What Are Role-Playing Games Even? How are they that?

Exploring a genre that might not exist

By: Sam Liberty

Everyone knows what a role-playing game is. I mean, it’s so obvious, why even talk about it? They’re those games where you take the role of a protagonist who must face down world-beating odds to save the universe. You meet lots of cool characters, gain new skills and abilities, fight gnarly monsters, and watch an epic story unfold: your story. Then again, that could describe about half of all modern games, so… let’s take a step back.

There’s lots of different types of RPGs, and they comprise many milieus and sub-genres, growing more and more granular as we bore down. Action and strategy RPGs might be thought of as two families or orders of role-playing games, whereas the Phantasy Star series could be a species. But on the macro scale, RPGs are usually broken down into two main kingdoms: tabletop (like D&D, FATE, and and Fiasco) and video games (like Chrono Trigger, Horizon Zero Dawn, and the Final Fantasy series). I could see arguments for LARP being a third kingdom, but for the purpose of this article, let’s say it is a phylum of tabletop since it’s physical not digital. Given that tabletop and digital RPGs are two totally different mediums that both carry the same genre label, it will be instructive to look at the two side by side and identify what they have in common. If we can do this, we should be able to say once and for all what makes an RPG an RPG.

Consider if you will the tabletop role-playing game. The very first one was [Original] Dungeons and Dragons, released in 1974. It was an offshoot of a miniatures war game called Chainmail. D&D’s big innovation was pulling an individual out of the war game’s unit, naming that individual and supplying them with game statistics, and then asking players to take on the role of that person in an imaginary world. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, and many innovations can be found in that first edition and its successors, but that is the core of the game.

The Definition

Every tabletop roleplaying game since has had those basic elements:

  • The player controls a specific character.*
  • That character has game statistics and/or relational attributes with other game objects
  • The character has important fictional/narrative relationships with other story elements
  • The player makes decisions for the character, stepping into that role and making choices as if they were the character

*Rarely, the player controls multiple characters, but it’s always at least one.

The above elements are listed in order from general to specific. The first point applies to many game genres, the last one applies pretty much only to RPGs. It’s tempting to list other common RPG features alongside these such as character creation, the presence of a Game Master who’s responsible for playing non-player characters and governing what happens in the world, and the fact that tabletop RPGs are played face to face around a table with pencil and paper, but these characteristics are not actually universal and make up the families, phylums, genera, and species, not the kingdom (to continue torturing our biology metaphor).

Applying the criteria to video game RPGs

Great! We’ve got it! We did it! We nailed it down. Of course, you might disagree on this core, and if you do I welcome your thoughts in the responses to this article. For those keeping score at home, LARP, our potential third kingdom, is also described perfectly by those core elements, though it has other features that make it unique.

Square-Enix re-releases the original Final Fantasy

So now that we have it, let’s throw some classic video game RPGs up on the board and see if they fit the description. Let’s start with the original Final Fantasy, sometimes called Final Fantasy 1, an archetypical video game RPG.

Does the player control a specific character?

I’d say yes. They control multiple characters and they’re not incredibly specific (with names like Thief and White Mage), but the player controls them.

Does the character have game statistics and/or object-relationships with other game objects?

This one’s easy. Yes. These statistics and relationships are what define the characters.

Does the character have important narrative relationships with other story elements?

Well, it depends on what you consider important, and I used that word for a reason. Most games have some fictional layer that informs what’s happening in the game. That’s how you decide to jump on goombas, kiss Princess Peach, and not to throw Mario into a of lava after all, other than trial and error. But I’d struggle to say the narrative relationship between your PCs and the enemies you fight and characters you talk to is important in Final Fantasy. Let’s call it a toss up.

Does the player take on a role and make decisions for the PC as if they were that character?

Here, I would say no. Broadly speaking, they are making decisions that benefit their avatar and harm their avatar’s enemies, but this is true of all games. They are not making the granular level of decision that characters in a tabletop RPG or LARP make such as who to trust, what to do during down time, what is the morally right action and how to balance that with expedience, deciding what your character will say and how they will say it — or when to just keep silent, and so on.

This leaves us with two possible conclusions: 1) Final Fantasy is not an RPG. 2) Our definition is wrong, and there must be some other common thread that we missed.


Reconsidering our definition

Let’s examine the second possibility first, because memento mori and all that. The fourth point is the one that Final Fantasy really fails on, so let’s temporarily throw it out and see what we might replace it with. Here are some common RPG elements we might consider:

Character Advancement/Customization: In D&D there is character advancement, and there is also character advancement in FF. However, not all tabletop RPGs have this, and many non-RPG video games also have it (for instance X in Mega Man X, which is a platformer, gets stronger as he acquires different items, as does Link in the original Legend of Zelda, which is an action adventure game).

A Deep, Detailed Story: Forget for a moment that many video game and tabletop RPGs have rather shallow stories rife with plot holes. These days most video games have expansive stories loaded with interesting characters and situations. Bioshock, Half Life, Metal Gear, and many more games and series come to mind.

Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games 2013

Turn-based Combat: D&D features this, and so does Final Fantasy. However many other games we consider RPGs do not, for instance Secret of Mana has real-time action based combat, and many tabletop RPGs and LARPS have no combat mechanics at all.

A Rich, Fantasy Setting: Final Fantasy obviously has this, but any game can be set in a medieval fantasy world. This is a milieu, not a genre.

Gated Areas That Mix Combat and Puzzle-solving: The dungeon is a common RPG trope: large complexes filled with enemies to slay and puzzles to solve, culminating with a milestone. D&D began it, but action adventure games like Metroid and Castlevania perfected it, not video game RPGs.

Super Metroid, Nintendo, 1994

Social Dynamics: Tabletop RPGs, being multi-player games undertaken in person are inherently social. Multi-player video game RPGs like World of Warcraft have this element. Single player RPGs lack this, but can make up for that by adding an online community to their game. Then again, any game can have a social element added to it via online play communities with forums and walkthroughs, so I don’t think this answers the question either.

Giving Narrative Control to the Player: Out of all of these, this feature comes closest. After all, what is the value of having players make decisions in character if those choices don’t effect the outcome or direction of the game and its story? However, by this token a choose-your-own adventure book is a roleplaying game and so is any video game with multiple endings, regardless of its other mechanics, so it has to be a non-starter.

Facing the Facts: There’s No Such Thing as Video Game RPGs

We tried, and we couldn’t reconcile it. Final Fantasy is not an RPG, according to our very simple definition. Therefore it follows that most, perhaps all, video game RPGs are not really role-playing games at all, but something else. Some might be open world games, others fantasy-themed action adventure, or story-rich, turn-based tactical games. I believe some of the confusion comes from the emulation of aspects of classic tabletop games like D&D, borrowing some mechanical ideas or aping the milieu of sword and sorcery. But none of these are sufficient.

Some modern RPGs may come close. The Elder Scrolls series, for example, gives the player a lot of freedom to make choices in-character, but in the end these choices are essentially problem-solving choices in an open world action adventure game with a rich story and strong elements of narrative control. These may all be common features of RPGs, but they are not core elements, and thus not enough to satisfy the definition.

One other possibility:

I can hear my readers saying now: “Wait a second, when I play Skyrim, I really AM making choices based on what I think the character would do. I really am stepping into their shoes, and playing a role. So it does satisfy your definition.”

This is compelling, and to a point, I have to agree. Player experience is subjective, and the reasons people play games and the emotions they feel when they play them are all their own. The counter argument to this is that this would mean that every game is a role-playing game if the player feels like they are roleplaying, which makes the genre label totally useless to players, reviewers, and designers. However, it is still an exciting thought. This reframes an RPG not as a mechanical genre, or something a game designer creates, but as something a player does.

This reframes an RPG not as a mechanical genre, or something a game designer creates, but as something a player does.

I am very open to this idea. It’s a fascinating and rich area of discussion. Thinking of roleplaying as an action, or as a mode of play — or perhaps a mode of being — completely transforms the conversation around RPGs and would represent a paradigm shift in game design and popular criticism. This is interesting for academics and theoreticians, but perhaps not for players, journalists, and game studios. It does, however, serve my interest of exploding RPGs as a video game genre — even the notion of genre itself — and provides a new framework for discussing video game play.


Sam Liberty is co-founder of Extra Ludic, a consultancy focussed on serious games for real-world impact. He teaches playful design and game criticism and theory at Northeastern University.


Resources

Björk, S. and Holo. Games and Design Patterns. In K. Salen and E. Zimmerman, eds., The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2005, 410–427.

Apperley, T.H. Genre and game studies: Toward a critical approach to video game genres. Simulation & Gaming 37, 1 (2006), 6–23.

Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press, 2014, Chapters 8–10