A minor note: I’ve been sitting on this article for a while now, but haven’t published it because I didn’t feel it was substantive enough. However, I recently dredged it up from my drafts folder and decided that putting it out there for public consumption was preferable to letting it languish any longer. Hopefully, I’m just being overly critical of my own work, and this may prove useful or interesting for others to read.
It’s a funny term—”role-playing game.” It gets applied a lot of places that don’t really make sense, like when people talk about how collecting minotaur toenails in a videogame is an “RPG element.” But even when applied more directly, to the genre of works that spawned the term, it can produce some unusual results. One of the core issues, as veterans of the medium can sometimes find, is that each part of the term can have its own assumptions and meanings, and these may conflict with how one approaches the other parts.
Over the course of the role-playing hobby, a great many gamers have attempted to nail down just what makes a role-playing game. I don’t intend to do that here. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not it can even be done—there’s a lot of clever game designers out there devoted to pushing the envelope of such definitions, as well as a great many very opinionated role-players who have already set the boundaries on their personal definitions. Instead, I’m going to take a moment to consider what each element of the role-playing game formula means to me, and how it informs how I view RPGs as a creative form. I’m sure there will be those who disagree with my definitions, either for the individual elements or with regards to how I assemble them (or perhaps both at once), but my goal here isn’t to create a universal definition so much as to lay my cards on the table about my personal one.
While an important component of the RPG formula, the “role” aspect has often struck me as the least important element of the overall whole—which is not to say that it doesn’t have great significance, simply that I find the other parts more important. I define the “Role” part of RPGs as the investment into the world of the game. This of course ties heavily into whatever characters are being played, as the most obvious usage indicates—players take on the “role” of their own characters, and the GM takes on the “role” of everyone else. However, it also involves buy-in to the overall world being created by the story, which provides the necessary context for those roles. This stuff is a big deal, and for many gamers, is absolutely crucial to maintaining a fun playing environment. However, it is also easy to lose track of how this is only one component of the overall formula, and not a goal unto itself. Take this part too far without mixing in the other stuff and you could get the horror stories of railroading GMs who are frustrated would-be novelists and players who ruin sessions because hurting the other PCs/attacking the authority figure/being an antisocial loner is “what my character would do.” It’s not an inevitable step by any means, but prioritizing immersion over anything else does mean you are prioritizing immersion over a good time.
I might argue that this is the key component of the RPG formula. It integrates the adjacent notions of “role” (by reminding you to play to it) and “game” (by reminding you that you are playing one), while keeping the ultimate goal of having fun in sight. Ultimately, whether you see yourself as playing a role more than playing a game or vice versa, you still ultimately see yourself as playing in general. It’s an important way to make sure you don’t take yourself or the hobby too seriously. Of course, a distinction should be drawn between playing and just crapping around. Even with a focus on fun, there’s not much point in getting a gaming group together if you don’t intend to play the actual game, so there is a little bit of seriousness involved. Just a smidge, in many cases, but it’s there.
Now, I consider the key message of the “game” in “role-playing game” not to be about fun or entertainment. There are plenty of things people call games they can be really cut-throat and competitive about, and to be honest, they kind of have a point. We use the word to refer to everything from Chutes and Ladders to gladiatorial bloodsport. Rather, I consider the issue of fun to be one handled as I mentioned above, and think what “game” implies is structure. Games have rules, and sometimes teams or other organizations involved. For an RPG, this usually means things like “you need this huge textbook to play” or “there is a GM or similar referee running things.” Even less conventional games have some degree of structure to them—some means of conflict resolution to prevent the “nuh-uh!” vs. “uh-huh!” argument that has stopped every game of cops and robbers dead in its tracks since the dawn of time. Now, unlike some games, the rules in RPGs are often subordinated to the overall goal of having fun, or to a social contract between the players, or the GM’s iron-fisted governance (try and avoid that last one, folks!). This too, is simply a form of structure, albeit one of social convention instead of gaming rules. Ultimately, the structure of a game should serve to reinforce the other aspects of the overall concept, by providing a stable framework within which to handle everything. Structure is a crucial element of successful gaming, from finding a good timeslot for people to meet or keeping a solid membership to your group, to knowing which system is going to appeal to everyone’s tastes or settling the argument over whether Dwarves get proficiency in heavy artillery as a bonus feature (in my experience, they generally do not).
All Together Now
What all this means when taken as a whole is that a role-playing game is an activity structured with specific roles or ideas that provide a means for everyone involved to have fun. It’s not especially more complicated than that, although you can certainly take that simple idea and do some pretty wild things with it. Now, I’m sure that strictly applying this definition could probably include stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the RPG hobby, or that I wouldn’t consider an RPG. That’s fine with me. I like this kind of definition loose. To paraphrase a great woman1, “The more you tighten your definitions, the more wonderful gaming opportunities will slip through your fingertips.”