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Realism in Role-Playing

I’m very early into Dragon Age II and I’m already losing interest. The kicker is—I’m not sure if it’s really Dragon Age’s fault.

Dragon Age I/II are both “high fantasy” games. We all have different ways of defining high fantasy and low fantasy and “grim” fantasy. Wikipedia has definitions if you are so inclined to read them. I find that as useful as the introduction to understanding poetry in Dead Poet’s Society. Just rip it right out.

I prefer my fantasy games and fantasy role-playing grounded in reality.

That doesn’t mean I am anti-elf or anything like that. You can make your world as fantastical as you want and I’m in, but it needs to have a proper context for human behavior – assuming your game world has humans in it.

Let’s start with an early scene in Dragon Age II and yes, this has spoilers of a sort so if you haven’t played it and can’t stand the thought of a minor scene being spoiled, well, stop right now….

You are trying to figure out a way to get into Kirkwall. It’s a large city with guards everywhere trying to keep the riff raff out because it’s overcrowded with refugees after the Blight. You start smooth talking the guard/captain fellow and he’s considering letting you in or at least contemplating it after you start name dropping. These other folks (all walking around in heavy armor which is something else I always find silly in these games) start to get pissed off. They’ve been waiting for four days to get into Kirkwall and here you come up with your merry band and this guy is considering doing it!

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Well, obviously there is nothing else to do but THROW DOWN!

Wait, what?

You mean to tell me these six or seven guys are going to ATTACK the group, in broad daylight, in front of the city gates, with umpteen guards sitting around watching it happen? The thought of death never crossed their minds I take it?

Continuing on, as the dead people, who simply wanted to walk into the city, lay in the streets, I try to get into the city. I team up with a mercenary who asks me to go kill some guys who owe them money. Wow, that’s quite the request but since I didn’t like the look of the smuggler chick (who was the other option to get into the city) I tell the merc that we’re in.

So, when do we leave? Cover of night? Do we have a disguise? Are we framing someone for this? I’m totally ok with cold blooded murder just give me the plan, man!

Oh…those dudes right around the corner? What…I just go up and start blasting them with fireballs? That is, I assume, highly illegal – and the guard is like…RIGHT THERE. This is out and out murder we’re talking about. I know these dudes are nasty and owe you money but come on…where am I, Deadwood?

Again, I’m poking fun at Dragon Age II when most RPGs do this.

But compare that scene with Assassin’s Creed II. If you kill a guard or get caught stealing money or even just walk around the rooftops and you’ll get chased down by the local authority. Makes sense, right? This level of “realism” goes a very long way in establishing your world as a believable one and right now Dragon Age II is as believable as a remake of Ishtar and it has nothing to do with it being a “fantasy” game.

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I want the NPCs, especially the non-monster ones, to care about life and limb unless they have no other choice but to draw a sword or raise a firearm. Fighting in RPGs needs to be dangerous – life and death dangerous and I don’t mean just by raising the level of difficulty which usually doesn’t change the design but rather just adds a level of masochism to the equation. If it means less but more dangerous fights then so be it.

Perhaps the fights in Dragon Age II change as the game continues; I’m still very early on. But when I see people so eager to draw a sword and kill each other over seemingly trivial reasons it removes me from what I feel is such an important part of a game like this — when combat becomes less a thrill and more of a grind I start to think that I’d rather be playing Shogun 2.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

13 thoughts to “Realism in Role-Playing”

  1. Sorry Bill, but if that’s not your cup of tea then you should probably stop because you’re gonna be throwing down all over and around Kirkwall with all kinds of people for the next 45 hours.

    Personally, I loved the game, but yes, your point is well taken and a fair criticism of many RPGs.

  2. I really see your point, and it does get a bit ridiculous at times.

    That’s what I enjoyed about the old Gothic games. High Fantasy too, but draw a weapon in a camp, even a friendly one, and you will get warned. Keep it up, and you will be attacked. You can’t just go around and pick fights.

  3. Was going to write a reply talking about the issues of balancing action/gameplay with realistic fiction and all that, but then I thought more about the scenario you outlined. Decided that just sounds like lazy writing/design, something that plagues RPGs pretty bad imo. So, points to you Bill.

  4. Bill, what would be a reasonably modern RPG then, that doesn’t do this? If there are any at all? Do “low-fantasy” RPGs even exist?

  5. Ah makes you misss Oblivion where you accidentally pick up a small cheap item and guards stream through doors to beat you down without mercy….Though my favorite is while shooting fireballs at a practice dummy a npc will walk in front of the target and more gaurds to remind you of the power of the LAW…..

  6. … but I was more annoyed with DA:O before it was released. Bioware was going on and on about hot DA would be low fantasy like GRRM (and some other author I can’t recall) with a deep world of political intrigue where everything isn’t black and white. And you know what, they did a pretty good job of that (props to the werewolves storyline). But then they also had the Blight which made everything became bad versus good. Blech. Boring, Tolkein-esque enemies.

    Cut out the blight and I think DA would be a better series. Don’t get me wrong, I like the games, but does there have to be such an obviously evil enemy?

  7. I have noticed and am irked by the trend you describe. It’s particularly evident to me when a video game pretends that I have the option not to fight my way through a scenario. I remember this being the case in most PC RPGs I’ve ever played: supposedly, you can sneak past certain fights, or talk your way out of them. At best, this means making one or two skill checks and maybe getting to progress without fighting, except that route is incredibly boring and yields no XP. At worst, these supposed alternatives are actually impossible and no matter what you do, it’s hack your way through a few dozen NPCs.

    I can understand some entirely linear JRPG for game boy like Golden Sun where they give you options in conversation just for shits and giggles. It’s a totally deterministic storyline, fine. But to claim to give me options when really all the paths are virtually the same is just laziness and lack of creativity. It can really undermine the reasons I play RPGs in the first place.

    I also hate the way NPC enemies are a) totally willing to throw their lives away needlessly for no reason, as you describe and b) far weaker than you, the PC. I don’t regard fewer but more dangerous fights to be a concession–I would regard that almost entirely as an improvement. That style of confrontation adds drama and contributes to immersion. Grindfests are not only boring, they’re unrealistic and ruin any immersion I feel. How immersed I am in a fantasy world as nothing to do with how fantastical the creatures are, it has to do with how human the humans are.

    Okay, rant over.

  8. garion I am right there with you. I hated everything about The Blight in DAO. Even though on the whole I did enjoy that game, the main plot thread, being the Blight, I thought was very, very tired.

    There were some missions on the road to gathering you group that I thought were brilliant, though.

  9. Hahaha well yeah that was more Monty Python than what I’m talking about but…

    But if you played Fallout 3 — remember the part in the abandoned supermarket? When you felt the real possibility of dying? Man I loved that.

  10. Holy crap, is that a screen shot from The Bard’s Tale 3? Man, that takes me back to the days of mapping out dungeons on graph paper, good times.

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