Now, don’t get me wrong. I love RPGs, even the old school ones, and I’ve wiled away many an hour with the classics. However, if you’re going to write a better game, you can’t gloss over the fact that sometimes what happens in old school-style games just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Here’s a recipe for a standard RPG first goal.
1 dumb kid (probably introduced as oversleeping)
1 entry-level weapon (often rusted)
1 first boss (hanging out in a nearby forest or cave within walking distance)
1-8 mystical object(s) (probably shiny)
1 twist of fate (usually destiny…or a goddess)
Mix together thoroughly. Apply generously to first 1-2 hours of gameplay. Announce dumb kid as hero…regardless of how much (or little) sense it makes. Ensure the player understands that it’s destiny and it will work out no matter what.
I know you’ve seen this formula somewhere before.
Shifting genre often helps break this down a bit, but at the end of the day, you may still be left with goals and heroes that don’t quite exactly mesh. What can we do about that? Lots of games use the “destined hero” trope, perhaps inadvertently, to dramatically circumvent the need for a more emotionally engaging plot. On the surface, it sounds exciting to be the “chosen one”…but it’s not very personally relatable, plus it’s way overdone. Let’s see how we can write a better game and make the story more enjoyable and unique.
Does the mission affect the hero personally?
This is one place where games often lack; the goal is lofty, but so is the potential outcome if you fail. If your hero is supposed to collect the Crystals of Whateverness to prevent the destruction of the world, well, I’m sure your hero likes having a world to live on, but how does it resonate with him/her personally? No one (to my knowledge) has experienced the destruction of absolutely everything, so it’s hard to wrap your head around it. It’s hard to feel it, to empathetically experience it alongside your hero. Even if it’s realistic, it’s unreal.
So, what about a smaller, more manageable effect? A loss in the hero’s life, perhaps. Everyone, to some degree, has experienced a personal loss, perhaps the death of a family member or a mentor. Add to the death a strong sense of injustice that must be set right, and you’re heading in the right direction. The more the player can feel what’s going on in the hero’s heart, the more drawn in they will be.
I already picked on destiny plots a bit above, but I want to expand on that just a bit more. One of the reasons that destiny plots don’t resonate very well is not just because the hero has no choice, but it’s because an ambiguous, nebulous entity just “says it’s so.” Often, it’s for no real reason whatsoever.
Sure, you can build it into a growth arc (“you must walk the path of trials to become the Chosen One”) but at the end of the day, why this hero? Why not someone else? There’s almost always someone more technically qualified to do the job than the “dumb kid trope” hero…but oddly, the mysterious entity usually picks them as the helpers.
Heroics alone may not be enough
Your hero is probably a nice guy. We get it. Most people from time to time will stop and help another person out. But does your hero throw him or herself dramatically into the front of battle every time a situation comes up? Is it realistic for their character type to do that? What’s their reason for even doing it other than just being a darn swell people person?
Just “bein’ a hero” is a bit shallow. Sure, they’re the hero, we know it, but even reckless characters sometimes stop and take a look at what they’re doing.
Why this hero?
Does the mission really fit this particular character? Are they uniquely qualified (or in certain cases, the most unlikely) to be the hero?
Why are they going on the mission in the first place other than availability? Who just throws themselves casually into danger without counting the cost?
Would anyone else really hand the keys to saving the world over to a schmuck who might just lose them anyway?
And speaking of schmucks…
Did your hero cause the problem in the first place?
It’s not invalid as a story type; remorse is an excellent motivator. The question is, “is this just too dumb?” Do you have to give your character a whole new level of stupid just to pull off a single catastrophic event? Would you personally do this dumb thing? If not, why does your hero do it? Can you make it seem like a more logical decision and put some emotion behind it?
Are the stakes raised high enough?
Is the adversity strong enough and are the risks great enough? The commander leading a squad of trained soldiers into a fight is less compelling on a personal level than the rag-tag team of travelers in the same battle. Considering who your hero is, will the challenge be great enough and is the reward worth the struggle? Can you make the risk of failure greater and still carry the story?
The risk of failure is real!
After a point, there should be a substantial risk of failure. This pretty much speaks for itself; it’s assumed that the hero needs to survive a number of battles to reach the end of the game and achieve success, whatever that looks like. But what if we push the risk higher yet? What if, in the depths of the story, the player discovers that not only is failure possible, but it’s almost certain to happen?
What if it looks like there’s no way out?
What if the hero’s already too late?
Of course, there is a way out, but this is one of those things that you must craft carefully. It can’t come out of nowhere (contrived!) and it can’t be so obvious that the player wonders why they didn’t just do that in the first place.
Is it too cliche to be interesting?
Being very honest, is your story very…familiar? Is it a copy of stories or games you’ve heard before? If you aren’t writing an homage to one of your favorite games, it might be a problem. You don’t want someone to play your game and go “this is just a ripoff of ____.” Not something you want posted in a nice public location, but it can happen!
Beyond that, your time will be well-spent researching tropes and cliches. It’s not possible to make anything 100% truly original, and you could go mad trying, but moving away from the stereotypes of the genre will help set you apart from the hundreds who won’t.
Is the current mission meaningful or a “spacer?”
This applies less to small sidequests or fetch quests (“bring ___ to ____ and get ___ gold”) and more to major goals. If your hero is looking at a task of any particular note, does it fit in with the main storyline in any way? It doesn’t have to directly relate to the end goal of reaching the villain, but does it reflect a facet of some other part of the story? If not, do you really need it?
Does it just add length to the overall story?
Is it only an excuse to end up confronting a particular boss?
Can this quest be combined with a more significant one to make it more powerful?
Are the rewards worth the lesser depth and aggravation? (This latter point is particularly significant when completing endgame quests that reward players with high-value items, such as the most powerful weapons of the game. So it wouldn’t matter so much then, firstly because it’s optional.)
It’s always a good practice to ask yourself if what you’re doing is solidly rooted in purpose. Lots of old games don’t do this, happily throwing you from one random occurrence to the other without anything to link them together. Hopefully the above questions will be thought-provoking and inspire you to look at the missions on which you send your hero in a new, more integrated light.
What about you? What do you think is well-done in games and what is lacking where missions and goals are concerned? How do you write a better game? Comment below!