Last time in our D&D safe space, we talked about narrative rpgs. Games like Dragon Age and Fable, narrative RPGs that combine strategy and combat with decision-making, used to bore me. They would start off fun, but that excitement would begin to taper soon after the first 10 or so hours of gameplay. I always thought those kinds of games were too long, too convoluted, and way too repetitive. Granted, all of those things are all still true, but around the 40-hour mark in Dragon Age: Inquisition, something suddenly clicked for me.
Don’t worry; I don’t plan on boring you with the complex plot of the Dragon Age series. Let me just set the stage so you. This is a game by BioWare, which–similarly to their most-famous Mass Effect trilogy—involves starting off a fresh playthrough with creating your own protagonist. As technology progresses, this creative process continues to take longer and longer, with each developer offering more options than the previous iteration in a series. For example, Cyberpunk 2077 in all of its buggy, infamous glory, went so far as to offer genitals customization for your protagonist.
As the author of this cozy little D&D column, you’d probably expect me to put two hours of design time into my protagonist. On the contrary, I didn’t think too much about creating my Dragon Age character. I decided to make a female elf named Evelyn who could use magic, simply because I thought it would be cute. Little did I know, there is a ridiculous amount of lore in this series, the developers having given reasons and stories for every bit of classism, racism, and societal hierarchy. Much of the dialogue, flavor text, and events relate to the surrounding world and the war occuring within its walls. There’s fighting between the soldiers (Templars) and the mages, scorn towards the elves and the dwarves for one reason or another. One could argue what you choose for your protagonist doesn’t change that much of the game, since you can still choose to support either side of the war despite your lineage, but I’ve grown to think that this choice goes beyond the decisions made at a glance.
I’m about to real boil down (read: butcher) this next part of the story, but stay with me. After a certain plot-heavy quest about 30-40 hours into my game, I (or rather, Evelyn, my elf), was able to capture an apostate mage. He was working with his father on the opposite (read: villainous) side of the war, working as a no-good very-bad fellow. Normally in these types of video game situations, the choices are 1) let him live or 2) make him die, but not in this series! Since I had chosen a mage protagonist, I was also given him the option to come back to my castle as a prisoner, yet crucial advisor on dark magic in exchange for his life. It got me thinking, not just what I would do, but what would Evelyn do? My sweet little elf mage. Would she want to see one of her own killed, even if he was on the bad side of the tracks? Considering the outcome from not just a gameplay perspective, but also a storytelling perspective, made my choice that much more involved, and frankly, way more interesting.
Although we talked about narrative rpgs, it took me way too long to think about putting the “narrative” in narrative rpg. Narrative rpgs are not just for the game to tell you a story; they allow you to craft your own storyline. In many games like Dragon Age, your protagonist is starts as blank slate, with no personality and no appearance set in stone. This allows infinite playthroughs–and ones that are way more fun, at that.
With all of these possibilities, why choose to have no qualities? Why not make some choices? Just who is your protagonist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What character(s) would you like to see them romantically involved with? If they were a real person, how would they react to the dialogue spoken to you throughout the game? Rather than roleplaying as a version of yourself as a default, try someone completely different! Do you always try to do the “good” thing? Play a villain! Kill innocent chickens! (And I’m not saying you should cheat on your in-game spouse, but it certainly has less consequences than doing it in real life.)
Use this time to be someone new, someone different. You know yourself why enough; why would you spend another 100+ in-game hours on replay?
Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂