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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
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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
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
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.
- 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,
- 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: Thu Sep 20 15:21:26 2007