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What is an RPG? (Or: People are wrong)

(Cross-posted from my sorely-neglected personal blog; I'd do pictures, but I'm not sure what's acceptable to post on dtoid)

Yeah, yeah, I know. Youíve heard the debate hundreds of times already, and none of them were to your satisfaction, and nobody got everywhere. I am not, by any means, attempting to change the world here; people are stupid and stubborn and theyíre not going to change just because I make a well-reasoned argument, after all.

So why do it?

WellÖ ícause Iíve never seen the argument made this way, and I think itís an angle worth tackling. Instead of going back to simple, objective things like etymology, dictionary definitions, and commonly accepted usage, which people prefer to ignore in order to further their own ends, Iím going toÖ well, youíll see.

Before I do, though, letís cover something: the sanctity of the RPG. Apparently, RPGs are sacred. I donít personally subscribe to that belief, but I know a lot of people who do. To suggest that a game is not an RPG is, in these peoplesí eyes, some sort of insult. I will very strongly suggest, by the end of this post, that a certain type of game is not an RPG. Iím sorry, but RPGs of any flavor are not special, not magical, not the best thing ever. The genre is not sacred. It is important that you understand that I am not saying that they are worse, merely that they are different. You can still like the thing you thought was an RPG, just, please, call it by a more correct name. Iím here to define, not attack.

Bad definitions lead to confusion. Alan Wake is a bad survival horror game because itís not a survival horror game, itís a psychological action thriller. Of course itís a bad survival horror game. Thrillers tend to have much more action than slow, creeping dread, because dread and thrill are two different emotions that people feel. Today, I read a forum thread by someone complaining that they ďdidnít like RPGs,Ē and then proceeded to list a very specific genre of games. When several people pointed out shooters with RPG elements, immersive sims, and European RPGs, the poster seemed much more receptive. Because of the mistake in classification, someone nearly missed out on an entire genre of games. Surely we can all agree that missing out on a good game is a bad thing; we donít want that!

In addition, weíre going to run off the assumption that tabletop RPGs are the archetype from which all RPGs descend (and this is objective fact), which means that if something common to video games is not a defining element of a tabletop RPG (for instance, an authored, rather than emergent story), then it is not part of what makes an RPG.

Lastly, if you donít know what an abstraction is, youíll want to, or things might not make sense, because itís a term Iíll be using. Essentially, an abstraction is a complex idea broken down into something simple, usually with the idea of making it manageable. An example of this would be turns. Those mainly exist to allow calculations to take place between actions to allow a DM to determine random things (does this monster dodge? Etc).

So hereís what Iím going to do: Iím going to list the most common ďit must have this to be an RPGĒ statements Iíve heard, and debunk all of them, because they are almost all wrong.

We good now?

Great! Onward!

ARGUMENT #1: An RPG has stats/skills/leveling/some sort of XP progression.

Nope! Sorry.

To understand this, we need to ask ourselves what XP is? The answer? Itís just A Unit Of Currency. In some RPGs, you can put your earned XP towards unlocking something (Fable), and in others more closely based on the DnD mold (which is not the only way to do an RPG, as any reasonable tabletop gamer will attest), as you earn XP, you gain a level, which grants you points to put towards unlocking new abilities or strengthening your character in some way. There are other ways of handling character progression as well. Some do it through awarding better equipment, others do it through use, and so on and so forth.

Letís be theoretical. What if your game takes place in a very short period of time? Is it reasonable or realistic to have them ďlevel up?Ē Letís say that your RPG takes place during a party one night, where you must rob a safe? You may not have any character progression at all.

Check out God of War. Itís got a leveling system. You gain XP through the environment, which you can then put into various skills you unlock throughout the game. ďBut Doc,Ē you may protest, ďthose are items, not physical abilities or attributes!Ē

So what? Theyíre functionally identical. Darksiders, God of War, and other games in which you gain some form of XP arenít considered RPGs, and why should they? If that doesnít sway you, however, letís consider Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, or another modern military shooters. If a skill/level/whatever system is required for a game to be an RPG, then Call of Duty is an RPG.

No? Okay, fine, what makes them not RPGs?

ARGUMENT #2: HP/MP is a must.

Nope, sorry. In a game where health isnít an issue, you donít need HP. Likewise, in a game that isnít turn-based, you donít need MP . Ultimately, MP is just a way to balance abilities (mostly magic, but it can be applied to other things as well) in a turn-based game; in a real-time game, cooldowns work just fine. Ultimately, there are a ton of implementations of MP and some are basically ďhere is how much magic you can use during a fight,Ē which seems arbitrary and silly, but mostly exists to balance magic users in games.

Letís go back to the idea of being a con man during a party. What would you use MP for? Letís say you want to break into a safe. ďBREAK INTO SAFE,Ē the skill/ability, would be an abstraction. Youíd use MP to perform it. Maybe your turn ends when MP is all used up (so MP is effectively some sort of action system). However, in a real-time game, MP for this is totally unnecessary. Why on Earth (or whatever game world youíre playing in) would you be limited to the amount of times you could attempt to break into a safe? A real-time game would be more likely to say ďokay, you have X number of lockpicks and can do it so long as no one sees you.Ē For that, MP is completely unnecessary.

In addition to this, every video game with combat has HP, even if you donít know about it. Age of Empires has HP for all its units. Gears of War has HP for all its enemies, and DMG for all its guns. You might not see it, but itís there. Its existence, therefore, does not make a game an RPG.

So! Summary: HPís really only necessary if youíll be involved in combat (you could, for instance, take hits to charisma and intimidate skills if you got punched out in a game), and MPís just a balance tool best-used in turn-based games, which are ultimately unnecessary to the RPG experience.

ARGUMENT #3: They must have turn-based mechanics!

(this section is going to refer exclusively to video game RPGs, because itís very hard to do a real-time tabletop RPG)

Now, there are actually good arguments for this. The idea is that, in a live-action game, you might be forced to do something that your character cannot. If you create, for instance, someone who is terrible at shooting, but a game is reliant on shooting, then you will use your OWN skills to shoot things. What these people fail to realize is that you could intentionally shoot poorly (though the temptation to be a good shot would be great).

Now, consider the converse. What if you are terrible at first-person shooters, but your player character is some amazing gunslinger? I would suggest turning on auto-aim and playing the game on easy, but, still, it kinda breaks the idea that your player character is a great gunslinger if you are not.

That said, this doesnít always matter. Mostly, turn-based games only help in regards to combat, and, to be honest, lowering difficulty levels can help players who arenít great at gaming. Essentially anyone should be able to play the badass warrior Geralt in The Witcher and feel like a badass warrior, regardless of what skills they use and how they define him. Still-roleplaying, still-real-time, but not particularly reliant on player skill.

Also, for what itís worth, where does player skill end and character skill begin? Think about it! In a turn-based game, you might be playing a dumb character, but you might be really smart. With plenty of time to think about your actions, you may come up with and execute a brilliant strategy to solve a problemówhich means that your skill as a role-player is actually pretty poor. Ultimately, anyone who plays the game is bringing their skill level to it, which means that who a person is influences absolutely everything they do. Real-time or turn-based, it doesnít matter. Your skill affects the game you play, no matter how much you claim to be distanced from it.

I donít think Iíve actually heard anyone use this argument before. Huh. I think itís pretty good.

ARGUMENT #4: RPGs require bestiaries!

No. This is silly.

A bestiary, for those of you who donít know, is essentially a book that lists all possible enemy NPCs you may fight in an RPG. Obviously, in a game where you do not fight, it is not important at all (go back to that possible party game. Even if you do fight, it isnít inherently important, beyond the game having some sort of database which lists all the behind-the-scenes monsters.

Gears of War has one.

Ödoes that make Gears of War an RPG?

Every video game with combat has to track things like HP, in-game ďactorsĒ (an evil beatnik in Earthbound/Mother 2, for instance), and so on and so forth, because that is the way in which you fight things. Essentially every video game ever has some sort of DnD-derived combat system, in that every enemy is in a list, every enemy has some sort of number value describing its health and the damage it can do, and so on and so forth.

That con man game wouldnít have any of this. It would just be you and a bunch of people you could talk to. No bestiary required, just a list of NPCs.

ARGUMENT #5: Canít have an RPG without an inventory.

Obviously, in any game where you are able to pick up and interact with stuff, youíve got to have some way to see what you have and what youíve played with. Any RPG is likely going to feature the ability to pick up and use items, thus, it must have some way for you to store them, even if it is just in your hands.

However, does that make it an RPG?


Sorry. Every game with items you can use is going to have some sort of inventory (from Sanitarium to Zelda to Half-Life to STALKER). While every RPG must have an inventory of some sort, pretty much every game is going to have an inventory of some sort, so itís somewhat useless to argue that an inventory is a defining trait of an RPG.

ARGUMENT #6: Stories are a must!

Yes. No. Sort of.

See, hereís the thing: simply by playing a game, particularly one where you are literally adopting the role of a character in a world (it is not abstract in the way that Tetris is), you are creating an emergent narrative. Bam. Story. It exists. However, most people tend to use this in the sense that thereís some sort of authored narrative, which is pretty silly.

Again, back to that con man game. It does not inherently need a plot. A DM or the game could literally just go ďokay, player, you are a con man. You are in a party. Try to steal something from the vault,Ē and thatís it. Every NPC at the party may have their own personal history or whatever, but LORE and STORY are two different things (one major complaint I have about the love for Bioware games is that people often confuse their lore with the gameís actual story). There is no story but what you make through your role-play.

Planned stories are unnecessary to RPGs.


Okay, there are two major flaws with this.

First, games like Morrowind prove you can have RPGs without a party.

Second, plenty of games have ďparties,Ē of a sort. Look at squad-based Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon games. Are those RPGs? Nah, theyíre first-person shooters!

Parties only existed in RPGs to begin with because one-on-one rpgs, with one DM and one player character, tend to be boring. Itís much more fun to have it be an asymmetric multiplayer experienceóone DM versus a team of adventurers. Parties arenít a requirement, especially in video games, that can allow for great solo experiences.

ARGUMENT #8: An RPG must have sidequests!

If this were true, then open-world games would be RPGs. Theyíre not, of course.



Okay, yeah, most sandbox games arenít RPGs. Theyíre just very large worlds in which you run around and do stuff. To make those worlds interesting, developers often implement sidequests, or suffer the fate of Mafia II.


Donít be absurd. Why do these mechanics exist?

I lied earlier. Iím totally going to get definitional on your ass now.

Role-playing and acting are not synonymous. Yes, in acting, you ďplayĒ a ďrole,Ē but that is not role-playing (brief English language digression: two words, used in conjunction as a phrase, can mean something different than those two words in a related sentence; ďhat trickĒ is not a trick involving hats, but a term used to refer to someone scoring in a game three times in a row). Wikipediaís article on role-playing in an acting context explains out that the practice is specifically related to improvisational acting or training, not acting. Improvisational acting is, of course, when an actor makes up stuff for their role on the spot. Itís not a case of ďoh, I know exactly who this guy is and what his lines are,Ē itís a case of improvising stuff. Making it up. Being someone. Likewise, learning to act isnít about being limited to a script (though that is a skill one will have to learn) as much as it is merelyÖ well, learning to act.

In the games context, it is the same thing. RPGs, at their core, establish a framework which facilitates role-playing. Thatís really all that matters. Thatís why some RPGs have skill systems and others donít. Thatís why some are turn-based and some arenít. The specifics donít really matter: the only thing that does is whether or not they facilitate role-playing. How could a game that does not offer any sort of role-playing be a role-playing game?

And, to those who would suggest that playing the role of a character is role-playing: if this is true, then any game with you playing the part of a character is, inherently, a role-playing game. No one in their right mind would suggest that, as it would render the genre pointless, all games would be RPGs, and every genre claiming to be an RPG would need a new name to separate it from the others.

None of these mechanics are required to make a game a role-playing game, because if they were, then individually, or even in combination, they wouldÖ but they donít. Having a squad of NPCs to command in a story-driven game with unlocks doesnít make Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 a great RPG, so itís bullshit to argue that it does in, say, Earthbound. I love that game to pieces, but man, it is not an RPG, so please stop calling it one. It can only fall short in direct comparison.

So, basically, what Iím really trying to say is that JRPGs generally arenít true RPGs.

The Ice Cream Store

Hopefully, throughout this whole thing, youíve noticed that a lot of mechanics associated with RPGs can be found in a lot of other games. Thatís important to understand. Really, thatís why JRPGs arenít RPGs. When Yuji Horii created the JRPG, he did so from a mistaken understanding of what RPGs were. The game that inspired him, Wizardry (and possibly Ultima, though this MIGHT be apocryphal), had many of the mechanics people find in JRPGs today. While those games, as technology advanced, were able to rid themselves of the abstractions that had held them back from being RPGs, Horii, and later Sakaguchi, embraced those limitations and remixed them into something entirely differentóthe JRPG.

Penicillin, Iíve read, was an accident. A mistake. It saved lives. The JRPG was an accident too, and while it probably wonít save lives, itís still nothing to sniff at (if youíre starting to sniff, just take penióoh, come on, thatís a terrible joke, Doc).

You know that bit in Lord of the Rings where it looks like theyíre getting a denouement, and then SUDDENLY SARUMAN?


Hereís the thing: Iím not an RPG purist. I canít be. They would have you believe that for a game to be an RPG, it must allow any possible permutation of circumstances to occur.

They would have you believe that an RPG will allow for every option ever, and that if a game does not allow for this, it is not an RPG. Canít make a self-loathing misandrist idiot werewolf trombonist in your game? Well, to them, thatís no RPG (okay, Iím totally exaggerating just a little bit, I think).

Imagine, if you will, three people who have decided to visit an ice cream shop. The first person says ďno, thatís no ice cream shop! It only has thirty flavors of ice cream! A real ice cream shop would have at least a thousand!Ē The second person says ďhey, letís go to the ice cream store titled ďFroyo Only!Ē Frozen yogurt is a frozen dairy treat, after all, so itís ice cream by another name!Ē

Me? Iím the third person.

I say ďhey, you know what? We said weíre going to an ice cream store, so letís go to that one. Sure, it doesnít have every flavor ever, but I want ice cream, and Iím not feeliní froyo right now.Ē

Ultimately, what we see is this: these mechanics can all be found elsewhere, and when they do exist in RPGs, they only do so because they are the abstractions that facilitate role-playing. By themselves, and even in concert, these mechanics do not make or break a game as an RPG, and the only context in which they do so, to be honest, is in certain dungeon crawlers and JRPGs.

But, hey, I know some of you are prone to logical fallacy and will want to question my authority on the matter. While Iíve worked on RPGs in the past, Iím certainly no big name in the genre. You know who is, though? Brian Fargo. Hereís what he has to say on the matter: ďI think he scratched a nerve when he said Ďhey, thereís people that still like adventure gamesí, and same thing with real role-playing games, things that are more PC-centric kind of role-playing experiences. ď
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About DocSeussone of us since 2:43 PM on 03.12.2012

I am DocSeuss. I used to go by another name on Dtoid, but that was some time ago and I don't remember what it was.

I have been a pilot, a gamer, photographer, comic book reviewer/editorial monkey for a now-defunct comics website, and a professional ghost. I nearly died due to illness, and I still suffer some negative side effects, which can be very irritating. Presently, I'm a game design student.

Right now, I'm working on two or three games with various people over the internet; if you want to get in touch, please do so. Bonus points if you love turn-of-the-century PC games.
Xbox LIVE:Doc2986
PSN ID:Squiddity
Steam ID:DocSeuss


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