A lot of our knowledge and beliefs are adopted uncritically and unconsciously as we grow up. If we critically examined some of these beliefs we'd immediately see them to be ludicrous. Modern culture comes from a long line of earlier cultures rising and declining, spreading humanity around the globe. These cultures gave birth to memes older than Western civilization. Ideas spread from brain to brain down the ages becoming sacred truths we don't even think to question. These ideas unconsciously affect us everyday, including our design of JRPGs!
“Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo---which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead."
-Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
So what's the beef with Aristotle? Well he came up with a really catchy idea - if I ask you what the four elements are you'll be able to list:
This fact is so deeply embedded in our collective culture we don't even question it. But if you think about it for a little bit, it's just nonsense. These aren't elements, we know water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, earth can mean a variety of things, fire is a reaction and wind is a wave. Stupid Aristotle - look how wrong you got it!
Play a JRPG and watch as a water element takes double damage from fire magic, we swirl our sherries and mutter "Yes, yes, this is way of the world". But it's nonsense!
Of course nonsense is an important foundation of RPGs but the four elements is such a strong meme it is ubiquitous! Nearly all RPGs have these elements and weaknesses. Thanks Aristotle.
From fire we get fire spells, water we get ice and freeze spells, earth we get earthquake spells and wind we get lighting and tornados. Maybe the first time you played an RPG and you cast ice on a fire element and it did double damage, you thought "Awesome, that's so cool!" but when it's standard in every game, it's passé, why even have it?
Variations on a Theme
In truth Aristotle was the grandfather of Western civilization and one of our cultural giants - not stupid at all!
It's unlikely he even came up with the elemental system as it exists in many different and older cultures. This idea has been with us for a long time (or the niche this idea fits into has been with us for a long time). Many civilizations also have their own element systems.
- Fire, Air, Water and Earth
- Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Void
- Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, Water
The America's don't seem to have any of these systems so we can guess it started in the Middle East / Egypt and travelled east to be forever bound up in the JRPG.
The Function of Element Systems
Element systems add a veneer of strategy to combat in JRPGs.
Elements encourage the player to act in certain ways:
- Learn enemy weaknesses.
- Restricting spell/weapon choice based on the knowledge of weakness.
- Enemies as a lock and an element attack as key. (See Lock and Key Puzzles.)
If you know a dragon is resistant to fire, then that restricts your action - you're far less likely to cast fire spells. Finding out that a dragon is resistant to fire is also pretty cool the first time it happens and can be used to predict the resistances of say, an ice dragon. This has the potential to make the player feel clever which is always a good thing.
A enemy that can only be killed with fire - like a troll - may serve as a lock, until the player learns or discovers the first fire spell or weapon.
But can't we think of new ways to achieve the same or more layers of strategy?
A World Without Aristotle
Imagine a world without Aristotle, what would our RPGs look like? No longer bound by ancient elemental rock-paper-scissors.
It's hard to imagine a new world when you're so use to the old one.
How about a world with multiple gods and a complicated net of alliances and warring relationships. Each creature in the world was created by one of the gods and the god will help them depending on who they attack. That could be cool!
Combat is actually one of the more inventive parts of the JRPG genre. Games are always tweaking the basic formula but it tends to be evolution not revolution.
What if we threw out all the rules and started from scratch? There are two prongs of attack for a brand new combat system Mechanics and Thematics.
Mechanics are how the combat system functions. Where might inspiration for new mechanics lie - how about card games and board games?
Board and card games are a great source of game mechanics and carefully thought out strategy we can use as inspiration for JRPG combat.
Don't feel a need to emulate strategy or tactics in the real-world. Fun is more important.
Here's some great places to start.
In these games combat is decided by dice rolls. Easy to translate to code. Often non-standard dice are used, for instance pictures of swords, skulls and shields instead of numbers. Check these out:
How about cards to represent combat? There's still a random element based on deck shuffling but these tend to be more strategic games than the dice games. Check these out as a starting point.
Board game and pen & paper RPG creators often make their rule systems available for free on the net, so make sure to have a search around.
If the element system came from Ancient Greece, how about a look at a different ancient culture. The Hindu Verdas, the mythologies of the Inuit, the Aztec, Ainu, Ancient Chinese, Mesopotamians, Vikings etc. Or how about a more modern post-Aristotle religion or cult? There's lots of rich source material to draw from and then you are free to reshape it as you desire.
Here are some interesting places to draw inspiration from
- Balinese Home Shrines
- Aboriginal Dreamtime
- English Occultism & Aleister Crowley
- Olmec Religion - though no one really knows
Imagine gaming system based on the universes these links suggest. How different things might be!
Games and RPG games are only a few decades old, we're right at the start of the art-form. Will they wither and die or evolve into something new? Maybe you can be part of that answer!