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Role-Playing Games: An Overview

Notes: This article was first published in issue #1 of Inter*Action.

by Andrew Rilstone

Role-playing games resemble Christianity and science fiction in that any one attempting to define them is guaranteed to make at least three enemies. The very fact that the essays in the Overviews section of Inter*action are drawing a distinction between 'role-playing games', 'live action games' and 'computer games' will offend some people, implying as it does that 'live action role-playing' and 'computer RPGs' are not role-playing games at all.

We are stuck with the fact that people use the phrase 'role-playing' in at least three different senses:

1: To refer to the playing of roles generally: in life, in theatre, in the consulting room.

2: To refer to a wide range of board games, computer games, PBM games and live action games in which players control the actions of fictional characters.

3: To refer, specifically, to a type of interactive narrative of which Amber, Shadowrun and Shatterzone are examples.

Inter*action uses the term 'role-playing game' in this third, narrow sense. Please do not take this as implying any sort of value judgement about the other fields.

It is easy enough to describe a role-playing game in this narrow sense. A group of people sits around a table, with formalized descriptions of imaginary characters on pieces of paper in front of them. There are normally dice on the table, and sometimes even models representing the imaginary characters. Everyone starts talking at once, usually loudly; rolling dice and ignoring the results, and scribbling notes on their 'character sheets'. If an outsider were able to discern what was going on in this hubbub, he would find that it boiled down to a protracted question and answer session between the 'players' and 'referee'. It would not be too much of an imagination to say that the entire role-playing hobby is a series of subtle and complex elaborations of the formula:

Referee: 'What do you do now?'

Player: 'I do such and such'

The outsider would also find that the game occasionally shifted into 'role-playing' in a more conventional sense - the participants improvising conversations between imaginary characters. (In some gaming groups, this 'talking in character' is the be-all and end-all of role-playing games: in others it hardly ever happens.) From this chaos, a more or less well realized story emerges. This story (or the vicarious experience of an imaginary world, which comes to much the same thing) is the purpose of role-playing games.

It is much harder to define what is going on, but one possible definition might run as follows:

A role-playing game is a formalized verbal interaction between a referee and a player or players, with the intention of producing a narrative. This interaction is such that the fictional character (controlled by the player) has complete or nearly complete freedom of choice within the fictional world (controlled by the referee).

What is essential in this definition is the freedom of choice allowed to a player's character, compared with the very limited range of choices available in most computer or boardgames. In any given situation, a character in a role-playing game should be able to take any action that that character would be able to take if that situation were to occur in real life. I wonder whether the distinction between player and referee is a corollary of this - role-playing games require human referees because no one has yet developed a computer or rules system which can allow complete freedom of choice.

These definitions are perhaps over-subtle. For all practical purposes (and much as many of us would like to deny it) we can define role-playing games as 'games directly or indirectly derived from, and bearing a family resemblance to, Dungeons and Dragons.'

Role-playing games in this narrow sense came into being with the publication, in 1974, of a set of three unassuming digest-sized duplicated booklets that became known as Original D&D, written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. They were originally intended as an expansion to a set of medieval battle rules called Chainmail. This bastard parentage came close to strangling the nascent artform at birth. Nearly twenty years on, the role-playing hobby finds it hard to escape from terms like 'campaign' and 'combat round'; from the assumption that combat necessarily implies dice, and from the belief that role-playing games and metal miniatures are inextricably linked.

There is evidence of a shadowy, pre-D&D history of role-playing games. Prof. M. A. R. Barker was using gameplay (albeit of a more traditional wargaming type) to develop his Tekumel world before he encountered D&D. Greg Stafford, having despaired of seeing his fantasy fiction published, conceived of a board wargame, White Bear and Red Moon as a means of exploring his personal world, Glorantha.

If one wishes to look further back then such diverse elements as the ritual re-enactment of tribal myths; the commedia del arte tradition; some of the more deranged pieces of experimental literature in the 50s and 60s and some types of charades and parlour games have all been seen as precursors to role-playing games. The writers of role-playing products, are, for some reason, particularly keen to claim that their games are a direct descendant of the imaginative 'lets pretend' games that virtually all children play[1].

It is debatable whether Gygax and Arneson intended D&D to be a role-playing game in any modern sense. Gary Gygax is markedly hostile to modern developments in interactive narrative, although he has also, incredibly, claimed that he does not perceive much difference between D&D and current products. Certainly, early D&D did not encourage the development of character and plot that are now so central to role-playing games. My own feeling is that Gygax designed D&D to be a personalized, tactical-level miniatures wargame, using the now-familiar setting of the 'dungeon' as its battlefield. As players began to take an interest in their characters as more than painted playing pieces, something resembling 'role-playing' as we would understand it came into being.

The influence of D&D, malign or benevolent, on subsequent role-playing games and elsewhere in the field of interactive fiction can scarcely be over-estimated. Despite there being literally hundreds of different role-playing systems, arcane expressions such as '3rd level cleric' 'experience points' and 'lawful evil' still represent a lingua franca within much of the hobby. The most basic form of D&D adventure - the exploration of an underground complex filled with monsters and treasure - forms the basis for many solo fantasy game-books; the majority of computer adventure and role-playing games, all indoor live action centres (almost by definition), some postal games, a number of board-games, and has arguably influenced TV programmes such as The Crystal Maze and Knightmare. Considering that this rather unlikely and arbitrary formulation has no obvious precursor in legend and literature this is remarkable: all the more so since the publishers of D&D have moved increasingly away from dungeon-based adventures, offering much more sophisticated scenarios, and a number of more or less well developed game worlds.

Even more striking is the way in which all role-playing systems, virtually without exception, continue to bear a family resemblance to D&D. No system has dispensed with character sheets; only one published system has dispensed with dice; virtually all systems describe characters in terms of numerically quantified ratings in various 'attributes' that seem intended to represent a sort of distilled spirit of 'strength', 'dexterity', 'aura', 'technical skill' or whatever. There is tragicomedy in the way that a game like Werewolf, which goes to great lengths to establish its credentials as a politically correct, mature and fashionable product; that defines itself as a story-telling game rather than a role-playing game; that encourages referees to make use of quite sophisticated narrative structures and talks about the psychological effect that the game might have on its players; also contains rules for wargaming miniatures.

A history of the development of the hobby is vastly beyond the scope of this article. If the mechanics of role-playing remain sadly influenced by D&D, the themes and subject matter have changed beyond recognition. Articles of this type often say that there are role-playing games dealing with every conceivable theme. This is only true if you find it difficult to conceive of themes other than space opera, cyberpunk, swords and sorcery, superheroes, survivalists and Gothic horror. Relatively few role-playing games have dealt with westerns, espionage or war stories, and mainstream genres remain all but untouched[2].The styles of play that role-playing games adopt has also mutated and diversified. Games like Ghostbusters encourage a humorous playing style; Star Wars revels in a deliberately unrealistic rules system that encourages players to perform far-fetched, cinematic stunts; Vampire encourages character study, self-exploration and places an emphasis on atmosphere; Amber and the forthcoming Bugtown encourage players to write, paint, or compose music around their character; Middle Earth Roleplaying encourages players to interact with a detailed, complex and realistic interpretation of Tolkien's world. Where D&D promised to be as limitless as your imagination, current role-playing games tend to set themselves extremely narrow briefs: D&D was (supposedly) about all of fantasy: SLA Industries deals with one, specifically constructed future world.

Given this current tendency for 'game' to mean 'world with rules system attached' it is not surprising that a present trend is to produce rules systems (e.g. GURPS, The Amazing Engine) that can be applied to a number of different worlds; and to create 'worlds' (TORG, Dream Park, Rifts) that are specifically created to allow players characters to shift between genres. Arguably, market forces have dictated this trend towards single-world systems: companies need to sell products, and they can best achieve this by creating 'brand-loyalty' to a particular world. At present, this seems to be working to the customers' advantage: the range of richly detailed game-worlds available offers a positive embarrassment of riches.

Perhaps unfortunately, no thumbnail history of the hobby can avoid a mention of the Games Workshop phenomenon, even though they themselves have long declared their independence, avowing themselves to be the promoters of the Games Workshop Hobby. GW were one of the first companies to import D&D into England in the 1970s, but since the middle of the 80s, have produced and sold exclusively their own, rather narrow range of games.

With GW, gaming has come full-circle, since what has made them rich - second only to TSR - is science fiction and fantasy miniatures wargaming. Their powerful 'cybergoth' imagery, the club atmosphere in their shops and some very careful marketing, as well as good design in the actual games has made their products extremely popular to the teen market. They also have no role-playing content whatsoever, despite sometimes describing themselves as '3D roleplay' games.

Role-playing enthusiasts have been claiming for some time that GW sounds the death knell of role-playing games, as the company directs potential players away from role-playing games and towards fantasy wargaming, or, conversely, that it represents a potential renaissance because Workshop players will start playing traditional role-playing games as they mature. The truth, ten years on, is that it has made very little difference to anybody.

Role-playing games, like other forms of interactive narrative, represent a fundamental blurring of the distinction between creator and consumer, between story-teller and listener. Unlike other forms of interactive narrative, they can, in theory, be played with no tools and virtually no financial outlay: all that is necessary is that there be interaction between a player and a referee. As such, they have the possibility to become a truly popular artform with individuals and small groups creating virtual worlds for their own enjoyment. If one believes that this is a laudable aim, one should perhaps regard the growing commercialization of what was once a cottage industry, and the tendency of role-playing gamers to embrace every new technological advance, with a healthy amount of suspicion.


1. I cherish the idea that when little Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontė started to pass the time in Haworth vicarage by spinning an elaborate fantasy world around a collection of lead miniatures that they found in the attic, they not only changed the direction of the English novel, they also invented the first role-playing game.

2. The only exceptions I am aware of are Alma Mater, (which deals with American teen culture) and the licensed Dallas game, which was only borderline role-playing in any case. Steve Jackson's monumental GURPS meta-system has provided background books on a large number of historical settings, but even here, the reliance on SF and fantasy themes is striking.

Copyright 1994 Andrew Rilstone

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