Our Obsession With Builds Is Ruining RPGs

There has been a lot of talk about builds in games recently, particularly through Elden Ring. Our own Ben Sledge wrote about starting over in Elden Ring with a new build, and a big topic of debate has been to do with magic builds – these are seemingly easier builds, or at least ones that allow you to keep your distance more easily in battle, and are therefore deemed by some sections of the community as ‘cheating’. I don’t have time to get into that (okay, here’s three seconds: it’s stupid), but I do think it raises an interesting problem with the very idea of builds, especially in an RPG.

In a shooter game, I think builds are fine. It basically refers to your loadout: which gun is best for your playstyle, how can you offset its weaknesses with extras like grenades or flashbangs, and which sidearm ties the whole package together best. These builds can typically be changed with each match, although you may need to upgrade certain elements of this build through repeated wins or completed challenges. Still, shooter games have a very relaxed attitude towards builds. That’s why it’s especially weird that RPGs, where you’re supposed to be able to carve out your own identity, lock in right from the start.

Let’s take Elden Ring to start, although many other RPGs have the same issue, which I’ll get into below. Elden Ring has several starting builds which seem alien to outsiders because of their abstruse names, but are essentially two-handed weapons, dual-wield, sword-and-shield, various magic builds, and a thing called Wretch. Wretch has all the attributes equalled out, meaning you can take this character wherever. However, most players aren’t going to do this because Wretch is the hardest class to play as. It’s become a joke in Soulsborne games to include a starting class who basically exists for masochists to choose in order to receive some extra punishment.

This means before you’ve even played a single second of the game, you’re making one of the most important decisions you can make. Sure, you can switch up weapons as you go, but the reason so many people are starting over with Elden Ring is because there isn’t much room for less experienced players to force one type of build into becoming another by levelling up in specific ways. You’re supposed to carve out your own identity, but a huge part of that identity is decided before your journey even begins.

To pick a game I have written about with far more affection for than Elden Ring, which I just could not connect with the deliberate vagueness of, Dragon Age has the same problem. The first game, Origins, at least made your beginnings part of your overall journey, but it mostly comes down to Warrior, Mage, or Rogue. Rogue switches between dual-wield daggers and bows, but otherwise it’s a pretty extreme lock-in. You can still make all of the decisions you want, but you can’t fight your way. At least locking you into your race (say, Elf) makes narrative sense – an Elf cannot become a Qunari – but the idea that you can’t put down the magic staff and pick up a hammer makes less sense.

In fairness, Dragon Age is very clear about what these three choices are. Other RPGs, especially those that seemingly allow you to change stats at will but in practice lock you into choices made at the start, lose a lot of the role-playing potential in the build. The difference in builds makes for varied play, but it costs us our ability to write our own stories. Isn’t it more fun to be a wizard who picks up a hammer for the hell of it, rather than having to start over as a Warrior once you find out being a Mage isn’t for you?

Builds have always been a core part of games like this, but as more and more expand their storytelling, builds need to be part of that evolution. Even away from the narrative, if a game stops being fun, and there’s another way to play it, I shouldn’t have to go right back to the start (or find a hyper specific item, as some games allow you to do) in order to enjoy that new way to play. I should just be able to play it, builds be damned.

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