Over on his blog, Coyote has a fascinating article on defining an RPG. In fact, this is his second attempt to come up with a definitive description.
He breaks this down into what might be called “true” and “false” indicators. With the “true” ones, I’m in complete agreement. When we get to the false ones, though, it’s a little different.
RPGS Must Fantasy-Oriented. Here, I do concur this is a false statement. The majority of RPGs are set in some quasi-feudal milieu, but that’s not the only possibility.
Coyote mentions Fallout, and to that we can add the “daddy” of it, namely Wasteland. We can also add in SSI’s Buck Rogers (surprisingly good). In fact, given how popular Fallout was, it’s amazing more SF-oriented games didn’t follow.
RPGs Must Have A Story. Coyote thinks RPGs don’t need a story. I disagree. Without a story, RPGs are just dungeon crawls, modified shooters. Which brings us to this one:
RPGs Must Be Combat-Oriented. They don’t have to dwell on combat, but there certainly needs to be some action. Of course, it’s possible to have an RPG without combat. But then, what would keep anyone playing? Story, perhaps?
If a game has no story and no combat, what’s the point of playing? Where is the interest? How would players advance? What, in fact, would they be doing? Talking through the game? Ah, but then we have:
RPGS Must Have A Conversation/Quest/Equipment System. Coyote says no, those are not part of an RPG. Well, gosh. Now we have a game with no combat, no story, no conversations, nothing to do, and no inventory.
The real problem is that Coyote hasn’t addressed a very important factor. It’s one we’ve discussed before, and you’ve probably guessed what it is. ROLE-playing. Yes, that little four-letter word: role.
There is more to a true RPG than mechanics, which is mostly what his article is about. Once upon a time, in the early computing days, many RPGs were just dungeon crawls. The venerable Wizardry is a prime example.
The only “story” it had was: “Werdna stole my amulet and I want it back”. The closest to role-playing it ever got was those occasions when you met a party of monsters not immediately hostile. Good parties would just move on; evils were expected to attack, and neutrals could do either, though too much of one or the other could shift alignment.
Role-playing is more than that. You have a character. Its physical traits are determined by a bunch of numbers. But its personality, its world-view, and how it interacts with that world, is determined by the player.
Hacking through hordes of enemies is only one form of interaction, and the most primitive. Role-playing can only happen when there is a “real” world with situations and people with which (or against which) the player can express the personality of the character.
“Role” is more than merely a class or profession. It is the complete character, as envisioned by the player, and so acted out in the game.
So Coyote, you’re getting there ;). But you do have to address this. After all, the very first word in RPG is “role”.