A few weeks ago, I watched a video called ‘Why Final Fantasy VII Matters’ made by YouTuber ‘Mr Itchy Wrath’. It came out a year ago and has 644k views, 7.5k likes, and well over a thousand comments – which is pretty remarkable, considering this is a video which is longer than two of the three Lord of the Rings films about a video game that came out 26 years ago. (Yes, I watched it in its entirety. No, I did not do so in one sitting.)
It’s a great video. And it reminded me how rich the original game was: how ahead of its time, relevant, loved.
There are two other reasons why FF7 came back to me recently, inspiring this post. One was an article in The Gamer about Baldur’s Gate 3, and how important an influence FF7 was for the game’s writers. The other was the imminent release of Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, the highly anticipated sequel to the 2020 Remake. Whatever it was, something has got me thinking about FF7, and as always, I’m wondering how we can make it work in the world’s most popular roleplaying game.
So: if, like me, you love Final Fantasy VII and D&D – this article is for you.
Perhaps the most iconic image in Final Fantasy VII is the one in its opening cinematic: a sprawling, post-industrial, dystopian city-state, powered by green smoking Mako reactors and ruled over by the Shinra megacorporation. It’s so good that the opening of the 2020 remake copies it almost shot for shot.
D&D already has megacities like Sharn (Eberron) and Sigil (Planescape), but you could lean into the darker parts of these settings and develop more of a cyberpark aesthetic. You could also incorporate broader aspects of the FF7 world: the untamed wilderness, the ancient ruins and temples, Shinra military bases, the proud, traditionalist nation of Wutai. But it’s Midgar which arguably defines the game’s story.
One of the reasons FF7 was so ahead of its time, and remains so relevant, is the prescience of its themes. This is a highly political game. The creators have gone on record to say that the game’s main theme is life, but within that the game covers environmentalism, class struggle, exploitation, corruption and greed, trauma, sacrifice, and identity.
You can weave these themes into a D&D campaign in all sorts of ways. Factions and NPCs, settings, characters, quests: FF7’s themes can permeate every aspect of your world-building. Perhaps there is a powerful guild like Shrina – in Eberron, one of the dragonmarked houses could fill a similar role – and AVALANCHE could be some kind of druid or ranger circle. Perhaps you want to incorporate the defiling mechanics of Dark Sun to show the harm arcane magic can cause to the planet. Perhaps, like Cloud, one of the player characters has a traumatic backstory with false memories, lost time, and a link to the main antagonist.
Speaking of antagonists . . .
What makes the characters of Final Fantasy VII so interesting? I’m not talking about mechanics here – ‘Cloud is a 7th-level fighter’ and what have you. Nor am I thinking about their visual design, their abilities, their limit breaks et cetera. I’m talking about character from a more writerly perspective.
I have some thoughts on this.
The best characters evolve: they have an arc. The same is true of Final Fantasy VII. These characters have depth, histories; they are tied to the world. They have flaws, vulnerabilities. We see their relationships grow with each other. Most of all, they have personal stakes: a reason to fight.
We can do all of these things at character creation. A good session zero is essential. Make your character with the rest of your group. Talk to the DM and learn about their world. You are a main character but not the main character. You need real flaws and real decisions to make. Skip this deep thinking, and your character will be a cardboard cutout that no one remembers.
I’ve written a whole post on this! FF7 is a particular flavour of fantasy. Broadly speaking, I would call it an epic dieselpunk science-fantasy with elements of romance, drama, and cosmic horror (eg, Jehova).
How can we reimagine this in 5e? A lot of it is just description and the game elements you choose to include. Linger on the grungy slums, the grimy train stations, the clapped-out old cars; mix in some 20th-century technologies like radios and airships; make your aberrations some kind of alien species, your tarrasque some kind of ancient construct like Weapons. There’s very little you need to completely design from scratch, so make life easy for yourself.
To be clear: I don’t think you necessarily need to do anything radical to the 5e ruleset to make a game that captures the essence of the FF7 gameworld. But . . . you might want to!
Critical hits could be replaced with limit breaks. Perhaps characters have a gauge, like hit points, which fills up as they take damage. Limit breaks should be unique to each character, and how full their gauge needs to be might depend on the power level of the special ability. Perhaps the limit break heals the party (à la Aerith), transforms the character into a different creature (à la Vincent), or is randomly determined (à la Cait Sith). Or, you know, maybe it just does a ton of damage.
This is just an outline, but I wonder if the following would work as a rough basis:
- Tier 1: limit break activated once the gauge has hit 40–66% of the character’s hit point maximum. Effect: something equivalent to a 1st- or 2nd-level spell like flame blade, mirror image, or prayer of healing.
- Tier 2: more like 60–110%. Equivalent to a spell of 3rd to 5th level: call lightning, Evard’s black tentacles, lightning bolt, spirit guardians, stoneskin . . .
- Tier 3: maybe 105–145%? Equivalent to a spell of 6th to 8th level. What about earthquake, globe of invulnerability, sunbeam, or tsunami?
- Tier 4: 140–190% depending on the power level. This is where you get to do something that only a 9th-level spell might do: mass heal, meteor swarm, power word kill, time stop, or polymorphing into a dragon.
By all means suggest improvements in the comments below.
Then there’s materia. To some extent, ‘fire and forget’ magic already feels quite similar. You could reskin it and say that spells prepared are really ‘equipped materia slots’. People have created entire subsystems for materia in 5e, but doing so here is probably beyond the scope of a single article.
Otherwise, for the most part, you can work with what you’ve got. Eberron has airships. Axebeaks could become chocobos. You might want to add firearms or summoned creatures like Ifrit and Shiva. None of this requires much game design to do.
For an entirely new system, Fabula Ultima (‘Fantasy Final’) won gold for best game and silver for product of the year at the 2023 Ennies. I’ve been meaning to check it out. It has new classes, a bestiary, and a whole new ruleset. If you’ve run it or played it, share your thoughts in the comments.
I couldn’t finish this post without talking about music. I can’t find who said it first, but more than one person has said what Nobuo Uematsu did with a fairly primitive sound system was the equivalent of painting the Sistine Chapel with Crayola crayons. He is the Beethoven of video games, and I’m not sure anyone comes close to his level of brilliance. (Maybe Jeremy Soule?)
Background music is another form of storytelling. Embrace it. Plan for it. Use music as leitmotifs for key themes and characters. Pick a track to use for your session intro. Create a sense of wonder, drama, and over-the-top action. Playing without music is like watching a film with just dialogue. Include it can really make a difference.
Have you tried to create a Final Fantasy VII style game in D&D? How did it go? What are your tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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