RPG is an acronym for role-playing game. Many gamers that you ask, whether preferring electronic or tabletop versions, will tell you what they think they know about what defines an RPG and will be able to give you multiple examples. They’ll both refer to genres of games that fit their definition, but often are ignorant of the similarities and differences between their definition and others. There isn’t anything wrong with a broad definition of this style of game. That is, until it prevents gamers from communicating accurately what they like about the game. Although Vampire: The Masquerade (Tabletop RPG) and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey ( video game RPG) are both “role-playing games” as classified by their fandoms, they are drastically different in their central mechanics, goals, and often in what attracts people to the game. “Do you like RPGs?” is kind of an unfair question to ask a gamer who straddles multiple genres of game-playing, because it is just too big of a question. How different are the different “role-playing games?” Pretty different. I’ll do a breakdown of different types based upon the two primary categories: RP tabletop games and RP video games.
Both of these major genres of games share some important commonalities: playing a character, progressing through a story and several classic numerical mechanics. For example, almost universally, “hit points” usually measures how tough a character is and there is usually a magic or skill stat used to access skills. There is usually a concept of “levelling up” in which some combination of character abilities improve as characters progress through the game.
These similarities may be iconic, but they are superficial in terms of the actual purpose of playing the game.
Tabletop Role-playing Games
The tabletop role-playing game phenomenon was born out of combination of 18th and 19th century playacting, board games like Diplomacy that require players to negotiate with each other and tactical miniatures games. E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson took their historical and later fantasy-based Chainmail game and turned it into Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. It started a revolution that has exploded into a worldwide hobby.
A tabletop role-playing game allows people playing the game to take on an imagined persona of a “character” that they are interested in, just as if they were playing a character in a play. Unlike a play, the player of a role-playing game has nearly total freedom to decide, at any given moment, what they want their character to say or do and change their mind at a drop of the hat. In a way, it is a formalized version of cops and robbers, dress up, tea party, or any other childhood game we enjoy when learning how to first interact with other people and emulate adults. The “action” takes place in the player’s imaginations, although frequently tokens, miniature figures and maps will be used to help players visualize any action. Dice are often used to represent chance of success on difficult tasks the player wants their character to attempt. A Game Master or Referee or Dungeon Master acts as a mediator whose job it is to help guide the story, play any character not played by the players, and set the probabilities of success on different feats of strength or the mind. No special skills are required to be a player or referee other than the desire to play a role (player) and the ability to monitor the game and help craft the story (referee). Sessions usually last between two and six hours, with some players extending that time considerably. Role-playing games have always come with a series of rules that help players customize the probabilistic skills of their characters and help define what they can do. Role-playing games often emphasize a “setting” that players are interested in, that would usually be considered “dangerous” in real life, that they would like to explore from the safety of their homes. Survival horror, science fiction, fantasy and historical role-playing game settings are all available or created by players or referees on their own.
You don’t “win” a tabletop RPG. Rather, the players and referee decide when characters have been successful in navigating obstacles in the world. This usually results in characters “leveling up”, gaining more abilities as they play. Players can also accumulate pretend wealth and contacts that they would normally not be able to acquire in their lives, increasing the incentive to explore the setting and story.
Modern Role-playing games are built around a business model of selling a set of core rules and then offering copious amounts of source material as potential purchases. They still remain amongst the least expensive games as measured in cost per hours of potential gameplay. Most core rules average around 30 dollars for a complete rule set and do not require any supplementary material for the average player.
Although the players and the Referee ultimately decide the character of their game, making this type of tabletop game highly customizable, there are some rough sub-genres that tabletop role-playing games fall into that will help to illustrate the point of why it is hard to classify what gamers like in their RPGs.
I define classic RPGs as any game that emphasizes or encourages role-playing and story over mechanics. Classic RPGs usually have very simple rule sets with the goal being that the story, characters, and situations are more important than the mechanics and probability of the game. People that tend to prefer classic role-playing games prefer the story and character elements over the mechanical elements of the game. A classic role-playing game can be played like a “modern” role-playing game, with bigger emphasis on mechanics, and players and Referees often prefer to do this.
Examples: Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons (Basic, 1st Ed.), Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, Amber Diceless, Vampire: The Masquerade, Savage Worlds, GURPS, Star Wars WEG
I define modern RPGs as any game that emphasizes or encourages mechanics or role-playing and story. Modern RPGs usually have elaborate rulesets with a primary goal to construct a character that maximizes the statistical probability of success in story interactions or provide players with pre-made options for what their characters are “capable of”. People that prefer Modern RPGs do so because they like the number-mining aspects of the game over the story. That isn’t to say that Modern players don’t like story or character. It means that they usually feel that removing the mechanical aspects of the game no longer makes the game worth playing or interesting. They prioritize perceived challenge.
Examples: Recent d20 series of games (3, 3.5, 4), Pathfinder, Fantasy Flight Star Wars, Dungeon Crawl Classics (Don’t let the name fool you), Spycraft, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun
Live Action Role-playing (LARP) games arose shortly after the first tabletop role-playing games in the 70s. In a LARP, a player will walk around an area in real life and interact with other players. Cosplaying (dressing up as characters) may or may not be involved. Mechanical rulesets for probabilistic tests are usually custom and focused on specific fan settings and character interactions. Mechanics are de-emphasized or non-existent. Few LARPs are commercially available or sold as products. People that prefer LARPs prefer a “traveling” or physical element to their games and highly value person-to-person interaction.
Examples: Highly varied. I played two LARPs in college: A “Quest for Mount Doom” Lord of the Rings LARP and a Clandestine Mobster LARP called Sub Rosa. The latter included nerf guns as the “weapons” and any hit on the person “killed” them and took them out of the game for a pre-determined period of time, usually the evening.
Electronic Role-playing Games
Players of electronic role-playing games will loosely define a video game RPG as any video game in which the player customizes a character and their game experience while following a visual and auditory story. Some of these are very linear in their progression, some of them have multiple paths, and some are fully open world, allowing the player to do whatever they want and interact with the environment in any way they choose. Electronic RPGs started on PCs in the mid 70s, capitalizing on the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon and quickly moved to consoles. Technology and interfacing with a set program have always been limitations of the genre.
Electronic RPGs are usually self contained with a set story. They emphasize numerical and visual customization of a character that the player uses to progress through a usually pre-determined story or series of story arcs. You “win” an electronic RPG when you progress to the end of the story or meet a series of pre-determined objectives. As you progress, you usually “level up” or gain some variation of additional abilities or equipment.
Electronic RPG sub-genres are highly varied. However, what they have in common is that they usually emphasize mechanics over story. Many of the stories are quite interesting, but the capability to develop a story completely from scratch and populate it in any way imaginable is a key limitation of electronic RPGs.
Japanese Role-Playing Games are a classic genre that arose out of Japan and then were popularized in the West. The classic formula is a setup of four characters with established “jobs” who explore a world together, talk to other other characters and fight enemies in turn-based battles. A strategy of the genre is to build a balanced party of characters skilled at a variety of different skills to overcome challenges. As characters level up, their characters either randomly improve, improve with a formula, or allows the player to select areas of skill to improve. The story is usually linear or branching with an “overworld” to walk around in as the story progresses.
Examples: Final Fantasy series, Dragon Quest series, Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona Series, Bravely Default, Pokemon
Action RPGs are similar to JRPGs with a key difference being in the combat mechanic. Where JRPGs are usually turn-based, action RPG battles happen in real time and require player motor skills to progress and be successful. In all other ways they are very similar to JRPGs.
Examples: Tales Of Series, Diablo, Legend of Zelda series, Paper Mario, some Final Fantasy titles, Castlevania series, Dungeon Siege, Kingdom Hearts series
Tactical or Strategy RPGs focus on a tactical grid-based system that influences how characters get into battles. They usually focus a lot more on the mechanics than on the story. Positioning, like in chess, is a key aspect of TRPGs that can be completely missing in JRPGs or loosely important in ARPGs.
Examples: Disgaea, Fire Emblem series, Final Fantasy: Tactics series, Tactics Ogre, Shining Force series, some Shin Megami Tensei titles, Radiant Historia,
Open World games usually have a linear or branching story that players can participate in as they customize and advance their characters. However, unlike many electronic RPGs, open world games do not require that characters advance the story. The world in the game is fully realized and characters can interact with component’s of it in any order or in any way that they wish. In this way, its as close to a tabletop RPG as electronic games can get, despite the fact that the programmer’s imaginations ultimately constrain what is possible in the world. Of course, programmers work hard on these games, but there is still the imaginative limitation on the part of the end user.
Examples: Elder Scrolls series, Grand Theft Auto series, Fables series, Assassin’s Creed series
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing games usually play like Action RPGs, the key difference is a huge world to explore and an emphasis on cooperative pursuit of objectives. Exploration and resource finding are also emphasized. There are usually thousands of players from all over the world playing a character within the game space, simultaneously. There is usually little mechanical difference between an MMORPG and an ARPG.
Examples: World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Everquest, Guild Wars, Runescape, Star Wars: the Old Republic, DC Universe Online
With the huge variance in the goals and experience of different genres of role-playing games, many game players do not have as much in common as they think when they say that they “play RPGs”. The common thread for all is a love of story, advancement and exploration. The differences center around the concept of which is more important to the gamer: an open-ended, player-created story, or the number mining of mechanics progression. In case my bias isn’t evident, I have a personal preference for player-created stories. This is part of my duality as a gamer. I love tactical board-based number-mining games, I love the number mining of electronic RPGs, but I also like the story- and character-driven, imagination-focused nature of classic tabletop RPGs.
I’m not advocating for one type over another. Each gamer needs to decide what they like best. I would like to see gamers understand the depth of definitions for RPGs and know that liking “RPGs” can be an over-generalization of different goals and experiences within different genres. When you teach games and share your hobby, it helps to know exactly what you like and don’t like and how that might differ from someone else. You might be surprised to find two “RPG fans” that like completely different aspects of the genre.
In future articles, I’ll tackle the societal controversy surrounding Dungeons and Dragons and some of the success stories of individuals, like myselfs, that first learned to thrive (not be destroyed) while playing role-playing games.