|Character art for Rydia of Mist|
for Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.
Art by Yoshitaka Amano;
©2008 Square Enix
Final Fantasy: A Brief History
If you aren't familiar, the early Final Fantasy games were designed to imitate OD&D with a dash of Expert and Companion mechanically. The cleric was rebranded as a white mage, the magic user a black mage (and spells mostly simplified to attacks), the monk was renamed "black belt." A sword wielding spellcaster with limited access to both healing and attack magic was created called the Red mage, Fighters and Thieves remained Fighters and Thieves; the latter has the ability to steal extra treasure and potions from enemies. In the first two games, you built a party of four and went on an adventure to save the world
|Mind Flayer attack in Final Fantasy|
the Flayers were renamed "Wizards"
While many of the Final Fantasy games were breakaway hits globally, the first few English translations: Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IV (sold as "Final Fantasy II" originally), Final Fantasy VI (sold as "Final Fantasy III"), Final Fantasy Seiken Densetsu ("Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest") and Final Fantasy Seiken Densetsu 2 (sold as Secret of Mana) were relatively niche products that sold primarily to Dungeons & Dragons players.
It wasn't until the release of the more cyberpunk Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation that the games found more widespread popularity with video gamers who weren't also fans of D&D.
These early games were simplistic adventures with a linear series of dungeons to explore and combat as the only real means of solving problems.
As the series evolved, the mechanics drifted somewhat from D&D, and it made up for the lack of non-combat solutions to problems by making combat increasingly complex. To make up for the necessary railroading that games required at the time, the characters were given dialogue, unique identities with backstories, motivations and complex relationships to add a sense of complexity to the game's plot.
By Final Fantasy IV hit the Western market these stories had become fairly compelling, if a bit soap-operatic. A large cast of playable characters came and went from the party, often sacrificing themselves heroically for the cause only to return in dramatic battles. Plot twists and revelations were your reward for exploring the dungeons and defeating the enemy
Thanks to the overlap in fandoms, Final Fantasy IV's plot and characters, were beloved by many Dungeons & Dragons players who also played Nintendo games. Especially ones who had started the game relatively young in the mid-80s (Mentzer Box kids like me.) In fact, several outlets have stated that Final Fantasy IV raised the bar for storytelling in both video games and the fantasy genre in general. It is being a visible influence on the genre of high and heroic fantasy for decades now.
With the already burgeoning focus on campaigns with an overarching narrative that had come from the Dragonlance modules and novels, and early Forgotten Realms material like Under Ilefârn, Final Fantasy IV provided GMs looking for a model of plot structure to emulate.
The Mark of the Early Games
On the upside, Final Fantasy IV posted a huge cast of characters both player characters and NPCs that range from the helpful to the fiendish. It embraced stories of valor, heroism, self-sacrifice and courage which made it stand out in the video game world. The characters also weren't sacred. One ended up dead, and another permanently crippled early in the story. Another spent over half the campaign enslaved under mind control that was bolstered by his jealousy of the hero.
The world itself was sprawling, and had more that players had to discover in order to move forward. These are all characteristics I consider fantastic if you want to campaign that is long-lasting and satisfying to your players.
Final Fantasy VI, while less influential in retrospect, was not afraid to mix science fiction and fantasy in ways that felt a lot like the work of Jack Vance, and helped push players of the age away from focusing on the Tolkeinian fantasy that Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance had made the default for D&D. The story of FFVI includes a madman stealing the powers of the gods and bringing about an apocalypse that the PCs survive, scattered. The latter half of the game is about survival and rebuilding. The "world shaking event" plot pivot become a core of how campaigning Dungeons & Dragons is taught and played.
The villains of FFVI were complex, and in some cases were decent, noble people with good intentions serving a bad cause. They strongly encouraged creating villains with depth and complexity. And where there were villains so vile as to be irredeemable, they gave reasons for how the character became monstrous that makes them at least a little sympathetic.
Other elements, such as a little whimsy, a conscious choice to create a fantastical world rather than an attempt to simulate Medieval Europe, and the import of a number of Japanese storytelling and character tropes all had a positive impact on how Fantasy RPGs were played.
|Final Fantasy IV cast portrait; Art by Yoshitaka Amano; ©1991 Squaresoft|
On the other hand, Final Fantasy games can be ham-fisted in service to it s narrative. Plot takes precedence over player agency, even at the expense of ruining the players' sense of accomplishment.
In every early Final Fantasy there were battles you were not meant to win or that you could only win if you made choices preferred by the developers. More than once, a terrible monster shows up and scatters the party to where they need to be for the next step of the plot, with no recourse by the players.
The primary villain of FFIV, Golbez doesn't follow the rules, he survives supposedly un-survivable attacks that cost player characters their lives, stealing your victory out from under you several times, making heroic sacrifices hollow.
Most significantly, the narratives of Final Fantasy require a hero with a mysterious past to function. While all other characters come and go, the character of Cecil is always front and center to the story. He serves as its chosen One, moral compass, and his knowledge serves as the constraint on the players point of view.
Final Fantasy VI added in the aggravating archetype of the silent edgy loner helps who the party and then leaves it or betrays it, the tragic swordsman who was motivated only by avenging his lost family, royal twins who parted ways for one to become a wandering hero, and magical mimes who can initiate any skill they see.
None of these on their own are particularly heinous and work fine for what is essentially of fantasy novel delivered by menu-based strategy game
Lost in Translation
However, attempting to shoehorn them into role playing games... That is very tricky ground.
It doesn't take you long reading through something like r/rpghorrorstories to come across someone attempting to shoehorn tropes from or popularized by the Final Fantasy games:
- GMs giving a character the role of chosen hero.
- Suddenly changing a villain on the fly to nullify a PCs success.
- Battles PCs are "meant" to lose.
- Mind-controlled allies turning on the players
- Edgelord loner PCs (especially ninjas or guys with vicious dogs.).
- Heroes who discover that they magical inhuman bloodlines. (FFVI and FFVII)
- PCs who refuse to speak (FFVI)
- Characters that wield impossible swords (FFVII)
- Secretly gender-bent PCs (FFV)
- Witholding a PC's knowledge via amnesia until a critical moment has passed (FFV)
These tropes foisted on a game of D&D are great ways to kill a campaign
|Edgelord Patient Zero|
If you have suffered through
a dark, mysterious PC who
never talks and goes off on
his own without warning
you have Shadow to thank.
The Ascendancy of Plot
Emulating them encourages GMs to think in terms of "plot" and tempts them into railroading behavior. They can find themselves expecting a players to see plot revelation of their "living novel," the reward, and became less interested in offering the PCs rewards and satisfying challenges. (In fact, the whole 'milestone' advancement method seems to descend from this mindset. As is the habit of players wanting to being characters with elaborate backstory and motivations at the beginning of the story, rather than waiting to discover them.
The need for an epic, heroic saga fundamentally changes the focus of the game; rather than characters taking big risks to earn treasure, knowledge that was the core of the Dungeons & Dragons game loop, the game becomes a tale of heroism that focuses on derring-do. It changes the game from one about creative problem solving to one about combat.
The push to have GMs pre-create a complex plot that the characters ride rails to uncover created a schism in the way players perceive the purpose of role-playing games, and what the roles of GMs and PCs were in the world. I think this schism ultimately led to the creation of the Storygame genre on some levels. Dungeons & Dragons is not really meant to tell stories or have a plot: those things are emergent as players make choices and the dice fall. It is terrible at facilitating pre-designed plots. Making a new kind of game that does a better job of that is a natural, logical consequence.
Final Fantasy is a cultural institution globally. It was at first designed to emulate Dungeons & Dragons, and then took off to become a thing all its own. Now it has a far larger fanbase than TTRPGs ever could hope to have. But the fact that it was very much tied to its D&D roots until around the time Final Fantasy VII was released has meant that it has had a constant dialogue with D&D among the fans of both - which is a very large cohort of the second generation of Dungeons & Dragons players. Its fantasy settings and sophisticated characters did wonders for the richness of the fame when they were emulated.
On the other hand, some of the tropes used to subordinate the game to the Narrative are fundamentally at odds with good GMing. An attempt to emulate those parts of Final Fantasy have created some of the worst, most abusive conventions in table-top gaming culture.
The plots and Narrative of Final Fantasy, because they are rich and rewarding can be aspirational to a GM , but simply cannot be forced in a a role-playing game. The desire to be able to have more of that aspect of a living, visually engaging novel helped reshape the way D&D rewards its players, what motivates gameplay, and ultimately helped give rise to the Storygame genre.
The influence of the Final Fantasy games on the shape of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy TTRPGs and media are easily seen and felt today in the way the game is structured. the common bad habits of new GMs, and even how campaigns are designed. But the release of these games happened in a surprisingly short window of time just as the second generation of D&D players were developing their sense of style,.and looking about for inspiration. It might also be poignant to consider that they coincided with new editions of D&D (the Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D2e, the Black Box) that didn't include Appendix-N. The 90s D&D was not a gateway into the pulps the way its predecessors had been. Final Fantasy was perfectly timed to fill the void of role model for a campaign It is easy for players slightly older and younger to look at the cultural shift that occurred in gaming and wonder "what happened?" and "where did this trope come from?"
And many younger players looking at the modern, schizmatic nature of the hobby might not get how or why the divide between those who want story and those who just want to let the narrative emerge became so pronounced.
The role of Final Fantasy is an important but often missing piece of the hobby's history,