The Secret Ingredient for a Quality Roleplaying Game

In today’s world, its an inarguable fact that the niche genres of gaming are no longer being accessed by the die hard fans of old. These days, the FPS fanatics are getting their hands on MOBAs and the casual clickers are delving into the world of Role-playing Games (RPGs). That latter genre is the one I’m most focused on these days, as it seems every other game that comes out today tries to incorporate RPG elements into its foundations. From AAA titles to the small indie passion project, what I find is that at some point the player is asked to manage skill points, profession levels, or, at the very least, stick to a character archetype as defined in the beginning of the game. Very rarely are one of these aspects of role-playing missing from a title, and when they are, its generally due to the fact that these aspects were purposely left out to hone in on the “action” aspect of a particular game, such as a shooter that wants to simplify its gameplay loop.

For the games that do intend on having RPG elements baked into its core, there is a single attribute, or ingredient, that’s key to making the player feel engaged with the process of playing a role: motivation. No shit, right? Most developers, and gamers, think that good mechanics and quality writing create the motivation to engage in a roleplaying game, but this is an illusion. The mechanics compliment certain functions of the game, such as combat. The writing keeps a player engaged in the story and character development. But the motivation to continue engaging with an RPG is down to the way the game forces the player’s hand.

That might sound counterintuitive for a genre that prides itself on player freedom, but, if implemented correctly, the mechanics that force a player’s gameplay will be unseen, non-obstructive, and will encourage the player to stick to the gameplay style or story they’ve crafted for themselves without making them feel like they are missing out on anything.

The Elder Scrolls, For Example

Image via Bethesda

The Elder Scrolls games all have unique attributes and their own take on how to implement this kind of system. Let’s take a look at Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim as examples and see how they strategized motivating the player to roleplay.

Morrowind opted to give the player total freedom in the open world by making sure that enemies, in the vast majority of cases, were not leveled to the character. This means that a level 1 character is going to find the same exact kinds of enemies in the open world and in the majority of dungeons as a level 20 character. This is key for Morrowind because it means that a level 10 character who has teched into a melee focused build won’t mind taking some time out of their playthrough to opt for some magic training to change up their gameplay since the enemies they’ll be facing won’t get any harder due to the increased levels in some side skills.

Since the open world wasn’t the source of motivation for players to stick to their archetypes, Bethesda incorporated the motivation into the faction and house requirements. For those who haven’t played Morrowind, the game features factions and native houses that offer quests to the player, but lock themeslves off at certain requirements: one house might have speechcraft requirements, while a another faction might have strength and melee combat requirements. This means that a player who is focused on one kind of build is likely going to be guided to a relevant house or faction by the game’s NPCs. And because getting to the end of said questlines is almost always going to be in the player’s best interest, they feel motivated to stick with their build to unlock the next set of ranks and quests to progress.

In short, Morrowind opted for a sociopolitical solution to their motivational factor and made the player naturally feel inclined to keep steady and stick with their designated skill set, although it was never a requirement to follow a difficulty curve.

Oblivion, on the other hand, opted for the opposite approach. Instead of motivating the character through subtlety via house and faction requirements, Oblivion removed the quest requirements altogether and just made the enemies in the open world level with the character. So a level 10 character is going to find much stronger enemies in the open world and its associated dungeons than a level 1 character. This means that a character who is teched into melee combat isn’t going to want to step aside for some unnecessary magic training, as the extra levels in skills he or she isn’t likely to use will result in stronger enemies for no gain on the player’s part.

This design opened up the possibilities for specific character archetypes to 100% all of the game’s content without being locked out due to skill requirments in Oblivion, but resulted in a far more punishing leveling system that made use of the difficulty slider (to account for stronger enemies) far more necessary for new players.

Both of these methods have their assets and weaknesses, but both serve to “force” the player’s hand in some way. And those restrictions make the player feel far more invested in using the tools they’ve chosen for a single playthrough as apposed to all the tools possible, which is precisely what roleplaying is all about.

Since I mentioned the weaknesses in brief, a quick note about them: In Morrowind, the unleveled world is very, very forgiving to new players who might not have an optimal build, and will let them become overpowered gods no matter what. This is a strength. When it comes to veterans, however, knowledge of the systems at play mean that leveling every skill at rapid pace isn’t just a viable option, but the strongest option in every play through with no downsides. From a roleplaying perspective, this is a weakness. In Oblivion’s case, the opposite is true: newbies are very likely to have a punishing first playthrough in a leveled world that cares not if you understand how to make a viable build. This is a weakness. For veterans, though, the system is designed to make the playthroughs all individually unique and heavily motivated them to stick to their chosen skill set, thanks to the fact that the world will punish those who deviate too much. This is a strength.

Which version appeals to you more will depend on your taste and which game’s story and mechanics you prefer. That said, from a roleplaying perspective, both methods shown here are miles ahead of Skyrim’s method of motivation, which is no method at all.

You see, Skyrim opted to level its world similar to how Oblivion did, but also advertised itself as a game that allows the player to choose whatever build path they like and deviate as much as they want. A game of “total freedom”. The reality is that the leveled world meant that the total freedom was absolutely not a viable build choice like it was in Morrowind and, thanks to the fact that all of Skyrim’s crafting mskills were necessary to making a strong build viable off of expert difficulty, the player is not only forced into teching into their opted playstyle (not as advertised) but is also forced into using Alchemy, Enchanting, and Smithing to keep their power at reasonable odds with the AI. So that’s three forced skills on top of the combat skills used in a player’s build. Needless to say, this is the absolute wrong way to do an RPG.

Where Skyrim succeeds in pushing the mechanics of the medium, it fails delivering on the roleplaying elements of Oblivion and Morrowind by not motivating the player to actually roleplay in any true sense of the word. And it definitely didn’t succeed in matching Morrowind’s writing or story (though that’s a topic for another article).

For the RPG, limiting the player’s choice isn’t about locking the player off of content or skills, but imploring them to dive head first into their character. In a way, its about limiting what a player wants to do without forcing them to do it. Its a difficult balance to achieve, and while Oblivion and Morrowind managed to find two inventive ways of managing the systems, I await with eagerness at what future developers might theorize into practice for the genre’s future.


The RPG, A Genre Role-Playing as Itself

When an artist puts out a famous piece of work, there are sure to be followers of his or hers that will either borrow from their style, or steal it outright. This applies most obviously to music, artwork, and film, but can be seen in video games to boot.

The earliest we tend to define contemporary role-playing is with the release of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, which used fantasy elements and unique character creation rules to allow players to assign themselves a player-made character and role in the story that they’d create themselves, hence the ‘role-play’. Now this is certainly not what we refer to as contemporary when talking about role-play video gaming itself, but is still relatively new to humanity in terms of how structured the format is. Role-playing in a gaming or celebratory manner is something humanity has done since there was literally anything else other than one’s self to role-play as, such as the Han-era Chinese who would role-play as people from earlier ages. But the RPG, as aforementioned, didn’t really come into its own until the release of Dungeons and Dragons and the following adaptations into media.

At that point, we saw games like Rogue (to which the genre ‘Rogue-like’ is named after), with its dungeon-crawling loot-finding fantasy mechanics, come into the fray of playable media. What followed was 30 years of innovation in technology, writing, game-mechanics, and design. This led to breakthroughs like the rarely-observed transition from Dice rolling (RNG) elements to the more contemporary hitbox-registered combat and ‘less randomized’ mechanics as seen in today’s games, or the always advertised updated graphics .

If someone new to roleplaying games, or roleplaying as a whole, were to peek into this world of RPGs, they’d probably wonder why so much of it has to do with medieval era locations, magic, and dragons. And that’s the topic I’d like to touch on today: why the RPG narrative can stand to evolve.

Please Take Notice

I didn’t say should evolve or that it needs to evolve. My point I’m going to make is that the narratives surrounding RPGs (varied as they may be outside of the norm in some cases) can use some evolution so as to avoid falling into the trap that many games / stories tend to when not created by a studio with an exceptional writing team to pick up the slack with intricate story development. That is, becoming just another generic ‘stab the guy, get the loot, save the XYZ with spells and armor, pick another quest’ game.

And with that mess as preamble, let’s talk about character creation in RPGs.

World of Warcraft’s Character Creation Screen

The most obvious ‘trickle down’ effect that early fantasy tropes have had on contemporary video games can be seen in any character creation screen. From Morrowind’s 2002 character creation, which was somewhat limited (although interesting), to WoW’s constantly updated character creation screen, you’ll find similarities that would make someone new to the genre a little let down by the lack of variety presented to them.

Yes, WoW has variety in the sense that it has a lot of races and classes to choose from, but it still hangs onto the same character tropes that were presented to it in its early days of creation; Elves, Orcs, Humans, Humans-but-shortish, Pandas, and large beasts that are in their own design are some of the races available in the game. For contrast, we can look at what Morrowind presents with an overwhelming selection of elves, orcs, humans, humans-but-nordic, cats, and reptilian beasts that are in their own design.

Do these short descriptions give each race for each game their deserved credit? No. Do these short descriptions give each race for each game an accurate synopsis of what a new player might think when seeing their similarities? Yes, they absolutely do.

I’m willing to believe, quite readily, that a lot of people who are less-than-nerdy, but open to trying these kinds of games are put off by how similar their inhabitants are designed to one another. Dungeons and Dragons was a game with swords, spells, elves, orcs, and humans, while The Elder Scrolls Series (to which Morrowind belongs) is a game rife with swords, spells, orcs, humans, dungeons, and dragons. WoW, Elex, Baldur’s Gate, TES, etc, are all based around these kinds of concepts with limited variation in their evolution to lore inhabitants / progression or at least an overall desire to get away from the games the proceeded them in the industry. Note, I’m not referring to the mechanics or gameplay or even the art here. I’m referring to the world the game is set in and the magical sword swinging nature of them.

And I’ll reiterate one more time, I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. There should be games that exist in these formats, and THESE games in particular absolutely shouldn’t have been build in any other way. Its clearly a design choice that many fans cling onto very readily, but it was also the developers’ vision for the games themselves. I wouldn’t change these games in any way if I had the power to. That said, it’s also true that because of the long standing history of these games, and their success, future developments which would have otherwise bucked trends or attempted something completely new will have been swept under the rug due to their associated risk. After all, why try to make an RPG game without spells or swords? DnD is an RPG game, and IT has spells and swords, right? Just look at Cyberpunk (I’ll refrain for much longer on this one), IT tried that very thing and failed to match the RPG elements even pessimists wanted from it.

Because of this passive mindset that’s cooked up into the players’ minds of ‘RPG === DnD lore’, the genre of roleplaying has become wholly synonymous with the world building that fleshed out DnD games 40 years ago, and the concept of experimentation is continually pushed out of the way since the idea of an RPG is now to have medieval / fantasy world building, spells, and races of old lore.

And I’m well aware that there are some successful variations on the market today, not least of which includes Fallout, which is heralded by some as one of the greatest video game series of all time (Again, made by Bethesda, who created the Elder Scrolls Series in all its glory), is set in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style gun-ridden world. And their upcoming title ‘Starfield’ is, as you might be able to guess, is set in space.

Neither Fallout nor Starfield’s existence (or any game that’s tried something similarly out of the norm) should be proof against my point I’m making, nor should they dissuade other developers from trying to build off of them in the first place. I’d argue that these games are steps in the direction I’m advocating the RPG genre to go in, but they haven’t managed to change the overwhelming connotation plaguing RPGs that DnD roots should be their bread and butter. The main issue with this that I see is that players aren’t truly understanding what makes RPGs fun in the first place, and that serves as possible cause to weaken future video games that might try to cater to that idea. And I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that what actually makes these games fun isn’t necessarily the swords, spells, or DnD medieval-style lore. It’s actually just the freedom of choice to tackle a story and its challenges down while experimenting with different playstyles (or roles). The swords, spells, etc are all tools given to the player to accomplish this. And while those things are usually what helps immerse the common RPG audience, they aren’t the required ingredients to properly make an RPG.

To demonstrate this, you can imagine a world where the next FIFA has a Roleplaying mode where you take a young player (yourself) and try to become a successful footballer or manager (or both). Character creation would consist of body height and starting weight, fitness, natural advantages and disadvantages, upbringing, what kind of football you watched as a child, what players you idolized, how much you practiced certain techniques, and where you grew up respective to where you want to play. Your play would be limited to one main style and a couple of other you’re mediocre at, and you probably would have to play extraordinarily optimally to achieve stardom in a scripted and randomized single player experience that changes with each and every play-through

Now imagine a Call of Duty (if you can muster the strength) where each campaign play-through is changed by the skills and variance provided by the game both at it’s start and through the journey. You can do this with any number of games that belong to any number of genres. Take it and place heavy customization in playstyle and character creation and what you’re left with is something that isn’t definitively better or worse, but a lot more attractive to RPG players, whether or not DnD aesthetics are in it or if the game is even combat oriented.

This is the future I imagine for RPGs, but its not one without the kind of games we already enjoy. WoW, TES, and all of the games surrounding them would still be around, but without the associated requirement of being the definitive style for a roleplaying game, and thus, the format for which we actually play these games can expand and find new homes for classics to grow out of.

In summary, I want to be able to kick a soccer ball at a dragon in TES 6.