- This article is about traditional role-playing games. See video and computer role-playing games for their digital counterparts.
A role-playing game (RPG) is a type of game where players assume the roles of fictional characters via role-playing. In fact, many non-athletic games involve some aspect of role-playing; however, role-playing games tend to focus on this aspect of behaviour.
At their core, these games are a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling. Whereas cinema, novels and television shows are passive, role-playing games engage the participants actively, allowing them to simultaneously be audience, actor, and author. An example of this difference could be the classic scene in a horror film when a doomed character ventures alone into the basement to fix a broken fuse. The audience experiences dramatic irony and says, "Don't go down there!" because they know the monster is lying in wait. In a role-playing game, the player may choose what to do about the broken fuse.
In most role-playing games, participants play the parts of characters in an imaginary world that is organized, adjudicated, and sometimes created by a gamemaster (aka narrator, referee, dungeonmaster, storyteller). The gamemaster's role is twofold — s/he provides a world and cast of characters for the players to interact with (and adjudicates how these interactions proceed), but may also be responsible for advancing some kind of storyline or plot, albeit one which is subject to the somewhat unpredictable behavior of the players.
Some newer role-playing games expand the players' powers beyond dictating the actions of their player characters. Some groups or games have rapidly rotating gamemaster duties, or in the more radical cases no gamemaster at all.
The cooperative aspect of role-playing games comes in two forms. The first is that the players are generally not competing against each other. Most sports, board games and card games place players in opposition, with the goal of coming out the winner. A role-playing game is not a zero-sum game; in the majority of these games, the only way to actually lose is not to enjoy the game. The second form of cooperation is that all of the players are writing the story together, as a team. At the end of a role-playing game session the events that transpired could be written into a book that would tell a story written by all of its participants.
Despite this generally non-competitive nature, RPGs usually have rules, or "game mechanics", which enable the players to determine the success or failure of their characters in their endeavors. Normally this will involve assigning certain abilities to each character (such as exceptional strength, x-ray vision, or magical spells). Frequently dice are introduced in order to bring in an element of chance, though this is not always the case.
Game mechanics commonly center around the fictional characters represented by the players. An essential step is character creation, where the background, abilities, personality and resources of the character are recorded into a character sheet. This usually takes the form of numerical values that represent different physical and mental aspects, such as dexterity or charisma, or skill, such as singing, computer operation, or karate. In early role-playing games the emphasis in character creation was often in the combat prowess of the character. Modern games tend to emphasize personality and background.
The term "role-playing game" is used for a few distinct methods of play. The traditional method is a pen-and-paper or tabletop game played with dice by several people. These frequently use several types of polyhedral dice. Some games and gamers also use figurines on a grid (usually a square or hexagonal one) to depict strategic and tactical situations for play. This is especially used during combat which is often a significant aspect of such games. When figurines are used, then position, terrain, and other elements can affect the probabilities. (For example, a character making an attack from an opponent's rear or flank may gain a significant bonus on their chances "to hit" and may also gain advantages on any damage they inflict.)
Sometimes figurines are not used at all, and sometimes a whiteboard, chalkboard or similar drawing surface is used in lieu of any figures or tokens. However, many gamers are also collectors of the figurines and engage in the related hobby of painting and customizing them.
Another mode of play is live action role-playing (LARP), in which the players physically act out their characters' actions. This type of gameplay is usually more focused on characterization and improvisational theatrics and less focused on combat and the fantastic, if only because of the physical limitations of the players themselves. Live action gamers often dress up as their characters and use appropriate props in the game. The related style of freeform role-playing is less physically oriented, and is often played at conventions.
The term is also used as a name for a genre of video games that almost always lack the "role-playing" element of pen-and-paper games but borrow many gameplay elements from said games. These games are called CRPGs which stands for "computer role-playing games" or "console role-playing games" depending on whether the game is played on a personal computer or on a video game console.
These computerized simulations have become increasingly prominent over the last two decades. The most recent computer role-playing games have endeavored to incorporate social interaction via networking, beginning in the realm of text based chat rooms, and soon moving to static persistent worlds represented in the text MUD and the like (MUSHes, MOOs and MUXes). Currently, these have evolved to incorporate graphical representations of tokens (characters, equipment, monsters, etc.), as well as physical simulations obscuring much of the underlying rules of the games from users. Today, online role-playing games are defined by massively multiplayer online games such as EverQuest and City of Heroes. These games (MMORPGs, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) are played exclusively online and feature graphically intensive gameplay in a virtual world shared by thousands of other players simultaneously.
Role-playing games can also be divided into genres by the fictional setting where they take place.
Fantasy role-playing games draw their inspiration from fantasy literature, such as the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The setting in these games is usually a world with a level of technology similar to that in Europe sometime between years 800-1400. Fantasy elements include magic and supernatural creatures, such as dragons. The genre can be subdivided into high fantasy where supernatural events are commonplace, and low fantasy where there are little or no supernatural aspects.
SF role-playing or sci-fi role-playing games are inspired by science fiction literature. The setting is generally in the future, sometimes near future but also quite often in the far future. Common elements involve futuristic technology, contact with alien life forms, experimental societies, and space travel. The genre can be divided similarly with science fiction literature into sub-genres, such as cyberpunk or space opera.
Historical games take place in the past. Settings that have been explored in role-playing games include Maya civilization, Ancient Rome, and Victorian era.
Horror games take their inspiration from horror literature, such as the works of H. P. Lovecraft. The setting in these games is often contemporary or from the 19th or 20th century. Creating the correct mood and suspense is important in these games.
Several games combine different genres. Ars Magica can be considered a fantasy role-playing game in a historical setting whereas steam punk games combine elements of science fiction with history.
History of role-playing
Interactive and impromptu dramas have included elements of play long before the advent of modern wargames; the children's games of "Playing House" or "Cowboys and Indians" are in essence very simple role-playing games.
Modern role-playing games evolved from wargaming roots in the late 1960s. Where a marker or miniature figure once typically represented a squad of soldiers (although "skirmish level" games did exist where one figure represented one entity only), in early proto-RPGs each token invariably represented a single character.
The first role-playing games as such were played in the late 1960s in and around the University of Minnesota's wargaming society, especially in the groups moderated by Dave Wesley and Dave Arneson. Around the same time, Gary Gygax was developing the medieval wargame Chainmail (unusual, the vast majority of wargames were and are based around relatively modern wars like the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the World Wars) with much the same intentions.
Each player controlled the actions of that one character. The first edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons (abbreviated as D&D) reveal these roots in the use of a distance scale of one inch per ten feet (or ten yards, outdoors). D&D is considered the first modern role-playing game, and it has influenced nearly every role-playing game produced since its inception in 1974.
Dungeons & Dragons was phenomenally successful, bringing numerous players into the field of role-playing games and spawning a cottage industry centered around the hobby. As with all successful games, D&D spawned a large number of imitators and competitors, some of whom blatantly copied the "look and feel" of the game (e.g., one of the earliest competitors to Dungeons & Dragons was Tunnels and Trolls). Along with Dungeons & Dragons, early successes in the "first generation" of role-playing games included Chivalry & Sorcery, Traveller, Space Opera and RuneQuest.
Dungeons & Dragons soon became Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which expanded the game (and the role-playing game industry in general) beyond amateur hobbyism and into the realm of "professional" gaming. As more elaborate, more expensive role-playing game products appeared on the market, organized conventions and professionally published magazines (such as Dragon Magazine) catered to the growing field, while role-playing moved out of college campuses and into mainstream life.
Role-playing games were originally played on a tabletop, because they involved paper, dice, and, often, miniature figures or tokens of some kind. From these origins, role-playing games have evolved in different directions. Some role-playing game rules systems are complex and attempt to be realistic simulations; other rules systems place a priority on game balance or on personality, character development, and storytelling. (Gamers later examined the differences in gameplay among role-playing games and came up with explanations on the different types of play, such as GNS Theory.)
The 1980s saw a glut in the role-playing game market, as numerous rulebooks, game systems, adventure modules, and other materials crowded the shelves of hobby shops. The biggest game in the field continued to be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which grew into a mass of consistent and inconsistent rules, explained in as many as fourteen different hardcover rulebooks. The games that relied heavily on obscure rules eventually folded, and Dungeons & Dragons itself was simplified somewhat with the release of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1989.
The advent of trading card games, most notably Magic: The Gathering, outshone the popularity of role-playing games during the mid-1990s. The sudden appearance and remarkable popularity of the Magic card game took many gamers (and game publishing companies) by surprise, as they tried to keep pace with fads and changes in the public opinion. For a while, some pessimists forecasted the "end" of role-playing games as a serious hobby because of the onslaught of trading card games, though eventually the dust settled and role-playing continued to thrive. The makers of Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast, bought out TSR and adapted the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game into a newer version of the game.
The 1990s proved to be an innovative decade seeing many new role-playing games flooding the markets. Perhaps the most popular role-playing game from this period was Vampire: The Masquerade. A game designed as an immersive storytelling experience, Vampire easily lent itself to LARPing. The game industry introduced a variety of new game systems during this time, until the buyout of TSR by Wizards of the Coast and the subsequent release of the D20 System/OGL rules.
The 1990s also saw many advances in computer technology taking role-playing into new technological frontiers. Computer role-playing games were already well established in the computer world. However, with the proliferation of home computers, the ability to play games online over BBSes or networks paved the way for MUDs, MMORPGs, and play-by-email (PBeM) gaming. The first stirrings of copyright and intellectual property concerns had already been felt during the latter part of the 80s with TSR leading the way in litigation precedents, first against Mayfair Games, the publishers of the Role-Aids line of game supplements, and later against file sharers.
In 2000, a significant change occurred in the tabletop role-playing industry. Wizards of the Coast released their open gaming license for use with their D20 system. This has allowed many small role-playing game publishers to quickly and easily create role-playing material that a large body of role-players could easily adapt for their own campaigns.
In recent years, Dungeons & Dragons has dominated the hobby economically, after a period of decline in the late 1990s. Owing partially to heavy marketing from corporate parent Hasbro, products branded Dungeons & Dragons, including small lines of subsidiary products developed by Kenzer & Company (Kingdoms of Kalamar) and White Wolf Game Studio (Warcraft: The Role-Playing Game), made up over fifty percent of the role-playing game products sold overall in 2002. Perhaps predictably, the economic dominance of Dungeons & Dragons has led to resentment from fans of competing game systems.
For those with a love of a specific genre, such as the ("Star Wars") universe, the characters and events from ("2000_AD") comic or ("Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'") for example; there are more and more game systems and associated source books available. These allow players to explore worlds and even play alongside characters which they may have watched or read about since childhood. Combining such roots in childhood play behaviour - mentioned earlier - as they possess, with the chance to emulate even the most fantastic heroes; makes Role playing games one of the great vicarious thrills of our age. Where they go from here is limited only by the imagination of the players.
Almost from the beginning of the role-playing hobby there have been those who have leveled accusations of connections to devil worship, as well as claims that role-playing games lead to suicide. The most famous case perhaps being the work of author Rona Jaffe that exploited the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in her novel Mazes and Monsters, a thinly-veiled attack on Dungeons & Dragons, released in a time when very few people who didn't play Dungeons & Dragons knew what it actually was about. The book was turned into a TV movie featuring a young Tom Hanks in the key role of a mentally unstable collegian who experiences a psychotic episode and loses himself in the game world.
Such negative portrayals of role-players, ironically, may have originated from an initial inability of some outside observers to properly differentiate between reality and the immersive role-playing aspects of gameplay. Perception, or rather misperception, has been the major prejudice that role-players have had to face over the years. For instance religious fundamentalists such as Jack Chick (famous for the anti-RPG tract Dark Dungeons) have found the fact that role-playing characters, for all that they existed solely in imaginary fantasy worlds, were given the "ability" to cast "spells" and use "magic" to be anathema and anti-God. Such accusations continued well beyond the 1980s and into the 1990s. Studies by Michael Stackpole and others have explored the connection between gaming and suicide and have generally concluded that not only does it not seem to encourage suicide, but players of this kind of game are less prone to take their own lives.
The Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs has published a report on "role-playing as a hobby". The report describes role-playing as a stimulating hobby that promotes creativity.
Types of role-playing games
The term "role-playing game" can be applied to a number of distinct genres:
A Brief History of Roleplaying - categorization of role-playing games in history
Miyechi World - Roleplaying involving the creation of real live characters, online battles, itemshop, pets, card games, forum, and more to explore.
Over 4,500 profiled webpages about RPGs, categorized
- The Attacks on Role-Playing Games - originally from the Skeptical Inquirer.
RPG Index - A database of free and commercial RPGs and RPG products
Dark Dungeons - a pamphlet from Chick Publications that brings together the claims of suicide and devil worship.
Dark Dungeons - Parody - A satire of the pamphlet above using characters from MST3K.
The Site For Sore Eyes - a wiki with a section devoted to role-playing. Also has an RPG Extras and Resources page.
John H. Kim's Role Playing Game Page - Nearly complete encyclopedia of role-playing games and companies that published these games.
- The RPG Lexicon - Wiki for definitions of RPG specific terms
- Roleplay.org - An introduction, history, and articles on role-playing and role-playing games.
- RPG.net - One of the largest general role-playing game fan-sites.
What is role-playing? (a copylefted introductory article)
Mecca/Mecha - a wiki where people create fictional cities and places, designed for use in a storytelling game, or as reading material.
indie-rpgs.com - The Internet Home for Independent Role-Playing Games
Salroth The Chronicles - A site devoted to RPGs of many flavours
EN World - The main D&D/d20 news and reviews website.
Dragon Court - Free online RPG
Quadrant Delta - A free Star Trek based PBEM roll playing game. Active since 1993.