What is a Roleplaying Game?

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Anthony Boyd, whom you assuredly know better as Runeslinger, has taken to his Casting Shadows blog to address the question to which I now turn my attention, “What is a Roleplaying Game?

As game designers, this is a very important question, but no less so for players, regardless of which side of the DM Screen one finds themselves on.

Gary Gygax wrote, “The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience. There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in…

While I think you should read the whole article, Boyd defines an RPG as “a game in which fun is had by being able to frame and commit to decisions of various types alone or with other people.” He further explains this creates a commonality among all games that fall under the roleplaying game umbrella.

My problem with this definition is that it is too broad. By categorizing an RPG in such a manner, it spreads the net too wide and virtually any game can be misconstrued as a roleplaying exercise. While I thoroughly enjoy games such as Panzer Leader or A Song of Ice and Fire Miniatures Game, for example, these are war games. I am not assuming a role when I play these games. I am myself, attempting to win a simulated battle or campaign by using the rules as written. Both of these games meet Runeslinger’s definition of an RPG, and while you could play them as such by, for instance, making decisions as you think Jon Snow would make them, that is the exception, not the rule.

He himself posits that Monopoly could be an RPG if you played it as such, but then that could be true of absolutely anything, like Chutes and Ladders. I appreciate where Runeslinger is coming from and I like the way his mind works. I’ve been following his blog and youtube channel for nearly a decade now, so, yeah, I’m a fan, but by trying to blanket all so-called roleplaying games under his definition removes what makes RPGs unique.

I define roleplaying games as those games in which players assume the role of a character or characters through improvisation within the framework of a narrative experience using accepted rules and guidelines.

That definition might not be perfect, but it certainly hews closest to the experience and separates it from other tabletop games.

β€”Bob Freeman
Bordermen Games

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Runeslinger says:

    Thanks for getting involved with the question!

    I totally understand where you are coming from, and for a long time I was right there with you – for sure. It is hard to overlook the r o l e in role-playing game. The choice of that name for the product after it was out for a while speaks volumes about the initial conception.

    Where I have expanded my view lies in the detail I included about a point of view being required. Some games which are far closer to your definition of a role-playing game than a war game or Monopoly might be, do not allow for the sort of adoption of character that I consider as an adoption of character. I prefer to play in character as character, yet many games now provide very satisfying experiences from a point of view that is in character as author. This is not the same thing. Others have one player playing multiple characters, or playing from a fully authorial stance, or representing a faction with or without individual members as characters. Some cross vast gulfs of time and space while others focus specifically on the lives of just a few people. The hobby keeps getting broader and there is something to the notion that we haven’t seen the end of it yet.

    I understand why you quoted what you quoted, but that quote is only a part of the idea. What I meant by being able to make decisions has a context, and that context includes a point of view from which to make them – which, as you point out, doesn’t fully connect with games outside the purview of the role-playing game. Some however, occupy an enticing gray space.

    Who, for example, has not role played their mech warrior in a BattleTech skirmish, or their pilot in a game of X-Wing? Some games cross the line and transgress the hard and fast rules of definition.

    Ultimately, I have chosen to air on the side of the open, knowing that it will draw this specific criticism, because the language is still too slippery in my own mind to deal with precision in the concept of the point of view~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see your point. Perhaps, rather than creating an all-encompassing definition, we should develop another name for games that stray outside the normal rpg purview?


      1. Runeslinger says:

        That has been tried, understandably so, but proved to be very divisive. Still, all it takes is the right person at the right time~


  2. Runeslinger says:


    Voice to text can be vexing~


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