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.
- Game mechanic structures existing for the purpose of telling a persistent story.
- Systems for making a character that can be played over many sessions and can develop over time.
- 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.
- The ability to support open-ended play.
- A person/player who takes on the role of GM/DM/Storyteller/Judge/Guide/Keeper…
A little exploration of these points…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.