Friday, April 8, 2016

General RPGs' Storytelling EXP

I like it when RPGs employ Storytelling EXP. I wish it happened more often.

What do I mean by Storytelling EXP? I’m glad I pretended you asked! Storytelling EXP is when you receive experience points for writing-related feats in an RPG, rather than gameplay-related ones. Most of the time, we associate experience points as rewards for defeating enemies, or sometimes using non-combat character skills (such as picking locks in a Fallout game, or disarming traps in Dragon Age 1, and so on). And with a lot of RPGs, I daresay most of them, that’s the sole extent of the experience point, er, experience. The only way you level up your character(s) is by beating bad guys, usually over and over again. But sometimes, there are other, more plot- and character-related ways of getting experience points, and those are what I refer to Storytelling EXP.

The most common form of this comes as a reward for completing quests. Once you follow a quest through to completion in, say, Fallout New Vegas, whether it’s a main quest mandated by the plot or an optional sidequest, you’ll be awarded a sum of EXP, the amount of which is almost always sizable, and sometimes varies depending on how well you did the quest. This is a pretty common occurrence in western RPGs like Dragon Age, Fallout, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher, and so on. Heck, quest-reward EXP is basically the only kind you ever get in Mass Effect 2 and 3, and almost the only kind available in the recent Shadowrun titles. Also, there are some games where you’ll be awarded a bunch of Storyline EXP not so much for finishing specific quests, as just for reaching certain points in the plot, such as with Celestian Tales 1.

This is a pretty sensible approach which calls back to the roots of the genre: the tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, which follow this general idea by and large. Quest experience points encourage you to finish the tasks you start, and to experience all that the game can offer, which is good. And of course, since most of the story of an RPG is usually told through the characters and narratives involved in quests, Storytelling EXP for completed quests is providing an incentive that betters the chances that a player will see and take in all the ideas and story that the writers wish to convey. And it even helps on a level closer to that of gameplay, since getting an experience point reward for a quest gives an extra level of satisfaction at having seen the task through to its completion, a satisfaction which I personally find money and items and so on not to give. And besides, if we say that gaining levels is indicative of our characters growing as adventurers and individuals, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to achieve that growth from more aspects of their adventure than just beating the bejeezus out of bunnies that randomly cross their path?

There is, though, a form of Storytelling EXP that I like even more. The quests that you get experience from completing, after all, don’t HAVE to be particularly strong in the writing department or have an especially strong tie to the story and its themes and characters--it’s only that that’s possible. But there’s also the Storytelling EXP that you get from directly investigating and pursuing the game’s plot and characters--and you know me, that’s the stuff that I really value in RPGs, the aspects of the genre that I think make it worthwhile to play. Planescape: Torment is an excellent example of this. Yes, in PT, you get experience for fighting monsters, and completing quests, but there’s also a significant wealth of experience points to be had simply through pursuing dialogue options and seeking to gain as much knowledge and wisdom about the game’s world as you can. There are many huge EXP rewards in Planescape: Torment for when you persuade NPCs through conversation options, for learning as much as you can from important plot figures during your dialogue with them, for exploring every lore-significant part of the game’s setting, for learning the protagonist’s history and piecing together the clues to his identity, and for coming to know, understand, repair, and greaten the party members.

Planescape: Torment isn’t the only game to do this, of course. There are many instances in the first couple Fallout titles which reward the player with experience points for exploring the games’ characters, setting, and lore through exploring dialogues, and the more recent Fallouts also give a little experience here and there as a reward for exploring extra dialogue paths that require certain stats and skills to access. Knights of the Old Republic 2 has almost as much of an EXP priority on exploring its writing’s depth and brilliance as Planescape: Torment did. The Witch’s Wake DLC for Neverwinter Nights 1, short and incomplete though it is, provides numerous little experience boosts for thorough exploration of all that characters have to say to you.

Still, though there are several games that employ this nuanced Storytelling EXP, it’s still pretty uncommon. I’ve played almost 290 RPGs as of writing this, and think I’ve seen this idea used in maybe 10% of them, certainly not more than 15%, and probably actually less. What a shame that is--and how strange! Being so strongly story-driven as the RPG genre tends to be, it seems to me like it would only make sense to tie one of the biggest driving forces of gameplay to the elements of the game’s story. It really seems like a waste of an opportunity, especially when you consider how terrifically well it usually works out.

I mean, look at some of the examples I mentioned above. Planescape: Torment is nigh-universally considered to have one of the most brilliant, deep, and rich stories and casts in all RPG history, and I myself would certainly go a step further and claim that it’s one of the greater works of storytelling art in human history, period. How incredibly important it is, then, that the game makes it a major point that your greatest source of power comes from knowing that terrific story and interacting with its countless thoughtful nuances. The case is similar with Knights of the Old Republic 2--such an important part of that game are the ideas of knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to sway others as being the true mark of power, and of seeing the universe from a higher perspective and understanding its workings of cause and effect, that having a reward for exploring these concepts and learning all you can from the game’s characters and world is symbolically essential! And hey, the whole idea of Witch’s Wake in Neverwinter Nights 1 is that of trying to learn the truth of yourself, the battle you survived, and the mission you’ve been charged wouldn’t it make sense that you’d get a gameplay reward for seeking the answers to the questions which define this side story’s plot and purpose? Getting experience rewards for finding out as much as you can in a story that is about exactly that, creates a better immersion in the tale!

I especially wish that JRPGs would pick this idea up. I mean, I want to see more RPGs use this dedicated Storytelling EXP, period, but as you might have guessed from my examples so far, this is definitely more of a western RPG thing. Still, some JRPGs have used Storytelling EXP, or at least, something similar to it, to their benefit. Sakura Wars 5, for example, is a combination tactical RPG and dating sim (I still wonder who came up with that idea), wherein the characters in your party become more powerful combatants not through defeating enemies, but rather through having stronger personal relationships with the protagonist. Well, 70% of the game’s a dating sim, so it makes sense, right? If your actions in getting all your teammates to like you didn’t affect the battles in any way, then you’d wonder what the point was; this way, the character relationships that the game wants to focus on are properly emphasized by the gameplay. Similarly, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 have a system where you gain most of your experience points from defeating enemies, but advancing your Social Links for each Tarot Arcana provides level up bonuses for the Personae you create and use in battle, with a complete Social Link giving any Persona of its type several level-ups instantly when that Persona is created. This is a great idea, because a huge amount of the story and characters are explored through the Social Links in each game, as well as a ton of the thematic ties with the Tarot, which is at the heart of the games’ meaning. It’s especially important in SMT Persona 3, since that game, at its core, is about our connections with others and the ways that we enrich one another through them, so powering up your Persona, the powerful and monstrous manifestation of your psyche and soul, through furthering these connections is a perfect use of gameplay to underscore story. So yeah, definitely possible to incorporate Storytelling EXP in a JRPG with good results.

And that’s about it! I like Storytelling EXP, especially the kind that goes beyond just basic quest rewards, and nearly every time I’ve seen it used in an RPG, it’s really benefited the game overall. It doesn’t have to be the only source of character advancement in a game (though Mass Effect and Sakura Wars 5 prove that can work just fine), but I’d at least like to see more RPGs factor a significant amount of their experience points to come from storytelling sources.


  1. There's a 3DS JRPG called Lord of Magna (it's dreck so avoid it) that had a similar idea to this. The game gives you designated time to bond with different party members the same way social links do and the character you spent time with unlocks a special attack after that. I don't know if it counts since it's not EXP points you're given. Also the Fire Emblem series has the reverse thing in some games - pair characters up in battle enough times and then you get a support conversation with them.

  2. Valkyrie Profile has Event Experience, which you get for solving dungeon puzzles and clearing dungeons and can give to any character you feel like. I think it's one of many good ideas that tri-Ace abandoned in Valkyrie Profile 2.

    1. Ohhh, yes...I'd completely forgotten about that. Thanks for reminding me.

      "Ideas" that Tri-Ace abandoned in Valkyrie Profile 2? Tri-Ace abandoned their whole collective BRAIN in VP2. The ideas just happened to go with it.