Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Is A RPG Really?

Well, I was stuck for a topic for today when I checked my email. Lo and behold, long time reader and commenter Emmet had several questions in his response to my "State of the Blog" discussion from last Friday. In it, Emmet mentioned that he's been trying to break down just what a Role Playing Game is, and what makes it what it is. So, let's try to do that today.

Not A Stupid Question
First off, I'm willing to bet that a lot of you out there are thinking this is one of the stupidest blog topics ever. After all, this is a gaming blog so of course we all know what an RPG is. However, at some point in time you're going to want to explain it to someone else. My goal here is to give something you can reference, or just link to, when that time comes. That said, I'd also like to point out that almost every RPG book (at least the main source books) out there has a small section that tries to answer this question...and they almost never agree.

A Role Playing Game
At its most basic, a Role Playing Game is exactly what it sounds like. It is a game that involves the players taking on the roles of things - different from themselves. This definition has problems though, because now almost every game in existence falls under this umbrella. Monopoly? You take on the role of a wealthy investor hoping to strike it big. Halo? You take on the role of Spartan 117 as he fights for humanity's continued existence. Madden? You take on the role of the head coach, as well as various players, as you play through a season of football in the NFL.

What makes RPGs different, and where they get their fun, is that in a Role Playing game, playing the role is the core focus of the game. To show by contrast, in Halo the core of the game play is shooting things from a first person perspective. Which is why we classify it as a FPS and not an RPG. Mass Effect is a Third Person Action RPG. Yes, the placement of Action before RPG is important, as it means that the game is primarily an action game but the role playing is also a part of it.

This second definition (role playing is the primary focus) is much more limiting and may actually eliminate some games we do consider RPGs (dungeon crawls for example can be more focused on tactics than rp).

Stripped Down and Bare
I'm going to stick with that second definition, and with that in mind I want to strip an RPG down to its basic needs. This is where the beauty of an RPG shines, because at its core an RPG needs nothing aside from players. You don't need pencils, paper, computers, or anything else. Just some people and a general idea of what the game is going to be about. This means that you can play an RPG with just a simple conversation, right? Well, not exactly. There is more to just the roles being played. There is the purpose to the roles being played.

Enter Story
I don't care if you are playing a pure narrative game, or a "story-less" Dungeon Crawl (yes, there are storied dungeon crawls too.) Story is an aspect of your game, and a core aspect of any RPG. Humans are natural story tellers, and we will make stories out of anything. Think about it. How many times have you told a story about what happened in your latest FPS match, or in the combat that happened last session? Every thing has a reason for being. Even the original Doom had a story, and even the most story-less tactical game has some reason for things to be happening. This is the purpose for the role that is played: to tell the story that is there.

No Winners
Now, all that said there is a hard part about RPGs. Namely that no one wins in an RPG. There is no win condition, and the story can always go on further. This is also one of the hardest parts about explaining RPGs to other people. After all, Games have an end point. Games have a winner. So why is an RPG a game without one? My answer to this, and it isn't part of the ultimate definition below, is because it is meant to be fun.

Revised Definition
So, with all that in mind, how would I define an RPG? Like this:

An RPG is a game where players take on the role of fictional characters, controlling their actions and choosing how they overcome - or fail to overcome - the obstacles in their path as they work towards a goal.

Would you agree?


  1. I don't think "No Winners" should be part of the definition. As a matter of fact, i don't see it in your final definition, which leads me to believe that you don't really think it belongs either.

    "No Winners" is certainly a viable, traditionally preferred way to play, but it's not definitive. See, for example, some organized play events that are explicitly competitive. These games have end points and "win" conditions, but they are still undeniably role playing games.

  2. You're right, I don't think it should be in the definition. At the same time, it is something that is worth mentioning to someone you are converting - and is one of the reasons I think some people don't like table top RPGs.

    A comparison could be an MMO to a more standard game like Team Fortress 2. An MMO continues on. Sure, you kill the Raid encounter (you win) but the game isn't done. Meanwhile, a game of TF2 ends with a clear winner roughly every 10-30 minutes.

    You CAN put win conditions into your RPG, but a lotof them don't have one. Even if an individual adventure can have one, or at least an end point.

  3. This was a fast response to my musings, I tried to write down my current state of thought on this here.

  4. Was debating what to write about and saw your post. Besides, I like to respond to direct questions. Hope you like the answer :)

  5. You're right, bad form on my part for expanding the question post response but hopefully something to mull over.

    I actually think the question got drilled into my brain from reading Reality Refracted so in a way I think you're the one that got the question going for me.

    Keep up the good work!