Discussion: Final Fantasy’s D&D Origins

D&D figures vs Final Fantasy Figures

My D&D figures battle my Final Fantasy figures for the last remaining die from my basic D&D set.

I had always recognized the D&D elements embedded in Final Fantasy. However, the games I played first were VIII, X, and VII, the PSX games which diverge the most from FF’s Dungeons & Dragons roots.

These roots are plain to see in Final Fantasy I. Stripped clean of its successors’ additions and complexities, FFI is clearly a video game adaptation of  vintage, first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, just like many other video games of that period.

Playing Final Fantasy I hits me with a double whammy of nostalgia, both for later Final Fantasy games and for my formative years playing AD&D as a teen and young adult. In a way, the D&D throwbacks help me know what it’s like for old-school Final Fantasy gamers revisiting the games they played as kids.

Here’s just some of the D&D borrowings I noticed while playing this game.

Bestiary: The world of old Final Fantasy is populated almost entirely with critters lifted straight from 1st edition AD&D — see the list at the bottom of this post. Even the hitherto-unusual use of “fiends” for “monsters” seen in the “Four Fiends” sounds like it was inspired by AD&D’s alliteratively-named Fiend Folio. Also, we’ve got old-school D&D Elves and Dwarves, which were borrowed from (and changed from) those of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Astos the “Drow Elf” is a dead giveaway: drow elves were a D&D creation. So too were Bahamut the Platinum Dragon, patron of lawful good heroes, and Tiamat the five-headed dragon, patron of chaotic evil; both were drawn from Arabic and Babylonian legends, but in real-world mythology were very different.

White Mage: Until now, I’d missed the fact that Final Fantasy’s White Mage class derived from AD&D’s “Cleric” class, a fighting priest permitted to participate in war so long as he/she didn’t used edged weapons. Hence: hammers, clubs, flails, morning stars. (I usually played the party cleric, so why did I fail to notice this?) D&D clerics served pagan or invented fantasy deities, carried some kind of holy symbol, and had temples or churches — echoes of which continue to reverberate right up to Yuna and even, to some extent, Vanille. The cleric class had decent HP, although not much as fighters, and had (I think?) high endurance. Clerics could cast healing and purification spells and turn undead to powder. (Dia/Diaga spells in FF). All this was ported straight to FF’s original White Mage, who was thus NOT simply an inverse of a black mage.

Black Mage: Whereas the Black Mage ported D&D’s old “Magic User” character class. MUs were notoriously low on HP, although they were smarter than everyone else.

Thief: Likewise, I don’t think old D&D thieves really were that big on stealing, since we usually just killed off monsters and ransacked the corpses for treasure. Instead, thieves were simply stealthy and quick and evasive and good at picking locks and discovering traps. Again, in FFI, the thief doesn’t have a “steal” ability and is more of a nimble fighter.

So the oddities of original FF character classes, with buff white mages and non-stealing thieves, are due to the source material. (Although the thief’s not stealing may also have been due to programming; it was probably easier to have a “now let’s add loot, gil, and XP to the party inventory” subroutine separate from the battle subroutine). Also, that explains why original Final Fantasy makes you pick a character class before the game starts, and that’s it. Whereas later FFs alternate between the “character locked into role” system of D&D or “job classes” or “sphere grids” which let you develop multiple roles per character.

Magic System: Furthermore, original NES Final Fantasy tortured its players with a magic system straight from D&D: magic users learned spells which were consumed like ammunition when cast, and could not be cast again until one returned to an inn/tent to rest for the night. The Dawn of Souls / Origins / 20th anniversary remasters replaced the obsolete magic system of 1st ed D&D with Final Fantasy’s in-house MP system, making the game much easier.

Other D&D Borrowings:  The system of Stats (Strength/Intelligence/Wisdom/Dexterity/Constitution in D&D), Status Effects (Saving throws vs. Poison, Paralysis, etc), other Character Classes (Ranger, Paladin, Druid, Bard), HP, Gil (gold pieces), weapons limitations according to class, Inns and returning to town for character resurrection, hordes of undead, all monsters dropping treasure, and even dungeon crawls with elaborate maps are hallmarks of early D&D.

At this point these borrowings are essentially fair use, as D&D invented or popularized many stock fantasy trope and monsters which are now standard for the genre, appearing in numerous books, films and game systems. (Also, D&D itself shamelessly copied; it was largely an attempt to codify the adventure party / quest formula of J.R.R. Tolkien, with helpings of Lovecraft and Jorge Borges added for spice).

Essentially, just as D&D was a game that let us roleplay adventures like those in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy books inspired by them, Final Fantasy was a video game adaptation of tabletop roleplaying, allowing the computer to serve as Dungeon Master (GM) and for us to play D&D solo. It wasn’t the first game to do so — Ultima, Might & Magic, Temple of Apshai and many others had done so before — but it was a particularly effective video game adaptation of D&D mechanics.

How Final Fantasy differs from D&D

At the same time, Final Fantasy wasn’t only a video game adaptation of D&D. From the start, it began to move away from D&D tropes and mechanics (the white and black mages wielding light and dark magic, for example, and the “red mage” hybrid of the two).

It’s fun watching how many seeds of Final Fantasy concepts were planted with the original installment. A few I’ve noticed:

  • Crystals (“Orbs” in the original NES game… later spheres, mako, magicite, etc)
  • Elemental magic (the fire/fira/firaga sequence, although they were called Fire1, Fire2 and Fire3 in the first English port)
  • Colors of magic: adding to the widespread concept of white and black magic, FF developed its own concepts for blue, green, time, and earth/geomancer magic.
  • Ships, airships (a very anime component) and subs. Also the folding canoe, although it disappears in later games.
  • Warriors of Light are mostly absent from Final Fantasy VII onward, but there are still vestiges of the stock heroes of FFI-V in later installments
  • Pirates
  • “The Big Bad broke the world 400/500/1000 years ago, and now we’ve reached a crisis so it’s time to fix it” backstory
  • Character classes morphing in some fashion [ETA: now that I think about it, this came from AD&D, in which the “druid” subclass started as a cleric and had to play as such for about five levels before specializing; the “ranger” started out as a fighter, and the “illusionist” started as a magic-user. FFI adapts this as a mid-game class upgrade.]
  • Haste, Slow, Blind, Poison and “status effects” (Inspired by D&D “Saving Throws” against poison and paralysis, but FF expanded the concept of Status Effects and ran with it)
  • Classic Final Fantasy weapons like Mythril Knife and Excalibur, Coral and Ice Blade (although I’m playing the 20th anniversary remake, and some of these were added to the remake), Masamune and Sasuke’s Knife
  • Ninja class — distinctly Japanese, and it would pop up again and again in FF, as well as Samurai
  • Dancers. There’s a dancer npc in the very first village, and I noticed them all over III; later they become intermittent job classes.
  • Recurring Final Fantasy monsters like Ochu, Cerberus and Gigas (some of these names are different in different remakes of Final Fantasy I, but I think it was “Gigas” in the original Japanese?)
  • Villains mucking about with spacetime.

Chocobos, Summons, Mist, limit breaks and more complex weapons/spells/character customizations were yet to come, but nearly all the raw material is there.

I can’t experience FFI as a first time gamer, devoid of expectations or knowledge of the series. So I’m not trying to. I’m dialing up and seeking out the nostalgia.

Appendix: Bestiary of Final Fantasy I compared to AD&D

Green = monsters unique to AD&D’s Monster Manual or Fiend Folio, or which were not present in the western fantasy genre until D&D popularized them: Rakshasa, Naga, e.g. (For that matter, we probably have D&D to blame for introducing dinosaurs and pleistocene animals to the regular mix of Greek and European mythological beasties.)

Italic = Final Fantasy monsters which are just a palette shift of other FF monsters; usually the prototype is a D&D monster.

Even when monsters are not unique to D&D, the Final Fantasy monster often borrows stats, abilities and status effects developed for D&D (Tiamat as a five-headed dragon instead of watery primordial chaos, green dragon breathing poison, e.g.).

 # (orig. Japanese) D&D Monster Name NES (orig. English) Dawn of Souls
1 goburin Goblins IMP Goblin
2 goburinga-do (morph of Goblin) GrIMP Goblin Guard
3 urufu Wolf WOLF Wolf
4 kureiji-ho-su (morph of Nightmare) MADPONY Crazy Horse
5 sukureton Skeleton BONE Skeleton
6 burakkuuido Giant Spider SPIDER Black Widow
7 giga-suuo-mu (morph of Crawler) CREEP Gigas Worm
8 uo-guurufu Dire Wolf (Worg) GrWOLF Warg Wolf
9 ueaurufu Werewolf WrWOLF Werewolf
10 zonbi Zombie ZOMBIE Zombie
11 gu-ru Ghoul GHOUL Ghoul
12 ga-rando GARLAND Garland
13 kobura Poisonous Snake ASP Cobra
14 o-ga Ogre OGRE Ogre
15 o-gachi-fu (morph of Ogre) GrOGRE Ogre Chief
16 riza-do Lizard IGUANA Lizard
17 kaizoku Pirate (listed under Men) PIRATE Pirate
18 sahagin Sahuagin SAHAG Sahagin
19 sahaginch-fu (morph of Sahagin) R.SAHAG Sahagin Chief
20 paire-tsu Pirate (listed under Men) KYZOKU Buccaneer
21 sha-ku Shark SHARK Shark
22 bugguai OddEYE Bigeyes
23 taranchura (morph of Spider) ARACHNID Tarantula
24 gasuto Ghast GEIST Ghast
25 sasori Scorpion SCORPION Scorpion
26 shadou Shadow SHADOW Shadow
27 guri-nsuraime Green Slime SCUM Green Slime
28 kuroura Carrion Crawler CRAWL Crawler
29 gureiu-zu Gray Ooze MUCK Gray Ooze
30 ga-goiru Gargoyle GARGOYLE Gargoyle
31 buraddibo-n (morph of Skeleton) R.BONE Bloodbones
32 pisukodi-mon Piscodaemon WIZARD Piscodemon
33 asutosu ASTOS Astos
34 mami Mummy MUMMY Mummy
35 reusi Wraith IMAGE Wraith
36 anakonda (morph of Cobra) COBRA Anaconda
37 haienadon Hyaenodon HYENA Hyenadon
38 kittitaiga Tiger TIGER Lesser Tiger
39 minotaurosu Minotaur BULL Minotaur
40 hirugiga-su Hil Giant GIANT Hill Gigas
41 a-sueremento Earth Elemental EARTH Earth Elemental
42 tororu Troll TROLL Troll
43 waito Wight SPECTER Wight
44 o-ka-zeri Ochre Jelly OOZE Ochre Jelly
45 kokatorisu Cockatrice COCKTRICE Cockatrice
46 banpaia Vampire VAMPIRE Vampire
47 o-gameiji Ogre Mage WzOGRE Ogre Mage
48 sufinkusu Sphinx SPHINX Sphinx
49 ritchi Lich LICH Lich
50 ankuheggu Ankheg PEDE Ankheg
51 pirania CARIBE Piranha
52 reddopirania R.CARIBE Red Piranha
53 kurokodairu Crocodile GATOR Crocodile
54 howaitodairu (morph of Crocodile) FRGATOR White Croc
55 ochu Otygh OCHO Ochu
56 neochu Neo-Otyugh NAOCHO Neochu
57 hidora Hydra HYDRA Hydra
58 ho-ndodebiru (morph of Gargoyle) R.GOYLE Horned Devil
59 pirorisuku (morph of Cockatrice) PERILISK Pyrolisk
60 faia Fire Elemental FIRE Fire Elemental
61 faiahidora (morph of Hydra) R.HYDRA Fire Hydra
62 ra-bauo-mu (morph of Purple Worm) Grey W Lava Worm
63 heruhaundo Hellhound CEREBUS Hellhound
64 faiariza-do Fire Lizard AGAMA Fire Lizard
65 faiagiga-su Fire Giant R.GIANT Fire Gigas
66 reddodoragon Red Dragon Red D Red Dragon
67 maririsu Marilith KARY Marilith
68 howaitodoragon White Dragon Frost D White Dragon
69 uinta-urufu Winter Wolf FRWOLF Winter Wolf
70 maindofureia Mindflayer SORCERER Mindflayer
71 aisugiga-su Ice Giant FrGIANT Ice Gigas
72 supekuta Spectre WRAITH Specter
73 remora-zu Remorhaz GrPEDE Remorazz
74 da-kuuiza-do (morph of Astos) MAGE Dark Wizard
75 bihoruda Beholder EYE Evil Eye
76 deza-tobarette (morph of Baretta) ANKYLO Desert Baretta
77 se-berutaiga Sabertooth Tiger Saber T Sabertooth
78 waiba-n Wyvern WYVERN Wyvern
79 uirumu (morph of Wyvern) WYRM Wyrm
80 mantikoa Manticore MANTICOR Manticore
81 barette Bulette R.ANKYLO Baretta
82 bashirisuku Basilisk SAURIA Basilisk
83 aruzaurusu Allosaurus TYRO Allosaurus
84 ueataiga Weretiger CATMAN Weretiger
85 sandouo-mu (morph of Purple Worm) Sand W Sand Worm
86 minotaurozonbi (morph of Minotaur) ZomBULL Minotaur Zombie
87 kingumami (morph of Mummy) WzMUMMY King Mummy
88 medu-sa Medusa MEDUSA Medusa
89 rakusha-sa Rakshasa MANCAT Rakshasa
90 kureigo-remu Clay Golem MUDGol Clay Golem
91 naitomea Nightmare NITEMARE Nightmare
92 doragonzonbi ZombieD Dragon Zombie
93 sahaginpurinsu (morph of Sahagin) WzSAHAG Sahagin Prince
94 howaitosha-ku (morph of Shark) GrSHARK White Shark
95 di-puai BigEYE Deepeyes
96 shi-suneiku Sea Snake SeaSNAKE Sea Snake
97 umisasori (morph of Scorpion) LOBSTER Sea Scorpion
98 shi-tororu (morph of Troll) SeaTROLL Sea Troll
99 go-suto Ghost GHOST Ghost
100 uo-ta Water Elemental WATER Water Elemental
101 uo-ta-na-ga Water Naga NAGA Water Naga
102 kura-ken Kraken KRAKEN Kraken
103 chiranozaurusu Tyrannosaurus Rex T REX Tyrannosaur
104 burakkunaito (morph of Death Knight) BADMAN Black Knight
105 kimera Chimera CHIMERA Chimera
106 ga-dian GUARD Guardian
107 buru-doragon Black Dragon Blue D Blue Dragon
108 guri-ndoragon Green Dragon Gas D Green Dragon
109 suto-n-go-remu Stone Golem RockGOL Stone Golem
110 eaerementaru Air Elemental AIR Air Elemental
111 supirittona-ga Spirit Naga GrNAGA Spirit Naga
112 desunaito Death Knight EVILMAN Death Knight
113 a-sumedu-sa Medusa GrMEDUSA Earth Medusa
114 burakkupurin Black Pudding SLIME Black Flan
115 soruja SENTRY Soldier
116 banpaiaro-do Vampire WzVAMP Vampire Lord
117 da-kufaita (morph of Astos) FIGHTER Dark Fighter
118 desumashi-n WarMECH Death Machine
119 tiamatto Tiamat TIAMAT Tiamat
120 go-kimera Gorgimera JIMERA Rhyos
121 desubihoruda (morph of Evil Eye) PHANTOM Death Eye
122 pa-puruuo-mi Purple Worm WORM Purple Worm
123 aiango-remu Iron Golem IronGOL Iron Golem
124 ritchi Lich LICH Lich
125 maririsu Marilith KARY Marilith
126 kura-ken Kraken KRAKEN Kraken
127 tiamatto Tiamat TIAMAT Tiamat
128 kaosu CHAOS Chaos


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5 thoughts on “Discussion: Final Fantasy’s D&D Origins

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    September 17, 2013 at 2:35am

    Not to mention, the Red Mage was a jack of all trades character, FFI’s answer to the Bard. (Shame there was no music though.) In addition, damage was randomized between set values, as they are in d&d with dice rolls.

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      September 18, 2013 at 9:03pm

      Yep. And there’s the whole “NPC” / “PC” distinction, although I think those terms are used by gamers rather than the game itself. (Most people nowadays don’t realize that PCs, Player Characters, were usually rolled up via an elaborate character creation session, whereas the NPCs, non-player-characters, were created and controlled by the Dungeon Master).

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    Jeff H

    November 27, 2014 at 11:05am

    A few comments and corrections:

    Mages being divided into three orders colour-coded black, white and red is straight out of Dragonlance, though the classes themselves were (as you partially note) modelled more after the “magic-user”, cleric, and possibly multi-classed characters and/or the elf from Red Box basic D&D.

    The folding boat is from AD&D.

    It was the aforementioned “red box” edition where druids were “evolved” clerics, not AD&D. That was also true of that game’s paladin and its chaotic counterpart the avenger. In AD&D, the only class that had a similar requirement was the bard. Rangers and illusionists have NEVER had to jump through those kinds of hoops in any version of D&D.

    Haste, Slow and Blind were all in AD&D.

    The Ochu is an otyugh, and therefore yet another AD&D derived monster. Ochu is the closest thing to “otyugh” that comes naturally to a Japanese-speaking person unfamiliar with English and other European languages. This later evolved into malboros and such (gas-breathing monsters), which are pretty much a Final Fantasy thing.

    Bombs (the FF monster) were probably inspired by the gas spore. They aren’t in the first Final Fantasy game but later become a series staple.

    Ninjas may be originally a Japanese idea, but they were all over Western pop culture around 1987, and there was already an AD&D version by then.

    Lastly, I suspect you overestimate the influence of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and, especially, Borges, on Gygax and co. Virtually all sources agree that the biggest influences on early D&D were pulp fantasy writers of the early to mid 20th century like Robert E Howard, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson, and I’m pretty sure a few weeks of reading their work would convince you that’s largely correct.

    Lovecraft gets lumped into that crowd but wrote little fantasy, sharply limiting how important a direct influence he can be. His influence is felt mainly in a handful of monsters (the Kuo-Toa are basically his Deep Ones and Mind Flayers, while not directly from Lovecraft, are very much a nod to the *sorts* of critters he invented).

    Gygax wasn’t much of a Tolkien fan (and preferred The Hobbit to LotR). But then as now, Tolkien was the first author most people thought of when they thought of the kind of fantasy tropes D&D largely traded in. To appease these people he included some Tolkien elements. The Tolkien influence is easy to overestimate because of the handful of Tolkienesque touches in D&D, a greatly disproportionate number are found in the list of playable races, which is one of the first things most people see when they pick up the game and is something they interact with constantly thereafter.

    Borges was doing much the same thing Gygax was doing when he pieced together the Monster Manual – compiling a bunch of creatures mostly from other sources. He and Gygax drew on some of the same sources and so naturally there’s some overlap in their lists, so by cherry-picking examples it’s easy to making him look like a much more significant influence than he was. Taking Borges’ list as a whole, though, it’s actually surprising how FEW of the same creatures are found in the MM, and of those which are, how different many of them are from their AD&D counterparts. Compare the two Bahamuts if you want a particularly striking example. In any case, everything in Borges’ list already existed in some other source; for example, Rakshasas are from Hindu mythology, particularly prominent in the Ramadan.

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    Jeff Heikkinen

    November 27, 2014 at 11:10am

    Sorry, one further point I meant to make about Lovecraft. Despite being named in Appendix N from the original DMG, his biggest influence on the game came later, with the introduction of the Far Realm. That was somewhere in the mid to late 90s.

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      June 12, 2015 at 10:08pm

      Sorry for the hiatus. Thanks very much for the corrections and further insights. I haven’t cracked my D&D manuals since the early nineties — I bailed out about the time 3rd Ed was released — and I’m forgetting what came from which manuals. Like many kids, my first exposure to Bahamut and Catoblepas, Carbuncle and even the so-called “Nehwon Mythos” came from the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio and Deities & Demigods, and I’m still filling in the blanks. A mythological studies MA helped, but for some reason “sources of D&D and JRPG mythology” was not a course offered by my department! 😉

      At any rate, you’ve obviously been doing more digging (and have a broader knowledge of mid 20th century pulp fantasy) than I have, so I appreciate the help.

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