What Makes A Game an RPG?

This is a stupid thing, and it will probably get me in trouble. I’ve seen it many times in my years as a gamer. But I’ve been reading a lot of games over the last few years and I play many different games outside of just tabletop RPGs. Like many in our hobby, I play videogames (console and PC), boardgames, wargames, miniatures skirmish games, card games, and other kinds of games. But even though I don’t ever expect there to be a specific gospel of “this is an RPG!” I do often have a set of very specific thoughts in mind when I approach a game which describes itself as an RPG. That label gets stuck on all kinds of games. So, here is my set of expectations when I approach a game for what is required to call it an RPG. I’ll lay them out and then express my thoughts on each point after the list.

  1. Game mechanic structures existing for the purpose of telling a persistent story.
  2. Systems for making a character that can be played over many sessions and can develop over time.
  3. An implicit structure of expectations that the game is meant to be played by at least two people in some way relating to one another socially.
  4. The ability to support open-ended play.
  5. A person/player who takes on the role of GM/DM/Storyteller/Judge/Guide/Keeper…

A little exploration of these points…

  1. It does not matter what those structures are – rules light, rules heavy, diceless, card-based – or what the focus of those rules are – combat, social interaction, domain-building – so long as the result is a set of game mechanics in service to a group of people telling a persistent, ongoing story over time.
  2. No, this is not meant to exclude running one-shots. Sure, run a one-shot. My point is that the game system itself is not designed solely as a one-shot. To be completely clear… I’m not saying that a game used to run a one-shot is not a roleplaying game (D&D is a roleplaying game and gets used for one-shots all the time). What I am saying is that a game like Fiasco or Death of Legends is not a role-playing game because it lacks any capacity to exist outside of the one-shot format.

  3. This one is controversial even to me. Mainly because of the “develop over time” part. I’m not sure exactly how to quantify that in a way that makes sense. I’m not discussing the fact that you have to earn XP or character points or be able to “level up.” That is a part of what I mean, but it’s more important to stress that you have some type of agency in designing your character (you can play something you want to play) and that you have some type of agency in controlling that character’s arc over multiple sessions of play. Even if your idea of a fun RPG is just showing up and grunting at the other players over when it’s time to kill something, you are still able to shape your character’s development as the game goes on.
  4. This is perhaps related enough to point 1 that I should have included it there but it is also implicit in my thinking. World of Warcraft fulfills this requirement, though I would maintain that it is not an RPG. Mainly for other reasons on this list, but I wanted to get that out of the way. Fundamental to the RPG experience is the ability to interact with other players and the game master in such a way that you are neither “on rails” (Dragon Age or Diablo) or completely able to do whatever you want without recourse to rules or a social contract of some sort (simply writing or telling a story or playing a solo adventure). The game does not exist solely for you and solely in the vacuum of your own personal imaginary space. Your character’s actions and reactions are part of an ecosystem with other characters and NPCs who have their own goals and desires and who take action to see those things completed.
  5. Also related to points 1 and 3, it is vital to have a sense of openness to be a roleplaying game. A computer game might have a great big world but there are mountains you aren’t allowed to scale, caves you can’t enter, doors that remain closed, and chests that you can’t open unless you have exactly the right key. A roleplaying game requires the open scope of knowing that your actions are your own to decide. You might not be happy with the outcome all the time (consequences, people) but you can choose to hare off and turn the game in a different direction. You don’t have to care about the goblin invasion to the west. Maybe you really want to go to that weird city that got mentioned in passing with a medusa mayor who promises great power to any who will spend a night in her bed and survive…

    And you know, maybe when you ignore that goblin invasion it eventually gains momentum and shows up at the doorstep of your new home, but you still broke the mold and went where you wanted to go. I’m not saying that campaign settings must be infinite or even fully formed when created. I’m saying that in Fallout 3 I can’t say, “to heck with DC” and move to New Vegas. My character gets to do the adventures right in front of me. That’s it.

  6. Which leads to my ultimate requirement. A roleplaying game needs a player in the role of GM (or whatever your game calls it). Fiasco is a great game. It really is – clever, fun, delightfully wacky – but it’s a party game. Yes, the action of the game involves each player taking up the role of a character (role-playing) as the action of the game but everything is present and, in the end, many of the actions are decided by a set of tables with pat outcomes. Sure, these are modified by the actions of the players during the course of play but it’s more akin to a board game (Clue) or a videogame with proscribed choices than it is a true roleplaying game.

    The reasons for this are many but lack of a gamemaster role is a big part of it. Without a GM there is a lack of the unknown. Without a GM there is no outsider to the party and its goals to present the unique challenges of the world. Without a GM there is no outsider to act as arbiter of the rules/rulings necessary to the success of the game.

    The GM role is one of the greatest innovations that roleplaying gives to gaming. It is perhaps the most important aspect which sets RPGs off from other forms of gaming. The GM role makes most of the other points I’ve mentioned above possible in the easiest form. The GM is not a player, not just a referee, and not just an antagonist or storyteller, but some unique combination of the preceding which creates a role much more like a facilitator.

Now, I won’t say my definition is perfect. I’m sure it isn’t. Looking at the above it strikes me that many games I do not consider RPGs come close to meeting the standards I’ve outlined. Games like Descent and Mansions of Madness seem to meet many of the criteria. I would say they lack in open-endedness what they might show in the other areas.

I also won’t say that the case could not be made that some of my points are less than perfect in their formulation. It’s not that I want to put other games down (again, consider Fiasco or Death of Legends which are spectacular games) because I love those games and everything that they are. I’m not even saying that those games don’t involve a role-playing aspect as part of their play. It really is that I get tired of seeing the RPG label smacked on a game and then have my expectations thwarted because the term no longer has any real meaning of its own.

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4 responses

  1. I think RPGs cease to be RPGs when the role-playing conducted by players of the game at the table purposefully ignores player engrossment (skill) in favour of a mechanical immersion [e.g. my “character” knows nothing about vampires so let the dice fall where they may.] The immersed player runs the game by asking such thoughtful questions of the game designer’s system in monologue rather than dialogue: If the statistic for Knowledge Arcane is not on the sheet then how about Religion, or Geography and Lore, or Gather Information for the chance have overheard information…?

    To put it in less ambiguous terms: Only in role-playing games is there a functional role for designing the game to be played along the lines of what the players themselves can dream up for their avatars to do [i.e. John, who plays the character Bubba Hotepp is a Hammer films fan so the GM takes this into account when presenting an encounter from a Hammer film, e.g vampires].

    There is something happening in RPGs (when properly played) along the lines of a story the players share; termed “shared fantasy” (not to be confused with the literary genre of Fantasy) which is different from the shared reality of system mechanics.

    Whereas RPGs can be played like a war or board game, the style of play I describe above of taking the individual players into consideration cannot be accomplished in board or war games. A player may name his bishop chess piece Thomas Beckett and his king Henry II but his pawns are not ever going to behead the bishop on the king’s suggestion. Moreover, the bishop piece is never going to move outside of the conventional limitations placed on the “character’s” board movement. Thus character technology trees (for lack of a better descriptor) service the same function as conventional chess movement RAW.

    The player of the French side in a war game of Waterloo may talk and act (even dress) like Napoleon at the table but this is not role-playing (or LARP) no matter how many orders are given to “named NPCs” on the field. In fact, a role-playing game can be played with mass battles directed by a player character – yet how does it remain a role-playing game and not become a war game?

    The advice “get to know the players” meant exactly that once upon a time. It assumed the players were strangers at the outset. It did not mean memorize the player’s character sheets. It meant getting to know who the players were as people. Answer the question: does player John watch Dark Shadows?

    The function of the GM role was for this player to challenge the other players. In the very simplest form, knowing John enjoys vampire films is why the vampire Strahd wasn’t named either Barnabus or Dracula. It could also mean adjusting the mechanics of all vampires so that they consistently present less like the stereotype and initially pose a mystery to the players.

    There are sociological factors too that make role-playing the only game to mirror elements of fantasy and myth/world-building used in religion. Monopoly with funny voices shouldn’t be considered in the same thought as role-playing games immersion. Only player engrossment, that taking the ride in the amusement park and ending up inside the game, is a role-playing game.

    IMHO defining what is an RPG is an important distinction to make if role-playing is to be understood, accepted and grow beyond the niche. It’s like ordering a Coke at the bar to be served a Pepsi because it’s a coke in the server’s mind. We who care about the uniqueness of this hobby need to embrace the games’ distinctiveness apart from all other games rather than hide within a board game sameness.

    1. Should have added the proper adjective: “Whereas RPGs can be played REGRESSIVELY like a war or board game….”

  2. Sorry it has taken me so long to process your comment. I do appreciate this point of view.

    Often, when I look back at the best campaigns I’ve experienced, they have not been about just the rule-set or the type of game. The best campaigns have been immersive to the point where we thought about, discussed, and occasionally even obsessed over them beyond the table. This carries two implicit understandings.

    1. Players were engaged enough that they wanted to devote even more of their emotional energy and free time to the game than the four hours a week at session allowed.

    2. The players were friendly enough or comfortable enough with each other that they spent time with each other outside of game.

    Overall, though there have been exceptions, I do not find playing RPGs with strangers (or even acquaintances) to be a truly rewarding experience. For me, this immersion aspect and its need to “exist beyond the board” or break the fourth wall, is a vital part of the joy.

    Also, it’s obvious that I find it worthwhile to find a definition for What is an RPG in a gaming landscape where this is increasingly blurry. Your analogy is apt. When I go out to eat and ask for a soda, I ask first if they serve Coke or Pepsi and adapt accordingly because Pepsi is gross.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

  3. Hi Mike,

    I have been wanting to elongate my reply since the day after I wrote it but apart from a few social comments on a writer’s forum or 140 characters on Twitter (I have a new Canadian Prime Minister – w007!), I have not gotten around to it and probably won’t. It just takes too much from my leisure time to defend the game I enjoy and the hobby I dropped when it became yet another unenjoyable board game. (I do not like board games.)

    However, the book I have been reading and highly recommend, Dangerous Games by Joseph Laycock http://amzn.to/1MBJMlB , articulates eloquently and scholarly from a sociological perspective, same as Gary Fine, what ingredients are imperative to the fundamental recipe of playing a role-playing game correctly (as a role-playing game). The ingredients have little in common with the GSN player segregation; or any statements about how theatrical a person is at the table, and certainly it has /nothing/ to do with building the perfect character according to the rules. He draws the focus of the game play to parallels in myth building in real life (i.e. religion) and how powerful that impact is in RPGs (and, subsequently, why THAT was the threat and impetus for religion’s attack on D&D). A Newsweek article from 1985 contains these direct quotes: https://2warpstoneptune.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/newsweek-1985.jpg

    “If kids can believe in a god they can’t see then it’s very easy for them to believe in occult deities they can’t see.” And “players become so wrapped up in its seductive fantasies that they lose contact with reality.” And might I say this was the fun of playing for me. I did not refer to or recall my game by talking about decision trees and how the rules worked in my advantage or disadvantage. I did not say “the Big Bad” or Boss Monster. Those “fuckers,” and we could get very emotional about it depending upon events and story, had names and agenda, which my pals and I stood against. They were not loot drops. For the purposes of our conversing after the game, and for anyone listening to us while in this conversation, these imaginary constructs were real. They were as real as Jesus, but to our imaginary identities; whereas Jesus is believed to have been a real God walking the earth as part of the identity make-up of a great many adults in objective reality. [Ask me which “fantasy game” is more deadly….]

    The article was written in response to the Satanic Panic, and includes TSR’s antidote for role-playing, a “warning” against players identifying with their player characters: “The more the two are kept apart, the better your games will be.” And I call bullshit. This line of thinking not only led to renaming demons from the original game but also to more heavily ruled, board gamey (video gamey) D&D. Now, the participants are accountable to the game (system rules) rather than when the game was accountable to the participants. The play has moved far away from the Star Communications Model in this respect, leaving the book and not the GM in the centre. And this has made the play sterile and mechanized. No more weird looks from people at the bus stop as players loudly celebrate and fist pump the death of that “fucker, Gismodo the Ogre.” Instead the K-O celebration is replaced with all the excitement of a Technical K-O. (And that isn’t going to pull in new people to the hobby.)

    I dare say that our ‘Youtube Actual Plays’ from the 1970s, would not be like “watching paint dry” as one host from an RPGs podcast and Actual Play GM described it. Why? I say it was because there was more of the player/person in the game back then. Too bad there were no Youtube then, to show people today a before and after.

    Here is how Laycock explains it.

    Role-playing games often function as a journey into the player’s mind, uncovering both exalted ideals and repressed impulses. However, this is not a private journey but a shared one. (Dr. John Eric) Holmes (professor of neurology) notes that playing Dungeons & Dragons resembles a sort of collective madness:
    .QUOTE. This “alternative universe” feel to the world of Dungeons and Dragons is produced by its social reality. It is a shared fantasy, not a solitary one, and the group spirit contributes to the tremendous appeal of the game. You always wanted a world of magic and mystery to explore, and now a group of your friends gathers every two or three weeks to explore it with you…. The fantasy has become a reality, a sort of folie a deux., or shared insanity. –13 .UNQUOTE

    13 John Eric Holmes, “Confessions of a Dungeon Master,” Psychology Today, November 1980, 84–88

    It (RPGs) is described as a “game,” but often resemble art, psychotherapy, or madness more than traditional games. The worlds created within the game are reflections of the individual personalities of the players, but the process through which they come to seem “real” is a collective one.

    And so humans must engage in “world-building,” a collective process through which a society comes to understand the world in a particular way. –14 Science, religion, and other models of reality that help us to interpret our world can be understood as both the tools for and the products of world-building. From this perspective, the manner in which imaginary worlds are collectively constructed in the context of fantasy role-playing games is similar to the process through which all human meaning is created.

    14. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Book, 1969)

    I cannot more highly recommend this book to you, Mike.

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