What is a RPG

Mark/ October 3, 2014/ Design, Opinions/ 5 comments

Thanks to a certain RPG designers post I’ve caught on to a lot of angst once again in the community about what is an RPG. While I don’t agree with Mr. Wick on most of his points there is one I agree with. I wanted to put my thoughts out there simply because I can. Role Playing games by the strict definition of the words is a Game where you take on the Role by playing.

I know that seem like a cheap way to define it but I wanted to deconstruct that a bit. The one place I agree with John is that when playing an RPG the end result is some kind of story. The purpose of playing a role is to build some kind of before and after narrative even if that narrative is very game centric. This is why WoW can claim to be a RPG. There is a narrative, albeit, very linear and without any variation.

To claim someone has to play a role only they can play in real life or to truly act out is not the purpose of a RPG. There are really in my estimation 3 types of games. Two if you want to get technical. The first is a Game to tell a story. This would be your gun porn, charisma roll toting games that allow someone to play any role whether they have the skills or training to act out that role in real life. The “Game” portions allow us in our “make believe” to further the story without penalty of our own knowledge, or technical training background. Since by definition you the player are taking on a role this classifies as a Role Playing Game.

The second type of game we see is a Story to play a game. Many games that we consider Indie fall within this category, but also games like FATE can fill this niche. The purpose here is more focused on telling the story and give better benefits from the rules when a narrative is being met then actual statistics or rolls. The abilities of the Player to Role Play personal knowledge or ability tend to overshadow pure mechanical adjustments. Again you are taking on a role and telling a narrative. Thus it classifies as a Role Playing Game.

I did say there was a 3rd type and this type of game is more a hybrid of the two forms. There is a game portion that has mechanical influence but the Roles are allowed narrative control and an individuals personal knowledge, ability and creativity can in places overshadow a need for rolls or even can cancel the need for roles completely but allows for rolls in certain circumstances.

One last thought to assume someone has to personaly be charsmatic enough to play a high charisma character is flawed inherently. Simply by the fact that I as GM going into teh conversation knows there is an end goal of the Player trying to Convince me clouds the final decision.

In my humble conclusion by my definition of Role Playing Games any game that allows someone to play a role to tell a narrative whether by rolls or role playing can be and is the definition of a Role Playing Game. This is strictly speaking my opinion and while I feel I am right as in most things your miles may very but don’t judge me and I wont judge you.

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  1. “Role Playing games by the strict definition of the words is a Game where you take on the Role by playing.”

    Actually that is a false etymology. What you are trying to do is to take the words and derive their meaning without context. The term Role Playing game is a subset of what you have stated. Historically the then neologism “Role Playing Game” was specifically a response to Tabletop Tactical/ Strategic Wargaming. So in the context of that the difference between Tactical gaming and Role playing was as you described, but it did not extend beyond that.

    There was also a convergent evolution between story games, story telling games and role playing games which has led us to the state today where a new neologism seems to be appearing in the term table top role playing game for what used to be called a role playing game. What really needs to happen is that there needs to be a term that means any game where one takes on a role by playing, but the term Role Playing Game is already taken and has been for 40+ years.

    1. You are absolutly correct the termenology and the genre of gaming grew out of Tactical Tabletop gameing. However I do disagree on my entemology is compeltely false. Simply stating I was not trying to define how the words came to be but the definitions of each word. With that in mind I have to counter a tad bit as the Role Playing game while growing out of tha tactical wargaming model was a way to scale down to the individual level as opposed to the Unit level. In that way the term Role fits.

      However even if we keep with the Unit level wargaming by itself creates a narrative that we are to follow from start of battle to a victor. We can translate turns into plot elements to tell the story of the war of tabletop. In this light my remarks stand. RPGs are about taking on a role and building a narrative around that. From there the rest falls into place.

  2. First a chuckle about spell check, I know mark means etymology not entomology but it is still funny.

    You say “Simply stating I was not trying to define how the words came to be but the definitions of each word”, That is exactly how false etymologies come to be. False, or sometimes they are known as folk, etymologies are attempts to redefine the origin and/or meaning of a term, typically based on its apparent roots. I would use a softer term than folk or false, but to the best of my knowledge there is no other way to describe it.

    While I tend to avoid Wikipedia it does offer a clear definition of this: “A false etymology, sometimes called folk etymology although this is also a technical term in linguistics, is a popularly held but false belief about the origins of specific words, often originating in “common-sense” assumptions.”

    I would say you are coming from the common sense assumption. The thing that throws what you are doing into another realm is the fact that you are aware of the actual origins of the the term Role Playing Game, so I suppose your description lies somewhere between a false etymology and an equivocation, maybe call it a retro-logism? I probably just coined a word though and for a historian, that is a bad thing.

    OK so “Retrologism”: the expansion of a term to include a wider base than it was originally intended, oftentimes accompanied by a neologism to replace the original meaning.

    If that is the case, why not simply coin a new term for the wider scope? Why take a term already in use and force its users to adopt a neologism so that people can use the retrologism?


    A term needs to be coined for what you describe rather than using one already in use with a different meaning.

    Yeah I am a Grognard*, what was your first clue?

    *Ironic isn’t it, complaining about the whole retro/ neo logsim while using a term that was a loanword, but therein lies the difference, Grognard was borrowed from another language, not recoined.

    1. Fair on the Folk Etymology. Its been a few years since my linguistic class. For me its simple the fact that English is a living language which by definition allows for these transitions in meanings and definitions, as opposed to latin which being Dead there is no room for discussion on word meaning.

      Its a fair point as to new terminlogy. I think for most people its easier to use what is known and at the basis of my remarks it was in response to John WIcks definition of a Role Playing Games since his definition was used to explain how everone who doesnt play his way was doing it wrong.

      I think we do need a new term for either what we have hear or if people are open to redifinition renaming what was and letting Role Playing Games evolve as it has. Maybe Retrorole playing game…

  3. Agreed, I have already encountered Mr Wicks a few times now and, to be fair, I think he is simply trolling. If so it worked because he has a lot of people talking about his dreck, umm I mean post. What he describes as a role playing game is in fact somewhat of a hybrid between story game and story telling game but interestingly is the exact opposite the set that would be Role Playing Games. I accused him of revisionist history I think in my last conversation with him.

    Despite how I fight it, I suspect for the time being the neologism for what I am my fellow grumpy old gamers still refer to as Role Playing games is going to be “Table Top Role Playing Game” a term which still has issues, but I am just a gruffy old GM who occasionally goes lord High Gygaxian on one shots (TPK).

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