A constant argument on the pen and paper end of things is that there’s no good role-playing games out there. This usually is followed up by “My GM let us do this and that to win, but a game can’t let you do that,” or some complaints about limited character generation. I think some of this comes down to what you want out of a game.
Think of it this way. If you’re in a game to get immersed in the soap opera like problems and the characters interacting with the conflicts, then you want to get rewarded with story elements and to find out more details about the characters. In this kind of game, you may get pre-made characters (you’re the six children of the king each with a deadly secret, say,) or criteria for how to make the character. Exploration might have you discovering secrets, changing the status quo, or finding out new things about the world you live in.
If you’re in a tactical game, you might be building a party to fill needs. This might result in a very meta style of party creation with strange race and skill combinations are combined to make , say, the perfect cleric. There might be battles that showcase the strengths, or test the weaknesses of the party. Plot is less important, since often it’s hard to make a plot to explain why you have this motley crew, and it’s not what people care about. Exploration might give you ways to change your strategies, or new tactical challenges, or ways to plan for a battle.
A more “puzzle” like game is similar to a tactical one, but has a slightly different focus. A typical format for that might be a central problem (a murder in the king’s summer palace.) There might be sides, clues, conflicts, and an assortment of potential endings depending on allies, what was discovered, and how well the plans were executed. Classic old-school D&D might have the GM trying to outwit the party into a massive battle, but with clever planning, the party may be able to make it much easier.
Now, let’s turn this back to a computer / console RPG. Obviously, there’s story based style games in computer / console RPGs. Final Fantasy games tend to have cinematic and dramatic explorations of a theme, a central conflict, and story arcs for various characters. The Wild ARMs series tends to reward advancing the plot with scenes of the characters dealing with their various issues and talking. The Tales series packs the series with little skits discussing events and letting the characters talk. Music, visuals, and gameplay can work to make the game more immersive. The act of playing the game can provide a chance to create a story. In Etrian Odyssey, your guild of characters are entirely named and created by the player. Still, the colorful portraits in the game, and the act of playing the game can create a diary of their explorations through the player’s interpretations.
There’s tactical style games too. Wizardry has some ridiculously strong characters, if you’re willing to make odd combinations like a tiny fairy ninja. Etrian Odyssey III is largely based around building character synergy, so your various characters support each other in battle. Disgaea is a game that assumes you want to grind to break the game, and provides plenty of ways for you to do it. Games can have the advantage of doing complex calculations for the GM, and can provide a careful difficulty curve, with proper testing. The Shin Megami Tensei series is infamous for brutally slaughtering a player who isn’t careful.
There’s also puzzle style games, though not in the same way as a pen and paper game. You have games that provide puzzles to solve. These may range from changing your tactics, or pushing block style puzzles. You can have games where you have multiple ways to solve an argument, or to handle a conflict. There’s also the infamous “hidden sidequest” style stuff where a sequence of events may unlock something new to do in the game. Puzzles in games can provide visual information more easily than a pen and paper RPG, but also tend to be designed to be fairly contained and short puzzles, instead of a long complex one.
Obviously, a computer or console game can’t provide the same feedback as a GM sitting across a table. Even if someone tried to do that, doing that kind of planning for every single possibility would just make badly done stories unless if you were using some kind of elaborate procedural generation. Even then, you’d likely end with the MadLibs style stories from Dwarf Fortress. Here, the problem of what you want in a game comes into play.
If I want a good story with complex characters, then I might place tactics, or clever solutions, or multiple story paths as less important. If I want tactics, I might ignore a boring or paper thin story. Instead, I’d love to see almost unfair challenges that are surmountable with clever planning. If I want puzzles or difficult choices, I might ignore characters (since the drama may be all in the NPCs) and tactics (since it’s not how the war is fought as much as how the war is started.)
By saying that it’s not role-playing if it’s not improvisational or deeply customized, you’re making a very limited definition of what “role-playing.” Most people agree that there’s acting in a movie, and acting in a play. Just because the play may have improvisation and a changing performance does not mean that the movie has no acting. A TV show and a radio show might both have actors, but the live radio show isn’t automatically “better” than the TV show. A live singer in a concert is the same singer in the studio. You might like the live performance better (or a recording of it,) but that doesn’t mean the singer isn’t singing in the studio.
The reason why I emphasize the reward cycles is that I think it helps point out “what you want” from various types of games. If you say that you want a reward cycle of character development / world building / story, then it’s easy to see how a generic JRPG might be perfect for you. If you say you want gut wrenching choices, then something closer to a generic Western RPG might be a better fit. If you want tactics, then you’d probably want to focus closer on games on the edges of the strategy realm. If you want heart pounding excitement, then you want dramatic story telling, and probably something with action elements or something that has great immersive graphics and sound.
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