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Defining RPG (2nd draft) 
25th-Apr-2008 01:37 pm
chiang 2
(This is a based on an earlier draft entry. I thought it'd be better to repost with edits than to edit the original.)

This goal of this post isn't to define RPGs. Rather it's to provide a categorical survey of defining characteristics, as suggested by various observers.

First note that all games except a very few have elements of freeform, and even those that don't still have a fiction; otherwise, they are merely (virtual) kinetic art. (By the first I mean, very few games tell you precisely what to do at every step. Chutes and Ladders does. Chess and Monopoly do not. By the second I mean that the game proposes a set of meanings--often the concept of "winning and losing"--that have no real impact outside the game.)

So what is an RPG? What distinguishes it from other games? Markus Montola has proposed some criteria for roleplaying. An earlier discussion on rec.games.frp.advocacy also comes to mind.

Lea Crowe wrote:
Specifically, I think, a wargame does not concern itself with "literary" issues: character, plot, mood, etc. In a wargame, the action is all. [1]

This may be a side point, but in the majority of (modern) wargames, action is delimited by the rules, rather than merely being guided by them. For example, you can only use the tactics of spying, seduction and assassination if there are rules for them -- you can't just come up with a "spy" unit, any more than you can arrange a Mafia hit on someone in Monopoly. [2]

Lea's first paragraph refers what I'll dub the thematic or aesthetic criterion. It's been a problem for RPGs for a long time. Arguably this criterion underlies GNS (in the sense that aesthetic goals are what GNS is about instead of formalism and procedures). It's also related to some of Markus Montola's criteria.

The second paragraph is the freeform procedure criterion. I think this is a weak criterion for RPGs but it's advanced frequently. Essentially it's the criterion which says that the vision of the world overrides formal rules, or rather the vision of the world and how it can be acted on by the players cannot be encapsulated in formal rules.

In response to Lea, I added:

--Wargames generally have unambiguously defined "victory conditions" as part of the rules. RPG's generally don't. [3]

--Wargames have well-defined conditions for when the game ends. RPG's generally don't. [4]

The third criterion, which I proposed, is the motivational criterion. The claim here is that RPGs do not provide clearcut purpose, within the game, to guide player "moves". Consider: tennis, within the game, is motivated by scoring points and winning the game/set/match. (The goal of winning the match might conceivably override the goal of winning the game. As e.g. if you make shots which your opponent can score on provided he or she exhausts herself. But there is a unitary goal guiding your strategy, tactics, and technique/skill.) Outside the game, tennis may be guided by things like trying to impress someone on the sidelines or not making your boss look bad. But the goal is in the fiction of the game and the metagame goals are achieved via the game fiction.

By this criterion, an RPG explicitly does not have a formal goal in the fiction. I think this is an essential criterion, but it is sometimes excluded (generally only provided freeform criterion is satisfied; otherwise you have a closed system that becomes boardgame-like).

The fourth criterion, above, is the endgame criterion, but I think it's been basically disproved. At most it's a special case of the third criterion. Nevertheless it's still expected by many that RPGs will either go on indefinitely, or end only when some non-formal condition is reached, such as general agreement that all the "story arcs" have been played out.

[The rest of this post remains highly sketchy. Sorry.]

Now compare: pictionary, charades, the imagine-a-journey game, etc.

added: note that I don't use the word role above. So let's read what Jonas Dagar has to say about "not an RPG" and Wittgenstein. I find it very exceedingly useful to imagine that "these games" are not being called "RPGs" or even "storytelling games". These terms imply motivation and may (1) constrict play and (2) give a designer an excuse not to really explain their game. Charades doesn't have that problem. Nor does Werewolf. So what are "these games"?

Also look at this rpg.net thread about Capes.
25th-Apr-2008 11:01 pm (UTC)
My criteria has always been the self-referential: "Whatever you would put on the shelf with the RPGs." This is more interesting (note: I use this for Science Fiction as well).

My criteria isn't just a tongue-in-cheek dodging of the question: there are things that are inarguably RPGs: D&D, Vampire, GURPS, Hero. Whatever you'd shelve with them is an RPG. If you can assert that a reasonable man would not put Universalis or Capes on the shelf, then I think you can make a case those are not RPGs.

But that's an interesting discussion. Certainly the demographic that buys RPGs might buy Capes or Universalis, mightn't they?

25th-Apr-2008 11:49 pm (UTC)
Well, are Capes and Universalis different from Board or Card Games in a similar way to RPGs? I mean, that is part of the issue isn't it?

Is it merely that they're in the same family, or parallel evolution ( not, but Matrix Games and Mugger Games may be, right?), or are they some sort of subdivision of RPG?
27th-Apr-2008 02:36 am (UTC)
That is a good criterion. But just like the others, which can sometimes be measured more in degree than as dichotomies, so with this.

I don't know either of those games very well (mostly from hearsay) but, for one thing, what's the chance of someone owning Universalis or Capes? That's also not a tongue-in-cheek question; it alludes to the fact that most people who have a chance of shelving either game have probably learned of it either through online RPG discussion circles, or maybe if they saw it shelved in a game store, near or mixed in with "inarguables".

Then we might imagine what would happen if a random person who didn't know anything about gaming suddenly inherited a disorganized collection of games. Would they put Universalis closer to Pictionary or Cry Havoc? Closer to Panzerblitz or D&D? I think there's a dynamic by which categories tend to be defined by their members rather than the other way around--just as D&D was shelved with wargames at the toystores I visited as a kid, because there weren't enough other RPGs around to define the category. But this also goes to show that categorization is a factor of whether you're plugged in, and how you're plugged in.

To summarize, categorization is at least partly a matter of social definition: Universalis was invented and disseminated in an RPG hobby context, so the people it reaches will tend to shelve it with RPGs. And criteria also at least partly a matter of social definition or contingency: if you took someone who wasn't plugged in and just showed them ten Parker Brothers board games, ten 70's RPGs, one SPI wargame, and Universalis, they might put Universalis with the wargame because they're both "miscellaneous".
26th-Apr-2008 01:37 am (UTC) - Story? Not Where I'm From
I'm really disappointed by yet another post preaching that 'thematic and aesthetic criterion' are inherent in the concept of RPGs. I mean, let's be frank; Dungeons & Dragons was the beginning of the concept and by far remains the most successful example by any measure. And yet, I've seen precious few sessions with any regard to theme or aesthetics.

I'm not saying that all games are absent them, just that with the best possible example being just as good in many people's eyes without concern over theme or aesthetics, then neither can be a requirement. I would go on to say that there are probably more active non-thematic gaming groups playing D&D out there then there are thematic-incorporating role-playing games.

I mean I like storyola in my games as much as the next designer (in fact, I may be obsessed with making work mechanically), but that doesn't cause me to believe that it's a relevant or required aspect. In fact, if anything, I'd say it has been the least explored possibility available in RPG design.

But that doesn't make it crucial to the hobby overall.

Sorry for the rant. Feeling headachey.
27th-Apr-2008 02:03 am (UTC) - Re: Story? Not Where I'm From
Hi, Fang. No preaching from me here. I'm classifying the ways that people recognize RPGs. The basic idea is: the more of these characteristics there are, the more likely it is that a someone (or at least someone who thinks they know what RPGs are) will recognize the thing as an RPG.

The aesthetic criterion as presented by Lea is rather narrow but it is how a lot of people think of RPGs as distinct from wargames. If I rewrite this again, I think I'd expand the category or add another, to express the fact that "literary" issues are only one form of "aesthetic" criterion. Also, I would explain more clearly that what I mean by "aesthetic" criterion is that game works on a level other than purely abstract appreciation. I.e., unlike Tic-Tac-Toe, Abalone, Backgammon, Bridge, etc., there's a strong non-ludic purpose or meaning to the game as understood by the players. It may be "telling a story", or it may be "representing an imaginary world that you can interact with". Or maybe other possibilities.

(It doesn't bother me much that wargames also have the "simulative" aesthetic. It may just mean that for some people, the "simulative" aesthetic is a first step toward RPGness, but not enough to separate warames from RPGs.)

One non-ludic aesthetic though which I would specifically exclude from RPGness, or at most put at the far margins, is direct interpersonal interaction. Classic example: spin the bottle. D&D loses something if you don't call a dwarf a dwarf--if the action isn't presented as representing a fictional reality. The same is true of most video games nowadays--the art and the "meaning" or "story" definitely contribute to the ultimate value. This was less true of Space Invaders, still less of Pong or Breakout. But Grand Theft Auto would be much less fun if the visuals and other sensory elements were reduced to pure abstraction, if you couldn't tell that your game-sprite was a human lowlife who steals cars, and instead saw him as a blip hopping on widgets.

In a similar manner, spin the bottle and a few other games, mostly party or parlor games such as charades--these games would be nothing if they were purely abstract exercises without the kissing and making a fool of yourself. But they're not RPGs, because there's no imaginary world. At least not by this criterion. If someone actually considers spin the bottle to be an RPG, I'd like to know their criterion and I'd probably group it separately from the "aesethetic" criterion/criteria.

But getting back to the aesthetic criteria, as I recently wrote at Story Games, the requirement that players think of themselves as "being their characters"--what has been dubbed "avatarism"--is another type of aesethetic criterion. Many people who see this as key to RPGness would tend to regard games that satisfy everything else, but not this, as "storytelling games".
28th-Apr-2008 02:29 pm (UTC) - Re: Story? Not Where I'm From
Very well done!

I think you're right on track with your aesthetic criteria. I am worried though; I don't think you should be taking this approach to 'classify' RPGs. What you seem to be doing is looking for traits that could lead one to recognize a role-playing game. To say that you will 'classify' them by a criteria suggests that you will be able to produce an exhaustive list of traits to look for.

And that way lies madness.

Down with classification!
Fang Langford
29th-Apr-2008 03:38 am (UTC)
The poet Henry Taylor said, at least once, that what made poetry poetry is that you remember the wording exactly, or if you don't, it bothers you. That is, poetry is what you don't want to paraphrase. (It's also, like roleplaying games, a concept that escapes exact definition.

So, relating to Lee Crowe's second point, it might be that RPGs are games where the rules let you attempt anything the avatar you control "should" be able to do within the fiction, or else you get anxious.

So, Fang made a great point about the decidedly un-"esthetic" play of most D&D groups. BUT, think back to the OD&D era. The lack of rules for non-lethal combat - punching and grappling and such - bothered people. Because "we" felt that we should be able to do that. Something was missing. And then we got (admittedly problematic) unarmed-combat rules in the AD&D DMG and it was a relief. (It also caused a bunch of problems, especially because at low levels AD&D unarmed-combat had a much lower whiff factor than melee did, so you were incented to wrestle all the time.)

This is not the same thing as Lee Crowe's suggestion that in RPGs the rules are "a mere guide." Once you put in unarmed-combat rules, they might well be The Rules. But you've relieved anxiety about "I should be able to do that."
5th-May-2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I'm featuring this post in my list of great roleplaying articles, because I really feel this is a great topic of discussion - however limited in scope.
6th-May-2008 12:17 am (UTC)
Thanks. That's some interesting stuff you've got linked there.
6th-May-2008 12:43 am (UTC)
Hey, thanks a ton. I'll be building that list (and organizing it) over time. :)
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