What is an RPG and what is not?
Recently, I've seen more and more arguments about what constitutes a role-playing game when we talk about computer games. There are basically two views to this: those who say that RPGs should include stats, levels, skills progression, story etc. - constituting your classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons experience - and those who say that role-playing game is just that: a game where you play a role, develop as a character and have adventures. In this article, I’ll call the former group system-oriented, and the latter experience-oriented approach.
The proponents of the system-oriented approach say that if we dilute the meaning of RPG, doesn’t that make any game in which you play a role essentially an RPG - such as Far Cry 3 and perhaps even Civilization IV? As a proponent of the experience oriented approach, I’d like to explain why this is not so and why RPGs should not be bound too tightly to their D&D and AD&D roots.
What I try to show is that the system-oriented approach is focussing too much on the RPG system and not on what that system was created to achieve. The goal of the tabletop RPGs is to provide a common set of rules for players to imagine characters and events together. It was not to fiddle with attack tables, character sheets and min/maxing your character. These exist only to serve the storytelling.
In order to explain my argument, we’ll take a look at how tabletop RPGs came into existence.
Origins of RPGs
The first RPGs were tabletop games. They differed from earlier tabletop games in that they allowed the players to imagine whole new worlds and experience them through the eyes of their characters. They could be magicians, warriors, thieves, rangers or whatever other profession they could dream up. This was an entirely different gaming experience from the earlier strategy games and the even earlier - and even more restricted - card and board games.
The tabletop RPG system - the rulebook - set the boundaries of the game. It provided the rules according to which the gameworld could be brought to life: how strong, agile or smart the characters could be, how they progress in their various skills and talents and - most importantly - how various feats could be accomplished, be it striking someone with a sword, or blocking that strike, or leaping over a chasm or tantalising a crowd with a fine, long speech. In order to make these events fair to all players, a rulebook was needed.
It was up to the gamemaster to provide the characters with an interesting world and quests, which the players either ignored or started exploring. Some gamemasters allowed the players more freedom of choice than others, but some freedom was always at the core of the RPG experience: you played a character who had his/her dreams, fears, goals and urges - sometimes at odds with those of the characters that accompanied him/her.
Roots of the system-oriented approach
Early computer games were mostly as restricted as early card and board games. You had a ship with which to go against aliens, or a pixelated soldier going against enemy troops. Computer RPGs brought a deeper experience to early gamers by offering them a variant of the tabletop RPGs: games where they could create characters, see them develop in their skills and go on adventures, earning better gear as they progressed. Computer RPGs could also make the rules part of the background and not the main feature: you did not need to roll dice and browse different hit or skill tables to see if you succeeded at something - the computer dealt with that part for you.
The aim of the early computer RPGs was to offer a more immersive experience for the players and they did this by emulating the rulebooks of tabletop RPGs. Whereas some of the rules were made part of the background, others were forefronted, most importantly the character creation sheets as well as the level and skill progression. Over time, these began to be viewed as the essence of the computer RPG experience, instead of simply a part of the rules that allowed for a fair playing field for shared imagination in the original tabletop RPGs.