“What is a role playing game?”, A Mini Rant


Every RPG I’ve ever purchased includes a section near the beginning called something along the lines of “What is a role playing game?” Usually it will state that if you are already familiar with role playing games then you can skip ahead. For some reason I never do. As a result, I’ve read dozens of variations on this same damned theme. Frankly, I’ve begun to question the inclusion of such sections. Here’s why.

  1. Definition sections create mental barriers. By feeling the need to explain what an RPG is, it immediately sets up the idea for the reader that the game is somehow “different.” As we all know “different” is often perceived as “difficult” or “scary”, which is the exact opposite of these sections’ intentions. Look at rules for board or card games. Do they include a section called “What is a board/card game?”. Do they feel the need to set themselves apart by defining their type of game? No. They simply state the goals, the materials needed and the steps for game play. So why can’t the same be done for RPGs?
  2. Definition sections frequently trivialize the game. A majority of the “What is…” sections that I’ve read have equated role playing games to kids playing pretend. While I do not deny this connection, that association makes RPGs sound childish or immature. There are better associations to make to get the same point across. “RPGs are like structured improvisation.” “RPGs are like collaborative storytelling.” “RPGs are like taking part in an interactive movie.” Whatever. By opting to liken RPGs to “playing pretend” I feel a portion of the reading audience will be alienated, not wanting to take part in something puerile. Recruiting players into the hobby is hard enough without having to overcome that sort of prejudice.
  3. Definition sections are repetitive. Yes, I understand that new players won’t feel that way. Yes, I understand that I feel this way because I’ve read so many of them. That doesn’t change the fact that they are indeed repetitive. With so many definitions available in so many sources, why not simply refer to one of them? If you feel you must include a definition, I say make it short and sweet and then refer the reader to a longer, better definition. (I.e., “A role playing game is a system for collaborative storytelling. For a more in-depth definition, see the ‘Role-playing game’ page on Wikipedia.com.”) This would free up a good chunk of space and would give the reader a resource for further study.

This subject comes to my mind now because I’m in the midst of editing my own game. I had previously included a “What is…” section in the beginning. Upon reflection, I’m taking it out. I’ve decided to replace it with a section that is more closely akin to the structure of board game rules. I want my reader to have a sense of familiarity and inclusion, not a section that belittles the game and alienates the reader.
Role playing games have been around for nearly 40 years now. How long must we continue to describe and re-describe the type of games we love so much? I say it’s time that we stop feeling the need to define RPGs. I say it’s time to leave the definitions to dictionaries and encyclopedias and just get on with our games.


Posted in Game Design

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *