History: A now-peaceful world dimly remembers an ancient past where powerful forces of good battled against an evil force that sought mass destruction. The forces of good prevailed, and a few centuries of prosperity and forgetfulness followed....
Now: A dark(blue?)-haired young man, Our Hero, grows up in a quaint, bucolic, picturesque farm town; of course, he's an orphan. As time progresses, he becomes aware of something about himself that is different. He has powers that no one else has. Eventually he becomes a social outcast because he is misunderstood, and he must go traveling around the countryside in search of his true nature. Often, he is blamed for the increase in monsters in the world.
Along the way, Our Hero meets a young (blond) princess who joins up and adventures with him; she turns into the primary magic caster of the team. He'll also meet at least one unusually strong (usually male) fighter, an inventor with kooky weapons (male or female), and at least one really weird character (say, a robot, a sprite, a sentient onion, a talking animal, or a feral wild boy, etc.). He also is befriended by mysterious spirits who talk to him when he's unconscious and tell him he has a special destiny to save the world.
Around this time, Our Hero finds mysterious devices that look suspiciously like teleporter pads.... However, they are not operational yet. Our Hero, to get around, must first use a ship to travel across the ocean. He still can't go everywhere until he later gets a more powerful ship. More on this later.
Our Hero inevitably winds up in the princess' (big and treasure-filled) castle and meets the king (and sometimes queen, too) at some point or other. Usually the Princess' father disapproves of what they're doing, and she winds up having to escape from the castle somehow to re-join her friends. Of course, she feels guilty for doing so, but she's sick of being a princess and just wants to be herself. Too bad the odds are good the king will somehow die before the end of the game....
At first the monsters they run into are fairly innocuous and small, but gradually the monsters get visibly larger and larger, and also more dangerous. At the same time, the scenery grows progressively harsher, changing from peaceful forests, small towns, and gentle farmlands into nastier forests, big dirty cities, and things like deserts and dungeons. Much, much later, the harsh scenery turns into sterile steel-n-concrete and other high-tech ruins.
Of course, Our Hero and his companions need strong weapons to survive. They find or buy progressively more poweful items. Strangely, Our Hero's own home town always seems to have the worst selection of weapons, and each new town he finds always seems to have something better (and more expensive) than what he already has....
Our Hero also runs up against "evil" human forces led by a misguided king of a different land. The bad king is just a pawn, though; some sinister minister or advisor is at the king's side, manipulating him. And the minister has worse connections.... This foreign king will, sometime in the future, repent of his ways, usually too late to do anything.
By now, Our Hero has also figured out how to activate the transporter pads, and can now teleport around the world. To cap off everything, he gets a flying machine (or creature) that can take him almost anywhere on the (sadly small) planet without the bother of having to travel to and from the transporters.
Our Hero also begins to catch more glimpses of the Ancient Highly Advanced Culture; he stumbles upon ancient ruins that contain electronics far beyond his own mid-tech culture. He finds the ruins of things that look suspiciously like TVs, cars, and spaceships. He begins to run into robots, and ancient magic spells are re-discovered. Our Hero might even wind up transported to a different world in a different plane of existence (or at least a different time period), where he learns about the past.
The plot begins wrapping up around this point, as Our Hero discovers that all problems stem from the actions of some Evil Ancient Entity, a creature that lives in some mechanical satellite of some sort far above the planet's surface. Our Hero has already fought and defeated a number of the Evil Enemy's henchmen and lieutenants. Now Our Hero needs to activate the mechanisms to reach the source of all the badness, the Evil Entity, deep within its cozy high-tech lair. Luckily, he has the help of the ancient environmentalist Guardian Spirits that have long protected the world (remember the spirits that had been telling him he was special in his dreams?). Along the way, he encounters an evil lieutenant or two (sometimes ones he's already defeated before), and he even converts one and saves him/her from his/her evil ways.
Finally, Our Hero reaches the Evil Entity's lair, because He Is Destined to do so. The Evil Entity reveals that it arrived from outer space and is now trying to make this planet fit its own agendas. Then it tries to entice our Hero into switching sides by pointing out Our Hero's own personal weaknesses (and those of his friends'), but it fails because Our Hero still cares about his friends anyway and wants to be with them. Now Our Hero fights the Evil Entity, who actually appears to die once or twice but who always comes back stronger and meaner. Finally, Our Hero succeeds in destroying the Evil Entity for good, though not without the help of his companions, who give him the last bit of spiritual love and strength he needs to achieve the impossible for the sake of the world. One or more of them may die at this point, happy to have fulfilled their missions.
Thus, evil is vanquished again, and things are restored to their peaceful, bucolic ways. Finally, the survivors can return to living out their simple lives amidst their green trees and quaint little houses.
And there was much rejoicing.
Hey, wasn't that easy? I could be a game designer. Whoops, I already am one. Oh well....
See also The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Cliches.
As a last note, plot elements frequently become over-used when they contain powerful ideas that appeal to many people at some deep level. The Japanese RPG industry, like any industry, must always strive to get new customers, and any first-time player will likely get the full, fresh impact of even a commonly-used theme. It's only after playing a ton of similar games that a user starts getting as jaded as, well, I am. And, finally, my sample of games is strictly limited to those that make it into the US fully translated, which is a fraction of all RPGs produced in Japan.
-rei (at) mit.edu