Four axis RPG design

Original author: Arto Koistinen
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This article began with an answer to a multifaceted, but at the same time rather straightforward question: what does a good role-playing game consist of? Over the course of my career, I have worked on several RPGs, and even read a presentation on this topic, but I have never considered it holistically. There are many materials about the components of a good game and, of course, many of them are applicable to role-playing games, but there are aspects specific (if not unique) for this genre.

Since it is impossible to list all the parameters that role-playing games should have, and there are many approaches to every aspect of design, I divided the design into four separate axes. None of the axes alone can tell you whether you are on the right track, but all together they allow you to get the whole picture.


Axis 1: randomness-determinism


From the first days of Dungeons & Dragons, Chainmail and their predecessors, chance was the basis for the design of role-playing games. Board game participants used to determine the outcome of any action with an indefinite result by throwing dice - and at that time there were many such actions. During the development of the RPG discipline, the number of rolls of dice gradually decreased, and some games even abandoned them completely. In more action-oriented digital games, some of the randomness has been replaced by the player’s skills, but it is still an integral part of any traditional RPG, especially in fantasy surroundings.

There is rarely a perfect compromise between chance and certainty, and the best approach varies from game to game. My work process usually starts with too much randomness, after which I, iteration after iteration, gradually add determinism. In my series of articles on the design of RPG battles, this is described in more detail, but here I will tell you briefly.

In board games, a roll of the dice is the action taken by the player: “I threw 17”. Even though we realize that we cannot influence the outcome of the throw (unless you cheat), throwing a bone seems to be a personal act, and a bad throw seems either my fault or the fault of bad bones. In digital games, the bad luck bar seems to be the fault of the game, and very quickly starts to annoy. Therefore, we need to give the player more opportunities to “appropriate” his action. For this reason, we added the ability to transfer bones to Rimelands. Since the game rolls only unsuccessful dice, this option essentially reduces randomness, and since it costs one mana point (the player always has exactly five mana points), the roll of dice is felt by the player as his real choice.

Another good way to add determinism is to have a relatively narrow randomness interval for damage. This solution is often found in JRPG. Worst luck becomes the bottom line, from which you can only move up. The player enjoys throwing crit, even though he does not roll the dice himself, because failure can not spoil everything.

A small amount of randomness usually leads to the fact that battles become more like puzzles in which to defeat a specific enemy you need to choose the right combination of abilities. Usually the most deterministic battles in such games are boss fights, but, for example, Persona 5 takes this principle to a new level, requiring the player to know the exact strengths and weaknesses of the opponent in order to win.

The more choices you give the player, the more influence he has. The player should always feel that he has lost the battle not because of a failed roll of dice, but because of his choice.


Axis 2: Content Mechanics


Role-playing games often have a lot of content. A variety of battles, research and plot require a large amount of resources for characters and environments, level design, script and sound. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that players usually expect tens of hours of gameplay from the game, especially in the case of a strong plot component.

There are many ways to save the situation. For example, you can reuse the same enemies at levels with different designs, which increases complexity, change textures instead of creating completely new models, and also use lighting to give environments a different mood and context. When creating a content-rich gameplay, it is critically important to have a reliable level design tool, it will pay back the initial investment well.

On the opposite side of the axis is a different approach: use less content and rely more on mechanics. This approach is common in roguelike, which use procedural level generation for each session, usually with the same resources. Hybrids of puzzles and role-playing games like PuzzleQuest, which rely more on the mechanics of battles, leaving story content in the margins, can serve as another example.

The quality of work oriented to mechanics of games strongly depends on the balance on the previous axis ("randomness-determinism"). Since developers do not have the opportunity to manually create new difficulties based on the same resources, the basic game mechanics must support a wide range of choices and create new difficulties. If creating convincing basic mechanics fails, then the game will seem monotonous and annoying.

I noticed that the feeling of “grind” can be weakened if the game has any additional goals. Breaking through the crowds of enemies is less boring if, along with the XP strip, some other counters increase as well.


Axis 3: plot freedom


This axis is connected with the previous one, but rather from the point of view of the narrative. The plot is content, which means its production is expensive, but since the advent of the RPG genre, interactive storytelling has been one of its main principles, and the whole genre as a whole is as much a medium for telling a story as a form of a game.

Is linear games with a terrific plot better than games with an open world and an emphasis on player freedom is a matter of taste, and yet true classics managed to find a very delicate balance between these two extremes. However, such games are usually huge projects with budgets of tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the case of a smaller game, to create balance, you need to have a couple of tricks up your sleeve. The most obvious solution is to reduce detail. If the plot is mainly transmitted in text, and the graphics are rather low-resolution 2D images, then you can create much more content with less money. Another solution is to redo the available resources: instead of creating a plot choice that leads to different places with a different set of NPCs, you can slightly change the content in one place and use the same characters. Telltale was the master of such tricks: the results were almost the same, and the difference was that the character was doing or saying something. The message “X will remember this” was also a convenient trick that increased the apparent importance of choice,

You can also go very far to the other side of the spectrum. Modern games in the Final Fantasy series were not famous for their free gameplay, but Final Fantasy XIII brought it to such an extreme that it frightened even the most devoted fans.

Axis 4: Choices - Availability


Here, I mainly mean character generation and development, but this may also apply to the number of choices provided to the player. As with the previous axis, this is mainly a matter of taste and depends on the experience of the player in the genre.

Both board and digital role-playing games can seem tedious to an unprepared person: a bunch of different statistics, skills, and other character options. Especially if the first screen after the start of the game is the character generation screen. If a player has to make a choice, the consequences of which will be felt for a very long time, even before he understands the principles of the game, then there is a big risk that he will ruin everything before he starts.

On this axis, the Japanese and Western RPGs are usually in opposite directions: in JRPG there is usually no character creation, and the performance improvement is often very linear (there are options in one or two systems), while Western games adhere to the desktop model: first generation character, and then very detailed development choices.

In Rimelands, we decided to choose a middle ground and refused to generate a character, forcing the player to start from scratch. At each level increase, the player can choose from three classes; he can either stick to one class throughout the game, or choose a new one each time, depending on which choices seem best to him.


The decision depends on your target audience: you can choose one of the ways, or compromise and create some combination, but the choice must be made consciously, because this axis is very closely connected with the choice along other axes. They are all connected to each other. A game designed for accessibility as opposed to complex choices is better combined with a focus on the plot and less with a “grind”; the opposite is also true. Naturally, you can combine approaches in another way, but you need to be careful and understand how this affects the gameplay as a whole.

You can balance the depth with accessibility, gradually introducing the player to the game and making the mechanics more pronounced.

This method is by no means a ready-made solution to create a role-playing game design; rather, it is a tool for analyzing the balance of elements in development or for parsing other people's games in training.

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