g. 19 times out of 20 boss casts AoE spell capable of killing 2/3 of the party before the characters have a chance to take a single action :( )

    Also, for me scaled systems break the immersion worse than self balancing. The monsters surrounding the home city got tougher while we were away? Have they been level grinding too?

  55. Scourge says:

    As for the lesbian thin in masseffect http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/09/19

    ^^ *snicker* Very funny.

    Well, I also agree with all of your statements samus, these are things that we as gamers need, or at least i as a gamer would need that for a great game. Most of the usual games are very shallow story wise or replaying wise…

    But I don’t think taht we can expect any game with such content from a develeoper, they are all after money and as you once said Shamus, bitching or paying costumers are all the same.

    However we can get good games from indie game develoeprs, yes, that is true… I happen to ahve come across a game that really fascinated me and kept, and still keeps, me in its trance. I can’t stop playing it, although it is just a demo version ^^

    I’m talking about depths of peril http://www.soldak.com/
    Youa re not playing it alone, the other Covenants, your enemy’s, are also out there, slaying mosnters, collecting gear and adventure and do even quests!
    Your choices have also consequences, like you try to rescue someone and fail and he or she dies and then you can’à„t buy stuff from them, for some time at least. Or a thief is in the town and steals stuff from the vendors, now the quality of their stuff is dropping but you also get a quest to stop the thief!


  56. I have played TtRPG’s, CRPG’s, and am now playing MMORPG’s. Thanks to EQ, and now WoW, I don’t play other CRPG’s or even really any other computer games very much at all anymore. MMO’s approach all these points differently, some better some worse, and of course all to the approval of the person playing.

    I am a big fan of getting away from level/class based progression. In fact if I were able to design a game myself, being a cleric or ranger would be a title reward for meeting certain criteria as opposed to creating a character that is a rogue or a mage. And more than just having the title it would allow the person certain benefits and access new quests that only a person with that title could access.

    Not only that, but it really kills immersion for me to have a person talk about their lvl 20 palladin, or for a necromancer to brag about taking down this lvl 50 mob when they are only lvl 45.

    The classic Good vs evil is something that needs to have a whole new approach to it. And I think WoW does a pretty good job of keeping labels out of their game while still providing examples. However, for the PC’s there’s really not a chance to distinguish yourself as being good or evil. The two MMO’s I’ve been apart of theres really only faction with different organizations with the assumption that those organizations are good or evil. Your either with the organization or against the organization. The quests are often the same for “Good” as they are for “Evil”, the targets are just different (and often simply members of the other side).

    If a game is going to have a good vs evil system, they really should take a look at the objectives of a quest. Don’t just have evil quests in which you kill good people as opposed to good quests in which you kill evil people. Arguably any good act can have an evil mirror, thats fine, but allow the game to explore different approaches to the same goal, different goals for each side, and different consequences once the goal is acheived. Give good and evil meaning, not just a badge.

    Shamus mentions randomized loots. I have to say from an MMO point of view, randomized loots suck. And I’m not saying take out all variety, but I have to wonder why a caster raid mob is carrying a breastplate, or why a wolf is carrying a shiny axe of noob slaying. I understand why the developers do a lot of what they do, but the truth is there really is no in game sense to the outcome of their attempts to provide class balance. Of course, this also gets into my rants about itemization, but thats not apart of this discussion.

    Although, just to note, itemization is one big problem I have with these games. I’m tired of being reliant upon having the right level of gear to be able to acheive a goal. Its kinda hard to play a monk who has forsaken material goods, when I need a belt of monkly might, gloves of fist stomping, and a robe of all saves to be able to complete a quest. Having better gear and getting benefit from that gear is fine, but being reliant upon that same gear to be able to see all the content sucks.

    And in reading back through the OP, itemization does come up in having quests just to acquire certain items. Item rewards are good, but they shouldn’t be the point of the quest. And the items certainly shouldn’t be needed to progress the character.

  57. MooseUpNorth says:

    I dunno what makes a good RPG. I know what breaks immersion for me.

    1) If your RPG is going to offer opportunities to walk away from the main plot (Oblivion, chapter 2 of Baldur’s Gate 2), there should be natural plot-related reasons for doing so. Don’t tell me it’s absolutely imperative I find the unprotected heir or the world will end. Don’t kidnap a party member. Once in a while, stop the main plot and tell me: “Things are quiet for the moment. Go ahead and explore for a while. I will have work for you, but it’s no special hurry. When you’re ready, come see me and we’ll get started.” Don’t make me feel like I’m abandoning my urgent duties by playing side-quests.

    2) Don’t saddle me with an explicit back-story unless you’re asking me to stay firmly on the rails (Chrono Cross did this well.) Don’t jam me in jail, throw me in an academy, saddle me with parents, or make me the chosen one of a lost tribe.

    I may want to be an orphan. I may have parents. I may be a natural psychopath, I may be a natural hero. Start me at the edge of town with no special explanation. Let me settle into my ale for a minute, then burn the inn down around my ears. Frame me for something then toss me in jail.

    3) If you give me a horse, I need to be able to unsaddle it when I stable it at the very least (it’s bad enough the horse doesn’t get cooled, groomed, fed, watered, and otherwise utterly neglected.) I need to be able to meet the king in something nicer than grubby leather. Don’t make me trek through the arctic or desert in a chain-mail bikini. Don’t make me swim in full-plate. Don’t force modders to correct these oversights.

    4) Don’t make me king or master of a major guild without also modeling the power and responsibility that comes with taking on such a mantle. These are very busy roles. They should have something significant to do, even in quiet times.

    Balder’s Gate 2 (the d’Arnise keep) did this just right. You didn’t have to stick around for the day-to-day stuff, they came to you when there was a major decision to make.

    Oblivion dropped the ball on this one. You could become leader of four guilds, an order of knights, and take on two major titles, with it having no consequences whatsoever. Even in your own guild, you’re as unremarkable as the day you joined. “Oh, you must be that new mage that just signed up.” Yeah, that’s Archmage to you, idiot.

    5) Don’t saddle me with stupidly surreal NPCs. Don’t insult my intelligence with Moogles, little green martians, idiots who can only wield fishing rods and electric guitars in battle, don’t saddle me with dramatically oversized weapons, or wildly implausible ones (gunblades). I’m looking at you, Square.

    Better yet, don’t saddle me with NPCs at all, especially when you force me to accept NPCs from a very limited pool. I’m looking at you, Bioware (NWN, Jade Empire) and Obsidian (NWN2, Fallout series).

    6) One of the best things about the fallout series for me was the ability to wander into town as the “mysterious stranger”, act like a federal marshall-type, kick butt, clean house, and wander out. A big turn-off for me were the “naked ape” and “walking tank” sections.

  58. Scourge says:

    leopardeternal Says Shamus mentions randomized loots. I have to say from an MMO point of view, randomized loots suck. And I'm not saying take out all variety, but I have to wonder why a caster raid mob is carrying a breastplate, or why a wolf is carrying a shiny axe of noob slaying.

    Yeah, taht stuff is hilarious ^^ But I think taht there is a kind of hidden organization that donates spare weapon or the like to monsters so that adventureres can find them ^^

  59. Dan Hemmens says:

    I’ll say a few words in defence of Class-based systems, if I may.

    If I play a Wizard in – say – NWN, I have a noticeably different gameplay experience to if I played a Fighter. I’m interested in different loot, I need different companions, and I use different tactics in a fight. The downside is that I couldn’t pick up a sword even if I wanted to, and I’m stuck wearing a dress for the rest of the game.

    If I play a Wizard in – say – Oblivion, I get a little way into the game and figure that hey, I might as well use this funky sword I’ve got lying around. And since armour doesn’t get in the way of spellcasting all that much I might as well wear this Elvish Mail I picked up. And it’s useful to be able to get into locked places, so I’ll bump my security skill a bit, and get some stealth skills while I’m at it.

    If I play a Fighter in Oblivion, I realize that I might as well learn some magic, if I play a thief, I figure I might as well learn to fight (and if I want to play an assassin I have to be good with a sword anyway).

    Now part of this just comes from Oblivion’s “practice-based” skill system, but you get a similar effect in Fallout. Sure you *can* put all your points into Gambling, but if you want to survive you’ll almost certainly be pumping up your gun skills through the roof before halfway through the game.

    Essentially I feel that class-based systems give you the freedom to stick to one character type instead of winding up as a hybrid with whatever skills are most useful in the game.

  60. Ashton says:

    I don’t get this stuff about Fallout. I bought it very recently, made it to to Hub, and got so bored I haven’t touched it in two weeks. Frustratingly, I bought it because everyone kept saying how great it was, but no one said how, and I wanted to see for myself, and, well.

  61. Jol says:

    One thing that always gets me is when you’re put into an environment where there’s too much to do. I want to be railroaded for the first hour or two. Then bring on the immersiveness. But I want my beginning to be simple, straightforward, with a minimum of lasting consequences.

  62. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    @Dan Hemmens

    In NWN you could use your XP to get one level of a fighter and one as a thief and still have the same hybrid that can wield swords and pick locks.But if you do this youll end up with things you dont want(you have to pick move in shadows and move silently if you want just lock picking).If you want to play a pure wizard in oblivion,you practice just the magic and there you go,you are sticking to the same character just as if you are playing a pure wizard in NWN.Not some defense,is it?

    1. WJS says:

      No, adding levels of rogue in NWN doesn’t mean you have to put points in sneaking. It’s stupid to do that if you aren’t going to use it. Put the points in skills that will be useful, and if there are any left over, save them for next level!

  63. Dan Hemmens says:

    In NWN you could use your XP to get one level of a fighter and one as a thief and still have the same hybrid that can wield swords and pick locks … If you want to play a pure wizard in oblivion,you practice just the magic and there you go,you are sticking to the same character just as if you are playing a pure wizard in NWN.

    The big difference is that in NWN, multiclassing to Fighter and Rogue (say) is basically a bad idea. You’ll lose two levels of your spellcasting progression for very little return – your Open Lock skill won’t be high enough to pick any locks, and your BAB still won’t be high enough to be much good with a sword.

    In Oblivion, however, it’s the other way around. Just sticking with magic is a bad idea, because you have absolutely nothing to lose by learning to do everything else as well.

    Class-based games encourage and support specialisation. Skill-based games encourage and support generalisation. I personally find that specialists make for more interesting characters than generalists, because at the end of the day generalists are all kind of the same.

    The theoretical customisability of skills-based systems is illusionary. Yes, in theory you could play a “scientist with a gambling problem” in Fallout, and put your skill points all into Gambling, Science and Repair, but you would then find that you’d get your ass kicked in all the fights, and you wouldn’t even be able to get most of the diplomatic options because of your low Speech skill.

    In practice, the vast majority of Fallout characters wind up as Diplomat-Snipers, because that’s the build that lets you get the most out of the game, just like the majority of Oblivion characters will wind up as fighter-thief-mages.

    In a class-based game, effort will usually be made to balance the different classes, because once you start playing a Wizard you’re pretty much stuck playing a Wizard. In a skills-based game, however, you can always pick up some extra points in your combat skills, so there’s never any need to provide alternatives for people who *don’t* have those sorts of skills.

  64. Adam says:


    I believe you have a PS2, considering you just reviewed Bully.

    Thus, after reading your list of what makes a good RPG, I recommend Persona 3. The story is excellent and original, the XP works the way that you like, the battle system allows for a large degree of customization of characters and fighting styles, and battles (especially bosses) are challenging in a “sit down for a while to plan out your strategy” way rather than a “try again, dumbass” way, and you don’t have to control your NPCs. Even the dating sim aspects of it work very well, mostly because every character you meet is unique and engaging.

    I can’t say it doesn’t suck at the end, but I can say that the first 65 or so hours I have played (just over half of the in-game year) have been some of my best ever. I’m not sure if you read posts this far down, but if you do, you should look into that game.

  65. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    @Dan Hemmens

    Like I said thats not the problem of the system itself,but of balancing.If fallout had more use for gambling and science,playing a scientific gambler would be quite as good an option as a diplomat sniper.Besides,in fallout you cannot be as generalized as in oblivion since you have limited number of levels.

    And there is a point in having a few thief levels in NWN when youre a fighter:Evasion.

  66. Primogenitor says:

    Just my 2 cents:

    With the class/skill discussion, I think that is tied to solo/party. If your solo, you need to be a generalist, so a skill system allows you to survive. If your in a party, then each member can specialize to become more than the sum of the parts.

    Random loot is good, but needs to be sensible. Personally, I would randomize everything (plot included) and have the loot fall out of that, but thats just me.

    As much as I dislike consoles in general, Final Fantasy VII was the best RPG I have ever played (on a PC port). Sure, your characters were pretty much fixed, intra-party banter was non-existent, and there were no plot choices, but it was fun and interesting and not frustrating.

  67. Greg says:

    I can’t agree with you on self-balancing games. I never want to miss any of a game I’m playing, often subquests and optional sections are really interesting. It’s not in my makeup to go to the next area because the enemies in this one are getting a bit easy.

    I like it when the game stays relatively challanging despite my having decided to do every subquest and optional area (though not level farming, most boring thing in the world that, can’t rememeber ever having done it). I’d get bored if enemies just started folding before me for that.

    Perhaps the best system is a mix of the two? Whereby enemies did get more powerfull in response to a levelled character, enough to still be challanging but not enough that you don’t have a slightly easier time than if you hadn’t levelled.

  68. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Greg Says:

    “Perhaps the best system is a mix of the two? Whereby enemies did get more powerfull in response to a levelled character, enough to still be challanging but not enough that you don't have a slightly easier time than if you hadn't levelled.”

    One way out of this I see is to make side quests give you reputation based on which more(or less)enemies would want to get you.So if you do loads of good stuff,evil guys start hunting you.If you do lots of evil,you get good adventurers after your head.The more known you get,the tougher the enemies that try to attack you.But the rat still stays just that:A simple easy to squash rat.

  69. Scourge says:

    Daemian_Lucifer Says:

    “One way out of this I see is to make side quests give you reputation based on which more(or less)enemies would want to get you.So if you do loads of good stuff,evil guys start hunting you.If you do lots of evil,you get good adventurers after your head.The more known you get,the tougher the enemies that try to attack you.But the rat still stays just that:A simple easy to squash rat”

    Almost like they did in restricted area, when you managed to finish a mission did you get reputation and the enemys got stronger, if you failed did you loose reputation…

  70. @Dan Hemmens

    A skill based system can limit the number and or lvls of skills a person can get, thus enforsing either specialization or jack of all trades. Take a gander at Star Wars: Galaxies for skill base systems.

    But to make a game more real, I would much prefer a system that allows my character to learn anything no matter his trade or profession. This seems more real to me than an enforced set of skills with the inability to even dabble in anything else. In any adventure setting the ability to defend ones self to physical attack is common sense in my mind and I think anyone should be able to learn basic self defense, and how to use the more common weapons. The classic 1st lvl wizard out of D$D would lose a fight against a house cat 3 out of 4 times if they couldn’t use their magic. That doesn’t make sense to me. It bugs the hell out of me when I play my hunter in WoW and am unable to hide…

  71. Dev Null says:

    If its not going to be at least a _bit_ self-balancing, then there need to be limits to your abilities, or at least a point of diminishing returns (no matter how skillful you get with that rapier, you really shouldn’t be able to one-shot a dragon with it…)

    Morrowind, as much as I liked it, failed at that. In the beginning, I loved that the game wasn’t self-balancing, and that there were places I would go and just get stomped. Towards the end, when you had with casual effortlessness killed 2 of the 4 gods of the world (the third was already dead, and the fourth I killed too even though he was on my side just to make the set) – well at that point it seemed a bit of a letdown, really.

  72. Zereth says:

    I think part of the problem here is that “RPG” is really, really broad. Are Nethack and Jade Empire both RPGs? Sure. Are they the same type of game? Hell no. It’s like saying “what makes a good action game”. FEAR, God of War, and, say… Warning Forever are all action games. But they’re hardly the same type of game.

    In much the same way, Avernum, Oblivion, and Final Fantasy 10 are all RPGs, but they’re radically different from each other. What makes a good type of RPG Type A might not work in an RPG Type B, and trying to implement it in an RPG Type C would be nonsensical. And don’t even think of putting it into RPG Type D, that’s missing the whole point.

  73. Lo'oris says:

    even considering the clarifications, I totally (but PERSONALLY) disagree with point #3.
    and I think that point #10 could be difficult to develope.

    but, apart from that, I totally agree with the rest of the post :)

  74. cowness says:

    Great post, a couple of things I’d like to mention though:

    I remember getting engrossed in Chrono Trigger on the SNES a while ago. I mean the story wasn’t the usual “you’re a medieval wanderer searching for the only sword that can destroy the bad guy who’s ruining the earth” theme at all. In fact, it was something all of us could relate to. Sure, it had time-travel and all, but what’s an RPG without any fantasy? Chrono Trigger was one of my personal favorites.

    Quoting Alex (post#5), Mount&Blade is coming along really well… No story yet, but the day I downloaded the demo, I played it for 4 hours flat and “finished” it (it doesn’t let you play beyond level 6). It IS a medieval-ish setting, yet doesn’t give you that “yes, I’ve played it before” feeling. This goes to show that game mechanics and a little bit of thoughtful innovation (like the brilliant horse combat system) can do a world of good to an RPG, even if it didn’t have memory-hogging eye-candy.

  75. Kizer says:

    once again, I have to recommend the much-maligned RPG Skies of Arcadia: Legends for Gamecube. Yeah, the battle system’s crap and there’s no character customization, but the story is quite strong. Yes you spend a lot of time searching around for special baubles, but these baubles are more integral to the plot than in most games. For example, look at Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You have to collect three spiritual stones for the sole purpose of opening the Door of Time, then you collect six medallions to open the path to fighting Ganondorf. Great. These nine items do absolutely nothing else for you. They’re needed by the plot, but have no other purpose. Compare these to the Moon Crystals in SoA. I’ll refrain from spoilers (I assume everyone knows the plot/story for Zelda since it IS an old N64 game that most people have played if they are going to play it.) but suffice it to say the moon crystals individually have great power (unusable by the player, but still interactive with the player) and they have more tricks in store in later parts of the game. I think what makes the game work is how much of it is based on the real world, yet also completely different. And it fulfills rule number 8: no dragons and medieval knights here. The setting is pure fifteenth century Age of Exploration. Only in the sky. On floating ships. In a world called Arcadia. Regardless, check it out. If you make it through crappy, monotonous, boring combat system you’ll find a story filled with lovable, memorable characters and a great version of the classic, epic, “save the world” plot.
    And there are guns! ;)

  76. My personal favorite RPG of all time is Chrono Trigger. Let’s see which one of your standards it meets, shall we?

    It self-balances. Even the end boss, Lavos, and the new bosses released in the DS remake can be beaten by grinding and exploring for gear and levels. Even better, combat is fun, tactical and exciting. Since this is pre-Playstation, you don’t see eon-long attack animations for anything you do. And since the best way to “grind” is in fact to explore the world and complete sidequests, the process isn’t painless. You can even get cool content, like L. 9 Spekkio, if you stay underlevelled!

    Since it’s a SNES game, you get many “But thou must” choices. Nonetheless, when you decide whether or not the woman in 12,000 BC should keep her tree, it’s an interesting choice. Further, if you kick ass, you can kill the final boss very early.

    The world isn’t randomized (though it became more so in the DS remake), but loot can be. Treasure chests are static, but not monster drops.

    The major villains are Magus, Mother Brain, Zeal, Azala and Lavos. All interesting.

    Not skill-based, gang control, no control of avatar, and it is a fairly rail-based game. But it’s not fantasy: You get a robot and a cavewoman.

    What made the game GOOD?

    1) Time travel is compelling. You get to see the neat, tidied-up history of a fictional world. (Chrono Cross made that hellish, but it’s still a good game). You play a part in shaping it, and your decisions (like whether or not to charge for Jerky) have impacts.
    2) Interesting characters with art design done by a world-famous artist responsible for one of the biggest franchises in history, Dragon Ball. Further, the nerdy character and the physical bruiser character are both women. And the final balance of men vs. women is 3 to 4, even with the secret male character. Not bad at all. Further, the two main female characters get among the heaviest plot exposition.
    3) Multiple endings. Not just a good and evil ending, but rather a dozen distinct endings.
    4) A simple levelling system that nonetheless rewards strategy by making the pairups of your 3 main party vital.

    And so on.

  77. Lionday says:

    So what about a tactical RPG like Finale Fantasy Tactics. I myself love those games but i love it when they let me customize the characters traits (Class, Stats, Abilities).

  78. TSi says:

    I recently finished The Witcher 2 and feel like it falls under most of your demanding aspects. Except for the difficulty of some boss fights that might require to restart them a few times to try different techniques or, for one of them, to understand what the developers want you to do.

    1 – Although it is not required, you can farm some mobs for xp and materials.

    2 – Choices have consequences and the storyline has many ramifications (you can even import a save game from the first Witcher).

    3 – Although the world is static, items scattered in containers and sold by merchants are semi-random and replenish over time. even mob drops have random quantities from 0 to x.

    4 – Most bad guys/girls have their own motivations and you don’t have to kill them. Town folks react to your presence and some have routines that make them walk around from their home to their working area/tavern ( they also have an unique name and you can learn who they are from where they live and what lies around their place).

    5 – Combat efficiency depends 30% on your passive equipment/skills bonuses and 70% on how you use them as a player ( although I sometimes don’t notice any improvements from my stat bonuses).

    6 – You play a charismatic being but get to choose how he reacts to the world and to other people from your actions and decisions. Sometimes people follow you or ask you to follow them but they never die or get in your way unless the story requires it. you can still go wherever you want whenever you want.

    7 – The story is very well written and the ramifications in the storytelling only gives you specific bits until the final chapter where everything gathered is glued together to form your personal story.

    8 – … skip this or try out Dead Space which has many points in common to System Shock … X )

    9 – Unfortunately, this game is quite linear and only the first town allows you to roam around and get deep into a forest.

    10 – Change hairstyle ? … Yeah that’s all you can do knowing that some armours cover your entire head with a hood.

    If this game had less brute and buggy combat and interface system (the 2.0 patch tried hard to improve them though) and less crappy boss fights, I’m sure it would have had caught more attention…
    If you ever play it, I’d love to hear what you have to say on it. : )

  79. Hiram Flautt says:

    With havin so much written content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being ripped off? I’d truly appreciate it.

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