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Mia Blue

Writing a RPG Protagonist: Pre-Defined or Blank Slate?


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Hi, I am currently developing a small RPG title for the PC. Here is a snapshot: The player has to solve a mystery to free a village from a curse. In place of action is character interaction (between the PC and NPCs). So you can liken it to a visual novel without the static graphics (meaning there are branching paths and multiple endings).

 

The dilemma I have is deciding whether I should write a pre-defined protagonist or a blank slate protagonist into the story.

 

I know that some players don't like to feel limited to a small group of characters whom they may not like or relate to (effectively breaking immersion through the player-character disconnect). On that note, there is diversity to consider. A common issue that is still prevalent in modern video games is the male-female ratio of characters and, more importantly, how many of them are playable protagonists with equally engaging backgrounds and storylines. Quite a few games circumvent this problem by leaving "blank-slate" protagonists to be defined by the player.

 

What I am trying to figure out is how I should factor this into my game design. Which do you prefer? Should a role-playing game be one way or the other? Which is more immersive? Finally, do you feel this decision is relevant to the type of game I am developing?

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My opinion on the matter of customization is that if you have customization you should have as much as possible or you should have none/very little(as in at most you're able to select their clothes from pre-selected fashion sense for the character or something like that)

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Paragon, that's true, but a lot of games that attempt that ends up forcing a round peg into a square whole and instead of telling a story from a given perspective they tell the same story with a few changed minor variables... I personally don't like that much.

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There is _no_ kind of story that works well with a character chosen from a set by the player

 

That's not necessarily true... in theory, you could create a game in which the goals, progression change based on which character was selected as if the plot gets played out differently depending on the perspective of the chosen character. It could be a game where the story line works similiar to the many movies that have used multiple characters to tell the story from multiple perspectives... Go, pulp fiction, etc.

 

Except if you want the player to play multiple characters from the set, that actually removes the player's choice of which one to be.  Ensemble stories and also interactive stories where you move sideways to see a second character's perspective on the same event are certainly interesting.  Difficult to combine well with play, but theoretically possible.  I don't think they are actually examples of a story where the player chooses one character from a set.  An example of that would have to be a multiplayer game.  Like, online version of one of those murder dinner party games.  If there were an online RPG version of Mario Kart or Mario Party that might count too.   I was assuming the OP didn't have inventing a new genre of non-massive MORPG in mind, though.

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There is _no_ kind of story that works well with a character chosen from a set by the player

 

That's not necessarily true... in theory, you could create a game in which the goals, progression change based on which character was selected as if the plot gets played out differently depending on the perspective of the chosen character. It could be a game where the story line works similiar to the many movies that have used multiple characters to tell the story from multiple perspectives... Go, pulp fiction, etc.

 

Except if you want the player to play multiple characters from the set, that actually removes the player's choice of which one to be.  Ensemble stories and also interactive stories where you move sideways to see a second character's perspective on the same event are certainly interesting.  Difficult to combine well with play, but theoretically possible.  I don't think they are actually examples of a story where the player chooses one character from a set.  An example of that would have to be a multiplayer game.  Like, online version of one of those murder dinner party games.  If there were an online RPG version of Mario Kart or Mario Party that might count too.   I was assuming the OP didn't have inventing a new genre of non-massive MORPG in mind, though.

 

 

White Knight Chronicles... You can customize a character... and then it is pretty much just there as the real main character and their crew go do everything and "you" are just a hanger on that doesn't get any of the cool stuff...It's terrible.

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I voted that you can create your own character, and I voted that way because the title of this thread identifies your game as a Role-Playing Game (RPG). A major part of role-playing is developing and shaping your own character. In fact, I would argue that this aspect is what makes something a role-playing game rather than another type of game.

 

However, you also state that "you can liken it to a visual novel." This statement seems to put your game in the genre of Adventure Game (like King's Quest, Monkey Island, The Walking Dead Game, etc). In this case, you definitely want a pre-defined character as the protagonist as that character's story and personality is a big part of the game.

 

Ultimately it comes down to what genre of game you are really making, Role Playing or Adventure. There have also been a few games that try to blur the lines a bit. Quest for Glory comes to mind. I think ultimately sticking with the standard for the genre unless there is a compelling reason not to is a good idea.

Edited by HighTreason
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I voted that you can create your own character, and I voted that way because the title of this thread identifies your game as a Role-Playing Game (RPG). A major part of role-playing is developing and shaping your own character. In fact, I would argue that this aspect is what makes something a role-playing game rather than another type of game.

 

However, you also state that "you can liken it to a visual novel." This statement seems to put your game in the genre of Adventure Game (like King's Quest, Monkey Island, The Walking Dead Game, etc). In this case, you definitely want a pre-defined character as the protagonist as that character's story and personality is a big part of the game.

 

Ultimately it comes down to what genre of game you are really making, Role Playing or Adventure. There have also been a few games that try to blur the lines a bit. Quest for Glory comes to mind. I think ultimately sticking with the standard for the genre unless there is a compelling reason not to is a good idea.

Not a jRPG fan, are you? wink.png

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Is the development of the personality of the player's character necessary? The other option is to make the player's character a bystander who is witnessing the events of the story unfold - in other words, the player's character isn't a key character in the plot. In this case it's best to let the player customize their character. There are quite a few RPGs that do this, and often the player's character is "silent" - there is no dialogue from them although you can still interact with NPCs. This can often make the player feel more connected to their character since it allows them to superimpose their own personality onto this "blank slate", rather than forcing a bunch of predefined personality traits onto the player's character.

 

There is a similar device used in literature. Sometimes the story will be told in first person from a bystander who is not the main character and does not play a large role in the plot development. He is just there for narration. A great example of this is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

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I voted that you can create your own character, and I voted that way because the title of this thread identifies your game as a Role-Playing Game (RPG). A major part of role-playing is developing and shaping your own character. In fact, I would argue that this aspect is what makes something a role-playing game rather than another type of game.

 

However, you also state that "you can liken it to a visual novel." This statement seems to put your game in the genre of Adventure Game (like King's Quest, Monkey Island, The Walking Dead Game, etc). In this case, you definitely want a pre-defined character as the protagonist as that character's story and personality is a big part of the game.

 

Ultimately it comes down to what genre of game you are really making, Role Playing or Adventure. There have also been a few games that try to blur the lines a bit. Quest for Glory comes to mind. I think ultimately sticking with the standard for the genre unless there is a compelling reason not to is a good idea.

 

First, I'd like to thank you for participating in the poll. It's true that an important part of most role-playing games is shaping your own character. That's what I love about them; it is the genre that really hones in on character development and that experience of role-playing in an interactive story. On that note, there most certainly are hybrids of the genre (there are actually a few different standards for RPGs).

 

For instance, the main difference between a WRPG (western role-playing game) and a JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) is just how much control you have over the development of a character. JRPGs are famous for their meticulously pre-defined characters and storylines. In the WRPG, you can often create your own character and have a lot more wiggle room in his or her development. I didn't explicitly make this distinction (JRPG vs WRPG, instead of Pre-Defined vs Blank Slate) in my original post, and I apologize for that.

 

As a side note, by "liken it to a visual novel," I meant that you have control over the flow of the story and the development of its characters (as you mentioned earlier). For instance, you have a dilemma in the game and have to choose how you wish to handle it. In short, you can definitely role-play issues out!

 

Thanks again for your feedback! You considered a few things that I hadn't thought about before and helped me reconsider what type of game I am actually going for.

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Is the development of the personality of the player's character necessary? The other option is to make the player's character a bystander who is witnessing the events of the story unfold - in other words, the player's character isn't a key character in the plot. In this case it's best to let the player customize their character. There are quite a few RPGs that do this, and often the player's character is "silent" - there is no dialogue from them although you can still interact with NPCs. This can often make the player feel more connected to their character since it allows them to superimpose their own personality onto this "blank slate", rather than forcing a bunch of predefined personality traits onto the player's character.

 

There is a similar device used in literature. Sometimes the story will be told in first person from a bystander who is not the main character and does not play a large role in the plot development. He is just there for narration. A great example of this is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

I see. Thank you for your feedback. What I was thinking about doing was making the player's character the protagonist who is a key character in the plot; then allowing the player's unique personality and playing style to manifest in his or her character. Personality development is important in this title because it influences the course and the outcome of the story. A "blank slate" would certainly be better in that case.

Edited by Mia Blue
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Here's one to try on for size.

 

Give the player a preset character to play with a meaningful back story (you get to flex your writing skills) and let the player pre-shape a handful of characters that the main character will meet throughout the story (fill the role of specific NPCs). This customization would alter the story based on the creative design of these individuals. By keeping the order of these characters random, players can explore some amazing designs and never know for sure how it will change the story (but be sure it will be different every time). Each character needs to have more then 3 attributes that effect story variables otherwise their isn't much use in customizing characters and players will see right through this idea (as they often do with character customization much like the Maxis game Spore). I would go so far as to making the attributes of these characters able to turn the custom characters into the games major antagonists based on the their actions (defined by their attributes) during key situations. 

 

This could explore how, no matter who we are, we are shaped by the actions and events involving people around us. Making the pre-defined main character shaped more so by the events and actions of the custom characters as the story progresses instead of the usual "actions of the player" (pretty common RPG system now). Obviously your story's design tree is going to be a bit more complicated, but worth it since the player will be able to play it over and over and enjoy watching the characters they've built become the story. 

 

Kind of like mad libs but with less poop and fart jokes (or more?).

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Here's one to try on for size.

 

Give the player a preset character to play with a meaningful back story (you get to flex your writing skills) and let the player pre-shape a handful of characters that the main character will meet throughout the story (fill the role of specific NPCs). This customization would alter the story based on the creative design of these individuals. By keeping the order of these characters random, players can explore some amazing designs and never know for sure how it will change the story (but be sure it will be different every time). Each character needs to have more then 3 attributes that effect story variables otherwise their isn't much use in customizing characters and players will see right through this idea (as they often do with character customization much like the Maxis game Spore). I would go so far as to making the attributes of these characters able to turn the custom characters into the games major antagonists based on the their actions (defined by their attributes) during key situations. 

 

This could explore how, no matter who we are, we are shaped by the actions and events involving people around us. Making the pre-defined main character shaped more so by the events and actions of the custom characters as the story progresses instead of the usual "actions of the player" (pretty common RPG system now). Obviously your story's design tree is going to be a bit more complicated, but worth it since the player will be able to play it over and over and enjoy watching the characters they've built become the story. 

 

Kind of like mad libs but with less poop and fart jokes (or more?).

 

Hi Mratthew. Thank you for your comment! I like your idea of allowing the player to define NPCs in the story and will definitely explore that concept. I agree that we are shaped by the actions and events involving people around us; but I also feel the thing that truly defines our character is the way we respond to those stimuli. I like the mad lib concept!

Edited by Mia.
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I prefer a predefined character. If your character has a past, you can work it into the story. If you're a good writer (and I'll assume you are), the background of your character can have a significant impact on the story and NPC interactions. This makes for a much more compelling and personal story. Once the game starts, I want the characters to be mine and make the choices. Don't write a Cloud who forces the player to spend 90% of his time moping about. Let us choose between moping and saving the world.

 

If you write your lead character to have a dark past, you can frame moral choices as "will you better your life?". If you write your lead as a heroic do-gooder, you can have the "bad" choices represent a descent into darkness. Planescape: Torment did this really well. Around the world, the PC would encounter the results of action committed before the game started, both good and bad. The ongoing theme: This is who you were, who do you choose to be?

 

On the other hand there's Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magicka Obscura. This amazing game allowed for a huge amount of personalisation which hardly mattered in the story. You were the "chosen one", but only because of being in the right place at the right time. The guy next to you could easily have been "chosen" instead. The personalisation here really worked in the gameplay. Raised by Snakecharmers? Congratulations, you've got amazing poison resistance but your social skills are worthless. Good with machinery? You get to use some great items, but good luck getting the more magic-inclined elves to help you.

 

In short, it depends on the kind of game you want. If it's a story-driven game, I'd predefine a character whose past and personality add interest and conflict within the story. If your game is more systems-driven, I'd advise to let the player create a character with interesting traits and skills that interact with the systems.

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I like having a little bit of backstory just to ground me in the world and my goals, but I hate being shoehorned to behave a particular way. For example when choose an innocent conversation option with someone and your character ends up declaring a feud with them... WTF??

 

Re parties and multiple defined characters, you could have an attrition type effect on your character and they need like a month off to heal after a big mission so you have no choice but to use someone else. Then it becomes tactical who you use for what, and also you get to see how NPCs who are friendly to one character will drive you away if you're using another character.

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Personally I'm not in favor of having a set of characters to choose from.  There is one kind of story that works well with an avatar (aka a blank slate) and there is a different kind of story that works well with a strongly pre-defined character.  There is _no_ kind of story that works well with a character chosen from a set by the player.

 

So basically you should choose the appropriate protagonist type for your story, unless you don't have a story yet.

 

Threads of Fate would be a notable exception to this rule (and games that follow the same basic structure - Star Ocean 2, for example).

 

You left out the "This is you. Start playing." option from your poll. That's the type of game I'm working on now. I have a story to tell. That story depends upon the protagonists being who they are. The player has some choices to make along the way and things to make the game appear a little less linear, but ultimately it comes down to telling that story.

 

Choosing your own protagonist works in a sandbox style game like any of The Elder Scrolls series, where you can do what you want up to and including ignoring the main 'plot' of the game entirely. That was actually one of the valid criticisms of Morrowind: there was so much Stuff to Do(tm) that it was very easy to lose track of the "main" quest in the mix of everything else people were throwing at you.

 

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines lets you choose a clan, which gives you different abilities (spells, basically), and change a bit of dialog here and there (completely changes it for one clan), but they all follow the same story, they just solve their problems a little differently (mage vs. melee vs Gun Bunny).

Edited by Mouser9169
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If the emphasise is on character interaction then you could have a small cast of characters that play through the story through multiple view points.  You can play as Bob the country bumpkin who works in the village tavern, or Glenda who town thinks is a witch because she lives alone as is 16 and unmarried.  In this way the player has to play through the story as all the characters to really get the full story.

 

A blank slate is good if you want to give the player a few customization options that effect the story and puzzles in some way.  Having magic might allow you to tackle a puzzle in a completely different way then if you had musical talent taking you on a slightly different path through the events.

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