ATTENTION: This post is part of a series. If you find yourself confused, go back and start with “JRPGs, WRPGs and Tabletop RPGs (Connections and Disconnects).”
One of the big things that a player used to video game RPGs has to get used to when switching over to tabletop games is that the mechanics are very different. There are a ton of different reasons for this, and oddly enough the hugely different number scaling is one of the smaller ones.
One of the biggest differences is the shift from heavy abstraction to simulation. In JRPGs and older Western RPGs combat is treated like an event, which characters being able to attack enemies regardless of those enemies’ positions on the field. You don’t have to worry about things like distance or the fact that your enemy can fly because the game usually has predesigned player characters and the swordsman has to be just as viable as the dude with the gun on his arm. Similarly, videogames usually don’t have an option to run from major encounters so it would be bad design if the game were like “You didn’t bring a bow? Sorry, no fighting the flying enemy for you!” Tactical RPGs and a lot of Western RPGs place more emphasis on things like distance and needing to be ready for different encounters but even then flying enemies will go to ground for the primary purpose of letting your swordsman character hack at them. In tabletop RPGs enemies use their abilities however the Game Master decides to play them and usually if those enemies are being played to their intelligence level they aren’t going to come to ground or suicidally expose their weak points. This is balanced by the fact that players have nearly unlimited options and there’s almost no excuse for an adventurer not carrying a bow, or crossbow, or some other contingency for fighting flying enemies or enemies who are in cover. This can really throw a player who is used to videogame RPGs for a loop though.
Perhaps the most iconic difference, though not the most significant, is the huge numbers that we see in JRPGs that just don’t show up in most tabletop games. This is such a huge element of JRPGs that whenever someone mentions a tabletop RPG that’s supposed to feel like Final Fantasy I always see the topic of replicating the damage come up (To my understanding that was supposed to be at least half of the appeal of the Anima RPG). The thing is this is a bad idea in tabletop RPGs for a lot of reasons. The first and most obvious one is math. You see, whenever damage is determined there’s a certain level of math that has to be done. In Pathfinder it’s the seemingly simple “Roll dice, add modifiers” that seems simple with the relatively small numbers we get but inevitably even experienced players can get lost as bonuses stack up and situational buffs come into play. In Final Fantasy, there’s a lot more math being done but luckily for us it’s all done behind the scenes by the computer. This means that the numbers can get to whatever point they want because we humans don’t have to sit around actually doing high level algebra to get to 9999 damage. In spite of the stereotype of gamers being insufferable nerds with pocket protectors and calculators, we actually don’t like sitting around doing a ton of math. Because of this, most published games don’t have us doing anything more complicated than addition. The benefit of this is faster play; the drawback is that the numbers are usually less satisfying than quad-nines.
Another big difference that is actually pretty huge is boss battles. Videogame RPGs tend to have very memorable and impressive boss battles. In tabletop RPGs it can be very difficult to put together a good boss fight for several reasons, but the details of that really deserve their own post. However, most tabletop RPGs don’t actually have “Boss Fight” mechanics built into them like video games.
The final point I’m going to touch on is magic. Videogames do magic a lot different than tabletop RPGs to the point that the systems are almost never comparable. There are exceptions: Class of Heroes, for example, had a magic system very similar to that of Dungeons and Dragons. Come to think of it, so did the original Final Fantasy. However, most videogame RPGs have some sort of MP system. Some tabletop RPGs have similar systems, such as Exalted with its Essence pool, but the issue with a mana system at the gaming table is again that it adds more math. Even if it’s simple math, it’s math that the players have to do manually which can bog down gameplay.
This is a cursory look at the mechanical differences and maybe I’ll touch on each of them in more detail in a later article.