What I'd like to see in an RPG

by Mike Lemmer

NOTE: If you're trying to connect this article to anything that has come before in an RPG, don't try too hard. Most of this stuff is off the top of my head, and will probably never be used in an RPG. However, one can hope... Naturally, if you have anything you want to add to this, drop me a line. Who knows, you could inspire me...

We all know the typical RPG: Fantasy setting, small band of heroes, worlds to save, evil monsters to slay, plenty of hacking, etc... Some RPGs have tested the water in other areas, such as Chrono Trigger (which I still think has one of the most innovative battle systems around), while others have wandered into lands unknown and succeeded with flying colors, such as Fallout (SMG on burst, woot!)

While I was discussing such topics with other RPG fan-atics, my mind drifted... What would I put in the ultimate RPG, one that I'd be sure would be played years, even decades from now? A list of the features I'd put in follows, along with a basic description of the game that slowly molded in my mind...

SOME BACKGROUND: Of course, I wouldn't go listing all of the qualities of my "ultimate RPG" if I didn't include a basic description, so here's some info on it:

TIME: Sometime in the future of humanity, when worlds other than Earth have been colonized, evidence has been found of other intelligent aliens (including some "potentially hostile" ones), and advancing technology and exploration raise just as many questions as they provide answers for.

SETTING: A top-secret station on a remote planetoid in some distant star system, far away from prying eyes, where the Terran (human) military tries to create new weapons for some upcoming skirmish while trying to unlock the secrets of an ancient alien base under the surface of the planet. The crew is a strange mix of the "importants" (the people that actually do the good stuff) and the "others" (the people that take care of the everyday going-ons of the station). The "others", naturally, don't know what's really going on at the station.

THE CONFLICT: Something has gone horribly wrong (what'd you expect, a day off?) and the entire station has been evacuated, except for the so-called "incompetents" and "troublemakers", who have been left on the station to rot and die along with whatever caused the disaster. Naturally, the player plays as some of the poor saps trapped on the station, who have to figure out what they need to do to survive in a place going to hell in a handbasket.


#1. Strang- er, DIFFERENT Characters:
"ANGST?!? You want me to feel ANGST about my past? Look, pal, I'm on a station held together with spit and duct tape, the oxygen level's been hovering at 4% for the past four hours, I only got two clips of ammo left, my heart is about ready to smash through my rib cage, and I need to show MORE ANGST?!? Why don't I just stuff some angst up your-" -A Marine character in the game after hearing about the latest craze among RPG heroes

There's just something appealing about characters that aren't supposed to be heroes. Characters that blow their top under pressure, or panic when some giant nasty pops out of the pipe in front of them, or rush around trying to figure out how the hell to solve the latest problem. They have no identity problems, they have no prophesied role to fill, they have no unique "warrior's blood" or "trait" that separates them from the common run-of-the-mill Joe. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they gotta be heroes and work together to save their skins.

"So WHAT if we all have a common goal?!? I would say that survival is a pretty clear-cut goal!" -Mechanic

Of course, they'll have plenty of other quirks, too. From the marine that believes that retreat is ALWAYS a viable option, to the soldier that loves to wade into the thick of it and fry some critters, to the irate female medic (of course, like all modern-day female heroes, she has a "perfect" figure...) that's so sick of putting up with "all the boys" that she pounds the snot out of anyone that tries to hit on her. To further flesh out the characters, they'll have traits that have nothing to do with the story, such as harmonica-playing, cajun cooking ("It always tastes better flaming!"), and the reasons they want to survive so bad...

"I have a wife and three kids back home on Earth. On my last vacation, I went home to see them for a few days. I barely recognized my oldest son, he'd changed so much! How pathetic is that?"

"In another month, I would've been in the service long enough to retire. I've been counting the days until it for two years. Just think, I could go home and watch my kids grow up, go to college, get married, play with my little grandkids... and... and... I can't die! Not like this! Not when I'm this close to having my family again! We have to figure a way out of this hellhole, we HAVE to!"

*There's a long silence... the soft glow of the portable cooking/heating unit is the only thing that lights their faces. Some just stare off into the distance, a few take out pictures, old and crumpled and worn, and just look at them, as if it might be the last time they ever see their loved ones again. Others stand guard or try to sleep, but you can see it on their faces: they miss home...*

#2. Multiple Endings
Yes, I know this has been done, but it's just so good, I wanted to include it. The player would have multiple goals they could achieve, each one easier or harder than the next. A small list of the possible endings/paths they could take follows:

-Initiate the station self-destruct system: Destroys whatever it is that caused the mayhem, but also destroys everything else (including the characters if they haven't fulfilled the next goal...)

-Find a way to escape: All of the escape pods may have been launched, but with a little ingenuity, the player should be able to find another way to escape. Perhaps a broken-down escape pod, or a hastily-built ship made in a factory unit of the station with scrap metal and salvaged parts.

-Find a way to evacuate: There's a big difference between a few characters escaping and figuring out how to get everyone off the station. They would have to find multiple ways of escaping in order to get everyone off, and then there's the matter of protecting them as they get to the escape ships...

-Retake the station: Sure, it may be breaking apart at the seams with hostile creatures roaming around, but with a couple dozen rolls of duct tape, plenty of guns, and a few well-placed alliances (more on that later), the player could end up in control of a moderately-functional station that everyone else thinks is destroyed! Just imagine the parties you could hold on it...

-Seek revenge: Hey, who wouldn't want to get back at the lousy scumbags that left you on the station in the first place? Recapture the station, build up a small fleet, and hunt them down like the dogs they are!

-Save the galaxy: You KNEW this one had to be in here, didn't you? If the player fixes things up enough so the station won't completely go to heck, breaks into the top secret stuff to read their research, and actually takes the time to explore the giant underground alien base, they will discover that the alien base was created to safeguard against some major future catastrophe. After all, you know it ain't gonna be a picnic when the basic translation of the event is the interstellar version of "Ragnarok". Naturally, it will be up to the player (and the characters) to gather up all their courage, wage all-out war, and stop the events that will eventually lead to the destruction of everything they know and love. (Of course, if they just shrug and decide not to tackle it, they'll see the full brunt of the future damage they could've prevented.)

#3. As Many Party Members As You Want!
Has ANY video game ever come up with a good, logical reason for limiting the number of members in a party? Imagine how much butt you could've kicked if you could have all of the FF6 characters in your party at once! I believe that eventually, RPGs will scrap the party limit and develop other ways of encouraging small-medium parties instead of giant marching groups. For example, it's basic logic that the more members a party has, the more likely they are to attract attention, and the more likely they are to be attacked by giant bands of monsters that see them as a "profitable meal" rather than just "a pesky nuisance". Not many people will take 12-member parties if they're being attacked every other step. Plus there's the times when you don't want to fight. After all, you don't want to stand toe-to-toe with that Decimator-class guardbot no matter HOW many people you have. You'd rather have a hand-picked group of 3-4 people that're able to sneak in than a 12-member party that's about as stealthy as a herd of elephants. Of course, when you know you have a skirmish coming up, there's strength in numbers, which leads me to my next point...

#4. Different Groups of Monsters
By this, I don't just mean the "oh, this is a Dragon monster, and this is a Fire monster, and this is a Beast monster" types found in way too many RPGs. I mean groups of monsters that work together, fight each other, make and break alliances, and could either be the PCs' best friend or worst nightmare.

First we have the usual vermin: rats, bugs, and other assorted pests, accidently brought to the station, that have grown over the years into ravenous scavengers. Now that everything's gone to heck, they aren't afraid to hunt and fight for their food. There's no way the player's gonna make an alliance with them, but if they play their cards right, they could get them to attack some of the other monsters on the station, too.

Next, we have the rogue bots-- the result of various glitches and failed computer experiments over the years, these bots have survived in the electronic underbelly of the station. They're led by an AI they just refer to as "The Entity". At first, they just cause trouble for the player (scavenging parts from the busted systems for their own survival, but they're the same parts the PCs need to fix the other stuff), but if the player can find their main base and have some diplomatic talks with "The Entity", they could gain a powerful ally that knows the station's electronics like the back of its (er, their) hand. On the contrary, they could piss them off and end up with everything falling to pieces around them.

Finally, we have "the enemies", the alien minions that want the entire station destroyed for some unknown reason (that is, until you discover the final ending listed above) and everyone on it killed. No making alliances with them, either, but it could be possible to cause infighting with a well-placed shot and the ever-popular "blame game".

Of course, there could be more enemies than just these. Personnel that have turned into insane homicidal maniacs (not counting your own party members), genetic experiments gone horribly wrong, strange artifacts from other worlds, "possessed" machinery, malfunctioning defense systems, perhaps even strange interdimensional phenomena. But instead of just shooting at them, the player might pause for a moment and think, "Now how can I use them to my advantage?"

#5. Squads

Sure, a small party is fine for tackling about half a dozen monsters at a time, but when you have hundreds of the things swarming at you, you want a little backup, right? Enter the squads.

Squads would be groups of soldiers/fighters/gunners/etc. that would provide much-needed backup for those giant badass battles. Numbering from 6-15 members per squad, each squad would be controlled as a single unit, providing mass mayhem with minimal micromanagement. Although each individual member is less powerful than one of the PCs, together they can hold off more enemies than 1 or 2 PCs could handle, perhaps freeing the PCs to do other actions like sneaking around to the head honcho or hacking through the stuck door controls. All of the squad members will have minimal personalities limited to the basics of "let's fight this", "let's run like hell", and "I don't want to go in there". (After all, you want them to work together, not whine about their pasts! Leave that to the PCs.) The "personality" of the squad could be shown using a "squad leader" that conveys the basic thoughts and feelings of a squad.

For the usual missions like repairing a malfunctioning piece of equipment, exploring a dangerous cave, or sneaking into an enemy lair, squads will either be useless (not having the proper skills) or will just refuse to do anything that a smaller, more diverse group would have better luck at. But for all-out drag-down battles, they can't be beat.

Each one could also be led by a PC, which gives them a leadership and morale bonus. This could be the best reason to have a character with a high charisma, since morale determines whether they break and run or stand their ground and fight.

The player could also upgrade the squad. Got an old piece of armor that isn't fit for any of your characters? Give it to one of the squad members rather than just selling it! More money than you know what to do with? Outfit one of your squads with the best equipment you can afford and watch them mow down the enemies! Over time, a player could become just as attached to a squad that gets the job done time and time again as any PC in their party.

#6. More Monsters

Hey, how come monsters only attack in small groups in RPGs? If I was a monster and I wanted to overwhelm the PCs, I'd want to attack en masse. Just imagine how exciting battles with weaker monsters would be if 86 of them swarmed you? Plus, it's the perfect reason to get squads (see above).

Well, that's enough new stuff for one editorial. Perhaps I'll continue this list later. I'm sure I've given you enough to gnaw on for now.

-Mike Lemmer

"Screw the spells... gimme a rocket launcher and I'll show you some magic!"

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