I am part of "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, along with fixed 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 collaborative and cannot be static. The very nature of roleplaying is interactive and organic storytelling. The DM can build plots to run but must also respond to the plots players generate with their choices. Surprise and chance truly set pen and paper games apart from video games. People bring with them varied experiences, quirks and mental processes, and all of these things come to the fore in a D&D game.
Why is it, then, that I've seen D&D games using a formula that has been done to death in video games?
The formula of which I speak is what I've 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 became wildly popular and set the standards for console RPGs. Their formula was consistent and it was followed by the genre as it grew. The formula can be found in D&D games, books and movies, as well. It's 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. But you might want to really think about it before you use it.
The Final Fantasy Formula proceeds as follows:
The heroes (always more than one person) are shown or given an objective.
They fight lesser opponents as they make their way to a destination.
They encounter and defeat a "main boss."
They are given larger-scale rewards.
After some downtime, the cycle repeats.
The more the game seems different, the more it is the same. How the heroes come together varies, as does their number. Yet the "main" hero is almost always male, and well-established stereotypes are common. The setting and overall story arc will be different, but the key plot will follow the formula - it might just take longer to get to the "final boss." The enemies become steadily stronger until the heroes 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's so common that most people don't even think about it. Who doesn't use it, at least once? Even as a tabletop gamer, you're bound to run across it. But how you use it, and how much, is worth some analysis.
Formulas are developed to reinforce a set of actions that work efficiently towards a specific goal. By using a known formula, a person can achieve a goal faster and reliably. A DM can entertain using the FF Formula; there's no doubt about it. The FF Formula works, and there's nothing wrong with it. On some level, it can be comforting to know what to expect. Gamers know how to prepare for a lair full of lower-level baddies and one supreme badass. Hell, we can anticipate boss fights 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 won't complain.
There's a part of me that rebels against this Formula. I cringe when I see it employed when other, more nuanced 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 aren't so limited. The heroes don't have to find a quest: they can make their own. The quest doesn't always have to involve a long journey through lands of low-level enemies. A quest could be for information or revelation. To hell with a quest - a game could be centered around everyday events. 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.
Unpredictability is something 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 you can use in D&D at any given time that your players won't immediately recognize, and it's
What concerns me the most is how the Final Fantasy Formula centers gaming around combat. 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. A few smart-assed comments don't make a very convincing roleplaying character, however. A little side-plot about a character's family doesn't cut it, either. The FF Formula has a reason to avoid extended character development: main characters have predetermined personalities so they contiue to be what game requires. You choose a name, skills, weapons, and magic, but you're not playing a character, a person with a mind; you're playing with an electronic doll. In D&D, gamers get to build characters from the ground up, quirks and all. The Final Fantasy Formula doesn't normally allow for this. So if you're going to use it, you should consider making more room for character development.
In the FF Formula, you know who the heroes are right away. The players know that the heroes are going to acquire great power and will live to tell of their great deeds. But in D&D, the player characters aren't necessarily the heroes. They're people with potential, to be sure, but they may not become as powerful as players envision or live through the dangers they face. Part of playing a person is dealing with that person's faults, limits, and mortality, and the player characters aren't the only heroes in the world. And players in a tabletop game have a power the FF Formula doesn't allow: the power to reject the course of the story entirely and set off in a completely new direction. Rather than avoiding these things, it helps to remind players from time to time that their characters will endure setbacks and meet other powerful people doing incredible things. (This doesn't mean you should stomp on any notion that the PCs are special; just show them even potent people have bad days, screw up, and aren't unique in the universe.) Make players aware that radical choices are possible by suggesting them directly or showing utterly unexpected decisions by NPCs. This alone will set your game apart from video game experiences in a wonderful way.
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's 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 rush 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 bets are off.
Resist continuous use of the Formula. Avoid boredom proactively in this case. If you've been using the Formula a lot, you may want to lean on the DM's good friend: stealing aspects from many sources and combining them in a novel way. Consult the gaming books you own. Watch movies and read books. Glance at what's happening in the world. You never know where they might come from. An errant news story could aunch 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.
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