Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Is It So Hard To Explain What An RPG Is?

Partially to be silly, partially out of interest, and mostly to see if Emmett will blush, I'm taking today's queue from one of his comments. Specifically the comment in this post. The question in particular that I am going to be answering, or trying to anyhow, today is the title of the post. That said, let's begin.

The reason why it is so hard to explain what an RPG is is because of how many things an RPG can be. This is one of the strongest pulls the hobby has, and also one of the biggest weaknesses it can face when it comes time to convert new members. Look at all that went into defining RPGs - at least for me - in yesterday's blog post, and now realize that that post was just talking about the most basic element. It had nothing about how we handle conflict resolution, what type of stories we are trying to tell, or anything like that.

At its most basic, an RPG is basically playing make believe. It's playing cops and robbers back when you were a kid, or even doctor when you were a bit older. It is every imaginary friend you ever had, every lie you told to get out of doing your homework or chores. It is a game about living a life that isn't yours. At it's most basic, an RPG can be anything you want it to be and that is a - as said - blessing and a curse.

For example, every other saturday I run a Deathwatch game at my FLGS. The game is fairly action packed with lots of combat and the PCs rofl stomping through hordes of xenos while cracking jokes. They're Space Marines (yes, capital S and M for that ;) ) and they are supposed to be powerful. The game has RP, but it is basically staped on to an action game that is more about making the right choices in combat, and solving the occasional puzzle. Essentially, it is about as close to "Gears of War" type RPG play as I can get. On the other hand though, I also run an L5R game every other week - currently on hiatus. In this game, there is a much stronger focus on RP and combat almost never happens. There is violence, but there is more drama and RP than anything else. The two games could not be more different from each other and yet they have the same GM, and many of the core group of players are the same.

What other medium can claim that? Not many. I mean, sure a person who claims to be a "video gamer" can, but most people don't claim to simply like video games, they will cite a specific genre, or be looking for specific genres of games. Maybe they like First Person Shooters, maybe they like JRPGs, or Action Adventure games. Maybe they like the heavy story third person games like Assassin's Creed. Either way, they are looking for a specific genre, and in that genre they get certain expectations fulfilled. This isn't necessarily the case with RPGs.

So what is the same? Generally the game is played with imagination only - or very little in the way of props to help imagine things. Generally conflict resolution is done with some form of random number generation. Generally you sit around a table and play this game, and it involves face to face contact (this is changing.) And generally players - including the GM - have a strong ability to influence the world that is being played in. Aside from these things, lots of things are different from one RPG to another, or even one gaming group to another.

All that together is why I think RPGs are hard to explain to people who don't play them. What about you? What do you think?


  1. Aw shuks! *blushes*

    I particularly like the thought that it's the RPG's flexibility that makes it so hard to explain. It makes me think that we need sub labels like JRPG is a sub label for a type of RPG. CRPG for combat focused games. SRPG for socially focused games. NRPG for narration focused games, etc.

    Those might not be the best lines of demarcation but you get the idea.

  2. We are actually starting to get them too. Games like D&D are known more for dungeon crawls, while a FATE game is a narrative based game. Then there are "Old School" which has the harsher difficulty curve and random things like "you rolled a 2? Oh, that means you die!"

    It is one of the reasons I thought the flexibility was the big issue, as we are just starting to get to the era where RPGs really start to genrefy themselves.

    Even among that there are genres too though. There ARE Sci Fi dungeon crawls after all. And Fantasy ones, and modern ones. All types are there.

  3. I just say "collaborative storytelling mediated by dice" and that seems to work out fine. Comparisons to improv games sometimes help.