Sunday, June 2, 2013

Strategy Games and CRPGs

A strategy game with "RPG elements" is not a CRPG.

Longtime readers will remember a time, about a year and a half ago, when I swore off CRPGs and my blog, only to return a month later. I was unable to withstand the allure of virtual ruins after I stumbled upon some real ruins while hiking.

A similar thing happened yesterday while I was touring the city of Viña del Mar in Chile. I've been in South America for the last week, forcing myself to spend my free time enjoying the physical and cultural landscape rather than sitting in front of my computer. In Viña del Mar, I wanted to tour the Fonck Museum, which is one of the few places in the world that you can see one of the Moai statutes from Easter Island without actually going to Easter Island.

The Moai, displayed outside, probably primed me by looking inescapably like some kind of stone giant. Inside, I was greeted by multiple displays of primitive weapons and armor before I finally came across the exhibit that sent me over:

If you don't feel like enlarging the image and reading all the text, here's the key section:

The Ariki henua was the religious leader of the island, direct descendant of the founder Hotu Matua, through the first born son of each generation. He was the receiver of mana from the creator gods, and his mana was the force that maintained social order and subsistence.

All it took was the mention of "mana" to suddenly drive home the fact I hadn't played a CRPG in over a week. From that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be back at my hotel room with my laptop. So today, while the weather is glorious in Santiago and the mountains beckon majestically in the distance, I am playing Dragon Wars. It didn't occur to me until writing this how the sentence "I'm playing Dragon Wars while sitting on a balcony overlooking the Andes!" can alternately sound awesome or pathetic depending on where you place the emphases.

Let me explain why Dragon Wars and not Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I did play around with Romance a little bit and got a half-posting written. But I didn't like it. I'm a CRPG addict, not a strategy game addict.

The opening of the game shows some CRPG-like qualities by having you choose from several heroes with RPG-style attributes.

As the game approached on my play list, many readers told me that it wasn't a CRPG, but I was less concerned with subjective assignment of category and more about whether the game featured at least two of the three elements on my list of core characteristics for CRPGs: 1) character leveling and development, 2) an inventory unconnected to the solving of puzzles, and 3) combat based on probability and statistics rather than player skill and speed. The game does have the latter two. All strategy games have the last one.

In setting those three characteristics, I was trying to identify what I felt were the key distinctions between CRPGs and other genres. I've said it a million times before but it bears repeating: the key distinction between a computer role-playing game and another type of game is not whether you "play a role." You "play a role" in almost every game, including adventure games, action games, and first-person shooters. The distinction is also not in whether you have "choices" (dialogue and otherwise) while playing that role, or we'd have to exclude a huge swath of games from the 1980s that almost everyone considers RPGs. The distinction, rather, is in the nature of the protagonist, who (a few exceptions aside) you name, create, and develop and in the nature of the way you use inventory and tactics to defeat enemies, survive, and occasionally solve other puzzles. Pure adventure game players generally overcome obstacles by having the right item, not using the right tactics. Pure action game players generally overcome obstacles through player skill (though with occasional inventory upgrades), not statistics. Some action games, and first-person shooters, feature inventory upgrades but not character leveling. There are hybrids of all of these, of course, but hybrids do appear on my list.

But I was forgetting a fourth key element of CRPGs, the one that most distinguishes them from strategy games: a single narrative, extending from the beginning to the end of the game, that allows you to conclusively "win."

With strategy games, you're not really expected to win every game. If you do, you're probably playing on settings that are too easy, or the game itself is too easy and you need to move on to something else. The point of strategy games, as with chess, is to play against a strong intelligence--either another player, or a good AI whose decisions you can't always anticipate. It's the only way to feel truly victorious if you do win. And during the whole process, you're actively building skills that probably help somehow in the real world.

If I was a strategy game addict, I'd feel smug and superior to CRPG players for these reasons--almost the same way in which I, as a crossword puzzle addict, feel superior to people who like "word search" puzzles. The whole point of a CRPG (unlike, it must be said, a tabletop RPG) is to "win" the game. If you haven't won, you haven't really finished it. And of course you're going to win. You're the only one who's playing! It might take you a lot of tries, but eventually (this is where I'd pat the CRPG player on the head) you'll find that magic sword and beat that nasty ogre. You just keep at it, champ.

I could have played Romance of the Three Kingdoms like a CRPG, declaring a "won!" posting when I was victorious in one of its five scenarios. I could have been especially lame about it by setting the enemy AI to the easiest level, or by playing all of the roles myself but having all but one make horrible decisions. But I would have been missing the point of the game, which is to try all it scenarios at various difficulty levels and with various options, not to win a single narrative but to achieve tactical mastery over the AI or other players.

All of this is slightly ironic because tabletop role playing games owe their histories to strategy games, at least in terms of things like weapons and statistics. No history of role-playing games is complete without a reference to Chainmail, Gary Gygax's pre-Dungeons and Dragons wargame, from which many of the original D&D rules were adopted. But the genres diverged when players preferred to play persistent characters with whom they could identify, and with nebulous personal development goals rather than domination of a battlefield.

I've spent a long time thinking about why I don't like strategy games despite liking tactical combat in CRPGs. It comes down to the differences between battle tactics and campaign tactics. In a CRPG, each battle is generally its own unit, and if the party can win, they can continue to progress in the game. If battles become too hard, they can seek development and grinding opportunities in between. In strategy games, by contrast, battles are interrelated and there's generally no way to take a "time out" and develop units in between--not while your enemies are trying to dominate the same map. Decisions made early in the scenario can make the scenario unwinnable, and I hate investing that much time only to ultimately be defeated. I also hate micromanaging resources like rice and ore, fine-tuning unit production, and all of the other responsibilities of controlling a nation rather than exploring a dungeon.

The only strategy game that's really captured my heart is Warlords III (I hear II is pretty good, but I haven't played it), which had the advantage of organizing its scenarios into larger campaigns with ultimate victories at the end, as well as persistent heroes that the player can develop (with both leveling and equipment) within scenarios and move between scenarios.

It also had extremely cheesy video acting in between scenarios.

My CRPG play list is already absurdly long, even if we don't count some of the older non-DOS games I'm now trying to include. I've got to trim something. One of my decisions is to trim strategy games that do not offer persistent heroes that the player can develop in between scenarios. This ensures that I play the games that best fit my CRPG addiction without a lot of extraneous games that simply have "RPG elements." On, then, to Dragon Wars.


  1. I think that's a prudent decision. This topic might come up again in a few years with Jagged Alliance and possibly X-COM.

    It would also be interesting to see how a tactical console RPG in the vein of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy tactics would appeal to you.

    1. PS: I hope you enjoy Dragon Wars, but maybe hold off on devoting more time to it until you're back home. The game will wait for you, Chile might not. ;)

    2. I don't know about FE or FFT, but Langrisser is on his list, which is sort of in the same genre.

    3. Good point, although with the soldier mechanic (each hero having a little army around him) Langrisser is swaying a little more in the strategy direction. We'll see how he likes it soon enough - I haven't played the US port, but hope they haven't dumbed down Warsong too much.

    4. Fire Emblem = Nethack

    5. I don't understand the comparison between Fire Emblem and Nethack. What did you mean that?

      I agree, Langrisser isn't quite on the same level as FE or FFT. The scale of battles is much larger in Langrisser.

      His take on something like X-COM might be interesting, but I don't think it will stand up well as a CRPG either. It at least as a single narrative as described by Chet.

      All of the conquer the map strategy games are fairly obvious though and should fall off the list easily. Chet could probably go through his list each year and tick them off in one post.

    6. "Fire Emblem = Nethack"

      I assume he primarily means both use perma-death.

      In Fire Emblem, your army is made up of distinct individuals rather than representing larger groups. If any of them fall in combat, they are permanently gone from the rest of the campaign; losing certain units (main characters) is an immediate failure as well. The most recent Wii released Fire Emblem finally offered a choice to turn off perma-death, so the unit is only out for the rest of the battle but not rest of the game.

      Inside of a mission/battle, you only have an auto-save slot so you can resume where you left off. If you are about to lose a unit in a battle and you try to reset to restart, you come back right at the same moment before the death blow lands.

      There are some other interesting parts:

      It does have some hidden side quests and optional actions (generally anyone who doesn't have a generic portrait is either a boss or eventually recruitable, or both). Some areas have an arena where you can grind for experience.

      Also semi-Nethacky :
      - Level ups give you semi-random statistic boosts. Different individuals of the same unit type are weighted more towards different statistics.
      - Many non-obvious actions and ways to improve characters.
      - Many ways to screw up leveling up a unit.
      - Weapons break over time, can sometimes steal special items from enemies or find hidden shops.

    7. I can see that XCOM will hit all 4 of Chet's CPRG criteria. It has character development and leveling. You just don't control the initial creation of the character, but they develop over time through repeated missions and experience. You also can name the characters and equip them as desired. The inventory technically doesn't solve a puzzle although you need to research certain alien equipment and interrogate alien hostages to improve your inventory to fight against the threat and advance the story. Combat is based on statistics and probability and not player ability. Of course the 4th point, there is a single narrative.

    8. XCOM (classic XCOM) hits the criteria, but will presumably suffer in the GIMLET for lack of NPCs.

    9. @Bluerazor, I agree. It will probably get a 0 or 1 for NPC. I've been trying to guess how our intrepid author will rate this game. I'm hoping that combat even without magic will still hit a 7, because I rate it right up there with Gold Box because I enjoy them both. XCOM was so much deeper even without magic unless you coun't the mind control (very limited). I would actually rate higher personally. I'm hoping overall it will hit the 50's for the GIMLET. Can't wait until he gets there but 1994 is a long way to go. BTW, I never got to play the original XCOM back in my youth. I finally got a hold of it a few years ago and I still think it is amazing today.

    10. I don't think X-Com offers *that* much character development. They get higher stats, but you can't pick skills or suddenly start sweeping opponents (as in Gold Box; Chet mentioned that being one of his favorite moments in the series.)

      The attrition rate, especially in the early game, is such that you don't get very attached to a particular character's developments anyway. Chet has been getting less and less strict on his reloading rule anyway though, so we'll see how that goes.

    11. You do make a good point. It is weaker character development compared to other CRPG's even the newer modern XCOMs. You can still do things to help develop them though during missions like overload them and run them around more to build up endurance, or make them throw more stuff to improve their throwing accuracy.

  2. This is a long way off yet, but I've been wondering if the Heroes of Might and Magic series would meet your qualifications, or any of the other strategy/RPG hybrids.

    I have not played the earliest games in the series, but HoMM III meets all four of your criteria. It has character leveling and development, inventories that change stats and abilities, tactical combat, and a definite end point in the campaign. In the campaigns, heroes even carry over from map to map with levels, statistics, and spellbooks intact. There's also the story tie-ins to the Might and Magic RPGs.

    Despite that, I think they're more strategy games than RPGs. Managing your heroes and their inventories is important, but not as important as the resources your heroes collect from around the map, or the units that travel with your heroes. I know it's always going to be impossible to mark a clear boundary that delineates RPGs from non-RPGs, but how would you treat games that define themselves as RPG hybrids, rather than games that just have "RPG elements?"

    1. The Heroes of Might & Magic series definitely fits the description Chet gives above. The first game is MUCH lighter on the narrative, but later games have some very good stuff there. I'll be interested as to what the CRPG Addict thinks of them (assuming he gives them a shot). They're similar in some respects to the Warlords series he mentioned.

    2. Perhaps it comes down to personal distinctions in the end. For me, the campaign and story in the HOMM series was little more than filler give the player some sense of direction - despite multiple attempts, I never grew fond of those games.

      On the other hand, I put way too many hours into Warlords 3 and cannot quite pinpoint what this game did right for me to like it better than the (commercialy much more viable) Heroes product line. It could have something to do with the combat mechanic, I'm really not sure.

      In any event, for me both series would classify as fantasy strategy games with RPG elements (Age of Wonders is also worth mentioning in this context, btw), because I personally could never bond with any of the heroes and the character development and inventory mechanics seemed a little tacked on rather than being integral to the gameplay.

    3. I have played some scenarios in HoMM4 as hero-only games, dismissing the initial units and never recruiting any others. The initial hero or heroes (usually stealthy) were then carefully developed so that they could win the war without any units.

    4. I would treat games that are hybrids as CRPGs, and I would play them. I was hoping at least some of the HoMM games met the criteria as such, because I've always wanted to play them as part of the overall M&M universe.

      The distinction between "a strategy game with RPG elements" and a "straregy/RPG hybrid" isn't stark, but I think I've defined it well here: persistent heroes and an overall campaign story. Rot3K just didn't feature enough to make it a "hybrid" yet.

    5. Yes, it will be interesting to see where Warlords 3 falls on your Strategy - RPG continuum. It does allow for persistent (if you keep them alive) heroes with stats and skills which you develop, but it is clearly a strategy game at its core.

    6. Oh man... this blog will end when you reach HoMM3, that game (with expansions and Heroes Chronicles) has a crazy amount of content. Crazy I tell you!

      Great game though. I'd love to read your impression of them, especially (as you mentioned) in light of the general M&M-series. That said I've never really thought of them as CRPGs despite some of the elements being there.

      Also: Warlords 3 is awesome :)

    7. This blog will not end because Crpgaddict is an expert and he will recognize that HoMM and Warlords are not crpgs any way. They are good strategy games.

    8. IIRC the HoMMs are mostly lacking the "persistent hero" element between maps in the campaign, apart from very limited transfer in Part 3. (Although, dunno about HoMM4, didn't play that one...)

      King's Bounty, OTOH, should qualify. (Both the old and especially the new one)

    9. I've not played VI, but HoMM I-V are predominantly strategy games.

      As with most strategy games, their engines can be used to create a more RPG-like experience. The campaigns achieve this to varying degrees.

      I and II aren't really RPGs at all, the campaigns are a series of maps that are barely related.

  3. I was following a similar line of thought yesterday night when I was trying out Defender's Quest demo. A curious (to me at least) hybrid of tower defense and RPG with a main story flowing through in visual novel fashion; to my surprise, I lost one battle and still gained (limited) experience. The story didn't progress, so I could buy new weapons and repeat that battle again with my favorite, skilled-up beserker; felt much like grinding. The game allows to power up individual units by buying armor and weapons, and also leveling up is on an individual basis. Overall it feels like a multiple character RPG with tower-defense combat. I guess you would enjoy this!

    1. I think I would, too. Probably in about 20 years!

  4. Dragon Wars is one of my favorite CRPGs ever and I've been looking forward to watching you work through it through your blog. I'm especially curious to see how a first-time player approaches some of the early navigation decisions (sentence left intentionally vague to avoid spoilers).

    Also, I know you don't do walkthroughs, but I wrote what I think is a pretty good one for DW not too long ago, so I'm happy to help out if you get stuck anywhere :)

    1. Thanks. I've finished exploring Purgatory, and I'm trying to figure out which of two possible exits to pursue. I'll be curious about your comments on my skill choices and decisions after I post the first entry.

    2. There's more than two ways out of Purgatory!

  5. "The distinction, rather, is in the nature of the protagonist, who (a few exceptions aside) you name, create, and develop and in the nature of the way you use inventory and tactics to defeat enemies, survive, and occasionally solve other puzzles."

    Exactly! Sounds like you've reached a conclusion rather similar to my own:

    1. That's a very good article. I encourage everyone to read it, as it meshes with my own definition perfectly.

      This definition forces us to accept that certain RPGs from the earliest days are not true RPGs but, let's say, "proto-RPGs." But I'm cool with that.

    2. Good article, yes. But I'm not sure I fully agree. Specifically I'm opposed to the notion that having a predefined character and making him weaker (rather than stronger as usual) could not be an RPG. If the player can choose how the character gets weaker, then it is definitely an RPG. Also I think the author is a bit lenient on player skill vs. character skill. For it to be an RPG I think character skill should be prominent.

    3. Yes, I disagreed on that part as well. It doesn't sound like a FUN game, but I think it could be an RPG. I'm not sure why he introduced it, because he'd already proven his point.

    4. Oh it can be a fun mechanic. I remember playing a 7drl which had an old heroes last adventure. You started of ultra powerfull with a full inventory and every level you got slightly weaker and had to drop an item for reduced carry weight. The dungeon level was static so it got harder as you went on. It was a really good game about resource management and lots of prethinking, I just can't remember the name.

      7drl is a roguelike made in seven days fr a challenge by the way.

  6. A possible topic for another post could be examining whether the skills we develop playing CRPGs are actually useful in the real world. Clearly there is some overlap between pre-existing real world skills and those that are useful in CRPGs, but the real question is whether becoming better at CRPGs makes the player better at real life also, and in what ways it does so.

    1. I sort-of tried to do that here:

      But it could use a longer posting. The comments on this one are good, though.

  7. >> "I'm playing Dragon Wars while sitting on a balcony overlooking the Andes!" can alternately sound awesome or pathetic depending on where you place the emphases.

    As long as you're balanced it's fine!

    I went on a week long camping trip with my wife last year. Spent 23 hours each day hiking the mountains of Colorado, cooking marshmallows over a fire, and sleeping in a tent. I spent 1 hour each day coding my own CRPG on a laptop.

    Sure it's a little weird, but I hate having to go on a vacation because of my last vacation!

    1. Right. "Balanced."

      You have a talent for moderation that I lack.

    2. Strive to keep moderation in all things, most especially moderation.

  8. This is mostly how I see CRPGs myself, though not everyone would agree with this. I recently stumbled into a site with a lot of "meta" articles about gaming. The author there seems to have an extremely different view on what makes an RPG.

    It's a good read:

    I can't say I completely (or even mostly) agree with the author, but the articles made me think.

    1. I don't see his view as "extremely different," at least on the RPG vs. strategy game line. The author (Alex Kierkegaard) sees a lot of crossover between strategy games and CRPGs and thinks that "an RPG can be larger than any strategy game -- it can contain a strategy game, if that is what its designers want to it to do."

      He's writing from a perspective of someone who wants to see CRPGs become much more like tabletop RPGs, with more attention to story, dialogue, and player decisions that can effect the outcome of the game. He also wants to see a less statistical focus (or at least hide the statistics from the player). This is a fine view, but it is only one of several views. There are other players that see all this story and dialogue as childish nonsense and prefer the abstraction of tactical combat and puzzle-solving.

      Unlike Mr. Kierkegaard, I can't bring myself to limit my consideration of "pure RPGs" to only those that are narrative-driven with lots of player choices. I can respect those preferences in an CRPG, but it would fly in the face of how we've categorized games for decades if I said a CRPG HAD to have those elements.

  9. Most of the Koei games on the list should probably not qualify, but I'm looking forward to your take on Uncharted Waters. I think the second (New Horizons) should definitely qualify, but I don't remember that much of the first. I finished one of the console versions some years ago, and there seem to be some differences compared to the PC version.

    1. The original Uncharted Waters is my favorite of the two and it does seem to match the three guidelines to classify it as an RPG.

  10. "With strategy games, you're not really expected to win every game. If you do, you're probably playing on settings that are too easy, or the game itself is too easy and you need to move on to something else."

    Reading this almost sounds like Roguelikes.

    1. Roguelikes take this to opposite extreme, at which you are expected to die gruesome deaths hundreds or thousands of times in the learning process, and start over each time.

      Strategy games with a 1% win rate would be written off as too hard by almost everyone. But playing on a setting at which you win every time is the intellectual equivalent of beating a 6-year old at chess. Therefore, as CRPGA says, the proper setting is one which gives you an opportunity to win, but forces you to actually use your brain and the full slate of abilities available to you in the game.

      For those of you looking for a challenging CRPG with a long, complex growth curve, you should check out Crawl at

      You can play online or download the game. Crawl has progressed to the point where I believe it is the pinnacle of rogue-like evolution.

    2. I agree, but it takes a slightly different tinge with roguelikes. You certainly start each game hoping to win, and if you do, you've basically experienced the game. See my comment to Ragnar below.

  11. You should also remove Bandit Kings of Ancient China (#117), L'Empereur (#147), Genghis Khan II (#226) and Liberty or Death (#276) from the master list. All KOEI strategy games, same engine as RotTK and almost identical...except for the settings. Same goes for the whole RotTK series: the tenth one is not significantly different from the first. You can create your own ruler in some of the later ones, but they're still pure strategy.

    I'm uncertain about Gemfire and Celtic Tales: Balor of the Evil Eye. Those two could be worth a look. Gemfire uses the same engine, but in fantasy setting...and there's an actual storyline.

    Out of all the KOEI PC games, Uncharted Waters: New Horizons is probably closest to an RPG.

    1. Some later RoTK are certainly more RPG-ish than the early ones. E.G.In Rotk 10 you don't need to create a ruler, but can create an officer (or play one of the historical ones) and play a follower. You do jobs (simple "quests), collect items and fight one on one battles (duels or debates). And of course there are skills and stats to be improved. I assume it still lacks the narrative that Addict has in mind.
      Inindo: Way of the Ninja would qualify I guess, but unfortunately that's only available in English for the SNES.

    2. Okay. I appreciate the notice, and I'll make appropriate notes. I want to give people a chance to respond as Trypticon did, though. Remember, if it has a persistent hero and a larger campaign, I'll consider it RPG "enough."

    3. Both English Uncharted Waters games are very definitely RPGs, although you can see a few holdovers from Koei's strategy games in them (more micromanagement than most RPGs and a few other things.) They're probably about halfway between something like Pirates and ROT3K. (They seem to be missing from your master list, although I could have sworn they were there before.)

      Win condition- Uncharted Waters is nonlinear, and there's a lot of things you can do (like bring more of the world under your nation's control), but both games have a well-defined quest and series of goals leading to a conclusion (six separate quests, one for each character, in New Horizons.

      Character leveling/development- Your characters gain EXP and levels in both navigation and combat (tracked by separate levels) and have stats that increase

      Inventory- not as detailed as in many RPGs, but you have an inventory of various implements (navigational aids, etc.) food, water, and trade goods.

      Combat based on stats- combat is based on moving around and on numbers (crew members, ship stats, and navigator stats), although the battles taken completely in isolation probably look more like they're from a strategy game than an RPG.

    4. I'll answer for Gemfire and Celtic Tales since I've played both before.

      Gemfire is very much like King's Bounty except that you can win battles by capturing the enemy flag without actually fighting. Coupled with a 90's AI, you can beat the game very easily. If you wish to explore the game, it won't take you long but it is more strategy than RPG definitely.

      Celtic Tales uses the same engine as Koei's Genghis Khan II. Very much a strategy game but has a main quest that does not require you to dominate the entire map like other strategy games. Recommended for strategy game fans but it doesn't qualify as a CRPG.

      P.S. Inindo: Way of the Ninja is DEFINITELY a CRPG. Koei rarely did a pure CRPG and Inindo is a true-blue one. However, the combat is pretty boring with very little skills for each character. To win the game takes a huge amount of luck even at maximum character level because: A) the final boss has a death attack which has a very high success rate, B) he also has unlimited Magic Points, C) he can cast healing spells to heal himself back to full health.

      Uncharted Waters I & II are definitely classified as CRPGs. I remember you can buy powerful weapons and armors to equip them on your character for duels (boardings and quests). I can definitely recall that, to purchase Crusader's Sword and Armor (one of the strongest equipment in the game), you will need to access Item Shops after 2am. Freaking shady but... hey. It definitely qualifies as a CRPG.

  12. I certainly respect your decision and it is good that you refine your own rules. It is bad if you begin to play all games that has some tiny RPG element.

    However, I'm not sure having a winning condition is a defining characteristic of an RPG. Most strategy games also have winning conditions (what would chess be if you couldn't win?). And not all RPG:s have clear winning conditions. Remember that lots of people play Oblivion and Skyrim ignoring the mainquest. See also Dwarf Fortress' adventure mode which uses procedurally generated quests

    For me strategy and RPG:s really are two sides of the same coin. Both are about creating simulated worlds where the world and it's inhabitants react to the players input. The main difference (and hence their different represantations) are that strategy games generally focus on a larger scale with little or no emphasis on individuals while RPG:s focus on individuals. The focus on individuals make RPG:s lend itself to becoming personal much more easily (it's easier to connect to a character than a nation) and that is why you like RPG:s more than strategy games I think.

    1. My second paragraph is irrelevant. I have misunderstood the article slightly. What you said was "With strategy games, you're not really expected to win every game.".

      That is true of a lot of strategy games, yes. But it is also true for some RPG:s (think Nethack, PvP in MMORPG:s, etc.). And there are some types of strategy that more is about setting your own winning conditions where you are expected to "win" in the sense that you make it to the end of the playtime (see for example Europa Universalis and other Paradox games). However. I can certainly see some truth in that sentiment, although I think it is a bit vague (and it might be difficult to judge at the beginning of a game). I still think my third paragraph above is applicable.

    2. I didn't say it very well, but I think people mostly understood what I meant. Even though no one EXPECTS to win every session in a roguelike, very rarely do you start the game without the express INTENTION to win. Moreover, if you do win NetHack (or any other roguelike), you can say you "played" the game and no one thinks it's premature if you move on (or at least take a break for a while). Having won, you have fundamentally "experienced" the game.

      No single winning scenario in a strategy game, by contrast, can possibly encompass the totality of the game. Strategy games are meant to be played and replayed, with different scenarios and tactics, against different levels of AI. It wouldn't have been enough to "win" a game of Romance of the Three Kingdoms to fully explore it.

    3. I agree with the decision to skip ROTK (which is a great game -- though, at least in the NES version, it's easy to break combat using fire-based attacks).

      But I'm a bit thrown by the use of the word "strategy" as the hallmark of what's being set in opposition to RPGs; isn't it really a question of simulation vs. RPG?

      In other words, most Koei titles are really sim games at heart, in which you manage the business of a country (or a business, e.g. Aerobiz). That's the issue in ROTK, i.e. that most of your time is spent recruiting and training your army, improving your country's agricultural productivity, and so on. There's nothing to explore; you can "see" everything from the beginning, and it's merely a question of grokking the statistical relationships between the game's different parameters (and how they influence the outcome of non-random events, and distribution of random ones).

      I think that's really the core issue, since there are definitely RPGs that (for example) have multiple scenarios or encourage you to play as multiple characters. And characterization is certainly present in ROTK -- if you play as Liu Bei, you're playing as a very specific historical figure with well-defined relationships to his allies and enemies -- but exploration isn't, whereas it is present in (for example) many RTS games.

      (I'm not sure, though, that I agree that Koei games are meant to be played and replayed per se. They can be, but you can also start at the first scenario in ROTK on max difficulty, play through the equivalent of all five, and you've seen the game.)

    4. @Addict

      To further expand my argument that RPG:s don't need single winning points. Take for example the RPG Nethergate (by Spiderweb Software). In that game you choose to play one of two sides. By going through the game as one side you haven't fully explored the game. Or take Geneforge by the same company. There you have multiple ways to win the game and you can join several different factions making the different wins rather different. This makes one playthrough not enough to fully explore the game. And Dwarf Fortress' Adventure mode is an extreme of this since it doesn't have winning conditions at all - you mostly just go around and explore the world and doing quests that interests you.

      And Paradox games such as Europa Universalis and especially Crusader Kings can be as much considered "explored" once you have done one playthrough. I'd almost say these are RPG:s that follow a nation or dynasty rather than a single character.

      @PK Thunder
      No, that is wrong. Simulation lies at the core of every computer game of every genre. If there is no simulation it is just a choose-your-own-adventure story or pausable movie. The difference is on what is simulated.

    5. PK, I'm pretty sure we use "simulation" to describe games that simulate some kind of real-life process, like flying a plane, building a roller coaster, or running a city. War simulators are generally called "strategy" games under most definitions. I'm not putting them in opposition to RPGs in general; I just talked about it here in relation to my decision not to play Rot3K. If I had been declining to play something like King's Quest, I would have titled it "Adventure vs. RPG."

      But beyond the category names, I agree with your assessment of why this isn't a very good example of an RPG, and why "exploration" is a key element (though not necessarily a dealbreaker).

      Ragnar, I never said that RPGs need "single" winning points, just that the general purpose is to play until you definitively win. If I tell you I played Skyrim for 100 hours, won the game, and moved on, you wouldn't tell me that I didn't really "get" it, would you? Would you insist that I need to play long enough to follow every quest thread? That I needed at least four full plays, each with a unique combination of Empire/Stormcloak and Dark Brotherhood/Destroy Dark Brotherhood?

      On the other hand, if you asked me about chess, and I said, "Oh, yeah. I played that once. I won." You'd look at me a bit odd, wouldn't you? You'd probably tell me that I missed the "point" of chess.

      I don't know Crusader Kings, but I would agree that some strategy games like Warlords III could be considered fully explored if you played an entire campaign. But then again, I'm counting them as RPG hybrids.

      There are certainly RPGs that feature no endings, but they are either very early in the genre (e.g., the DND variants) or games that everyone considers a hybrid.

    6. @Ragnar: Well, in one sense that's technically true, but your treatment of the term is along the same lines as the argument that says all games are RPGs because you always play a role. In English at least, "simulation" often refers to a specific kind of detail-oriented, command-driven game where the primary goal isn't necessarily to defeat an enemy, you're often not in direct control of everything that's going on, and so on.

      @Addict: Understood. My main point was really the ROTK games aren't as war-gamey as they might seem. There are some Koei games that are absolutely wargames, but ROTK is much more "administrative" than most of those. And even some of the overt wargames can (theoretically) be won without ever entering battle, and others allow you to simulate the outcome of battles without directly participating, and to restrict your work to high-level concerns.

      In other words, a game like ROTK really is as much or more about running the country as making war, whereas a game like Risk or chess doesn't have that element at all, and most wargames downplay it at best. I'd put ROTK as much in the "sim" genre, like SimCity, as the wargame genre (generally considered a subset of strategy games). And since it's usually classified as a strategy/sim game, I think that makes sense.

    7. @Addict
      I don't dispute your arguments about Skyrim and Chess in particular. And Skyrim might not be the best example of the type of RPG I'm after. I'm not even sure the type of RPG I'm after even exist. I think a game like Pirates! or Elite is pretty close to what I'm after, just that they are more RPG:ish. E.g. a completely open-ended RPG with a simulated world, but still all the clear hallmarks of RPG: character development, combat, quests, etc.

      Anyway, as I said before. I'm fine with whatever rules you set for yourself. My argument is mostly just to point out that this "win" rule may not be so clear cut as you think it is. And that my take on the difference between strategy and RPG is more on the lines of impersonal vs. personal.

      @PK Thunder
      If it is simulation, the genre you mean, you should compare against The Sims, Football Manager, Farm Simulator, etc.

  13. Thinking about it, I found a criteria for your definition of what is a crpg.
    It's precise and so ingrained in CRPG and even tabletop RPG we take it for granted: Random Encounter.

    On the top of my mind, I cant think of any crpg that don't have it.

    It help discard Aventure game: They cant afford random encounter in their narrative
    And discard strategy game: all fight are more or less known about and expected.

    With this criteria you can count "Pirates!" in Crpg even when it's so borderline. And discard Ro3K

    1. Monkey Island is an adventure game and has random encounters. On the other hand, Betrayal at Krondor and Ultima Underworld are RPGs without random encounters.

      Random encounters are an unnecessary artifact of archaic design more than anything else. There is no reason why every battle cannot be fixed.

    2. I'm not quite sure what you are defining as a random encounter, but I can think of loads of CRPGs that don't have random encounters. In addition to Anon's suggestions, the Gothic series, one of the Addict's favourites M&M6, EOTB, etc.

    3. Yes, I have to go with anonymous on this. A ton of RPGs don't have random encounters. It's one of my biggest complaints with some otherwise-excellent ones. 98% of the encounters in the Infinity Engine games are fixed, for instance. (And most of the random ones occur when you try to sleep, or in BT2 when transitioning between zones.)

  14. For what it's worth, I suspect that the most RPG-ish (as we know it by 1989) adaptation of the Three Kingdoms epic is probably Destiny of an Emperor, which being an NES exclusive will never fall under your purview.

  15. [i]"The only strategy game that's really captured my heart is Warlords III"[/i]

    Wait, hold on - doesn't W3 fulfill all your criteria of a CRPG? IIRC it has weapons that you can give to your units ("inventory unrelated to puzzles"), rhose units gain experience ("character leveling and development") and of course combat not dependent on reflexes. If I'm remembering wrong, Warcraft 3 certainly has all three, and it's a pure strategy game.

    Your definition has another problem too - it arbitrarily rules out a hypothetical RPG with no combat. I see no inherent reason why a game where you use non-martial skills to explore a world and solve non-violent conflicts wouldn't be an RPG.

    Computer RPGs are a muddled thing, with no clear, generally accepted definition, and any attempt to boil it down to a single hard rule tends to leave out things that people understand to be RPGs, or let ones in that people don't. My preferred approach is to, instead of attempting to define it, point at games that everyone agrees are RPGs and say "RPGs are things like that". Not the most rigorous approach, but works.

    1. Yes. My point was that I would consider Warlords III a strategy/RPG hybrid, and would thus play it under my definitions. I guess I disagree that any game to feature all of my elements is a "pure strategy game."

  16. Your excellent blog has made me constantly rethink my definiton of RPGs. The term has to include both narrative driven RPGs and combat driven RPGs, that is, both Planescape: Torment and Chaos Strikes Back. For most criteria however, you can also find exceptions ( like: "Civilization is a CPRG because you play a single character and there are multiple ways to win!"). The role-playing genre is very broad but it might all come down to these four qualities that MUST be fulfilled:
    - Quests: YOU (your character/s) are given a task/tasks whose completion is well-defined (defeating the Lord of Chaos/Find Pharod and your journal)
    - Use of space: YOU (your character/s) need to cross space in person to fulfill that task (excluding most strategy games).
    - Inventories: YOU (your character/s) get stuff that you can use
    - RPG as a simulation of life: YOU (your character/s) can perform mundane tasks that improve your current state of well-being (eating/drinking/resting/acquiring life experience and accumulating skills - a separation from Adventure Games and Arcade games)

    Unfortunately, these rules are so general that they don't even include the characteristics most commonly connected with RPGs: combat, dialogue, decisions, puzzles. And it's the execution of precisely these additional characteristics that can make a truly great game.

    I think the exclusion of Rot3K was right, and it probably means that other games of this fashion have to be excluded as well, including Warriors of Releyne, an obscure Amiga game that I myself mentioned to you two weeks ago. It also means that X-Com would have to be excluded. And I also saw that Syndicate (1992) is on your playlist and you already confirmed that you want to play it. But it's "just" a strategy game - yes, you train characters, you can choose teams and have choices, but there is no single YOU, you are just a nameless head of a syndicate that wants to rule the world. And YOU, the CEO, do not join the missions.

    1. Agreed.

      Quests - You are to win the championship on Wrestlemania!
      Use of Space - You can run from the ring to the locker room like a true-blue roony-poo! Or duke it out at the parking lot!
      Inventory - Throw that mike into your opponent's face after trash talking to him! Lay the smackdown on him with a steel chair! Spray into his eyes with a fire extinguisher!
      RPG - Perform various exercises and go on promotional events to increase your physical attributes and gain popularity/money to unlock new clothing/moves!

      I don't know, man. It's so broad and... well... this game do contain many RPG mechanics, even though it's wrestling.

    2. Alexander, don´t take it in a bad way, but I can´t agree with your last paragraph, especially the last sentence, like with something, what helps you to distinguish, that some game is not RPG.
      What about for example Dungeon Master? You train characters, you can choose team and have choices, but there is no single YOU, you are... hm, nameless? about this I am not 100% sure... wizard or ghost or what, who doesn´t join that adventure personal. At least according to the manual.
      And sure DM is not only one in this.

    3. Chet, as I wrote few posts ago, strategy games are my favourites together with RPG´s, so maybe I have something to say about it.
      What is the main difference between them? I think it´s mostly about the story and also about the "depth" of the story. I can´t remember any RPG game without story. On the other hand you can have very good strategy game without any story.
      Some strategy games have some story, but often it could be just something like "ok, you successfully beat this opponent and now you must beat this one to continue", which I don´t consider as a story.
      I also don´t agree with you so much in that you must replay strategy games more times to fully or let´s say properly experience them.
      Or if yes, there are some pure and clear RPG´s from your definition, about which you could say the same. Now I speak about RPG´s with high replayability, when you can make different choices and they influence end of the game, quests which you get or don´t get etc.
      Yes, it´s something else to say for example "I won Civilization in the game with easy setting and four civilizations" and "I won Civilization in the game with Emperor setting and eight civilizations", but in some RPG´s is also very different to win the game on easy difficulty setting and win the game on hard difficulty setting.
      So, I think for the proper experience of strategy game is enough to finish the game one time.

  17. One of the biggest difference between a Strategy game and a CRPG is symmetry. In a strategy game (Civilization, Warlords, Chess) you and your opponents all start off with the same resources and the winner is who uses those resources more effectively. A CRPG is asymmetrical; you're a low level nobody and need to slowly get stronger and the entire game is built to allow you a pathway to do that. It would not be fun if you get crushed right away.

    Another difference is about clarity of the rules. In strategy games the rules are something you learn and eventually master so you can become more efficient at executing your tactics. In a CRPG you don't master the rules as they are frequently changing as you get more equipment, spells, levels, etc. You might become pretty proficient at some of the rules and tactics, but rules are there to provide a pathway not an arena.


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