Role-playing game

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A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which each player assumes the role of a fictional character and through this character, interactively experiences adventures and other situations in a fictional world. Role-playing games are a popular application of conworlds.

The most popular genre in role-playing games is high fantasy, but other genres such as dark fantasy, horror, cyberpunk science fiction, space opera as well as historic or present-day settings are found as well.

There are three main kinds of role-playing games: pencil and paper (also called tabletop) RPGs, live action role-playing (LARP), and computer RPGs (CRPGs).

Pencil and paper role-playing

Pencil and paper (or tabletop) RPGs are the oldest modern role-playing games. The game proceeds by a combination of conversation (each player announces what his character says and does), dice rolling (to reach random decision) and, optionally, moves on a map. Each player records the game-relevant data of his character (strength, intelligence, skill levels etc.) on a character sheet; these values may change during play. Usually, one player functions as a game master (GM), who does not play an individual character, but is in charge of the world the characters live in. This is a demanding and creative task and should be taken over by an experienced player.

A pencil and paper RPG consists of two components: the game system and the game world. The game system consists of the rules and statistics of the game which serves to represent the events of the game in a playable way, while the game world is the conworld in which the events of the game are imagined to take place.

History of pencil and paper RPGs

The first generation: Beginnings

The first publshed game of this kind was Dungeons & Dragons (often abbreviated D&D), a fantasy-themed game invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and published by TSR, Inc. in 1974. D&D drew from many sources, but the most important of these was the Middle-earth legendarium by J. R. R. Tolkien (even though the authors liked to downplay the importance of this source). Since then, Tolkiensque fantasy, nicknamed "EDO" (from "Elves, Dwarves, Orcs") among roleplayers, has been the most popular genre in role-playing games. Some similar games, such as Tunnels & Trolls, appeared in the next years.

The second generation: Simulationism

The rules of D&D were rather simple and crude. There was a rigid character class system which left little room for character individualization, and little realism in the rules. In the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, a number of games appeared on the market which attempted a more detailed and realistic simulation of the game world. Typical of these games were elaborated skill systems, detailed and complex combat rules, and good coverage of a number of non-combat situations. Popular games of this kind are Traveller (1977; the most popular science fiction RPG of all times), RuneQuest (1978; came with a colurful fantasy world, Glorantha, that differs much from the common Tolkienian game worlds), Rolemaster (1980) and Middle-earth Role-Playing (1984; a somewhat simplified version of Rolemaster using Middle-earth as game world). TSR released Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

The third generation: Streamlining and new concepts

One of the most popular RPGs of the late 1980s was GURPS (1986), a universal role-playing game usable for any genre. The game is a modular, streamlined version of a simulationist game, with a simple rule core and a large number of optional rules for more detailed realism. Another innovation of GURPS is that characters are built by assigning character points to attributes, advantages, disadvantages and skills instead of random genernation. There are also no character classes. Other third-generation games that deserve mention are Shadowrun (1989), a cross between cyberpunk SF and EDO fantasy, and Ars Magica (1987), in which the players play wizards in Mythic Europe, a version of Medieval Europe where folk tales are true and magic works, characterized by an innovative magic system.

The fourth generation: Narrativism

In 1991, White Wolf released Vampire: the Masquerade (V:tM), the first game of the World of Darkness series. The game, wherein the player characters are vampires, laid focus on narration and was branded a "storytelling game". V:tM became hugely popular, especially within the Gothic subculture which previously had not shown much affinity to role-playing games. Further World of Darkness games, in which the player characters are various other monstrous creatures and which used the same game mechanics, were published by White Wolf in the following years. Another remarkable game of this period is Amber (1991), a diceless role-playing game.

After 1995

After 1995, the pencil-and-paper RPG hobby went into a recession, as many players moved to computer games or simply gave up the hobby under the pressure of job and family gobbling up their time resources (most roleplayers were young, most often students), and comparably few younger people take up this hobby these days. Still, new games appear on the market, such as the very rules-light FATE and the cinematic, story-focused Savage Worlds.

Live action role-playing

In live action role-playing (LARP) the players do not sit at a gaming table, but act out the game situations with props and costumes in a live action setting. Obviously, this mode of role-playing offers a much more intense experience of the game world and the events therein. The drawback of LARP is cost; while in a pencil and paper game, the limits of what can be enacted in the game are set only by the imaginations of the players and the GM, in a LARP game, everything costs real money, and most LARP events do not have the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster crew.

Computer role-playing games

The idea behind computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is to have a computer act as a GM. Using a computer as a GM is appropriate to some aspects of game mastering (bookkeeping about the game world; doing the math associated with the rules, especially in combat), but less so to others (a good game master requires creativity and readiness for improvisation). This means that CRPGs are limited to what has been programmed into the game (though what can be programmed into modern games is so vast that the player barely feels the limits).

There are basically two varieties of CRPGs: single-player games run on a single computer, and are played by a single person, while multi-player games are played over a computer network (nowadays, usually the Internet) with each player playing his own character, and the characters interacting with each other over the network. (To some multi-player gamers, the actual gaming activities such as solving quests actually take a back seat to socializing with other players.)

There are also cultural and technological differences between western CRPGs (from the Americas and Europe) and eastern CRPGs (from East Asian countries, especially Japan). Western CRPGs render the game world in a serious and realistic style, and are usually developed for personal computers. Eastern CRPGs feature graphics in a manga/anime style, often to the point of cuteness, and targeted to game consoles. However, crossovers exist.

History of CRPGs

Western single-player games

You may think that CRPGs could not have appeared before computers became affordable household appliances in the 1980s, but in fact, the first CRPGs were clandestinely developed by university students on university mainframes in the mid-1970s (of course, wasting the valuable CPU cycles of the mainframe on a game was illegal, and the activity had to be hidden from the admin staff who would swiftly delete any game program they found on their machine). The earliest CRPG whose code has survived was dnd (1975). A very influential early CRPG was Rogue (1980), which spawned a whole sub-genre of rogue-like games.

One of the first commercial CRPGs for personal computers was Akalabeth (1979) by Richard Garriott, who later developed the popular Ultima series of CRPGs. Besides Ultima, popular CRPG series of the 1980s were Wizardry and The Bard's Tale. Since then, the history of CRPGs has been one of utilizing the rapidly increasing capabilities of personal computers to build larger and more detailed game worlds, to render these game worlds more realistically, and to offer a more fluent and sophisticated gameplay.

Eastern single-player games

A distinct eastern style of CRPGs evolved in Japan in the 1980s. Unlike western games, eastern games follow the graphical conventions of manga and anime. In many games, the characters are outright cute (kawai), which strikes westerners but not Japanese as juvenile. Because game consoles are more popular in the Far East than personal computer gaming, most eastern CRPGs are developed for game consoles rather than personal computers. This affected gameplay, as a game console has no keyboard and no mouse, but game controllers. Examples of Eastern CRPGs are Dragon Quest and the Final Fantasy series which also became very popular in the western world.

Multi-player games

The first multi-player CRPGs were multi-user dungeons (MUDs), which were played on university campus networks around 1980. Later, MUDs were offered on bulletin board systems and then on the Internet where they were popular in the early 1990s. These games usually have a text-based interface resembling a Zork-style adventure game; in some MUDs, the game world can be extended by players who have reached a certain level of experience. The frugal user interfaces prevented MUDs from becoming a mass-market phenomenon, but some are still in operation today.

A more modern type of multi-player CRPGs are massive multi-player online RPGs (MMORPGs). These offer the sophisticated graphics and gameplay known from modern single-player CRPGs. The first such game was Neverwinter Nights, which ran on AOL from 1990 to 1997. In 1997, Ultima Online was one of the first popular MMORPGs on the Internet, to be followed by Everquest (1999), Final Fantasy XI (2002, one of the first eastern MMORPGs) and World of Warcraft (2004).

Comparison with tabletop RPGs and LARP

Modern CRPGs offer a realistic graphical rendition of the scene, allowing a more intense experience than tabletop games (though less so than LARP). On the other hand, single-player CRPGs are a solitary rather than social activity, and even in multi-player online games, the social aspect is mediated via the computer network and thus less immediate than in other kinds of RPGs. Another drawback of CRPGs is that computers lack the creativity and improvisational skill of a good human game master.


Main article: Languages in role-playing games

Many role-playing games mention the languages of the people in the game world, and usually include game mechanics for them, but these languages are rarely actually elaborated; rather, descriptions such as The Elvish language is very subtle and musical or The language of Earth elementals sounds like speaking with a mouth full of pebbles are the norm. Where the languages actually are elaborated, they are often of the simplest kind (and often show little to nothing of the features ascribed to them); well-designed conlangs are rare. Also, most elaborations of RPG languages are not officially licensed publications, but fan products. Of course, well-elaborated, self-contained conlangs would be a major inconvenience to the players - who wants to learn a language in order to play a game?


A common criticism of role-playing games is that most role-playing games focus mainly on combat, and few games even offer the possibility of non-violent solutions. In the 1990s, there was a movement among European pencil-and-paper roleplayers to develop non-violent game settings and adventures, but this current did not last long, and more violent modes of roleplaying reclaimed their dominance. This development never filtered into CRPGs, which have always been combat-centered.

A related issue is that of racism in game worlds. In many role-playing games, there are "evil" races such as orcs, trolls or "dark elves" that can (and should) be killed with impunity whenever they are encountered. This is a notion dangerously close to real-world racism, even if the concept of "race" in role-playing games is admittedly a different one than in real life (in terms of most role-playing games, all human beings are members of a single human race, as opposed to Elves, Dwarves or aliens).

Computer role-playing games, especially MMORPGs, are also often criticized as being potentially addictive. There are many documented cases of addiction to such games. One factor contributing to addiction to MMORPGs is that the events in the game continue to unfold even when the player is offline. Computer game addiction, however, is not limited to CRPGs. There does not seem to be a major addiction problem with pencil-and-paper RPGs and LARP, mainly because these games are usually not played on a daily basis. Most pencil-and-paper RPG groups meet only once per week if not less frequently, and LARP is limited to a few events per year.

Related games

There are a number of games similar to role-playing games but without much roleplaying; however, the boundaries are not always easy to draw.

Tabletop wargames

Tabletop wargames are the main ancestor of role-playing games. They were first developed in the early 19th century and used for training army officers, but later became a popular hobby, especially in the United States (in war-torn Europe, they were understandably less popular). Most wargames have historical or contemporary themes, but in the late 1960s, the first fantasy and science fiction wargames appeared. Two of these, Chainmail by Gary Gygax and Blackmoor by Dave Arneson, were the parent games of Dungeons & Dragons.

The main differences between tabletop wargames and role-playing games are:

  • In a tabletop wargame, each player controls an army (or a smaller military unit) rather than an individual character, and the members of this army are not individualized.
  • There is no notion of character development.
  • A tabletop wargame is almost entirely focused on combat, while role-playing games often involve many non-combat activities.

Computer strategy games

A computer strategy game is like a tabletop wargame, except that it is played out on a computer. As with CRPGs, there are single-player and multi-player games.

Adventure board games

An adventure board game is a board game which shows some similarity with role-playing games, but in simplified and more abstract form and without the aspect of character development that is central to RPGs. In such a game, the players compete in accomplishing a quest. Examples are HeroQuest (there is also an - unrelated - RPG of that name) and Talisman.

Computer adventure games

Computer adventure games are similar to CRPGs in that the player moves in a virtual world, but they usually lack character development and are more focussed on solving a particular task. However, the boundary between adventure games and CRPGs is blurry.

Adventure game books

An adventure game book is essentially a computer adventure game without a computer. An adventure game book works like programmed learning: there are numbered sections, each of which describes a scene or event, and gives a number of choices (dice-rolled or free to the player); when the player has made a choice, he continues with the indicated section.