Roleplaying Philosophy Series:
- RPP-000: RPG Theory Bibliography
- RPP-099: Mad Brew’s Gaming Philosophy
- RPP-100: Defining Game
- RPP-101: Defining Roleplaying Games
- RPP-310: Roleplaying Promotes Wellbeing
- RPP-399: 10 Reasons to Play Games at the Table
- RPP-401: RPG Community
- RPP-450: Roleplaying is a Pastime
- RPP-499: Gamer Elitism
In the previous article of the Roleplaying Philosophy series, we defined what a game was and was not. This time we will identify and define the elements that constitute a roleplaying game [RPG]. The execution of this process should result in a suitable definition for what roleplaying games are.
Elements of RPGs
They are Games
A roleplaying game is, as the name states, a type of game. This means that a roleplaying game must meet the requirements of the definition of game. As such, a roleplaying game is a dynamic form of play, structured by rules, where players participate to overcome opposition in order to achieve a goal.
However, some theories suggest games must have a victory condition and that RPGs do not meet the criteria for games because of their lack of a victory condition. But, I have already defined game with more relaxed criteria.
I also disagree with the criteria that roleplaying games cannot have victory conditions. I think “defeating the big bad evil guy and averting certain doom” qualifies as a victory condition and is a mainstay of roleplaying adventure/campaign tropes. Perhaps a better delineation would be that roleplaying games can have an infinite number of goals while other games have a finite number of goals. I think that another difference is that non-roleplaying games have clearly defined losing conditions.
There is the faction that claims RPGs are not games because games are by their nature competitive while roleplaying games are cooperative. I contend that roleplaying games are still competitive even if you are not competing directly against living players. You compete against non-player characters, monsters, traps, and the environment within the virtual world of the game. It is also possible to compete, or struggle against other players in roleplaying games. The exercises of political intrigue and social backstabbing that are prevalent with White Wolf’s Vampire games have shown us that.
Some theorists propose that roleplaying games, or roleplaying can never be contained within the boundaries of definition because the genre is too fluid and tends to break any current definition when designers push the envelope on creativity. I think it may be a little pretentious to think that a concept can escape a definitive description. Humanity has been defining the universe since prehistory, and I think given our current knowledge, defining what a roleplaying game is should be within our grasp.
Needless to say, much of the controversy surrounding the question of whether roleplaying games exist within the set of games is because of what the proponents of alternate theories believe the definition of a game is. I have provided a fitting definition for game in the previous article; under which, roleplaying games can clearly exist.
Players Assume Roles of Sentience
The crux of the matter when trying to delineate roleplaying games from other forms of games is to define what a role is. Is choosing the yellow token in Clue and naming it Colonel Mustard a role? I am of the opinion that it is not, at least within the limitations implied by the rules of Clue.
I propose that a key feature of a role, within the context of an RPG, is the ability for that role to develop. This means that within a roleplaying game there are resources (i.e. stats, equipment, finances, etc.) connected to the role that are dynamic and change over time. A role must also be sentient, something with the capability to make decisions.
Some theories state that roleplaying games must be described in narrative and are not acted out physically. I dispute this definition because acting should actually allow a player to better assume the role, which is the essence of a roleplaying game. I believe the one of the main motivations behind roleplaying is to explore an alternative reality through the assumption of roles. This can be done through narrative or by physical action.
Human Moderated Improvisation
McLimore also proposes that all roleplaying game must have a referee, otherwise known as the gamemaster [GM], to mediate conflicts. I would argue that human moderation is required for a roleplaying game, yet the title of referee could be shared among the players. A game that distributes the role of GM among the players could resolve conflicts by group consensus. The implication of the need for human moderation means that a roleplaying game must have more than one player.
Within a roleplaying game a character, controlled by a player, has the freedom to take any action that the character could take if the given situation were real. The player chooses which actions he will take based upon characterization. In other words, the actions are taken because it is what the character would do and the successes of these actions are determined by the limitations of the character as determined by the rules and the virtual environment.
This is perhaps why many theories determine that there is a need for a dedicated referee, or GM. Human moderation is indeed required, because there are not any conventional rules that accounts for every action that could be taken or make allowance for all the modifiers to said action. Even if there are “catch all” mechanics designed to resolve any unknowns, human moderation is needed to verify if the action is even plausible.
Live Action vs. Table Top
I see Live Action Roleplaying [LARP] games as a subset of roleplaying games. In LARP games, the player physically acts out what his character does, much like an actor in a play, except in LARP it is unscripted. Actions that are beyond the abilities of living humans or actions that could be potentially harmful (such as casting spells, discharging firearms, or swordplay) are often narrated instead of being fully acted out. LARPs still possess all the characteristics of roleplaying games.
Table Top roleplaying games are verbally narrated roleplaying games. While facial expressions and hand gestures are common, most if not all of the action takes place in the players’ imaginations. RPGs of this category are also referred to as Pen & Paper roleplaying games to distinguish them from video game RPGs, though neither pen and paper or table tops are actually required for play.
Roleplaying games were born from pushing the envelope of the wargaming hobby. As such, wargames share many characteristics of roleplaying games and much of the terminology has carried over. We still use the words campaign and combat round in many systems today.
While wargamers take on the roles of generals and commanders during play, wargames are not roleplaying games because they do not contain free improvisation and they have a finite amount of goals (capture objective, eliminate all enemy units, neutralize enemy command, etc.). Even so, it does not take much to turn a wargame into a roleplaying game.
About Computer Roleplaying Games
Computer roleplaying games [CRPGs], also known as video game RPGs, of the single player variety do not allow for the freedom of improvisation or the true assumption of roles. Therefore, CRPGs are not actually roleplaying games, but games that attempt to simulate the experience. CRPGs use the same settings and mechanics as true roleplaying games but lack the true interaction necessary in the games they simulate.
This being said, once a network of additional living players are added to a CRPG, there is potential for true roleplaying. This evident in the text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs) that still exist today, but were very popular in the mid to late 90s. Massive multiplayer online [MMO] games, the descendents of MUDs, also have the potential for true roleplaying as well, and the interactivity (along with the presentation) of these games is one reason why they are so dominant today.
Mad Brew’s Definition of Roleplaying Games
After critically analyzing the elements that comprise a roleplaying game, I am confident to put forth a strong definition of what a roleplaying game is. Just like with my definition of game, I do not claim that my definition is perfect, and a rational discourse could convince me to change it.
A roleplaying game is a dynamic form of play, structured by rules with human moderation, where players assume and develop virtual roles of sentience and overcome opposition by freely improvising character actions in order to achieve a possibly infinite number of goals.
A less wordy definition that assumes one already knows the Mad Brew definition of Games is: An RPG is a game where players assume and develop virtual roles that freely improvise within the confines of character and human moderation.
The next chapter in the Roleplaying Philosophy series will give a brief history of roleplaying games including an overview of the first RPG and how roleplaying has evolved until its current state.
Listening to: Spinnerette – Ghetto Love – Ghetto Love
 Image retrieved from Dave Ward’s Flickr page
 Kinsman, B. (2006). System and Theory.
 Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 Walton, J. (Ed.). (2006). Push: New Thinking about Roleplaying, Volume 1.
 McLimore, G. (1997). What is a Role Playing Game?.
 Rilstone, A. (1994). Role-Playing Games: An Overview.