The Structural Architecture of JRPG plot   Leave a comment

Welcome back to another post of Gratuitous JRPG.  I would like to first give an apology to everyone for this post being four days late; Issues at home aside, I have been distracted by this year’s Final Fantasy 5 Four Job Fiesta charity run ( http://www.letsplaying.com/FF5FF/ ).  If you have some free time and a way to play FF5, I encourage you to join in.  You do not need to make a pledge to play, simply sign up for the challenge and try your best to complete it.  It’s great fun and helps out a good cause.  With that out of the way, last week we covered the wide, wide world of status effects, picked apart the RMVXA default effects and enumerated some of our own.  And now, my game design thoughts have gone back to the angle of plot, and with it, the common patterns of plot in JRPGs.

As has been stated previously, plot is a constant in RPGs.  It’s what largely drives the characters to action.  However, what form this plot takes can and may vary, and even without accounting for this variance, will typically allow for more fights to be covered than a standard novel or show–as to facilitate mechanical character growth, and in turn the acquisition of new abilities and equipment.  It similarly has to facilitate the gameflow of the particular game, be it the town-to-overworld-to-dungeon-to-overworld-to-town cycle, the much more linear pattern that a lot of Final Fantasy 13 likes to take, the open-world format of WRPGs, or anything in between.  But this facilitation can come in one of many forms.

The first, and simplest form of this are what I like to call Objective-Based Plots, and what some may call “Excuse Plots”.  These are the oldest form of RPG plots, belonging to such titles as the first Dragon Warrior.  While each game has an objective, these games have the plot literally be the objective.  The plot is there, but it’s laid out at the beginning, often with little character interaction or the like (because frequently they are single-character RPGs!).  This is the RPG equivalent of prefacing your game with “The president has been kidnapped by ninjas!  Are you a bad enough dude to save the President?”  Aside from older games (Dragon Warrior, Shining in the Darkness), the only games to pull this plot now are dungeon-crawlers and roguelikes.

WhatPlot

The Evil Emperor has kidnapped the chancellor!  Are you a bad enough knight to save him?

The next form of plot for RPGs is a World-Based Plot, which is a whole different beast from the other plot types.  World-based plots are largely more episodic in nature, with the PCs acting more in the capacity of wandering heroes going from town to town, running into the local problem of the village and solving it, before moving on.  What drives them to wander from town to town might be present, but the formula is present.  Usually around the end, a major plot arc will spring up to try and retroactively tie the matters together, but a majority of the game is built around the episodic format.  This does nicely fit the town-overworld-dungeon-overworld-town pattern, but can result in things feeling disconnected. Games involving this sort of plot aren’t common to my knowledge, though I have heard a number of the Dragon Quest games among others use this sort of plot structure.

WorldBased

Tune in next episode!  Same JRPG time, same JRPG day!

Following that is the basic arc-styled format, what I simply call a Single-Arc Plot.  The plot stays about the same arc and topic the entire time, though it may have its twists and turns involved.  In general, no new major enemies will show up, there will be no “Man behind the man”, and so on.  As a result of this, these tend to belong to shorter games, as it is much more difficult to keep a plot focused on a single arc in a longer-running game.  An example of this includes Shining Force 1; you’re constantly fighting the forces of Runefaust, and by extension Darksol, with no real change from this focus.

SingleArc

Pretty much the simplest possible.  Don’t expect too many surprises here.

The first of the more complicated common formats is the Switching-Arc Plot–defined by having the arc switch heavily based on events.  The simplest variance of this is the Man Behind the Man scenario, or for those not fluent in tropespeak, setting up one character as the primary villain before eventually revealing that there is yet another higher villain controlling that villain’s actions.  This is frequently done as a means by which to extend games, so it is advisable to be careful when attempting to write with this plot structure.  Furthermore, for this to have a worthwhile effect, it has to be executed roughly around the normal arc’s height.  A large number of games decide to pull this more as a means by which to have a more graphically impressive final battle, however.  For examples of this, look no farther than Final Fantasy 4.  Looking right at you, Zemus.

SwitchingArcOkay DamnitZemus

On the left: the flow of a more well-pulled-off change-up flow.  On the right…oh damnit Zemus, what the hell are you doing here?

The last major formula that will be given a look-over is the Compound-Arc Plot.  This is another tricky form of plot that requires a notable use of introductions and foreshadowing.  What typically goes on here is that sometime in the middle of the initial plot, there will be the hints of a second plot arc coming to rise, often with a part that previews the focus of that.  As the first arc starts to come to a conclusion, the second arc overtakes it and continues the action of the plot.  This is unlike the switching-arc plot insofar that the first arc is not suddenly invalidated by this, as much as gets overtaken in its resolution.  This is frequently done with starter villain arcs, such as in Tales of Graces F–halfway through the second to last dungeon in the first major arc, hints at the second arc start showing up more and more–albeit as a result of events in the first arc.  Of the arcs here, this takes the most pre-planning to work into the story without it feeling like two separate plots, so care is needed once more.  Of course, this also happens to be the plot format I’m using.

CompoundArc

They’re totally not seeing the second one coming (okay, they are.  Foreshadowing and the feeling the game is way too short otherwise.)

With the basic plot formats out of the way, it would be nice to take a look at what matter of plot structure is largely needed for a JRPG.  The most important factor of plot is that it has to tie in any towns, dungeons, and possible overworld segments to the world.  As such, when developing a plot skeleton, you are going to need to place room for several kinds of genre features as follows:

  • Dungeons: Every RPG’s going to have at least one area that can be qualified as a “dungeon” of some sort.  By dungeon, I mean a defined area in the game that typically has a desired endpoint to access, more difficult enemies than anything in the surrounding overworld, an inability to save, and must be completed to progress through the game.  These areas do not have to be literal dungeons, of course, but the point is that you will need a few of these for your game assuming it is not a Strategy RPG, and it would be best to account for them in your writing along the way.
  • Bosses: Any story with fighting will need its climactic battles.  And being a video game, your bosses are going to need to be an entertaining fight.  While gameplay supporting plot is helpful, in this case it would be better to work around the other way, have plot support gameplay.  A sidenote at this point, is that while it may be realistic for some bossfights to take little longer than normal fights (particularly against human enemies), but for the sake of a more interesting battle, it’s encouraged to segregate plot from the gameplay for the sake of a more entertaining conflict.
  • Towns: Towns, cities, castles, and the like are the typical safe points in RPGs.  They’re usually the checkpoints along the plot, where you can stop, restore your characters, take a break from the game (assuming this is a game without fixed randoms, limited randoms, or a save-anywhere feature).  However, towns are a bit of a tricky matter to handle, since it is perfectly within reason to have one or two out-of-the-way towns that have no plot relevance whatsoever.  Typically these are going to be either a base for an optional dungeon, or a place at which the player can obtain things they normally would not be able to at the first point they can access it.  The ones that aren’t irrelevant, however, are good places to set up plot direction and chances to interact with NPCs outside of plot cutscenes.
  • Shops: While it normally comes with towns, it’s worth noting that your plot should account for the ability to go to the side and buy things from shops.  And even a game where every playable part is linear like Final Fantasy 13 found a way to integrate shops.  The main point is that it is generally desirable to have a way to upgrade equipment, buy items, or otherwise have a way to manually advance your character outside of leveling from combat.
  • Exploration: This one is optional for some formats (IE: those doing a more superlinear or “streamlined” game), but this is more an advisement for those who are using a more traditional format to have room for out-of-the-way stuff.  By which I mean optional dungeons, out-of-the-way towns, and the like.  They don’t need to be covered by plot, but offer something for going off the beaten path on the overworld.

Keeping this in mind, I feel it is about time to start with the formation of my own game’s plot as I have it so far into a more proper plot “skeleton”.  This is only going to be partly finished, of course, but the point is to illustrate how plot should be organized alongside gameflow.  So without further ado:

  • GAME START — because the game has to start somewhere.
  • Story starts with Leo and Friederich arriving at a village under attack by a gang of bandits.  Knights were called for to help out here, and Friederich was the nearest one there so he got sent.  And so we start with an intro [Dungeon].  I was tempted to have it start at Zeisrell’s capital, but then decided that’d be a bit too slow and I wanted to plunge the player right into the action.  It worked for more than a few games already, it works here, and Zeisrell’s capital’s going to be visitable soon enough anyway.
  • Halfway through or so, we’ll have a [Midboss] of sorts–probably some bandit lieutenant with some non-trivial backup.  Once he’s beaten he’ll set off a bomb to blast down something (either a building, rock, or a tree.  It’s big and path-blocking), separating Leo from Friederich.  He’ll be on his own until he runs into Renaud, here in part because the village hired him, and in part because he’s certain he can loot something from the bandits he takes down.
  • Continue dungeon until meeting the bandit gang’s leader, our first [Boss].  Upon beating him, Renaud notices the knights are coming and flees–noting that any loot not taken directly from the village that belonged to the bandits will be claimed as the kingdom’s money.  Not wanting to go to jail, he exits stage left.  Leaving Leo there alone, and the impression that he beat down the bandit leader solo.  Surprised (albeit a bit suspicious), Friederich decides this at least looks worthy of promotion from squire to knight–be it he got some help from presumably a nearby guard or not.
  • Cut to Zeisrell Castle, at the end of the knighting ceremony.  At this point, Leo is on his own and can freely explore the castle and attached city.  He can’t leave yet but he can talk to varied NPCs (worldbuilding funtimes).  When he walks into the knight commander’s office, though, he gets his first mission, complete with “Good timing, we need you for something.”
  • The Southwestern Archives have been under attack by an unknown person, and the local forces haven’t been able to get to them.  However, since Leo has little in the way of magical ability or knowledge himself and the Archives are loaded with spelltraps and wards and the like, the captain requisitioned someone from the Zeisrell Magic College to come along–and enter Alexis, who was unanimously volunteered.  And totally not picked as an excuse to get him out of there and stop being such an insufferable nuisance.  Introduce Sigil Crests and how to use them here, by the way.
  • With Alexis having joined up, the two may leave the castle and city.  If the player wishes to go out of the way, they may return to the village they saved earlier [Town], or head out directly for the Archives.  Entering the Archives, it’s another [Dungeon].  Halfway through the two encounter someone else–the eighth PC who I’ve decided to name Azalea, who has gone in on her own for reason she refuses to disclose.  She’ll be covered in a bit after this.
  • Further traveling into the dungeon with Azalea in tow, they eventually run into the actual culprit (note to self, flesh this guy out later), who fights the party briefly before bringing in a golem to act as a distraction as he leaves [Bosses.  Well, sequential boss].  As he leaves, he takes a tome with him–one that’s valuable historically (and kept there), but not well-understood by anyone who was on-site.  Azalea leaves, to track down the thief as the other two head out to report their failure.
  • Upon their return, however, it seems like their report is delayed in the light of a tournament of arms starting up–with the rewards of a “great quest” and the Princess’ hand in marriage pending on the success of said quest.  Impulsively, choosing to prove he’s as awesome as he thinks he is alongside wanting to accomplish that heroic fantasy in his head.
  • Following the announcement at the tournament’s commencement, cut to a scene where the princess, Caecilia, is raising her objections to her ill and bedridden father–who brings up that one of the kingdom’s generals came up with the idea to begin with.  (note to self, name and come up with a profile for this guy as well).  She goes off to contest the matter with said general.
  • Back to Leo, he gets to have his own nice little Tournament Arc while Alexis is off explaining the failed mission with the commander.  Not quite a dungeon, but it’s a chain of fights.  Regardless, plot requires him to win this set, though he can restore his HP (not his ST) between fights easily enough.
  • With the tournament finished, Leo gets his new assignment–trek far northwest to find the dragon’s lair containing [artifact, need to name this], and return said artifact.  Alexis voices his doubts–they’d be crossing Zeisrell borders into another country–but the general quashes those doubts.  Once Alexis and Leo leave the capital again, they’re accosted by Renaud–who overheard statements of a quest to kill a dragon and take its hoard.  Which, of course, can be sold for a big profit.  Awesome profit.  He joins up, and our party is back up to three.
  • Traveling northwest, it’s pointed out that the border crossing is…difficult to say the least, since [other country] isn’t too accomodating to outsiders.  Renaud points out a way past the border, though it’s via a dangerous mountain pass. [Dungeon].
  • Moving west and exiting the pass, the three move out into the open again.  [reserve some of southwest overworld for later.]  When they head north, they’ll happen upon a mining [Town] situated in front of the northern mountain path.
  • Turns out the path is the only way to get up to the desired location, but it’s been closed off because of a notably bad drake problem.  And naturally, pulling status won’t work, there’s nowhere to sneak by.  With this, the party may then head to the bar to discuss the situation.  Overhearing the discussion there is Valeska, who is about to go on the drake-slaying herself.  Overhearing the discussion, she eventually cuts a deal; she’ll help clear out the drakes, but in exchange, she gets to go along on the dragonslaying job and gets first pick of the hoard if it remains.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  And heaven help them if they try to ditch her on the job.
  • And so the four go into the mines to try and deal with the drake problem [Dungeon].  While this may look like a filler dungeon, it’s actually a way to help introduce Valeska–typically each character is going to get a dungeon to showcase their abilities in one way or another, and this one is no exception.  Some discussion about in-universe stuff happens as well (differences between dragons and drakes, for example), and eventually the party comes upon the drake broodmother, which has made the mines its nest.  [Boss] time!
  • Clearing out the mines, the party then gets to finally move north.  Some side-areas are available here, but going straight up will lead to a climb up another mountain trail [Dungeon].  Coming up to the peak, they finally find what they’ve been looking for for the time–the stated dragon’s lair.  Inside, the party ends up meeting with the owner of the lair–Kiri(she doesn’t give her name yet, of course).  In her high-energy form, and none-too-pleased with what she suspects is another group of people trying to steal what is hers–and after some exchange of words (Alexis attempts to be the voice of reason, but between Leo’s hotheadedness, Renaud’s greed, Valeska’s particular hate for dragons, and Kiri’s own possessiveness, he gets nowhere, fast) the two parties fight. [Major Boss].
  • The fight itself looks to be going to a draw when suddenly a massive surge of magical energy blasts into the room–knocking everyone out and nearly killing Leo and Kiri.  When they come to, Renaud is missing, Kiri in particular notices a few things: she’s in her low-energy (humanoid) form, she feels weak as hell, the artifact that she kept was missing, and her hoard got completely disenchanted.  Naturally, she is furious.  Alexis reveals that to save them both–largely out of panic–he tried using some locked-away magic he studied a bit of when he was at the magic college, binding their lives together.  It saved them–but with the side-effect that if one of them dies, the other does too–and it consumed the charge in all of her hoard in the process.  Kiri ends up butting heads with everyone present, before heading off on her own while the remainder of the party present follows–Leo so he makes sure she doesn’t die (so he doesn’t die), Alexis to continue making sense of things (and because he’s still following Leo), and Valeska so that once this spell gets lifted, she can resume her fight with Kiri.
  • Meanwhile, at the Zeisrell capital, the king’s state has taken a massive turn for the worse, as he lays in bed dying.  Caecilia is by his side, as are Friederich, the general from earlier, another knight (tempted to have had this guy also show up at the tournament earlier for earlier introductions), and several others present.  He gives his last words, intending to give his official endorsement of Caecilia’s rise as queen, but dies before it can be said.  The situation gets harsh as tensions rise between her and the general, before the latter leaves for the time being, and Caecilia orders everyone else out of the room to be alone…

And that’s all I have so far.  Gameplaywise, following that would obviously be another dungeon of some sort to introduce Kiri’s gameplay, and the start of a few plot threads from there.  I feel I’ve only got about the first…third or so of the game done, and there’s already been this much.  There’s already been five dungeons, four bosses (five if you count the tournament sequence as one), and six out of eight PCs introduced so far.  Writing plot out for a RPG can get tough–especially given that I admit I got a bit carried away and wrote more plot than just skeleton form.  It, however, does fit around the varied genre conceits.  I will be honest–plots can get quite long here.

Lastly, since Azalea, who was formerly the Mystery Eighth PC, was revealed, I feel it’s only fitting to use a bit of this post to introduce her character block, both in profile and statistically.  Because this post wasn’t long enough.

Azalea – She’s not giving away who she actually is or where she came from, but what is known about her is that she serves someone she just refers to as her boss.  Her behavior is…unprofessional to say the least, often provoking allies and her employer for the sake of deriving some amusement–something her boss finds themselves notably exasperated about.  Despite this, she displays a surprising amount of competence, when she feels like it at least.

Azalea’s fighting style is different to say the least, gracefully combining her knowledge of swordplay and archery with her magical talents in a manner that is notably similar to but far, far more refined than Kiri’s brute-force approach to fighting.  However, she also does not stake much on taking hits, with her preferred defenses to be either to not get hit at all, or to leave a corpse where an enemy stood.  Her skillset reflects this, with a large variety of physical/magical composite attacks backed up by a selection of spells for when the combined arts don’t work out.

  • HP 1, ST 4, POW 3, ARM 3, PEN 5, MNT 4, WIL 3, FOC 5
  • Equipment: Light Swords, Bows, Light Armor, Hats, Circlets, Foci, Off-hand Daggers, Arrows

And…that’s it.  Next post will be covering the important aspects of worldbuilding and world design with it.  Hopefully on time.  Until then, Epic Alphonse out.

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Posted June 20, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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