Art by SnowSkadi
I am considered a part of what has been dubbed "The Nintendo Generation." Video games came out early in my life and hit the mainstream as I got old enough to appreciate them. I owned an Atari, but never got the first Nintendo. I still have my Super Nintendo and my Playstation. I spent several years with console games but I have not continued on with them. I discovered computer games and have come to prefer them over console games, just as I prefer pen and paper games over both of those. I don't have to buy a new console to play a computer game, and good computer games have a versatility that console games just can't match.
It is versatility that I want to talk about here, in a way - the versatility of storytelling. The stories in electronic games are largely predetermined because they have to be - all allowable paths are coded onto the disk, along with a fixed amount of responses. The storytelling in a video game is the domain of the computer and it is static - the disk has only so many stories to tell. The storytelling in D&D, however, is up to one person in particular and is immediately influenced by another group of people. Storytelling in D&D cannot be static. The very nature of roleplaying is interactive and organic storytelling. The DM can build plots to run but it is almost assured that they will have to work on the plots that the players bring up all on their own. The element of surprise and chance is what truly sets pen and paper games apart from video games. People bring with them varied experiences, quirks and unknowable mental processes - and all of these things come to the fore in a D&D game.
Why is it, then, that I have seen D&D games using a formula that has been done to death in video games? With all of the versatility that a DM can have in D&D, why would they choose a very limited formula?
The formula of which I speak is what I have come to think of as The Final Fantasy Formula. I don't care if it started with the famous console series or not. What I care about is how well the Final Fantasy games illustrate the use of the formula and how uniformly they do so. The Final Fantasy series of games became wildly popular and set the standards for console RPGs. Their formula was consistent and it was followed by the whole genre as it grew. The formula can be found in D&D games, books and movies, as well. It is a ready option that a lot of DMs come to use subconsciously, having been exposed to it for years. You might be using it right now. You might use it in the future. You might want to really think about it before you use it.
The Final Fantasy Formula proceeds as follows:
1. The heroes (always more than one person) are shown or given an objective
2. The heroes fight lesser things as they make their way to their destination
3. The heroes encounter and defeat a "main boss"
4. The heroes repeat the above steps
The more the game seems different, the more it is the same. How the heroes come together varies with every game, as does the number of heroes. Yet the "main" hero is almost always male, and hero types run along well-established patterns (fighter, wizard, healer, summoner, etc.). The overall story arc of the game will be different, but even the plot will follow the formula - it just takes longer to get to the "final boss." The enemies the heroes face become steadily stronger until they reach the main boss, which is the strongest villain of the area. The heroes fight as a group, while the main bosses will often be alone. When one boss is defeated, the cycle repeats itself in short order. And repeats. And repeats.
The Final Fantasy Formula is deceptively simple in design; it is so common that most people don't even think about it. Who doesn't use it, at least once? As a DM, you're almost bound to run across it. But should you use it all the time the way that video games have? Examine your game plots and try to see if you're using the FF Formula. Plot a game session out on paper and see if you find the pattern. You might surprise yourself.
Formulas are developed to reinforce a set of actions that work efficiently towards a specific goal. By knowing and using a formula, a person can do their work at a faster pace. A DM can entertain using the FF Formula, there's no doubt about it. The FF Formula has entertained millions and brought in millions of dollars. Gamers know what to expect when the formula is in play. They know that the lair of the enemy will be filled with lower-level baddies and one supreme bad ass. Hell, you could anticipate boss fights in Final Fantasy games with no trouble at all just by the design of the lairs. You can fall back on the formula if you can't come up with anything else and, chances are, your players will not complain.
There's a part of me that rebels against the formula that has eaten such a hole in fantasy gaming. I cringe now when I see the formula employed when other, more sophisticated methods could be used. Video games can only hold so many options. You can't go absolutely anywhere and do absolutely anything in any video game despite their tremendous growth. In D&D, however, your options are not so limited. The heroes don't have to find a quest - they can make their own. The quest does not always have to involve a long journey through lands of stupid, low-level enemies. A quest could be for information or revelation. To hell with a quest - a game could be centered around the events of every day. Why should princesses have to be kidnapped all the time? Why do the strongest characters have to be the male ones? Why should there always be a solitary main boss? Villains can work together. Villains should definitely know about acquiring help (through money, through force, through magic) so that heroes can't just barge in on them when they're unprotected. What impact can be maintained through such stark repetition?
Unpredictability is something that a DM should try to maintain. Gaming can get boring when your players always know what you're going to pull next and recycled plots are like recycled paper - you can only recycle them so many times in a row before they fall apart. There are so many plots that you can use in D&D at any given time that your players won't immediately recognize - why settle for the plot we've been run through since we were kids playing Nintendo?
What concerns me the most is how the Final Fantasy Formula centers gaming around combat. There's no getting away from combat in the formula; most stages of the formula involve fighting. Characters don't get much development outside of combat skills, although scenes have been inserted to try to alleviate this problem in some video games (FF9 in the U.S. had scenes that would cut in on the action at intervals without your bidding; it seemed like they had to force them in to get them in at all). A few smart-assed comments don't make a convincing roleplaying character, however. A little side-plot about a character's family that leads to the Formula's use doesn't cut it, either. The Formula encourages the implementation of rules with constant fighting and the suppressing of roleplaying through nonstop travel. When the formula is repeated back-to-back, all hope of a roleplaying experience dries up.
This is part of what has always separated console fantasy games from real roleplaying games in my mind - console games are two-dimensional fantasy plots with predetermined sets of characters. You get to stick your name on a character that is almost entirely premade in most console games. The only choices you get to make are about skills, weapons and magic - all personality is already generated and beyond your control. You're not playing a character, a person, a mind. You're playing with an electronic doll. In D&D, gamers get to choose their own characters. They get to build them from the ground up. The point of roleplaying games in my estimation is to experience a setting through a personality and to roleplay that personality to the best of your ability. The Final Fantasy Formula does not normally allow for this. You have to modify the formula heavily to conform it to roleplaying standards, yet it can be done. If you're going to use the formula, you might want to consider allowing for the roleplaying aspect.
In the FF Formula, you know who the heroes are right away. The heroes know that they're going to acquire great power and, for the most part, they are going to live to tell of their great deeds. In D&D, the player characters are not necessarily the heroes. They are people with potential, to be sure, but they should never rest assured that they will be powerful, or that they will live through the dangers they face. Part of playing a person is dealing with that person's faults, limits and mortality. Characters can fail and die in a permanent sense. Characters may perform great deeds that others perform as well. They are not the only heroes in the world, as they are in most Final Fantasy-type games. A measure of uncertainty is very healthy for a roleplaying game and lends to suspense, which is a special gaming spice.
The Final Fantasy Formula also places friends and foes in the most simplistic setup. Just as the heroes are identifiable at once, the villains are also transparent. To add some dimensions to your game, try to blur the lines between allies and enemies. People with similar outlooks on life fight all the time. Friends can turn into bitter rivals at the drop of a hat (or the kiss of a lover, or the flash of a gold piece...) and when it is least expected. Sometimes the PCs will have to fight people that they don't want to fight. Sometimes the objective of a game is to run away from a foe, not headlong into their lair. Sometimes a quest is too difficult to be completed. Other times, the princess is already dead by the time the "heroes" arrive and all rewards are off.
Resist repeated use of the Formula. Combat boredom proactively in this case. If you have been using the Formula a lot, ask your players if they feel you are predictable. If they give you the impression that they can plot out your game in their sleep, you may want to lean on the DM's good friend, honest effort. Consult the gaming books you own. Watch movies and read books. Glance at magazines and newspapers. There are more plots being woven around you in real life than you can shake a stick at, let alone record. Learn to watch the world around you for story ideas and what's more, learn to write them down so you don't forget them. You never know where they might come from. An errant news story on the television one night could spark an idea that would launch a whole campaign and there doesn't have to be a main boss in sight.
Use the elasticity of pen and paper roleplaying games to its full potential before using the Final Fantasy Formula. The versatility inherent in pen and paper games gives the DM a powerful lead over electronic games and a longer shelf-life.