When trying to compose comprehensive lists of Role-Playing Games (RPGs henceforth) for a particular platform, or even when reviewing a particular game, one is often faced with the difficulty of deciding into what category to put that game (i.e. is this game actually an RPG?). For some cases, it's easy - games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Wizardry, are what comes to mind when one speaks of CRPGs. It's when venturing forth from the small circle of "classic" RPGs, that lines start to blur. What about games that add an action element? Does Diablo or The Legend of Zelda count as an RPG? Does Gauntlet? When do games cross over into the realms of adventure games, or merely fantasy-flavored action games? What about puzzle or strategy games that have RPG elements? As you can see, the question of whether or not a game can be classified as an RPG is somewhat difficult, and many people take the pornography approach to identifying RPGs.
What does a game need to be an RPG?
What do all role-playing games have in common, whether computer-based, tabletop or live-action?
The first element might seem obvious, but will become important when talking about strategy games - RPGs involve taking on a role, assuming the identity of a well-defined character (or a party of characters). Second, all RPGs have a system of combat abstraction - a way to simplify and simulate the outcome of various conflicts. Finally, the characters grow and evolve over the course of time, both in the story sense and within the game system.
1. Playing a Role
The 'role' part of RPGs, the taking on of identity, while taken for granted among the classical RPGs, becomes a useful distinction on the outskirts of the RPG realm, because it often makes a difference between classifying a game as an RPG, or grouping it with other game types. Having a strong central character (or a changing party of charactes, such as in Final Fantasy VI) is not sufficient for a game to be classified an RPG, but is necessary. Playing a named, explicitly present leader is what makes WarCraft III a tactical RPG, whereas the previous WarCraft I & II are pure real time strategy games (RTSs).
2. Combat Abstraction
Combat abstraction (your skills vs. your character's skills) is the critical distinction; this is one of main things that separate RPGs from the other kinds of games. Think of it as a continuum - on one end, where the Action games reside, actual player motor skill is what determines the outcome of battle. Towards the other end, in the realm of D&D and Final Fantasy, combat is abstracted, and its outcome depends on a number of factors, such as the player's tactical decisions, character "stats" and equipment, and random factors. Outside the scope of CRPGs, a similar distinction holds. On the abstract end of the spectrum, one finds tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, Fudge, Shadowrun and Star Wars. In these games, a player can say "I attack the troll", and the fates of both assailant and victim are determined by statistics and dice. On the opposite, more action-oriented, end, one finds the live action RPGs (LARPs) such as NERO and Dagorhir. In these types of live-action games, to attack the said troll, an armor-clad player would physically pull out a sword (typically made out of PVC and padded with foam), and the combatants would procede to bludgeon each other until one of them "died" or fled (think fencing crossed with American Gladiators).
3. Character Advancement
Character advancement goes hand in hand with combat abstraction (in fact, is part of its implementation), and further helps distinguish action games from RPGs. The concept can refer to the hero's journey, in the sense of story and character development. It also refers to the improvement of the character sheet - finding treasure, learning skills, raising stats. This kind of statistical improvement is partially a substitute for the sharpening of skills and reflexes of the player (which is how most action games handle improvement).
The individual system for advancement is different for each game. Some games use power-up items to raise those stats (Castlevania II, Gauntlet, River City Ransom). Other games have no explicit stats at all (e.g. The Legend of Zelda), and characters must find better armor, weapons and items to improve their chances.
The vast majority of RPGs, however, use experience points to gain levels, which brings them higher stats, more abilities and magic.
Keep these three elements in mind - playing the role of a well-defined character, combat abstraction, and character advancement - as we explore the space of all RPGs in the next section. The elements are not rules set in stone; their primary purpose is to aid and give structure to judgement calls when determining into which category to place an RPG.
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Credits and thanks go to:
amib, for suggestions and clarifications.