Fantasy strategy-RPGs and the limits of 'RPG elements'

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Fantasy strategyRPGs and the limits of 'RPG elements'

In theory, fantasy strategy games should be my favorite kinds of games. I am certainly a fan of the fantasy genre generally, and role-playing games and strategy games are my favorite game genres. Fantasy strategy games combine all of those elements, so they should be a guaranteed success, right? And yet they're not my favorite games. I enjoy them, certainly, but if I were making a list of my all-time favorites, they wouldn't show up toward the top. Examining the subgenre as a whole makes me realize that combining RPGs and strategy games is part of the problem. Too many good things doesn't necessarily lead to great things.

Elemental: War Of Magic was supposed to be the ultimate fantasy strategy game. It was supposed to combine the best of RPGs with the best of strategy games with an impressive fantasy setting. Ultimately it was crushed under the weight of its own ideas and egos, went through a disastrous development cycle and launched as a broken disappointment.

I've been enjoying the game's sequel/reboot, Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, though. Its post-magical-apocalyptic setting is specific and intriguing. Both its strategic and tactical decisions seem to be legitimately compelling (especially its exploration/expansion systems), and it's a stable product. But unlike an RPG like Dragon Age or strategy title like Civilization, I don't love Fallen Enchantress.

Fantasy strategyRPGs and the limits of 'RPG elements'

Part of the reason for this is that I find my progress in Fallen Enchantress as a strategy game ties too much into my progress in Fallen Enchantress as an RPG. You start the game with the leader of your kingdom/empire as an in-game hero unit, who has an inventory and goes up levels, just like an RPG hero. It also uses tactical combat, which is fairly simple compared to a pure tactics game like XCOM or Disgaea, but wouldn't be out of place if compared to older games like Shining Force or the Gold Box series.

Fallen Enchantress also punishes you, potentially severely, for taking too many risks with your RPG units. If your leader is defeated in combat, he or she is teleported back to your capital and cannot move for five turns. This, on its own, could be a pretty severe punishment in the initial race to explore the world. What makes it worse is that it's combined with an even more punishing system for non-leader heroes, at least one of which will be an essential part of the early game in Fallen Enchantress. Every time they get defeated, they have a random penalizing trait added. Some of those traits are cosmetic, like "Just a scratch," which does nothing. Some are annoyances, like "Broken nose," which knocks off a percentage of total hit points. But some cripple the character for good, like those that permanently damage the "Initiative" stat for a character type built around high Initiative.

This has the effect of making me play a strategy/RPG by attempting to consider both halves of the genre without those halves ever actually coming together to make my experience better. I can't play Fallen Enchantress like an RPG, since RPGs rightfully don't include these permanent penalties for risk-taking. Nor can I play it entirely like a strategy game early on, because I'm far too concerned about ensuring that individual characters survive. I can make myself balance these two distinct urges and enjoy Fallen Enchantress, but I always feel like it's holding me at arm's length.

It's hardly limited to Fallen Enchantress, either. It's understandable why fantasy strategy games would try to have as many RPG elements as possible – both the fantasy genre and the role-playing medium are built around heroic ideals like those found in The Lord Of The Rings. Strategy games with historical or science-fiction tend not to have that baggage, so even if they include heroes, they're not usually the main focus of the game. It's still an effective strategy game on its own merits. But many of the fantasy strategy games can't be separated from their RPG elements, which leads to problems.

For example, Warcraft 3 is one of my favorite real-time strategy games for its single-player mode. That campaign has a surprisingly interesting storyline, and a wide variety of different mission types in each scenario. But if I play Warcraft 3 outside of its story mode, particularly in multiplayer, it falls apart for me. The issue is that the RPG elements take extreme priority outside of the campaign. In the story scenarios, your heroes will gain one or two levels in each mission – enough to give the RPG flavor, but not so much that it dominates. However, in multiplayer, the game becomes a race to gain levels, which worked for many fans, but alienated me – turning into a speed run negated the joys that RPGs possess, while the dominating power of the heroes limited Warcraft 3's strengths as a strategy game.

Indeed, when I think about the fantasy strategy games I've enjoyed the most, they tend to be the games that have the most limited RPG elements. Warlords 3 may be subtitled Reign Of Heroes, and heroes are certainly useful in it, but they're totally integrated with the other strategy elements of that game. It's possible to lose a hero, or two, or three, and still succeed, in a way that doesn't necessarily feel as viable in Fallen Enchantress or others. Letting heroes and any other units die, is, I think, part of what separates strategy games (like the brutal XCOM) from RPGs.

Fantasy strategyRPGs and the limits of 'RPG elements'

Combining the two doesn't always work. I also think that the RPG-like tactical combat employed by fantasy strategy games from Master of Magic to Heroes of Might and Magic to Fallen Enchantress tends to slow the pace of the games in a way that feels disjointed. Last year's surprisingly excellent Warlock: Master of the Arcane, for example, eschewed tactical combat and hero units entirely, and I think was better for it.

These struggles serve as a sort of warning, I think. As much as I may love RPGs, that doesn't necessarily mean that RPG elements will work in other situations. That RPGs can be combined with action games well, in Mass Effect for example, doesn't mean that action games in general will be improved by including RPG elements. And just because the fantasy setting makes it seem like powerful heroes are required doesn't mean that strategy games and RPGs are going to be better when combined.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.