DM Me – Discussing CRPGs and Storytelling

I’ve been playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker recently. It was on sale for $5 and I’ve been trying out a new exposure therapy in an effort to actually start liking Pathfinder as a system. Results thus far…? Inconclusive.

I do, however, quite like the CRPG. I think I spent entirely too much time on character creation, but that’s 1) not a new problem for me, and 2) partially due to me installing a mod that adds like forty classes. A hell of my own making, as it were.

However the key takeaway here is the degree to which I’ve taken to the game, and the drastic difference between this and the many other times I’ve attempted to play a CRPG. And yet I still haven’t finished it, right back to my old tricks – I’m the reigning esports champion at not finishing CRPGs.

But why?

 

Defining A Misleading Acronym

To begin, let’s define “CRPG” – while the acronym itself stands for “Computer Role-Playing Game,” in reality that’s quite a misnomer. Neither Skyrim nor Elden Ring nor Hades are CRPGs, even though they’re all Computer Games in which you Play a Role. Even many of the originals of the digitized D&D genre wouldn’t really count as “CRPGs” these days – judging by their closest modern cousin, Legend of Grimrock, they would probably be called dungeon crawlers.

No, a CRPG is something very specific. I’m not qualified to go over the entire evolutionary path of the CRPG genre, but some of the most iconic include Temple of Elemental Evil, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale. This isn’t a genre with a lot of games either, so even now there are only a few other CRPGs that have any real name recognition.

And, as you will soon see, I have started nearly all of them.

 

Here’s a short list of CRPGs that I have played: Baldur’s Gate, Divinity: Original Sin II, Icewind Dale, Pillars of Eternity, Planescape: Torment, Shadowrun Returns, Sword Coast Legends, probably a few others I’m forgetting, and now Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Out of those, I have completed a grand total of… zero CRPGs.

As I’ll explain in a moment, this isn’t due to the game mechanics, play style, age, or any other technical quality of these games. I would, however, like to offer proof of that assertion by highlighting some other bizarre entries from my gaming history. One is Dungeon Hack, which is essentially one of the CRPG genre’s evolutionary ancestors. I’ve played dozens of hours of that and loved it. Then there’s the aforementioned Legend of Grimrock, which despite bouncing off of on my first attempt, I did eventually beat and enjoy. I’ve clocked god knows how many hours in Skyrim, but that’s only if you don’t count all the time I spent fiddling with mods, which I feel even the heavens have lost track of. For hell’s sake, I beat XCOM: UFO Defense and that was definitely more obtuse, archaic, frustrating, and finicky than any of the CRPGs on that list! So it isn’t the technical side.

Its the story.

 

CRPG: Character Recently Prophesized to be Great

Before we begin I should clarify one last thing – not everything on that list lost my attention for pure story reasons. Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and Shadowrun Returns were victims of circumstance – it wasn’t that I disliked their stories, it was just that I got pulled away by other things and never got around to picking them back up again. Sword Coast Legends, as many have noted, just sucks. And Temple of Elemental Evil? I’m man enough to admit it – I just suck at that one. As for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I’m not yet willing to say that I’ve fully “bounced off” of it yet, but if it does come to that then it’s because of gameplay and design, not the story.

The games we’re really talking about here are the others: one of the most iconic games in the genre, Baldur’s Gate, and two of the most popular modern entries, Divinity: Original Sin II and Pillars of Eternity. The others I’ve played likely have some elements of the same issues, of course – notice that no matter why I stopped playing them in the first place, I still haven’t gone back to any of them since then (though I really do want to give Planescape: Torment some day).

So, what problem could I possibly have with three of the most popular CRPGs of all time?

 

Essentially, I hate being called the Chosen One. Or the Prophesized Hero. Or the Liberator, the Watcher, the Lightspeaker, the Godwoken, the Ultrahero, Bhaalspawn, or whatever the hell else these games keep wanting to call me. Some of those are made up, but Watcher, Godwoken, and Bhaalspawn are all actual titles given to the various main characters of these three immensely popular games.

Pillars of Eternity gets bonus points for using actually using two terms, the Watcher and Awakened, instead of just one. I dislike them both.

I am aware that this is, fundamentally, a me problem – it’s a matter of taste. Clearly plenty of people find these sorts of noun mashups to be perfectly fine. And I, myself, am totally fine with them in different circumstances. I didn’t complain about being called Dragonborn in Skyrim after all. And one of my favorite games recently, especially from a narrative standpoint, is Final Fantasy XIV – a game where your character is literally never referred to as anything but “Warrior of Light” (or “Warrior of Darkness” that one time but it isn’t important).

The difference is one of genre. I don’t necessarily expect a super high-quality main story out of a Bethesda game like Skyrim. I play it for the world and the side quests (and the mods). I don’t really expect even a competent story from an MMO after the debacle that was World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, so I was pleasantly surprised by the story of FFXIV. But a CRPG?

 

A game being a CRPG implies to me that its story will be better than those found in many other fantasy games. One of the biggest pulls of the CRPG genre is the robust character creation, dialogue, and companion options. In fact, those things largely define a game as a CRPG. While Fallout 3 featured rich dialogue options, Fallout 4 did not – they were still definitively the same series even despite other differences. But if you made a sequel to Baldur’s Gate and pulled the same sort of “simplified” dialogue change as in Fallout 4? It would be near unrecognizable.

In particular is the idea of freedom in a CRPG. This is a game where you can be anything you want to be from a very broad set of options. You can choose your race from a larger selection than in most games, and race means a lot more than it does in other games too. You can pick a class just like other games, but the amount of choice within each class is immense. And then you can also choose alignment, deity, background/backstory, companions, and even the character arc for your PC. If you want to play a Lawful Good tiefling cleric who slowly falls to darkness as racism and tragedy wear them down, you can usually do that.

Now just remember that whatever you choose, you’re also the Dragon Reborn or whatever. Which comes with a huge number of specifics about your character which are now locked-in by the game and also fundamentally change how you interact with others in a more significant way than all of your personal choices combined. That’s what I dislike.

Even Skyrim let your character essentially deny being Dragonborn and continue on with your life (even if you were still, in fact, Dragonborn). In a lot of these CRPGs, it seems like everyone immediately knows what you are as soon as they see you, and even if they have no way of knowing who you are.

 

I think my basic problem with this is that it forces you to be special. I don’t mind stuff like this in games like FFXIV or Skyrim where the stories are relatively linear and the game itself doesn’t have the technical capacity to allow much freedom of choice. But in a CRPG entirely based around creating your own character, I’d somewhat like to be able to say “no, I’m not intrinsically special – I worked for this.”

This is why the player character names in most Souls games work fine – you aren’t the Tarnished. You’re a Tarnished. You’re a hunter (lowercase), not the Hunter (Uppercase). In a lot of respects, the way Dark SoulsBloodborne, and Elden Ring treat the player character is how I wish more CRPGs would. You’re just a single person with many others like you – what makes you different is your dedication, perseverance, or skill. What makes you different is, in effect… you.

And I don’t have anything against prophecies either. They’re a great storytelling mechanic. And if someone wanted to play a character who was intrinsically special, that’s fine too (that’s what sorcerers are for!). The problem is that this decision is completely taken out of your hands. The game makes it for you. And then never lets you forget it.

 

In a CRPG Where Everyone Knows Your Name…

This is a direct effect of the “Chosen One” problem from above. In what I played of Pillars of Eternity, it felt like everyone and their mother knew I was the most special-est adventurer of all from the moment they laid eyes on me. I could walk into a random tavern and be greeted by “well if it isn’t the Awakened Watcher himself!” by someone I’ve never even heard of before.

It just feels boring. It feels like a poorly written fanfic character. I barely have to do anything and people are just throwing themselves at me immediately. Sometimes this is because of my reputation (which always seems to arrive places before I do no matter how fast I travel) and other times it’s a sort of “the most special-est hero’s signature Charisma” power (even if I’m trying to play a rude, hard-to-get-along-with barbarian).

Wheel of Time is an informative example in this case. Rand is the Dragon Reborn (spoiler, but only if you haven’t even read page one of the book). The Dragon Reborn is a foretold hero and destroyer, the reincarnation of the Dragon, who had already destroyed the world once before. Everyone has heard the legends of the Dragon Reborn, what he’s supposed to do, and who he is.

Or, at least, they’ve all heard one version of it. Everyone in the series has a different opinion on what the Dragon Reborn is meant to do. There are multiple prophecies – no one agrees on any of them. Even long after Rand is firmly established to be the Dragon Reborn, savior of mankind, some people are still skeptical of this claim. No one who has never met him knows a thing about what he looks like except that he maybe has red hair, or so they heard once. I’m fairly certain he walks around a random city that he was in charge of at the time and no one recognizes him.

And, finally, in Wheel of Time basically no one ever gives Rand what he wants no matter what. And this is a series that has a canonical “main character syndrome” and “plot armor” effect explained in-universe with the magic system, and Rand still doesn’t have an easy time of it. But no, I’m the Watcher or whatever, so people trust me implicitly within seconds of meeting me and everyone knows my exact description, name, age, backstory, Social Security number and clothing preferences.

 

I’m being slightly facetious here, since none of those games are that bad when it comes to this sort of thing. But they do struggle with it, and it’s always really jarring when it does come up. And I also get why they do it, too. For one, it makes voice acting way cheaper. Especially when it’s a gender-neutral term, like “Watcher” or “Warrior of Light.” If you’re careful about avoiding pronouns, you may not even have to record two sets of audio.

Plus there’s a sort of “video game-ness” to a lot of the quests and tasks in these games. Why does ol’ farmer Ted ask you, specifically, to take care of the sandworms on his farm? Well you’re the Godspoken, aintcha? There’s still a measure of absurdity to some of these scenarios (no one ever asks Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, to go collect 10 bear pelts), but it’s more easily resolved now. Oh, Ted’s asking you because he doesn’t believe you’re the real deal. Or maybe he thinks the sandworms are possessed by evil magic from The One Only You Can Defeat.

Or maybe they’re like… ghost sandworms. Or something.

The point is that I get why this happens. It makes writing the story a lot easier. It helps explain why you start out with two or three people willing to follow you to the death. It also immediately sets the plot rolling by giving you a clear objective and a solidly defined set of instructions, almost like a quest tracker of some kind. And finally it allows them to make your character relevant to any and all conversations and topics.

 

The Most Specialist Chosen One Ever, Reborn

Alright, so there’s that. There’s my complaint. It’s out of my system now. Mostly.

That being said, there’s a little more that I want to say about the concept of a “Chosen One” in general. Namely that I’m kind of sick of it, to be honest. Its archaic, it’s reductive, it’s derivative. But why?

My feeling is that it’s because “Chosen One” strips away the need for a motive, which in turn drastically weakens a character’s… well, character. If I’m “the Chosen One” who is “fated to destroy evil” then I don’t really need any sort of complex character motivation or anything. I’m doing what I do because I’m fated to do it.

Now not many stories just stop at that. They add in little sweeteners – “oh, I just want to live in peace when this is all over,” or “I just wish the Powers That Be would leave me alone!” – but these aren’t robust motivations. Ultimately, the Chosen One has no real connection to the plot or the antagonists besides the fact that they are, indeed, the One who was Chosen.

 

There are exceptions. Harry Potter fights Voldemort because Voldemort murdered his parents. Rand al’Thor, Dragon Reborn, has an entire spiritual journey towards realizing why he is opposed to the Dark One and the true meaning of their conflict (something I can’t explain any better than that without spoiling the whole series). And in Dune, there… well, I don’t actually remember Dune all that well but I believe there’s murdered parents in that one too.

In video games, I think the “Chosen One” is a hack, and it’s not necessarily a bad hack. It’s a writing trick to remove the need to deal with complex variables like “motive” which might vary from player to player. In Skyrim you can play as a Dragonborn who doesn’t care if everyone gets eaten by dragons so long as they get their skooma fix. How am I supposed to write with that possibility? Well, by giving the most generic motive possible (IE “fate”) and letting players do as they will. Some will mock it, some will embrace it. That’s up to them.

But in a CRPG… I guess I just expect more. I expect something similar to D&D itself. More limited, of course. I think it’s fair if there are certain character concepts you just can’t do in a CRPG. Hell, there are character concepts you can’t do in my D&D games because I expressly don’t allow them. There will always be limitations. Maybe I’m asking too much.

 

Essentially, all I want is a game in which my adventurer can go on an epic quest and save the world. Actually, I’d be perfectly happy not saving the world for once. I’d be cool with just “adventuring,” maybe with a bit of personal rivalry with another adventurer to create some antagonism.

Alternatively, I’d be happy to create a character within limitations. To be told at the outset “Your character is responding to X crisis happening in the far-off locale of Y. You arrive in Z fashion just as the crisis hits its breaking point. Begin.” Cool! I’ll make my character around those details. That’s fine.

What I don’t want is to be the most specialist adventurer ever. I don’t want to be pulled into another reality-affecting conflict of Good and Evil where the Fates have decreed that my actions alone will determine whether the world continues to spin or is destroyed utterly.

 

Finding the Right Path

Get it?

Anyway, to conclude I’d like to look at Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I haven’t gotten through a lot of it – for reasons I’ll detail at the end – but I have completed the “intro scenario” that sees you gifted your own realm to rule.

The story isn’t perfect. For one, I still find the whole “free barony, just murder a bandit lord!” set-up to be awfully forced. But I’m willing to reserve judgement that there’s more going on behind the scenes there, and even if there isn’t… it isn’t that big of a deal.

What I really like about the game is that I am not special. Unless they’re holding that whole revelation an awfully long time. I’m an adventurer. I become a little special thanks to the bizarre “barony sweepstakes” contest I won, but even still there’s nothing narratively significant about my character.

The whole “Kingmaker” aspect of it also helps explain some of the “everyone immediately likes me” problem. I am their lord, so of course people will help me and of course they’ll turn to me for help in return. That’s how lordship works.

Also, the game’s “tutorial segment” does a good job of explaining why my initial party members would stick by me. It’s a trial by fire sort of thing – the suspension bridge effect. Each of the companions you meet after that moment then have their own reasons for following you so loyally. It might be prophecy or divine fate to one, but to another it’s a life-debt sort of thing.

 

And so far, the game has held to that promise. I am not a Chosen One (that I know of). There is some sort of “greater evil” mucking about in the background recycling previous minor antagonists, but their relationship to me has yet to be established – I might just be the annoying pest ruining their schemes by pure happenstance.

I like that. I like it a lot, actually, and that’s what kept me in the game for so long.

Now, why have I (potentially) bounced off of it? The “Kingmaker” aspect, really. Part of the whole point of everything I’ve been saying up to now is that I want to be an adventurer. And managing a barony just isn’t part of that. It annoys me that it’s forced on you like this, and I really wish it wasn’t so vitally important. But hey, it’s in the name of the game so there’s only so much I can whine about it.

I’ve been looking into simply “turning off” the kingdom management part of the game, and that may help me get back into it. But that also might screw over the story late-game and I’m just not sold yet on how valid of a solution it is. But ultimately, the reason I bounced off is mechanical – not narrative.

 

C.R.P.G. – Concluding a Rant about Petty Gripes

So there we have it. My entire thoughts on the CRPG genre. I am 100% sure I’ve annoyed someone, somewhere, so let me just say – there is nothing wrong with CRPGs and I know this is just a “me problem.” Games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin II and Baldur’s Gate are clearly high quality games which have been very successful. People wouldn’t love them so much if they hadn’t been high quality.

Just like it’s possible for me to acknowledge that a movie sucks despite me enjoying it, it’s also possible for me to admit that something is very skillfully made and crafted despite the fact that I don’t like it.

And who knows. Maybe my real problem is that I quit playing the games right during their “tutorial phase” when they talk about their special Chosen One abilities way too much in order to teach you how they work. Maybe at 5.7 hours in Pillars of Eternity it moves to an area where people don’t know that you’re the Watchful Awakener. It could just be that I’m older now, and if I went back to those other games at my current age I’d have a blast – I was in college when I played most of these. Before Pathfinder: Kingmaker, it had been maybe 5 or more years since I had last seriously tried to play a CRPG. Maybe I was just impatient at that age (aren’t we all?) and I should come back now with a more mature mind.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m being overly picky.

 

All the same, those are my thoughts. I really want to like CRPGs. I love the freedom of character creation and I’m wild about the potential of a “D&D-like single-player video game” as a concept. I want to like these games so badly.

But if I have to be the Chosen One to do that, I’m just not sure if it’s worth it.

 

As always, let me know what you think!

2 thoughts on “DM Me – Discussing CRPGs and Storytelling

  1. thaneofkent

    I completely agree. I just put those “Chosen One” things aside… Which worked mostly well for Baldur’s Gate and even more so for part 2. Elemental Evil was really fun :). I haven’t played any CRPGs in decades, but I used to love playing Wizardry, Pool of Radiance, and King’s Quest.

    1. Honestly, I’ve been thinking about giving some of these CRPGs another try with the whole “ignore the Chosen One” mindset. I didn’t have the patience for it back when I first played them, but perhaps I will this time.

      Pools of Radiance and the other classic D&D gold box titles are an odd one. I really enjoy them, but I might be spoiled by modern quality-of-life improvements. The fact that they wouldn’t even classify as “CRPGs” nowadays (despite being the first titles to use the term) is also very bizarre.

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