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A commonly expressed complaint about MMORPGs, and computer RPGs in general, are that they are not really “roleplaying” games.  This type of commentary has tapered off somewhat in the past few years, but it can still be found regularly if you cruise various forums and commentary sites.  It almost invariably leads to some form of argument, as someone disagrees, and another person notes that they could roleplay in some other “non-RP” game, but not in this one, and so on, and so forth…

I’ve had occasion in the past week or so to be a part of a few discussions with a variety of gamers (both computer and “traditional”) on the topic of “roleplaying”.  It would seem, based on that (limited) feedback, that there is still a significant disconnect between various “types” of gamers, in terms of just what a “roleplaying game” is.

Computer gamers are generally comfortable calling a game a roleplaying game if allows for

  • the advancement of ability of a single individual/entity in significant ways (via levels, skills, equipment); and
  • direct player control of said individual/entity.

There is some grey around the edges, but that generally sums up the aspects that come to mind for the computer-centric gamer.  They may still disagree whether a specific title that has those elements is “really an RPG”, however.

In the pen-and-paper RPG world, the definitions are somewhat different, and much more “fuzzy”.  There is no stated requirement for an advancement model of any sort, although it is generally preferred.   Direct control of one’s character is an expectation, but occasional loss of control and indirect control of other entities is expected as well.  Some form of human GM/referee/judge is usually assumed as well, tho exceptions are allowed and noted… in general, there is no one trait that is accepted as central to the experience, more like a “2 out of 3 is close enough” philosophy seems to rule the day.

Regardless, long time pen-and-paper roleplayers generally scoff at the majority of computer RPGs (especially MMOs) that refer to themselves as roleplaying games, but cannot generally identify, if pressed, what exactly is missing… the common quote is “it’s just not the same”.

LARPers are a subset of roleplaying gamers even further removed from the computer RPGs of today.  My one contact with that style of play says it’s the “lack of immersion” that turns him off to computer games, and makes him question whether it is roleplaying: he doesn’t feel like he’s part of the setting, but instead just observing it.  He also mentioned lack of interpersonal interaction as an issue. 

As someone who has been long familiar with both pen-and-paper and computer gaming, and who loves both, I have my own definition of what roleplaying is, of course.  I think I’ve written about this before, but I’ll just plow ahead here and repeat myself, and open it up for discussion if anyone is interested.

Short and sweet: interactive storytelling.  Roleplaying is allowing a player to tell his/her own story, within an established setting, and preferably in conjunction with other players doing the same thing.

MMOs and CRPGs generally fall short because they don’t allow the player to tell their own story… instead, they largely hand the player a script to act out.  To me, games like Wasteland/Fallout, Obsidian, UO, and SWG, (“sandbox” games?) earned their kudos as roleplaying games simply because they provided levels of flexibility that allowed very wide ranges of people to create/tell their own story within the setting they provided.

The source of statements like “PvP is required for roleplaying”, and how multiple people can hold multiple opinions on the subject ranging from agreement to disdain, are explained by this definition as well.  The story Player A wants to tell requires PvP; Player B’s story does not… of course they will disagree about how “necessary” it is for roleplaying, if my definition is correct.

So, what do you think?  Am I somewhat on-target, or way off-base?  And regardless… do you think MMOs are (or can be) roleplaying games, and what features do you look for to accept a game as an RPG?


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