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.
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:
- Character. This is The Hero or heroes that the player controls in the game. In other words, you will need a Player Character or six and offer a large degree of Character Customization to facilitate the eponymous role-playing in its digital form.
- Setting. You will need an environment for the players to explore, as the exploration is the backbone of all RPGs. Said environment is basically a Fantasy World Map with a Back Story, so you can count on quite a bit of World Building.
- Situation. This covers the driving Conflict of the story, as well as all necessary related tropes, primarily the Antagonistic Force and The Quest to stop/defeat it.
- Color. The graphics (and sound) of your game, ranging from the interface design to the visual style of characters, levels, and enemies. Usually implemented within a Game Engine.
- System. The Game System, a ruleset by which the gameplay is ordered: how skill checks are made, how damage is calculated in combat, etc. Check out our guide on how to Write A Tabletop RPG for ideas.
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, all of which are connected by a pervasive Central Theme. 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, as its lets the players discover and tinker with its many, many game subsystems. 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.
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?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.
- Created characters are by far the most common alternative for the primary Player Characters in Western RPGs (although many classic WRPGs and even one major modern series averted this to great effect). 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.
- Name. If you have voice acting (which you probably shouldn't, see below), you may have to invent a gender-neutral moniker to refer to the character in spoken dialogue.
- Gender. It's up to you whether you make it purely aesthetic or affecting the gameplay.
- Race (if non-human sentient species inhabit your setting at all). Consider the racial benefits/disadvantages of each playable species during the World Building stage (see below).
- Appearance. If your engine doesn't support facial customization, the players should a least be able to select a Character Portrait from an avatar gallery, import a picture from their hard drive, or customize the character's color scheme.
- Class (optional). More on this below.
- Alignment (optional). Ditto.
- Background (optional). Ditto.
- Stats, skills, and perks. Ditto.
- Is there an Arbitrary Headcount Limit and if so, what is it? While originally introduced due to technical limitations of early computers, it still has its justifications: limiting the players' immediate resources forces them to get creative with them and pay closer attention, while simultaneously making balancing the encounters easier for the designer, since most players field a full party whenever they can. The downsides of having a headcount limit include Fridge Logic of the Lazy Backup and Leaked Experience (though both can be remedied) and players missing out on content (e.g. character arcs) specific to characters who are not included in the default standing party for purely tactical reasons.
- If a character falls in battle, do they die for good or will they get better once the encounter is cleared? Does the death/K.O. of the main Player Character mean an immediate Game Over? If you use Non-Lethal K.O. like most modern games and want to execute a party member via Plotline Death, do make sure that said death is beyond whatever abuse the character faces in regular combat that merely makes them faint.
- How much control over party members/followers do you give to the players? This concerns both Character Customization (can the players change their appearance, decide which equipment they use, which stats they improve, etc.) and tactical control. Options for the latter range from fully autarkic AI, through Squad Controls, scriptable AI, to scriptable AI with optional micromanagement, and mandatory micromanagement of each character.
- Do you expect the main player avatar to be both The Face and the Designated Point Man of the party at all times? Can the player instead delegate the fighting and/or difficult skill checks (if not plot-relevant dialogue) to other party members?
TechnologyVarious 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 3/4 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.
- Program an engine yourself or take an existing open-source engine and adapt it to your needs.
- License a commercial Game Engine. If you're on a tight budget, Unity is in great demand among indie developers; beyond that, The Other Wiki helpfully provides an extensive list.
- Use a Game Maker geared towards RPGs, such as the RPG Maker. Ren'Py is pitched as a Visual Novel engine, but several Western developers managed to create engaging RPGs in it.
- Create a "total conversion" Game Mod using a Level Editor released by the developers of another RPG. Mod-friendly series include Neverwinter Nights and The Elder Scrolls.
Linear or Non-linear?When speaking about (non-)linearity, three aspects of it should be distinguished:
- The degree of plot linearity is observed in how much the main storyline branches depending on the players' decisions, whether Multiple Endings and/or Multiple Game Openings are available, etc.
- The degree of exploration linearity is what the Sliding Scale of Linearity vs. Openness is all about: on the one end, we have the Wide Open Sandbox, on the other, No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom.
- The degree of level design linearity manifests in how many alternative gameplay styles can be used to resolve a particular level, dungeon, or quest. The classic RPG resolution triangle is Combat, Diplomacy, Stealth.
- 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. Too much 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 ExperienceOne 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 Tech Points to distribute arbitrarily among their stats.
- The Point Build System eliminates the middle man (XP and levels) and hands out the Tech 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).
- Combat. Characters become stronger by overcoming enemies. This is pretty much the only XP source in Dungeon Crawlers and lends itself well to Level Grinding, especially if combined with Random Encounters. In story-heavy and sandbox games, you might want to minimize or outright remove combat XP rewards, however.
- Quests. Characters gain levels for completing storyline missions and Side Quests. It is implied that whatever hardships they have endured in order to complete their tasks made them stronger. This source of XP is central to narrative RPGs.
- Non-combat (often class-specific) activities. Characters not designed for combat may gain levels from other activities, such as a thief becoming better at thieving by picking locks and pockets or the healer by healing wounds and curing disease. This type is mostly found (usually alongside both others) in sandbox RPGs.
Attributes, Skills, and PerksWhile 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, Charisma) or a much leaner Three-Stat System.
- Skills offer large bonuses in a limited field of expertise, such as Swordplay, Lock Picking, Persuasion, Acrobatics, etc.
- 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.
- 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?
- Is your skill system focused on combat, on non-combat activities, or on some measure of both (e.g. with most of the party covering the various combat roles, while a dedicated Skill Monkey pulls the non-combat duties)?
- 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—for instance, it can cost increasing amounts of in-game currency, or only be available at certain opportunities (e.g. upon unlocking a Prestige Class Skill Tree, or when a Non-Player Companion gains their first level after joining, so players can re-spec them after trying out their predefined stats).
- 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.
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...?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? A reputation system such as the Alliance Meter or Relationship Values can stand in functionally if you're uncomfortably with the implications of a Karma Meter or its just a bad fit for your game. There is no more need to decide whether an action is good or evil, you just need to determine if that action will positively or negatively affect peoples' opinions.
CraftingJust 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.
- 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 minigamesThe 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 Lockpicking 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.
- 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 the math than a turn-based Dungeon Crawler.
- Don't confuse choices with calculations. Both are valid player decisions, but in a calculation, all options are immediately comparable to each other and the players are challenged to find the best one. In a choice, the players either don't have enough data for a calculation or must choose between several things they want but can't get at the same time—in either case, the key is setting up an internal conflict between the players' desires for them to resolve.
- 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! If you consider a particular cutscene absolutely essential, warn the players about it but let them skip it anyway.
- Make sure all parts of your plot are thematically consistent with each other. If the Central Theme of your game is overcoming impossible odds through cooperation and mutual trust, don't conclude it with a discussion of the supposedly inevitable conflict between artificial lifeforms and their creators.
- Subvert Always Chaotic Evil by giving the primary antagonists of the game more and more moral ambiguity as The Hero fights them. Double-subvert it by revealing a hidden third force in their conflict that does genuinely want to watch the world burn just for kicks.
- Subvert Arbitrary Headcount Limit by having all recruited party members fight at The Hero's side in the Final Battle.
- Subvert Collection Sidequest by revealing half-way through it that whatever the players have been collecting will be used for evil purposes and tasking them with hiding those objects all over again.
- Subvert Doomed Hometown by letting the Player Character go back, drive out the invaders, team up with other survivors, and rebuild the city again, starting from their own house.
- Subvert Escort Mission by having the "escort" protect the Player Character from much stronger enemies, forcing the latter into the Action Survivor role for a while.
- Subvert Featureless Protagonist by basing late-game Story Branching on purely cosmetic customization options such as Eye and Hair Colors, apparent age and build, etc.
- Subvert Fetch Quest by turning what starts off as a simple "bring me the Gem of Awesome" into a full-blown criminal investigation involving stolen goods, fake identities, corrupt law enforcement, and a rotary lathe.
- Subvert The Hero by having the Player Character start off incredibly powerful but go down in level as s/he collects experience, forcing him/her to rely on other party members (who level up normally) more and more until s/he is basically The Load to them in the endgame.
- Subvert New Game+ by letting the Player Character keep not only the skills and powers s/he gained in the previous walkthrough but also knowledge of the storyline—possibly unlocking additional story branches. Combine that subversion with subverting the Amnesiac Hero by revealing that the PC remembered his/her past "playthroughs" all along but assumed nobody would believe him/her.
- Subvert Player Punch by leaving the players a single, well-hidden loophole to avoid it that requires lots and lots of hard work ("hard" here does not mean "repetitive and boring"). Do make them feel good about pulling it off afterwards.
- Subvert Plot Coupons by having The Hero send his trusted henchmen to find and collect them for him while he makes more pragmatic preparations for the upcoming battle against the Big Bad (such as gathering intelligence, training an army, securing supply chains, etc.). Subvert it even further by revealing that a wild goose chase after random MacGuffins has been a ploy to distract the Big Bad from the heroes' real plans all along.
- Subvert The Quest by having a Treacherous Advisor send all the righteous heroes away on a meaningless quest while he enslaves their homeland with impunity, so they have to go home early and join La Résistance instead.
- Subvert Ragtag Bunch of Misfits by revealing that all recruitable party members share a past connection that drives them to join the Player Character.
- Subvert Sidequesting by revisiting the specific sidequests that the player completed in the endgame and basing the ending on the manner in which they were resolved.
- Subvert So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear by having the Token Evil Teammate run off with expensive items and a good chunk of the party's cash, only to come back later with everything they stole, accusing the hero of making them go soft.
- Subvert Standard Fantasy Setting by revealing half-way through the game that it's powered by Magic from Technology, the Five Races are actually offshoots of the same biological species (why else would they all be able to interbreed?), The Kingdom of Good is the last bastion of medieval ignorance, corruption, and religious radicalism, while the invading Empire of Evil is the world's main force for scientific progress, (non-)human empowerment, and freedom of belief.
- Geography. A Fantasy World Map is always a good idea, as long as it is not an unjustified Patchwork Map.
- Ethnology. Which sentient species inhabit the setting? The classic Tolkienesque Five Races? Is Fantastic Racism a large factor? Does one of the species (humans, elves) dominate some or all others? Which races are available for the Player Character and the Player Party members?
- History. The Back Story for the entire setting, a fodder for Cryptic Background References galore. Was there a catastrophic past event that still affects the world? A Great Offscreen War? What about smaller wars?
- Politics. Which countries exist in your setting? Does each race have its own domain or do most countries have a mixed population? Is one or more countries a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of a historical or contemporary prototype? Do they speak different languages or have different currencies?
- Society. Which major non-governmental organizations exist (Weird Trade Union, Magical Society, etc.)? What are their relationships with the governments and among each other? Are there organized religions? If so, how much influence do they have?
- Magic. How does Functional Magic (or Magic by Any Other Name in sci-fi) work? Is it divided into schools? If so, how many are there? Are some of them mutually exclusive? Are there Spell Levels? On a entirely different topic, how commonplace is magic in the setting? What is the popular attitude to it? Do mages face any form of Fantastic Racism?
Suggested Themes and AesopsThe 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, and the narrative RPGs in particular must have a strong and thought-provoking Central Theme. Stock themes in the genre include:
- Good vs. Evil in general
- Everything is possible by working together
- Personal sacrifice for the sake of others
- Power corrupts everyone
- Redemption is possible but hard to achieve
- Be Yourself and accept reality, however tragic it may be
- Being The Chosen One sucks but there is no way out of it
- In Defence Of Story Telling (on a more meta level)
Potential MotifsWhen 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).
- 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 PlotsSee (In)Human Resources and Questing Guide sections below.
Sequels and ExpansionsIt is no secret that of all video game genres, RPGs are most likely to spawn Long Runner franchises 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.
Integrating Story and GameplayThere are a few general recommendations on writing better RPG storylines. Chief among them is to always tell your story not just through dialogue and cutscenes, but also through gameplay mechanics. Because of its focus on character growth, the RPG genre offers numerous opportunities for characterization and general storytelling through gameplay. Consider following ludonarrative techniques:
- Translate injuries sustained in cutscenes into gameplay disadvantages. Stabbed In the Back by the Obvious Judas of a teammate? Start the next battle with halved HP. Lost an arm? No more two-handed swords or Dual Wielding for this character.
- Give non-player companions stats and potentially unique abilities that accurately reflect their quirks, Back Story, and Character Development. World's Strongest Man? Has a crazy Strength stat. Born Lucky? The Luck Stat is through the roof.
- Let characters use their combat stats and skills in dialogue and even cutscenes. Caught inside a Collapsing Lair? The World's Strongest Man can hold up the roof while his teammates loot the place clean.
- Tweak allies and enemies' AI to reflect their personalities and agendas. The Hero's Arch-Nemesis? Goes straight after him, ignoring everyone else on the battlefield. The Chivalrous Pervert companion? Never voluntarily attacks women but Takes the Bullet for any female ally in the vicinity.
- Get creative with plot coupons that do something.
- Base Story Branching not only on explicit plot decisions, but also on how players choose to "beat the game" (e.g. the main character's class, stats, skill sets, etc.).
(In)Human ResourcesBefore you start plotting out the main quest (or any major quest, for that matter), take your time to develop all of its principal characters (the protagonist, their essential allies and companions, and the villains). RPGs are very much character-driven, so instead of conceiving your plot as a sequence of dramatic events, start out by drawing up a web of individual motivations and personal conflicts that underlies them. Not only will the stories that emerge from it be much more believable and relatable, but it will also make branching the story a lot easier, since the driving forces behind the plot stay the same and you can keep players on track naturally, without robbing them of agency.
Player CharacterThe main quest of an RPG usually doubles as its Player Character's character arc. It can be as simple as an upstart adventurer Level Grinding long enough to take down the God of Evil, or as complex as an amnesiac looking for the cause of his Resurrective Immortality in a world shaped by will and belief. The PC is always the hero of their own story... and a completely featureless one in most Western RPGs. This contradiction presents some unique challenges when writing for this genre, by placing rather specific constraints upon the main quest and its protagonist.
BackgroundTo root them in the game world, the Player Character needs a backstory that explains their place in it at the start of the game and justifies their readiness to go on an adventure. Simultaneously, it must be generic enough to fit any combination of gender, race, class, and whatever other Character Customization options players can apply to them. Furthermore, a vast majority of WRPG protagonists embark on their journeys with minimal skills and material possessions. Gameplay-wise, this allows for a continuous power progression and lets players further customize their characters in the course of the game. In-story, such pitiful state of affairs is usually justified by some kind of misfortune or calamity—preferably one that wasn't caused by the PC's own stupidity—that occurs either in the opening scene or in their recent past. This, in turn, must reflect on their motivation to go on an adventure: the main quest can be presented as the only way to undo said misfortune or as something completely unavoidable in the situation at hand. The above leaves you with a handful of possible protagonist backgrounds that can reasonably combine an unpreparedness for a life of danger with a readiness to heed the Call to Adventure:
- Drifter. The protagonist is Walking the Earth for fame, glory, and/or treasure. Their past is irrelevant; they start off as strangers in the game world and jump at the Call at the first opportunity. A Drifter's initial lack of skills and possessions is easily explained by an earlier off-screen injury or mishap. Two other backgrounds can be considered subtypes of this:
- The Player. The PC is explicitly the player—a regular shmoe (overlapping with the Uprooted Everyman background) from Real Life, summoned to the game world on a heroic mission—which they are only too eager to undertake, putting their mentality closer to the Drifter. Because of the heavy fourth wall abuse, this type is mostly found in old school RPGs.
- Established Hero. Almost exclusively found in sequels and expansions, these PCs reprise their roles as (possibly depowered) protagonists from a previous game.
- Serviceman. The PC is a rank-and-file member of an organization dedicated to a heroic purpose and heeds the Call simply because it's their job. Said organization can be a government agency (army, police, intelligence), an N.G.O. Superpower, an Impartial Purpose-Driven Faction (such as a militant order), etc. The PC's ill-equipped initial state is explained by them being forced to deal with trouble way beyond their pay grade.
- Uprooted Everyman. The PC is a regular resident of the game world (similar to the player in Real Life) who ends up on the high road of adventure after a traumatic event kicks them out of their comfortable old life.
- Fallen Mighty. The PC is a former member of a privileged group who lost their status in a calamity that might or might not have kicked off the main quest. This background is similar to the Uprooted Everyman but includes Pride and nobless oblige as additional motivation.
- Convict. The PC is an inmate, whether rightly or wrongly accused, who lost everything, including freedom, to the judicial system. In the opening act, they are either released on an important mission or escape to build a new life for themselves. Clear My Name may be a motivation for the wrongly convicted subtype.
- Amnesiac. The PC has had a backstory before their adventure... but forgotten all about it. This background can be used on its own or combined with another from the list, usually with Serviceman or, less frequently, with Convict ("Too bad about your memory, son, but now that you're in the Penal Legion...").
Identity MysteryIn addition to the public background, the protagonist can have an additional twist to their past that is not known to the player or themselves at the start of the game. This secret should be an empowering one, so that, once revealed, it either gives the PC new gameplay abilities or at least makes the player feel like their character is more powerful than before. Late stages of the main quest often rely on this revelation to justify why the protagonist, and not anyone else, is the one saving the day.
- Dark Secret. An Amnesiac's affliction almost always turns out to be a coping mechanism to deal with an Awful Truth about their past that usually falls under one of two categories:
- Born with Secret Power. A hidden power lay dormant in the PC since birth but first awakens during their adventure and becomes of crucial importance to their success. Exploring this power and its implications may constitute major plot points.
- Reincarnation. These PCs turn out to be reincarnations of great heroes or villains of the past, or even of dead or forgotten deities. In case of villains and evil gods' reincarnations, this overlaps with Amnesiac Bad Guy.
MotivationLike their backgrounds, the player character's motivations need to be both generic enough to fit any customization and accessible to most players. Following motivations are particularly common:
- Generic Heroism. These heroes are out to save the general populace from an obvious threat because they cannot let innocents suffer and die.
- Personal Well-being. These heroes are adventuring for their own sake. This motivation comes in several degrees of desperation:
- Self-Preservation. These heroes must go on a journey because otherwise, they will be destroyed by the villains, by a health or spirit condition, or by their own superiors.
- A Way Home. Heroes stranded in a foreign land or world often search for a means to return home.
- Fame, Glory, Wealth. These heroes are mainly after their own profit.
- Revenge. These heroes want to repay the villains for what they've done.
- Self-Discovery. These heroes journey to uncover their own secrets and to put their souls and minds at ease.
- Family. These heroes' motivation is to save, protect, or simply provide for their family or a particular family member. Since most players have families, this is a highly relatable cause.
- Duty, Loyalty, Gratitude. These heroes are driven by a desire to serve a particular cause or individual or to repay their benefactors for an earlier kindness.
Main Character ArcThe Character Arc of a Western RPG protagonist is rarely defined in more detail than their growth in power and influence. Most WRPGs leave role-playing the PCs' personal growth to the players by letting them picking appropriate dialogue responses. Since the Player Character is ultimately the player's projection into the game world, that is sufficient for most games. You can, however, try introducing additional gameplay mechanics that facilitate dynamic storytelling without robbing the player of agency, e.g. by denying your Featureless Protagonist the Nerves of Steel that let most RPG heroes face the intense hardships and traumas of adventuring without incurring any emotional baggage. Instead, give the PC a Stress Meter that goes up when they make tough calls or have near-death experiences, and down when they take third options, breeze through challenging fights, talk with their companions, etc. A Stress Meter can affect the protagonist's options at critical plot points, negatively impact their combat performance, and even reduce them to a non-functional Nervous Wreck if it ever maxes out.
AntagonistsWhen talking about video game antagonists, it is important to distinguish between two types:
- Mechanics Villains are, simply put, the bosses at the end of a dungeon. If the Big Bad is one, he will be the biggest and toughest boss fought at the end of the main quest. He may be behind the disasters that befall the protagonists (such as hordes of mooks), but don't expect him to receive much screen time. In-story, such Big Bads tend to be supernatural Obviously Evil beings (or, in a pinch, hopelessly insane wizards) powerful enough to squash all but the mightiest heroes but not enough so to ascend into the Eldritch Abomination category. Because they are not particularly riveting story-wise, Big Bads of this type are found mostly in Dungeon Crawlers, although occasionally, they also serve as Foils to the more complex Narrative Villains in Sandbox and Narrative RPGs, accentuating the latter's moral ambiguity with their irredeemability. On the other hand, lesser villains, particularly the non-recurring bosses, commonly belong to this type in all subgenres.
- Narrative Villains are characters in the storytelling sense. Narrative Big Bads and Heavies, unlike their Mechanical counterparts, tend to be humans (or at least, humanlike beings) with elaborate pasts, goals, and flaws and, as such, can fall anywhere on the Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness. That is not to say that Narrative Villains cannot put up a good Boss Battle—but since they aren't defined by their combat prowess, they may just as well go down with a single hit, in a cutscene, or even let themselves be talked down without a fight. At least one Narrative Big Bad is pretty much a requirement in a Narrative RPG, but they are also often found in Sandboxes and even in some Dungeon Crawlers. This type is rarely applied to lesser villains, since you don't have time to develop them properly before they leave the stage, but a non-Big Bad Recurring Boss may belong to this category.
- Nonhuman Villain. If a villain is not a human or a human-like being (even formerly), don't bother characterizing them. Mechanical Nonhuman Villains tend to be viewed simply as legitimate targets, while Narrative ones tend to be inscrutable Cthulhu-esque puppetmasters behind thoroughly human Heavies, so the less you reveal about them, the more threatening they appear.
- Hidden Villain. The identity of the villain or that an established character is actually evil needs not be known to the player from the start. Mechanical Hidden Villains tend to be ever-distant bogeymen to keep players on their toes, while Narrative ones are either revealed during the Twist or remain ambiguously disconnected from the events of the game.
Antagonist AgendasWhen writing down a particular bad guy's agenda, consider following questions:
- What is it he wants to accomplish?
- What makes him and his plans dangerous?
- What flaw will ultimately cause him to fail?
- Power. This is by far the most common villainous motivation, and the distinctions lie mainly in how much power a particular villain desires:
- Power to Live. This villain has been denied a chance to live a full life and desperately wants more than just survival.
- Buying Power. This Punch Clock Villain is in it for the cold hard cash, simply because Evil Pays Better, or he may be Working for a Body Upgrade that only ill-gotten money can buy. Either way, he is unlikely to be the Big Bad unless it's a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
- Power over People. This villain wants to lord over others. To this end, he may plan to conquer a neighboring land (or world) or usurp authority in his own.
- Mystical Power. This villain goes beyond petty finance and politics and wants to lord over the laws of nature itself.
- Godhood. This villain wants no less than to become a Physical God, complete with divine powers and Complete Immortality.
- Revenge. This villain wants to take revenge upon someone or something that he feels has wronged him. His target can be an individual, whether a hero or another villain, a group, an entire social order, all the way up to the Sentient Cosmic Force.
- Change. These (often epic) villains want to bring the laws of the society or even of the entire existence into conformity with their own particular vision thereof. While all of them ultimately envision changing the whole world, many start out pragmatically small.
- Make a Better World. This villain believes he is acting to the ultimate benefit of humankind. This motivation is mainly found in human villains—after all, most evil-doers believe they are doing the right thing (although some may recognize themselves as Necessarily Evil).
- To Create a Playground for Evil. This villain, on the other hand, understands that what they do is wrong... and enjoys it. This motivation is pretty much reserved for supernatural forces of elemental evil, because a human would have to be most exquisitely insane to display it and still remain a credible threat.
- Preservation. This villain wants to preserve something, no matter the cost. Distinctions are found in the scope:
- Self-Preservation. This villain simply wants to survive. He may be Secretly Dying, suffering from Horror Hunger, Trapped in Villainy, etc. Either way, if he doesn't act, he will be dead or worse.
- Keeping the Social Order. This villain wants to keep the current social order intact, by any means necessary.
- Security of His Homeland. This villain is a patriot and will go to any lengths to protect his country.
- Survival of His Species. This villain believes that his actions, however horrific, will stave off the imminent destruction of humankind or whatever species he belongs to.
- Salvation of All Life. Like above, but this villain perceives a threat to all life in the universe that only he can defeat.
- Freedom. These villain's ultimate goal is freedom and he won't stop at anything to achieve it. The difference is mainly in the scope:
- Freedom for Oneself. This villain (often of supernatural evil variety) has been imprisoned long ago and seeks to escape that state.
- Freedom for One's Group. This villain is a member of a downtrodden group (such as a Slave Race) and wants to let his people determine their own future.
- Forced Into Evil. This "villain" doesn't want to be one but doesn't have any say on the matter. This is the default motivation of all sentient mooks that aren't Punch Clock Villains.
- Supernatural Evil. This is the biggest no-brainer of them all: If the Big Bad is literally Made of Evil, very few will think that stopping him is a bad idea.
- Invader, Usurper, Traitor. This shouldn't be a big issue, either: Anyone who invaded your country, supplanted The Good King, or betrayed another's trust should be stopped before he does more harm.
- Questionable Means. These villains believe that the ends justify the means, but not everyone agrees with them. Their three main subtypes form an interesting contrast with the three heroic archetypes:
- Knight Templar (antithesis to Action Hero) is particularly ruthless, indiscriminate, and uncompromising in pursuit of his goals. However noble, the latter cannot wash away the blood he spills to achieve them.
- Manipulative Bastard (antithesis to Guile Hero) plays with other people's emotions to secure their obedience without concern for their safety or integrity. Such villains often form Cults to do their dirty work for them.
- Amoral Researcher (antithesis to Science Hero) pushes the boundaries of scientific ethics by his actions, often involving human test subjects (willing or unwilling) and dubious safety procedures.
- Overconfidence. By far the most common reason for villainous downfalls: Whether it's a failure to smother the resistance in its crib, to recognize the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits as a major threat, or to heed any other advice from the Evil Overlord List, this villain's Pride goeth before his fall.
- Not in Control. These villains believe they set their own course but learn that it's not the case when it's far too late to change it.
- Manipulated/Deceived. This villain is manipulated by a bigger villain onto a course that seems to align with his own goals but actually only advances the plans of the puppetmaster. He is usually abandoned as soon as he stops being useful.
- Slave to His Code. This villain follows a certain code of conduct—which may have driven them to villainy in the first place—and won't stray from it even when it leads him straight into disaster. Unlike other types, he may realize all of this but feels powerless to change his course.
- Poor Self-Restraint. This villain lets his vices or fears rule him instead of ruling them, which ultimately drives away whatever supporters he had when he set out.
- Unfit for Greatness. Whatever burden the antagonist had placed upon himself, he lacks the willpower and the foresight to actually shoulder it, unwillingly leading himself and everyone who trusted him into ruin.
Big Bad CalculusWhen deciding how many Big Bads your story will have, keep in mind that as its central characters (alongside the PC and their companions), each major Narrative Villain demands sufficient screentime for characterization—preferably through actions rather than text. You do not want the driving force of your intricate plot to be a Flat Character, so it's better to have a few fully fleshed-out antagonists than a cavalcade of Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere.
- Evil Overlord. As simple as it gets, there is a Big Bad (Mechanical or Narrative, human or nonhuman) who must be defeated to complete the main quest. To get to him, the heroes must first defeat a horde of his mooks and several weaker Mechanical Villains (i.e. bosses) who act as the Big Bad's Quirky Miniboss Squad, Co-Dragons, or Slightly Lesser Bads.
- Puppetmaster. A slightly more interesting variation of the Evil Overlord, whose numerous lieutenants appear unrelated until the heroes discover a single hand directing all of them (or maybe they know about the Puppetmaster's existence but need to find out who he is first). The Puppetmaster is usually a Narrative Human Villain.
- The Monster behind the Man. A likely sympathetic Narrative Human Heavy plays the part of an Evil Overlord, but it may or may not be obvious that he is actually manipulated by an inscrutable supernatural force (Narrative Nonhuman Villain) for its own goals. Defeating or freeing the Heavy is required to banish his hidden master (because destroying it outright may prove impossible).
- Big Bad Duumvirate. Like the Evil Overlord, but there are two or more Narrative Big Bads who work together towards different goals and sit slightly apart on the Sliding Scale of Antagonist Vileness.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Evil. Two or more Big Bads occupy different spots on the vileness scale but don't cooperate like in a Duumvirate. The Evil may or may not be a Mechanical Villain, but the Bad is always a more morally ambiguous Narrative one. Different shades of Bad may be represented in case of three or more Big Bads.
- Competing Powers. Multiple plot movers are scattered all over the vileness scale but all want the same thing. Neither of them is the Big Bad, although depending on the Shades of Conflict in play, some may be more Obviously Evil than the rest, overlapping with the Good-Bad-Evil setup. The less vile powers will often represent competing worldviews, leaving it up to the player to decide who among them is the Big Good to them (often resulting in Faction-Specific Endings).
- No Antagonist. A very rare unconventional variation without a Big Bad, found mainly in Sandbox RPGs.
Oppressive ForceWhile the heroes face many setbacks on their journey, sometimes the Big Bad is responsible for a recurring hindrance that particularly stands out from the rest. As the gameplay manifestation of the evil that the heroes set out to thwart, this Oppressive Force looms ominously over their shoulders as a constant reminder of what they are fighting for or against:
- Invaders. The heroes fighting off an invasion should expect the aggressors to disrupt their lines of communications via hostile Random Encounters.
- Junta. If the villains have supplanted authorities, La Résistance may expect them and their quislings to harass them at every turn, if not to attack them on sight.
- Bounty Hunters. Heroes with an Identity Mystery must often deal with bounty hunters hired by the villains—in fact, this may be the first clue to the existence of said mystery.
- Hostile Environment. Sometimes, the Oppressive Force is not personified—instead the heroes may run into earthquakes, storms, and other calamities directly or indirectly caused by the villains' actions.
CompanionsThe Non-Player Companions are a major appeal in party-based RPGs. When designing the Player Party, two aspects should be taken into account: tactical gameplay and characterization. On the one hand, party members are characters in a story with their own flaws and growth; on the other, they are painted miniatures on a map, meant to kill other painted miniatures. The potential party roster should therefore offer 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 obviously correlates with whether it is combat-oriented or story-driven. Since players ultimately control their parties in a Western RPG, most of the party members will be either optional or temporary. On the other hand, some mandatory companions' arcs may tie into the main quest, and it is a good idea to mix them up gameplay-wise so that the minimal "required party" represents every core class. Try to include one recruitable NPC for every class/specialization/alignment combination there is in the game (e.g. good warrior tank, evil warrior archer, good rogue scout, etc.) and let players decide which ones they want on their team. If that makes for too many combinations due to the complexity of your Game System, reduce the combo to class/alignment and let players re-spec their preferred party to their liking. If you add Mutually Exclusive Party Members, make sure players can't end up with an overall weaker party for unrelated story reasons. The first draft of the party members' characterization can be derived from their function and your favorite Ensemble Tropes: e.g. the good warrior tank is probably a Knight in Shining Armor of some sort and doesn't get along with the evil warrior archer, a Cold Sniper with a Dark and Troubled Past, but the team's Loveable Rogue of a scout always acts as a mediator... For further steps, see the guides on how to Make Interesting Characters and to Develop Character Personality. You may also give each party member a unique gameplay ability that reflects their personality and background. Lastly, party members are a perfect source of exposition for whatever part of the setting they come from, as they give the player a face to associate with all the weird names and terms. Bonus points if the party represents the entire geographic and social scope of your setting. If your party members are to have more than passive personalities, showcase their Character Development in interactions with the Player Character, each other and other NPCs, whether via Dialogue Trees, Party Banter, or entire personal questlines. Be sure to write out their reactions to key plot developments, to the PC's choices, and to each other's presence. If their personalities are to be revealed gradually, you can use Relationship Values to determine whether they trust the PC enough to talk about personal issues. Rewards for gaining companions' trust can range from simple bonuses to character-exclusive side quests (including a Romance Sidequest). Losing trust may drive characters out of the party (in which case, remember to avert So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear). Speaking of characters leaving the party, you can employ Team Shuffle Tropes in the course of the game to diversify party gameplay.
Other CharactersAnother idea for you to consider is introducing a Rival figure—an archetype rare in Western RPGs, probably because it breaks the unwritten genre law that only the player and the villains can shake up the Status Quo. Still, such character has a lot of narrative potential by having a background similar to that of the PC but a role more akin to that of a Narrative Villain. They may be a Hero of Another Story, picking up quests that the PC failed or turned down, or a Recurring Boss leading a party of companions that the player never recruited—either way, they never forget to level grind. As the story progresses, the Rival may team up with the protagonist to accomplish their mutual goals (and not necessarily as a party member)—or, depending on the player's choices, run over to the villains.
Questing GuideThe first and foremost advice when writing an RPG quest line is to always balance its scope with its relevance to the game's core mode of engagement. Complex branching plots popular in Narrative RPGs are out of place in Sandboxes and Dungeon Crawlers, because they divert the players and the developers' attention from the game systems that constitute their main appeal. Don't take it as an indulgence for bad writing, however! Every RPG needs a solid plot, but how much plot should be appropriate for how much time you want players to spend on exploring your story compared to other aspects of your game. For your main quest, you can take the following template (loosely based on The Hero's Journey) and expand/trim it down to suit your particular needs:
- An Intro Sequence with introductions and a Tutorial Level
- A Call to Adventure, seguing into Opening the Sandbox
- Sidequesting as a form of Refusal of the Call
- A Plot Tunnel, culminating in the Plot Twist (often The Reveal)
- Wrapping up the remaining side quests
- The Point of No Return and the Final Battle against the Big Bad
- Optional Post Endgame Content
Intro SequenceThe intro sequence is a Plot Tunnel at the start of the game, stretching from the "New Game" button to Opening the Sandbox, i.e. until the moment when first side quests become available. Mechanically, it can consist of multiple cutscenes and tutorial levels, but as a rule of thumb, any intro containing more than one major level will feel like a Prolonged Prologue. Narratively, it usually contains following story beats:
- Introductions of the Player Character, major plot figures, and the setting.
- The Calamity. An explanation and justification of why the PC embarks on an adventure in a particularly ill-equipped state (if it's not part of their background already). This beat is optional and may or may not overlap with...
- The Call. An event that kicks off the PC's adventure.
- The Transformation (optional). An event that transforms the PC into something more powerful, usually introducing new gameplay mechanics. It usually occurs during the intro sequence but may be delayed until after the sandbox is opened.
- Opening Cutscene - Opening the Sandbox. The simplest arrangement is to show the Calamity and the Call (and possibly the Transformation) in a cutscene, then to thrust the player right into the adventure. This leaves no room for a tutorial (unless the game guides new players with pop-up tooltips), therefore this template is mostly found in Diablo-clones and diehard sandbox RPGs.
- Opening Cutscene - Prologue Level - Opening the Sandbox. Like above, but the players must first beat an intro level before they are let out into the sandbox.
- Opening Cutscene - Prologue Level - The Call - Opening the Sandbox. Like above, but the Call to Adventure is only delivered at the end of the intro level.
Call to AdventureThe Call to Adventure is usually a major villainous act that motivates the heroes to act against it. Villainous acts can occur on two different scales, Epic and Personal. Good guys acting first happens more rarely, and the distinction lies here in whether that initiative comes from an authority or from the heroes themselves.
Epic VillainyIn this type of Villainous Act, the bad guys cause a great upheaval that threatens to destroy the entire order of things that the heroes are used to, forcing them to take up arms. This Call heralds a grand adventure: in High Fantasy and Space Opera, it is often about saving the entire world or galaxy, while in Cyber Punk, Heroic, Low and Dark Fantasy, the heroes usually have to save a kingdom or a city (even when it's not worth saving in the first place). Epic Villainy usually comes in one of two forms:
- Invasion. The villains, whether an evil empire, aliens, demons, dragons, etc., launch a massive incursion into the heroes' homeland.
- Usurpation. The villains supplant legitimate authority, and the heroes take up arms to resist them and restore the rightful ruler or their heir.
Personal VillainyThis Villainous Act is usually a grave injustice that directly affects the protagonist's life. It heralds a more intimate conflict and is usually delivered in following forms:
- Assassination. The villains try to murder...
- ...the PC, successfully. Now the PC must find out how and why they were killed (unless that's already obvious) and why they are alive again (unless they were specifically Resurrected for a Job). May cause amnesia.
- ...the PC, unsuccessfully. Now they must find out who is hunting them and why—most commonly, it has to do with their Identity Mystery. Also, the attack may instead kill their friend, a mentor, a loved one, or even destroy their entire hometown, adding revenge as a potential motivation.
- ...an important NPC (often successfully). In this case, the heroes are usually Servicemen ordered by their superiors to investigate what inevitably turns into a much bigger plot.
- Theft/Kidnapping. The villains steal something important to the heroes (be it an item, a secret, or a person) that they now must get it back. Sometimes, the bad guys even kidnap the heroes themselves (usually for their Identity Mystery)!
- Betrayal. Someone the heroes trusted or admired betrays them and leaves them in a bad place. Can be a standalone event or a prelude to some other Villainous Act.
Authority's OrdersIn this case, the Call is issued by some kind of authority (the government, the superiors, a mentor, etc.) that summons the heroes and sends them out on an adventure.
- Investigation. The heroes, usually Servicemen, are tasked by their superiors to investigate a Murder, a Theft, a Kidnapping, or a Betrayal, which inevitably leads to an even bigger plot. Obviously overlaps with and is a consequence of the corresponding Villainous Act.
- Challenge. The heroes are challenged by the authority to perform a great feat, whether for the fame, glory, and treasure it will bring or out of simple goodness of hearts.
- Win Your Freedom. The authorities, who may not be entirely benevolent, are granting the Convict The Pardon in exchange for their services.
Of Their Own AccordSometimes, the heroes just decide to do something on their own.
- Stranded. The heroes find themselves stranded in a foreign land or world and decide either to make the best of their new life there or to find a way back home.
- Evil Discovery. The heroes, usually Drifters, accidentally discover a dormant source of obvious evil and decide to destroy it of their own accord.
- Self-Search. The heroes, usually of the Amnesiac background, embark on a journey to discover their own secrets.
TransformationSometimes, if the protagonist did not have an Identity Mystery already, the Call itself may instead transform them into something more powerful and capable of taking on danger. This can be an Emergency Transformation into a cyborg, a vampire (or another type of The Undead), etc., or simply a Second Hour Superpower that becomes their Unique Protagonist Asset and sets them apart from the Normal People.
SidequestsThe Side Quests are a form of Refusing The Call, where the heroes not so much refuse it outright as put it on hold as soon as the sandbox is opened and return to the main quest once they run out of other things to do. Unlike non-interactive media that shun any detours from the central story, Western RPGs revel in them. In fact, numerous and diverse side quests are among the biggest appeals for RPG players, since they let them delve into your Constructed World and find their own adventures. One important consideration is how to make 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 PC encounters the quest giver (e.g. them asking another NPC for help), or having them act differently from other NPCs until the PC talks to them (even if it's just being the only named NPCs on the screen), 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 all tip off an attentive player. While we are on it, not all side quests must end with the quest giver handing you the promised reward; them 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 players busy):
- Fetch Quest. This type is universally (and often deservedly) derided for being an Irrelevant Sidequest for the sake of Fake Longevity, but a handful of straightforward fetch quests are OK to make a quick buck between larger missions, so don't ignore them. You can also use "reverse-fetch quests" instead, where the player picks up random unique items in dungeons and must deliver them to someone 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 ranged attacks from afar to avoid pulling aggro. If you have Level Scaling for enemies, make absolutely sure to apply the same scaling to all allies and 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, a Cool Boat, or a Cool Starship in the game holds a lot of appeal. It also offers a free "inn" and unlimited loot storage to the player and lets you hand out interior decorations as quest rewards.
- Romance Sidequest. Helps to get the players emotionally invested in the characters and attracts female players. For writing tips, see Write A Romance Sidequest.
- Timed Mission. Don't have any side quests "expire" after a certain time or main quest events unless the story specifically demands it and makes it clear before the player triggers said events (e.g. any assignments in the Doomed Hometown not finished before leaving it will obviously remain so forever).
- Gladiator Subquest. These tend to be biased towards certain classes: if the PC specializes in support magic and they cannot delegate the fighting duty to another party member, this 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 players Rage Quit in frustration is a good thing.
- Sidequest Sidestory. Not a single quest but a chain of related side quests that shows players that their actions have consequences and helps bring the game world alive.
The TwistThe Twist is an event in the second half of the game that changes the initial motivation of the heroes and sets them up for the endgame. While it's not a mandatory plot feature, all but the most straightforward RPGs have it in some form (often, it's The Reveal that wraps up the protagonist's initial objective). For maximum effect, the effects of the Twist must be felt both in the story and in the gameplay, e.g. by changing level layouts and gameplay objectives, introducing additional hazards, new abilities or disabilities for the heroes, etc. Common Twists include:
- Hidden Villain. Universal in Investigation stories, but also found in other kinds of setups, this Twist reveals the identity of the evil force driving the plot and changes the game's objective from obtaining information about it to actually fighting it.
- From Bad to Worse. Things get even worse than they were at the start of the game. Usually, it's the villains carrying out another Villainous Act, such as starting an all-out war or targetedly destroying everything the heroes have managed to achieve until then.
- Identity Reveal. This Twist type almost inevitably happens to heroes with an Identity Mystery (and never to anyone else) and reveals the truth about their background. It is then tied into the main quest, whether by the villains coming after them for their secrets or by the heroes going after the villains because from there on, It's Personal.
The EndingWhen it comes to wrapping up the plot, you may go with a single ending or write several of them. The vast majority of Dungeon Crawlers only have one, as do most Sandbox RPGs (although some feature Faction-Specific Endings for the main quest or for the B Story). Most Narrative RPGs, in the meantime, feature Multiple Endings in one of following forms:
- Alignment-Based Endings. Such games usually feature two endings, Good and Evil (or equivalents), and the players must pick a side just before or at some point of The Very Definitely Final Dungeon. Sometimes, the ending is decided automatically, based on the PC's final Karma Meter standing.
- Faction-Specific Endings. These games feature an ending for each plot-relevant faction in the game, except the most glaringly evil ones, plus, optionally, a Lone Wolf ending. If the last one is available, it is always selectable in the end, while the rest may be rendered partially unavailable by the PC's earlier choices or their final Alliance Meter standing.
- Personal Drama Endings. In these games, the endings differ mainly in which Player Party members, including the PC, survive them and in which state. In some games, they can be rated from Good to Bad, while others defy an easy assessment but may include a clear Golden Ending that requires going an extra mile to unlock. What ending the player gets is usually determined by several key choices spread throughout the game, although the last one (or the first) may be disproportionately momentous.
- Philosophical Endings. These games explore a particular philosophical question or dilemma throughout their plot (see Suggested Themes and Aesops) and, in the end, ask the players to take a stand on it in light of everything they've seen and heard so far. It may overlap with Faction Endings, if the factions represent opposed views on the topic of the game.
Post-EndgameMost RPGs won't let you continue playing with the same character after finishing the main quest, but some, particularly in the sandbox subgenre, instead include a Playable Epilogue. This allows players to finish any side quests they didn't complete before the Point of No Return and to witness the aftermath of their actions, such as a game world being freed of the Oppressive Force or the faction they supported in the endgame securing control over it. You can also add a New Game+ mode if the PC's backgrounds permit it: A Uprooted Farm Boy leaving on his "first" adventure with 40 levels in Badass makes no sense, but it's easily justifiable for the Adventurer and Serviceman backgrounds. In this case, it is a nice touch to make NPCs in the Intro Sequence acknowledge the "recycled" PC's established reputation and experience.
Gameplay DesignerAt 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.
ExplorationExploration 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:
- Is there a Fog of War and if so, can the players reduce it with in-game means?
- Is there an In-Universe Game Clock and how does it affect the gameplay? What about NPC Scheduling? Is there a Fast-Forward Mechanic?
- How detailed is the Level-Map Display? What is marked on it except the general terrain (shops, points of interest)? Do the players have to visit each chunk of the level for it to appear on the map? Can maps of safe, inhabited locations like towns be acquired from in-game items or even automatically by entering them?
- Is there a smaller minimap? Does it double as an Enemy Detecting Radar?
- If enemies, treasures, and quest targets are displayed on the level map/minimap, does the fog of war occlude them?
- Is there a Warp Whistle to quickly travel between remote locations?
- Are there Random Encounters or are all enemies fixed in their place? Do fixed enemies respawn? Do bosses? Do random encounters occur on the global map, in dungeons, or both? Is there a hidden limit to how many random encounters the player can run into in any given area? If not, is there an item or skill that lets players manipulate the chances of running into one?
- Are some "random" encounters actually scripted and written into the plot? Are all random encounters enemy ambushes or are there helpful NPCs to encounter, as well?
- Which ways do the players have to restore the characters' health/mana/etc.: Healing/Mana Potions, NPC healers, Healing Springs, healing magic or skills? Or do they have Regenerating Health/Mana, After-Combat Recovery, or After Boss Recovery? Is there an instant recovery upon leveling up?
- Can the characters' health/mana/etc. be restored simply by putting them in a resting state for a while? Which conditions prevent resting? Can one's rest be interrupted by a Random Encounter? Are there in-game skills that improve the gains from resting and reduce its risks?
- Is the Player Character allowed to carry weapons in the open everywhere? If not, what reactions does that provoke from friendly NPCs? Is concealed carry possible? What are the skills necessary for that?
- Is the Player Character allowed to enter NPCs' private residences without repercussions? If not, what consequences can it have? Can the PC take other characters' possessions whenever they please?
- If you have Loading Screens (and you most likely do), it's a good practice to display random tips about the gameplay and the setting on them.
CombatCombat 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.
- Is combat always lethal, or are non-lethal takedowns possible? What are the incentives and/or drawbacks of dispatching enemies non-lethally? Can enemies surrender? What happens to unconscious or tied-up bodies?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- How many levels of tactical enemy AI are there? Do mindless, fearless monsters like The Undead fight differently from living animals? Do trained soldiers display better tactics and teamwork than street muggers? Does the presence of a field commander make the enemies act tactically smarter?
- 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 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.)?
StealthAs 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?
- How can the enemies spot a sneaking character? Do they have 360 degree vision or is the player safe outside their vision cones? If so, which factors determine the width and the length of these cones (enemy type, their headgear, lighting conditions)? Are the vision cones visible to the player?
- Can the sounds made by a sneaking character also give them away? Is there a "safe" distance the player must keep to avoid being heard? If so, how is it calculated (movement speed, gear clunkiness, floor type, background noise, etc.)? Are there in-game indicators to help the player estimate this distance?
- 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? Is it a minigame? 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?
DialogueSince the dialogue mode is most directly tied to the writing, consider following technical questions before producing any dialogue lines for your game:
- Will you have Dialogue Trees, Text Parser-based Keywords 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?
- ...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.
General InterfaceLet's face it: Save Scumming is a fact of PC gaming, and nothing is more frustrating than accidentally overwriting the quicksave after making a bad call and having to replay from a save made hours ago. To prevent such frustration, have your game quicksave and autosave onto a configurable number of save slots, overwriting the oldest with the new ones.
Set Designer / Location ScoutOn 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.
Props DepartmentPlunder 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 (unless it is an essential plot point on its own), 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).
- 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?
- Weapons. See below for more info.
- Armor. See Costume Designer section for more info.
- Shields. Mostly found in fantasy, always straddling the line between weapons and armor.
- Accessories. Rings, amulets, cloaks, etc. Items that give the characters passive permanent bonuses without any other usage.
- Standard RPG Items. These are mostly potions of various effects and other consumables.
- Vendor Trash. Generic items that are only good for selling in shops for extra cash (e.g. non-functional gems) and an occasional Collection Sidequest.
- Plot Coupons and MacGuffins. If you have a weight limitation on inventory, make sure these quest items don't weight anything and are removed from inventory upon completion of the quest. In a Grid Inventory, it's best to place them on a separate grid.
- Stock RPG Spells. These come in form of single-use scrolls or multi-charged wands.
- 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:
- 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:
- Emergency Weapon with exclusive melee capabilities
- Accurate but weak pistol with a tendency to turn into Sniper Pistol; can often be wielded in pairs, Guns Akimbo style
- Short-Range Shotgun for close encounters
- Rapid-fire, low-accuracy assault rifle for More Dakka
- Long-range, high-accuracy, very slow Sniper Rifle
- A BFG for when you absolutely have to kill everyone in the room
Costume DesignerWhen 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 sacrifices the greater protection of heavier armor to avoid 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 the classic Stone Wall armor.
- Damage Reduction. The armor negates a portion of inflicted damage, either a certain percentage of it or the first N points. This is by far the most common type in video games.
- Damage Negation. The damage points are inflicted upon the armor until it breaks, exposing the wearer's hit points to full damage thereafter. This is mostly used in the Regenerating Shield, Static Health setup and magic spells like the classic Stoneskin.
- Evasion Rating. The armor improves the character's chances of not getting hit (i.e. suffering damage). This approach comes from Dungeons & Dragons and has attracted a lot of flak. Most modern RPGs reverse it instead: the less heavy armor you wear, the better your chances to evade incoming attacks (if you have the dexterity stat to back it up).
Casting DirectorVoice 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 DirectorSounds 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.
- The main theme of the game that must play either in the main menu or in the ending credits. Plus variations that play at the key points of the plot, e.g. the slow, sad version during the Escape-from-Doomed Hometown section, the extra epic version during the Final Battle, etc.
- Character themes associated with individual party members and other important NPCs that play whenever they come into the spotlight.
- Battle themes (can be variations of the same theme) that play during regular battles. Duh.
Stunt DepartmentRefer 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).
- Planescape: Torment is the best example of a expansive and nuanced dialogue-driven narrative RPG that doesn't force you into any combat at all.
- Fallout 1 and 2 are unique in how they merged open world and narrative elements and managed to bring out the best of both worlds.
- Ultima VII in many ways still represents the peak of living, interactive open world game design.
- Dragon Age: Origins is a love song to the history of Western RPG in modern graphics and very little innovation.
- Mass Effect 2 is a character-driven narrative RPG that balances tight scripting with player agency and has a perfect endgame.
- Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines are great examples of a well-balanced Combat, Diplomacy, Stealth triangle.
- The Witcher and The Witcher 2 can be taken as reference for a heavily choice-driven RPG storyline.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the modern reference for options-based free-roaming exploration games.
- Path of Exile is a distillation of the Dungeon Crawler subgenre and its concise Game System can be held exemplary for any RPG.
- A Dance with Rogues is a great example of how much can be done in a "simple" Game Mod, in terms of both scope and risque topics.
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.
The Wasted PotentialsFinding true "epic fails" among published and somewhat well-known examples of the genre is actually quite hard, because ever since mid-90s, Western RPGs have not 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's plot —but one cannot excuse the other. The expansion campaigns did a better job at meeting the engine's potential and are more fondly remembered.
- Sacred is a Dungeon Crawler that boasts a large open 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 SequelsSequels 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.
- Deus Ex: Invisible War removed much of the gameplay depth that made the original game a perfect mix of action and RPG, disappointing fans of the original.
- Diablo III simplified its character progression (a core aspect of the Dungeon Crawler genre), but its greatest sin was the Auction House, which thoroughly unbalanced the looting aspect of the game.
- Dragon Age II suffered from extremely lazy level design, from Cut-and-Paste Environments to endless Teleporting Keycard Squads, which couldn't be offset even by a novel storyline.
- Gothic 3's main problem were its bugs but Arcania: Gothic 4 all but removed the character progression and the open world that made the previous games popular.
The Obvious BetasMaking 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.
- GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory: The Gamism-Narrativism-Simulationism theory of Tabletop RPGs.
- Focusing Creativity: RPG Genres: A detailed explanation of the Narrative-Sandbox-Dungeon Crawler subgenre trifecta.
- Extra Credits' "Aesthetics of Play" and "Western & Japanese RPGs": An analysis of why people play Western (and Eastern) RPGs.
- Rowan Kaiser's column at Engadget (formerly at Joystiq): A collection of articles on the theory and history of the Western RPG genre.
- The World of Western RPGs: An extensive (if admittedly biased) overview of the evolution of the Western RPG genre between 1980 and 2007.