Recently, I got a chance to sit down and play Toby Fox’s Undertale. It was really great and I highly recommend playing it, if you haven’t already. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that considering how insanely popular the title has been. What I plan on doing here is trying to relate some of the cool ideas presented in the game back to tabletop roleplaying games.
Why? It just sounded like a fun idea and it might lead to some fun adventures in the future.
What Undertale Does Well
The biggest thing Undertale does right is subversion. It takes the appearance of a traditional console roleplaying game at first, but soon begins to play with your expectations. All of the monsters were part of a larger community, had their own cultures and desires, and killing them had real consequences.
This can be best felt in the “genocide” run of the game. You very soon become the villain of the story with entire towns clearing out from the fear of your presence. The same towns full of calm, simple folks in the neutral and pacifist runs.
In the world of monsters, you become the monster and the games makes sure you feel it. If you kill the boss who wants you to see the error of your ways and tries to befriend you, he dies while still claiming he knows you can be better. One of the other bosses is called the “Heroine” by the game for standing up to you. The last boss of the genocide run is just someone sad over losing their brother.
But it doesn’t just do it that way. It also does it by making everyone an interesting character. Toriel acts like a mother figure. Papyrus and Sans are a fun and charming duo of brothers. Undyne plays up the shonen comics hero trope. Mettaton is an eccentric pop-star. Dr. Alphys is just a shy nerd. Asgore is a kind-hearted king who doesn’t wish to harm you, but knows the only way to save his people is by stealing your soul. Even Flowey is a tragic figure in the end.
Even the incidental town characters, or even just the monsters you only run into in battle, have charm and personality.
Of course, this would all be lost if the game was boring.
Undertale avoids this by giving you two options. You could attack/kill them. This requires a timing mechanic which is fun, but underwhelming. Alternatively, and this is what the game wants, you treat every monster like a puzzle and use your available “ACT” options to make them not want to fight. The meat of the gameplay – bullethell style attack dodging- is kept in either situations.
This makes it more fun to be a pacifist, but you never level which makes the game harder. Alternatively, you can get stronger, but the gameplay can get more monotonous and you feel guilt over it.
The final, big thing Undertale gets right is that it remembers and isn’t afraid to judge. Everything you do, everything you say, the games remembers and has an opinion on it. Not only that, but it tends to cut right to the heart of the matter.
For example, around the end of the game, you are judged based on how much EXP you acquired. The scene is made to play out many, many different ways depending on what you did. This includes the game calling you absolutely putrid if you just killed one enemy since that implies you did it just to test things and it having a secret only unlockable by convincing the character you’re a time traveler by resetting and redoing the scene.
Video games are a steady state, objectively. Everything they can ever output is pre-decided by the developers long before the end product is ever given to the user. This approach, however, makes each playthrough feel different and almost makes the game feel alive: it helps it overcome that limitation, even if it is only an illusion.
How It Applies To Traditional Roleplaying Games
I. Interesting NPCs and Subversive Monsters
Now, I’ve explained a lot of what Undertale did well, but how does this apply to tabletop roleplaying games? A few different ways. For the most part, I’m going to limit this discussion to fantasy games as they are the most directly applicable, but one could apply this more generally.
In some ways, this isn’t new information, but it is something that not everyone knows: it can get boring if every npc is just a boring, cardboard cut-out. Don’t get me wrong, you could run a game where “a goblin is just a goblin” and it would go just fine. Many GMs do this approach, but it can be an interesting change for you and your players if you tried to subvert this approach.
Of course, you should always make sure your players would like this kind of approach and try not to force it if it isn’t working. That, of course, is something for you decide on your own.
But, to elaborate, it can really help selling an NPC to a playgroup if they got something to make them standout from the crowd. An interesting personality quirk, a funny way of talking, or just being a reference to something the group can relate towards.
Now, obviously, this could be hard to apply to every monster, but can be achieved by taking a macro lens to things. If monsters are treated as part of something bigger like a country or community, then they can have more motivation and reason for their actions. To some degree, a lot of games already do this, but it doesn’t always seem to come up in play and/or the monsters are given very objective judgement.
To elaborate on the later point, even if monsters are given a wider reason for being or a place to call home, they are often portrayed as objectively evil or “worth killing.” Now, that’s fine for most games and not all games need to put gray into things, but it can be interesting to portray them as something more human.
Maybe goblins seem like a bunch of marauding imps to humans, but the ones encountered are simply soldiers protecting their homeland: not cruel, simply following duty. Maybe the Orcs are only so hostile because their kingdom is in rough times with the kingdom of the heroes: not open hostility, but it breeds tension.
It could be even better to not divide monster’s reasons by species, but by culture. Not all kobolds belong to the same nation and the reason this band is hostile is due to strife in a community they share with other species.
Like I said previously, this isn’t a new idea, per say. One setting already comes to mind that has this, Wizard of the Coast’s Eberron, and there are certainly more settings that also follow this pattern. There are more blogs/books that have suggested this idea previously, but I still felt like it was worth mentioning.
One could also take very directly from Undertale where monsters aren’t even trying to attack the protagonist, most of the time. That it’s just that monsters, being beings of magic, interact in a manner which is dangerous to humans: the monsters aren’t attempting to hurt the protagonist, but they do so in an attempt to communicate.
That approach, especially if its not known player knowledge and is discovered in play, could both explain animosity between people and monsters as well as make an interesting “eye-opening” moment for the PCs.
Finally, it could be interesting to have monsters treat violent parties with the fear that people would treat them, like in Undertale. If PCs are just slaughtering enemies, the players are interested in exploring this type of game, and the group feels it would be fun, having monsters respond like the stereotypical villager would when monsters approach could be interesting.
Because the PCs just slaughter goblins whenever they show up, the goblin village is empty when they arrive with clear signs of evacuation, for example.
Older editions of Dungeons and Dragons had a good mechanic for this called Morale. Monsters would have to roll morale when certain conditions were met to avoid running away from a fight. Bringing back this rule, even applying it more often to the player characters if they are exceptionally violent, could make for an interesting exploration in how they are viewed outside their society and civilization, especially with some good roleplaying on the GM’s part.
II. Handling Social Situations
There are many, many games on the market that cater to a variety of needs and interests. That said, Gary Gygax’s original Dungeons and Dragons set the stage for it back in the day and one very widespread effect is an emphasis on combat. Most roleplaying games focus on combat, spend most of their rule space on combat, and consider it an expected way to end conflict.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all roleplaying games, but it applies to enough to discuss a lesson to take from Undertale. Yes, other games, as will be discussed, have come up with ideas to handle things I’ll bring up, but this is the framing device the article is using, so let’s keep to it.
One of the big things that downplays this approach is that it can be hard to gamify with the same level of complexity and interest as physical combat. I, personally, feel this come from a lack of games exploring the area. Or, I should say, big titles exploring such areas, as many indie titles have explored this area.
The three series of works that come to mind are Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, which is currently running a kickstarter, Vincent Baker’s Powered by the Apocalpyse engine and its related titles, and Starline Publishing’s Golden Sky Stories. These titles handle the issue in three different ways.
Burning Wheel has a separate system for handling a strong verbal argument: the Duel of Wits. The Duel of Wits is a subsystem as complex as the combat subsystems of the title. While I won’t describe the subsystem here as it would take a while and wouldn’t serve discussion, this gives weight and consequence to a social situation and allows for social gameplay to be as engrossing as physical combat.
The Powered By The Apocalypse engine and its related titles handle the divide by handling combat and social situations with the same mechanics: the very moves that underpin the entire game. By making them share the same mechanics, there is no “interest” incentive to engage in combat nor do verbal disagreements ever feel weaker than the alternative, gameplay-wise.
Golden Sky Stories doesn’t even deal with combat. It’s focus is on “heartwarming” adventures where spirits help people in their day to day lives. The mechanics focus on how ones abilities can help solve minor situations and the relationship one builds with others.
Why did I bring all this up and what does it have to do with Undertale? It can be interesting to try to give more mechanical weight to social situations to help games break from the traditional mold. That isn’t to say there is anything wrong with that mold, but it can be interesting to break out and explore new territories.
That’s what Undertale did for console roleplaying games and it can be interesting for people in the industry to do the same in traditional roleplaying games.
Now, most of the above in this section could be considered developer facing, but there is somethings that game masters can do to allow for less violent resolution.
Most games do have some situation for resolving social situations and offering more situations where they are applicable can create a change of pace for most games. Back in the day, it was actually pretty encouraged to avoid combat by things like sneaking and talking your way through. Of course, this could end up feeling underwhelming to those who want some more tactics in the game.
Unfortunately, I can’t give advice on how to interject them into every game, but it could be a fun exercise to try to homebrew mechanics into the game, if this idea appeals to you. Homebrew is a great gateway into larger projects and it tend to come with plenty of forums to exchange ideas, receive honest feedback, and get playtesters.
As parting note, due to the boom of the OGL back in the early 2000s, there are a lot of d20 games on the market, such as Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and there just happens to be an excellent generic subsystem that could help interject these elements into those game. Ryven Cedrylle’s Skill Challenge Handbook adds in a great subsystem that can be added to any d20 game that can be tailored to make social encounters a more interesting alternative. To those getting flashbacks to Star Wars SAGA’s Extended Skill Checks and 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragon’s Skill Challenges, this subsystem is different and, personal preference, better than those prior ones and is worth a look.
III. A World That Remembers And Changes
I’ve been the Gamemaster for a lot of campaigns and I’m well-known for being anti-notes. Not as a statement, but just because I’m unbelievably lazy/busy with other things. So, I know this could be the hardest thing Undertale did right to put into a game. Unless you’re the type to keep meticulous notes, it can be hard and, even if you are that type, it can be hard to consider when certain things should come up.
Well, unfortunately, my advice on this is a little bland, but it might open discussion where more interesting ideas are discussed so…tally ho!
Personally, I often forget what happens from session to session due to real life and, on more than one occasion, had to ask my players to remind me of the bigger moments. That said, the way I make everything work out in the end and have arcs is I try to remember the big moments and their character’s motivations.
For example, in the Andrew Medeiros’ Urban Shadows campaign I ran for a year, I had a character play a Ghost who was kept in this world by his daughter. While I would often forget a lot about what happened in a session, for her, I kept in mind the relationship milestones she had with his daughter. You see, originally, she tried to never interact with her to avoid reopening wounds. Not exactly healthy nor sustainable. So, since their relationship was one of the key motivators for the player, I always kept in mind what happened with that aspect in each session. That way their own personal story-arc that the player personally was interested in seeing develop remained consistent and grew.
To be honest, this is how most videos games are programmed. They look for flags left behind when something triggered and use it to trigger an event later on. Undertale increased the number of flags and had flags persist between resets and multiple playthroughs.
Look into what flags matter to your game, to the characters, and to the players and keep those in mind. Let them trigger future events as they arise. Maybe even keep ones in the background and let those trigger off-screen to give a sense of a living world. I did that in the US campaign for that very effect.
Like I said, a little bland and almost certainly prescribed by others.
It might seem odd that I tried to do a somewhat superficial dissection of Undertale then apply those observations to tabletop roleplaying, but I think it’s a good exercise. Besides being generally fun and an interesting way to digest a game, I can see this opening up ideas for development and play, as demonstrated above. While I don’t feel like I really broke any new ground in this attempt, I feel it does open interesting discussion and I feel it can going forward, if I do more.
Also, I feel it would be a good move for developers in general to do something like this, as pretentious as that sounds. Assuming people don’t already do this, it could be a great way to expand out and learn from one of our sister hobbies, video games. Even as just a business decision, it might be good as understanding, or at least trying to understand, what younger audiences like in their roleplaying games could help develop titles that will appeal to newcomers into the hobby.
Don’t get me wrong, we got a cool thing going on with our flavor, but there is room for more options and it’s usually good and fun to experiment with new concepts. Besides, it’s kind of boring to stagnate and never break out of your circle, in my opinion. It’s not like our old favorites cease to exist if we make new ones to love.
Like I said in the beginning of this section, I had fun writing this article. It’s likely far from perfect and I’m sure many people — if anyone ever reads this — will have a problem with it. And that’s good since spurring discussion was part of the point.
I might do more of this in the future. It’d be a good excuse to replay From Software’s Dark Souls. I might even do this with other Tabletop RPGs. It would be especially fun with Kotodama Heavy Industries’ Tenra Bansho Zero which breaks from tradition in interesting and fun ways.
I hope you all enjoyed reading this, have a good day, and have fun gaming!