The Role of the Player

  • kentona
  • 08/24/2007 12:00 AM
FUNdamentals of RPGs
Part I - The Role of the Player

By kentona
Based on the book Swords & Circuitry by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford.

In exploring what makes an RPG fun to play, this article series will explore the following areas:
I. The Role of the Player
II. Attributes and Skills
III. Story and Worldbuilding
IV. Quests and Objectives
V. Rewards
VI. Balancing

The Roots of Role-Playing

When we think of RPGs, we think of stats, classes, weapons and equipments, spells, monsters, dungeons, quests and a host of other increasingly interdependent elements. But if you strip that down, strip away all the tables, the classes, the worldbuilding, the treasures, the balancing, what you're left with s a good old-fashioned game of make-believe. At the center of this game of pretend is the concept of My Guy - the progression and ultimate success of who you are playing, whether it be cops & robbers, or cowbows & indians, or space rangers, or wizards and knights, or Ninja Turtles. The story revolves around My Guy and how My Guy gets good enough to Save the Day.

Translating this back to your more traditional RPG elements, donning the role of My Guy is akin to assuming the role and character of the hero in the game. This hero can be customly created using some character generation system, selected from a gallery of avatars who represent different types of characters you might like to play, or a preset foundling that you can direct and grow. In any case, a certain attachment is made to the avatar and you care about the progression and ultimate success of My Guy.

What separates a simple game of make-believe from an RPG is structure. By creating a universal system of reasonable, unbreakable rules, RPGs allows players to interact in fun but fair situations in which all players have a reasonable chance of success. The fun is derived from the development of the playable character (or characters) within the rules of the game world in order to achieve the game's goal in a satisfactory way.

The Role of the Player Character

"You are who you pretend to be" - Sherry Turkle

No matter what other features are thrown into the mix, RPGs are at their root about the player's identification with one or more avatars. Through their alter egos the player will explore the game world and perform all the tasks required to save the planet, rescue the princess and slay the evil demon lord. Developing ways to foster intimacy of feeling for their avatar should remain a priority throughout the development of any RPG. One way to do this is to create avatars that reflect the style of play of the player you are trying to attact.

The Fragmaster

  • Game ojectives that are primarily resolved by combat
  • Primary focus on the combat capabilities of the characters or avatars

Games that cater to the fragmaster must put the combat system at the very center of the game. All of the major resolutions in the game can be in some way solved by violent confrontation. Emphasis on unique combat moves, varied spell or skill systems, and numerous and challenging monster types tend to pay off very well for the designer catering to the fragmaster. Since the primary means of progression in this design revolve around combat, enemy design and AI take a priority in the RPG's development. Each encounter should present a unique threat with weaknesses to exploit.

  • Diablo series

Using Diablo II as an example, we can see that the entire game is focused on building up the skills and stats of your character in order to bash your way through to the end. All of the major quests involve smashing a monster to bits in one way, shape or form, if not as a primary objective then as a necessary step to achieving the objective.

The Problem Solver

  • Flexible game objectives with multiple possible resolutions
  • The ability to combine objects, actions, and strategies to arrive at creative solutions to game problems

The problem solver wants to find a way through the problem using the prevailing rules of the game reality. Whenever possible, problem solvers want to outthink the game. To center the RPG around this player type, a designer must be able to present the player with creative options to combine objects, actions, or strategies in different ways to solve the same fundamental problems. A flexible combat system that allows superior strategy to overcome sheer firepower will play very well with this audience. Puzzles, riddles and mazes will also be welcomed. The key to enticing a problem solver to play is to allow them to take their own initiative when presented with just enough information to succeed in the game. Avoid explicitly stating what the player needs to do in every instance of a problem.

The difficulty in designing for a problem solver is the danger of complex systems growing unwieldly very fast. If there are hundreds of ways to solve every problem, it will be impossible to implement and test each one individually. The important thing to remember is that you don't have to make complex rules to achieve complex results. Chess has only 16 playing pieces and a limited set of movement rules, yet is capable of generating astounding complexity. Employ simple rules in your game and layout the game world to make use of those rules.

  • Legend of Zelda series
  • Knights of the Old Republic series

In the Legend of Zelda games you find items, like the Hookshot and Boomerang, that employ simple rules but the game world is designed in such a way that you must creatively employ these items to progress. In the Knights of the Old Republic games your characters have access to outside of battle skills, such as Computer Use and Security, that allow the player to take multiple paths to achieve the same gold, for example lockpicking a door or bashing it to the ground.

The Treasure Hunter

  • Frequently distributed and valuable booty
  • Flexible game economy with many opportunities to find bargains and make shrewd sales decisions
  • Inventory system with strong organizational properties and mechanisms to learn more about objects

The treasure hunter sees the game world as one large (and perhaps twisted) shopping mall. Every last barrel, box, chest, bag, case and plasteel cylinder exists only for their plunder. Zombies and shopkeepers are only obstacles in the way of getting more items. As such, a comprehensive inventory system is needed to make use of the many and varied items available to the properly outfitted treasure hunter. An item's use must be clear and detailed history of the item is valued. The biggest draw for a treasure hunter is the promise of bigger and better loot down the road.

  • Diablo series
  • Baldur's Gate series
  • Knights of the Old Republic series
  • Dragon Quest series

Every game caters in some aspect to the treasure hunter. Nearly every dungeon or cave you'd spelunk in an RPG has some treasure scattered throughout it's depths. Monsters are almost always a source of potential goodies for a player to collect, then later sell or use in their own right. Diablo games take monster drops to an extreme and serves as a good example of randomly generated items. Baldur's Gate (and BioWare in general) does an excellent job of explaining the history and usefulness of every item in the game. Knights of the Old Republic II has an excellent equipment crafting system and Dragon Quest VIII has a clever alchemy system.

The Story Chaser

  • A story that rewards their efforts
  • Well-written dialog and a solid story line
  • Deep character development and interaction
  • Ability to follow one or more story threads

The story chaser appreciates a well-crafted and well-presented story. Character development, interactive dialog and intricate plot twists all add to the story chaser's enjoyment of the game. A story chaser is also someone who wants a semiguaranteed experience - after all the blood, sweat and tears invested in the game the story must come to a satisfying conclusion. An RPG with strong focus on story can become overwhelming to design very readily. Create a simple storyboard in order to easily add, remove, and keep track of story data and progression. Create a character sheet to keep track of character details, personality, beliefs, preferences and alignments as well as personal goals and desires. When writing for a character, imagine yourself in their shoes and make them act and react within their set of beliefs and attitudes. Be creative in your presentation of material (don't limit yourself to walls of text) - include cutscenes and imagery to spice up the presentation.

  • Final Fantasy series
  • Knights of the Old Republic series

Final Fantasy games tend to put heavy focus of story and plot and character development. The stories are often intricate and varied, a range from serious to sad to absurd throughout the game. Every character has a detailed history and personality, and interact differently with other major characters.

The Navel Gazer

  • Significant opportunities to challenge, advance and add character skills
  • Skills that present a clear and frequent benefit to the player
  • A comprehensible way to track the advancement of skills either numerically or graphically

Everything about a game has to be about the navel gazer. Kingdoms can rise or they can fall, but all navel gazers really care about is is that their guy ends up as the toughest, coolest, smartest, best-dressed, richest bravo in all the world. No one and nothing else is even remotely important. To design for a navel gazer, you need to provide them with a system of skills and attributes that can be steadily built up and who's growth can be clearly monitored. On the flip side of that, whatever abilities you grant the navel gazer, you must also provide ongoing opportunities as frequently as possible for those abilities to be applied. Without a doubt, most RPGs do a fairly good job of catering to the gazer, at least in respect to combat skills. For skills that are unrelated to combat, be wary that skills that have no consistently useful function are likely to be ignored and unexplored by the player.

  • Final Fantasy series
  • Knights of the Old Republic series
  • Diablo series

Like I mentioned, most games do a good job of catering to the gazer, but I'd like to point out some specific examples. Final Fantasy Tactics allows you to explore a variety of classes and techniques and apply them throughout the game. Knights of the Old Republic games do an excellent job at providing outside of battle skills that remain useful and relevant throughout the gameplay. Diablo is simply a min/maxer's dream.

The Tourist

  • A large explorable world
  • Detailed environments that invite player interaction
  • A way to track progression in the game world

The tourist's primary desire is to explore an exotic or whimsical place that invites them deeper into mystery, beauty or terror. They desire a highly detailed and interactive environment that immerses as many senses as possible. Small details make the world real and enables the tourist to lose themselves in the make-believe world. Ambiance and setting play a large part in keeping the tourist's interest.

Constant forward momentum creates the prime energy of the tourist's romp, requiring that there always be a fairly low challenge threshold for the player to overcome in order to continue exploring, but by the same token there must be the occasional roadblock that make the journey seem worth taking.

  • Baldur's Gate series

The Baldur's Gate games are set in the immersive and gigantic world of the Forgotten Realms, and, as such, have a rich history and consistent world dynamics.

No one player is exclusively one type of player or another. Each player will be some blend of the different types to differing degrees. However, these types are going to be driving your biggest decisions about how your games are created and what you decide to put in them. In the end, it is going to be how you mix and mesh the preferences of all of these different kinds of players that will determine the final feel and style of the games you wish to make.

Creating the Player Character

There are many ways to introduce the player to their avatar, and I will briefly introduce you to three of them: blank-slate character generation, class selection, and the foundling approach.

Character Generation

At the start of the game, the player is immediately presented with a series of screens from which they must make several choices about the avatar's name, gender, looks, race, profession, specializations, and a myriad of other traits, stats and skills. A player may be given a limited number of points to distribute into stats or skills, or points may be randomly "rolled" and assigned to determine an avatar's intial stats and skills.

Baldur's Gate

  • gives a significant amount of control to the player
  • popular with people who are familiar with role-playing games in general

  • can be initially overwhelming
  • bars quick entry into a game
  • can suffer from poor character personality development

Class Selection

The player is given a choice of different professional classes and is asked to name their avatar.

Diablo II

  • allows players to very quickly identify the basic kind of character they want to play
  • quick turnaround from starting game to playing

  • typically bound to class and level system
  • stuck with whatever skills and restrictions are associated with that class

Foundling Approach

The player is immediately given control of an avatar but does not control initial attributes. The player usually has some limited control in how the avatar develops.

Final Fantasy VII

  • the player is not required to understand any of the complexities of classes, skills, or attributes
  • can immediately jump into the gameplay

  • the player is stuck with a main character they haven't chosen and who may not reflect the kind of character that the player wants to play

Conclusion of Part I

If you take nothing else from this article, I hope you understand that the player is central to the game. If you become someone who is willing to pay attention to the needs of your players, you're going to be one step ahead. Remember that players really want to enjoy the games they attempt to play. If you can find a common ground between your own ideas and those of the game-player public, you'll find that you both are having much more fun.

Further reading:
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part I: The Role of the Player
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part II: Attributes and Skills
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part III: Story
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part IV: Quests and Objectives
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part V: Rewards
FUNdamentals of RPGs Part VI: Balancing


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Not only was the article enlightening, it was also entertaining. They should teach this in classes.
This was extremely helpful. Thanks!
Wow, this is very useful! Great food for thought. I will definitely be reading the other parts. Thanks for writing these, kentona :)

(I wonder if there's some kind of poll or pie chart that shows the amounts of people that relate to each player type? I think it would be interesting to see how many Tourists or Story Chasers there are out there compared to how many Fragmasters or Treasure Hunters, you know?)
Even six years later, this article holds very true. Well defined, well put.
The examples are growing a little dated, but thanks!
A good read and well put. I've read through all of them.

Just a slight update suggestion. Maybe provide a link to the next part after the conclusion section. I had to go back to the list to click the next part. :)
I should do that. Thanks for reading!
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