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What Makes a Great RPG, Part III

By Shamus
on Thursday Sep 27, 2007
Filed under:
Game Design


After screwing around for the last two posts, I’m actually going to try to tackle this question now. Actually, I can’t really say what makes an RPG “great”, but I can at least define what I like about RPGs. Which is almost like answering the question. Sort of.

This list is going to be very subjective. Opinions will vary. Lots of great answers were already given by readers in the previous post, and I can see that some people like things about RPGs which “ruin” the game for me. This only reinforces the idea that “RPG” is a term applied carelessly to many different games, some of which have opposing or conflicting goals.

1. I know I bring this up a lot, but RPG games should be self-balancing. Having foes “scale” to the player’s level is an abomination that defeats the entire purpose of leveling up in the first place. The same goes for arranging the game so that all players will have about the same relative strength at any given point in the game.

Let the player farm XP if they want to. Let them fight low level foes without penalty if they want to. This is not cheating. This is simply another way to play the game. Maybe the player is new to RPGs and needs the help. Maybe they would rather move more slowly and steamroll over foes instead of moving more quickly and occasionally dying or running away. It’s their character. Let them play it on their own terms.

2. There should be many choices, and they should be interesting. And by “interesting” I don’t mean you earn “good” or “evil” points.

Stupid: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help. Will you help, or murder her and steal her shoes?

Better: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help. If you help her you might anger the baron, which could lead to headaches down the road. However, NOT helping her will aid the baron, and he’s not a very nice guy.

Best: You meet a woman on the road who needs your help, but you sense she isn’t giving you the whole story. You’re not sure if you believe her, or the baron. You’re going to have to talk to some people and investigate a bit if you want to know what’s really going on. Both sides are likely full of flaws, and choosing a side should reveal something about the values or preferences of the player, or their character.

3. Randomized worlds are very good. If you can’t have random scenery, then at least the loot should be randomized. Having the exact same items in the exact same locations every time though the game just kills the replay value.

4. Interesting characters. Villains with no agenda outside of being evil jerks are tiresome and banal. Good characters without some quirks or flaws are usually pretty flat.

5. Skill-based leveling system. This Rampant Coyote post talks about skill-based vs. class-based systems. I’m a big fan of classless systems for sure. For me the ideal system was the one used in Fallout. It was deep, fun, and did a good job of portraying personal growth in the real world. In a good skill-based system you gain “knowledge”, not “intelligence”. You get better at using weapons, not more dexterous. This makes a lot more sense to me.

6. I want to play a character, not a gang. I prefer games where I’m alone. (I’m really put off by games where there IS no central character.) If I have to have some NPC’s with me, they had better be really interesting folks and should not break immersion. They should also manage themselves. I’m busy controlling my character, and I don’t have time to tell them what to do in a fight.

7. I want a good story. No, I don’t want to go on yet another epic quest to collect some stupid sword or bauble.

8. I’m really burned out on Fantasy settings. There’s nothing wrong with magic, wizards, dragons and treasure chests, but we’ve been there and done that a few times now.

9. I like large freeform worlds. I dislike when the “being on rails” metaphor extends to movement within the game world. If I can only go forward or back, then I’m going to get bored. Quickly.

10. “Character customization” does not mean deciding what hat I want to wear. I want to start by choosing age & gender, and end with deciding how I want to shape the bridge of my avatar’s nose.

These are not set in stone, and I’m willing to give up some if they go for broke on the others. For example, Jade Empire had a simplistic leveling system of little consequence, a one-dimensional path through the world, static scenery and loot, and no character customization to speak of. But Bioware hit gold with the story and characters, and so Jade Empire stands as one of my favorites.

Of course one person suggested that the game should just be as much like Fallout as possible. That’s a pretty good answer too.


Here is the follow-up post at Rampant Coyote.

Mr. Halbert has more thoughts on this as well.

Also I’d like to clarify my point #3. When I asked for “random loot”, I’m suggesting thatstuff in containers be nominally randomized at the start of the game. I agree with the comments below that totally random drops just kill versimilitude. An orc wielding an axe should not drop a bow when he dies, and a rat should not drop a longsword.

Comments (81)

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  1. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    @Dan Hemmens

    Like I said thats not the problem of the system itself,but of balancing.If fallout had more use for gambling and science,playing a scientific gambler would be quite as good an option as a diplomat sniper.Besides,in fallout you cannot be as generalized as in oblivion since you have limited number of levels.

    And there is a point in having a few thief levels in NWN when youre a fighter:Evasion.

  2. Primogenitor says:

    Just my 2 cents:

    With the class/skill discussion, I think that is tied to solo/party. If your solo, you need to be a generalist, so a skill system allows you to survive. If your in a party, then each member can specialize to become more than the sum of the parts.

    Random loot is good, but needs to be sensible. Personally, I would randomize everything (plot included) and have the loot fall out of that, but thats just me.

    As much as I dislike consoles in general, Final Fantasy VII was the best RPG I have ever played (on a PC port). Sure, your characters were pretty much fixed, intra-party banter was non-existent, and there were no plot choices, but it was fun and interesting and not frustrating.

  3. Greg says:

    I can’t agree with you on self-balancing games. I never want to miss any of a game I’m playing, often subquests and optional sections are really interesting. It’s not in my makeup to go to the next area because the enemies in this one are getting a bit easy.

    I like it when the game stays relatively challanging despite my having decided to do every subquest and optional area (though not level farming, most boring thing in the world that, can’t rememeber ever having done it). I’d get bored if enemies just started folding before me for that.

    Perhaps the best system is a mix of the two? Whereby enemies did get more powerfull in response to a levelled character, enough to still be challanging but not enough that you don’t have a slightly easier time than if you hadn’t levelled.

  4. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Greg Says:

    “Perhaps the best system is a mix of the two? Whereby enemies did get more powerfull in response to a levelled character, enough to still be challanging but not enough that you don't have a slightly easier time than if you hadn't levelled.”

    One way out of this I see is to make side quests give you reputation based on which more(or less)enemies would want to get you.So if you do loads of good stuff,evil guys start hunting you.If you do lots of evil,you get good adventurers after your head.The more known you get,the tougher the enemies that try to attack you.But the rat still stays just that:A simple easy to squash rat.

  5. Scourge says:

    Daemian_Lucifer Says:

    “One way out of this I see is to make side quests give you reputation based on which more(or less)enemies would want to get you.So if you do loads of good stuff,evil guys start hunting you.If you do lots of evil,you get good adventurers after your head.The more known you get,the tougher the enemies that try to attack you.But the rat still stays just that:A simple easy to squash rat”

    Almost like they did in restricted area, when you managed to finish a mission did you get reputation and the enemys got stronger, if you failed did you loose reputation…

  6. @Dan Hemmens

    A skill based system can limit the number and or lvls of skills a person can get, thus enforsing either specialization or jack of all trades. Take a gander at Star Wars: Galaxies for skill base systems.

    But to make a game more real, I would much prefer a system that allows my character to learn anything no matter his trade or profession. This seems more real to me than an enforced set of skills with the inability to even dabble in anything else. In any adventure setting the ability to defend ones self to physical attack is common sense in my mind and I think anyone should be able to learn basic self defense, and how to use the more common weapons. The classic 1st lvl wizard out of D$D would lose a fight against a house cat 3 out of 4 times if they couldn’t use their magic. That doesn’t make sense to me. It bugs the hell out of me when I play my hunter in WoW and am unable to hide…

  7. Dev Null says:

    If its not going to be at least a _bit_ self-balancing, then there need to be limits to your abilities, or at least a point of diminishing returns (no matter how skillful you get with that rapier, you really shouldn’t be able to one-shot a dragon with it…)

    Morrowind, as much as I liked it, failed at that. In the beginning, I loved that the game wasn’t self-balancing, and that there were places I would go and just get stomped. Towards the end, when you had with casual effortlessness killed 2 of the 4 gods of the world (the third was already dead, and the fourth I killed too even though he was on my side just to make the set) – well at that point it seemed a bit of a letdown, really.

  8. Zereth says:

    I think part of the problem here is that “RPG” is really, really broad. Are Nethack and Jade Empire both RPGs? Sure. Are they the same type of game? Hell no. It’s like saying “what makes a good action game”. FEAR, God of War, and, say… Warning Forever are all action games. But they’re hardly the same type of game.

    In much the same way, Avernum, Oblivion, and Final Fantasy 10 are all RPGs, but they’re radically different from each other. What makes a good type of RPG Type A might not work in an RPG Type B, and trying to implement it in an RPG Type C would be nonsensical. And don’t even think of putting it into RPG Type D, that’s missing the whole point.

  9. Lo'oris says:

    even considering the clarifications, I totally (but PERSONALLY) disagree with point #3.
    and I think that point #10 could be difficult to develope.

    but, apart from that, I totally agree with the rest of the post :)

  10. cowness says:

    Great post, a couple of things I’d like to mention though:

    I remember getting engrossed in Chrono Trigger on the SNES a while ago. I mean the story wasn’t the usual “you’re a medieval wanderer searching for the only sword that can destroy the bad guy who’s ruining the earth” theme at all. In fact, it was something all of us could relate to. Sure, it had time-travel and all, but what’s an RPG without any fantasy? Chrono Trigger was one of my personal favorites.

    Quoting Alex (post#5), Mount&Blade is coming along really well… No story yet, but the day I downloaded the demo, I played it for 4 hours flat and “finished” it (it doesn’t let you play beyond level 6). It IS a medieval-ish setting, yet doesn’t give you that “yes, I’ve played it before” feeling. This goes to show that game mechanics and a little bit of thoughtful innovation (like the brilliant horse combat system) can do a world of good to an RPG, even if it didn’t have memory-hogging eye-candy.

  11. Kizer says:

    once again, I have to recommend the much-maligned RPG Skies of Arcadia: Legends for Gamecube. Yeah, the battle system’s crap and there’s no character customization, but the story is quite strong. Yes you spend a lot of time searching around for special baubles, but these baubles are more integral to the plot than in most games. For example, look at Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You have to collect three spiritual stones for the sole purpose of opening the Door of Time, then you collect six medallions to open the path to fighting Ganondorf. Great. These nine items do absolutely nothing else for you. They’re needed by the plot, but have no other purpose. Compare these to the Moon Crystals in SoA. I’ll refrain from spoilers (I assume everyone knows the plot/story for Zelda since it IS an old N64 game that most people have played if they are going to play it.) but suffice it to say the moon crystals individually have great power (unusable by the player, but still interactive with the player) and they have more tricks in store in later parts of the game. I think what makes the game work is how much of it is based on the real world, yet also completely different. And it fulfills rule number 8: no dragons and medieval knights here. The setting is pure fifteenth century Age of Exploration. Only in the sky. On floating ships. In a world called Arcadia. Regardless, check it out. If you make it through crappy, monotonous, boring combat system you’ll find a story filled with lovable, memorable characters and a great version of the classic, epic, “save the world” plot.
    And there are guns! ;)

  12. My personal favorite RPG of all time is Chrono Trigger. Let’s see which one of your standards it meets, shall we?

    It self-balances. Even the end boss, Lavos, and the new bosses released in the DS remake can be beaten by grinding and exploring for gear and levels. Even better, combat is fun, tactical and exciting. Since this is pre-Playstation, you don’t see eon-long attack animations for anything you do. And since the best way to “grind” is in fact to explore the world and complete sidequests, the process isn’t painless. You can even get cool content, like L. 9 Spekkio, if you stay underlevelled!

    Since it’s a SNES game, you get many “But thou must” choices. Nonetheless, when you decide whether or not the woman in 12,000 BC should keep her tree, it’s an interesting choice. Further, if you kick ass, you can kill the final boss very early.

    The world isn’t randomized (though it became more so in the DS remake), but loot can be. Treasure chests are static, but not monster drops.

    The major villains are Magus, Mother Brain, Zeal, Azala and Lavos. All interesting.

    Not skill-based, gang control, no control of avatar, and it is a fairly rail-based game. But it’s not fantasy: You get a robot and a cavewoman.

    What made the game GOOD?

    1) Time travel is compelling. You get to see the neat, tidied-up history of a fictional world. (Chrono Cross made that hellish, but it’s still a good game). You play a part in shaping it, and your decisions (like whether or not to charge for Jerky) have impacts.
    2) Interesting characters with art design done by a world-famous artist responsible for one of the biggest franchises in history, Dragon Ball. Further, the nerdy character and the physical bruiser character are both women. And the final balance of men vs. women is 3 to 4, even with the secret male character. Not bad at all. Further, the two main female characters get among the heaviest plot exposition.
    3) Multiple endings. Not just a good and evil ending, but rather a dozen distinct endings.
    4) A simple levelling system that nonetheless rewards strategy by making the pairups of your 3 main party vital.

    And so on.

  13. Lionday says:

    So what about a tactical RPG like Finale Fantasy Tactics. I myself love those games but i love it when they let me customize the characters traits (Class, Stats, Abilities).

  14. TSi says:

    I recently finished The Witcher 2 and feel like it falls under most of your demanding aspects. Except for the difficulty of some boss fights that might require to restart them a few times to try different techniques or, for one of them, to understand what the developers want you to do.

    1 – Although it is not required, you can farm some mobs for xp and materials.

    2 – Choices have consequences and the storyline has many ramifications (you can even import a save game from the first Witcher).

    3 – Although the world is static, items scattered in containers and sold by merchants are semi-random and replenish over time. even mob drops have random quantities from 0 to x.

    4 – Most bad guys/girls have their own motivations and you don’t have to kill them. Town folks react to your presence and some have routines that make them walk around from their home to their working area/tavern ( they also have an unique name and you can learn who they are from where they live and what lies around their place).

    5 – Combat efficiency depends 30% on your passive equipment/skills bonuses and 70% on how you use them as a player ( although I sometimes don’t notice any improvements from my stat bonuses).

    6 – You play a charismatic being but get to choose how he reacts to the world and to other people from your actions and decisions. Sometimes people follow you or ask you to follow them but they never die or get in your way unless the story requires it. you can still go wherever you want whenever you want.

    7 – The story is very well written and the ramifications in the storytelling only gives you specific bits until the final chapter where everything gathered is glued together to form your personal story.

    8 – … skip this or try out Dead Space which has many points in common to System Shock … X )

    9 – Unfortunately, this game is quite linear and only the first town allows you to roam around and get deep into a forest.

    10 – Change hairstyle ? … Yeah that’s all you can do knowing that some armours cover your entire head with a hood.

    If this game had less brute and buggy combat and interface system (the 2.0 patch tried hard to improve them though) and less crappy boss fights, I’m sure it would have had caught more attention…
    If you ever play it, I’d love to hear what you have to say on it. : )

  15. Hiram Flautt says:

    With havin so much written content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being ripped off? I’d truly appreciate it.

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