Raiding the Good Ship CRPG
(June 6, 2000)

The relationship between computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs has long been uneasy. This is, I think, largely due to the perception, widespread in the tabletop community, that computer RPGs are a parasite which rips off ideas from tabletop games and, more insidiously, captures the minds of the young and prevents them from becoming tabletop RPG fans. Hence denying the tabletop industry its rightful Phat Cash and forcing its best and brightest to go over to the computer RPG juggernaut.

One might be reminded of the Windows/MacOS rivalry back in the pre-Linux days, and indeed, I am compelled to remind one of it, because that’s where this article properly starts.

I am a Mac person. I make no bones about it. However, like most Mac people, I have had to use various incarnations of Windows for work purposes. I also spent a year selling computers of both types, which compelled me to dive into the relative benefits of each platform. And one of the opinions that I have formed on the matter is that a significant contributor to the huge success of Windows 95 was the fact that it was actually innovative. Windows 3.1 didn’t really do much of anything that you couldn’t do on the Mac, while the Mac had its own array of features not duplicated in Windows, leaving the PC platform to compete mostly on price and the corporate-market dominance that entails. Windows 95, on the other hand, had some really useful features that the Mac just didn’t have. Alt-Tab and the Taskbar, to name two. For the first time, one could actually believe that Windows was an easier platform to use and not be lying to oneself (we will ignore the Plug-and-Play debacle).

What does this have to do with RPGs?

Much of the analysis of the computer vs. tabletop situation focuses on the inbuilt limitations of the different media. Tabletop games are social; computer games can be played any time, and by yourself. Tabletop games are more flexible; computer games can have really cool visuals and audio, and they don’t get irritable or boring when they have an off day. These features are the equivalent of “PCs have more software; Macs don’t collapse every time you add a new piece of hardware”. It’s just part of the landscape. Barring major advances in the underlying terms of the discussion (which in the case of roleplaying will probably come from the massively multiplayer end of things, but that’s another essay), these factors will not change. If the foundation isn’t going to change, you might as well dink around with the bells and whistles.

The computer RPG industry has learned this lesson well. They license popular tabletop games to make computer games — AD&D, Vampire, and so on. They’ve been looting the pantry of good ideas.

It’s time to turn the tables.

There are a bunch of computer games which have structural ideas in them which are both good and not, to my knowledge, duplicated in any tabletop game. So I’m going to ruthlessly excise those good bits and talk about ’em for a while, that you may use them in your own tabletop games. Fight the power and all that.

Magic in Final Fantasy VII

In FFVII, magic requires little hunks of crystallized energy called materia. The energy to cast spells comes from your own personal reserves, but the spells you can cast depend upon the materia you’re carrying. This is a pretty nifty, if non-revolutionary, concept. Magic which requires objects to cast has several advantages.

First, acquiring these objects is a fabulous plot hook–not unlike vis in Ars Magica. Acquiring new spells can be the plot of an adventure, not just the reward for it.

Second, objects can be stolen, which can be either a plot hook or a way to cool down overheated character advancement. They can also be broken, which isn’t possible in FFVII, but no one says we can’t expand a little here. Being able to break the source of a magic-user’s power adds more strategy to magic duels, and adds just a little bit more to the stakes of a rough ride, a long drop, or a severe beating.

Third, you can restrict the number of magic doohickeys a character can use at once (in FFVII, the number of materia you can use is dependent on the number of “slots” in your weapon or armor, so finding equipment with enough slots to let you use your materia is another important task). This kind of restriction allows you to give out increases in magic power without letting the power levels get out of hand–if the PCs are limited to five doohickeys in use, having thirty spiffy powers is better than having five, because the variety gives them flexibility, but it’s not as insanely better as if they were allowed to use all thirty at once. Plus, you get all the Christmas-morning new-magic-item bliss for each of those thirty doohickeys.

FFVII’s materia also have a few variations which are pretty cool too. Materia gain experience just like PCs, and as they go up in level, they gain more powers, and eventually divide, giving you a baby materia which you can sell or keep around so it too can go up in level. Some materia, when they get enough power, can be combined into extra-powerful materia. Some materia have interesting special effects in combination.

Lastly, FFVII has summoning materia. Instead of casting a spell, these summon a supernatural being to kick ass on your behalf. All the roleplaylicious goodness of a magic item and an NPC in one. It worked for Disney in Aladdin; it can work for you.

Magic in Final Fantasy VIII

I didn’t like the magic system in FFVIII that much as a computer game. However, it’s got some goodness to loot for tabletop.

Spells work strangely in FFVIII. You can suck magical power from creatures you fight or from rare natural locations which happen to be a source for magic (again, a bit like vis in Ars Magica). When you do, you get a certain number of castings of a certain spell. When you cast one, it’s gone. When you run out of castings of a given spell, too bad. Now, depending on factors which are not relevant here, you can “junction” spells to certain characteristics. If you junction a spell you’ve got a whole lot of to an attribute, it goes up a bunch. If you don’t have many castings of the spell, it goes up less. The end result is that casting spells can make your attributes go down.

This was a little frustrating in the computer game because it made for a little more min-maxing than I like to indulge in in front of my TV. However, these kinds of choices are ideal for a tabletop game.

First of all, having to choose between augmenting your powers and fighting something that’s trying to kill you is one of those tough choices on which drama is made. It can even be poignant if the choice is between augmenting your powers or fighting something that’s trying to kill one of your friends.

Secondly, having to choose between elevated abilities and immediate magical whoop-ass, while a less dramatic choice, allows a variety of strategies as well as tending to rein in the munchkiny instinct to bring all weapons to bear.

Save Points

Death in RPG is one of the mighty dilemmas of the genre. If a character cannot die, taking physical risks means nothing, and the game can come to feel flat. On the other hand, the death of a long-played character can be a sad occasion, and can make a game more depressing than some people enjoy. If different members of the group have different tolerances for risk and death, the problem only gets worse.

Computer RPGs deal with this quite cleverly with the concept of Save Points: if you die, you can start again from the last save point. Thus, you always risk something when going into danger; death means losing a significant amount of progress. However, you don’t risk losing everything.

Translating this to the tabletop is a challenge; we put up with all kinds of violations of suspension of disbelief in CRPGs that tabletop games can’t get away with. The best solution I can come up with so far is an order of sage-priests who record the life-works of individuals who they feel are important to the flow of history, and recreate those individuals if they are prematurely removed from the mortal world. Of course, they can only restore the person up to the point at which their life-works were recorded. This might still niggle at suspension of disbelief, and also could create problems with separating player from character knowledge (“Well, we went that way last time, so obviously that wasn’t a good idea”). On the other hand, introspective players might have some fun having their character obsess over whether the recreated them is real, or whether they are simply simulacra. At this point, the cruel gamemaster has the recreated character discover the character’s original body. This doesn’t happen in CRPGs, but why limit ourselves to the source material?

Another possibility would be to posit that true heroes have prophetic dreams. Hence, whenever a character dies, the party has the opportunity to declare, “No, that was Ragnar the Bold having a prophetic vision. He awakes in a cold sweat, and next time we’re not going to pee in the sacristy.” This has problems; for one, it’s hard as a GM to pose challenges if the PCs can just reset and try again. On the other hand, you can always change the adventure — Ragnar’s dream may not have been literally accurate, you know. However, you still waste the work. This solution can also lead to intra-party friction; asking the whole party to sacrifice a session or more worth of progress so that Ragnar can not have died for being an idiot can be a lot to ask.

Thousand Arms

Thousand Arms is one of my favorite CRPGs ever. Admittedly, I have a taste for the odd, but even so, I think Thousand Arms is a spectacularly innovative game. Your main character in Thousand Arms is a Spirit Blacksmith: in addition to doing your regular CRPG wackiness, you can reforge your own weapons and those of your friends, giving them new and exciting powers. However, it seems (though they don’t go into too much detail in the game itself) that the process of forging a magic sword requires the application of the male principle (you) and the female principle (someone else), properly attuned. The upshot of this is that in order to forge a powerful weapon, you have to go on dates with women and become close to them so that they can help you forge more powerful weapons.

We got the game because the notion of a CRPG with dating seemed so wonderfully whimsical, but it works really, really well (I’m not quite so pleased by the gender politics of the game, but you can’t have everything). The dating system facilitates actual roleplaying better than I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. In most CRPGs, the roleplaying amounts to different spins on a character–you can say different things, but basically the character is a certain way and there’s nothing you can do to change it. In Thousand Arms, you can make decisions about your character’s personality and have his conversation reflect that–there’s enough leeway in the options to permit that sort of customization (of course, you can also be a big munchkin and tell every girl exactly what she wants to hear in order to maximize your power. But roleplaying is about options).

Love-feast for Thousand Arms aside, what I find so fabulous about this is the fact that it links character power to developing the character’s personal relationships. Perhaps more importantly, it links the hero’s quest to the development of personal relationships. In a tabletop RPG, this could have two effects. One, it allows you to channel a game from raw acquisition into roleplaying and character development without outright railroading (in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a big fan of using the base desires for power, money, and magic items to fuel roleplaying, epic story, and other stuff that satisfies my inner dramaturg. Kind of like taxing pollution. I am of the opinion that every gamer has an inner munchkin and an inner artiste. When both can be satisfied, all is right with the world). Two, it reduces the conflict between a desire for characters to have more meaningful connections to the world than their police contacts and their fences, and the circumstances of the traditional hero type. Typically, the time for relationships is after the world has been saved and you can retire. Among other things, getting involved with people is like painting a target in villain-visible ink on them. Most PC heroic types have buried too many friends to make new ones. Which is all well and good, but dang it, meaningful relationships make for a more interesting story. If making friends and influencing people is a prerequisite to doing the hero thing, we can get those interesting entanglements properly on center stage where they should be.