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JRPG Characters vs The Stormwind Fallacy

Scott "Fowl Sorcerous" Wachter

On the forums the other day, there was a big dust-up about a comment Daniel Erickson from Bioware made; saying Final Fantasy XIII was not an RPG. I'm going to talk about whether or not this claim is true (except to note I've been known to call some JRPGs role watching games). I am going to address a comment made on the forum by a user going by the name of shoptroll:

"Random thought: can you even really have "role-playing" in a computer game? Most RPGs I've played encourage players to min/max (at least the singleplayer console ones) and munkin[sic]/twink like there's no tomorrow. Nerf bats and patches aside for MMOs and PC games, are there any console/PC RPGs out there that aggressively try to prevent/discourage this sort of behavior like I expect a good human GM/DM would try to do?"

This got me thinking about how people react to combat optimized characters in video games compared to table-top games. When you talk to JRPG fans one they'll mention as a draw to the genre are the characters: they're complex, likable, interesting, and so forth. They are also only interested in combat, or at least they are from a mechanical standpoint; they may play children's card games, or race giant chickens, but the only reason they do so is to boost their combat abilities or acquire gear for combat. These characters have no ranks in underwater basket-weaving, or knowledge skills that will never come up in the course of a campaign, but they are still considered to be deep characters.

By contrast, in a tabletop game a character that is specced only for combat is generally frowned upon, especially by those who explain their play style by spelling (i.e.: we R-O-L-E play, rather than R-O-L-L play). This would bring us to the Stormwind fallacy: a maxim set forth by prolific Wizards of the Coast forum user named Tempest Stormwind, which states that a character who is optimized for combat is not necessarily a poorly written character. A truism that I have adopted, but very few of the gamers-who-spell have. I find it amusing you can better argue this point with videogame characters than tabletop ones as there are plenty of JRPG characters that are outright broken but still very compelling. Lamia Loveless from Super Robot Wars OG 2 is an incredibly overpowered character once you get her in the Vysaga, but she's still one of the more interesting characters from that game.

There is also an interesting relationship players have with interesting characters who are weaker in combat than others. I like Aegis from Persona 3. Sure, the robot girl learns about being human plot has been done before but Aegis is a well done instance of the trope (Heck, she comes as more human than Fuuka half the time), but she doesn't measure up to some of the other characters statistically, I barely used her in the game. Similarly, there are many characters with great personality or background, but because they're pathetic at kicking down doors and beating up orcs you wish they'd have optimized their character better. Take my high school friends, for example. The group consisted of a pair of serious combat wombat-types with heavily optimized characters with backgrounds that read like Shannara fan fiction, a guy who liked to play very quirky clerics and druids, and a guy who rolled these very interesting, well written characters who were absolutely terrible in a fight. It was a pain to balance encounters for this group, but I loved the stuff the oddball would come up with during play. There were a number of occasions where I considered asking the loony player to re-roll something just as weird, but also able to hold up in combat, but I ended up bringing in a NPC to pinch-hit and keep combat encounters fairly even. Here's a case where a character detracts from a game experience, not for reasons of personality, but for combat balance, much like JRPG characters that spend most of their non-cutscene time chilling at the menu bar because they're not very strong fighters regardless of how much the player might love their personality.

I guess what I'm getting at is that R-O-L-L play and R-O-L-E play are independent aspects of a character, regardless of the medium, and that keeping these two aspects in balance makes for much smoother, fun gameplay experiences.

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