“a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures, typically in a particular computerized fantasy setting overseen by a referee.” – Google search
“A role-playing game (sometimes spelled roleplaying game and abbreviated to RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.” – Wikipedia
These definitions are the first you’ll find with a Google search. They are accurate but only to a point. Defining role-playing games can be challenging because of confusion like this. For your consideration, then, this is my definition:
A role-playing game is a free-form, open-world, cooperative game in which participants take on one of several roles, represented through avatars or characters in the game, with the purpose of achieving one of several goals, which may be variously defined by the game rules or by the players themselves, by overcoming the obstacles and challenges presented to them by the game master, a participant who is responsible for designing the world-setting and game rules, and for acting as the interpreter and adjudicator of the world-setting for the players.
There’s a lot going on there, I know. Let’s examine it in greater detail.
There are two primary participants in a role-playing game: player and game master (GM). Typically, a game only requires one GM. All other participants are players.
The player is responsible for the actions of their avatar or character. This is commonly referred to as the player character (PC). Most players only have one PC under their control at one time; certain circumstances or game systems will call for additional PCs to be controlled by one or more players. The player is responsible for directing the actions of his character(s) and for keeping track of their progress through the game.
The game rules prescribe specific PC traits, skills and abilities. These are organized according to different roles or classes; the details for each will depend on the genre, world-setting and core game mechanics. For example, a space-opera game may have roles like pilot, hacker or dilettante, while a high-fantasy game may have warriors, rogues and wizards. Some traits are common to all PCs, like Strength or Dexterity. Some traits are possessed by certain roles; warriors are skilled with most weapons, armor and shields, while wizards are not.
The players operate as a team, sometimes called a party or crew (or other genre-appropriate term), and collectively and individually define goals for the game, then work to achieve those goals. The game master opposes these goals by placing obstacles in the way. These obstacles should be a fair and natural extension of the world-setting.
The Game Master
The GM is responsible for both the world-setting and the game rules system. The most direct option for the GM is to purchase an RPG and use the rules as-is. However, few published games have robust or dynamic rules, and no games have complete rules. At some point, every GM has to create her own rules (commonly referred to as house-rules, though if a GM creates enough house-rules, her game will become a unique creation). Many published games come packaged with a world-setting; others are supported by primary and third-party products. Regardless, whether a GM uses a published world or makes her own, over time her game will evolve to the point where it is tailored for her players.
The GM acts as the eyes and ears for the PCs in her world. The players cannot perceive the game world the same way they can the real world, so it is incumbent on the GM to be as direct and succinct as possible, taking into account the limitations of the PCs. For example, if an assassin is stalking the PCs, it is certainly in their interest to learn of his presence and to avoid his attack; but it may be inappropriate for the GM to inform the players of the assassin without first checking to see if the PCs are capable of noticing him. Likewise, there are times when certain details about the world are not immediately relevant, such as in the middle of a fight, and the GM must take care to identify pertinent information and convey it to the players.
The game master provides information and details about the game world to the players. The players state their characters’ actions and the GM interprets, adjudicates and/or resolves those actions; the GM then provides new information to the players with an emphasis on how their actions have affected the world around them, and the cycle continues. This back-and-forth exchange is a constant dynamic in a role-playing game with no real end; it lasts as long as the game continues.
Finally, just as the players are responsible for the actions of their PCs, the GM is responsible for the actions of all the non-player characters (NPCs) in the world. This includes setting motivations and goals; deciding how the NPCs go about achieving their goals; playing the NPCs during interactions with the PCs; etc. She also determines such mundane details about the world as the weather, the length of a day or week, or the likelihood of extreme events like natural disasters.
The Game Rules and the World-Setting
The GM is responsible for deciding on the rules before a game session; for creating new rules in between game sessions; and for adjudicating situations during a session where no clear rule exists. The GM must ensure she is fair in applying her rules. The rules serve as a guide for the players. They base their decisions and actions in part on the knowledge that the game’s rules are consistent. All the world’s inhabitants operate according to the same set of rules; NPCs and PCs alike are all characters in the world and must obey the same laws. One way to think of a game’s rules is to compare them to the laws of physics: all bodies and elements in the real world obey these laws.
The world-setting has a strong influence on the types of rules in the game. For example, high-fantasy settings typically have magic as a strong presence or element of the world. Rules for these settings require a magic system that covers the acquisition of, employment of and defense against magic. A space-opera setting, on the other hand, will require rules for advanced technology and spaceflight. These rules do not need to conform to the physical laws of the real world. Indeed, it’s possible that a world-setting has such outlandish physical laws as to be virtually unrecognizable to us in the real-world. What matters in all games is that these laws are consistent. Players, being human beings who have only ever personally experienced this world, cannot know the game world except through their real-world experience; thus, while the world-setting’s laws may be alien to us, we can learn them from their relationship to the rules and through their application in the game.
The world-setting in an RPG is an open-world concept. In computer RPGs, this is referred to as a sandbox game; the player is free to direct his avatar where he chooses, and to engage in whichever activity he chooses, within the limits of the game’s structure. Traditional RPGs have the advantage that the edge of the world-setting is limited only by the participants’ imagination. As the GM is responsible for the world-setting, she can choose to limit the world’s structure; all that is required is that the players have the freedom to say, “We want to go over there,” even if “over there” is somewhere that the GM has not fully defined.
Conflict Resolution and Character Rewards
A role-playing game has rules for all kinds of situations (and, very often, won’t have rules for specific situations until the GM creates them). One set of rules that all role-playing games must have is conflict resolution. Players determine their goals and the GM sets obstacles in their path, hindering their ability to achieve their goals; therefore, the rules have to allow for a means to resolve this conflict. The majority of RPGs focus on combat rules as their primary conflict resolution system (CRS). The PCs’ traits, skills and abilities are closely tied to the CRS. The specifics of each CRS can vary widely one from the other (even within the same game), but all use a random element to account for chance and variability in a given situation. The most common random element is dice but other methods exist, such as a deck of cards or a computer program. Regardless of the method used, all participants must adhere to a randomly determined result, regardless of the outcome. Anything else represents inconsistency and favoritism, and inhibits the players’ ability to fairly judge and know the world-setting.
All RPGs have a character reward and advancement system. When PCs face obstacles and challenges, they work to overcome them (by fighting, out-witting, out-maneuvering, etc.). As the PCs defeat these challenges, they are rewarded with a metric used to track their advancement. For example, Dungeons&Dragons gives experience points to characters who defeat opponents in battle. As the characters gather experience, they advance through various levels, and acquire new and better traits, skills and abilities. Call of Cthulhu also gives experience points but this experience is spent, like currency, on advancing specific skills instead of an entire level worth of abilities.
The reward system encourages certain actions and therefore a certain style of play. D&D awards combat and killing your opponents (and taking their possessions, in earlier versions of the game), often leading to a sort of pathological approach to the game. A modern spy game, by contrast, might reward PCs only when they accomplish their end-goals, thus encouraging players to seek the most direct route to success. Like any other rule in the game, the GM can change the reward system as she sees fit but must remain consistent in how she applies it.
Goal Setting and Player Agency
Players require motivation in order to participate in an RPG. There are many different ways to motivate players, just as there are many different types of players and motivators. Concerning RPGs, there are two general motivators: the reward system and the players’ goals. The reward system is the explicit motivator; the rules prescribe rewards for specific actions, thus encouraging players to take those actions during the course of a game. In contrast, the players may set goals for themselves within the context of the game and the world-setting. They will work to achieve those goals (or abandon them) as they see fit; any reward they receive will be defined by the context of the situation.
It is possible for the GM to set goals for the players. This often happens when GMs are working through the early stages of their careers; being new to the game, or running in a new world-setting, the GM may not have the ability to react properly to any and all player defined goals. She may impose restrictions on player goals until such time as her skills or world have advanced. Doing so, however, risks inhibiting the players to the point where their agency is compromised. When this happens, the game shifts away from an RPG; in other words, in order to play an RPG, the players must have the freedom to decide their own goals, actions and agendas.