RPG design thoughts

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This page is an extension to my MUD/RPG/MMORPG idea collection. Here I explore a few things that I have discovered that help in making a story-oriented game successful. It also applies to books and movies.

I'll add more later when I think of it.


I would like to design a successful RPG or participate in the making of one. However, it seems like such as task is too large for one person to undertake.

-Joel Yliluoma

Maximization of misery

In a Finnish comedy movie franchise called "Uuno Turhapuro", an engineer once represents the philosophy of maximization of misery. I no longer remember what it was about, but I have adopted a new meaning for it.

Maximization of misery is the principle of story design, that ensures that there is always a new troubling dilemma. It is very commonly seen in drama series.

It is about introducing a new pain, a new misery every once in a while.

Examples of the means of misery:

Building of emotional attachments

For a story to win the audience's hearts, the audience must be able to relate.

Create familiarity

Bring the audience into the privacy of the "we" characters. Let them know how the characters think. How they feel, what are their weaknesses, what are their strengths. How they relate to their peers. The first impressions are most important.

This is an ongoign process. Over the course of the story, you must continuously reinforce the familiarity.

Familiarity can be attached to people, towns, items, any concepts provided in the story.

By attaching sensations, such as memories and music, you can affect the impressions. It is a lot about psychology.

Destroying emotional attachments

Once you have established strong emotional attachments, it is time to destroy some of them. This is part of the maximization of misery.

The more traumatic you can create the event, the better. The more valuable it is that you destroy, the better.

But ensure that there are safety nets. You don't want the audience to be so utterly devastated that they give up with the game or stop watching the movie. Introduce a ray of hope somewhere quickly.

Case studies


Chrono Trigger

Throughout the course of the game, the player is let to believe that Crono is the main character of the game, for example by not letting the player move Crono out from the party's lead position. The player is likely to give Crono their own name.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Crono dies. Crono's body shatters to pieces; there doesn't seem to be any possibility for him to survive.

When this happens, the player is kept in shock for a while. But as soon as the player can catch their breath, the ray of hope is given: a time egg possibly can get Crono back.

This technique actually has a name and an article in Wikipedia.

Final Fantasy 6

Through the game, the goal has been built towards preventing a terrible apocalypse that destroys the entire world. Then the apocalypse happens. The whole world is destroyed. Continents shatter. Plants wither. Friends are lost.

It looks utterly hopeless at first. However, a ray of hope is given. A little raft may carry Celes out from a little island, possibly to find something to live on.

Tales of Phantasia

The town of Totus is destroyed, along with the family of the hero and his friend, Chester. This happens in the beginning of the game so that much emotional attachment has not yet been invested. However, it is all there is, so it has a larger relative value. The scene is very emotional with darkness and rain and thunder and a desperate music. The dialog of the characters enforces the sensation of loss.

Later in the game, entire towns are disingerated.

Final Fantasy 5

Faris's pet seamonster drowns into the sea. Later, entire towns are disintegrated.

A catastrophe that the heroes struggle to avert, happens nevertheless.

Final Fantasy 4

Palom and Porom, two very lively children, turn themselves into stone statues to save the others. Despite attempts to save them, they remain as statues until the game end.

Multilayered story

You can create even a long RPG while still keeping the suspense on by creating a multilayered story, that builds a truth upon truth by revealing more and more about the world as you go, with occasional large revelations that the audience hasn't even expected.

There are also other ways to produce a multilayered story. Such multilayerism commonly appears in humans' interactions, where some story has a different lesson for children and for adults, designed to take advantage on their differing levels of understanding of human interaction.

Case studies


Chrono Cross

The layers of the story in Chrono Cross could be laid as follows:
  1. The hero needs to please his girlfriend. This can hardly be counted as a layer, as it serves merely as an introduction to the world.
  2. LAYER: The hero needs to find a way back to his own world. Here the story begins.
  3. A mysterious character, Lynx, seems to known more about the hero than the hero himself. Why?
  4. The hero needs to regain his own body back. Why did Lynx wants to steal his body and give his own in return?
  5. LAYER: The world is governed by FATE, an apparently malicious a supercomputer from the future.
  6. LAYER: FATE was actually a protector of humanity, and the dragons were seeking to disable FATE so they can start exacting a revenge upon humanity.
  7. LAYER: The dragons were a means (unbeknowns to themselves) to acquire a relic that can separate Schala and Lavos, an extradimensional and -terrestial creature bent on devouring all of existence.

Final Fantasy IX

The layers of the story in Final Fantasy IX could be laid as follows:
  1. A team of bandits goes to kidnap Princess Garnet.
  2. A factory is producing Mages for Queen Alexandria.
  3. LAYER: Queen Alexandria seems to be mad, bent on conquering countries using those mages.
  4. The Queen is insignificant, the real culprit is Kuja.
  5. Kuja himself seems to be overshadowed by another mysterious character.
  6. Kuja is from another world, Terra. The home world is Gaia.
  7. LAYER: Terra is planning to attack Gaia, and populate Terra with souls freed from Gaia.
    • The main character is also from Terra.
  8. Kuja throws off Terra's plans, becomes greedy with power, now is a greater threat.
  9. LAYER: A godly entity, "Necron", takes Kuja's actions as a sign that all of existence must to be destroyed.

See also:

Last edited at: 2008-02-10T23:26:10+00:00