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WHAT IS A ROLE-PLAYING GAME?

         According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a role-playing game (abbreviated RPG) is ``a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters, usually in a setting created by a referee, and thereby vicariously experience the imagined adventures of these characters.''

         Of course, this begs the question of what it means to "take on the role" of an imaginary character. In many games you have a character which is really a token without personality. For example, in the boardgame Clue your token is a suspect in a murder mystery. In a video game, your token might be a fighter pilot.

         In my opinion, the difference between a token and a role-played character is this: Hypothetically, a person watching the game looks over your shoulder and suggests a move, and your reply is "No, my character wouldn't do that." If this happens, or is capable of happening, then at some level you are playing a role-playing game. This simple distinction puts a world of difference between RPGs and other games.

         Below I include several introductory views at RPGs


Types of RPGs

         There is an enormous variety of games which are referred to as "role-playing games". I have cataloged nearly 900 published games in over a dozen languages in my RPG Encyclopedia. Here I will not attempt to get at some essential quality of role-playing. Rather, I try to look a a variety of types of games which may (or may not) support role-playing. The important thing (in my mind) is not which of these are "really" role-playing, but rather what are the important differences between the types of games.

         The details of how a role-playing game works can vary widely. One game might involve guests at a dinner party acting out suspects in a murder mystery, while another might involve players sitting around a table describing parts of a story and rolling dice. Still another might be costumed participants recreating a medieval battle with padded weapons. Below, I outline several categories of games. Some people would disagree as to whether a certain category is "really" role-playing. However, to give an overview I think it is best to include everything and contrast their differences.

Narrative or Table-Top RPGs
These games are played with the players sitting around in a comfortable setting (possibly around a table but not neccessarily), usually with one person acting as the game moderator (or GM). The players declare their actions by narration: i.e. they describe what their characters are doing or speak what their characters are saying, and the GM describes the results or responses within the fictional game-world.
This category includes Dungeons & Dragons, along with many other commercial games.
 
Live-Action Role-playing (LARP) or Interactive Literature
This is a general term for RPGs where the players move about an area larger than a room. The players will wander about and interact with each other on their own, usually without a GM or referee present. This limits what they can do to actions resolvable between two people. The players don't neccessarily act out everything their characters do, although some games provide for such possibilities. For example, combat may be resolved between players by abstract rules, or it may be actually acted out within rules using safety-padded mock weapons.
This category includes the live-action vampire game Mind's Eye Theatre as well as numerous others.
 
Party games
These are games where there is a player for each fictional character, and the characters can only interact verbally or possibly within narrowly-defined limits. This removes the need for a GM or extensive rules to resolve character actions.
This category includes some mystery games where the players role-play characters who, by discussion of the clues, can figure out which among them is the murderer.
 
Shared-author Fiction or Storytelling Games
These are narrative games where all players are equals in deciding what happens. They generally have each person role-playing one or more characters, where the player of a character has final word over anything that seriously impacts that character. i.e. A character might only be wounded or killed with the players permissions, for example.
 
Improvisational Acting Games or Theatre Games
Improvisational theatre games were originally conceived as exercises for "real" acting, but they have developed into their own form of entertainment. Many theatre games do not involve role-playing, but some do.
 
Computer Roleplaying Games
Games interacting with a computer in general do not involve roleplaying. However, there are various online games where players can interact with other human players.
This category includes MUD's (Multi-User Dungeons) and related programs along with graphical games such as Sony's Everquest.
 
Borderline Roleplaying Games
This is a list of diverse cases of games or activities which might or might not be role-playing games -- depending on who you talk to.

 


Questions about Roleplaying

         Here I have collected some resources for information about the subject of role-playing, particularly for those interested in scholarly study of RPGs, educators, and concerned parents.

Who Are Roleplayers?
A sketchy look at the demographics of role-players in the world, and what sort of games they generally play.
Psychological Studies on RPGs
A survey of various attempted scientific studies on the psychology of role-playing gamers, and informed speculation on the psychological affects of the games.
Educational Uses of RPGs
This is collection of links related to the use of RPGs in an educational context.
Role-playing Games for Kids
A few suggestions on good RPGs for young kids.
Christianity and the Occult in RPGs
A discussion of issues of religion and the occult in RPGs.
Bibliography
A collection of books about the subject of role-playing games (as opposed to RPG rulebooks and sourcebooks themselves), including studies of RPGs, books discussing RPG approaches, and others.
Filmography
Films about gaming and gamers, both non-fiction documentaries and some fiction films that focus on gaming experiences.

 


Other What-Are-RPG Pages

 


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Apr 10 09:28:32 2013