A few weeks ago I reviewed Fable III for the Rootin’ Tootin’ MSP. Not being insecure at all, I posted my intent to review the game on Twitter the day before to see what others had to say about it. Reaction varied, some people hadn’t played it but were looking forward to it, others had given it a spin and were enjoying it, but one comment in particular really surprised me. “cool, just make sure you don’t call it an ‘RPG’.”

My reaction to this was sequential.

Reaction 1: Huh, I hadn’t thought about Fable III as an RPG.

Reaction 2: wait… isn’t it, though?

So I decided to figure out what, exactly constituted an RPG, which took me on a quest to the repository of all internet knowledge…

A role-playing game (RPG) is a broad family of games in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within the game succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.

“Ok,” I said out loud to myself before remembering I was at work, “by that definition Fable is an RPG… but by that same definition, so is Star Fox.” and I don’t even mean Dinosaur Planet Star Fox. I mean even the original Super NES version, since you play a cool pilot in a cool spaceship and your decisions influence the course you take to the final boss. Of course, Star Fox isn’t generally regarded as an RPG. So I decided to approach this issue from a different direction.

I have played lots of games that are actually considered to be RPGs some of them include:

  • Chrono Trigger
  • The Final Fantasy Series
  • Earthbound
  • Breath of Fire
  • Fire Emblem
  • That game that was formative to your gaming experience and I neglectfully omitted

So what do all these games have in common? And what separates them from the Super Mario Bros 2s, Contra IIIs, and Super Street Fighter Alphas out there? These are their distinctive commonalities:

Plot complexity: Most of these games have a storyline that is more complex than “save the princess” often, in the case of most Final Fantasy games, one that seems deliberately complicated. Also the storyline develops throughout the game, as opposed to the game being one long kill-the-final-boss mission.

Pen-and-paper RPG-based mechanics: Most of these games can trace their roots back to Dungeons and Dragons (or to each other, and then D&D). Character levels, turn based combat and hit/miss chances are all common in these games.

Focus on character stats and resource management: Another D&D vestige, but worth bringing up. Inventory usage, ability point allocation and swapping characters are all regarded as “RPG” traits.

Decisions that affect the plot or the illusion thereof: RPGs were some of the first games to have multiple endings or extra bits of plot that develop depending on player decisions.

Using these traits it becomes possible to rule out Star Fox as an RPG, but not any of the Fable games. Nor can we really toss out Fallout, Metroid games from the Game Cube on, and even games in the Halo series. This, of course leads me to my long overdue thesis: There’s actually no such thing as an RPG video game.

RPG video games were defined as such because of their mechanical similarities to tabletop RPGs, but the core of what makes a pen-and-paper RPG is absent from video games. Without that human interactive element, a tabletop game becomes simply a very fancy and complex strategy or adventure game. Which is what most of these video games actually are. Even if you choose to label those older games as RPGs, the fact of the matter is that as the industry has grown, most games now have at least some “RPG” elements. In fact by the definitions we have seen so far, Super Mario Galaxy is as much of an RPG as Final Fantasy XIII.

This leaves us with two options. We can call most video games RPGs, which renders the label essentially worthless, or you can break “The classic RPG” into its component parts and apply them as necessary. This way Fallout 2 has RPG-like interaction, Final Fantasy XIII has an RPG-like character system, and Metroid: Other M has RPG-Like whining. Thus there are no Role-Playing games, just Role-Playing characteristics.

Now, you, in the back, you can put your hand down, I’m about to talk about WOW.

Some might argue that due to the importance of interacting with other players, MMORPGs may be the only true RPGs out there. This is, of course, not true. MMOs suffer the same issues as non-massive games in that they are largely about mechanics and point allocation, rather than any sort of shared narrative. Sure you can log on to World of Warcraft’s RP friendly servers, but the fact of the matter is that the role-playing aspect (in the tabletop sense) is not central to the execution of the game. It is optional. In fact the game itself, just by virtue of being a video game will often strain the role-playing experience, say by resetting a mission after you complete it. Playing an MMORPG is just playing Secret of Evermore with twelve million people.

So what do we get from all of this? Hopefully this: Sometimes we get caught up in labels, even when they no longer make any sense. I mean what the hell kind of game do you call Portal anyway? Our inability to accurately (and succinctly) label games is a good sign. Video Games continue to evolve as a medium, and soon we will need to start defining them not by game play but by intended audience, as even games aimed at toddlers will have “RPG” and “first person shooter” aspects.


About Author

Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.


  1. I enjoyed this article, and I’m curious if you have played either Mass Effect and what you would define them as, either as a whole or individual components of the game.

    • I’m sure Rodrigo will respond to you, but coming from somebody who has played Mass Effect 1 and 2, I think that it falls into the same category that Rodrigo was placing Fable 3. Both these games are “RPGs” (air quotes) in the sense that there’s a flow chart to the story with multiple branches and directions to go. The reason they are not TRUE RPGs is because they’re not mutable, ie: There’s no way to improvise outside of the game’s parameters. It’s an “in the box” experience, as your computer can’t make up aspects to the story line on the fly, and your character’s actions are limited to a dialog tree that you can’t deviate from. There’s no way a computer can make up new content on the fly and nor will there ever will be.

      I’ll still call those games RPGs but only because that’s a common name for them. In truth they’re just multiple choice games that simulate the role-playing experience.

      • Blackthunder01 on

        So you’ve never played a game where something (seemingly) random happens like Odin being summoned at the start of battle (FF8) without a command from you, an enemy killing your summon (FF8), the enemy defeats your entire party (Lunar: Silver Star Story), a new character jumps in to help in the middle of the fight (FFX), or a new enemy steps in as soon as another falls (Wild Arms). From your perspective, all of these events are something rather off the cuff and random. Of course they were programmed to be this way but as you experience it for the first time they all surprise you the same way that a DM would.

        You can’t deviate from your set moves in a Table Top game either. You have so many attacks you can perform and those are your options. Same with a video game. You can’t suddenly call down a rain of fire upon an enemy if you don’t have that ability.

        The computer is always giving you new content until you beat the game. The differnce here is that you can replay that same game again and at this point it’s no longer new for you. Playing Table Top is more like playing Final Fantasy THE SERIES. Your first game is Final Fantasy 1. Then you play another story that starts similar but ends with different choices … that’s final fantasy 2. So on and so forth.

  2. Interesting, though I would have to disagree. In my opinion, RPGs are about the story first and foremost. While I’ll agree that most video games don’t have the flexibility of storytelling a paper and pen game has, they can still deliver a story that is interesting and fun to play through. Sadly, most video game programmer’s focus is not on the story, but on game play mechanics, and so we instead see this concentration on the elements or features that RPGs are supposed to have. Of course, I came from video games to paper and pen games, so I might be a bit bias, but their you go.

  3. So the lack of human interaction is your problem? Sorry but I think that that’s rather irrelevant. I could understand if you were going to say something along the lines of not being able to choose what you want to say in a game like Final Fantasy 7 but human interaction is not really needed. A DM is just as good as a program because they set the plot and tell you what you need to know to get from point A to point B. As for human interaction with teammates, that’s where games like WoW come in to shut that down. Sure you can’t talk to the bad guys and try to convince them not to be evil, but you’re not going to accomplish that task with humans either. If it’s improvised or a scripted conversation, you’re still going to have to fight the rat swarm.

    I wonder if your oppinion has anything to do with your preference. I get the impression that you like Table Top games more than Video games and came to this conclusion because of it. Human interaction is about the only thing that video games do differently than Table Top and even that is changing to be more multi-player. There are no gameplay difference that I noticed so you’re still playing the same game. Just the medium that it’s presented to you in has changed …

    • The lack of human interaction is not a problem, I think you are reading a value judgment that is just not there. I’m not saying videogames are inferior to table top games, what I’m saying is that they are two different things. Let me put it to you this way.

      Here are some things that are role-playing games: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, Vampire the Requiem, Primetime Adventures, Shadowrun RPG, those terrible user-made fantasy chat rooms in the early days of AOL mostly populated by underage kids trying to have cybersex.

      Here are some things that are not role-playing games: Final Fantasy VII, Candy Land, Warhammer 40k, Heroclix, Pac-man, Magic: The Gathering.

      all of which are games that I’ve had a chance to play, some of them I enjoyed, some I didn’t but neither list has more merit than the other one. And for the record, asking whether I like tabletop games or video games better is like asking if I prefer food or sex. The answer is, I like them both, but clearly there are issues with having both at the same time.

      • IDK. I think you could make the argument that FF VII is an RPG. You go along a on a storyline and make choices in it dependent on what you want to do with your character and party. You could follow Vincents storyline and help him to find peace with his decisions or you could say “who cares about Vincent?” and relegate him to the background while focusing on the main story or others peoples stories.

      • The lack of human interaction is not a problem, I think you are reading a value judgment that is just not there.

        and …

        Without that human interactive element, a tabletop game becomes simply a very fancy and complex strategy or adventure game.

        … confuse me. I have no idea what your trying to say. What is your reason for calling one an RPG and not the other? Is there some feature that one has that the other doesn’t? I thought it was the human interaction topic but your saying no. I don’t see any other arguements being made. Upon rereading your article again, it still comes across that human interaction is your lynch pin. Especially, given your examples in your post. What defines an RPG to you? I need it explained instead of examples.

  4. They call the Marvel X-men and Marvel Alliance games RPG’s as well just because you can decide how to spend point on your character to improve them. I don’t conscider them to be RPG’s however, its an action game with one function to improve your stats. There are very few occaisions where your decisions impact the game, theres walk in a straight line and beat up punks, unlock a door and beat a boss then move to the next stage. Repeat and wash. To me an RPG has an evolving storyline, a leveling system based on earning experience, and character interaction (my favorite being group based character interaction.).

    As for why I didnt buy Fable III, I bought Fable 2 and after several days worth of gaming I got stuck in the colluseum with an unkillable beatle. There was no way to get out of the colliseum and I essentially lost my character because a glaring bug was left in the game and Lionsgate studios never made the effort to fix the problem. I forsaw that thier shoddy programing and customer service would probably be just as bad in 3 as 2. I have heard a lot of people are disapointed with all the obvious bugs that should of been fixed before it was released.

    • To me an RPG has an evolving storyline, a leveling system based on earning experience, and character interaction (my favorite being group based character interaction.).

      Xmen has an evolving story line. It’s preprogrammed but at the time your playing it, you have no idea what the next chapter holds. I’m sure that any DM has an idea of what his story will be and how the team will get there. Same as a programmer.

      Xmen has a level system based on experience as well. Not to mention character interaction in the mansion that opens up new characters and new story lines for you to pursue.

      One of the other similarities of Xmen is the ability to equip different armour and accessories. That and they have something similar to daily powers as well. Only their daily powers recharge a little faster (if at all).

  5. I don’t care what a video game is called as long as it is entertaining. I am a fan of the FALLOUT series, and I have spent weeks and months rumaging through the nuclear wastes to find trinkets that I might sell, and to encounter people and creatures I might fight to improve my might. Overall I get to choose what missions I want to do, who will live and die. I can either be a Savior, or a Mass Murdering Monster. In my opinion it’s the amount of choices that makes a great RPG.

  6. I play Ragnarok online pretty much all the time and while the interaction may not be face to face it’s there (just finding a party to join will require some interaction with live people at the other end of those characters), the story is not even close to been important, as a matter of fact unless you decide to do some of the quests there is no real storyline. As a matetr of fact, the support classes require good social skills to play well, because they need parties to level and no-one is going to invite a pain in the neck twice.

    For me an RPG is any type of game that influences the developpement of your character beyond your skill level, meaning that your character is build in a specific fashion, acts or looks a particular way not because you’re awesome/bad at the game but because you put some of yourself into them.

    Basically if you have to give a longer description then I play a (insert class/type/whatever here) it’s probably and RPG, for exemple in RO if I say I play a priest people will immediately want to know what build, because just saying priest is not enough. Is he full support? Battle? High Vit or high Agi? Magnum Exorsism? Turn Undead? is it your main? What level? Can he pull?

    Don’t take this the wrong way but I think your opinion may be biased because you’re lucky enough to have friends interested in pen and paper RPGs and you can play D&D on a semi-regular base. If I read your article right for you an RPG can only pen and paper because they are the only ones that allow a unique shared narrative and the main focus is the role playing aspect. This is my answer: when you play D&D you play a very customisable LAN video game, you basically play an MMORPG on a private server where you customized the crap out of everything but we can still see what game it was based upon. Heck you guys actually use computers programs that calculate stuff for you…

    • I completely agree with you, I think that if there are groups out there with highly customizable LAN interfaces where the game master can alter the game world in reaction to the players, then that is, in fact a role-playing game. Although there’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of those, at some point it’s easier to play pretend rather than spend twenty minutes trying to code your ranger out of a wall.

      • I think the biggest element of an RPG is the individuals imagination, and this is the one thing I think is being left out of this conversation.

        Whenever you enter into a fantasy realm, you automatically subscribe to the rules and structures put forth by the creator of that game. It does not matter if it is video of table top. The difference, I think, come from one persons own perspective. Some like the video interactions and some don’t.

        As a long time game master of several different table top games, and as a user of the video game medium, I have a working knowledge of both. So what is the main difference between the two? Images.

        A video game takes away a persons ability to visualize in their own mind what a particular set looks like. Table top games encourage it, and I think that is the big difference. For example, if I say, “You tie your horse to the hitching post. At the end of the street stands Bad Bart. His six shooter hangs menacingly at his hip. He waits for you.” we all see this scene differently. I see Bart with a black hat and pants, a black vest and white shirt. The horse is a paint and has a saddle on. The street is dusty too. But I never said any of this in the narrative.

        We all had a different visual in our minds. It is that difference that makes the table top game so much fun.

        With a video game, this is taken from us. As I said before, we choose to accept this type of control, but it is this visual element that I think sets the difference.

        Now to the guy in the back of the room with his hand up, yes, I think miniatures take some of the visual element from the players. That is why I don’t use them. I think they are cool because I love fantasy art, but I do not use them

  7. Whether videogame RPGs count as true role-playing games depends on where you fall on the GNS (game, narrative, simulation) theory. This is a fan theory outlining the various types of tabletop roleplayers out there. Those who game enjoy mastering the system and overcoming challenges, and are often the munchkins of the group (Rob shows hints of this in Critical Hit). Those who enjoy narrative are engrossed in the plot and developing their characters (Matthew). Simulationists, as the name might imply, are those who enjoy the aspects of role-playing games that simulate an alternate reality (not really applicable to CH). Catering to these various types of roleplayers are various role playing systems, some of which lean more to one side than the others.
    Videogames can do gamism very well. Most videogame RPGs have combat that operates much more smoothly than tabletop combat does, because they streamline a lot of the stuff. Simulationism and narrativism give videogames a lot more trouble, because every videogame is limited by the content put into it by its creators. Games cannot react on the fly; they can not improvise. Even an RPG that presumes to give you choice only generally lets you fall into a fairly generalized archetypes.
    It boils down to this – videogame RPGs are RPGs, for a given value of RPG. Temple of Elemental Evil, a PC game from a number of years ago, is a very faithful rendition of the tabletop module using 3.5E rules. In fact, depending on the group, it might play out very similarly on the PC and on the table. But the PC game won’t pass the “Rodrigo RPG test”, and the module will (although limping and gasping for breath).

    As for what truly defines a videogame RPG, I would argue that the biggest difference between a game with RPG aspects and one which is truly an RPG is the distinction between character Skill and Player Skill. Avatar skill means the abilities of your character – their stats, perks, and abilities. A level 1 character in WOW cannot beat a level 10 monster no matter how good the player is at the game. Conversely, player skill is the ability of the player to control his avatar well, and in a game with RPG aspects, will always be the more important bit.

    As a final note, can we not bring console RPGs to a fight about videogame and tabletop RPGs? It’s not a fair fight. A comparison between PC RPGs and tabletop RPGs would be more apt, especially as many of the console RPGs (particularly those cited by Rodrigo) are from Japan, where tabletop RPGs do not hold as large a sway on game creators as they do in the West. Consequently, PC RPGs tend to follow tabletop sensibilities much closer, although they have of course evolved over time.

  8. Interesting article. I am going to have to join Blackhunter in my disagreement with the thesis. You can’t honestly say that the only defining characteristic that makes something an RPG is the human interaction. As already pointed out, what does the human interaction bring that a video game doesn’t? Aside from the occasional splitting of the pizza bill and some beer?

    Look at any pre-built adventure and it is essentially a flow chart just like computer programming for a video game. Sure you can choose your dialog, but if you aren’t asking the right questions, you’re not going to advance the story.

    For me, a role-playing game has always been a game, with a strong narrative, that allows me to inhabit a role and makes me feel that I have a choice in the personality of that role which reflects itself in the way the game plays out. Honestly, I’ve never felt that Fallout or Fable successfully accomplished that because they were too open. Games like Baldur’s Gate II and Mass Effect 1&2 give me that level of power over both NPC’s and the narrative that I think really is what RPG’s are all about.

  9. While I may not agree with Rodrigo’s conclusions about P&P rpgs (we’ve all been railroaded a time or two) I think the sentence in the final paragraph sums up the point well, “Sometimes we get caught up in labels, even when they no longer make any sense.” Calling ME 1&2, Fallout 1 through New Vegas, BG 2, and Planescape: Torment simply one type of genre doesn’t do the game (or the story) justice.

    Perhaps that’s the point. As video games near status of art, we need to accept that they are going to affect people in different ways, and therefore lose labels. Just as we each walk way with a different meaning when we peer at the statue of David (a reaction that spans the childish to the profound to the profane) we too will have a similar experience with video games.

    I suppose my question to Rodrigo and other would be to ask if we think that P&P RPGs have that possibility? Can they ‘transcend’ in a similar fashion? (I’ll tip my hand and say I believe they can)

    If they can’t, perhaps its a good thing that the art of video games aren’t fitting into RPG molds.

    • We’re humans, we categorize things. It is what we do. Labels help us achieve that. Genres are one way we accomplish this. Just because something can fit into multiple genres does not make the act of labeling irrelevant.

      The problem with the RPG label isn’t entirely that it isn’t applicable, but that it is not clearly defined. Rodrigo has put forth a definition, and now it is up to us to either agree or disagree; to accept or refine it.

    • I think they already have transcended. The problem is that RPGs are, by design something for small groups to experience. I am certain that there have been truly sublime games, ones that make the players question the very nature of their existences… which is awesome for those four guys.
      Even with podcasts like Critical Hit people can follow along with Orem and friends, but only those four guys can actually experience what it is like to play the game.

      Lastly I’ll say that in my opinion Videogames are not nearing becoming art. They are, and have always been art, but that’s probably a topic for another day.

      • An RPG video game is experience by both a large and small group at the same time though. People across the country are playing a 1 player (or 2 player if your playing Final Fantasy 9) game. The video game is simulating enemies and allies for you though. FF7 doesn’t simulate as many allies as WoW, or FFXII would though. Each game has it’s own little niche.

  10. I think some of the readers are missing two critical elements to table-top RPGs, the game-master and the players.

    It seems to me that the people who argue that video games and table top RPGs are the same thing don’t really understand the GM’s role.

    -A GM is responsible for crafting the story, both beforehand and during gameplay. I can almost guarantee that over 50% of the Critical Hit adventure was not planned ahead of time, the players determine what they are going to do and how. A video RPG cannot function like that.

    -The GM has to decide what rules to follow and what rules to break to move the plot forward.

    -A GM has to make up characters and their personalities on the spot because the players decide to speak to them. Some of those on-the-spot character develop into major plot-driving characters later.

    -The GM is a player. A special type of player, but the GM is in fact playing the game with everyone else. A video RPG denies someone the fun of playing the GM’s role.

    The players are just as important. Their characters are the stars of the show. They decide what to focus on, how they are going to react to events. They generate dialog with each other as well as with NPC’s. They’re choices drive the plot forward, often regardless of the GM’s plans.

    Recent episodes of Critical Hit would have been drastically different if Ket and Orem hadn’t tried to con their way into the University’s dorms. I’m willing to bet Rodrigo didn’t expect that or plan for it, nor did he expect Orem’s critical failure and how the Dean would react. He might not have even planned for a Dead character.

    Things like that don’t happen in Video RPGs. They cannot improvise or anticipate improvisation. Therefore they are a different type of game.

    • Your definition of what a GM does is one interpretation of it. Honestly, nothing you listed is intrinsic to the role of a GM. GM’s are not required to craft the story during the play session, some can craft a good enough story that the players never need deviate, or simply the story takes place in a confined environment like a dungeon crawl. Improvising is a choice, not a requirement. A GM can opt to follow all the rules and break none, a computer program is perfectly capable of the same thing. The NPC’s do not have to have their personalities made up on the spot, you can craft every NPC’s basic personality ahead of time, pregen modules do this all the time. Yes the GM is a player, but just because you can’t play as the GM doesn’t mean you’re not role-playing.

      • I think DragonQueen hit it right on the head. I have read all the reply’s thus far and hers (a female, I assume) is the most sound. Blackthunder01 has been defending the video game rpg’s (and a great defense at that), and according to Wiki, every game that was talked about here can be considered an “RPG”. Wiki states that RPG’s are a “broad family of games”. Some of us agree with that, and some of us, like Rodrigo (and myself) don’t agree with that. My reasoning is very simple. In a Pen and Paper RPG I can choose every bit of detail that goes into my character, and I can choose how I want to interact with the world (that was made by a DM). If I create a Character who is out to destroy orcs and in turn hates half-orcs, I can choose wether or not to be mean to any and all half-orcs that I meet. And if I feel that my character would do something, no matter what it is, I can do it. Computer style RPG’s can not give me that. In DnD and other PAP games you can (try) to do absolutely anything, as long as it is a reasonable thing that your character would do. And that is assuming that your being a, what I would call “strict” player.
        As for the DM, there is no way that A DM can pre-generate every single interaction, and the reason being is because he has no idea what the characters are going to do. yes a DM can choose to break or not break a rule, but a Computer certainly cannot. And if it seems that it can, it has a rule for why it decided to “break” that rule.

        • Blackthunder01 on

          While this feature of game play is not important to me, I can respect it. Would you classify this as the “Human Interaction” element I was questioning Rodrigo about?

          Also, thank you for elaborating on the thought process. I believe that the ability to interact freely as you play is irrelevant if the end result is the same, but that might just be me not valuing that feature as much as others do.

          Perhaps that’s all it comes down to. The people who care about that aspect and those who don’t. That’s probably why there are such clear cut supporters on each side of the argument.

  11. Even if you separate the concept of the table-top RPG from the video game version, there’s a problem. Let’s pretend the table-top version never existed. Legend of Zelda or whatever came out and they said, “Hey! This is a new type of video game! Let us call this, A ROLE-PLAYING GAME!” The issue is that that moniker is now being applied to just about EVERY game that comes on the market.

    So, WHATEVER criteria exist to define something as an RPG (whether it is the similarity to aspects of table-top games or the similarity to those first generation RPG video games), it’s clearly no longer helpful to give users an idea of what a game is when it comes on the market.

    And Rodrigo isn’t the only one to take notice. The folks at The Escapist also attempted to address this with their “Genre Wheel”

  12. A contentious assertion:

    What human beings do that computers don’t is be creative. That’s why human beings create computer programs and not vice versa.

    @Blackthunder01, I think that this is the part of “human interaction” that DragonQueen is getting at, but as a way of dispensing with such topics as splitting pizza bills, I would refine the term to something like “interactive human creativity”.

    What this notion suggests is that PnP RPGs might be fruitfully compared to playing a computer game with the game designers (the GM) sitting in the room with you, writing and re-writing the game as you play it in response to what you request, enjoy, dislike, etc.

    Clearly, computer games incorporate a great deal of human creativity. They even incorporate much more human creativity than PnP RPGs, because there are entire teams of very imaginitive people who get paid to create them, instead of one poor schmuck with a day job. However, this creativity is not, as a rule, interactive.

    Constantly evolving computer games like WOW may represent something of an exception, but in comparison to playing a PnP game they are a bit like writing letters to the editor rather than having a face-to-face conversation.

    A less contentious assertion:

    What computers do that human beings don’t is remember ridiculous amounts of information with perfect recall, perform unbelievable feats of calculation, and provide real-time visual and auditory media interfaces.

    Although interactive human creativity is infinite in breadth (that is, the whole point of creativity is that you can come up with anything), it is nonetheless realtively limited in depth. Although it is possible for a GM to run an entire PnP RPG on the fly, making it up as he or she goes along, he or she will find it extremely difficult in this case to provide detail, intricacy, and a sense of consistency and coherency. These characteristics come from long hours of labour, thought and editing, the “prep-work” that is analogous to computer game designers working on a game before it is released.

    In this sense, human creativity is to a great extent limited to “filling in the gaps,” small or large as they may be. And there is an interesting link here to Bryan’s praise for imagination: In the linguistic medium of PnP RPGs, while the GM may fill in the blanks to decide what happens in response to the players’ unpredictable decisions, the players also have to do a lot of filling in the blanks, translating the GM’s descriptions into visual and auditority images in their minds.

    While Bryan lauds this requirement for imagination, I experience a degree of skepticism. If producing real time visual and auditory media did not require the non-interactive kind of creativity represented here by computer games, if your PnP GM could instantly create hi-res multimedia environments on the fly, would you really ask him or her not to?

    All of which leads to my conclusion (finally!):

    Rodrigo is right that, like food and sex, PnP PRGs and computer games are both good, but there are issues with having both at the same time… but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be awesome if we could find a way!

    Two illustrations from Fallout 3:

    First, I am not only very bad at puzzle/quest games, but the version of Fallout 3 that I played was very buggy (for completely non-illegal reasons). I got to level 20 having finished virtually none of the story-lines, but not for lack of trying.

    For example, I learned the secret code word to convince the android who thought he wasn’t an android that he was, in fact, an android. Then I went back to the android, talked to him, and found that there was no dialogue option for telling him the code word. Epic fail. Did I do something wrong? Was the program screwy? I have no way of knowing. In a PnP game, this (insanely frustrating) problem would never have come up. Of course I could have told him the code word. I could have told him anything I wanted, because the GM is actually interacting with me (and not just running a program). Not only that, but the GM would have had a positive motivation (both my enjoyment and the flow of the game) for giving me hints about how to procede. The computer game barely knew I was there.

    Second, the moment right at the beginning of the game in which you come out of the vault and stand on top of the ridge and look out over that enormous panorama of desolate post-apocalyptic city-ruin was one of the most exciting in my long gaming life. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring. I just sat there for something like five minutes (an infinity in computer-game time), doing nothing, just looking, with chills running up and down my spine. This has never happened to me, and I expect never will happen to me, in a PnP RPG. While I have played with extremely skillful GMs who have given me chills with a sudden plot revelation or a particularly effective turn of phrase, it’s simply not the same as that immediately immersive sensory experience.

    If only we could have our cake and screw it too…


    As a staunch defender of PnP RPGs and a (big surprise) great lover of inappropriate and offensive jokes, I can’t help but note that Blackthunder01’s statement “A DM is just as good as a program” rings in my ears like “sex with another person is just as good as masturbation.” While, as I have attempted to show, masturbation can be very, very good, I would nonetheless encourage everyone to ask themselves: “Have I been having sex with the right people?”


  13. Thank you for the nod. To address your question about instant hi-res pictures, since this is an ever evolving technology, I can not truly answer. I have tried in the past to have as many pictures of the monsters we were up against on hand and pictures of the type of terrain the party was crossing on hand, but that experiment failed. It took way to much time to find the pic. And when we did have the right pic, my hunch was right, it took away from the imagination. I think that if the ability of the GM to draw up and instant and correct image were ever introduced, then PnP games would adopt that medium quickly. As an old time player and game master, I hope I would not. We shall see.

  14. It’s like your whole article produced a whole bunch of mini-articles. Anyway, we had this debate way back in High School. If any game where you take the role of a character then, like Star Fox, Madden Football could also be considered an RPG. (Anyone who makes statements like, “but don’t call it an RPG.” is just a hipster in my opinion.) I think what it really takes is a game which story develops enough for you to have feelings towards the other characters than just the one you are portraying. I can connect with someone when we mourn the death of Aeris. These characters could be real life people in an MMO or computer characters from FF. I’ve built strong bonds with guildies in WoW that I have never, and probably will never meet. Just my opinion, don’t want to take from your article, but I like that you actually made a conscious decision to define an RPG for yourself and those around you.

    • I personally think that an RPG is exactly what it says on the tin, or in this case, the dictionary. You play a role. Don’t try and tell me that whilst playing starfox you really pretend you’re a fox-mutant saving the universe, you are merely beating the challenge presented to you by the machine. The characters and plot are there to make you understand the rules and what you’re meant to be doing. CoD could just have enemies who were purple blobs that when they looked at you your character had to do a jig or be teleported ten feet into the sky. The problem with this is that it would be hugely confusing and people would need to read the rule-book to understand what to do. So they have Nazis with guns, and because it anchors itself in reality you understand immediately what to do. The point is this: just because you are controlling a character does not mean you are playing a role, the only way to play a role is to have choices, that actually affect the story of your character’s life, since the story shouldn’t exist until the player(s) play it, 99% of supposed rpgs do this, partly because it’s super hard to do otherwise and create a rich, detailed and intriguing world. The only computer RPG game I’ve ever played was Arcanum, because I was playing a barbarian, even in my mind I was playing one, sometimes making bad choices in-game because of this. the same goes for anything else I could have played.

      Now I must emphasize that RPG’s are not “better” than other games, and I would like to answer the question “what about tabletop rpg’s where the DM railroads the plot, or Rollplaying?”. Welp you’re completely right to question, these aren’t RPG’s in my opinion for exactly the same reason as above.

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