December 7, 2023
Link to article: Tabletop Lessons from Final Fantasy I

Tabletop Lessons from Final Fantasy I

A while back, I finished playing through the first Final Fantasy game over on our Twitch channel. The game is such an odd artifact from a bygone age. Even with the quality of life improvements throughout generations of remakes, the core of the game is still so archaic and idiosyncratic in many ways. Item and ability descriptions are vague, the core gameplay loop is simple, and modern notions of storytelling are almost entirely absent.

The eight bit era of gaming seems so alien to modern videogame sensibilities. If we consider Final Fantasy’s table top influences, it seems doubly removed from current TTRPG design philosophy. But aside from nostalgia, I did find the gameplay of Final Fantasy oddly engrossing. Like most DMs, I’m constantly looking to steal ideas for my next campaign or adventure from whatever media is in front of me. Of course, throughout the course of my playthrough, in the back of my mind I was trying to tease out whatever I could learn from this venerable classic. 

Here are just a few lessons I took away from the first Final Fantasy:

Let Go of Old Tropes

The first Final Fantasy I was really cognizant of was VII. As a kid, I remember seeing a big stand up cardboard display of Cloud holding the buster sword in the window of an EB Games in the mall. With just that small glimpse into the setting of the franchise, it was pretty clear the games had a futuristic, science fiction vibe. 

Despite playing through a large chunk of the NES library, I was completely unaware of the first entry in the series. None of my friends had it, and I can’t really recall ever seeing it at my local rental place. Once emulation became common, I eventually got around to playing the original. It was very surprising to see how generic the world of Final Fantasy was. Specifically, I was taken aback to see elves and dwarves. I was further surprised at how boring they were.

Other than having slightly different appearance, the city of Elfheim functioned exactly like the human settlements. They had an inn, shops and magic tutors just like everyone else. The dwarves at least live underground and are capable of forging the best sword in the game (more on that later). But aside from a little more window dressing, the entire dwarven city of Duergar could have easily been a human mining operation.

In contrast, there is an archipelago of islands inhabited by dragons a bit later in the game. Called the Cardia Islands, it’s unclear how the creatures will receive you. A maze of tunnels spread out over a disjointed chain of land ruled over by giant flying reptiles is not something you see every day. Over in the east, a mysterious village called Lufenia is populated by people speaking an incomprehensible language. After recovering a Rosetta Stone, you are able to learn that they descend from a civilization called the “sky people” that possessed impossibly advanced technology.

As you build your game world, I think it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you’re including some fantasy stock elements. Encountering the boilerplate elves and dwarves ultimately took away from my experience. Furthermore, because Elfheim and Duergar show up relatively early in the game, they ran the risk of disengaging me before I got to the more interesting locales. It’s perfectly acceptable to just leave elves or dwarves out of your fantasy setting if you don’t have any interesting ideas for them. It’s far better to focus your time and energy on things that are going to make your world stand out rather than blend in.

Make Magic a Journey

As it turns out, black mages are pretty powerful. Granted, I’m a bit of a rube, but nothing is more satisfying than spamming their elemental damage spells. In FF1, new spells are primarily acquired by going into magic shops and buying them. As a result, the first thing I did when entering any town was make a B-line for these stores hoping to raise my firepower. And I’m sorry, but if the choice is between “mass lightning V” or new plate armor for the fighter, the fighter shall go wanting.

D&D 5e, wizards are supposed to seek out new spells as they progress as well. From the PHB on getting new spells:

“The spells that you add to your spellbook as you gain levels reflect the arcane research you conduct on your own, as well as intellectual breakthroughs you have had about the nature of the multiverse. You might find other spells during your adventures. You could discover a spell recorded on a scroll in an evil wizard’s chest, for example, or in a dusty tome in an ancient library.”

Maybe this is only an issue in games I’ve played in, but I’ve rarely if ever seen a wizard spend any significant amount of time seeking out new spells. Searching for new spells provides ample opportunity for encounters. Even if you don’t make this process the core of an adventure (or even a sidequest for that matter), there’s still quite a bit of excitement to be had just adding in magic tutors in some towns. It gives the DM a chance to introduce intriguing NPCs for fun roleplay encounters. Since the magic tutors would naturally be spending a great deal of their time talking to spellcasters, they could become vital sources for plot hooks or background information.

I’m just going to throw out a sample magic tutor: Gorlon the Sullen Abjurer. In your next game, casually mention Gorlon the Sullen Abjurer; I dare you. 

Get Weird and Refuse to Explain Yourself

At a pivotal point in the game, you’re tasked by a dragon king with proving your valor. Long story short, you battle your way through a tough dungeon and are given a rat tail. It’s never explained exactly why, but this is considered incontrovertible proof of your skill and bravery. It never comes up again after this point.

Ever since I first found it, I’ve been stuck on what the rat tail is supposed to signify. Is it symbolic of how degraded the world has become? Is it a commentary suggesting that treasure is really unimportant because the dungeon was the reward? I don’t know, I probably never will, and I love that.

Think of the Star Wars movies. In a New Hope, C-3PO ambles onto the screen. We are treated to a golden, effete robot with a permanent expression of shock on his face. There’s a lot to take in there, and it makes C-3PO great. For some reason, George Lucas thought we needed an explanation of how he came to be in the prequels. Turns out, he was built. Built by a child no less, but knowing where he came from detracted rather than added. Answering the question of the droid’s origins destroys a minor mystery and takes away mystique from the character. The trend of over-explaining in pop-culture has only intensified since then. Every character gets a prequel or a side-story to explain everything about how they came to be. Take the Aliens franchise as another example. The xenomorphs have only become less scary and interesting with every sequel/prequel adding more explanation.

The rat tail being such a critical item in Final Fantasy makes the game’s refusal to elaborate even more tantalizing. I’m glad this seems perfectly reasonable to all the NPCs. How many other fetch quest items can you vividly recall? Resist the urge to backfill everything with lore.

Really early on in the game, you run into a dwarven smith, who makes an offhand remark about how he could make a great weapon if only he had some adamantite to work with. I looked around the immediate surroundings and couldn’t find any, so I made a mental note and moved on. Like 20 hours later I found the adamantite. By this point, I had completely forgotten about this one line from an NPC and was left wondering, “huh, what is this stuff for?” Turns out, giving this mythical metal to the dwarf nets you Excalibur, which is one of (if not THE) best weapons in the game. It does every type of elemental damage, and is just an out and out beast. 

Problem is, even if I had remembered to go back and get Excalibur at this point, it was so late in the game I would have only been able to use it for the last dungeon. Tying into the previous point, a great deal of time and effort goes into trying to thwart player characters. I feel like not enough time goes into letting them feel like exceptionally powerful figures in the world.

Allow Your Players to Grow in Stature

Shortly after the business with the rat tail, your party gains new classes. The mages become wizards, the thief becomes a ninja, and the warrior becomes a knight. Not only do they become more powerful, their sprites get an upgrade too. It might seem like a minor touch, but absent more explicit storytelling, it’s the largest indication the characters you’re controlling have gained skills, power, and experience on their journey. For the rest of the game, you have a constant visual reminder that your ragtag band of adventures aren’t the same provincial nobodies they were at the start— they’re heroes now.

One of the few things modern players might enjoy about the 1978 edition of D&D is that every class gained titles along with new abilities as they leveled up. For example, the thief class began as a mere apprentice but would soon ascend to a footpad and eventually earn the rank of master thief. It’s not a huge difference, but I think it gives players a good measuring stick and a nice reminder of all they’ve accomplished.

As we all know, most plans D&D parties make go up in flames pretty quickly. Although most of us are able to come up with some way to get out of the jams we create for ourselves, it’s easy to feel like a perennial goober. The way the game is set up, you’re going to roll a natural one at some critical juncture and look like a doofus. Giving the players some reminder that, even when something they try goes spectacularly wrong, they’ve come so far from then they were level one ding-dongs.

Just Give Them the Stupid Sword

If you consider King Aurther’s sword, from which this magic item takes its name, he got his awesome weapon very early on. I’m not saying every paladin should find a holy avenger at level three, but for the love god, give them more than one session with the super powerful gear.

In making these observations my intention is not to say you should model your next campaign after a mid-eighties grind fest. But that being said, it’s remarkable that people are still paying for remasters all these years later. There’s quite a bit of Final Fantasy you can write off, but I think the lessons we can take from this game absolutely outweigh the outmoded elements and give a glimpse into how to make a memorable story arc for the console or the table.