The Anatomy of RPGs, Part 3: Customization

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Okay, it took me some time to get to writing this article. I had been finishing a fair number of games recently, and wanted to review them so I could have more time to look into part three of The Anatomy of RPGs. Luckily, many of the games I recently reviewed were RPGs, so this helped me write this in the long run. Today’s article is on customization, a component that adds depth to many turn-based RPGs.

Customization is the process of altering the playable characters in an RPG in order to make them stronger, or to adapt to certain situations found in game play. Some customizations are temporary, and can be changed if the player doesn’t like what he is trying out. Other modifications are permanent, such as gaining a level and enhancing that character’s stats. Here are the categories covered  in today’s article.

  • Equipment
  • Skills
  • Classes

Not all of these categories are present in every RPG, but many of them do show up frequently in this type of game. I will cover what all of these things mean, and will give some examples of how different games handle them. The information provided are from my personal experiences playing games in this genre, and is by no means completely comprehensive. You may mention any examples in the comments section if you want me to look into and cover more information in either a revision, or in a new article for the future. Now, let’s look at equipment first.

Equipment:

Equipment is anything the character can wear that has an effect on a character’s performance in battle. These are manually assigned by the player, and there is a different system per game. A commonly used system involves weapons, armors, and perhaps accessories. Games that feature these forms of equipment may have multiple “slots” you can assign equipment to.

A weapon slot, for example, allows you to assign a weapon  for the character to attack with. In many games, equipping weapons adds damage to ordinary attacks, though some weapon based actions may be enhanced as well. A truly in-depth game will have strengths and drawbacks to using certain weapons. A strong weapon may be heavier, and will have worse accuracy or score fewer hits, depending on the system the game has in place. Some weaker weapons may have an advantage or effect that makes it more desirable to equip it. Some examples can include side effects to weapon based attacks on foes (poison, sleep, etc.), a boost in other stats, or even an auto heal effect for equipping it.  Sometimes, powerful weapons are cursed, and will have many very undesirable effects, making the weapon something the player will never use, unless the player can ignore the curse’s effect (which isn’t in every game that has cursed equipment).

In some games, certain characters or customization options allow two weapons, adding more offensive capabilities. This may restrict a character to two one-handed weapons, and almost always prevents equipping a shield. Bow and arrow based equipment is never something you can see a character wield two of.

Armor, on the other hand, adds to a character’s defensive stats, usually reducing damage. Many RPGs have a few different armor slots you can assign certain types of armor to. There can only be one body armor, one piece of headgear, one thing worn on arms, and so forth. Again, the strongest armor may have some sort of drawback that weaker armor doesn’t, such as heavier weight that slows down a character. Weaker armors may have benefits that stronger armor doesn’t, such as elemental resistances, effect immunities, and so forth.

Accessories generally have varied effects. There is usually only one or two slots for this type of equipment. They aren’t always defensive or offensive, and add things like elemental resistances, various stat bonuses, effect immunities, or other neat effects. There are plenty of other systems for equipment that can be worn, as equipment isn’t always handled this way in games. The first two Paper Mario games had a stat called BP that could be increased as you leveled. More BP meant Mario could equip more badges (each having a different BP cost), essentially giving Mario more accessories to wear as he gets stronger. The Paper Mario games don’t have weapons or armors in the traditional sense, so this example is one way an RPG could deviate from the norm.

PaperMarioBadge
A sample of Paper Mario’s Badge system, a unique take on character customization.

Skills:

Skills are a complex customization option, and they are handled in many different ways. They are often gained from finding skill points (from fighting enemies, usually), and applying them to the skill you want next. This may involve a complex skill tree, were getting one skill grants access to certain other skills further down the line. Sometimes it is as simple as getting enough points to automatically getting the next skill.

But what is a skill? Skills are abilities that a character can acquire. They are either active (such as actions that are used in battle), or passive (could be as simple as a stat bonus, or as complex as a situational bonus, like an automatic counter attack). There are too many skills to mention in both categories, and I covered the various actions in The Anatomy of RPGs, Part 2: Battle. Skills are a complex feature in any RPG that has them, and it can be fun to discover unique skill combinations.

Classes:

Classes essentially define a character’s role in an RPG. A character’s class could be “warrior” and would specialize in using weaponry, or a character could be a “wizard” and specialize in magic. In some RPGs a class cannot change, and is only there to define a character’s traits (stats, skills, equipment, etc.). In many other RPGs, a character can change or even combine classes.

A class change alters a characters traits. This can include new equipment, stats, and available (or learnable) skills. Changing a character’s class frequently alters their strengths and weaknesses, making them more or less useful for certain situations. A class upgrade gives the character better equipment, stats, and skills in comparison to the class the character is upgraded from. Not all games have class upgrades, but they are fun when they occur.

Mixing classes occurs in many different ways. The main method is to have one class be the character’s “primary” class, and the other class to be a “secondary” class. The primary class gives the character their main stats, and usable actions, while the secondary class gives certain stat bonuses and another set of actions, and which order they are in could impact the effectiveness of the character.

FFVclasses
Final Fantasy V’s job system was the first Final Fantasy game to combine skills from multiple jobs.

Another way this could be handled would involve the character currently belonging to one class, but you can assign a certain number of learned skills from other classes for new combinations of actions or other benefits. Final Fantasy V has this system, were the character’s current class determines their stats, equipment, and actions, while you can assign one skill learned from this class or another class to customize the character. The character also gains job points for fighting enemies only for the class they are currently in to learn new skills associated with that class.

Any character can belong to any class in this game, but some games restrict class options based on the character’s personality. There are many ways this could happen, but there are too many systems to cover here.

I will leave you with one case study of character customization. The game Octopath Traveler features eight characters. Each has a class they always belong to (their primary class). Each character can have a secondary class, which adds to their stats, equipment, and actions. Only one character can have a particular secondary class at a time (so no team of clerics, for example). As they gain job points, you can exchange these points to learn new actions for any of their available classes. If a character earns enough actions in a particular class, they will gain a new passive skill. The characters in Octopath Traveler can assign up to four passive skills from any class at one time.

OctopathSkills
A sample of Octopath Traveler’s skill system.

The quirks of this game means every character functions differently from each other in any given fight, while still gaining some very powerful skills for use in battle. The player can prepare for any situation, and still personalize their party to their liking. My favorite customization systems are ones where each character is different from each other, even when playing optimally, and after all skills are earned. A team of identical characters is boring, and is less fun if you are only changing their options just to suit certain situations. A great RPG accounts for the freedoms the player has in their customization options, so there won’t be too many battles where only one strategy is the best strategy.


So that is what I found are the common customization options in RPGs. What interesting customization options have you found in an RPG not listed here? Any recommendations? Was there a commonly used system not mentioned here that I should cover? Let me know in the comments below!

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