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Worlds of Design: What Defines a RPG?

It’s a daunting task to try to define and characterize a segment as large and diverse as tabletop role-playing games in just a few words. But here goes.

rpg.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller​

Some people won’t be happy with my definitions--which is my opinion, drawn from experience. But the purpose of such exercises is (aside from encouraging people to think) to narrow down something so that we can talk about it intelligibly.

Defining the Undefinable​

There are two ways to define something: 1) specific (as in a dictionary), but this usually leads to dispute even when what’s being defined is a single word; or 2) describe typical characteristics, even if it’s possible that some will not have all of those characteristics. I’m trying the latter, being general enough to think all the characteristics are necessary.

What makes an RPG a tabletop hobby RPG? An RPG, as we talk about them in the hobby, is a human-opposed co-operative game. There are four characteristics:
  • Avatars,
  • progressive improvement,
  • co-operation, and
  • GMed opposed adventure.
Simple enough, but in defining a concept it’s sometimes easier to explain what it isn’t.

What RPGs Are Not

Role-playing games, as defined by the last word, are games and therefore require opposition. An RPG is not a puzzle (with a correct solution); an RPG is not a means for the GM to tell a story (reducing player agency immensely); an RPG is not a storytelling mechanism, whether for players to tell each other stories, or for the GM to tell a story. These things all exist, but to include them in the definition goes far beyond the realm of game. A game is a form of play, but most forms of play are not games.

Not Just Role-Playing​

Technically, a role-playing game may be any game where you play a role – which is a LOT of games, tabletop and (especially) video. It even includes some business simulations. I’m more interested in what makes a game a hobby RPG, a game played frequently by hobby game players. So I’ll discuss role-playing in terms of avatars.

What’s a “Pure” or “Real” Avatar?

  • A single thing/entity that represents the individual player, most commonly a humanoid
  • All the player’s actions in the game emanate from the avatar
  • The “pure” avatar is fully subject to risk: if it dies/is destroyed, the player loses (at least temporarily)
An avatar could be a spaceship, a tank (World of Tanks) or other vehicle, even a pizza-shape (Pac-Man). In video games, the avatar typically respawns. In hobby RPGs, the avatar is a creature, usually human or humanoid. (For more detail, read "The most important design aspect of hobby RPGs is the Pure Avatar".)

Avatars sometimes have a separate developer-provided “history” and personality (Mario, Sonic). Sometimes an avatar is a blank slate so that the player can more easily infuse his/her own personality or fictional character background into the avatar.

In many games, a "kind-of-avatar" is not the source of all action, nor does the game end if the avatar is killed. That’s not an RPG.

Progressive Improvement

This can happen in many kinds of games. But in what we call RPGs, it’s some variety of:
  • Gaining experience to rise in levels, and the levels give more capability (though the term “level” might not be used)
  • Gaining skills/feats/features (which give more capability)
  • Collecting magic or technological items (which provide extra options, defense, offense, etc.)
  • Acquiring money/treasure (which can be used for lots of things)
  • No doubt there are some RPGs with other ways to improve, for example via social standing if that is formally tracked
Does it need levels? No, but that's typically (conveniently) how increase in capability “without employing the loot I've got” is expressed.

So a game where the hero(es) don’t progress in capability – or only a little – might be an interesting game, but it’s not an RPG. Many of you can think of board, card, or video games of this kind. Well-known heroes in novel series rarely progress significantly in capability, for example James Bond.

You can have avatars without progression, you can have roles without “pure” avatars, you can have progression without avatars, but those are not what we categorize as RPGs.

Co-operation, Adventure, and a Gamemaster That Controls the Opposition/Enables Adventure

  • Yes, opposition. It’s not a game (I use the traditional sense) without opposition, though it might be a puzzle or a parallel competition
  • I don’t see how there can be significant opposition without a GM/referee; unless you go to computer programming
  • If there’s no co-operation, if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game in concept
I include Adventure, because the stories coming out of the original RPGs would be called adventures. In the 21st century we do have novels that don’t seem to have any particular point other than describing everyday life, and I think that’s leaked over into so-called RPGs as well. Whether adventure is necessary is a debatable point (surprise), though I’m certainly not interested in RPGs without Adventure.

The GM also allows the players to try to do “anything” that could be done in the current situation. Some regard this freedom-of-action (extreme player agency) as the defining aspect of RPGs, and it’s certainly vital; but think of a story RPG where the linear plot (typical of stories) forces players to do just what the story calls for. That’s not freedom of action. Yet story form may be the most common form of tabletop RPG.

And consider games like Minecraft. You can try to do almost anything there, too, but it's not an RPG.

Where does this leave computer RPGs? There’s not exactly a GM, though the computer tries to be. There’s certainly not as much freedom of action as with a human GM . . . But my goal was to define hobby tabletop RPGs.

Your Turn: What’s your definition of a role-playing game?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

pemerton

Legend
What differentiates a RPG from a boardgame? The fiction matters to resolution.

What differentiates a RPG from a wargame? The non-referee participants plays a single figure rather than a unit, a tank, a vessel, etc.

Put these together and I would say that a RPG is a game in which the non-referee participants play single persons (typically one each, but sometimes more than one each). Their 'moves" in the game consist primarily in saying what those persons do. And the resolution of those moves - which are declared actions, quite a bit like a wargame - depends at least in part on the fiction that all the participants agree is part of the ingame situation.

Compared to @lewpuls I think that cooperation is not so important (consider RPGing with one player and one GM/referee; or an Apocalypse World game where the PCs "hang out" in the same place but don't really work together), and nor is character improvement (Classic Traveller is a well-known example which has no "internal" improvement, only money and gear; and it's possible to play Traveller with the money and gear being in a net outflow rather than inflow!).

The more that a non-GM/referee participant's move can be adjudicated without engaging with the fiction of what is the participant's character doing, the more we're getting away from RPGing I think. But this is tricky, because it clearly makes no sense to suggest that D&D is not a RPG, yet it's possible to get quite a long way in resolving some D&D combats without ever having to think much about the fiction at all!
 

volanin

Explorer
One of the best definitions I've seen comes from TheAngryGM: What defines a Tabletop RPG is that its rules are fiction-first instead of mechanics-first. To put it simply:

In fiction-first rules, your actions are only bound by the fiction of the game. You can decide to do anything that fits the situation, and then you check the rules to see which one better suits your action. This is only possible because we have one or more human GMs to adjudicate these actions (even in GMless games, where everyone is technically a GM).

In mechanics-first rules, your actions are bound by the game mechanics. First you look at the rules, and then you decide your action based on what the rules allow you to do. We have this in boardgames and videogames (even electronic RPG games, although they do have avatars, progressive improvement and cooperation).

The GM also allows the players to try to do “anything” that could be done in the current situation. Some regard this freedom-of-action (extreme player agency) as the defining aspect of RPGs, and it’s certainly vital; but think of a story RPG where the linear plot (typical of stories) forces players to do just what the story calls for. That’s not freedom of action. Yet story form may be the most common form of tabletop RPG.

This was almost on target, but I have to disagree on the "linear plot" argument. Even in the most railroaded of games, with a very linear story, you have fiction-first characteristics. As long as I'm not breaking the story, no GM would be against me trying to swing from a chandellier to hit an enemy, or trying to seduce the empress. And that's why linear Tabletop RPGs and linear Electronic RPGs feel so different.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Yeah, I'm sorry, but... the OP has some major flaws.

Specifically, I want to call out "Progressive Improvement". By that measure, if you play one session of a game, it fails to be an RPG. I reject that notion entirely as being nonsensical.

I submit that RPGs are a genre of game. And much like genres of fiction, they benefit from an inclusive approach to definition. List a bunch of elements that are common in RPGs. If a game has enough of the elements (for some value of "enough"), it is an RPG. It does not need to have all the tropes. It may even be missing some that you personally feel are important. So, while progressive improvement is common, and even desirable, it isn't necessary.

Also note that being an RPG doesn't mean a game isn't also something else. Just as in fiction, where you can have things like the "space-western", games can fit multiple genres at once - they aren't mutually exclusive. Maybe an RPG is also a storytelling game, or also a board game, or also a computer game, or also a tactical wargame.

This can remove a whole lot of angst from your conversation. Embrace the power of "and", rather than "exclusive-or".
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I will add that the desire to draw strong lines around RPGs has, historically, seemed to be less about wanting to actually understand our hobby, and more to do with gatekeeping and tribalism.

If it makes you feel good (or perhaps smug) to say, "Those people aren't playing an RPG, they are playing a storytelling game," then that definition is about your feelings, not about the games.
 

"I will add that the desire to draw strong lines around RPGs has, historically, seemed to be less about wanting to actually understand our hobby, and more to do with gatekeeping and tribalism."

You say that as if it's a bad thing.
 



dragoner

Dying in Chargen
"Those people aren't playing an RPG, they are playing a storytelling game," then that definition is about your feelings, not about the games.
It is also terminology co-opted by alt right, white supremacists, fascists, and such; and as such, sort of a call out to them, fellow travelers. So people that use such terminology should not be surprised when it elicits a harsh and negative reaction. I come here to game, and relax, not remember or re-live what happened to my family in the 1940's. If someone wants to discuss an idea similar to storytelling, then the onus on them is to come up with new terminology, but that is also wandering into a minefield.

Per OP, my definition is a game in where you play a role. Now that could be Clue, according to KISS or scientific parsimony, and I don't care? Fine with me, it is what one makes of it, and I sincerely wish one has fun. I also think you should make the character you want to play because it could be the last character you ever play, and why waste time with doing something else? That is important.

I know others do not feel this way, and that is fine too, because I am not trying to be some "fun fuehrer" and tell people how to play their games. I guess one does have to make up some sort of controversy, to have something to talk about though.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I know others do not feel this way, and that is fine too, because I am not trying to be some "fun fuehrer" and tell people how to play their games. I guess one does have to make up some sort of controversy, to have something to talk about though.

So, this comes across... badly. "I'm not telling you what to do, but I AM going to denigrate your discussion as made-up controversy." Maybe you don't realize how this will read as rather passive-aggressive and judgmental, and thus helping to create the very controversy you say is made-up.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
So, this comes across... badly. "I'm not telling you what to do, but I AM going to denigrate your discussion as made-up controversy." Maybe you don't realize how this will read as rather passive-aggressive and judgmental, and thus helping to create the very controversy you say is made-up.
So? Maybe it is that way to you, except some of us are from outside the western hemisphere. Try to see the way people outside might look at things.
 


Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
So? Maybe it is that way to you, except some of us are from outside the western hemisphere. Try to see the way people outside might look at things.
What does your hemisphere, East or West, have to do with you being passive-aggressive and judgmental, accusing folks of "making up controversy"?
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
To me the original post is one step removed form of Edition-warrior speak.

Instead of "This edition is the real game and this other edition isn't" it's "This game is an RPG and that one one isn't"
Yeah.

It reminds me of the conversations discussing whether RPGs, and other games, are forms of art. Some folks get REALLY caught up in insisting they are not, in any way, shape, or form, artistic endeavors.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Insulting other members
What does your hemisphere, East or West, have to do with you being passive-aggressive and judgmental, accusing folks of "making up controversy"?
How would I know? I am not a mind reader. Try to confront what I said, or follow der kommissar there and attack me personally. /shrug
 

MGibster

Legend
I will add that the desire to draw strong lines around RPGs has, historically, seemed to be less about wanting to actually understand our hobby, and more to do with gatekeeping and tribalism.
I tend to favor your power of "and", rather than "exclusive-or" stance. I once went to a murder mystery part at a friend's house and we all dressed up and played roles. I wouldn't typically think of that as a role playing game, but why not?
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
I disagree with the progression part. Let's see...

Classic Traveller has none even over long term play, if I remember correctly. Classic Traveller lacks any rules for progression, or so I was told by an old Traveller grognard.

Mutants & Masterminds characters generally don't progress. The PCs are created at a certain power level and stay there forever. The GM does have the option of increasing the power level if they wish, but steady increases in character ability is not part of a normal campaign.

To me it seems the OP is focused on RPGs being D&D, and those that aren't D&D, somehow, aren't RPGs.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I disagree with the progression part. Let's see...

Classic Traveller has none even over long term play, if I remember correctly. Classic Traveller lacks any rules for progression, or so I was told by an old Traveller grognard.

Mutants & Masterminds characters generally don't progress. The PCs are created at a certain power level and stay there forever. The GM does have the option of increasing the power level if they wish, but steady increases in character ability is not part of a normal campaign.

To me it seems the OP is focused on RPGs being D&D, and those that aren't D&D, somehow, aren't RPGs.
Classic Traveller does - at least as of the 1981 printing (I am not certain about 1977). Book 2 covers experience and improving characters over time.

But I generally agree that a means of progressively improving a player's avatar should be unnecessary for an RPG as a defining characteristic. It may be really useful as a player satisfying characteristic because it kind of sucks to play the same character session after session with no sense of making progress toward a better character - be it in skill, inherent characteristic, gear, or prestige. But I don't think it makes sense to require the presence of systemic improvement to qualify as an RPG. Plus, it completely torpedoes the idea that How to Host a Murder parties are RPGs when they pretty clearly are - you have a character/avatar you play via LARP, you have a challenge to overcome (solve the mystery or get away with it) - they're just defined as one-shots and have relatively little replay value.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
#1 Avatars
I agree that an RPG has as a core concept the idea of a role -- "avatar" is a more clear testament of this. Adding the word "pure" in front of that seems overly restrictive, given the link explaining what the OP means by "pure" and the statement "if it dies/is destroyed, the player loses". Clear examples of RPGs where an avatar being destroyed is an expected part of the game and would not be considered a loss are Paranoia and Pendragon. In the later, your avatar is a family -- I think the OP would regard this as an "impure avatar". I'm also not happy ruling out games like Toon that have no avatar death and no concept of "losing" that lasts more than 5 minutes of game time. For me, all the qualifications the OP adds eliminate valid examples, or render his critical concept off "loss" trivial to the point of meaningless.

#2 Progressive Improvement
This rule would eliminate pretty much every game I have played at a convention. It would make Gen Con "not an RPG" convention. It would mean that if I decided to run a campaign (like a James Bond spy drama) where the fun was in solving problems and finding the bad guys, and no-one ever "levels up", that the game would not be defined as an RPG. This is obviously silly. Just drop this criterion.

#3 Co-operation
Not much info given on the OP's point of view except maybe " if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game in concept". Apart form defining any one-on-one game as "not roleplaying" (e.g GUMSHOE one-on-one), it also eliminates DramaSystem, which is brutally PvP and has given me some of the best RPG experiences I have enjoyed at a convention, so ... this criterion has to drop also.

#4 GMed opposed adventure
The OP apparently has no experience of RPGs where the role of the GM rotates or is shared (e.g Fiasco) or he believes those are not RPGs. Since he limits RPGs in #3 to purely co-operative among players, that fits with the notion that a non-player must be the opposition. However, the converse is true -- if the players are allowed be sometimes non-cooperative, then they can provide oppositions. He does make that point in his notes and so his position combines the two into a belief that an RPG requires a defined group of cooperative players against an adversarial GM, and that the roles are fixed. I do not see how giving the players a chance to create opposition prevents a game from being an RPG, so just as I reject #3, I reject this narrow definition of opposition as requiring a GM.
On the other hand, I do agree that opposition is needed. Conflict is at the heart of drama, and roleplaying, I believe, needs to embody drama, so I'm in agreement that opposition is needed. "Adventure" is a very general term, so I have no problems with that!

In summary
Removing the parts of the definition that rule out many games that are sold as, and generally regarded as RPGs, we are left with:

An RPG is an activity where players control avatars and through them are challenged by opposition.

Not terrible, I think. But it misses out the identification with the avatar that makes a difference between and RPG and RPG-like boardgames like Gloomhaven. Would it be too much of a stretch to say that for an RPG the player is more concerned with the internal state of the avatar, whereas for other games they are more concerned with external state?
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
One way to help clarify definitions is to look at examples. Let's take the game Arkham Horror, and have one player run the rules, bring out the decks and monsters and so on. Let's also say that player also decides that when they draw cards, they'll draw two and choose whichever card is more fun in their opinion. I pick this example, because this is how we play it, and have a ton of fun doing so!

Is this a roleplaying game? If not, why not?
(no wrong answers here -- I'm torn myself as to the answer and I'm interested in how people feel!)
 

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