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Transparency: The RP Has Left the RPG

What makes an RPG great, and what is missing from the RPGs we play today that we had when we played tabletop RPGs?

With E3 having just finished and many great RPGs having just hit the market, I got to thinking about my old days of playing tabletop RPGs with a dungeon master.

When RPGs first hit the video game scene, there was clearly not any real way for them to properly emulate the experience we have on a tabletop, but clearly some tried. The Ultima series of games was likely the best at emulating, but I was a wee child when that game appeared on the Nintendo. Other RPGs like Final Fantasy and Might and Magic didn’t do too bad either, but somewhere in the growth of RPGs, the stories began straying further and further away from the tabletop roots.

The Dragon Ages and Witchers of the world are wonderful stories, and your choices clearly make a dynamic impact on the story being told. But when you compare them to the games I used play with my friends around the table, they clearly aren’t the same. In fact, I believe there is some magic that’s lost in today’s video game RPG that I can be think can be revitalized if done right.

Although I believe a game can still be called an RPG with only a couple of these elements, the really great ones and the ones that live up to their full potential have all of them.

Plot

Stories generally have a lot of different elements, but in this particular instance, I’m talking about the events in the story. Many DMs when I was a kid set things up to just be a series of boss fights, which was OK, but to really get me excited about what I was doing. There needs to be some mystery or puzzle to be solved.

Video game RPGs do this really well. Clearly. One playthrough of Mass Effect or an Elder Scrolls game will show you that plot is no trouble for game developers. And, of course, game developers are better at this part of game creation than my friends growing up. Many games have the impact and development of major motion pictures. I have watched many playthroughs of RPGs on YouTube, just for the story arcs.

Character Growth

Characters need to change over the course of the plot. This needs to happen on many different levels.

The first and easiest way for characters to grown in a video game RPG are through stats and abilities. As your character progresses through the plot, it only makes sense for him or her to get stronger or better and what he or she does. With that comes increases in stats and abilities, at the same time the enemies get more difficult and more grandiose.

The other way I believe a character needs to grow in the RPG is in, well, character.

There needs to be change in the way a character acts from the beginning of a situation to the end of the situation. In tabletop RPG, the character growth is more subtle and is normally based on the player’s relationship to the DM and less on the character in the world story. But it’s not not uncommon for a DM to set up situations that cause your character to change and grow over time. Video games do this, too. And it is another thing they do well. Going back to Mass Effect, Commander Shepard at the end of the game is a wholly different person than the soldier at the beginning.

Companions

BioWare games tend to be all about the companions. And they are certainly important to the storytelling, and a good DM on a tabletop will include some companions as well.

However, companions aren’t necessarily the traveling buddies that stay with you the whole time. They could be an ally that helps lead you through a specific dungeon for a short period of time, or they could just be the barkeep that you talk on your journey. Regardless, video game RPGs do this really well, too.

Personalized characters 

You might be wondering where video game RPGs fall short, and this is it: personalized characters. Now, don’t get me wrong, RPGs are great at character appearance and some of them do character skills really well. However, the personalization falls short when it comes to character personality. I have yet to see an MMO that really allows you to be your character or that allows you to dictate the character’s personality.

I can hear the arguments already: “But my Commander Shepard was completely different the second time I played through the Mass Effect games.” And you’re right, Shepard, the Inquisitor from Dragon Age, and Geralt of Rivia are all excellent example of how your can manipulate an in-game character’s personality based on your choices. However, you’re not really developing the character’s personality. You are making minor adjustments to a character within a very strict and narrow breadth of choose-my-adventure choices. You’re not really playing a role, you’re turning to page 76 instead of page 84.

Customization

Of course, creating a multitude of choices and developing a system that adjusts a character’s personality based on your choices would be extremely interesting -- I’d like to see that happen -- but it’s clearly not the easiest way to do it.

BioWare might have been on the right track with its game Shadow Realms that is now vaporware. However, it did kind of fall short in the personality department. The game was designed to pit four players against a fifth player who acted as a dungeon keeper. Now, everything in Shadow Realms was designed to be a kind of PvP setting, but imagine if it could be translated into more of a PvE scenario? One player actively sets up characters for the other player or players to interact with, be it by actively controlling dialogue or controlling elements in a dungeon.

What do you think? Would this kind of thing be interesting to you? Would you play this kind of game? Am I missing anything in my statements? What about Sword Coast Legends, which releases in September? Do you think that will be the ultimate RPG that we're looking for? (The first person who mentions Neverwinter Nights wins an internet.) I will see you next week.

Published Jun. 19th 2015
  • The Soapbox Lord
    Featured Contributor
    I think a main problem is simply the limitation of the video game as an interactive media. We are limited by what the developers imagined and put in the game. Whereas in tabletop, you are only limited by your imagination.

    I am about to engage in a RPG set in the Song of Fire and Ice series as well as host some games of Dread. I can't wait to see how it goes!
  • Jay Ricciardi
    Contributor
    I've been DMing a 5e D&D game and it's been so much more fun than video game RPGs (sorry Witcher 3).

    Most recently, my players convinced some low-level throw-away goblins to unionize and now the Goblin Union is an integral part of the plot. I never even saw it coming! My players are going around trying to unionize every group of evil minions and are on a mission to get them all dental insurance and honest, respectable adventuring gigs.
  • Larry Everett
    Featured Columnist
    There needs to be more RPGs that you can live DM. We'll see what Sword Coast Legends does. I hope it's the answer :-D
  • The Soapbox Lord
    Featured Contributor
    I want that idea as a game! For the Goblin Union!

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