Welcome to the zeroeth edition of RPG Autopsy: a new series that’s half Let’s Play, half fussily-extensive dissection of role-playing game design. In this (hopefully short) introductory post I’ll explain the concept of the series, ask the (hopefully short, hopefully non-interminable) question ‘what is an role-playing game?’, and then wrap things up by letting you know what our first game will be.
If you just want to get straight into the content, here’s the elevator pitch:
RPG Autopsy is a series about playing RPGs, then cutting them open, and digging around in their soft, squishy bits to see what makes them tick. It’ll take the form of deep-dive, full-length playthroughs of all varieties of RPGs, with a focus on:
(b) which parts of the game work, and which don’t (and why)
(b) what these successes and failures can teach us about good (and bad) RPG design.
Which games will get the role-playing fame? Which will get the eternal role-playing shame? And which will get taken to role-playing small claims court? Find out every Saturday in RPG Autopsy.
What is RPG Autopsy?
Like many of you, I’ve been playing video games since I was a tiny, awkward child. I loved many of them (Planescape: Torment, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Final Fantasy 9), and hated others (Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity 2). And while I enjoyed all different genres, RPGs have always been my one true love.
As I’ve grown older that love has evolved from the innocent, childlike love of ‘this is my favourite toy and I love it and it’s the best in the world’, to a weird, reclusive uncle’s love of taking apart his 1978 Mustang and putting it together again every weekend.
In other words, over time I’ve become more and more interested in not just playing RPGs, but figuring out (1) how they’re made, (2) what makes some of them great, and (3) what makes the Pillars of Eternity franchise so incredibly bad.
RPG Autopsy is an attempt to answer these questions in a way that will hopefully make for fun reading. I’ll choose an RPG to play through to completion, and write about my experience week by week – talking about what works, as well as what doesn’t, and then rounding out each post with a game design lesson we can take away from that week’s play.
This way, we’ll have fun AND learn at the same time. What could be better?
What is a role-playing game?
We can’t even properly define things like ‘art’ or ‘game’, so what hope could we possibly have of rigorously defining the term ‘role-playing game’? More importantly, who cares?
No one, that’s who.
I did a degree in philosophy. I’m not going back to that place again. And I wouldn’t wish it on you, either. Instead, I’m going to give a vague overview of four things I think are generally important to most (not necessarily all) RPGs.
(1) RPGs generally involve player choice about creation and/or advancement of a player character.
- The player character can be a blank slate create-your-own (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons), it can be a specific person with their own personality (e.g. The Witcher), or it can be some mix of the two (e.g. Mass Effect).
- Player characters generally advance/level up in some way – whether that be getting physically stronger (e.g. 90% of all RPGs ever), getting physically stronger but in a slightly different way (e.g. see previous parentheses), or getting better at writing esoteric poetry (see A House of Many Doors)
(2) RPGs are in some important way systems-driven games.
- In other words, RPGs generally aren’t just choose-your-own-adventure binary choices with consequences and goblins and space lasers. Instead, they have some combination of gameplay systems (e.g. the tactical combat of Baldur’s Gate 2, or the exploration of Sunless Sea) and narrative systems (e.g. choices lowering morale and supplies in The Banner Saga, or the complex branching of the Sorcery! series)
- In general, narrative impacts gameplay and gameplay impacts narrative in some way (or better yet, narrative and gameplay are one and the same).
(3) RPGs allow for significant player choice and expression.
- In other words, a first-person shooter game that branches into two possible endings because of a player choice isn’t suddenly an RPG. Having basic dialogue choices, or basic level ups also don’t automatically make something an RPG (saying that, I’m not interested in genre gatekeeping – I’m painting the term ‘RPG’ with a pretty broad brush for the purposes of this series)
- You might be asking how I define ‘significant’? Good question! Moving on:
(4) RPGs generally have a strong focus on story/world/characters
- Some RPGs are just excuses for combat systems (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but most are at least somewhat interested in telling a story, exploring a world, or letting the player get to know compelling characters.
I have further thoughts on these topics. They’re not interesting. Moving on:
What games will I cover?
All kinds of RPGs or RPG-adjacent games. Fiddly old-school CRPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. Genre hybrids like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Mass Effect. JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (though I’m honestly not that into the genre as a whole). Tabletop RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Bluebeard’s Bride. Interesting, unusual indie titles like Lisa: The Painful RPG and the absolutely wonderful A House of Many Doors.
Our first series of posts will be on the exceedingly overlooked Vampyr – an Action-RPG released in 2018 by Dontnod Entertainment. It’s about eating people (or choosing not to eat them). It experiments in very interesting ways with game difficulty, moral compromise, and NPC-world interaction. It also fancies its combat system to be a successor to Bloodborne.
Will I eat people? Do Vampyr‘s experiments pay off? Is its combat system actually a successor to Bloodborne? Find out next time in RPG Autopsy!
(spoiler: yes, yes, no)
Until next time
(And remember, you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. Also, my very own (in-development) text-based RPG – The Red Market – can be played online here for the low, low price of zero pounds, in case you’re interested)