Jul 20, 2017

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What is an RPG anyway?

Good question, next question

It seems to me as if every second game nowadays wants to be an RPG. Even though they’re not. At least not in my opinion. Which – you’ll probably have guessed by now – I will explain here.

RPG = Roleplaying Game

Firstly, RPG is short for roleplaying game. This one is kind of obvious but I wanted to be sure. So it’s a game in which “roleplaying” (we’ll come to that in a moment) is the dominant factor. Like the steak in “steak dinner”. If there’s no steak at all or the steak is not much larger than a postage stamp, you would complain to whoever sold you such a “steak dinner”, wouldn’t you? From a “steak dinner”, you would expect a dinner in which a steak is the main component. And from a “roleplaying game” you would expect a game in which roleplaying is the main component.

Roleplaying ≠ Character customisation

This is not so obvious anymore because it is a common misconception in the business. You have a game in which you can customise your character’s stats and abilities and equipment and bam, there’s your RPG! But no, it’s not really a roleplaying game. Customising a player character is not the same as roleplaying. Anyone who calls hack & slay (H&S) games “action-RPGs” is making this mistake (and that’s a lot of people). Running around, killing monsters, looting stuff and always hunting for the next cool item and the next level is not roleplaying.

Nota bene: This is just a neutral statement, not a valuation. It does not mean that hack & slay are automatically bad or primitve or that they can’t be fun for some people. They’re just no roleplaying games.

However, the idea of character properties (like strength, intelligence, etc.) is not completely arbitrary and unrelated to the concept of RPGs. These things are a part of what makes an RPG. But not the whole. I will come back to that later.

Roleplaying = To play a role

It seem pretty obvious but it actually needs a bit of explaining. Because: What is a “role”? If we say that a role is the same as a character in the game, then any game with a playable character is a RPG. That can’t be right, can it?

Shakespeare’s heritage

No. The word is not arbitrary. It has a defined meaning and history. “Role” comes from the French word “rôle” which originally meant “scroll”. A writing on a piece of paper or similar material that was rolled up for easier transport. But specifically, it came from theatre.

This goes back to a time when there was no copyright law. Writers were always afraid that if they gave their actors a full copy of the script, they would run off with it and start their own show. Besides, copying text was not exactly cheap and writers were not exactly rich folk. So they only copied the parts of the script which the actor actually needed. That was this character’s scroll. It contained his part of the play. As in “Here’s your part of the script”.

The scroll contained a part of the story as it related to that specific character. It told the actor what his character would say and what he or she would do under certain circumstances.

Hence, playing a role means to partake in a story. A roleplaying game therefore has to be a game in which that is the major element of the gameplay. And since the role is your part of the story, the first and foremost thing a RPG needs is a story.

A game with no story cannot be a RPG. The same goes for games in which the story is just a figleaf, an excuse for combat (as in: “Hey, wanna know why you have to kill all these people? Because they’re evil! The story says so!”).

Story vs. Choice

But wait a minute! Many shooters have a story! Doesn't that make them RPGs? And what about adventure? After all, they also tell a story. And you partake in it as your actions move it along. So how can we differentiate between adventure and RPG?

First of all, they do not have character customization. Which, as I admitted earlier, is part of what makes a RPG. I also remember that I still owe you an explanation for that, but let's continue on for now.

Another major difference is: Shooters and adventure games are not RPGs because they do not give you real choices. The typical scenario of an adventure game is a scene in which you have to solve a riddle. And once it is solved you go to the next scene. Example: pick up stick, use stick with cord and hook to create fishing rod, catch fish, give fish to bridge troll to pass on to next scene. While adventures tell stories as a means of motivation, the story itself never becomes part of the gameplay. In theory, the gameplay (solving riddles) would work without the stories.

And the same goes for shooters. You run around and shoot people. The story is just a motivational aid.

In a RPG however, the story becomes a part of the gameplay. You have to think:

“What would I do, if I were in his (or her) shoes?”

And then choose the action that thought leads to. And the game should allow that. Yes, sometimes restrictions are necessary. Like the actor on the stage should stick to the script, you as player usually have to accept that the game limits your choices. But there should be more than one and they should actually have meaning. As in: change what is about to happen.

Just like the actor on the stage has to choose how to fill out the role outlined in the script, you as player in a RPG must choose how to fill out your role. And you can only do that if there is actually something to choose from.

The role of character attributes

And this is where attributes, skills, perks and whatever you call them come into play. In a RPG, you do not play yourself. You play someone else. Another person with different abilities. Stats are the mechanic with which this is implemented. They allow you to play as someone who is more intelligent, more charismatic or stronger than you.

Sometimes, there is a specific numeric value for an aspect of the character (e.g. strength or intelligence), sometimes it is simply implied.

For instance:

  • If I play a dwarf, then he might be able to crawl into a small tunnel that would be too narrow for the real me.
  • If I play a scholarly mage who is very intelligent (even though I myself might be more on the average side of the spectrum), then he'll pass certain intelligence-based checks that I would not have figured out myself.
  • If I play a thief who is good at pickpocketing, then I can steal other people's money. Even though I myself don't really know anything about that.
  • And if that thief is female and caught by the male guard, she might be able to flirt herself out of the situation. Even though I'm a heterosexual male and any similar attempt by me in the real world would only lead to vicarious embarrassment.
  • If I play a barbarian who is big and strong but grew up in the wild and therefore, can't read, then he also can't read the inscription above the door with the riddle he needs to solve to continue on. I myself may be able to read it, but to use that knowledge (which my character cannot have) would be bad roleplaying. My character would have to find another way. Probably something involving brute force, as that is more up his alley.

Where’s the challenge?

If you’re not supposed to kill a bunch of people, where is the challenge? What make the game a game and not just a “choose-your-own-adventure” novel?

Answer: The challenge in this way of gaming is not to kill the other guy. It’s to try and find solutions from within the perspective of your character. That can include killing the other guy, but it doesn’t have to. Success is when you manage to do so, especially if the solution is particularly clever.

In this way, talking an enemy down can be more satisfying than lopping his head off.

Confirmation

What a weird notion! RPGs aren't supposed to be just about bashing in some (obviously green) orc skulls? Who let me out of the loony bin, right?.

But I'm actually not the only one who has that definition.

For instance, there is a German pen and paper roleplaying system called “The Dark Eye”. It is also available in English, by the way. I would give you a link, but I think it is only available for money (officially, at least). Try searching for it on the internet if you want to check up on my claims.

Anyway, in their basic ruleset guide (FPR 10450), they are left with the thankless task of explaining what their product actually is to someone who might have no clue about it whatsoever.

Let's see how they manage to accomplish that feat:

You’ve experienced it time and again: You are reading a book or watching a movie, and suddenly the story’s hero does something completely stupid. Of course, you would have done something different and much better. Have you ever wished that you could enter the story and lend a hand yourself? Unfortunately, you cannot. Regardless of your brilliant ideas, the story follows the path written by its author.

But imagine that you’re watching a movie with friends and you don’t like the way the story is going. You turn off the movie and each of you takes on the role of a character you were just watching, speaking in their style of voice and continuing the story to an exciting conclusion. You’ve just begun role-playing! You become the hero of a story and can decide for yourself exactly what to do.

Note how their explanation starts with a story (a book or movie). And how you then take on the roles of the actors and make choices to continue through it. That is basically my definition, just in other words.

Examples

Let’s look at two examples to better explain what I mean.

Caution: Spoilers ahead!

An example of how not do it: Dragon Age Origins

I am not a big fan of DAO and believe it to be more a hack & slay than a RPG. There are some choices but they are mostly just illusions. It does not really matter what you pick. With the possible exception of the character’s origin.

Let’s take the Bracillian Forest as an example. You learn the elves have trouble with the werewolves and that this conflict needs to be resolved if you want the support of the elves for your war.

Now there is only one way to proceed: You go through the forest and are attacked by different monsters (including werewolves). When you reach the lair of the werewolves, you have to fight your way through that as well. And when you finally reach the end of that dungeon and have already disposed most of the werewolves, then you hear their side of the story and can make a choice: You can help the elves and destroy the wolves. Or you can help the wolves.

But in the end, it does not really matter what choice you make. That part of the game is over after this anyway. And the next part won’t change because of your choice. The only real difference is what support troops you will have at your side in the final battle: elves or werewolves. But that is just a change of character models, little more.

But you never get the chance to avoid the combat. There are a few minor instances in other parts of the game where you can avoid combat with social skills (like persuasion). But those have no impact on the story and the only result is that the combat does not take place. There is nothing else happening instead.

You can either have the gaming experience of combat or none at all. It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about Spam: You can either have spam or spam or spam or spam. And if you don’t like spam, you have to go home hungry.

An example of how to do it: Drakensang – The River of Time

A good example is the German game “Drakensang – The River of Time”, which is based on a Pen and Paper ruleset (The Dark Eye). There’s a scene were you and your party arrive at an elven village. You need the help of the elves for one of your friends who was injured earlier. The elves, however, have their own problems. They are besieged by a bunch of pirates looking for bounty. Until that problem is gone, the elves won’t help you. Most pretend-RPGs would now expect you to kill the pirates.

Drakensang TRoT however, leaves you a choice:

  1. You can just kill them
    Yes, it is possible. If you choose to dispose of the pirates through violence (because you think that’s what your character would do), then you can do it.
    As a consequence, you have a fight ahead of you.
  2. You can negotiate
    The pirates are looking for loot and elves do not care about material wealth, so the conflict is not really necessary. You can try to come to a peaceful solution.
    As a consequence, you have to gain the trust of both parties first and then facilitate a trade between them.
  3. You can use deception
    You can infiltrate the pirate camp under the premise to help them against the elves. Then you can cause unrest and bring them to the brink of mutiny until their leader decides to leave before he looses control of his crew completely.
    The consequence of the choice is that you have to talk to people, ferret out their secrets and then use those to play the pirates against each other.

Each choice changes what you will experience in that part of the game. That is how it should be – at least if you ask me.

Side note: Sandbox RPGs are still RPGs

There is also a form of RPG that is called “sandbox” or “non-linear” RPG. Games of that type usually do not have an overarching story. Or they make it optional. They then allow the player to freely play in the game world without the constraints of “having to save the princess”.

So you might think that these game are not real RPGs according to my definition. But actually, they still are. Because there are still many little stories in which you can partake. Every quest tells a different tale. They do not contribute to a bigger plot and remain isolated but they still are stories in which you play your role.

Conclusion

I realise that there probably a lot of people out there who won’t like my definition. They don’t want to play a character, they want to play themselves. Or rather, an idealised version of themselves. They have no problem taking over the benefits of the character (let's face it: being able to handle a gamepad doesn’t really make you a good swordsman) but refuse to accept the bad parts that do not fit their self-image.

If you belong to these people: I’m so much trying to criticise you or tell you that you’re playing the game wrongly or something like that. If you can have fun with it, go ahead. I don’t care. I might mention to you that the tennis racket isn’t supposed to be used as a colander. But if it works for you, why not? Ultimately, it’s your choice.

What I am criticising is that because there so many of you guys, the industry panders to you at every turn and completely forgets what the genre was supposed to be about. A great many games call themselves RPG nowadays, but many of them really aren’t.

But there are still people like me out there who prefer to play the “traditional” way. And we’re faced with a very small and ever dwindling number of games that actually put the focus on that. I just ask that we’re not forgotten.

Because if we can have what we want, guess what? You can still have yours! If the game really does what it is supposed to do (according to my definition), you can still choose to kill your way through every obstacle, ignore every disparity between player and character knowledge and just “play yourself”.

Bottom line: A roleplaying game has a story and allows the player to actively partake in it. To make meaning choices and, ideally, solve problems the way he believes his character would do it.

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