Role Playing Games

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jul 4, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 14 comments


The Elder Scrolls (this includes Morrowwind and Oblivion) is a big sandbox world. The main character is defined entirely by the player, who designs not only the look of this character but decides what their personality and motivations are. The game is centered around freeform exploration and is by definition non-linear. The game is mostly made up of optional sidequests. If you stick to the main story you’ll see far less than half of the game.

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy is a long confusing book in videogame form with a wonderful self-balancing system where you control three characters in turn-based combat. There are about seven main characters, each with their own fixed personality, motivations, and abilities. The story unfolds as these seven interact with each other and the world. The player has no impact on the personality or appearance of amy of them. They simply travel through each conversation, getting to know their character in the process. The story is as much about what happens to these seven as it is about saving the world.

Diablo 2

Diablo isn’t so much a game as a pià±ata simulator. Click on the monster to kill it and prizes come out! What will you get? Some coins? Some gems? The ultra-ultra-ultra rare rare drop Mace of Ubersmashery? Another damn stamina potion? The main character has no personality outside of what character class they are. The story is strictly linear.

So what do these games have in common? Nothing, really. Except that they are all filed under the heading of “Role Playing Games”, a genre so wide and so diverse that it means almost nothing.

The closest thing to a definition I can come up with that can be applied to all games of this type is “any game where your character(s) grow in power or improve their stats over time or through accomplishing in-game goals”. I suppose that works, but according to this definition Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would be a Role-Playing Game, since Carl Johnson has a lot of stats and abilites that the player can develop.

I bring this up because I think these sorts of games are among my favorites. I derive great satisfaction from games where I can grow my character. However, when I see the label RPG slapped over a game, I have no way of knowing what sort of RPG it really is. Is it a “kill monsters and take their stuff” game like Diablo? Is it a story game like Final Fantasy? Or is it a freeform game like Fallout, Morrowwind, or Oblivion? The former types are good, but it is these freeform games that really scratch my particular itch.

Despite its many grievous flaws, annoying bugs, unintentional AI hilarity, and the occasionally infuriating quest, Oblivion really appeals to me on some deep, fundamental level. I don’t know why.

I have certain patterns that I follow when playing these freeform games.

  1. I never take my first character all the way through the game. I usually create a character, then advance a little ways into the game until I reach the point where I understand how the leveling system works. Then I see all the ways in which I could have developed my character better. I’ll then abandon this character and create another. (I always save a backup of them while entertaining the fantasy that I might come back to them later, but I never do.) Sometimes I get to my third or fourth character before I find one that I like and that I take all the way through the game.
  2. I usually alternate between male and female characters. I like games that take your gender into account and react differently based on who you are.
  3. I always play as a good or heroic character until I beat the game. Then I go back and beat it as an evil character. Note that I very much prefer games that allow you to define your good / evil via actions, and I scorn games that have the nerve to ASK me if I’m good or evil.
  4. I love games like Oblivion that come up with their own stats and leveling system. I love exploring these new systems. I generally don’t like games that adopt the D&D d20 system for the computer.
  5. I tend to “hurry” to the end of the game on my first trip through. On each subsequent trip I tend to go a bit slower and do more of the sidequests than on the previous trip. On each journey through the game I try to find new things, new quests, new places, or new items that I’d missed on previous trips.
  6. Once I think I’ve seen it all, I usually stop playing, and begin waiting for the new freeform game to come along. All other games are just passing distractions to keep me amused while I wait for a real freeform RPG.

From The Archives:

14 thoughts on “Role Playing Games

  1. ubu roi says:

    Then there’s the online RPG’s, such as Everquest, Anarchy Online, Worlds of Warcraft, and Star Wars Galaxies, which are a completely different cup of tea. Of them all, the original SWG had the best leveling system. You learned by doing, and had complete freedom to develop your character any way you wanted. There was a maximum amount of overall skill you could have, but if you decicded you didn’t like how you were built, it was simple to drop some of your skills and pick up others. There were a ton of non combat skills, but you couldn’t become a complete master of a non-combat skill and still have a lot of combat ability. You could even become an interior decorator, though a lot of it had to do with your natural skills! Or you could master multiple combat skills, and become supremely dangerous in combat. Yet you had few content restrictions. Straight out of the box, if you wanted to go after some of the most challenging content, you could hop in a landspeeder and go there. You’d die horribly, but hey, that’s what clones were for!

    At one point, I had an artisian/rifleman/medic who also played in a band…. fun times. Then came the so-called “combat upgrade” and they ruined the game by grafting EQII’s leveling system on top of it. A third of their playerbase vanished overnight.

    Everquest (which I am playing again, since the progression servers are online now) has defined character classes and a level based system. It could be considered a variant of the d20 system, but like Oblivion, it’s freeform in the sense of you pick which challenges to tackle. It’s like Diablo in that you play whack-the-pinata. And like those games, what you do determines who your friend and enemies are (though you’ll have some to start, based on race and religion). It’s also very unforgiving in that it’s got some reverse barriers, where one screwup, and you’re in the hole. In one case, that should be The Hole, thanks to a cliff edge past which many newbies have to run, and even many high level characters require major cooperative efforts to reach you at the bottom if you fall off. Or reach your corpse and gear, rather….

    And that’s the type of game that facinates me, even as Shamus loves Oblivion style games.

  2. HC says:

    Pinata simulator! Wonderful – it is, too.

    Novels are fun, as are sandboxes; pinatas… not so much. For me, at least. The best I’ve seen so far blend elements of the two – Fallout, or Planescape:Torment.

    Actually, speaking of novel mechanics and freeform games – did you ever try Arcanum?

    MMORPGs… well, they’re interesting, but if I had that much time… I’d rather have the half-dozen other hobbies I could support with the same outlay in time.

  3. Wonderduck says:

    “Pinata simulator” is a perfect descriptor. I wish I had thought of it. ;-)

    Like you, I’m much more fond of the free-form game. I’m very old-school when it comes to the ‘what is a RPG’ question.

    I ask myself: “Is it like Bard’s Tale or Ultima VI or Baldur’s Gate?” If it is, it’s a RPG. Otherwise, it’s something else. Oblivion seems like it would be a RPG by that score; the Pinata Simulator would not.

    Heh. I like “pinata simulator.”

  4. Dan says:

    oooo shamus your becoming quite the trend setter

  5. Katy says:

    I liked Diablo II very much (what the hell was up with the first Diablo, though, in that your character didn’t run? “OhJezusNoez! This boss hit really hard! Let’s WALK away!”), but after finishing the game, I never wanted to go back and do it again.

    With NeverWinter Nights, I think it’s a rough combination of the Pinata Simulator and the story game. You learn more about major PCs, like Aribeth, Aarin Gend, and your henchman (that’s a great word). You also have more control over the kind of character you make, so it feels more personal. In the end, though, it’s a lot of clicking on a set map that takes perhaps 20 minutes to fill in per area on a fairly linear plot.

    So I’m incredibly stoked to try out Oblivion. I dislike games that really don’t have an ending (like the Sims), but with Oblivion, I can get a huge fill of the freeform part of the game and then finally finish off the main quest to get that resolved feeling.

  6. Khoram says:

    Oh come now, there are sub-genre conventions for these sorts of things.

    Final Fantasy and its ilk are labeled “Japanese RPGs”, or JRPGs.

    Diablo and its clones are “Action RPGs”. ARPGs?

    The rest, what we would probably consider “traditional, western CRPGs”, we’ll just call CRPGs. This would include your Ultimas, Wizardrys, Bard’s Tales, Phantasies, Wizard’s Crown, Gold Box series, and Infinity Engine games.

    Although, I think the Elder Scrolls and other open-ended sorts (and possibly the Gothics, though I haven’t played them) could have their own label, let’s call them “Sand-box RPGs”, or SRPGs. Or perhaps ORPGs, Open-ended RPGs.

  7. Cheesemaster says:

    I actually would say that GTA:SA is an RPG/FPS – whatever Oblivion is, I reckon GTA:SA is that genre.

    The reason more people class Oblivion as an RPG and GTA:SA as an FPS is, IMHO, either becuase Oblivion is in a fantasy setting (and thus more generically “RPG-ish”), or (more sensibly) becuase the experience gained in GTA:SA has less of an impact on your succes – apart from a minority of missions where you needed a certain level of skill in, say, swimming or flying, it was perfectly possible (though quite difficult) to finish the game with no experience gained outside of missions.

    Oblivion, on the other hand, requires you to level up. Unless you do, the later missions in the oft-ignored core quest are impossible. This is even more obvious in Diablo II – taking a character who hadn’t finished the Den of Evil, no matter how skilled a player or how decked-out in armour etc he was, into the Cathedral would result in a quick death from the first fireball a Dark One Shaman threw at your head.

    However, this is where it confuses me. This reliance on character level rather than gamer skill I always thought was one of the core concepts of an RPG. Yet a game commonly classed as an RPG, which had this taken to the extreme (Diablo II) has no “RP” at all in the “RPG”. It’s all quite confusing.

  8. Corylea says:

    LOVE the “pinata simulator” line! The treasure even sprays out, the way it would in a pinata.

  9. Tacoma says:

    Pinata simulator ftw!

    I’m imagining a ruined and decrepit birthday party that never ended. The cake is long since eaten and the guests have begun scrounging for wild mushrooms and squirrels. A tattered banner reading “HAP_Y _IRTHDA_ BIL_Y!” hangs between two trees along with limp, empty maroon balloons.

    And a grim-faced little Billy is well into his thirties. His too-small blue jean shorts and Spiderman t-shirt are faded and torn. He clenches the tee ball bat and squints hard at the bright new pinata. The ground below is littered with candy wrappers and confetti. The guests crouch around in a circle gibbering to each other about the moon and scurvy.

    Billy swings. With a hollow *BIFF* the pinata sails off to the corner of the yard and smacks wetly against the chain-link fence. The partygoers dash foward and tear it apart greedily. Alas. No Boots of the Oceans. He waves his elderly parents in to string up the next pinata.

    This party will last as long as it needs to.

  10. Liam says:

    My experience with Oblivion was extremely varied.

    Day 1.

    ME: “Oblivion is in first person? But then you can’t see your character. No thanks. There’s no way it would be as fun as BG2.”

    FRIEND: “But it’s a completely open world with an awesome storyline and engaging combat. Dodging is active! You can use a shield with a mouse button and swing your sword actively! You can sneak attack unaware enemies for more damage!”

    ME: “Right, well, the last game you told me to play was FF Tactics. Which played like a grindfest tacked on to a book. No thanks.”

    FRIEND: “You can make your own spells.”


    DAY 2.

    ME: “The choice is obvious. I can make my own spells, and active dodging is a reality. I am making an acrobat mage.”

    FRIEND: “That’s almost as stupid as the time you tried to make a constitution based mage in RO.”

    ME: “Yeah, stupid like a fox. I’m going to rape this game.”

    FRIEND: “You’re an idiot.”

    Day 3.

    ME: “Man, the life of an acrobat mage is hard. Levelling up with these low acrobatics and athletics skills is really freaking hard. And ranged spells area bloody joke! I really need to finish these guild quests so I can make my own spells.”

    FRIEND: “You’re seriously still playing that character? Come on man… Why can’t you ever just make a NORMAL mage?”

    ME: “Not only is that suboptimal, it’s boring. So I’m missing a couple of schools of magic in exchange for fast movement and the ability to backflip and jump like a frikkin ninja monkey. It will totally be worth it.”

    Day 4.

    ME: “So I finished the mages guild quest and spent all night optimizing my spells.”

    FRIEND: “And?”

    ME: “I kill everything with one spell.”

    FRIEND: “No way. Everything?”

    ME: “Yes. And it’s a touch spell so I almost never miss.”

    FRIEND: “You can fight in melee with your mage?”

    ME: “Dude, I’m almost unhittable. Dodging skills too amazing.”

    FRIEND: “Wow.”

    In short, I broke Oblivion in no time flat. I had a tremendous amount of fun playing the game, but after that point everything became meaningless. There was no challenge I was ill equiped to face. I artificially boosted my level up by 10 to see if it made any difference with the monsters, but no. Sometimes it took 2 spells then, but my character at that point was the master of hit and run tactics. Then I got an invisibility spell. The game was now completely trivialized. Even worse, because I went in that game knowing exactly what I wanted for my character (stat-wise as well as RP wise), I to this day have no desire to ever play it with another character.

    And Fallout 3 was a disapointment. Oh well. Back to P&P.

  11. dyrnwyn says:

    I normally hate open ended games like Oblivion. I feel like I have no meaning in my life if I’m not railroaded at least a little, but Oblivion has rekindled my long dormant desire for absurd side quests. I think it really started when I walked into Bruma and the decided that I wanted to systematically eradicate all of the towns inhabitant. I did, almost no one lives in Bruma now. The list of missions got bigger I have the feeling I won’t be done with Oblivion until I have completed the main story, done all the Daedra quests, completed all side quests I can find, bought all the houses, filled an empty barrel to the brim with stolen strawberries, pilfered every alcoholic beverage in Cyrodil and killed every non quest character I can get my filthy paws on. My infamy is over 100 and Guards are starting to recognize me as “that criminal” Little do they know my reign of blood and terror is only beginning.

    On a more gameplay based not. Magic is unprecedentedly powerful in that game. You basically have to play as a mage. Luckily I beat the system by ignoring all optimization methods available. My character is a pathetic mixture of badly placed points and poorly chosen sleeping patterns, but I’m still playing and don’t see an end anywhere soon.

  12. jubuttib says:

    If something in Oblivion bothers you, you can always just change it. You can revise the combat, change leveling, change magic, stop the world from growing with your character (Minotaur Lords on the side of the road. Goddamn MINOTAUR LORDS ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. WHAT?! How can anyone in the countryside stay alive? And the main quest involves some pretty horrible stuff happening to various towns and their people. The only way to keep the world safe for the people who live there is to not play the game. But I digress.), pretty much everything can be changed with mods. And once you’ve played it through once, load up a few different mods and it’s a different game again.

    That is why I like Oblivion. Though I much prefer the world of Morrowind. In pretty much every way. But I won’t be satisfied before I can travel the whole of Tamriel. Nah, scrap that. The whole of Nirn. (Yeah, like that’ll happen.)

  13. Silames says:

    Hey there, i myself like freeform games as well. I liked Fable II and GTA and all that but, like you, i think they should add more finess and skill into the game.

  14. Scampi says:

    On a (really late) sidenote: I think Final Fantasy’s combat was not really “turn based”. I think between real time and turn based there exists a kind of action-point based system, where a character has a set amount of time to recover until his next action, but where this is not actually mandating him to take an action at the point when he’s allowed to take it, comparable to, say attack speed in other games. If I attack somebody in Oblivion, I can not attack until the previous attack has completely been executed from attack to moving back my hand to a point from which I can attack again.
    I think in a turn based game, it should be impossible to have time pressure while acting, what is perfectly able when using a FF-style system. My game of reference is FF VIII, where it may be a PC’s turn to make a move, only to be suddenly and surprisingly trampled down by an enemy. It was not really turn based (unless I count it as turn based, when in an P&P RPG I prepare to announce my action, only for the GM to call: “Your time’s over. Your enemy attacks you first, your action is denied.”) In true turn based gameplay I expect to be allowed to execute my action while it’s my turn.

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