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So You Want To: Write An RPG
Put players on an epic adventure. With your Trusty Bag Of Tropes, you could have the player solve world problems, fight evil and maybe train Mons.

Be sure to check out So You Want To Write A Story for advice that holds across genres.

By the way, this is about writing video games, if you are looking for advice on writing a tabletop one, see Write A Tabletop RPG instead. Similarly, see Write A Western RPG for advice on designing a specifically western-style RPG.


Necessary Tropes

The game needs to be fun, first and foremost. It doesn't matter how awesome your story or how unique your setting, if the gameplay isn't at least adequate, the players won't follow.

How innovative are you planning to be? Some players still love generic dungeon-town-dungeon-town adventures, but others want more variety or a new spin on the genre. Some players love to see an occasional Unexpected Gameplay Change, but others hate them with a passion. Try to decide early on which audience you're aiming for.

Almost all RPGs include a hero who runs around hacking enemies to pieces in one form or another. So you're going to need some Death Tropes.

You may want to check out Videogame Characters, Stock RPG Spells and Stock Monsters while you're at it. And this and this are both useful.

Choices, Choices

Do your characters have magical powers, or are they normal humans (they can be other species, though) who differ only in how strong, fast, resilient they are?

Do non-physical stats such as intelligence and charisma make a difference in gameplay beyond affecting magic? Can your hero use high charisma to talk his way into places (and favors) that a low-charisma character couldn't?

Is the hero a Featureless Protagonist, or do they have some personality beyond what the player brings to the table? Ask yourself, who should the player character represent, a player's avatar or your character? For the former, go ahead and use the Featureless Protagonist. Allow the player to customize the character as much as you can, and leave everything else undefined. This lets the player's imagination fill in the blank spots as they progress through your game. For the latter, well, just define the protagonist like you do any important character. It's hard to make the player believe that the fully-defined character represents themselves (unless you actually design the game for a certain person or very specific group), but lack of actual personality makes for flat characters. Both styles have their use, and aren't interchangeable.

Does the hero arrive on the scene with total amnesia, or does he recognize people he's met and places he's been before? (Warning: Amnesia has been done an awful lot in RPGs; if you're going to use it, make sure you use it well) Do NPCs recognize him? How important is the hero? How experienced is he? If he's supposed to be experienced and well-traveled, how do you justify starting him at level one with a wooden sword?

How feasible is a Low Level Run (or even a Pacifist Run)? Can a pacifist hero earn experience and go up levels? Or, for that matter, even survive the trip from one town to another? If your experience gain is based entirely on killing monsters, you may want to think this question over really well. Of course, if you don't care if a Pacifist Run is possible, this isn't a big deal.

Pitfalls

A lot of older games are virtually unplayable nowadays due to slow speed, annoying controls, and the lack of certain shortcuts we have grown to know and love. Games like Final Fantasy I and Dragon Quest I are virtually unrecognizable to fans of their modern installments, and playing them is like going from Warcraft II to the original Warcraft, where you had to specifically select the "walk" and "work" buttons, and couldn't just right-click on the place you wanted to go or the thing you wanted to do.

Now, we can forgive older games for these faults. We don't mock the pioneers because they took the long way around — they're the ones who drew the maps. The old games got us to the point where we can enjoy the shortcuts and features built up over multiple decades of field testing. But you do know, or at least you should know, how players will want to control the game and at what speed they will want to play. What are their expectations? If you deviate from them, you better a) have a damn good reason and b) be sure that it's worth it.

And you should be very aware that a good game calls players back for another round: Replayability. So consider the opening sequence, the introduction, the beginning tutorial, and each cutscene from the point of view of a person who has seen them before and wants to cut straight to the action. After all, no player wants to get stuck with fifteen minutes of Where Everything Is or How To Play This Game on their second time through. And when you've just failed to beat the just-after-cutscene-and-before-savespot Boss for the eighth time, you're going to want that cutscene to be completely skippable (so take the sensible route and make sure there's a savespot between the cutscene and the action... or make death reset you to the moment before battle).

A good rule of thumb is to allow all these things to be skipped in their entirety if the player so desires. No one likes being forced to do nothing. They'll watch it the first time, and some players will watch it every time, but others want the freedom to just play, and you need to give it to them.

There are two kinds of people in the RPG world. Some like the freedom to customize their characters to an extreme extent; they want their characters to be a completely blank slate upon which they, The Player, can write their intentions with impunity. Other players prefer to be limited to the Splats discussed in An Adventurer Is You, and like assembling a party which is greater than the sum of its parts. To quote Mark Rosewater of Magic: The Gathering, some games give you options and some give you choices: either you can have A and B, or you can have A or B. The reason this is being brought up is to simply say this: You can't do both in one game. Even the mix-and-match Class and Level System started in Final Fantasy V and elaborated on in Final Fantasy Tactics, which seems to be an option/A-and-B system, is actually a choice/A-or-B game, because once the fight starts, you only have X number of commands available to you. It doesn't matter if Ramza has mastered Ninja, Knight and Summoner; right now he's still a Time Mage with Samurai as his secondary job, and right now that's all you get from him, period. This is in comparison to the original (non-jobbed) version of FF12, where everyone can have everything in play at once; furthermore, because of the modular nature of the License Board, you could basically homogenize your characters to the point that Ashe, Vaan and Basch were functionally identical. Making Basch your main-tank did not limit his ability to use magic, or ranged weapons, or evasive technicks; in FF12, every character could be everything. FF12 gives you options where FFT gives you choices.

Some gamers will complain if you limit their options. Others will complain if the field is too wide-open and characters don't have enough uniqueness imposed on them. You can't please both groups with the same game. So choose one approach and stick with it.

Try adding a "Classic Mode" quick-play that puts the character into a Splat mold and streamlines the combat system/ Tech Tree.

Potential Subversions

You mess with Save Points, and most of the players will hate you at some point or another. But the ease of restarting the game from just before your Critical Failure is, well, perhaps a little too easy. Consider that MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft don't allow you to save and reset, and people still play them despite the potential for loss and disaster ("Gah! I just sold my epic sword for 40 silver! Nooooooo!"). But also consider that World of Warcraft doesn't allow you to be killed, doesn't make you start all over from the beginning of the game, and does allow you to restart a mission — even ones where a major character got killed.

One possibility: Put the "save" capability inside an object that can be lost (or stolen, or broken) or a person who can be killed (or lose his memory). Or make it that you can only reset to the Save Point if there's at least one party member alive to do the reset chant.

Second possibility: If the "save" is contingent on some member of your team surviving, then have a Total Party Kill change how the save works. E.g.: Normally, one surviving character uses the Save Manual as a focus to turn back time. But if the whole party dies, the Save Manual gets lost for a few years, and ends up in the hands of someone who doesn't quite know how to use it... so when he does it, it goes to the wrong time, or... other things change. Suddenly your hero is a giant lizard and his mount is a rhinoceros. Or the villains are now their best friends. Or their color schemes have completely changed. (This might work also if the story were "being told" by someone reading the book, and something happens to make them get the details wrong.)

Arbitrary Headcount Limit is something that RPGs just do now for tradition's sake. Today, there's no real reason, graphically or mechanically, why the entire nine-person party can't go walking around fighting everything together, instead of having four people sit around twiddling their thumbs while the other four get smashed upside the head by some super-boss, resulting in Total Party Kill and a Game Over. In other words, this trope is ripe for subversion or aversion. The first five Final Fantasy games handled this by only giving you X amount of characters at a time; you never rotated someone out of the active party because there was no one else. But starting with FF6 (4-head limit but 14 characters)... Of course, FF6 also took it to its logical extent: the final dungeon of the game required three separate parties to navigate through successfully, with you switching between them frequently, and let your entire band dogpile the Final Boss (in groups of four). Why not do some that for every dungeon? While it would take longer to design each dungeon (especially if you don't want accusations of Filleritis flung at you), The Player would also have to spend twice as much time in each of them. Maybe it'd pay off.

If you do decide to dismantle the Arbitrary Headcount Limit, keep the gameplay balance and controls complexity in mind. On the issue of balance, make sure that combat is equally challenging to a party that includes every recruitable NPC in the game and to a PC who sticks to a handful of plot-relevant companions. The Final Boss, for instance, should not come over as an Anticlimax Boss to the former and a Hopeless Boss Fight to the latter. Take a look at Diablo II, for instance, which dynamically scales the boss toughness to the online players' numbers and levels. On the issue of controls, remember during combat, the player has to keep in mind many, many variable such as health/mana levels, available spells, ability recharge times, etc.. An Arbitrary Headcount Limit naturally reduces the risk of overwhelming the player with information, so you have to make sure that doesn't happen in your game. You could, for example, implement Real Time with Pause, let the players configure the NPCs' combat tactics in advance, or make your NPCs smart enough not to hold them back (or all of the above). Alternatively, consider the Turn-Based Tactics genre.

Try adding Shows Damage, and getting rid of Beauty Is Never Tarnished. And there's always some psycho (or someone looking for realism) who wants fully-destructable landscape and the ability to take out a wall with his BFG. so, for example; "You encounter locked door. Pick (Neutral)  / use key (good)  /shoot hinges (evil) "

War Is Hell. That's common knowledge. That's also very depressing. A whiny, post-traumatic hero is a cliché, and no fun either. Try making him gleefully psychotic and/ or a Combat Sadomasochist for a change.

Have the Villain read the Evil Overlord List for once.

Fakhirs, prophets, and faith-healers notwithstanding, the average Reverend Tom D. Harry gets no special goodies from their deities. Try having them only raise the other party members morale, rather than being a powerhouse of divine gifts. You could also have the party cleric be a jaded Sinister Minister who guzzles the communion wine between sermons, or a fire-and-brimstone religious nut-job, rather than a case of Virginity Makes You Stupid.

Faceless Mooks are cliché. The "bad guys" should have their stories told too. Try not to just use Those Two Bad Guys or Enemy Chatter, but give the Villain(ous side) its own campaign.

The Spoony Bard splat has been overdone. Give the minstrel Power of Rock.

Princesses are overdone. You may want to make The Hero a Rebel Prince.

The character's starting weapon. These are usually tossed when you get to the next town, in favour of whatever else you get. IRL, a warrior would choose a Weapon of Choice, and stick with it (probably getting super-attached to it too). Make it an Evolving Weapon and/ or Empathic Weapon. or even the Sword of Plot Advancement (how's that for a subversion? The crappy hunk of metal you start with is the Sword that Slays Evil.)

Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes, Plots, and Aesops

Themes and plots that are used frequently are preachy environmentalism (especially with a Science Is Bad Broken Aesop), racism (usually of the fantastic kind), Be Yourself, and anti-authoritarianism. Evil Empires have been done to death, as have religions that are not what they seem and greedy corporations.

A character who starts out working for The Empire but defects to the La Résistance mid-game no longer counts as a refreshing plot.

Final Fantasy VII was wonderful, yes, but your protagonist doesn't have to be an angsty antihero who is really a Tomato in the Mirror. Really. For that matter, your villain doesn't have to be an angsty bishonen with a god complex, either. On the opposite end, your hero doesn't have to be a courageous, sword-wielding, happy-go-lucky teenager who becomes an All-Loving Hero despite being not that bright, and your female lead doesn't have to be a demure Friend to All Living Things who wields a staff or a bow and arrow and specialises in magic, or a bratty Tsundere who falls in love with the hero anyway and also is the party's main healer/caster.

A good idea to try is that the characters are participating in a war that is like a real war in that there is no "good side" or "evil side". The protagonists might win, but in so doing they might also doubt the justice of their cause.

Saving the World is always popular. After all, what greater purpose could your heroes have than trying to stop The End of the World as We Know It? How about... redeeming a former-friend-now-villain? Finding a cure for the victims of some form of And I Must Scream? Bringing literacy to the ghetto?

Female protagonists are underused. If you're going for a Cliché Storm, using Write Who You Know, or just want a male protagonist, use The Three Faces of Eve, or for a Five-Man Band, Tomboy and Girly Girl. The Smurfette Principle is overused and sexist.

If you want to be subversive, try subverting Always Chaotic Evil. (And not just with a small, friendly Monster Town, either). Just because some goblins jumped out of the woods to mug you doesn't mean that you're free to kill the next goblins you meet in a preemptive strike.

Also, don't get stuck by Beauty Equals Goodness: Ugly characters can be good, beautiful ones bad. In fact, mean characters can be good and friendly ones bad. Study the Harry Potter series for some especially good versions of this twist — it's an Aesop that should be drilled into kids very early, seeing as it reduces the chance of their going with nice strangers or shunning "mean" kids at school (who might be won over by a pleasant interaction or two).

Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters. Those Rebels you've been gunning down had loved ones. A Fatal Family Photo found while prying the boots and jewelery off an enemy can be a good way to induce a Heroic BSOD.

Now, about villains. Although Card Carrying Villains are nowhere near as common as they were before, that doesn't mean they're ready for a comeback. If you're going to go with a Well-Intentioned Extremist, remember that "Destroying-the-world-with-McGuffin-X-because-Humans Are Bastards-and-then-rebuilding-the-world-to-my-flawless-design" as a motive has gotten a bit old, and that the Well-Intentioned Extremist can have many other goals. Also, if your villain has a Tragic Backstory, please don't reveal it at the last minute. Cain and Abel has also gotten overused.

Villain Protagonists are underused. Seriously, it's our turn to kidnap the MacGuffin Girl, raise The Dragon, and lead an archeological dig for How To Make Really Bad Shit Go Down Fourth-And-A-Half Edition. Because "save the world" has been done to death, and the world doesn't deserve saving.

Another thing you could try is getting infected by The Corruption while fighting the enemy, going from a noble Paladin to a slavering Daemonspawn, the very thing you're fighting do destroy, something the character has been raised from birth to abhor. Abilities granted by The Corruption could be Cast from Hit Points, and tied to a Karma Meter. Not using it makes the game harder (and the abilities are wicked cool, like Animate Dead or Spawn Broodling or some other sub-set of Lovecraftian Super Power, just to make it extra-difficult to resist using), but using it untill you accidentally kill yourself or hit zero Karma leads to a Downer Ending or Non-Standard Game Over because the Big Bad considers The Corruption to be "A gift, given to my children," and he/ she/ it therefore owns the character, body and soul. Getting a low Karma score brings into play "I-created-you-so-you-can't-touch-me", (which, as far as One knows, has no trope) making the Final Boss fight very hard. Low Karma score could make a character gain a really slikny, revealing version of the Daemonhunter's uniform, weather with Absolute Cleavage or Walking Shirtless Scene (manky, pockmarked grey skin optional), and they could get Uh-Oh Eyes and Spikes of Villainy and /or Shoulders of Doom. You could also have some weapons infected by The Corruption, and make them steal HP whenever you make a successful Critical Hit, and hurt the character when they miss. One could even go so far as to let the player keep going as a Daemonspawn if they bottom out their Karma Meter, or a Zombie if their health hits zero.

There are two tropes which are infinitely more useful and common than you'd think if you have the traditional Five-Man Band. The five-man version of Four-Temperament Ensemble is common. You have your gothic Black Mage, soft-spoken White Mage, tough female warrior, big tough angry guy who is really a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, and of course your classic sword-wielding Hot-Blooded hero. If you have your hero as a Token Human, Five-Token Band is the other trope. In a Lord of the Rings setting, elves, dwarves etc. are useful for this, while in sci-fi, four different species of aliens, and in a Medieval European Fantasy, four different species of furries are quite popular. Using both at the same time should go down well with the fans (especially four species of furries, because of it's use of Animal Stereotypes.)

If you're going to have a Cliché Storm, try Playing With things, subverting things, but still keeping it a Cliché Storm, like Tales Series - after the Disc One Final Boss, the cliches are subverted, but they still provide the framework for the plot.

Make it Survival Horror. Try Playing The Player, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories style. The RPG equivalent would be Final Fantasy X - you could try Stray Souls Dollhouse Story style, maybe even with the protagonist being the victim of the twists instead of the companion. The RPG equivalent of that would be Persona.

Potential Motifs

Whatever weapon your character uses, the player will grow attached to it. That is why the Rust Monster is so feared, and the Disenchanter so reviled.


Departments

Set Designer / Location Scout

RPGs tend to have tons of settings because of their epic scope. You'll probably end up sending the player everywhere on the map, so make sure that everywhere on the map is somewhere worth going. The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Clichés calls these "The Compulsories" (it's #9), and we've got our own in Videogame Settings. Check them out and decide which ones (if any) you want to use, and which (if any) you want to try and subvert.

Props Department

Weapons, obviously.

See if you can think of a more interesting plot than collecting Plot Coupons or a MacGuffin. It's a good way to build up a lot of gameplay hours, but it doesn't make for a thrilling gameplay experience. If you decide to ignore that (to subvert it or try a different twist, for example), than at least try to avoid the whole thing where you gather them all only for the villains to steal them at the last minute.

Costume Designer

Depends on your setting. If you're going for relative realism, try to stay away from Impossibly Cool Clothes. Nomura, we're looking at you. Using the traditional Black Mage and White Mage outfits seems to be public domain nowadays.

Stunt Department

Hoo boy. First, are you going Fantasy, Sci-Fi, modern/unpowered, or something else? That's really going to inform your choices in combat and such.

If you're considering hard Fantasy or Science Fiction, don't immediately reach for Power Glows. Can you think of some other way for your battles and attacks to impress? You can turn them Up to Eleven if you want,but will it fit in with the setting?


Extra Credit

The Greats

Earthbound took a sudden veer away from the traditional RPG setting with a modern yet fantastic world that worked up from crazy townsfolk to cultists, zombies, bigfoot, aliens, robots, and an underground community of talking monkeys. The hero withdrew funds from an ATM, drove around on a bicycle, killed monsters with a baseball bat, and could catch heatstroke from being in the sun too long. He could also get homesick (a serious status ailment that needed to be cured by a quick phone home). The fight with Giygas at the end is also required reading for those wishing to make a memorable Final Boss, as it effectively conveys just how pants-wettingly terrifying a fight with an outright Eldritch Abomination should be.

Phantasy Star IV went with sci-fi underpinnings, complete with alien worlds and spacecraft, plus Psychic Powers in an alien language that you had to work out as you went (assuming you didn't just look it up). Consider this a lesson in the pros and cons of not using Latin for your spell language, if there is one.

Skies of Arcadia is notable for its unique setting, with Air Pirates travelling in between Floating Continents on airships, and for its generally upbeat and optimistic tone at a time when many games in the genre were trying to become Darker and Edgier; it's a game worth looking at if you don't intend to rely on angst. That said, don't draw too much inspiration from it if you're trying to create a unique plot, as since the genre isn't trying to be as Darker and Edgier any more, a Reconstruction won't be as effective.

Fallout earned notability by breaking a long line of games without a Standard Fantasy Setting. It also allowed open-ended character creation rather than the standard Fighter, Mage, Thief Class and Level System (though one may argue that it only used a hidden fighter/thief/diplomat selection of its own). You should strongly consider both, and experiment with other genres (and remember that a Standard Sci Fi Setting is only slightly better, being the second most common) and non-standard character systems.

Planescape: Torment took the basic game engine behind the more traditional Baldur's Gate and twisted it all around into something totally unique. Most notably, it embraced the game medium and lampshaded some of the absurdities of save points and Meaningless Lives by introducing a main character who literally, in the story, wouldn't stay dead. Just as importantly, the whole game is extremely well-written (for a game, anyway) and features dialogue that's actually worth paying attention to.

Shadow Hearts is to be acknowledged for having a rather unique gothic horror theme in an original (for JRPGs anyway) setting, early 20th century Europe and China. It also contains Yuri Volte Hyuga, who is considered by many to be the best RPG protagonist of all time (and the other playable characters are fairly well-developed), along with Roger Bacon (real name Albert Simon) and Fox Face, two of the more memorable JRPG villains, and some of the more creative Mook designs. While its sequels are to be applauded for proving that JRPG characters don't always to be the same tired, cookie-cutter stereotypes (if a bit drastically so), they unfortunately dropped the original dark and creepy storyline and atmosphere in favour of a far more generic one.

Persona 3 and Persona 4 are unique in the genre in that they take place in a modern-day setting that's Like Reality Unless Noted, as well as for incorporating a way to improve your stats and abilities outside of battle. The Social Links are a pretty innovative way of fleshing out the in-game world by adding a psuedo-Dating Sim mechanics to the game. It also helps that the characters for these links are usually incredibly well-written, and delving deeper into their stories rewards the player not only in terms of gameplay, but by making them more emotionally invested in the world that they're supposed to be saving.

Blue Dragon attempted to be a Cliché Storm, and it was praised for it's traditional setting. It took some of the cliches to new heights, and managed to be original, avoid cliches, but still make the work a Cliché Storm at the same time. If you're going to use a Cliché Storm, it's worth Playing The Player in some way, and subverting the tropes, while still using them as the framework for the plot.

The Elder Scrolls series is a critically acclaimed RPG series which is unique in that it allows the player nearly total freedom. Want a mage who wields a sword in one hand and a staff in the other whilst wearing heavy armour? You can do that. Want a thief who can conjure their own bow? you can do that. Want a warrior who can also mix up a healing potion in a few seconds from stuff he/she finds on the road? You can do that too. The games offer the Warrior/Mage/Thief as only a base which the player can then build on themselves. It isn't unheard of that a player would start as a mage and then end up as a warrior by the end of the game, they aren't constrined to one particular path. The player also has the ability to ignore the main quest of the game entirely and focus on sidequests.

For more traditional fare, check out:

  • The Final Fantasy series: I, IV, VI for oldschool, then VII and higher for better graphics and more complex gameplay (and more pretentious, if nothing else, plots).
  • The Dragon Quest series. Dragon Warrior III and IV, which are oldschool and got updated for "better" graphics later.
  • For TacticalRPG-style games, try the Shining Force series.
  • If you want to go really oldschool, consider checking out a Roguelike, early Ultima games, or Wizardry.

The Epic Fails

Horrible Demon 2. The backstory is that there was a horrible demon running around until the hero with the legendary sword threw a stone at it and it went away. Now the hero this time round has summoned it (by the way, one reviewer likened it to a buffalo/Pikachu hybrid - the Game Boy does have graphics limitations but not to that extent) but it's gone out of control and you have to stop it. There's no challenge because, in keeping with the backstory, you can buy a stone that you can throw at anything to effortlessly defeat it. Including all the bosses.

The Demon Rush. The Demon Rush is the ultimate example of How Not To Do It—how best to mismanage your time, budget, and skills. It's patently obvious the designer has only played a few JRPGs—The Demon Rush plays like a JRPG xeroxed to the point of illegibility, to the point where despite being a computer game you can't even use the keyboard to write your characters' names or use the mouse to click anything. The plot is an incomprehensible mess of exposition, jargon, and "dramatic revelations" that require more exposition and more jargon. Characters are poorly-designed in every way: they look stupid, they have random abilities that make every character a useless jack-of-all-trades, and they're all poorly-written, with most of them talking in the same voice and in the same stilted diction. Enemies are staggeringly hard and drop zilch for experience. Bosses are too easy. Deus ex machina and author appeal are everywhere. Even the coding is a abomination. See the announcement thread and the Let's Play on the Something Awful forums for the full skinny. Take notes on a piece of stationary titled THINGS I MUST NEVER, EVER DO.


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