What Makes a Good RPG?

In Twitter, Stefan Hövelbrinks (who’s working on an absolutely gorgeous looking post-apocalyptic RPG called Death Trash) asked a seemingly simple question: What makes a good RPG?

Having worked on several (and currently working on one) myself, this was a question I felt I had to answer, but it couldn’t be done in a single tweet. Nor in ten. So here’s some sort-of-an-answer.

Obviously, there’s no single nor a right answer to this question. I’ll approach the topic by four different axes which need to be in good balance for an optimal experience.

Axis #1: Randomness vs Determinism

From the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, Chainmail and their precursors, randomness has been in the core of the roleplaying game design. In tabletop games, you used dice to determine the outcome of any uncertain action — and there were a lot of them back in the day. As the discipline of RPG design advanced, the number of dice rolls slowly decreased and some games even left them out completely. In digital games, some randomness has been replaced by player skill in more action-oriented games, but it’s still an important part of any a traditional RPG experience, especially in fantasy games.

There is usually a sweet spot for randomness versus determinism and it varies from game to game. My own process has usually started with too much randomness and then adding determinism iteration by iteration. My RPG battle design articles at Gamasutra go into this in more detail, but here’s a short recap.

In tabletop games, rolling dice is an action you take: “I rolled 17.” Even though we consciously know that we can’t affect the outcome of the roll (except by cheating), rolling well feels like a personal accomplishment and a failed roll is either your own fault or just a bad dice. In digital games, a streak of bad luck feels like a fault of the game and can get frustrating very fast. That is why we need to give the players more options to actually own their action. In Rimelands, we added the reroll option for this reason. Since the game only rerolls the failed dice, the option actually reduces the randomness and by costing a single mana point (you always have a pool of exactly five mana points), it makes rerolling an actual choice.

Another good option to add determinism is to have a fairly limited range of randomness for damage, a solution often seen in JRPGs. The worst luck becomes a bottom line and you can only go upward. Rolling a crit feels good even if you’re not the one doing the rolling, but you can never really botch due to bad luck.

The more options you give the player, the more agency they have. The player should never feel like the lost a battle due to a bad dice roll, but because of a choice they made.

Axis #2: Grind vs Content

Making content is expensive. New areas, enemies, dialogues and NPCs take a lot of time to produce and when the player base is taught to expect tens of hours of content, you need to take some short cuts, i.e. make the most out of the assets you have by having the player repeatedly go against same or similar challenges. This is known as ‘grind’. Though there are people who actually like grinding and games based almost solely on it (looking at you, Diablo), usually the more content you can cram into the game, the better. Unfortunately, unless you’re working on an unlimited budget, at some point you have to start thinking about the grind.

Repeating the same enemies is not necessarily bad if your battle system is interesting enough and the combat manages to present varied challenges — or at the least meaningful rewards. Grinding is also a way to balance the difficulty as long as the enemies don’t scale with the player character’s power. The problem with this is that the PCs can get overpowered and no boss you throw at them will feel challenging anymore.

One thing that I’ve noticed also lessens the feeling of grind is having some sort of secondary objectives. It feels less frustrating to hack through dozens of enemies if there are some other meters that go up along with your XP bar.

Axis #3: Story vs Freedom

This axis is somewhat related to the previous one, but more from the perspective of the narrative experience. As with grind, the story is content and as such expensive to produce, but roleplaying has had an interactive narrative as one of their core tenets from the very beginning and the whole genre is as much a medium of storytelling as it is a form of games.

Whether fairly linear games with a great story are better than open world games with an emphasis on player freedom is mostly a question of taste, although the real classics manage to find a very delicate balance between the two. But the ones that do are more often than not gargantuan products with budgets of tens if not hundreds of millions.

For any smaller game, you need to have few tricks up your sleeve to balance this. One obvious option is to scale down the fidelity. If you have your story as mostly text and the art is relatively low-resolution 2D, you can fit in a lot more content with fewer resources. Another is to recycle the assets you have: instead of a story choice leading to different places with a different cast of NPCs, just slightly tilt the content in a single place and use the same characters. This is what Telltale often did: the outcome was mostly the same, with the only difference being which character did or said what. The “X remembers this” was also a neat trick that made a choice feel important even if in reality it had little or no effect to the actual outcome.

You can go too far to another direction too. Modern Final Fantasy games are not exactly known for their free-roaming gameplay, but Final Fantasy XIII managed to take this into an extreme that scared off even the hardiest fans.

Axis #4: Options vs Approachability

I’m mostly talking about character generation and progression here, although this does also relate to any amount of choices the player can have. As with the previous axis, this is also very much a question of taste and the player’s experience in the genre.

Both tabletop and digital roleplaying games can feel overwhelming to an unaccustomed person with tons of different statistics, skills and other character options. Especially if the first screen after starting a new game the player sees is the character generation. If you have to make very longstanding choices before having any idea how the game actually works, there’s a huge risk you’re screwing up even before you’ve really started.

This is an axis where Japanese and western RPGs tend to be on the opposite sites: JRPGs don’t usually have any kind of character creation and the stat progression is often very linear with one or two systems offering options, whereas western games stick closer to the tabletop model of character generation first and very granular progression choices.

In Rimelands we went halfway and ditched the character generation, having the player start with a blank slate. Then after each level up, the player could select from three classes; they could either stick with one class the whole game or select a different one each time, depending on which one seemed to offer the best options.

Depending on your target audience, you can go either way here, or even compromise and choose some mixture of the two, but you need to make a conscious choice, as this axis very much ties to your choices in the other ones. In fact, they all do. A game with approachability instead of complex options works better if it also is more story-oriented and less grindy and vice versa. Naturally, you can mix them other ways too, but you need to be careful and know how this affects the whole experience.