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So You Want To: Write A Western RPG
The blanket term "Western RPG" covers a wide variety of video games, from story-heavy digital Doorstopper equivalents to Wide Open Sandboxes to teeth-crushingly hard Dungeon Crawlers. There is no universal formula to all of these. No guide will ever help you write another Planescape: Torment, but this article will show you several possibilities of writing and designing a simple but working Western RPG.

Be sure to read Write An RPG for more general advice. Other guides, particularly Write A Story, Write A Video Game, Write A Heroic Fantasy, Write A High Fantasy, and Write A Cyber Punk Story, may also be helpful, since this guide will focus less on giving you ideas for plots and characters and more on providing a general overview of important considerations when designing an RPG. Lastly, make sure you're familiar with common Role-Playing Game Terms.

Necessary Tropes

A necessary disclaimer: Tropes alone do not make a great video game. A good programming code base (from the basic game loop, through graphical and physical engine, to the artificial intelligence) and high-quality artistic input, both visual (concept art, GUI art, sprites/3D models, etc.) and audio (voice acting, music) are just as if not even more important to the video game experience. While the following guide touches on some of these points, none of them will be covered here at length, as they fall outside of this wiki's scope.

Going by the GNS theory, an RPG needs five key components:

Finally, one more trope essential for exploration and thus to a free-roaming RPG experience is Take Your Time. However unrealistic, the players must know that there is no time limit for main plot missions, or they will readily miss out on most of the non-essential content out of fear that the main quest becomes unwinnable. Soft time limits are okay, though: if certain side quests are only available until a certain plot event but said event itself can be postponed indefinitely, a lover of exploration will always Talk to Everyone and clear the former before doing the latter.

The seven core tropes are thus: Player Character(s), Character Customization, World Building, The Quest, Game Engine, Game System, and Take Your Time.

Choices, Choices

Choices or Options?

This is a very fundamental decision that emerges from your own gaming philosophy and permeates the entire game's writing and design: do you offer your players choices or do you give them options?

  • Choices occur when players must select from among several alternative paths in the game, knowing that once they do, other paths will be barred to them. Choices tend to have far-reaching consequences and improve the Replay Value. This style is better suited for story-driven RPGs.
  • Options are non-exclusive optional content, which can be experienced and explored without affecting other options to any significant extent. Options extend a single playthrough duration and work best in exploration-driven free-roaming RPGs.

Narrative, Sandbox, or Dungeon Crawler?

Another fundamental decision is what kind of gameplay experience your RPG will be focused on. As it happens, there are three different kinds of experience players commonly look for in role-playing video games, which can be more or less precisely mapped onto the three pen-and-paper gameplay modes, as identified by the GNS theory:

  • Narrative RPG. The story permeates every aspect of such games: the game world is driven by the plot, the characters get the players emotionally invested, all locations and even items tell stories of their own, dialogue branches out extensively, etc. On the other hand, grinding opportunities are eliminated, while the crafting and character leveling systems are only as complex as mandated by the story. This type obviously corresponds to the Narrativist mode. Typical examples include RPGs of the Interplay Entertainment tradition (almost anything by Black Isle, BioWare, Troika, CD Projekt RED, Obsidian, inXile).
  • Sandbox RPG. Freedom of exploration, action, and expression overrides all else in such games. This freedom necessitates extensive Character Customization, lack of rigid story-based constraints, and most of all, a huge game world that is both open and highly interactive. It also often leads to the "main" plot being pushed to the sidelines and the development costs going through the roof. This type can be mapped to the Simulationist mode (in the sense that the players pretend to actually live in the virtual sandbox). Typical examples include classic Ultima titles, the Gothic series, and the modern Bethesda school of RPGs.
  • Dungeon Crawler. The players' motivation in these games is to master the game system by improving their character's attributes, skills, abilities, and equipment until they can beat every challenge the game throws at them. Such games commonly feature randomized and respawning enemies, random but customizable loot, intricate Skill Trees, and Absurdly High Level Caps. The story is used mainly as a mood-setting backdrop, and the exploration is kept within strict bounds. This type correlates strongly with the Gamist mode. Typical examples include all Roguelikes, Wizardry and Diablo series, and the latter's many clones.

You can, of course, mix up any or all of the three, but such experimentation very often ends up diluting the overall experience. Remember that you cannot please everyone and don't try to cram in every RPG Element you read about in this article just for the sake of it being there. Instead, choose carefully and deliberately which the elements will strengthen the experience you want to give to your players—and leave everything else out.

Fantasy or Sci-Fi?

Since the exploration is the backbone of RPGs, it pays to start by defining the setting of the game. For many reasons, most RPGs out there belong to the genre of Speculative Fiction, specifically its two most prominent subgenres: Fantasy and Science Fiction. The main reason for that is probably tradition, since The Lord of the Rings-inspired Dungeons & Dragons and other classic pen-and-paper RPGs all had some form of magic at their cores. But fantastic settings also help bring about Willing Suspension of Disbelief towards RPG abstractions of complex concepts, like good and evil, and interactions, like physical combat, by drawing a clear line between Real Life and the imaginary worlds they take place in.

The differences between fantasy and sci-fi are many (see Analysis.Speculative Fiction) but so are the similarities, and it's not without reason that the Sci-Fi Counterpart meta-trope exists. One difference that may be important for World Building and plot writing is that in fantasy, Older Is Better, while in sci-fi, it's usually the bleeding edge technology that trumps everything. Accordingly, while in a fantasy RPG, the hero might be searching for an ancient artifact to destroy an even older evil, a futuristic RPG may revolve around the hero building a space superweapon to repel the invading Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.

For the default templates of fantasy and science fiction settings, see Standard Fantasy Setting and Standard Sci Fi Setting, respectively. In the following sections, a generic Heroic Fantasy setting will be assumed for the purpose of simplicity unless stated otherwise. Keeping the above in mind, it shouldn't be too difficult to translate the recommendations for fantasy RPGs into their sci-fi equivalents.

Single Character or Player Party?

Will the players control a single Player Character or an entire Player Party?

  • Single-character RPGs allow the players to delve much deeper into Character Customization and, by design, offer more flexibility therein. It also facilitates a larger gameplay diversity, as the players can choose to play as a straightforward One-Man Army, take the stealthy approach, or resolve most quests diplomatically, without worrying about other party members' skills going to waste.
  • Party-based RPGs tend to focus largely on tactical combat, because party means character specialization and combat is the only middle ground that fighters, mages, and thieves have in common. There is little point, for instance, in including a realistic stealth system, if the party thief is the only one who can use it while the rest of the party must stay back, twiddling thumbs.
  • The middle ground between the single-character and party-based approaches is a single-character RPG with temporary recruited followers. While essentially single-character, the game allows the players to bring NPC assistants along on quests. The difference to the party-based approach lies in the much smaller degree of control and customization of NPC followers by the players and in that the latter don't have to rely on the former to win.

Do the players create their character(s) from scratch or choose from a set of predefined characters?

  • Created characters are by far the most common alternative for the primary Player Characters in Western RPGs (in fact, only one major RPG series in recent memory averts it). Creating the entire party, however, while popular in the past, has gone out of favor in the past decade, probably because it takes a lot more time than most players are ready to invest before getting to the actual game.
  • Predefined NPCs are the most popular alternative for party members nowadays and an inevitable one for temporary followers. While the players don't create them, they can be customized after recruiting them, offering a nice trade-off between being able to start playing right away and still shaping the game to your liking.

If you let the players create their own characters, following aspects of Character Customization are expected:

If you chose the party-based (or follower-based) approach, consider also following points:

Technology

Various Videogame Views affect Player and Protagonist Integration, so it is important to consider their advantages and limitations and choose or develop the Game Engine accordingly. Some would argue that Isometric Projection is the one and true view in classic Western RPGs but that is not the whole truth. The three most common views in role-playing video games are:

  • First Person. By seeing the world through the eyes of your character, you become that character, so most such games tend to star a Heroic Mime or a Featureless Protagonist. Gameplay-wise, 1P view is optimal for aiming and shooting, while melee combat is less spectacular. Tactical party control is often absent or limited to Squad Controls.
  • Isometric Projection (or the similar Three-Quarters View). This view lends itself best to party-based games, where battle tactics and party micromanagement are essential to success. Story-wise, seeing your character(s) from above indicates that you are experiencing their story (or stories) rather than making your own.
  • Third Person. This can be seen as the middle-ground between first-person and isometric views. With less emphasis on tactical control, 3P puts you more immediately into the action, while still distinguishing between you and your character. One thing this view shows off best is the close-quarters combat in all its gory goodness.

Hybrid forms are also possible, such as switching between 1P for aiming and shooting and 3P for melee, or zooming in and out for a classic 3P view or a quasi-isometric tactical perspective, respectively.

Once decided on the presentation method, you have following options:

Linear or Non-linear?

When speaking about (non-)linearity, three aspects of it should be distinguished:

Depending on the gameplay focus of your game, each one of these three aspects needs to be expressed differently:

  • Narrative RPGs profit immensely from plot non-linearity, since it allows the players to effectively co-author the story, tailor it to the concept of their Player Character, and feel the impact of their decisions throughout. Level design non-linearity is also important, since it allows the players to express their character's individuality in gameplay, not just the story. Exploration, on the other hand, should strike a balance between not letting the players lose track of the plot and not confining them to a singular path.
  • Sandbox RPGs, meanwhile, are all about exploration non-linearity. From the moment the sandbox is opened, most of the game world should be accessible to the players, whether it makes sense for them to go there or not. Non-linear level design is also essential, since enforcing a certain play style in a level effectively excludes all players who don't follow it and contradicts the open world philosophy. Story non-linearity is ill-advised, however, because the players want to explore the world, not ponder the consequences of their actions.
  • Dungeon crawlers, in contrast to the other types, don't gain much from non-linearity at all. The players aren't there for the story (which doesn't mean, however, that the narrative can be ignored), while too much exploration freedom makes it difficult to balance encounters and distracts the players from grinding and looting. Level design non-linearity should be present insofar as is necessary for both short and long-ranged specialists to be able to clear encounters—and if your dungeon crawler features Randomly Generated Levels, the level generator must take that in account.

Levels and Experience

One of the defining traits of the RPG genre is that the player-controlled characters become increasingly more powerful as the game progresses. This is often but not necessarily represented by the Character Level, which is a all-round handy tool, both for the ease of reference ("you should avoid that area until level 10+") and for the in-game Dynamic Difficulty via Level Scaling. While potentially infinite, many developers choose to put a Cap on character levels, if not to prevent the character from getting too powerful, then simply because there are no meaningful ways to improve a character past a certain point.

There are three popular systems that define how characters gain levels:

  • Experience Points are abstract tokens that the player characters gain as they overcome in-game obstacles (see below). When a certain (ever-increasing) number of XP is accumulated, they reach the next level and are rewarded with points to distribute arbitrarily among their stats.
  • The Point Build System eliminates the middle man (XP and levels) and awards skill points right away; their distribution, however, is still completely up to the players. Because such systems tend to reward quest-solving over combat, the amount of skill points to be gained is usually finite.
  • In the Training System, player characters increase their skill scores by repeatedly applying said skills in-game. Such systems tend to feature very high skill score caps with a linear skill level progression (no skill trees).

In the latter two systems, Character Level becomes superfluous but is often included, nonetheless, for the ease of Power Level assessment. This is usually done by dividing the total number of skill points/levels gained since the character creation by a two-digit number (often 10). In some games, Level Ups occur automatically; in others, they have to be triggered manually (often by resting), so the players can postpone the irreversible character build decisions that come with it.

Experience and skill points are usually gained by following activities:

Level Grinding (whether combat-based or non-combat, e.g. Item Crafting) is generally frowned upon in Western RPGs, but the trick to making it entertaining is to prevent it from becoming a chore. First, grinding must be just random enough to force the players to adapt their tactics and methods on the fly, but not enough to turn it into a Luck-Based Mission. Secondly, the players must have an opportunity to visibly improve their performance or learn a new trick in every encounter. Grinding only turns into a chore when every instance of it takes exactly the same time, nets the exact same amount of XP, and the player starts to feel there is nothing left to learn.

Attributes, Skills, and Perks

While Character Level alone offers a succinct scale to assess a character's power, it does not say much about what the character actually can or cannot do. A character built for combat has different abilities than one built for stealth. To further customize the power progression, practically all game systems include various character stats, which are usually subdivided into attributes (a.k.a. ability scores) and skill scores:

  • Attributes offer relatively small bonuses to a large spectrum of success checks. They often come in the form of The Six Stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma (or similar).
  • Skills offer large bonuses in a limited field of expertise, such as Swordplay, Lock Picking, Persuasion, Acrobatics, etc.

In Tabletop RPGs, attributes play a major role because they simplify the calculations needed to make a success roll. For the same reason, they often remain static for the duration of the game. However, a computer has more processing power than a Game Master's calculator, so the importance of attributes in role-playing video games has been diminishing over the years in favor of skills, which facilitate a much more flexible character evolution. There are two common skill mechanics in RPGs:

  • Skill scores are like attributes but more refined. They are rather broadly defined (e.g. Acrobatics, Stealthy Movement, Sword Fighting) and can be leveled up multiple times by investing more skill points or repeatedly using them. Higher skill scores increase the effectiveness of the corresponding basic actions (jumping, sneaking, swinging swords), but said actions can always be attempted, even if the character's skill score is low or zero (after all, you don't need special training to simply hop, hide, and swing a blade).
  • Perks, a.k.a. "traits" and "feats", are distinct moves, spells, auras, and permanent passive bonuses, from which the characters only benefit after they learn them—so one may be a sword fighter but unless he knows the Feint technique, he cannot use it in combat, period. These perks are often grouped into "skill trees" and cannot be leveled up beyond the initial skill point investment, the size of which may vary with the complexity of the perk. Some perks, however, can be upgrades of their respective prerequisite perks rather than new techniques.

Refer to Skill Scores and Perks and Analysis.Skill Scores And Perks for an outline of the major differences between the two, examples of their implementations, and further classifications. Following decisions will be the foundation of your Game System:

  • Which character attributes and skills are relevant in your adventure? Avoid including attributes and skills likely to become a Dump Stat by ensuring that each skill becomes necessary or at least useful at some point in the game. Better yet, let the characters' skills determine their path through the game.
  • Which attributes are relevant for which skills and what are their respective effects on game mechanics? Can attributes be reduced by certain attacks/magic? Do characters die instantly or suffer some other debilitating condition if one of their attributes is reduced to zero?
  • Will you implement those skills as linear skill scores, branching perk trees, both, or a hybrid form?
  • How many attribute/skill points do the players get to distribute on a new (level 1) character? Is it randomized? Is Min-Maxing possible?
  • How are new skill points/levels/perks acquired in the course of the game? Does the character need to visit a trainer to spend them? Do combat and non-combat skills draw from the same or separate point pools?
  • Is there a Skill Point Reset option? While utterly unrealistic, this feature lets the players fix messed up builds and try out new things without restarting the game. It doesn't have to be readily available, of course.

At this point, you also need to figure out how to avoid Empty Levels. Players like agency and have the most fun in acquiring and trying out new powers that change how they play the game, so most of them will feel cheated if their hard-earned Level Up gives them little besides a basic stat increase. "New powers" aren't necessarily limited to Skill Scores and Perks—for instance, a piece of previously restricted Level-Locked Loot can be one, too—and it is imperative to give meaningful rewards to characters going up in level. Possible solutions to the Empty Levels problem include:

  • Giving the player a new power at every level (regardless whether it's predetermined by their class or chosen freely from a list), while discreetly increasing the basic stats in the background. In this case, you may want to have fewer total attainable character levels to make each Level Up feel more significant, and also because having too many powers can easily make the players feel lost and risks padding the Skill Tree with unnecessary variations of identical powers. This is the recommended option for story-driven games.
  • The basic stat increases serving as stepping stones towards unlocking new powers, either via Stat Grinding or in a complex Skill Tree where stat increases lead up to new abilities. This lets the players set their own goals and revel in the feeling of achievement upon reaching them—as long as it doesn't take too long to get from one new power to the next. This is the preferred option for dungeon crawlers, since it allows for a much finer control over the character build, as well as for sandbox games, as it allows for more customization.

Lastly, keep in mind that like everything else in your game, the complexity of its skill system should harmonize with the core experience you want your players to have. In a Dungeon Crawler, an extensive skill system (along with Random Drops) is the centerpiece of gameplay, wherein the players must strategically invest their precious few skill points to keep up with the mounting challenges. The skill system is similarly important in sandbox RPGs, but while in dungeon crawlers, improving characters' skills is a requirement to beat the game, here they serve to unlock additional gameplay facets; skill systems in such games are therefore predominantly options-driven. In narrative RPGs, on the other hand, the skill system takes the back seat and serves mainly to reinforce the narrative by showing off the characters' growing power, by influencing plot events in unique and unexpected ways, and by being a gameplay manifestation of important plot points (e.g. of individual characters' back-stories).

Class-based or Open-skilled?

One of the aspects of role-playing is the role that a character plays in exploration and combat. Depending on that function, the character will develop in different directions: a warrior, for instance, has different strengths and abilities than a smuggler, but both are inferior to a wizard in mystical matters. To facilitate such functional specialization, many RPGs implement a Character Class System or a Class and Level System.

Classes are character templates that more or less rigidly define which skills the character can improve with each Level Up. Very rigid class definitions, where certain skills and equipment are exclusive to certain classes, induce Competitive Balance and enforce inter-class cooperation within the Player Party. More lax class restrictions, e.g. where only certain classes gain bonuses from certain equipment/skills but others can still use them, enable more rounded builds and are thus better suited for single-character games.

A classic fantasy class template is the Fighter, Mage, Thief (a.k.a. warrior, wizard, rogue) plus the hybrid classes, e.g. Magic Knight (F+M) who may or may not double as Combat Medic, Swashbuckler (F+T), and Ninja (M+T). For more options, see Fantasy Character Classes; for a futuristic game, refer to Modern Day/Sci-Fi RPG Class Equivalents instead. In terms of combat potential, magic-wielding classes tend to outpace the non-magical ones at high levels for various reasons; if desired, you can counteract that by giving your high-level thieves and fighters clearly superhuman, albeit still non-magical abilities, especially when it comes to Prestige Classes.

Of course, you don't have to include character classes in your game at all, especially if it is a single-character adventure. A system that allows the players to invest gained skill points into any skill there is in the game offers maximum freedom and flexibility of Character Customization but may overwhelm a new player, akin to a Quicksand Box. Hybrid forms, where the choice of "class" merely results in the players starting the game with a number of points already invested into certain skills that make sense together, may alleviate the initial bewilderment.

Alignments, Karma Meter, or...?

Similarly to how classes are an attempt to demarcate the role a character plays in exploration and combat, Character Alignment was an attempt by early tabletop RPGs (particularly, Dungeons & Dragons) to define their role in dialogue and other non-violent interactions with Non Player Characters, such as Quest Givers and party members or followers. Since Ultima IV and Fallout, digital RPGs have gained a more dynamic tool of assessing a character's moral standing in form of the Karma Meter.

If social interactions are important to your game, including an alignment system or a karma meter can increase the diversity of dialogue, as NPCs would probably react differently to the player character's presence depending on their reputation. If you use a karma meter, try to avoid No Points for Neutrality unless the plot itself requires the players to reach either end of the morality scale. If it doesn't, then there is no real reason why players who prefer the middle path should be put at a gameplay disadvantage.

The evil path also tends to be done rather poorly in the majority of RPGs. Since traditional fantasy plots are rooted in the classic Good vs. Evil dichotomy, the writers expect most players to take the good path by default, and don't bother writing separate plotlines for truly evil characters. Instead, the "evil" characters tend to behave like the good ones, except they are rude and mean to everyone. If you find yourself hard-pressed to integrate a truly evil path into your game (which is by definition considerably different from the good one), then ask yourself: do you really need a morality subsystem in it?

Crafting

Just as it is possible to improve characters by gaining levels and increasing attributes and skills, it is also possible to equip them with more powerful and deadly items. Showering the players with random Plunder and selling predefined gear at the in-game shops is standard fare in Western RPGs, but some additionally let the players create their own equipment via Item Crafting, which comes in four variations:

  • Consumables creation. Consumables like Healing Potions and Mana Potions are usually available in quantity from loot and shops but occasionally, that is just not enough and item crafting is the solution.
  • Equipment modification. Applying various modifications and upgrades to improve the properties of an item acquired from loot or trade effectively creates a new item. These modifications can be either permanent (e.g. enchantment) or reversible (Socketed Equipment).
  • Equipment creation. The ultimate item crafting, wherein pieces of equipment are created from scratch by the players out of looted or purchased raw materials.
  • Spell creation. A rare form where magic-wielding characters can design their own spells by combining predetermined effects and balancing out the casting costs.

Be warned that any form of crafting runs a high risk of being either completely useless or completely broken. Also, games with different gameplay focus have very different demands on crafting:

  • Narrative RPGs should avoid crafting unless it plays a role in the story and does not break its flow. If the Player Character is able to turn scrap metal into weapons more powerful than the Sword of Plot Advancement, or can concoct enough Health Potions to last a century inside a besieged city but cannot distribute them among other defenders, the entire narration just stops making sense.
  • Sandbox RPGs, on the other hand, revel in all kinds of crafting, since the search for workable materials, recipes, and blueprints drives exploration, while handcrafting unique equipment and unlimited quantities of consumables fuels the sense of achievement and personalization of the game. And since the story is secondary, its inconsistencies are more easily handwaved.
  • Dungeon crawers usually walk the middle line with just Socketed Equipment, because more elaborate crafting systems require resource mining that is incompatible with their core combat gameplay. Still, since equipment is a crucial part of Min-Maxing the players' character builds, the ability to tweak their items gives them more power to master the game.

Puzzles and minigames

The four core gameplay modes of RPGs (see Gameplay Designer section) usually don't directly involve activities that require either fine motor skills, good timing, or a precise choice of words: picking locks, disarming traps, hacking into computer systems, gambling of any kind, convincing NPCs to help in specific situations, more generally manipulating their Relationship Values, brewing potions, etc. The player's role in these actions is usually limited to selecting a character with the appropriate skill and ordering them to use it, with a background skill check determining the outcome.

However, you can also let the players participate in such activities more immediately by abstracting them into puzzle-like minigames based more or less loosely on their real-life counterparts, e.g. a lock-picking minigame revolving around setting lock tumblers, or a hacking one based on capturing network nodes while avoiding detection. If you decide to include any minigames, define also how the character's skills improve the players' chances of success. Do higher skill scores provide hints to the solution, reduce the chances of critical failure/detection, increase the time limit or the net gain from success? Is there a (hidden) Luck Stat for gambling? Can certain puzzles be solved automatically or bypassed entirely with high enough skill scores? Are there consumables or gear items that give further bonuses in minigames?

Note that the above is not a recommendation to include Stock Video Game Puzzles, which are more often than not shoehorned into gameplay for the sake of Fake Longevity. Try to avoid stock puzzles unless you can disguise them well enough to come across as natural parts of the setting.

Pitfalls

  • Don't hide the numbers from the players. The transparency of your Game System mechanics translates directly into the players' fun. If a certain challenge proves difficult, the players must be given an opportunity to analyze their mistakes, plan ahead, and beat it next time.
  • Don't overwhelm the players with numbers. The amount of rules and modifiers critical to any particular play style must be appropriate to how fast you expect the players to make decisions: both a real-time Action RPG and a game driven by the narration should go easier on maths than a turn-based Dungeon Crawler.
  • Steer clear of Cut and Paste Environments. Exploration is the backbone of an RPG, so the levels must be diverse in both architecture and visual style. Randomly Generated Levels may be a solution for the former but you must still use different tile/texture sets to make them visually distinct.
  • For similar reasons, avoid Back Tracking wherever possible with a helpful Door To Before at the end of every major dungeon.
  • No unskippable cutscenes! Make all cutscenes skippable, and if you consider one absolutely essential, warn the players about it but let them skip it anyway.
  • An Esoteric Happy Ending may increase the artistic value of a surreal Adventure Game but RPGs by design encourage the players to understand what's going on to beat them. An incomprehensible ending in an otherwise internally consistent game is a surefire way to ruin the experience.

Potential Subversions

Writer's Lounge

World Building

Following aspects of your setting must be defined on paper before you start designing the actual game:

You can also include an Encyclopedia Exposita in the game, whose entries reveal trivia about your world as the players explore it. You may even reward diligent explorers with extra Experience Points for each entry they discover.

Suggested Themes and Aesops

The themes and aesops depend mainly on the genre of the story you are telling and the conflict/dilemma you are exploring in it. Since Western RPGs can tell pretty much any kind of story, they can teach pretty much any moral lesson. Stock themes in the genre include:

...and many more. Just refer to stock aesops of the particular story genre you are writing in.

Potential Motifs

When it comes to Motifs, three types should be distiguished:

  • Narrative/textual motifs, such as Arc Words, Driving Questions, and recurring topics, serve to reinforce the Central Theme of your game (see above). Their purpose is to communicate the story's main ideas amidst a non-linear, freeform gameplay.
  • Visual motifs tie together the levels by giving them a consistent artistic look, whether it is a certain palette, recurring patterns, or symbols. Arc Symbols are a special type that bridges visuals and narrative.
  • Musical motifs are used to invoke a specific mood for certain events, locales, and characters (see also Sound Director section).

Narrative motifs can be further split into:

  • Themes pertaining to individuals, such as loyalty, betrayal, virtue, sin, curses, etc.
  • Themes pertaining to conflicts, such as the nature of right and wrong, truth and lies, etc.
  • Themes pertaining to the human condition, such as corruption, oppression, letting go, free will, fate, change, etc.

Suggested Plots

A classic main quest in many, many RPGs is to save something—but what exactly depends on the genre. In High Fantasy, it's usually about Saving the World; similarly, it's saving the galaxy in Space Opera. In Heroic Fantasy, the players must usually save a kingdom or a city. In Low and Dark Fantasy, it's essentially the same, except the kingdom/city is probably not worth saving in the first place. Cyber Punk is comparable to Dark Fantasy in this aspect.

The generic structure of The Quest is as follows:

  1. Tutorial Level, usually taking place in the Doomed Hometown
  2. Opening the Sandbox
  3. Sidequesting (see below)
  4. Plot Tunnel, culminating with Disc One Final Boss
  5. More sidequesting
  6. Another plot tunnel, culminating in The Reveal
  7. Wrapping up remaining side quests
  8. Point of No Return
  9. Final Battle

Here are a few general tips on writing better RPG storylines:

Lastly, there are some game design decisions that may affect the writing if implemented:

  • The tutorial level(s) should be skippable without loss of XP or valuable loot, so a writer would be wise to hold onto key plot decisions until the game proper starts. It goes without saying that the intro cutscene must be skippable, too, since these gravitate towards tedious lengths in Western RPGs.
  • If you have a Harder Than Hard difficulty setting, a New Game+ option can increase the Replay Value but only if the story permits it. A farmboy leaving on his "first" adventure with 40 levels in Badass makes no sense, but it's justifiable if the protagonist is introduced with a history of ass-kicking (e.g. a traveling mercenary or a career officer) from the start. In the latter case, a nice touch would be to write additional dialogue for "recycled" Player Characters, acknowledging their past experience.

Side Quests

Unlike non-interactive media, which shun any detours from the central story, Western RPGs revel in them. Numerous and diverse side quests are one of the biggest appeals for RPG players, since they let them delve into your Constructed World and find their own adventures. Diversity of side quests is achieved by varying their length and complexity. Strictly Formula approach is OK, as long as you have multiple formulas and the players don't know which one you'll give them next, or whether you'll subvert it half-way.

An important consideration is how to make the players aware of potential Quest Givers. A glowing exclamation mark over an NPC's head simplifies things nicely in a Dungeon Crawler, but instantly breaks immersion in narrative and sandbox RPGs. Consider instead playing a short scene the first time the player encounters the quest giver (e.g. the latter asking another NPC for help—in vain), or having them act differently from other NPCs until the player talks to them, and so on. Alternatively, chain multiple side quests together or have them branch off from the main quests in dialogue with plot-relevant NPCs. Found documents and items, party members, even Enemy Chatter can also tip off an attentive player. In a similar vein, not all side quests must end with the same quest giver handing you the promised reward; the quest giver turning on you or biting the dust before you can return is a nice shift of gears from the routine (in both cases, of course, the quest must have a follow-up).

Tips on writing some specific types of side quests (see also Video Game Objectives for a more ideas on how to keep the players busy):

  • Fetch Quest. This type is universally derided for being an Irrelevant Sidequest for the sake of Fake Longevity, and it indeed often is. On the other hand, a handful of straightforward fetch quests are OK to make a quick buck between larger missions, so don't ignore them. To spice up the routine, use the tips above or include "reverse-fetch quests" (where the player picks up a random item that says "Deliver me to X in town").
  • Escort Mission. The bane of all video games, it is actually quite easy to make bearable even without Gameplay Ally Immortality. Weak escorted should hide and avoid enemy attention, while strong fighters can join the PC in battle, or better yet, launch weak (to avoid generating threat) ranged attacks from afar. If you have Level Scaling for enemies, make absolutely sure to apply the same scaling to allies/escorted.
  • Collection Sidequest. An average player grows bored after collecting the fourth or fifth MacGuffin, so if there are more items to collect, you should make this quest entirely optional. Also, the reward must be adequate for the amount of effort it takes to complete.
  • Cartography Sidequest. Greatly encourages exploration, especially in a continuous overworld. If you want to be nice to the players, hand out the rewards in small heaps, depending on the area explored since the last check-in, and the final reward, when 90% of the map is compiled.
  • A Homeowner Is You. An option to design and build (or simply buy and improve) a Cool House, Cool Boat, or Cool Starship in the game holds a lot of appeal. Additionally, it offers a free "inn", unlimited loot storage, and interior decoration quest rewards.
  • Romance Sidequest. Helps to get the players emotionally invested in the characters and also, to draw in the female audiences. For writing tips, see Write A Romance Sidequest.
  • Timed Mission. Don't have side quests "expire" after a certain time or certain main story events unless the story itself demands it (e.g. unfinished assignments in the Doomed Hometown shall obviously remain so forever) and it is made clear to the players before they trigger said events.
  • Gladiator Subquest. These tend to be biased towards certain classes: if a player's main character specializes in support magic and they cannot delegate the fighting duty to another party member, the side quest will prove nothing but headache. This is, of course, less of an issue in single-character games.
  • Bonus Dungeon. Of particular interest is the Brutal Bonus Level variety with a Bonus Boss at the end. It is the one place (besides the Harder Than Hard difficulty) where having the players Rage Quit in frustration is a good thing.
  • Sidequest Sidestory. Not a single quest but a chain of related side quests that shows the players that their actions have consequences and helps bring the game world alive.

It might seem obvious, but to help the players keep track of all the side quests, do include a journal that updates their status in real time so that it is immediately obvious what to do next. Players who like to take breaks between game sessions will be eternally thankful for that.

Interactive Dialogue

Before writing any dialogue for your game, consider following technical questions, since they will influence your writing process:

  • Will you have Dialogue Trees, Text Parser-based conversations, or a more exotic form of interactive dialogue? Dialogue trees convey the feeling of a personal conversation better, while keywords offer a lot more freedom in discussion topics.
  • How do exceptionally high/low social and mental stat scores (Intelligence, Charisma) affect dialogue? Are there exclusive dialogue options for super-smart characters or limitations on dialogue for characters of far-below-average intelligence?
  • Similarly, how do high skill/reputation scores affect the dialogue trees/available keywords? Do they unlock additional hidden options (persuasion, intimidation, haggling, seduction, etc.)?
  • Do persuasion attempts succeed automatically if the character can use them, or do they appear in the dialogue trees by default but provoke noncommittal reactions unless a background skill check is passed?
  • Is there a supernatural counterpart to regular persuasion/intimidation checks, like Compelling Voice or outright Mind Control? Are some NPCs immune to it?
  • On that note, can a character (a Forest Ranger, a Druid or some other Nature Hero) talk with animals as well as humans? Is it possible to play a mad character and to have thoughtful conversations with inanimate objects?
  • If the players can pick deceitful options in dialogue trees, do these receive special treatment? Can an NPC see through the lie if a skill check is not passed? Is it possible to use the same words (e.g. a death threat) both in earnest and as a bluff? What effect does intentional deceit have on the Karma Meter? What if it's a white lie?
  • Conversely, does the game provide explicit hints when an NPC is lying to the Player Character? What skills does the PC have to develop to be better at lie detection?
  • Are there Relationship Values tracking each NPC's disposition towards the Player Character? How can they be raised/reduced (favors, bribes, mockery, etc.)? How are they affected by the PC's stats, faction memberships, previous conduct? What topics will NPCs only talk about at high disposition? Will they attack the PC on sight at zero disposition?
  • Can other party members or followers handle NPC dialogue for the player character? If not, can they at least chime in with comments, suggestions, or even unique persuasion options? If so, do they speak up automatically or only when prompted by the players?

You can also use dialogue trees to let the players interact with environment beyond merely exchanging words with NPCs. If your engine cannot render complex or non-standard interactions (or you don't have the budget for elaborate cutscenes), you should instead describe them textually, through the dialogue window and let the players imagine them as they would in a novel. Interactive dialogue does not have be an isolated mini-game irrelevant to other gameplay modes—you can very well mix it with:

  • ...combat, e.g. by giving the players a dialogue option to punch an NPC in the face and deal damage proportional to the PC's strength against NPC's toughness—all without ending the dialogue.
  • ...stealth, e.g. with a dialogue option to distract an NPC before pickpocketing them, with the dialogue then branching depending on whether appropriate skill checks have been passed.
  • ...exploration, e.g. by letting the PC "converse" with a broken mechanism, with the "dialogue" options being to examine it, to attempt fixing it, to apply items from Player Inventory to it, etc.

In short, the dialogue window is an extremely powerful tool that you should exploit to give the players a rich and unusual game experience.

Sequels and Expansions

It is no secret that of all video game genres, RPGs are most likely to spawn Long Runner series without succumbing to Sequelitis, mainly because their fleshed-out settings provide solid Sequel Hooks galore, while their Game Systems are complex enough to remain recognizable and entertaining even as video game technology evolves. The Ultima series peaked at ten core titles; Might and Magic seemed to have died after nine, but rose from the ashes with a tenth installment; while The Elder Scrolls count five games at the moment with no signs of winding down. So chances are, if your first game is even moderately successful, you will end up making more of it. This usually comes in two forms:

  • Expansion Packs run on the same Game Engine and Game System as the core game and provide additional content. Some are standalone adventures set before, after, or in an Alternate Timeline of the main campaign; others are integrated into it. You can usually produce an expansion pack or two for every successful core game without much thought.
  • Numbered Sequels often run on a new or heavily upgraded engine and feature brand new conflicts and plots. The Game System also tends to evolve, though major overhauls are ill-advised. On a side note, most fantasy RPGs prefer Roman numerals for their sequel numbering, while the sci-fi genre favors Arabic ones; there are exceptions, of course.

Naming is important for both expansions and sequels. Most RPG titles follow the convention of "[series title] [installment number, unless it's the first game]: [subtitle]". Subtitle is optional for core games; omitting it helps avert Colon Cancer when making expansions, since they are usually identified only by their subtitle. If you have trouble coming up with a story-relevant subtitle, you can always use the name of the geographic region the installment is set in (this also works well for entire series' titles) or just take a Stock Subtitle.

Another universal recommendation is the saved game import, which was, in fact, invented by early Western RPGs in the first place. On one hand, this feature helps avert the Bag of Spilling (another reason why you shouldn't completely overhaul the Game System); on the other, it lets the players keep their personal story canon across installments, averting Cutting Off The Branches. While you as the developer will have a lot more story permutations to think about, your players are going profit from this all-around.

Departments

Gameplay Designer

At the most basic level, the role-playing video game gameplay consists of four distinct gameplay modes:

  • Exploration mode is the default one, wherein the Player Character (and company) explore the environment under minimal danger and collect free-lying resources, such as treasure and alchemical ingredients.
  • Combat mode is entered when the PC attacks or is attacked and presents a high danger situation. Running speed and health/mana regeneration (if present) may be impeded, distinguishing it from the outwardly similar exploration mode.
  • Stealth mode is usually triggered proactively by the players and is associated with the highest danger, when getting spotted results in immediate defeat. Movement speed is decreased even further and things like shadows and cover may become important.
  • Dialogue mode is entered when the PC speaks to or is spoken to by an NPC and is associated with the "dialogue window" that displays available prompts and the NPC's responses. Other events are usually suspended until the dialogue is over.

Returning to the exploration mode (even briefly) is usually required to transition from one of the other three to another. Since dialogue has already been discussed above, let's concentrate on the rest.

Exploration is the most basic of all gameplay and concerns primarily how the player characters navigate through levels and which in-game tools help them find the way. A lot of the following questions will be answered by the limitations of your engine:

Combat is often considered the backbone of all RPGs and while not completely accurate, combat system is a very important element of the game. Since party-based games are inherently more geared towards combat, some of the following questions may be irrelevant to single-character games:

  • Is combat Turn-Based or Real-Time? Or is it a hybrid form: Real Time with Pause, Combatant Cooldown System, etc.? Turn-based combat works best in games that aim to challenge the players with complex tactics and number crunching, while real-time is an action-oriented approach focusing on quick reaction and decision-making.
  • How tactical is combat? Is victory mainly the matter of having more health/damage per second than the enemy or does the positioning of combatants play a major role? Which Common Tactical Gameplay Elements will you implement?
  • When a character attacks an enemy (or vice versa), how is it determined whether the attack hits? How do the respective weapons and armor, level difference, relative positions, the attacker's stats, and the target's evasion skills factor into this?
  • If the attack hits, how much damage does it inflict? How much of it is mitigated by the armor? Is there a significant discrepancy between the enemies' total health and damage output?
  • Does armor break? Do weapons wear down? How does that influence their effectiveness? Note that unless the characters' gear is at the core of the gameplay (which is mainly a dungeon crawler feature), the realism is usually not worth the permanent annoyance.
  • Are there Critical Hits? How are they calculated? What happens when one takes place (Massive Damage, One-Hit Kill, etc.)? Is there a chance of Critical Failure, as well?
  • How difficult is combat healing? Are there attacks that poison the targets or reduce their max HP? Combat is definitely more interesting if the players cannot endlessly replenish health by chugging on the Healing Potion supply or running around the enemy in circles.
  • Can a character only equip one weapon at a time, or can they switch between multiple weapon sets in combat? Can a character wield a weapon in each hand, and if so, which restrictions apply (limited weapon choice, stat requirements, accuracy/damage penalties)?
  • Can characters wield a two-handed weapon with one hand, if certain attribute/skill requirements are met and the weapon design allows for it (or the weapon is properly enchanted)? Can one use a shield then or dual-wield two-handed weapons?
  • Are there Combos? If so, are they perks to be learned or can anyone use them if the players know the inputs? Are different combos available with different weapons/weapon pairs? In a party-based game, are there Combination Attacks?
  • Is ammunition consumed by ranged weapons or are they universally equipped with Bottomless Magazines/quivers? Or a hybrid form where basic arrows/bolts and the Emergency Weapon ammo are free, but more powerful ammo/weapons make you count every shot? What types of ammo are available?
  • Can a character target specific body parts of the enemies and vice versa? Which effects on the target a successful (critical) hit has then? The most common variation of this is the ability to hit an enemy's head (if they have one) For Massive Damage.
  • Do the same rules apply to unarmed combat as to the armed one? Is unarmed combat lethal? If you have unarmed combat as a major feature, provide at least one class/character build specializing in it but don't make a No-Gear Level mandatory for every character.
  • How does the elemental damage work? Does generic magical resistance mitigate it? Which types of elemental damage/resistance are there?
  • Which Standard Status Effects, if any, can be inflicted in combat? Can common status effects be inflicted in multiple ways (e.g. can a mage's spell, a Critical Hit by a hammer-wielding fighter, and a thief's specialized perk all inflict the same Stun effect)? Is there a Break Meter for enemies/allies?
  • Which buffs are available? Speed, damage, damage protection, etc.? Note that Super Speed in particular tends to be a Game Breaker.
  • If a spell takes time to cast, can the caster be interrupted to make the spell fizzle/backfire? Are there items/special moves particularly well-suited for this task? Is there a way to prevent enemies from using spells/moves altogether?
  • How do the enemies and AI followers decide whom to attack next and how? Is friendly AI customizable by the players? Do allied NPCs generate "threat" that makes them priority targets, and if so, how is it calculated? Which in-game means do the players have to manipulate threat?

If you go for tactical combat, consider also following:

  • How many characters are under the player's control? Are the party members sufficiently specialized to play different tactical roles? Are enemies?
  • Do characters have multiple attack modes? If so, what prevents them from spamming their most powerful moves (limited resources, cooldowns, etc.)? Conversely, do they have special abilities pertaining to tactical movement (move undetected, leap great distances or heights, etc.)?
  • What effects do the terrain features have on character's movement and attack options? Can the player manipulate the terrain to create shortcuts or to deny the enemy movement (even if it's just temporary constructs like a magical wall of fire)?
  • Does a melee attacker get an advantage for attacking an enemy from the side or from behind (read: flanking, pincer attacks, etc.)? Does a ranged attacker standing on an elevated ground? What effects does cover have?
  • What effect does the distance between shooter and target have on a ranged weapon's accuracy and damage? Can the target be out of range? Can ranged weapons be fired in melee? Which penalties, if any, does a ranged weapon wielder suffer when attacked at close range?
  • Do the enemies attempt to flee or surrender if drastically outmatched by the player character(s)? Do companions/party members?
  • If your combat is turn-based, when are characters allowed to act out of turn? Which delayed actions are available besides attacking, and how can they be triggered? Which actions provoke attacks of opportunity (shooting at close range, attempting to escape melee, etc.)?
  • Can combat encounters have objectives besides killing all enemies (e.g. capturing one of them alive, preventing collateral damage, collecting valuable but transient resources, etc.)?

As an antithesis to combat, stealth often becomes utterly useless in party- and combat-oriented games. In single-character games, on the other hand, stealth is often a better (and more fun) alternative to direct confrontation.

  • Is there a "stealth mode" or do characters automatically become invisible and inaudible under certain conditions? In most western RPGs, toggling the "stealth mode" is usually preferred, even if it's just crouching down.
  • How is success at entering the stealth mode calculated? Does it have to be recalculated later on in regular intervals or whenever a new enemy comes into view? How does the level difference, armor weight, and skill scores/perks factor into this? Which actions immediately end the stealth mode?
  • Does the environment contribute to/impose penalty on stealth checks? Do shadows, greenery, and large crowds?
  • Does attacking from stealth result in instant kills or automatic critical hits? Does attacking break the stealth mode? Are there special "stealth weapons" that don't instantly cancel the stealth mode into open combat?
  • Do dead bodies put still-living enemies on alert? If so, how can the players dispose of corpses?
  • If alerted to intruders' presence, will the guards stop searching for them in a short while? How many levels of alertness do the guards have? Is there a way to manipulate it?
  • Can scripted plot events be triggered when in stealth mode? On one hand, there is nothing more annoying than being spotted by an enemy whose chances in actual gameplay are exactly zero, let alone having the stealth mode canceled altogether by an untimely cutscene. On the other, stealth mode can lead to massive Script and Sequence Breaking.
  • How does picking locks work? Does the character need picks? Are they one-use only? How is success calculated, based on the picker's skill, quality of the lock and the pick? How do the NPCs react if they witness a lock picking attempt? How do the lawfully aligned party members?
  • How does pickpocketing work? How is success calculated? Does the character need to be in stealth mode to attempt it? Can the victim notice a failed attempt and if so, how do they react: fight the pickpocket, call the guards, or just curse? How do other NPCs react if they witness the attempt?
  • On a different note, are stolen items marked as such in the Player Inventory? What will NPC merchants do if the players try selling stolen goods to them? What will the guards do if they find stolen goods in the character's inventory? Is there an in-game way to remove the "stolen" marker from items?

While it technically has nothing to do with stealth, disarming traps (and occasionally, making them) usually falls within the competence of the party thief, probably because it is almost identical to lock picking in gameplay terms. Spotting traps is a different matter, however. Are thieves the only ones who can spot traps, or can other classes do it, too? Is there a penalty on spot checks made by other classes? Are spot checks made only once when the booby-trapped object comes into view, or are checks made continuously (e.g. with each step)? Does the complexity (level) of the trap only affect its disarm difficulty, or reduce its minimum spotting distance, as well? Can a thief attempting to disarm a trap accidentally trigger it instead? One last advice on trap spotting: in party-based games, most players place the lightly-armored thieves behind armored fighters while exploring, therefore it is important to make the effective spotting distance long enough for the former to spot traps before the latter run headfirst into them.

Set Designer / Location Scout

On the most basic level, all RPG levels can be categorized into towns and dungeons. Towns are self-contained levels whose defining traits are shops and safety from harm (and the players are usually forbidden to attack anyone). Dungeons, contrary to the term, don't have to be underground: any location with enemies and traps in it is one, regardless whether it's underground, indoors, or outdoors. In the recent RPGs, the boundary between the two location types has been progressively erased, with things like Dungeon Town and Dungeon Shop becoming more and more common.

Depending on your intended gameplay focus and the kind of story you want to tell, several ways present themselves to arrange town and dungeon levels into a complete game:

  • Dungeon Crawl puts the vast majority of gameplay (mainly exploration and combat) inside dungeon levels of increasing difficulty. In-universe, said levels can form a single dungeon complex or span multiple locations. If there are town levels at all, they are just places to sell loot, restock supplies, and receive/turn in quests. The quests themselves, however, always take place down in the dungeon(s). This arrangement obviously works best for dungeon crawler-type RPGs.
  • Central City is similar to the Dungeon Crawl, but flipped on its head. It is conceptually centered on a major urban settlement that often consists of multiple town-type sublevels. The dungeon levels are accessible from the city, but questing can also take place inside the town levels themselves. This offers much more gameplay diversity than the combat-driven Dungeon Crawls.
  • Linear Progression lets the players visit multiple town and dungeon levels (separated geographically, chronologically, or both) in a linear succession, knowing that once they leave the current area, all of its unfinished content will be Lost Forever. A less railroading game may instead be split into chapters, wherein the players can backtrack to the start or explore accessible levels in any order—but can never go back to the previous chapter. This form lends itself best to narrative-heavy RPGs and dungeon crawlers.
  • Hub Network is essentially an amalgamation of the Dungeon Crawl and Central City forms, where the players visit multiple major towns that come with their own dungeons and piles of local sidequests that rarely cross over into other hub areas. Unlike in the Linear Progression, the players can always go back to already explored areas and take care of unfinished business there (unless prevented from doing so by plot-related circumstances).
  • Open World is a Hub Network taken Up to Eleven, where the players travel back and forth between multiple towns and dungeons on a highly nonlinear web of quests. This is pretty much the only way to make a sandbox RPG.

On a more technical level, individual levels can be connected either via certain transition points (doors, portals, etc.), or through some abstract Hub Level, such as an Overworld Not to Scale or a Point-and-Click Map (the Fantasy World Map you have drawn during World Building comes in handy at this point), all the way up to using Dynamic Loading to essentially turn your entire sandbox game into one giant Dungeon Town.

Props Department

Plunder a.k.a. loot is an essential part of most Western RPGs, so make sure to include plenty of it to reward the players for exploration and winning battles. Depending on the main focus of your RPG experience, loot can play different roles in the game:

  • In narrative RPGs, loot is subservient to the story. For every powerful item the players find, there must be an in-story explanation of why exactly they found it where they did. All powerful items should have a Back Story attached to them, be it a Side Quest involving their construction or a legend recalling their past owners of note. If there are Random Drops or non-quest Item Crafting, they should never produce items comparable to story-relevant equipment in terms of power and uniqueness.
  • In sandbox RPGs, loot must be, first and foremost, consistent with the game world. Which means that most of it will be junk, with tons of non-functional Flavor Equipment lying around or being carried by enemies for practical or sentimental reasons. Powerful named items still benefit from a flavor narrative, but don't need to outshine Random Drops and player-produced inventory.
  • In dungeon crawlers, loot is the alpha and the omega. Most of it should be randomized and level-scaled, with a small chance of producing exceptional items. It is also generally irrelevant to the plot and exists solely to give the Player Character more power. Furthermore, there has be a way to modify random loot to better suit each player's combat style (e.g. via Socketed Equipment).

With that in mind, define following:

  • Where do items come from: treasure chests, enemies, quest rewards, shops, all of it? What kinds of enemies drop loot: any enemy, just higher-tier ones, or only bosses?
  • Do certain enemies always drop certain items or are there Random Drops? Or a hybrid where regular ("junk") loot is random but unique items are set? Are Money Spiders and Impossible Item Drops possible? Are certain drops limited to certain locations or can the players get a great drop anywhere they go?
  • Are drops subject to Level Scaling? If so, make sure that unique named items are worth the effort of getting them; in other words, that they will not be outperformed by random level-scaled "junk" loot after the next Level Up.
  • Do magical Random Drops have to be identified before they can be used?
  • Are there attribute/skill requirements for using certain items?
  • Are the items available from the in-game shops worth spending cash on or is the loot in the dungeons always superior? Or a hybrid form, e.g. where weapons and armor found in dungeons are always better, but the shops have the best accessories (rings, amulets)?
  • Speaking of shops, what is the Global Currency in your game? The default is gold in fantasy and generic "credits" in sci-fi. While slightly unrealistic, this genre convention is time-tested and intuitive to most players, so don't reinvent the wheel.
  • Do shops offer items in unlimited quantities or can they run out of stock? Can their stock be reset (especially in regards to consumable items)? Can the players buy back the items they have just sold? If so, at which price? Can this be used to "legalize" stolen items? Do items sold to NPCs disappear after a stock reset? Do shops have a limited amount of currency, and if so, is it subject to the reset, as well?
  • Is there a limit on how much loot the character(s) can carry in their Player Inventory? Is it a Grid Inventory, a weight limitation, or both? Or is it a Bag of Sharing that distributes items equally between characters? If you cap the inventory in any way, give the players a container to store the loot that is too cool to sell but Too Awesome to Use somewhere in the Hub Level.
  • Do you attach Flavor Text to unique/named or otherwise unusual items? Is it collected in an Encyclopedia Exposita?

An alternative source of gear is Item Crafting, which was already discussed above.

Items in RPGs generally fall under following categories:

There are some major differences between weapons used in fantasy and in science fiction settings (see also Video Game Weapon Stats):

  • Fantasy RPGs place a heavy emphasis on melee weapons, while magic handles ranged combat more efficiently.
    • Each melee weapon type usually has its own application in combat:
      • Swords (one-handed, two-handed, hybrid) and daggers (one-handed only) have the best Critical Hit chance
      • Maces (one-handed) and war hammers (one-handed, two-handed) work best against armored enemies
      • Axes (one-handed, two-handed) make the most raw damage
    • Ranged weaponry usually falls into three categories (all of them two-handed by design):
      • "Short" bows have a high rate of fire but low damage output and short range—often unrealistically so for the sake of balance
      • Longbows have lower ROF, more damage, and longer range and profit from the Strength stat the most, showing best performance at high levels
      • Crossbows have the lowest ROF but hit hard and have good range, regardless of the wielder's stats, making them the best choice at low levels
    • Firearms are largely taboo in fantasy settings for various reasons (see Analysis.Fantasy Gun Control).
  • Science fiction RPGs, on the other hand, rely almost exclusively on long-ranged weaponry:

One last note on the Pet Peeve Trope of so many RPG players: So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear. RPGs are very much gatherer instinct-driven, so there is nothing more frustrating than AI followers leaving for plot reasons with all the rare items you gave them. In best case, it means reloading the last save; in the worst, the items are Lost Forever. So please, whenever characters leave the party, make sure that all the items that are not restricted to them are returned to the player (even if that doesn't make sense in-story). Also, let the players know in advance that they'll keep the gear, so they don't freak out.

Costume Designer

When creating their RPG characters, most players customize them as much as possible in order to better identify with them. After starting the game, this customization continues via decisions like what gear and weapons their character uses. For this reason, seeing a Virtual Paper Doll in badass armor on the Player Inventory screen brings many players a sense of satisfaction; for the same reasons, you would want to avert Informed Equipment as far as your engine allows it.

One Size Fits All is the one trope that you will just have to live with for the sake of simplicity of inventory handling. A similarly annoying issue is Rainbow Pimp Gear, which crops up when you have many types of wearable equipment that drops randomly. To counteract it, reduce the number of gear types to a bare minimum (helm, body armor, greaves, and gloves) and give a Set Bonus for wearing gear of the same material/design. Reducing the number of wearable equipment slots (that includes both armor and rings/amulets) also gives the players' equipment choices more impact on their play style.

Speaking of materials, armor in fantasy settings tends to follow the same conventions, described in better detail under Elemental Crafting:

  • Non-armor (robes) is for the Squishy Wizard. For the purpose of gameplay balance, magic-wielding classes cannot be allowed to have good physical protection, so you should either restrict arcane classes to robes, or impose heavy penalties on spellcasting in armor.
  • Light armor (usually leather) is for the Fragile Speedster. This is usually the best choice for a stealthy rogue, who remains reasonably well-protected without incurring penalties on stealth checks.
  • Medium armor (ring mail) offers maximum protection when the character cannot afford wearing Heavy, e.g. for a combat-oriented rogue or a DPS warrior who relies on fast attacks.
  • Heavy armor (plate mail) is for the Mighty Glacier, the classic Stone Wall armor.

In science fiction, armor ranges from a basic Bullet Proof Vest, through Powered Armor (which may have additional combat functions), to high tech Deflector Shields, though this is less a question of player choice and more of when each type becomes available. It is generally wise to equip the most high-tech armor immediately after it becomes available, unless you additionally give different types of armor different functions, e.g. a Powered Armor that maximizes defence vs. one that improves movement speed.

Mechanically speaking, there are three ways how armor can protect the wearer from harm:

Lastly, remember that Helmets Are Hardly Heroic, so if your engine allows for face close-ups during dialogue and cutscenes, at least add an option to automatically remove helmets from both the player character and important NPCs on such occasions. On the other hand, if you also let heroes wear capes, make sure they're removed during combat for practical reasons.

Casting Director

As discussed earlier, most Western RPG protagonists (player characters) are blank slates with tons of Character Customization piled upon them, and very few games feature a predefined protagonist (in stark contrast to the Eastern RPG genre). Since their characterization throughout the game is completely up to the players, their past is usually kept utterly generic. Too many games have featured an Amnesiac Hero to justify the blank slate part, so try to avert it unless you can put an interesting spin on it. Instead of amnesia or a generic past, give the protagonist a moderately heroic Back Story that justifies their adventurous tendencies, or better yet, write several (three or more) different character origins for the players to select from at character creation in accordance with their race, class, alignment, etc. Bonus Points if you reference the chosen origin later in the game, offer exclusive side quests, or even make the origin stories playable as Multiple Game Openings.

It is up to you whether you give the Player Character their own character arc or keep them a purely mechanic avatar of the player. Another way you can humanize a Featureless Protagonist is by denying them the Nerves of Steel that let seemingly all RPG heroes face the intense hardships and traumas of an adventure with minimal emotional baggage incurred. You can, for instance, give them a Stress Meter that goes up when they make tough decisions, have near-death experiences, etc. and down when they take third options, breeze through challenging fights, talk with their companions, etc. The Stress Meter can affect not just the The Hero's character act but also his combat performance—and possibly reduce him to a non-functional Nervous Wreck if it ever maxes out.

In a party-based RPG, the party members are a major appeal. When designing the party, two aspects should be considered: tactical gameplay and characterization. On one hand, the party members are characters in a story with their own flaws and Character Development; on the other, they are painted miniatures on the map meant to kill other painted miniatures. Therefore, the potential party selection should offer both a sufficient variety of classes to put together an optimal supporting team for the Player Character, and simultaneously be a interesting bunch to travel with. Which aspect is more important in your game is entirely up to you, though there is a general correlation here with whether the game is combat-oriented or story-driven.

Since the players ultimately control their party in a Western RPG, most of the party members are going to be either optional or temporary. Some story-relevant NPCs, however, will be Required Party Members and it is a good idea to mix them up class-wise so that the minimal "required party" represents every core class. Try to include one recruitable NPC for each class/specialization/alignment combination there is in the game (e.g. good warrior tank, evil warrior archer, good rogue scout, etc.) and let the players decide which ones they want in their party. If that makes for too many combinations due to the complexity of your Game System, reduce the combo to class/alignment and let the players re-spec their preferred party to their liking. If you add Mutually Exclusive Party Members, try to balance them out gameplay-wise, so that the players who have the "wrong" character in the party aren't placed at a gameplay disadvantage.

The party members' initial characterization can be derived from their function (e.g. the good warrior tank is probably a Knight in Shining Armor of some sort, the evil warrior archer may be a Cold Sniper with Dark and Troubled Past, the good scout is a Loveable Rogue, etc.), while their inner dynamics should be defined in terms of your favorite Ensemble Tropes. Party members are also a perfect source of exposition for whatever part of the setting they come from, as they give the players a face to associate weird country and race names with. Bonus points if the party represents the entire geographic and social scope of your setting. For a finishing touch, make it that Everyone Has A Special Move that reflects their personality and background.

If your party members are to have more than passive personalities, make them express it in dialogue, both with other NPCs and with the Player Character. If their personality is to be revealed gradually, add Relationship Values that determine whether they trust the PC enough to talk about personal issues. Rewards for gaining their trust can range from simple bonuses to character-exclusive side quests (including a Romance Sidequest). Losing trust may force characters to leave the party (in which case, remember to avert So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear). Speaking of characters leaving the party, play around with the Team Shuffle Tropes to diversify the party gameplay.

In single-character games with temporary followers, the considerations for the latter are pretty much the same, except that you don't have to pay as much attention to their characterization.

On the other side, you have the computer-controlled enemies. These come in a wide variety (see Stock Monsters) and provide Cannon Fodder for countless battles. Conceptually, the enemies can be divided into three categories:

  • Mooks are the lowest-rung enemies who die in scores and are only dangerous when they Zerg Rush the player character. In games with Level Scaling, they are permanently a few levels below the latter.
  • Elite Mooks are the souped-up (to about the same level as the player character) and often named versions of regular mooks, who pose a moderate threat on their own and may have special moves and other nasty surprises at their disposal.
  • Bosses are the rare unique enemies designed to pose a serious challenge to the players. They are usually encountered at the end of a dungeon or a quest, possess numerous special moves, and are far beyond the player character's current level.

When designing your enemies, try to introduce enough variety without resorting to the Underground Monkey trick. That includes both geographic variety and power level variety: the players shouldn't have to fight Normal Rats in the Doomed Hometown, Desert Rats in the Thirsty Desert, and Rats +20 in The Very Definitely Final Dungeon. The players should fight an enemy type, not an enemy level, so instead add poisonous scorpions as regular mooks in the desert level, and rabid mutant rats who move unpredictably and inflict nasty status effects with a bite in the final dungeon.

In regards to characterization of the villains and other enemies, refer to the Suggested Plots section.

One last thing about the actual casting: Voice acting carries inherent risks to any game but especially to an RPG. The primary issue is that it hinders the writing and editing process, since each new line has to be recorded, re-recorded, encoded, and lip-synced, as opposed to just replacing a text file. Therefore, unless you have access to a large and efficient voice recording infrastructure (which you probably don't unless you work for BioWare), you are better off without fully-voiced dialogues. That is not to say, of course, that you cannot have major characters' introductions and the essential moments of the main quest voiced; just don't extend it to every little side quest, as well.

Sound Director

Sounds in RPGs come in three categories:

  • Spoken dialogue. See above.
  • Music. Nothing sets the mood like a good music piece. If you are not yet short on resources, hire a good composer to make background music for you. For bonus points, you can probably make an extra buck selling the OST.
  • Sound effects. Just the regular stock sounds of swords clashing, guns firing, people grunting, and screaming in pain. Do try to avoid it unintentionally sounding like Orgasmic Combat, however.

As mentioned earlier, music can provide a wide range of motifs:

Here is a comprehensive article on music composition for video games in general.

Stunt Department

Refer to Analysis.Video Game Achievements for common achievement/trophy templates. Most of them can be used in an RPG (except multiplayer—you probably don't want it in your game).

Extra Credit

The Greats

The Epic Fails

  • Valhalla Chronicles was a Diablo clone that, despite an interesting viking-inspired premise, turned out equally weak in gameplay, level design, graphics, characters, plot, and pretty much every other department you can think of.
  • Dungeon Lords became the poster boy for the Obvious Beta trope thanks to being thoroughly incomplete and literally unplayable upon release.
  • Ultima VIII and Ultima IX are a perfect example of how not to wrap up an epic series: by discarding its role-playing aspects and familiar setting, by grossly violating established lore and canon, and by rushing it for the release seemingly without any testing at all.
  • Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader starts off as a narrative RPG in the vein of Fallout but quickly mutates into a Diablo clone, failing to deliver fun on either side.

The Wasted Potentials

Finding true "epic fails" among published and somewhat well-known examples of the genre is actually quite hard, because Western RPGs have never been mainstream enough to flood the market with shoddy hack jobs. Most horrible RPGs either never leave production, or pass into obscurity immediately, unnoticed and unplayed by anyone, so it's much easier, in fact, to list games that have turned out alright but still failed to live up to their full potential for different reasons:

  • Dungeon Siege was a fun party-based Dungeon Crawler that suffered from an oversimplified combat system and an uninspired plot that dragged on forever.
  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning tried merging narrative, sandbox, and dungeon crawling gameplay into one fun MMO-like package but ended up spoiling the broth and spawning a Stillborn Franchise.
  • Neverwinter Nights was released with a much-loved Level Editor, so many fans forget the flaws of its lackluster original single-player campaign—but one cannot excuse the other.
  • Sacred is a Dungeon Crawler that boasts a large sandbox-y world, resulting in repetitive levels and poorly-balanced encounters.
  • Siege of Avalon is an example of a narrative RPG going too far, to the extent where a genuinely interesting narrative completely eclipses the RPG gameplay.

The Sketchy Sequels

Sequels get their own section because they often cannot live up to the expectations set by the previous installment(s), and therefore appear even worse in comparison than they objectively are. Of course, sequels in every medium also have a tendency to be genuinely worse than the originals.

The Obvious Betas

Making an RPG is a lot of work, so quite a few are released in a state that is so horrendously bugged, it cannot be fixed even by extensive patching. Following examples could have become genuinely good games, had they spent more time in beta-testing—so take them as a cautionary tale of how even the best writing cannot excuse bad coding:

  • The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was impossible to complete until the first patch and is fondly remembered for a backlog of unfixed bugs almost as vast as its open game world.
  • Hellgate: London was a fun, if derivative Dungeon Crawler plagued by a massive amount of game-breaking bugs.
  • Might and Magic IX shipped pretty much in the pre-alpha state, nearly killing the venerable series off for good.

A special mention goes to Troika Games and Obsidian Entertainment who went on record for producing awesome but bugged RPGs (though Obsidian got better from DS3 onwards), that serve as a constant reminder of the biggest threat to polished and well-balanced RPG experience: Executive Meddling.

Additional Reading


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