What Makes an RPG?

RPG is a very broad category that covers many different games with very different systems and mechanics. Most game genres have clear cut definitions. FPS games are all about running around and shooting things in the face from first person perspective. RTS games are all top down perspective strategy games that do not use a turn based mechanics. The definitions are basically right there in the name. But Role Playing Games… You don’t actually role play anything when you play a video game.

The name of the genre is carry-over from the pen and paper based roots of the genre. The original RPG’s do entail actual role playing. These are games that require bunch of people to get together, sit around the table and pretend they are barbarians and wizards, while rolling handfuls of dice. They are governed by complex rules intended to simulate real world situations such as combat. The rules were designed so that different people could play different characters with various skills, strengths and weaknesses. They added randomness and luck into the equation to make things exciting. There was nothing about these rules that was endemic to the RPG. They were simply there out of necessity – to provide a workable framework against which the players and game masters could work of. What made RPG games what they were, was the actual role playing – people getting into character, and having imaginary adventures together.

When we decided to port RPG games to video game platforms, we couldn’t really implement the that particular social aspect of these games. We also could not really carry over the concept of a game master, or the free-form, open ended world where the only constraint is the GM’s imagination. So we ported everything else – among other things, the rules. And so CRPG’s tend to include the following:

  1. A set of skills or attributes that define the character
  2. A mechanism to advance these skills/attributes by gaining experience either from quests or from combat
  3. Inventory system that allows you to carry, modify and sell items
  4. A mechanic which allows you to add non player character followers to your party
  5. A system that allows you to converse with NPC’s that inhabit the game world

There is nothing RPG specific about these things though. Skills and attributes exist because that is the only way to simulate things like expertise and proficiency in a pen and paper environment. In a computer game you can easily make a warrior visibly stronger than a scholar without actually ever exposing any number stats to the player. On the other hand inventory screens and dialog screens are simply a factor of the weakness of our chosen medium. In a real RPG talking to people, or picking up items is something you naturally do during the course of the game. After all that’s what you do in real life too – you walk around, talk to people and sometimes they give you stuff you can put in your pockets.

So originally CRPG games were simply an effort to emulate pen and paper experience in an electronic medium. They were sort of a bastard baby spawned by the unholy matrimony between Role Playing and technology. But this is no longer the case. The bastard child grew up, graduated and gained a whole new audience: people who have never actually sat around a table and never rolled dice while scarfing down potato chips, drinking Mountain Dew and quoting Monthy Python. These new players did not know what the pen and paper experience was – but they did have opinions on what was and wasn’t fun to do in a video game. And so RPG genre evolved into the shape it is today – an amalgamation of different engines, systems and mechanics.

For example, how is that Mass Effect 2 and Torchlight are in the same genre? The former has no inventory and mostly a vestigial skill/experience system. The later is pretty much missing everything other than inventory and skill/experience system. And yet, most people would put them side by side on the same shelf.

The five characteristics I mentioned above do not really apply to all video games considered to be RPG’s. Not all games have all five of them present. Furthermore, games can contain several of them without actually being classified an RPG. For example, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had quite an extensive inventory system, but most people consider it an FPS. The Secret of the Monkey Island had an inventory management component as well, but it was a point and click adventure. In Half Life 2 you would often team up with Alyx and/or participate in rather complex scripted conversations. But no one can really claim HL2 is an RPG.

Of course you can say that the last 3 items on my list are irrelevant. What makes an RPG is numerical attributes, skill points, experience and leveling up. But it seems that even this stance can be challenged. Both Fable III and Final Fantasy XIV seem to be abandoning traditional level up dings and character sheets in favor of more organic character progression. They will hide the numbers from the player, and allow their characters to grow and become stronger based on their in game decisions. Both these games are sequels to established RPG series. And it is usually rare for games to switch genres between sequels.

I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that RPG is very amorphous and vague description. There is no clear cut definition of an RPG. When asked, most of us simply uses their gut feeling to see whether or not a game is an RPG. Is Mass Effect 2 one? How about Torchlight? How about an experience-less Fable III?

Fuck if I know.

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5 Responses to What Makes an RPG?

  1. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I remembered playing pen-and-paper games during my primary school education (not sure what the US equivalent is, was from 6 to 12 years of age) in the late 80s and early 90s. We had our own created rule system and when we get bored, someone simply took the reigns and created their own system. I even tried to be the game master at one time, but I remember my version of the game had a lot of combat. Used one of those notebooks which had squares instead of lines.

    Was a pretty awesome time. Wish I could play some PnP game now, with a “proper” ruleset and a “proper” game master.

    This interview with Vince Weller, head honcho of Iron Tower Studios making Age Of Decadence definted RPG as “freedom to do whatever you want within the boundaries of a storyline” in an interview with RPS, and I kinda agree with that. Of course, in CRPGs, freedom is somewhat subjective as there are so many constraints.

    I guess CRPGs are a subset of RPGs, and games such as Mass Effect 2 or Torchlight, are further subsets within the CRPG group.

    Reading about your rant now makes me want to fire one up. Hmm…

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  2. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I would call neither Mass Effect 2 nor Torchlight RPGs, essentially because there’s no roleplay in either of them. Mass Effect 2 looks much more like a Third Person Shooter with extra dialogue sequences, and Torchlight is a good old Hack & Slash.

    While the roleplay itself from PnP games can hardly be translated on the computer, a video game can offer a somewhat close experience. It’s all in its ability to let the player make choices.

    A game could include different ways to play the game : as a diplomat with no combat skills, a heavy handed brute, a skilled rogue, a scientist, a mentally challenged person, etc… A good RPG will allow the player to win the game with any of the ways he can choose, as a good GM would by adapting his story and encounters to the character/party. A bad one will enforce choices on the player, and punish him by making the game harder or downright impossible (Oblivion…) if he doesn’t make the right ones.

    Another way to approach the PnP experience is by making the player impact on the world. Of course, in PnP games players can do whatever they want, but in video games you can at least give them a few meaningful options. By meaningful options, I mean choices that actually carry consequences other than the tone used by your character, and most importantly consequences you can feel. Provide alternatives to every quest path and don’t let any single person be irreplaceable.

    Of course, this makes a story very hard to tell as you can’t predict each and every path a player can take, but most of the fun in PnP usually isn’t in the storytelling, but in trying to ruin your GM’s carefully laid plan ;). I like game that let me ruin the story. Even better if it can somehow fall back on its feet by providing a cleverly thought alternative. I think games today try to be too dramatic and make you follow narrow story paths. They’re trying to be more like interactive movies and less like games. Not that it’s not entertaining, but they’re not RPGs.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Mart:

    It’s definitely fun to play it the right way. I played RPG games in high school and we were pretty serious about it. By that I mean we usually tried to cooperate with the GM rather than ruin his adventure and get loot and XP. One of our GM’s really liked the dice-less model so his games were all about Role Playing rather than Roll Playing. :)

    I royally sucked as a GM. I like to think that I have matured enough to be able to handle it these days, but I prefer to play. :)

    I’m currently group-less – my last gaming group fell apart due to scheduling conflicts and real life stuff. Our GM was a father of 3 and his wife did not realize that bunch of grown ass dudes will raid their house every weekend, take over the kitchen table, eat all the Cheetos and demand Mountain Dew :P We fell out of touch since the game was put on hiatus.

    Oh, and I think all of us devised our own system or two. I have a whole drawer full of unfinished games and world building documents. 90% of them were never game tested or actually shown to anyone. :P

    Zel wrote:

    I like game that let me ruin the story. Even better if it can somehow fall back on its feet by providing a cleverly thought alternative.

    Morrowind is actually bit like this. You can easily ruin the main quest by killing crucial NPC’s. The game won’t stop you. It will merely notify you that the main quest is now unplayable. If you didn’t care you could continue playing and leveling your character as normal.

    I really hated the fact that Oblivion made all special characters immortal. It took away that freedom to ruin the game if you wanted to.

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  4. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    For a long time I viewed RPG as being synonymous with “Tolkienesque Fantasy”. Obviously not the case, but go back to older RPG games and it was probably true.

    @Luke Your Morrowind comment is spot on. I think stats and inventory are critical to making a game an RPG, but it’s the freedom that really counts.

    Is Diablo an RPG – I’d say no. It has different skills and strategies sure, but ultimately you’re playing the same game with no dramatic changes. This applies to Borderlands etc. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Borderlands, but I thought it was a great action FPS.

    I can’t really think of many games that allow this freedom. Morrowind was one. Deus Ex (love that game) was another.

    If that makes an RPG then I’m a fan RPGs. If Mass Effect/Final Fantasy et al are RPGs, then I don’t like RPGs at all.

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  5. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I would say that what actually makes an RPG (apart from the freedom of chosing what type of character you play and to make it evolve) is the possibility to interact with NPC (or even PC’s in MMORPG) in other ways than by slaughtering them. A consequence of this, regardless of the skill, inventory or progression system, is that there should always be a lot more freedom for the player in an RPG system. This is also the reason why only sand box RPG’s are truly feeling like the pen and paper ones. They are more realistic (as much as a fantasy setting can be realistic) or rather they keep the suspension of disbelief to a higher level. I would even argue that first person sand box RPG’s are the ultimate ones.

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