In most cases, when you sit down to play an RPG, there are a few safe assumptions you can make. You will probably be killing things, you will probably be collecting XP and earning levels, and you will most likely at some point have to go on an incredibly annoying fetch quest.
Where your assumptions may start to fall apart, though, is when it comes to how your characters are handled. While there are as many character management methods as there are games out there, they can generally be broken down into a few schools.
First of all, you've got the single-character games. These are the ones where you, the player, control a single character that is completely your creation. These types tend to be found more traditionally on the PC, exemplified by games like Fallout
. In these games, you build your character from scratch and have the power to flesh them out any way you like. PipBoy says: PC RPGs are A-OK!
Once you make the step past a single character though, you enter the world of the RPG Party. Now you've got multiple characters to deal with, and that leads to a whole new world of decisions. Some games go down the "natural growth" path; as characters gain in level, they improve in predefined ways. At level 15, Character X gains the Face Stab skill, and at level 18 they learn Hyper Face Stab. The player doesn't really have any control beyond choosing what sword to give the face stabber; as long as they gain levels, they will grow down their defined path. This sort of system is seen in games like Final Fantasy IV
and Chrono Trigger
. Lucca is always going to learn more fire techniques, and Rydia is just going to keep on learning new summons.
She not only f*cks with time and space, but also your heart
Now where things start to get extra tricky is when we get into situations where the player is still managing a party, but where each member of the party is customizable on top of that. With all of this control, it is inevitable that some systems will handle it better than others, and that some methods will end up a good idea while others, well, not so much.
Giving players freedom is generally a good thing; people like to feel like they have control and it can really help to draw them into a game if they feel like the decisions they are making have consequences. The flip side of that is making sure you don't overwhelm the player with so many choices that they feel they can't properly understand the pros and cons associated with their decisions.
When it comes to party management, presenting the player with the power to manage all of their characters is very intriguing, but making sure it's clear what their choices will result in is a different story.
Let us take a look at a recent PS2 RPG, Rogue Galaxy. Rogue Galaxy focuses on a poor young man, Jaster, living on a remote desert planet being contested by warring Imperial houses (let's just call it Dune). Soon, after a case of comic mistaken identity, he is whisked off into space to become a space pirate. During the course of your adventures, you of course assemble a motley crew of misfits as your party, and here is where things are done right.
Each character in your party is restricted to a certain type of weapon, first of all, as well as specific pieces of armor. While this is functionally interesting (some used range weapons, some use melee, etc), where things get far more interesting is with each character's skill tree. Every character has a pre-defined skill map, called the Revelation Flow, that the player can see from the get-go. A few initial skills are unlocked, and subsequent skills must be unlocked following the branching map pathways. To unlock skills, special items must be placed into the skill slots. Of course, some of these items are more rare than others, so you can't go haphazardly unlocking every single skill of every character as you please.
I gain most of my abilities from meat and hot peppers, too
What this system serves to accomplish is that it sets out a very clearly defined set of results as well as clearly presenting the roadblocks in getting there. With the entire skill tree viewable from the start, the player can easily pick a route they'd like a character to focus on. Knowing that they are limited by the number of unlock items they may find, the player must also be conscious of making sure to plan out their path to best fit their desired goals. There is no chance of getting to level 50 and saying "boy, if I had known OMEGA FACE STAB was going to be available, I would never have chosen Fairy Slap back at level 20!"
The other thing about the Rogue Galaxy system, and this is important, is that each character has a unique skill map. Just as the characters themselves are colorful, unique personalities, they each have their own special skill sets that make them distinct from one another. This encourages the player to really investigate the options available with each of them, and often to try and switch things up depending on the situation. The party becomes a group of individuals, rather than just a mish-mash of sword-guy or gun-chick.
On the flip side of things, we have the system used by a little game called Final Fantasy XII. FFXII focuses on some incredibly complicated political intrigue and epic warring that I'm not even remotely going to attempt to summarize here. Needless to say, boys who look like girls and girls with rabbit parts are involved, and Chocobos are very much available.
You do, of course, assemble your motley crew of misfits during the course of your adventures, and here is where things start to go wrong. FFXII handles all aspects of character growth through a device called the "License Board." Essentially, a giant, misshapen grid with every square on the board offering the chance to unlock a new ability. These range from things like equipping swords or heavy armor through advanced magic spells or item enhancing abilities. While interesting in concept, the License Board fails in several ways.
First of all, players can only access squares next to licenses they have already unlocked. This makes sense, as you wouldn't want to be able to access advanced abilities right away. However, only the squares next to what you've unlocked are visible, with all other squares only giving the general category description of what they are. While this allows you to vaguely plan in a long-term sense as to what direction you want to go, the categories are not always that clear, and it leaves one with a dim sense of stumbling around in the dark. You can flip back and forth between your different character's grids to compare what you've unlocked, but that feels like a lot of hassle.
What the hell government body issues these licenses anyway!?
The second, and perhaps more serious problem, is that the license grids for all of your characters is completely identical, right down to the last square. While on one hand, this does open up the player to a lot of freedom, what it does on the other hand is make each of the characters notably less distinct. The charming rogue with the nice taste in shirts could become your sword guy, your gun guy, you spear guy, you black magic guy, or, if you spend enough time grinding, all of those rolled into one. Vaan or Fran or Basch, it didn't really matter who you used in any given situation, as you could tailor them to all be the same.
It also gave the player far less of a sense of direction as to where to take the characters. Each one starts with a few selected licenses open, but after that the player is free to go in whatever direction they want. With no direction, it is easy to find yourself in a situation later wherein you realize you are lacking in a certain skill area or another. Nothing is permanent, of course, since the only limit to license points is your willingness to kill monsters, but it is frustrating to feel like you've been cast into the wilderness without even the vaguest outline of a map.
Two games, two different systems tackling the same idea, with two different outcomes. Allowing players the ability to customize their characters is very often a good thing, but it has to be done with care lest you get into a situation where your characters start to lack character, or your players start to lack understanding. A clearly defined system, with very obvious benefits/consequences is always a help, and making sure that the characters that you want the player to grow close to remain distinct is just as important. There is no doubt that even more RPGs will come out with even more novel systems for handling party customization, and that is a good thing. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that the designers have enough sense to separate the good ides from the bad ones.