GameDev Protips: How To Design More Immersive RPGs

It’s no surprise that the story is one of the most important parts of a role-playing game. That’s definitely one of the defining features of early RPGs — the simple graphics were relegated to the background, and the game was defined by a strong plot. Since it’s so important, here’s a guide to making the story fit the well-known RPG mold. One of the most important things to note is that the story doesn’t need to be complex to be good. Complexity is nice but if you can’t make it work it’ll just confuse your players. Your story’s quality will be determined by reinforcing the basics core elements of narrative design.

You should have a remarkable protagonist of some kind. Usually, for RPGs that'll be the player you’re controlling. Many times these characters will be strong-willed and independent, and they often change along with progression in the story. They’re distinct from goals, dreams, and desires. Remember, a good story always has to have a conflict. The usual case here is having some kind of great evil that only the protagonist can defeat. This doesn’t mean that you have to go about creating a cookie-cutter story though; be creative if you want to! Maybe this involves a betrayal of some kind or a self-conflict, but the point is that you don’t have to follow the same format every time to make a good story.

With all of this said it is critical that the story is actually immersive. An RPG with a story that you can’t believe in will fall flat in many places. Optimally you should be able to put yourself in the shoes of one or more characters and suspend reality to genuinely care about characters in the story. Obviously, many RPG stories are rooted in fictional worlds but you should feel as if you are the character rather than the person controlling the character. You can tell if this is working through the pronouns you use while playing. In a turn-based game, if you are referring to characters by “I” and “you” the game is probably immersive enough on a subconscious level as you’re eliminating the line between real people and fictional people.

Important Takeaways: Every RPG relies on its story to be successful. Old-school RPGs were good because of their story and gameplay, not because of their graphical fidelity. A story doesn’t have to be complex to be good; if you can make it work go for it but a failed complex story will just leave players confused. The story should have a truly remarkable protagonist (one that has some kind of defining feature or characteristic that makes them unique) that adapts to the circumstances of the story and a conflict for the protagonist to combat. The conflict can be cookie-cutter “good versus evil” or it can be something more exotic like betrayal or self-conflict. Perhaps most important of all is that the story is immersive. You should be able to suspend reality and show genuine care for characters in the story. One way to test your immersion is to recall how you refer to characters in your head. If you’re referring to them by “I” and “you” it’s very likely that you’re immersed in the game’s world.