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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.


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
Nowadays there does seem to be hostility, bordering on sheer ignorance, when someone tries to define something. No, it isn't "gatekeeping ("the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something") and tribalism." And I personally don't care what you think or do individually, nor am I trying to convince anyone of anything.
This is not my experience. There is only hostility to someone trying to define something when they define something badly. And that is because defining something badly is an inherently hostile action that excludes people - and because bad definitions normally flow out of a mix of ignorance and tribalism.

The problem is that the definitions you have given (in particular about the progression that excludes one-shot RPGs) are bad ones that include things that are pretty obviously RPGs. Therefore the proposed definitions are not fit for purpose. They could have been presented in ignorance (in which case the thing to do when counter-examples are presented is to go back to fix them) or they could have been presented with the explicit intention of excluding. But if you're not interested in fixing your definitions and not trying to convince anyone of anything why are you writing?

For the record, my definition of RPGs is that tabletop roleplaying is a hobby that grew out of two different but related and overlapping desires:
  • Taking a wargame where you identify with a single character trying to do a task, and putting in place a referee so that you can go beyond the rules and do things your character would but the rules can't cover
  • Taking the basic game of "Let's Pretend" and fixing some of the common failure states by having conflict resolution mechanics so you can move on, and a GM to handle all the minor characters no one wants to play as.
I would say that your definitions are, among other things, almost exclusively based on the former motivation (which, for that matter, is how D&D was created).

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