For me, the term “role-playing game” is an inclusive term. It doesn’t only apply to tabletop role-playing games coming from the D&D tradition. It includes role-playing games played in other media and from other traditions as well.
I prefer to recognize something as a role-playing game if it falls under the definition of a game, and where people say that their creative agenda is to role-play. Not all people define the term role-playing game this way, but I do and I will tell you why.
What is a game?
Game is a structured form of play, and in Homo Ludens play is defined as:
A free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.1
What is neat about this definition is that when you use it, you just have to check the activity meets the conditions and say, ”Yep, it’s a game.” or ”No. It isn’t.”
- Is it a free activity?
- Is the activity different from “ordinary” or “real” life?
- Is the activity limited in time and space?
- Does the activity have rules?
- Do you participate without expecting any material gain?
If you answered yes to all the above, then you are probably playing a game. (With a few rare exceptions: e.g., some pro-gamers play games for profit, etc.)
What is role-playing then? Well, that is a lot harder to define. Obviously there has to be a role and someone who is playing that role. But what does that mean? Do you role-play while you control Mario in Super Mario? He is a character, and you are controlling him. Is that role-playing? Or are you just controlling an avatar in a platform game? Where do you draw the line?
Playing, does that mean acting? Some role-playing games are played by verbally describing what the characters do, not acting it out. They are still generally considered role-playing games. So acting can’t be the definition of playing a role either.
It gets even more confusing. Sometimes activities may look the same, but differ substantially for the participants. Take cosplayers. They wear costumes and do, at times, play their characters. Yet, they don’t define what they do as role-playing. Their agenda isn’t to role-play, it is to show off their costumes in a playful way.
Now, take a bunch of LARPers in identical costumes that seem to be doing the same thing as above. They will tell you that they are role-playing and that is the purpose of what they are doing. Even though looking at cosplayers and LARPers you can’t tell the activities apart, the agendas of the two groups are different.
I think role-playing is about the agenda. If you are doing something because you want to play a role, then you are role-playing. So, my personal definition of role-playing is: ”If people say they are role-playing, then they are probably role-playing.”
If anyone comes up with a better definition, please tell me. Because I haven’t managed to figure out anything better yet.
“The only real role-playing games are the traditional tabletop games!”
Perhaps some of you are wondering, “Can’t we just define traditional tabletop role-playing as role-playing games, and call the rest something else?”
We could try to do that, but it gets just as complicated. Let’s say that if you are playing a game with dice, character sheets, rule books, a game master and some players that sit around a table, then you are playing a role-playing game. The end. That is what a role-playing game is.
Here is where it gets complicated. Let’s say that the game master is out of town. Damn. But someone comes up with the idea, “Let’s play anyway using web cams!” Does that mean that you wouldn’t be playing a role-playing game anymore? You are still doing the same thing, right? You are just not in the same room anymore. You are probably still playing a role-playing game, right?
But what if a player’s webcam stops working and they participate only using audio? Has the group stopped playing a role-playing game now? What if the player doesn’t even have audio and just chats? Is it still a role-playing game? What if everyone was using a chat? What if you all used a chat in a MMORPG? Is it still a role-playing game? Where do we draw the line?
Let’s look at the system. If you switch to a dice-free system using playing cards, is it still a role-playing game? What about free-form? Traditional role-playing games can have scenes where you don’t use the rules. You are still playing a role-playing game when you play those scenes, right? What if you don’t use any rules in a whole session? Is it no longer a role-playing game?
If you use props and occasionally get up during play and move a bit around while playing? At what point does it stop being a role-playing game then? When does the table top role-playing game end and the LARPing begin?
If we want to be strict, we must say that the only situation when you’re play a role-playing game is when you play with dice and character sheets, using a rulebook, sitting around the same gaming table. Otherwise, as soon as we begin to stretch that concept even a little, things get complicated.
I prefer things to be simple. That’s why I use an inclusive definition.
“But then ANYTHING can be a role-playing game!”
No. It still has to fit into the definition of a game, while being an activity the participants see as role-playing. That still is quite a restrictive label, and it won’t include everything. Gardening won’t be a role-playing game, neither will football, or even going to a masquerade. Few people define what they do as role-playing; so it won’t include everything.
Neither will it become impossible to discuss your favorite form of role-playing. When we need exclusive terms, we can use exclusive terms. We can say that something isn’t a traditional tabletop game, when we don’t think something is a traditional tabletop game. And so on. Conversations are context dependent. If you are in a conversation about tabletop role-playing games, it is okay to call them just “role-playing games” if everyone understand what you are referring to.
But, yeah: a lot of things can be called role-playing games. The definition I propose means that the term will include all sorts of things you might not like to think of as role-playing games. MMORPGs, LARPs, role-playing chats online, kids playing cops and robbers, sexual role-playing games, free-form and traditional roleplaying games. They are all a structured form of play, and you role-play in all of them.
But you don’t have to like them. Using an inclusive label only means that you recognize they, too, are different kinds of role-playing games in some sense of the word.
What do you gain by using role-playing games as an inclusive term?
First, we can stop wasting time debating if X is a role-playing game. I’m sure I’m not the only one that is sick of the flame wars that erupt when someone says “D&D isn’t a role-playing game” or “Free-form games aren’t role-playing games” or that something else isn’t a role-playing game.
We also gain an opportunity to learn. Different role-playing games are good at different things, and it can be interesting to learn from them.
If you look at LARPers, they are often really good at physical play and creating physical experiences for the players. If you look at tabletop players, they are really good at verbal storytelling, and text role-players often rock at writing. If you look at rules heavy role-playing games, they are usually good at creating competitive games. If you look at freeform games, they are often good at focusing on other aspects of play. If you look at sexual role-playing games, they are very good at negotiating consent and trust. If you look at kids playing cop and robbers, they excel at designing newbie friendly games, and MMORPGs are great at getting huge numbers of players.
There is always something to learn. You don’t have to learn it, but it is there if you want to.
You don’t have to like or try all the other types of role-playing there are out there. But by using an inclusive term, you will simply acknowledge that other people role-play as well, and that they also play games.