Muses – What is an RPG?

Just by definition, an RPG is a ‘Role Playing Game’ – pretty vague, eh?

When you think about it, you play a Role in every game, so that can’t be what we define an rpg by.

Now, traditional RPGs were games with leveling systems and equipment systems and progression of stats… but those sorts of aspects are found in nearly every genre of game nowadays. From shooters, for example Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, having a leveling system based off of an ‘experience’ value awarded through accomplishments and kills to action games having stat progression to other shooters with detailed equipment and loot systems. So what used to define an ‘RPG’ is no longer a valid term for defining one anymore – because it applies to every genre.

So let’s look back at the first video games we called ‘RPG’s’ and let’s try to find something about them that is a little more focused – something that defined them as much as the above. Sure they had what are typically referred to nowadays as ‘RPG elements’, but more than that they were stories. Stories that were being told to us. Whether you think of the more non-linear style of game found in Betrayal At Krondor or the more linear style popularized by Final Fantasy; the games told us a story. A story that, while you often had sidequests or extra missions, or exploration and leveling and such you could do on the side, was the main purpose of the game. You never really lost sight of what you were doing or why you were doing it. It was your driving force.

So if we take all of the elements that we have here and combine them together, we get what an RPG is to me.

An RPG is a game with a defined story. A story that is the core of the game. The story defines the experience of the game. It is not necessarily everything that happens in the game, but it is the core experience. Once you have the story as the core experience, you then add on the ‘RPG elements’, a progression or leveling system of some sort and an equipment system of some sort.

Take all 3 and you can say you have an RPG by my definition.

This is why I don’t qualify open world experiences like Sacred, like Elder Scrolls, like Amalur to be RPGs. They tend to not have a defined story, they tend to have a hundred(or thousand, or more) little stories that all add up to your experience. There isn’t any one driving story behind them – usually – there may be a ‘core quest’ that is just there to let you know when you’ve ‘finished’ the game; but there’s nothing to make you feel that that is the core of the experience. This is not a bad thing, I don’t want to get people who are excited for Skyrim or Amalur up in arms at me because I promise you, I’m very excited for them too. But I am not excited for it because it’s an RPG – I am excited for it because it looks like an awesome Open World Adventure game – which is what I am from here forward dubbing games of this type. Games like Ultima was back in the day, games like Skyrim and Amalur and Dragon’s Dogma and Monster Hunter. They’re fantastic games. They offer huge potential, massive gameplay experiences, and definitely have a lot to offer. But – by my definition – they aren’t RPGs.

What do you think, readers, do I have a point? Am I completely off my rocker – because people have called me such before I assure you.

What’re your thoughts on what defines an RPG, or where we draw the line as to what is an RPG and what just has RPG elements?



  • I disagree that they are not role playing games at all. I think they are more role playing as you can be your own type of character and actually role-play. When you thing Role-playing outside of gaming you create something that you are not and participate that role and the world around it.

    D&D was exactly this. You create your character, you have a quest to do, but while you do that quest you still have the freedom to shape that world around you.

    When people Role-play, they dress up as other people and characters and pretend to be them by appearance, attitude, etc., and interact in the world around them in that way.

    It is the interaction to the world and the characters the define the role-playing games, not the character. Leveling is definitely the standard, as well as needing different stats for the character, but it shouldn’t be about 1 huge story to define it. A game with 200 quests, each their own story isn’t the same as a game with just 1 large story, it is like smaller 200 games with 1 story all built into one large world that gives the role player the freedom to actually interact with the world how they would in real life.

  • I absolutely see what you’re saying.

    For me, however, as much as I love DND in it’s entirety and I would genuinely love to get a group together and play some good old dnd again… I would classify it more as an open world adventure game, because really… that is what you are doing. You are participating in a giant adventure in an open world that is what you and your GM make of it. I think labling it as an RPG was a misnomer from the start.

    Sure you’re playing a role… but every single game you are playing a role. Everything you do, even your job, you’re playing a role. To define a role playing game as a game where you play a role is to leave this open to sports games, to shooters, to racing games, to every game ever made being a ‘role playing game’.

    I don’t think the interaction is what makes it a role playing game, I think that the ability to interact with everything just makes it more of an open world adventure, because it’s a game in an open world where you get to have your adventure however you want. But that’s what makes RPG such a hard thing to define, everyone has their own take on it and it’s a nearly impossible thing to find middle ground on because the views are so variant. I think a lot of it depends on what you first associated ‘role playing game’ with when you were young.

  • Actually, while thinking about this, I came to a bit of a thought…

    Perhaps a better name than Open World Adventure would be a “Role Building Game”.
    Using my definition for RPG, in an RPG you’re doing the same job as someone who is playing a role in a play. The role is already there, you’re just living it out and adding your own flair to it to make it feel yours.
    In what I’ve been caling an Open World Adventure game, what you’re really doing is creating your own role. You’re building the role, and then seeing where it takes you within the confines of a malleable universe or world. Hence “Role Building Game”.

  • I disagree. But it is up to you on what you believe, but if you start rating things as different genres that what is the norm, you will end up having Final Fantasy called a TBSDRPaPGCG (Turn based Story Driven Role Playing a Pre-Generated Character Game). Slippery slope to start on. I would recommend just sticking with RPG or at least Open World RPG.

  • And I would recommend using ‘open world adventure’…

    I don’t particularly think we’ll degenerate to the point where we’re defining games individually into their own genres as it eliminates the whole point of genres, however… the ‘RPG’ genre has become full of too many vastly disparate experiences that I really think we need to provide a split in there somewhere so that the genres are more descriptive.

    And I really think the games where you play a pre-established role fit ‘role playing’ more than the ones that you create your own, but it really is a matter of opinion there.

    But I do definitely respect the point about using things away from the norm, I don’t think ‘open world adventure’ or ‘open world game’ is too far off the norm, but still far enough that it allows me to differentiate between them on a personal scale.