ATTENTION: This is the second part of a multipart series, if you find yourself wanting a setup for how we got here, please read the previous article.
As I said before, I started my RPG career with videogame RPGs. For the longest time I didn’t know what the letters “RPG” stood for and I didn’t have much understanding of what roleplaying was. For some reason my family was absolutely fine with me playing through fantasies in videogames but not at a table. I guess magic and monsters were fine as long as you didn’t bring that dreaded element of social interaction into it.
Anyway, the first time I played Dungeons and Dragons I realized one thing very quickly: The stories were NOTHING like Final Fantasy, or Lunar, or Phantasy Star, or any other JRPG I had ever played. I was kind of used to this difference, because Western RPGs like Wizardry and Swords and Serpents and The Bard’s Tale were also very different from their JRPG siblings, but even they are very different in terms of story from their tabletop counterparts and there are a few very important reasons.
Reason the First – Character Control: When we play videogames, we understand that there are going to be moments when we don’t have complete control of our characters. There are cutscenes where our characters act on their own, say thing that aren’t what we think they should say, the list goes on and on. We understand this because we realize that we’re playing a character that someone else made. Even if we picked their race and class, our immersion is usually cut by the fact that we’re playing through someone else’s story. This is why villains get their monologues in games, and can do long drawn out actions with the heroes right there. More often than not when that happens in a tabletop RPG players will want to roll initiative and take actions to stop the villains from killing NPCs or activating their doomsday device. More importantly, when they do this you have to give them a chance. This means that a good story should be able to kick off even if the players succeed at stopping the first phase of the bad guys plan. This also means that we’re usually ok with our videogames being just a little on the rails. Certain areas will be off limits until specific events have happened, but with players if you put up a wall of any kind your players will become determined to find a way around it. And if that’s not an option they’ll become upset with you for railroading. The reason I say this first is because the other points build on it, for example…
Reason the Second – Combat vs. Story: I’m going to save any in-depth talk about the differences in combat between the media for later, but this is something that I think belongs in the narrative section. In JRPGs and, to a lesser extent, WRPGs there’s a disconnect between your character in combat sequences and your character outside of combat. There’s even a trope for it. In Final Fantasy, for example, it’s not uncommon for a character to be able to survive barrages of meteors or fire or any other ungodly force of destruction the enemy might shell out. However, those same characters can be killed by a single stab wound outside of combat (and never brought back). Certain series, like Phantasy Star series, would explain this in ways that make sense but they don’t have to because it’s just understood. In WRPGs this sort of thing is less likely to happen to your player characters, but NPCs with ridiculously high combat stats are still vulnerable to normal-style murder during storyline events. In a tabletop RPG, though, this doesn’t happen often for several reasons. One of those reasons is that a character in combat is usually no different than they are outside of combat, with their numbers of hit points being a thing no matter what sscenario they’re in. So if a person gets put down by a single sword stroke, players will start asking questions like “Wait, so how much damage did he do with that attack? We fought that dude once and he had like 90 hit points.” Also, good luck not getting some serious rage at the table if you deny a player his dice rolls to survive or bypass his hit points for the sake of your storyline. I believe that’s pretty universally considered shitty. I mean, sometimes your players will just accept that it’s for the sake of the story, but in a lot of tabletop RPGs (Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons are pretty bad about this) it’s bad use a character’s death as drama because…
Reason the Third – “Well We Can Always Raise Them.”: In videogame RPGs if a character dies in combat there’s usually a mechanism to bring them back. This is because you usually need that character later in the game for a plot related thing. However, if a character dies because of something the storyline they’re gone for good. When my favorite cat girl bit the dust in a certain SEGA RPG, or when everyone’s favorite flower girl took a nodachi to the spine, we accepted that they were gone. Or maybe you didn’t, there were a lot of desperately sought rumors for ways to save her back in the day. Anyway, in Dungeons and Dragons and its derivatives, “Raise Dead” is a spell and after a certain level it stops being one you even have to put a major dent in your pocketbook to cast. This means that after a point classic villain tactics like “Who do you save, your friend or the princess?” are met with responses like “Well we’ll save whoever. We can always raise the other one.” Even if it’s not actually as viable as the players think, once that comes up any and all of the tension is gone from the moment. Because death is cheap at higher levels in RPGs, it doesn’t make a very good source of tension.
Reason the Fourth – A Prebuilt History: This isn’t talking about the history of the game world, but rather the history of your character. In videogame RPGs your character is not only an existing part of the world but you get his background told to you rather than having to come up with it yourself. This means that when your character meets an NPC, they might be an old friend but that’s a lot more difficult to put into practice with 1st level Player Characters in a tabletop game. This goes back to player control too, because your players might be uncomfortable with you as a game master dictating elements of their background to them. This means that a lot of pre-planning and pre-game discussion is important in giving your characters pre-existing connections. Alternatively, and this is accounted for in certain RPG systems (I think Serenity includes it in the books, or at least it’s very common practice among GMs), you can have the players write a few existing contacts into their background.
Reason the Fifth – The Main Character: . In JRPGs there’s almost always a main character that you’re in pretty direct control of. Western RPGs usually do this too, especially nowadays. Older Western RPG like The Bard’s Tale and even some older JRPGs (The original Final Fantasy comes to mind) gave a pretty good representation of tabletop RPGs with a group of player characters whose specific identities were not directly important. Normally in videogame RPGs though, there’s a clear lead. Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, Rolf in Phantasy Star II, and the list goes on. We as players are used to our fantasy stories having a clear lead and to people who draw a lot of experience it’s very easy to try and bring this to the gaming table, but we shouldn’t. It’s usually bad for the overall health of a game if one player is taking too much of the focus.
Anyway, this post has gotten rather long. Next time we’ll talk about the differences in mechanics between videogame RPGs compared to tabletop! Hopefully that will be in within the next day or two.