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What exactly is a “Role Playing Game”?

Gamingtodaynews1b - What exactly is a "Role Playing Game"?
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Time and time again, I come upon discussions about what is and what is not an RPG, including in this very sub. Arguments range from "using only the D&D ruleset and nothing else" to "complete unbridled freedom of player expression". It's mostly a discussion of semantics, which is like fighting windmills – I won't be doing that here.

My interest in RPGs comes mainly from the capacity for – wait for it – roleplay. All of their rulesets, gameplay systems – I don't care what form they take, as long as they foster meaningful roleplay.

That's why, before moving to the core of my argument, I propose a distinction between RPGs and roleplaying games – because the latter term highlights the aspect that, to me, seems like the most important characteristic of the genre – the capacity to roleplay.

Alright, but what exactly makes a game worthy of the roleplaying title? I think the answer is three-fold:


Three Pillars of Roleplaying Games

  • Character progression
    When first entering the game world, the player's avatar is often quite weak. Understandable, since it's harder to roleplay as someone who's got their shit together, while not actually knowing how it all works.
    But playing a weak character that just stays weak and never develops probably wouldn't be too fun in the long term (not to mention it would make for a shitty story). Hence, character progression.
    I'm not going into further detail here because this is the one aspect of both roleplaying games and RPGs that virtually everyone agrees on as essential.

  • Selection of gameplay roles
    We all know of the holy trinity of tank-healer-DPS. That's gameplay roles in a nutshell, and there's a reason why they're important for roleplaying (even though the clue's in the name).
    Games are about making meaningful choices – and what's more meaningful than choosing the way in which you interact with the game? Even if you're only deciding between hitting things really hard and shooting them really hard, that's a fundamental change in how you approach gameplay. By limiting your available options, it puts you in a roleplaying mindset.
    Think about this – if your avatar can do whatever the hell you think of, and every interaction plays out in your favour, and there are no mutually exclusive choices for you to make – then are you roleplaying, or are you engaging in power fantasy?

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  • Interactive storytelling
    This term has become a bit of a cliche – it brings images of branching narratives, multiple endings, CYOA books. But it's absolutely fundamental for roleplaying, and I'm going to elaborate why.
    Roleplaying requires conscious effort. There's no way around it – unless you're roleplaying yourself (which is another thing, but that's offtop), you have to constantly ask yourself "is this what my character would do?".
    So when you're presented with situations that only have one outcome, the need for that question goes away. The game essentially takes control of your character, and you're demoted to being an observer. To say this is harmful to immersion and roleplaying is putting it lightly.
    And it's not just about having choices lead to substantial consequences. I'm playing Disco Elysium right now, and that game is packed full of choices that don't really change much about the world. What they do change however, is your character's perception of it, and how they navigate through it. You're shaping your own individual version of their story. Simply having NPCs react differently to your character based on whether you're playing by-the-books, or Hobocop, is enough to make your choices a meaningful contribution to roleplay.


In my opinion, a game that's missing one or more of those pillars, simply cannot sustain meaningful roleplay, even though it might still attract the label of RPG. Best example are "action RPGs", games like Path of Exile: loads of different character builds, progression trees for days, no interactive storytelling – no real opportunity for roleplay.

What do you think?

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