Role-playing games (RPGs) have been around since the 70s and are actually a very diverse genre of both table-top and video games. In this week’s Insight post I want to cover the basics of what a role-playing game is. That way, as I continue to post about “Legend of Us Roleplaying Game” we are on the same page.
The core thing that defines a role-playing game (RPG) is that you, the player, have a character who is not only controlled by you but represents you in the game world. You are the hero of the story, or at least the main character in the case where you are playing the bad guy (sometimes referred to as an anti-hero). Just like in movies and television, sometimes there is more than one hero. Thus, in role-playing games there can be more than one player. These are commonly called multiplayer role-playing games or cooperative role-playing games.
The second thing that typifies a RPG is a story where the hero or heroes must overcome a bunch of problems to solve a larger overarching problem. Role-playing games have a strong narrative as opposed to a game with just an objective. Pac-man has an objective: to get all the dots. Candy Crush Saga has an objective: to get a certain number of points or to get the acorn to the bottom of the screen. RPGs have objectives too, but they are couched in a narrative, like “save your kingdom from a dragon” or “rescue your girlfriend” or “escape from the island.” They tend to be grandiose in the sense that the fate of the world rests on your character’s shoulders, and they tend to be simple in the sense that the only thing you need to do to save the world is kill a giant red monster with horns on his head.
Most stories used in the genre play like a dreamlike fantasy but they don’t have to. You could have a role playing game where the story is about trying to get to work in the morning. To make this scenario work as an RPG, it would be essential that there are a lot of obstacles in the way of getting to work that the player must overcome. Also there should be a sense of winning at the end of the game so in this example, if the character overcomes all the obstacles and makes it to the office something really good should happen to them, like they get a big promotion.
The most common setting in the genre is high fantasy, usually derived from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” These stories have elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, and ghosts and a great evil that needs to be defeated. One of the oldest and certainly the most famous in the fantasy role-playing game genre is Wizards of the Coast’s “Dungeons and Dragons.” However, there is no requirement that an RPG be based on elves and dwarves. As you can see, the elements described in the paragraphs above create a game that is a lot like a book, movie, or a tv show where the player is the main character. Thus, the subject matter of a role-playing game could be anything that would make a good fiction story.
The final element that defines the role-playing game genre is character advancement. In the beginning of most RPGs your character is somewhat ordinary. During the story, your success over many obstacles causes your character to advance. There is almost always an opportunity for the player to decide how their character advances and what kind of abilities they obtain. You might choose to become better at fighting or you might choose to become better at being persuasive or whatever other options are permitted within the game. These mechanisms allow you to customize your experience of the game and if the choices are meaningful, allow you to experience the same narrative in a different way depending on your choices.
Everything else in the genre is flexible. The thing I have always enjoyed about the genre is that it is like being the main character in a movie or book. If you like fiction stories, a role-playing game is an opportunity to experience one as the main character. At their best, role-playing games have all the fun of watching TV but give you power over the story and allow you to be more involved in the hero’s success.
In my next Insight post, I will discuss RPGs in their various incarnations: pen-and-paper or table-top vs. video games. I will talk about how they are different and how Legend of Us Roleplaying Game fits into the bigger picture.