What is a Role-Playing Game?

Most gamers nowadays are familiar with the term RPG, primarily through popular games like World of Warcraft.  Funny enough though, to my mind WoW isn’t really a RPG.  So, what is a role-playing game, really?

The quick answer?  The nerdiest type of game you’ll ever encounter.  A geek gamers paradise.  The long answer…

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The first table-top RPG was published in 1974, by TSR.  Now considered to be the great-granddaddy of RPG’s, Dungeons and Dragons was quickly followed by other games such as GURPS, Paranoia, and Call of Cthulhu.  These games allowed a player to take control of a single character, and to use that character to explore alternate worlds.

Although RPG’s descend from wargames, one of the main differences was the idea that instead of simply focusing on combat scenarios, the game would feature exploration themes, problem solving, and also social encounters.  Indeed, some RPG’s attempt to minimize the combat themes, and focus instead on developing storylines, and go out of their way to emphasize how risky combat is, in an attempt to encourage players to find alternate methods of resolving situations that they encounter.

A gaming group generally consists of a number of players (between 3-6 is considered a good number) and one more person (often called a Gamesmaster (GM), Dungeon Master (DM), or Storyteller) that has the responsibility of running the game, keeping control of the rules, playing the antagonists, and arbitrating any rules debates.  Regardless of the groups’ composition, it is important to be aware that the game is largely co-operative; a common mistake is to assume the GM is playing against the other players, whereas the truth is that the GM and players help create the game experience between them.

Your character is perhaps the single most important aspect of playing a role-playing game.  With the help of your GM, you have almost complete creative control over your character, and it is not uncommon for a player to create a detailed background of their character, often from birth, complete with details about their characters family and friends, and giving them a reason to want to explore the world around them.

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One of the common things that comes up if you ask players to describe a RPG is the concept of character development.  Almost without exception, your character will advance as they gain experience, improving their base abilities, and gaining new ones as they advance.  The world around the characters will change too; if the group fails to save a princess from her kidnappers, it is entirely possible that the King or Queen will hold them responsible, and perhaps even place a price on their heads.

This is the other major defining aspect of a table-top RPG; it truly can be freeform, limited only by the imaginations of the players involved, and the creative abilities of the GM.  Unlike an old ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ or Fighting Fantasy style gamebook, your choices are not restricted by anything other than your imagination, and your characters abilities.  For example, whereas a gamebook might give you the choice to either fight a grizzled ogre you encounter, or to flee, a true RPG allows for other tactics, like trying to sneak past it, or even to attempt diplomacy.

Of course, RPG’s now exist in many forms.  Table-top role-playing games may be where the format has its origins, but many more people have played electronic RPG’s, either in a single-player format on their own computer, laptop, tablet, or phone.  The MMORG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) is one of the most popular internet games in this day and age; World of Warcraft is the best well known, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other titles out there.  These games often provide a great, immersive, story, and certainly allow for extensive character advancement, but I find them lacking in certain other ways.  For example, your actions are limited by the game engine, and I find that there are only limited consequences to your actions; as a result I never really feel part of the world or story.

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Another way that people enjoy playing RPG’s is through LARPing (Live Action RolePlay).  Not as common as either the traditional table-top RPG, or as popular as an online RPG, there is nonetheless a large number of people that enjoy dressing up in costume, and going out to established locations to play through an adventure ‘in-person’.  This can be quite an exciting experience, very different from playing a game from the comfort of your armchair, but it can also be quite expensive, and a popular complaint is that the rules that you have to adhere to often disrupt the flow of the experience.

Finally, board games can frequently be seen as rules-light RPG’s.  Instead of presenting a freeform world, they instead present players with a limited story to play through.  Sometimes referred to as a RPG-in-a-box, games like Mice and Mystics, and Heroquest, provide an experience not unlike a traditional table-top RPG.  Character progression is a common theme, and the games focus on giving players set quests to complete before moving on to another stage.  Although they don’t offer the same level of freedom offered by any other RPG, I find these games to be great fun to play, and are often great gateways into other forms of RPG.

To me though, nothing quite compares to the original table-top RPG.  The freedom to explore, to change your world, to develop your character, is unsurpassed by other forms.  This freedom, more than any other reason, is why I find online RPG’s lacking; they are more reminiscent of an advanced gamebook, in that you only ever have a very limited number of choices, and can only develop in a way approved by the games creators.  This, to me, is why I cannot see electronic games as being true RPG’s.  Maybe one day I’ll encounter a game that will change my mind.

Ultimately, each form of RPG has its own attractions.  I hope I’ve offered a number of reasons for you to want to investigate role-playing games in a way that you haven’t before, perhaps by hunting around for a LARPing group near you, or by encouraging you to form your own adventuring party in the comfort of your own home.  Whichever you choose, I hope you enjoy your experience, and lose yourself in the fantasy world of your own making.

Above all, have fun.

Rikh.

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