Archive for May 2013

Heretical Statements In The Name Of Game Design, Part I   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  Last week, we covered a few fundamentals of game system design, largely independent from the characters; scope of challenge, standardized damage formulas, action management, elements, and a very brief stint on equipment were all covered.  In addition, all of these matters were determined for the game.  For the most part, this week’s post will cover more of the same, only more specifically in regards to the player characters, or PCs for short, where we start to tie together the plot and gameplay some more.

First, however, we must address the resource paradigm of the game.  Most RPGs have a variety of resources available, and in fact every single game can be defined as an interaction of resources on multiple ends to achieve competing goals.  However, RPGs are notable in that these resources are the more direct focus of the combat within.  For our purposes, we can assume there are two sorts of resources; active resources, which you spend to accomplish effects, and passive resources, which are not directly spent by the player but affected by outside actions.  In a standard RPG, MP would be an active resource, while HP a passive one.  Furthermore, all games have actions as an active resource, which will go later into why effects that boost actions should be tightly controlled.

And here is where I must go into a major point regarding the design of the RPG Maker defaults: by defaults, I do not mean the RTP, but the entire setup that comes with every blank new project you create in a RM game; characters, enemies, skills, and so on.  They are not well-designed for a game.  This is not to say they do not serve a purpose.  After all, they do let you see how varied effects are supposed to work in RPG Maker.  In that extent, to aid the people who have not made a RPG Maker game for the first time, they serve their purpose.  For the purpose of functioning as a well-put-together game?  They’re terrible, and provably so on the basis of the maker’s default resource paradigm.

In RPG Maker VX Ace, the default characters’ active resources are MP, TP, items, and actions, and your passive resource is your HP.  MP behaves about as one would expect, but the real issue is in how TP acts.  How one acquires TP is defined as such: A character at the beginning of a fight is given a random quantity between 0 and 25.  Ignoring this random factor, a character may gain 5 TP from using and hitting with a basic physical, 4 TP from guarding, and a quantity based on what appears to be the damage taken when one gets hit compared to the character’s maximum HP.  In essence, a character will gain, at most, 5 TP a round via actions in the player’s control.

BadDesign1

Poor Natalie is going to average two basic attacks for every technique, more likely than not.  God help her if she wants to use Claw Dance.

This is not the only problem, as you can see.  The real issue comes out in the skill distribution, something that I will cover later but deserves mention now for the purposes of demonstration.  Eric and Natalie, as fighter-types, each have five TP-costing skills.  These five skills all depend on Eric and Natalie repeatedly using basic attacks and getting hit repeatedly.  This, in effect, makes them very not fun to play as their utility lies in basic physicals first, and techniques that largely do more of the same thing second.  And then there’s the problem with mages.

BadDesign2 BadDesign3

Here’s a pop quiz: Which of these abilities on the left image will allow Noah to build up TP for any of the abilities in the right image?  Answers below.

Mages in RPG Maker VX Ace’s default settings face a quandary.  They have magic, which is largely their most useful ability.  At the same time, however, the only ways to build up TP for their TP-using abilities are those listed above: basic attacks, guarding, and getting hit.  Unlike the fighters, the mages have a reduced chance of being targeted to begin with, and their physical stats are abysmal.  In essence, they have to be ineffective to be able to facilitate the use of their TP skills, which then begs the question of why they aren’t using their magic to begin with?  So either the mage is useless, or the skills end up regularly pointless due to unusability.  Some logic brings forth why the defaults are a bad reference for design.

This goes back to my game and its defined resource paradigm–and to be precise, what it does differently.  Active resources include Stamina (ST), Exceed (EX), Items, and actions, while passive resources include HP.  Characters start battle with 0 EX, and stamina is maintained until restored at a rest point such as an inn.  Exceed is gained via varied attacks (basic and non-basic, with variance based on the ability or weapon used among other matters),  andtaking hits(Fixed value per hit)  Notably involved in this is the fact that while basic attacks do have their uses in building EX, they are not the only means by which to actively do so, and thus mages can use EX-costing abilities without the need to resort to nigh-ineffective at best basic attacks.  Furthermore, EX is not used to differentiate magic abilities from physical, instead being reserved for the sort of high-cost pinch abilities one would need to build up for, like Force powers in the Wild ARMs series.  Physical specials, just like magic, cost ST, thus allowing the physical characters to be able to access their skillset more than once every three turns on average.  For later reference, this does mean that skills will largely play heavily into a character’s capabilities.

With the subject of resource paradigms out of the way, we now finally reach the subject of approaching our PCs from the gameplay side.  Having laid most of the groundwork to do this in the last two weeks (character work and base stats), it goes to no surprise that this is a much simpler task for that.  When determining the gameplay side of your PCs, two very simple rules will apply.  The first is to keep it fitting to the character: obviously you shouldn’t do something like make your armor-clad guy the most frail thing ever that will die from so much as being kicked by a monster (hi, Knight from The Demon Rush.  You are an example of this and only a fraction of why that game is terrible), but in the details, integrating plot-relevant abilities or fitting their stat build to their quirks are positive examples that don’t come up too often–one can look to the Wild ARMs series for this, particularly Wild ARMs 4, which does this not only for the PCs, but also the antagonists.  Such building helps further integrate the narrative and gameplay, which is always a benefit in the case of JRPGs.

The second matter is character variety, and this is another spot where once again, the defaults of RPG Maker VX Ace fail.  Ideally, you want notable variation between characters in a JRPG.  Games with a larger cast size such as the Suikoden series can get away with less variance between characters, as can strategy RPGs such as the Shining Force or Fire Emblem series,  but this is assuming a PC cast size of well over what could be considered normal in a JRPG.  So where do RMVXA’s defaults fail in this regard?

In function, while the defaults offer ten different characters, each with their own “class”, there are only four functional types of characters within the defaults: Fighters, Healers, Mages, and Hybrids.  Fighters rely on nothing but basic attacks, with the aforementioned inability to quickly access higher-cost TP abilities.  Healers have a set of skills dedicated specifically to healing and buffing allies, with next to no offense at all.  Mages have the generally-useful spells, but lack access to their TP abilities without greatly impacting their general usefulness.  And lastly, hybrids are a combination of two or more, either sporting both a viable physical attack and an actual set of usable spells, or sporting a spellset that covers both healing and offense.

Quiz1 Quiz2 Quiz3 Quiz4

Pop quiz the second: Looking at the skillsets and only the skillsets, can you guess which is which?

Now, how this translates across VX Ace is as follows: There are five characters that fit the “Fighter” model, one proper mage, one proper healer, and three hybrids, one of each type (fighter-mage, fighter-healer, mage-healer).  The problems with variety quickly become apparent as all of the fighters play functionally the same; one technique for every two basic physicals minimum, and even worse should one want the higher skills to see use.  When half your cast is not only the same, but also the least interesting style possible, there are problems.  And in reality, most players would want to play the same party for the entire time.

BadDesign4

Meet the Most Entertaining Default Party Possible.  This is not even an exaggeration.

When one would likely prefer 40% of your cast over the other 60% for gameplay purposes, there is a notable problem.  I could probably write a dissertation on the things that RPG Maker VX Ace does wrong with its defaults, but suffice it to say the point on character variety can be summed up as such: Make your characters functionally distinct in gameplay while attempting to ensure that no one character is far more or less interesting to play than the others in practice.  If this seems like a hard thing, just keep in mind that Wizards of the Coast took until D&D 4e to get this, and then forgot it when making Essentials.  It does not appear to be common knowledge, to say the least.

After the thorough breakdown of the VX Ace defaults, we are now finally ready for the actual stat allocation for the in-development game’s current characters.  Keeping in mind that these are extremely relative values for the time being, I will be rating each of the major stats on a six-point scale, with 6 being highest.  The scale is deliberate in this case; i find that in my attempts to allocate stats, whenever I pick an odd-numbered scale I suffer from a case of centration bias, gravitating towards the most central and “neutral” options.  If you find yourself seeing too many “average” values in your own game’s cast, try something along those lines to see if that encourages more varied distributions.  But enough postulating about statistical variance when there are characters to detail:

Leo: Our main character, and he’s a bit of a punk.  A very physical-oriented character, he’s more of a doer than a thinker, and I want this to show in his stats.  He largely remains physically above-average, with the exception of his speed which is definitely more on the high end, and his magical ability is comparably…bad and he’s a bit unskilled.  As such we will get the following results:

  • HP 4, ST 3, POW 4, ARM 4, PEN 3, MNT 2, WIL 3, FOC 5

Friedrich: Our first character to join the party from the beginning, Friederich is what you’d expect from a seasoned knight.  Old, tough, a bit more refined in his combat style than Leo, and he’s tenacious.  However, to balance things out, I feel he should be the sort who will -never- be good at magic, ever, and he has a bit of a shallow resource pool by comparison.  In addition, -slow-, which I can easily write off that as a byproduct of old age.  He’s not in his prime anymore, so things are going to be harder and harder.  Still a tough old geezer, though.

  • HP 5, ST 3, POW 3, ARM 6, PEN 4, MNT 1, WIL 4, FOC 1

Renaud: Technically he won’t permanently join until later, but Renaud does temporarily join up during the first dungeon.  First thing is first about him, he’s fast.  As in, speediest in the cast, without a doubt.  Our favorite reappropriator will be getting what I’d like to call the Gallows treatment, where he’ll have disproportionate HP to his actual durability.  This provides some minor cosmetic differentiation in stats.  He’s largely subpar at offense, though not a bad mage, and to counteract his high HP he’ll have bad and worse defensive stats.  His other high end, however, is Stamina, allowing him to take advantage of whatever bag of tricks he will eventually have.

  • HP 5, ST 5, POW 3, ARM 2, PEN 3, MNT 3, WIL 1, FOC 6

Alexis: He’s pretty straightforward.  Our favorite teen prodigy mage is about what you’d expect from a magic-user.  Most definitely on the frail and weak side physically, he makes up for it in being a very competent mage.  Mental prowess is a factor, as is will, affecting his magical defenses.  And lastly, I suspect he knows a few tricks to get around any possible costs of exhaustion related to magic.  A bit slow and maybe a bit scatterbrained, though.

  • HP 3, ST 5, POW 2, ARM 2, PEN 2, MNT 6, WIL 5, FOC 3

Valeska: Valeska, to say the least, has focused her rage and anger into sheer killing power.  This is reflected in her stats, where she sacrifices her other parameters in exchange for higher power and penetration–she’s the sort who believes that the best defense is a dead opponent.  Unfortunately, she is a bit slow, and her magical everything on the side of lacking.

  • HP 3, ST 4, POW 5, ARM 4, PEN 6, MNT 2, WIL 2, FOC 2

Kiri: Kiri was fun to think of.  She’s a tank with a twist–her nature as a dragon makes her particularly open to magic in general, and vulnerable to magic attacks in particular–as such, she has a higher WIL than would be expected of her, but anything that gets through deals double damage.  On top of that, her low ST less represents a lack of stamina, and more of the fact that she expends a lot more energy than she’d need to with her abilities.  She’s amazingly strong and durable fitting her species, but also woefully unskilled.

  • HP 6, ST 1, POW 6, ARM 4, PEN 3, MNT 5, WIL 4, FOC 2 (Special: MFR base 200)

Caecilia: Caecilia’s not a helpless princess.  While she’s not able to take a hit too well, she’s fast and skilled at getting through armor, and she’s not a slouch in magic.  However, I do admit that I altered her stats a bit to make her extremely resistant to magic–it filled a gameplay niche that was missing and isn’t necessarily completely out of the blue.  After all, she received a lot of training while growing up.

  • HP 2, ST 2, POW 2, ARM 3, PEN 5, MNT 4, WIL 6, FOC 4

And with that, all seven released characters have been given relative and approximate stat ratings.  Keep in mind that these don’t factor in equipment or skillsets, and are subject to change in the future.  Balancing isn’t something that comes easy to any game, and this is no exception.  Next week, we will be covering part three of character design: equipment and skillset enumeration, more of the fun parts of RPG design.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing out.

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Posted May 26, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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Prelude to Mathematical Saturation   Leave a comment

Welcome back to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  For those following along, last post covered character concepting, and how it ties in with both the plot and gameplay aspects of a RPG.  This was followed up with an overview of seven of the eight planned PCs, or Player Characters, to feature in my game.  If you’ve been following along, you have most likely come up with your own roster, be it similar in size, smaller, or larger.  Now, however, we will cover an aspect of RPGs left neglected until now–the gameplay.

When you think of the gameplay in a JRPG, chances are you are going to think of two things above anything else: the battle system, and any collection of special features pertaining to character customization.  This is the standard assumption of gameplay in a RPG, but the truth is that while those comprise a large portion of gameplay, they are not the entirety, and even then it is a much more nuanced thing than it would appear at first glance.  A large number of these will be covered when applicable, with general trends, RPG Maker VX Ace’s defaults, and the specific choices I made for my game, along with the rationale for them, starting from what is arguably the broadest choice, something I would like to refer to as “scope of challenge”.

Scope of challenge, in essence, is the expected span within a game the player is to go through the game’s challenges without a chance to restore their resources or create a hard save of their progress.  In line with this are the expected difficulty as well as the expected loss–how hard the segment is expected to be, and how much the player ultimately loses if they fail the challenge.  These three concepts intertwine to ultimately dictate a game’s general difficulty.  Of the possible variations on this, there are five general categories:

  • Total: The player is expected to play through the entire game in one go, with no way of creating a hard save.  This is the domain of Roguelikes, ultimately.
  • Between Towns: Towns, cities, and villages are your only savepoints in this scope.  Challenge in this exists from the moment your player character steps onto the overworld to the point where they enter a new town.  Examples of this can largely be found in the more oldschool games; early Dragon Quest games are the primary example here.
  • Dungeon-Wide: The player is free to save whenever in a town or on the world map, but dungeons are endurance rounds of a sort, where you can’t save and frequently are left to your own resources once you enter.  Phantasy Star 4 is a notable example of this, though i believe the first Final Fantasy is somewhat like this via consumable Houses.
  • Between Savepoints: The method most games use, and sometimes combined with the above. When merged as such, savepoints act as if they were checkpoints in dungeons, allowing one to save and quit–usually placed either at a halfway point, right before the boss, or both.  Examples of this method can largely be found in Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Wild ARMs, Tales, and countless other series.
  • By Encounter: This method is one that is less than common in non-strategy RPGs, but has gained popularity in some places.  It frequently stems from negating resource loss on the player’s part or negating the entire price of failure and essentially allowing the player to retry any battle they are on with no penalty until they get it right.  Example games of this include Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, Wild ARMs 4, Final Fantasy 13, and varied Strategy RPGs.

Related with this, the expected difficulty is based on a combination of factors, including resource attrition, quantity and type of resources, and general encounter threat–a lot of Squaresoft games are low on the difficulty due to the between-savepoint difficulty being mitigated by the presence of savepoint-usable restorative items that restore not only health, but other resources, on top of purchasable resource-restoring items.

redflag

See enough of these for the party, or a multitarget version?  Kiss at least one bossfight goodbye.  Purchasable?  Rest of the game.

As for expected loss, there are four categories that games fall into: Total, Segment, Partial Segment, and Negligible.  Total loss is once again the province of Roguelikes, whereupon your character is deleted upon death and you need to make a new one.  Segment loss is the most traditional, and the one supported by VX Ace by default; party gets wiped, suffer a game over and lose progress after your last save.  Partial Segment loss is where you go back to a previous area upon a party wipe, possibly with a resource penalty–Dragon Quest and early Shining games preferred this type, often with a monetary penalty.  Last, Negligible loss is where the player can opt to restart the battle at no penalty–in a sense, rendering a loss almost meaningless.  This category is inhabited largely by the non-strategy-RPG inhabitants of by-encounter difficulty; Final Fantasy 13, Wild ARMs 4, and so on.

As for the game I am currently designing, I am settling on something between Dungeon Wide and Between Savepoints for scope of challenge; while overworld segments can be a challenge in and of themselves, I want the dungeons in my game to be the real difficulty.  This is patterned after Phantasy Star 4, which has influenced my views on JRPGs noticeably, but I am tempted to include savepoints for notably long dungeons.  Similarly, I’d be interested in a higher amount of difficulty, and failure to result in Segment Loss–I’m used to loss being meaningful, and being able to restart any encounter at no loss whatsoever feels like it cheapens the win to me.  Your opinion may differ, but keep in mind that RMVXA generally supports Segment Loss without notable eventing, and is not able to support Total loss.

While speaking of resources, it would be relevant to move onto the next matter of course, base stats.  Not of a given character, or even the starting bases, but just what the stats are going to be and what they’ll do.  This will in turn lead to determining damage formulas, statistical distributions by character based on their descriptions, and so on.  RPG Maker VX Ace assumes nine stats for any PC, most of which are self-explanatory: HP, MP, TP, Attack, Defense, Magic Attack, Magic Defense, Agility (Determines turn order), and Luck (has a negligible effect on status odds).  I feel these aren’t satisfactory, though, and decide on my own set of nine stats in turn.  These are: Health(HP), Stamina(ST), Exceed(EX), Power(POW), Armor(ARM), Penetration(PEN), Mental power(MNT) (handles status application), Focus(FOC) (determines turn order), and Willpower(WIL)(handles status resistance).  While these may seem to be largely meaningless cosmetic changes in a vacuum, this is decided in tandem with other factors, some of which will be covered in a later post.

Another factor to consider is standard damage equations.  With RPG Maker VX Ace, you may now determine damage equations on an attack-by-attack basis.  Each skill may have its own unique damage formula if you so desire.  However, you still want a consistent damage equation for standard skills and attacks.  Having a consistent equation means you can plan around knowing how the numbers will turn up.  Furthermore, it will inform what numeric values you want to utilize, desired growths for those values, and many other matters, since not all equations are good for all values of numbers.  Take, for example, the default RMVXA formula: C+A*a.ATK-B*d.DEF.  This is the formula used for everything without fail by the default there, a basic subtractive formula.  Keeping in mind that A is usually twice B at minimum, so barring massive discrepancies between attacker offense and defender defense, the attacker will do fairly consistent damage.  Subtractive formulas of this sort allow for high variance in defensive stats without breaking the formula.

By contrast, an example of a division-based formula can be found in the free Flash RPG by Matt Roszak (also known as Kupo707), Epic Battle Fantasy 4.  The formula is purely multiplication and division, being skill power*skill stat/defense stat.  The intricacies of division-based defense become readily apparent once you look at the range of enemy defensive values: The final boss of the game has a defense value of 12 against both types, and that’s the highest it gets.  The final enemies only go up to 9.  This is due to the fact that a single point of defense in this game on the enemies’ end will cut thousands of points of damage off by the final dungeon–division-based formulas swing wildly with points one way or another, and work with drastically lower values of defense than would be viable in a subtractive formula.

This brings me to my formulas.  Assuming C1 and C2 are constants specific to the skill in question, and the stats I have already decided on, they will be as follows:

  • Physical: POW*(PEN-ARM)
  • Magical: MNT*((FOC*C1)+C2-WIL)

In essence, this is a modification on subtractive damage formulas, one that can allow for tighter control of defensive stats while maintaining damage escalation over the span of the game.  Keeping the in-parentheses stats small means that enough of a swing can result in damage nulling if you tweak for defense enough, but at the same time keeps damage at appreciable levels despite the small difference that would normally be problematic in a subtractive system.  Also of note are the constants in the magic formula that are largely missing in the physical formula; this serves two purposes.  First is actually to limit the influence of FOC, since most of the time C1 will be a non-integer decimal value between 1 and 0–FOC already influences turn order, so this keeps the stat in line from doing too much.  The second is to allow spells to be differentiated from one another via base power.  I may play more freely with equations in the future, but for the time being this is a fairly good standard to hold onto.  Of course, the equations won’t be the only thing modifying damage here.

On the subject of battling, it would be worth it to mention action management.  In a RPG, one usually has multiple characters fighting on both sides of a battle, and this needs to be monitored somehow.  Fortunately, there are several possible measures for dealing with this, most being a matter of turn management.  The first is the most associated with older RPGs such as the Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, and NES Final Fantasy games, simply referred to by most as “Turn-based combat”.  This emulates initiative handling of tabletop gaming, with each combatant taking one turn in a round–though I suppose it would be more intuitive to refer to this as a Round-based system, as the primary element of time in this is a round.  This is the system that RMVXA takes as default, and what I shall be using for this game particularly out of ease.  Other turn management routines include phase-based, where one side goes before the other, frequently seen in Strategy RPGs; Active Time, where enemies don’t wait for the player to act first and take turns when they come up, and “CTB”–clocktick based–which is basically Active Time management with pauses to select actions.  Additionally, there is real-time battling, but that is solely the domain of Action-RPGs.  Selection of an action management system should be done early, and then planned around; a well-done round-based game is going to be better than a CTB game where said CTB was slapped on due to a belief that said management is overall superior regardless of the game, but that is the truth to all game design matters.  Work something in, as opposed to throwing it on.

Elements are something that most RPGs have made at least token use of.  And as usual, a large number of choices are available.  So why choose now when characters haven’t been given skillsets yet?  The truth of the matter is that the element set should be decided on in advance, and kept in mind for skillset creation.  If this isn’t done, chances are you will end up with one of two problems: Elements only really applying for one character, who has most or all of the elemental skills, or character ability derailing to fill what feels like an arbitrary quota.  And keeping in mind this matter, you want what makes sense for the character while adding variety.  For the sake of brevity, however, since there are at least as many element sets in RPGs as there are named characters in a Fire Emblem game, I will only be addressing RMVXA’s default element set.

RPG Maker VX Ace’s “default” set of elements is such: Physical, Absorb(Draining attacks), Fire, Ice, Thunder, Water, Earth, Wind, Holy, and Dark.  I feel that that is a bit more than I’d want for my game, so I looked around for alternate sets.  I didn’t want Holy or Darkness as elements, largely because I wasn’t interested in there being some sort of absolute good or evil as the presence of such elements tends to suggest.On top of that, when water and ice are both in a game, water tends to get neglected.  Furthermore, RMVXA doesn’t provide as many animations for it as it does ice anyway, so I’d be struggling with it.  Same with wind and earth.  As such, I found myself looking about for element sets and settled on one I liked: the Chinese Wu Xing

WX Basic

Crash course: Blue arrows are synergistic, Red arrows destructive.  In short, blue doesn’t hurt, red hurts more.

Aside from being a set not frequently seen in RPGs at all, it also comes with its own built-in set of strengths and weaknesses.  The point is that for functional elements, my game now only has five: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood.  It sounds restrictive, but most of these elements cover multiple forms of attack, so it’s not nearly as bad as one would expect.  Additionally, if I need a “sixth” element, there’s also Void–though it is noted that Void in this would function more akin to Shin Megami Tensei’s “Almighty” element in this case–an elemental marker to denote a non-elemental attack.

The last thing to be covered tonight is equipment, or to be more precise, its handling.  Repeating a point stated prior in Nick Palmer’s RMVXA tutorial, equipment covers two purposes for characters.  The first is advancement.  The second is customization.  It is notable, however, that in general, most games will feature a mix of the two nowadays–weapons and armor for both, and then accessories for pure customization.  It is notable that weapons as customization does not necessarily mean using multiple weapon types, as a side.  While the limitation to single weapon types is largely a product of games from the PSX era onwards, with limited space for character models and motions, the only requisite for equipment as customization is that there are two or more pieces of equipment usable by a character, with equally viable reasons to use either at any one given time.  As for my game, I’m going for all equipment as at least partially customization; it’s a personal point of interest.

Delving any further into equipment specifics, however, will result in returning to the characters.  As such, I feel this is a good place to end for this week, and start next week on integrating the stats to the characters, as well as going into equipment and resources in further detail, and how they integrate with the current cast.  Until then, this is Epic Alphonse, signing out.

Posted May 20, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

Insert (Overly Long) Traveling Salesman Montage Here   Leave a comment

Welcome back to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  Last week we covered the basic brainstorming behind a plot, and the game acquired a set of prospective characters.  Now, we’ll start fleshing them out a bit more.  But not before going into a bit of why it’s so important to consider characters as their own section as opposed to integrating them with plot or writing alone.

Characterization is, in essence, quite possibly one of the most important distinctions most RPGs have over games of other genres.  Of course this is not to say that non-RPGs do not have characters at all–after all, we are all familiar with such figures as Mario, Sonic, Link, and Rockman.  However, the differences involved are notable: For a long time, these characters were less known for their interactions with other characters, and more for either being an icon to the series they star in, or for a pre-set “attitude” they possess.  It wasn’t until later that interactions started being largely notable for the non-RPG games.  As for RPGs, those interactions started becoming emblematic of the genre around the 16-bit era–look at the Final Fantasies 4-6, Chrono Trigger, and Phantasy Star 4 for notable examples here, especially the last one–yes, I will be referencing Phantasy Star 4 a lot in this blog, be warned.

How best do you go about starting character interaction?  The answer is simply to have characters who will functionally bounce off of one another.  This has been gone over in other tutorials (check out Part 3 of Nick Palmer’s RMVXA tutorial for a brief look at character variety), but the point is that if everyone is the same, or too easily within agreement without some means by which to play off of each other, characters will not interact in an interesting and meaningful way.  If they do not do that, you in turn lose the potential to further draw players into the world, and in turn, the game.

But this digression on variety is tangential to the real matter of the post: actually creating characters.  If you’ve gone through the plot creation featured in the previous entry, you will already have a variety of positions where characters are obviously needed to be filled, playable characters particularly included.  At this point, you want to think about these characters in particular, who they are, where they come from, and how they fight, among other matters.  And here is where the matter will end up ultimately getting complicated and yet beneficial–you will not be able to extract the characters, particularly the playable and fought ones, from either the plot or the gameplay ends of your game.  To be more precise, the entirety, if not the majority, of all plot and gameplay integration will occur through the characters.  You can see this below, in fact.

vennthingy

No, really, this is pretty much just one of those Venn Diagrams used to illustrate the point.

Diagrams aside, the point is fairly clear.  The characters’ abilities influence their gameplay in effect, and given that the world is seen through the eyes of and the plot acted upon by the characters, they are the player’s window into the game in the genre.  This is the best way upon which to elaborate the point, and so feel free to extrapolate upon the plot and setting when developing these characters.  In fact, I would encourage such an act, since such connects them to the setting and world, making them further integrated into the whole.  However, by contrast, keep combat ability in general terms rather than specific; you haven’t decided entirely on gameplay yet if you’re following this, and even if you have some mechanical ideas you don’t want to let them inform your characters.  There are other, better ways to fill gameplay niches in a JRPG than creating a character to specifically fill one, notably.  If you’re not sure about what I mean by general terms, look a bit further ahead in the post.

On a similar note, a bit must be said for names: while in theory you could put some names off (naming your game?  Not important), you actually want to come up with character names pretty quickly, since names will aid in informing you about your character’s image, and furthermore make it easier to write about them as people.  If you have doubts about this, then try a mental experiment: Pick someone with a name, any name, and then pick someone only labeled [Main] or [PC 1] or [NPC] or [Villain], or something of the such.  Then try writing about either.  Which do you find it easier to write about?  If you suspect the named person is easier to write about, congratulations, you get why naming characters is important.  Have trouble with coming up with names?  Look some up on a name site–your preferred name site will work more than well enough.

On a tangent with names, you want to fit the name to the character.  Naming a random dude “Renvach von Floofenheimer III Esq.” for the sake of it will get awkward laughs at best, and derision and dismissal at worst.  At the same time?  Avoid the generics.  Overly simple names like “Bob” or whatnot.  If you must use those, at least work with the long form.  It comes off as generic, and to be honest, it’s hard to make an interesting story about a generic person.  And lastly, try to avoid major characters with too similar-sounding names.  It gets samey if done too much and might end up, once again, breaking interest.

I suppose enough rambling has gone on about character creation without submitting the next step in my games.  In the meantime, I’ve extrapolated on seven playable characters, with intent for an eighth that hasn’t quite been fleshed out enough yet.  As follows are the seven prospective PCs, listed in order of conceptualization, along with my ramblings on setting as I fleshed them out with it, and their placement as characters along with it.

Leo – The main character of the game, and the aforementioned “knight”.  I decided that he’d be closer to a squire at the start of the game, and worked with it from there.  The kingdom he’s in employ of (Zeisrell) handles its knights thusly: Children are handed over to join the knighthood, along with payment to handle training and equipment, making it a domain of the nobility and very rich–and those children are essentially cut off from their family name and inheritance, a symbolic statement that the knighthood will serve the kingdom through their own strength, without the need for outside assistance.  Leo is the third son to a noble family, and was a good bit of a troublemaker in his childhood, so he was sent off as someone who wasn’t worth the trouble.  By the start of the game, he’s about 17, and is brash, headstrong, and always feels like he’s got something to prove,, easily baited into challenges just to prove that he -can- pull it off.  Fitting that to an extent, he’s a physical fighter–on the fast side, at that.

“Kiri” – The second character concepted, the dragon in question, Kiri, as the shortened name she gives, is about 350 years old, and keeper of a hoard of magical objects, including an artifact handed over to her by one of the kings of Zeisrell approximately 170 years before the start of the game (As for why, I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking safekeeping of sorts).  I decided here to flesh out a number of details about dragons in this setting–they’re not common, they have humanoid forms that are generally used not for blending into other societies, but instead as energy-efficient forms.  Dragons in this are magical creatures in that they have the binary form matter on top of innate magical ability, but they take a LOT of energy to keep going, so when they’re running low they’ll reflexively switch to their humanoid form–and dragons hoard magic items rather than gold because they help sustain themselves off of the ambient magic of the collected objects, so it’s not just a greed thing.  Regardless, she and Leo eventually do fight after Leo goes on a quest to kill her and retrieve said artifact.  But after the fight’s interrupted between the two, a ritual’s done that binds her life to Leo’s–and this doesn’t please her one bit.  She’s got a gigantic ego, a good bit of a short temper, and a blunt streak, not exactly caring about whatever she says.  So she’s actually kind of a gigantic jerk as well, and will have some friction with Leo once the two are bound.  In combat, she’s a heavy fighter/mage hybrid, who can take hits as well as she can give, and then some, albeit very very graceless in her style.

Princess Caecilia Lieselotte Zeisrea – The princess in question, and yes she does become a playable character.  The sole surviving child of the now terribly ill King Everard Tiedemann Zeisrea, Caecilia is not the model of your standard ineffective princess, nor is she the rebellious sort, instead having been raised to rule the kingdom of Zeisrell when the time comes.  As such, she has been taught in a variety of matters, including combat and a dabbling in magic, and thusly is nowhere near helpless in a fight.  Putting herself in the position of a leader, however, she will often come off as cold and aloof, and does not tolerate fools well.  In combat, she’s another fighter-caster hybrid, with a good bit of speed on her end.

Friedrich – When deciding on Leo’s background, I knew I needed some sort of structure to the program, and figured that squires on the late end of their training would be mentored under higher-ranking knights.  Thus, I needed such a figure for Leo, and Friedrich was created as a result.  One of the older knights in Zeisrell, Friedrich is a stern teacher who is more than willing to call his pupils out on their mistakes, but he knows what he’s doing with a notable field record and a good number of squires mentored.  He holds his beliefs first and foremost, that success comes from one’s own strength, and not anything else, which may rub some the wrong way.  He starts out the game accompanying Leo for a bit, but then leaves for a good while not too long after, functioning as the earlygame crutch character.  In combat, he’s a heavy fighter bar none, and will go down to very little.

Alexis Schaldeite – Alexis is a young magical prodigy–one of the youngest full mages in Zeisrell at the age of 16.  He is notably well-studied in a variety of magic, but has been cloistered for most of his life.  However, his status has made him into a bit of a know-it-all, and is sent on a mission with Leo once he attains knighthood to leave the rest of the academia and their theories alone.  In reality, I came up with him when I discovered that I needed someone to cast the plot-important binding ritual, so I needed some sort of magic-capable person.  A very green teen prodigy would be the perfect selection for this, as I needed someone who would know about, and possibly even how to do the ritual, but yet be liable to lose his cool enough to decide it’s the best option, and I feel I already have my old man player character quota filled with Friedrich anyway–I never was a fan of the classical wizard image anyway, so this is an added benefit.  As stated before, he’s a well-studied, naive, know-it-all.  In combat, he’s about what you’d expect; a pure mage with a variety of spells and the squishiness to boot.

Renaud Vertstil – Renaud is half sellsword, half treasure hunter, and all financially motivated with some very, very bad luck on the side.  In practice, he engages in the Lina Inverse-esque philosophy of “rob from bandits to give to oneself”, and is from a neighboring country with shaky relations to Zeisrell.  This ultimately leads to him crossing paths with Leo, coincidentally or not, and while he’s a bit of a scoundrel, he’s got his reasons.  I am guilty of inventing him first to help fill party slots when Leo would otherwise be alone, but I feel his personality and way of life would interestingly bounce off of some of the other characters well enough.  In-combat, he’s a flat-out speedster, and another pure physical sort.

Valeska Kierschav – First off, a nod and a bit of thanks to my friend Ish for inspiring this character for me.  Valeska is a professional dragonslayer from another country, who is embittered with life in general and once sought to avenge the death of her loved one at the hands of a dragon, but over the years has expanded this into an all-encompassing hate of them.  The sort of person who won’t take shit from anyone, Valeska’s a bit humorless to say the least.  I feel she fills a unique niche in the party dynamic, alongside offering an interesting contrast to Leo and his initial quest.  In combat, she goes for pure power, sacrificing defense for sheer killing force.

This is every PC I’ve come up with so far.  The rationales may not have been necessary to write down, but they do show the thought processes behind the characters, and that is something I want to include on these posts here.  However, my work has only just begun.  With a mystery eighth player character in development, alongside a number of other characters from NPCs to antagonists, the work of character design is not easy at all–but it is rewarding once it all starts to come together for a game.  Planned for next week is my start of the gameplay concepting segment, where I determine some core details of the game, and take a look at several notable, but possibly overlooked aspects of JRPG design.

Posted May 13, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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Why we do not Hire Novelists to Write JRPG Plots   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  Last week, we went over the importance of the conceptual phase to a good game, and what to and not to do insofar as brainstorming your JRPG.  And to kick off the concepting phase, I will go over the matter of writing for such a game–which at this point consists of high-level plot and character concepting.  And to kick this off, I’ll be discussing the matter of how writing in RPGs works, since it is most definitely something not covered in any high school english class.

Put simply, writing for a RPG is completely different from writing for a novel, a play, a movie, or even other genres of game.  It’s a new paradigm, and one that I feel hasn’t been too well-explored in comparison.  Particularly in the realm of JRPGs, genre conceits require the writing to conform to these conceits.  These will typically include focus on a single primary viewpoint character, or set of characters, for a majority of the story, exploration sequences that will call upon player resolution for conflicts (navigation, puzzles, and especially battles; plot bosses in particular amount to climactic conflicts), optional player interactions (NPCs, optional areas), and the important element known as plot and gameplay integration, among other elements.  All in all, a different beast from conventional writing, and one not taught in schools, at that.

So where would one manage to find a reference for writing for a JRPG?  The answer lies in the other interactive medium where a small group of defined individuals goes around the world, exploring, fighting, and solving problems: tabletop RPGs.  In particular, on the GMing side.

the_gm_has_had_it-4b8034dcb2b1aa5900e4e0890180a08b

When the guy hasn’t snapped to the point of making their players play ordinary rabbits, anyway.

In fact, this goes back to the original Final Fantasy, which was essentially nothing more than a full-length D&D campaign on the NES.  All of the elements were there from D&D (the way spells were handled was an abstraction on spells/day, for example, the class system was there, the varied monsters largely could be identified if you cross-referenced them with a Monster Manual), and in essence, the game was D&D with the serial numbers filed off.  And as far as writing goes, it’s still the general model for how to write a JRPG.  In its purer forms, this will continue to remain the case.  The only things that have largely gotten added in the process have been character interaction and cutscenes.

So what of this plot and gameplay integration?  Truth be told, this is a finicky subject to work with, and a difficult matter for games to some degree.  This is different from maintaining suspension of disbelief (“don’t have the dude oneshot the other dude in a cutscene when it’d take five hits at minimum to manage that in the following battle”)–integrating plot and gameplay can come in a wide variety of manners, at that, and I will cover this in-depth at a later point, but suffice it to say for now that a good way of achieving this is keeping the plot elements in line with the gameplay elements, or representing gameplay elements within plot.

But speaking of plot, we are back to the process of designing our own JRPG.  Plots can be tricky, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard to be original, or trying to hard to avoid what you feel is cliche.  It’s important to remember that a good story is not good because of its base structure, but because of its execution.  The truth is that every story can have its details stripped away and be boiled down to general components.  In fact, it would be best to start with those general components in a sense–starting at the simple level and working down to the details is the best way to begin on RPG plot creation.  Hope you remembered that notebook, everyone, since it’s time to break it out if you’re creating a game alongside me here.The ideal way of making a RPG plot would be to start from a skeleton, and then flesh it out–and with that you can draw a line from the top of the page to the bottom, to start.  And if you don’t know where to start, put two entries, one at the beginning and one at the end.  Label these exactly that–“Beginning” and “End”, since those are what this, your, and every story that exists will have: a beginning and an end.  It’s an oft-overlooked, but important fact for this, not to be taken for granted.  Once you’re there, feel free to work at high-level concepting of your game’s story.  You don’t have to consider any setting details now on here, nor do you have to think about anything that chronologically happened before the beginning of the game’s story.  These are irrelevant.  Your story starts with where the game starts, and thus prologues can be exempt from this chart entirely.  As can epilogues (barring something like Lunar:Eternal Blue’s where it’s less of an epilogue and more of a denouement of sorts; a final act).

You will probably note that you will come up with characters in the process of making your plot.  This is inevitable in storytelling–a plot and its main characters are always interconnected.  If they aren’t, they’re not the main characters, because the focus of the story is not on them.  You do not need to consider too many details about the characters outside of their relation to the very basic plot at this point in time, but simply acknowledging that they are characters and what characters they are in the story will suffice.

And here I finally start showing off my game’s creation.  For the sake of expediency, I decide to try and start with something very simple, not caring too much about how cliche it may appear at the time being–especially since I care more about finishing the game than impressing a group of literature professors, critics, or couch-critics who bash every JRPG for simply being a JRPG.  As such, the story starts with a knight in the employ of a kingdom going on a quest to slay a dragon in order to try and win over a princess.  Expanding this, I decide to throw in a twist–an outside third party interrupts the fight, nearly killing both the knight and the dragon as they take something that the dragon had in their possession and leave.  Following this, to save them both, the knight and the dragon are only saved by someone binding their lives together via magic, and now if one dies, the other dies.  And thus the two now have to go and find some artifact to undo the enchantment so they can go their separate ways.  In the process, the kingdom the knight served and an empire elsewhere are both attempting to obtain the artifact to their own ends, thus creating the conflict that the two have to get to this artifact before anyone else.

This is a serviceable plot, if bare-bones so far, and it leaves room for detail to be added.  There’s protagonists, antagonists, and several conflicts to be had.  To sum it up in bullet points below:

  • Knight goes on quest to slay dragon, to win the favor of a princess
  • Knight fights dragon
  • Third party interrupts fight, nearly kills knight and dragon, steals item from dragon’s hoard.
  • Knight and dragon have to be saved by someone joining their existences via magic, making it so if one dies, the other dies.
  • The two have to find an artifact to undo this so they can go their separate ways.
  • The knight’s kingdom wants this artifact for their own purposes.
  • There is an empire out there that is also in search of this artifact, again for their own purposes.
  • The two must get this artifact before the others do.

This is by no means a complete plot, and were I to try and make a game from a plot in this state, its plot would be unsalvagable, no matter how much attention I give the gameplay or characters.  But this is easily a starting point for the plot, a jump-off point from which I can do more.  Chances are, any plot you start will go through this state first, no matter how creative the initial points may be–you simply will not have enough detail.  Do not worry, this is simply the first stage of design.  In this, try to look for chances to add characters, since RPGs do tend to have far more notable characters than other games, more often than not.  In the process of creating my plot, there are several people who I can easily pin down as potential or likely characters, listed below:

  • The knight
  • The dragon
  • The princess (I refuse to have a princess who exists only as a reward.  She will be more important, I’m deciding now)
  • One or more people in the third party who disrupts the fight
  • More people in the knight’s kingdom
  • People from the empire

And this is a workable start!  More characters can indeed be added, and indeed must be added, since I can only see two characters who are most definitely PCs at this point (the knight and the dragon).  Your initial list of characters may start to look this way as well; very bare in regards to likely PCs–player characters.  And this is okay, since this lack will be filled in once you start to work on characters in more detail.  However, since the discussion is quickly going the way of characters, I feel it would be ideal to cut off here, and leave the very complex subject of characters to my post next week.  And with this, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off for now and asking you to keep an eye on this next week.  Feel free to work alongside in the process of making your own game, if you so desire.

Posted May 6, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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