That’s Not a Freaking Role-playing Game!

As I’ve mentioned here before, my first love in hobby gaming is definitely roleplaying games (RPG’s).  Starting from the time I was 9 years old, I and my friends would regularly occupy our minds with all sorts of fantastical worlds and dramatic happenings as we played through a long and varied series of RPG’s.  And even now, given the adequate time, appropriate gaming partners, and available mental bandwidth, a good roleplaying session will satisfy me in ways that even the best, deepest, and most immersive boardgames can’t begin to touch.

And it is out of that deep and abiding love and passion and history for and with RPG’s that I cry out in frustration when I hear people say things like, “The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is practically an RPG.”  Because you know what, the freaking Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is not a freaking RPG!  It’s a freaking card game, potentially even a very good one, but from what I’ve read, there’s no actual roleplaying involved anywhere in the actual rules of the actual game.

Now, I’m certainly not trying to pick on the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game specifically, because it’s not its fault that people make this false claim.  And it’s also certainly not alone, since I’ve heard the same basic thing said about many other decidedly non-roleplaying games like Mansions of Madness, Descent, Battlestar Galactica, Arkham Horror, and lots of other stuff.  And way before that, the real root of this whole problem stems from the complete bastardization of the term “RPG” by the videogame industry.

Because when people say things like this about a boardgame, what they usually mean is that it may include concepts or elements like character stats, role specialization, character experience and advancement, hit points/ablative damage, skills and abilities, immersive theme (especially involving fantasy, sci-fi, or horror), tactical combat, polyhedral dice, long-term/campaign play, having a Dungeon Master/Keeper/moderator-like person, and/or some measure of storytelling.

But the thing is, while many actual RPG’s also include these same exact elements, these devices and mechanics are not what make them roleplaying games.  Instead, they are merely the mechanics, structures, trappings, and/or thematic choices made to give a framework to and support the actual roleplaying that happens in these games.

So what then actually defines roleplaying?  Here are some of things that I think are more or less essential:

• Collaborative, not competitive – while there can certainly be some challenge and occasional competitive elements in RPG’s, at its core, roleplaying is a shared storytelling experience between all the players around the table.

Assuming a Role – to roleplay, you have to assume a role.  The player both makes choices to define what that role is (e.g. character creation) and then to show how that role would act (i.e. acting “in character”).  This can be done through a number of different stances, such as 1st-person dialog, 3rd person narration of action, or even 1st person improvisational acting.    

Freedom of choice – whether it makes sense or not, is in character or not, supports the story or not, players should have the freedom to make pretty much any choice that there character could make in “real life”.  Whether it’s improvisation in combat, going off in a different direction than the GM planned, or making an unexpected argument when debating with an NPC, true roleplaying is not scripted.

Agency – and circling back around to the first bullet point, the thing that makes an RPG collaborative is that the choices made by the players shape and influence the story which unfolds during the game  

And just to jump into a related side rant, it also irritated the snot out of me back when D&D 4th edition came out and people kept saying stupid things like, “it’s practically a boardgame.”  Now, I don’t even like 4th edition very much, but I’ll still totally support the fact that it’s an RPG.  Sure, it’s got a very clearly defined tactical combat system, but so did 3rd edition D&D and a lot of other RPG’s before it.  Could you play 4th edition as solely a tactical combat game?  Yes, but then you’re not really playing D&D; you’re just playing out the combat system of 4E D&D.  If you’re really playing the whole game, then the combat (and every other mechanical system in it) are solely in service to the roleplaying that you’re doing and the story that you’re collaboratively telling.
But again, this is just a symptom of people being distracted by the trappings of an RPG rather than really understanding what roleplaying itself truly is.

One other thing that complicates this whole shebang, though, is that a lot of people’s experience with tabletop RPG’s actually isn’t all that different from what some of these boardgames and videogames can offer them.  I don’t know if this comes from the influence of videogames showing people what they’re “supposed” to do in an RPG, or if there are just a lot of DM’s/GM’s out there without a lot of imagination or flexibility.  And while I certainly don’t want to tell you that you’re doing it wrong when you play an RPG like that (especially if you’re having fun with it), but I will tell you that there can be so much more when you get your campaign off the rails and start working with your GM to tell the story.
So to wrap up, let me make one last point.  By their very nature, boardgames aren’t really capable of supporting a true roleplaying experience.  So rather than try to beat a square peg into a round hole, stop expecting boardgames to satisfy your desire for roleplaying.  Instead, let boardgames be what they are and do the things they do well. 

And stop irritating me by mixing up the two.

Oh yeah, and get off my lawn. 


  1. I told my friends (humorously enough at our Pathfinder game) that I bought this game and was interested in trying it out. The DM expressed that he was confused as to why I would buy it when I was already in a “real” Pathfinder game; and he said that he was tired of board games damaging the reputation of RPGs. Another player commented “I’m pretty sure it’s RPGs that damage the reputation of RPGs”

    I’m looking forward to playing it, and given, I have 8 zillion things to write on Pretty Sneaky, Sis before reporting on that, but I’m looking forward to eventually doing so.

  2. Jodi Black

    I’ve got one toe on your lawn. :nannynannybooboo:
    You’re right, the card game isn’t a traditional RPG, and I was fortunate enough to playtest it at GenCon in 2012. But I think it accomplishes two things very well. First, if you don’t have an organized game of Pathfinder to enjoy, this might scratch that itch while you get a group together or decide on the next quest. Second, it’s going to bring card gamers into RPGs. It’s really brilliant for both. 🙂
    Great article. Preach it, Brother Chris!

  3. Chris Norwood

    You’re right, Jodi.  Like I said, the Pathfinder card game may be awesome… as long as you don’t expect it to be that mythical card/boardgame that plays well, is as fulfilling as a real RPG, and probably cures cancer too.  And it could certainly be a really good crossover game for both sides of the hobby.

  4. Chris Norwood

    That’s a great quote! Thanks!

  5. Sceadeau

    I completely disagree with you here. It’s your lawn, of course, so you can tell whoever you want to get off of it. An RPG is a role-playing game. I don’t think you need a DM to play it.

    RPGs as they are defined now, are basically games where you have a character or party (group of characters) moving through a story while making meaningful decisions as they progress.

    I know these aren’t tabletop RPGs, with tomes of rules and add-ons to allow characters as much freedom as a DM allows, but they give as much freedom as was allowed within the confines of the rules.

    The difference between an RPG with a DM adjudicating everything and one with game rules confining you isn’t a completely separate genre of games, but instead different paths down the same road.

    So what I’m saying is, it’s not your preferred flavor of an RPG, but it’s an RPG none the less.

  6. Chris Norwood

    I’ll agree with one thing you said here, you don’t need a DM to play an RPG (there are a lot of really cool GM-less RPG’s these days).  But I totally disagree that you can have an RPG that doesn’t involve actual roleplaying.

    If you call something by the wrong name for a long time, it still doesn’t make it true.  If I call you a duck, it would be just as wrong in 20 years as it is today. 

    Because the one thing that made RPG’s new and different starting back in 1974 and moving forward was the actual roleplaying, not the combat or theme or anything else.  It was “theater of the mind” that gave players the freedom to act however they wanted in creating a story together.  

    Videogames and boardgames are inherently limited in scope and choice, and therefore can not offer an even remotely similar experience.  They are not “paths down the same road”, they’re fundamentally different, both in purpose and in execution.

    Again, you’re confusing the means and structures used by RPG’s for the actual roleplaying game itself.  Just copying the theme and concept of D&D doesn’t make something an RPG.  Because by your definition, games like Legends of Andor, Robinson Crusoe, Prophecy, and Catacombs would clearly be included.  But if you’ve played any of these games, the experience you have is nothing even close to approaching “role playing”.  Heck, by your definition, wouldn’t Pandemic, Formula D, Kill Doctor Lucky, and almost any other game where you assume a single “role” and make meaningful choices be included ?

    If you lose the in-character, “play-acting” heart of a roleplaying game, then the term loses almost all meaning.  This rant is all about the fact that, unfortunately, that’s what is and has been happening.  I want to be a voice crying in the wilderness, trying to preserve the term and have it mean something once again.    

  7. Sceadeau

    Actually, if you call me a duck, and all your friends call me a duck, and all of their friends call me a duck — I eventually become a duck. It’s the way language works.

    This is strictly a semantics argument. I have friends who role play casino operators while playing Vegas Showdown (ie: saying “My casino is the best damn casino in this town” when taking Public Relations action).

    I wouldn’t argue that it’s a role playing game, but that definition is out of both of our hands. The common definition of a role playing game is about the structure.

    How about we let the computer industry usurp RPG and come up with a new term for what you love. Play Acting Game or something.

    You can’t stem the tide. You can’t even really delay it. Adapt.

  8. Chris Norwood

    I deny your reality!  How about I give “RPG” to the freaking videogame monsters, and keep “roleplaying game” for the purists like me?

    But now I’ve got you, for listen to this brilliant point…

    When you say that your friends “role play” during Vegas Showdown, what did you mean?  Were you saying that they all the sudden started playing characters in a fantasy adventure game where they made meaningful decisions that affected the story you were all telling?  NO!  You meant that they “play acted” and “got into character”!  The meaning of role playing is not so far gone, because pretty universally, that activity is still what people know to be “role playing”.  It’s solely the title “RPG” that has been bastardized.  But if this universal understanding of what “role play” is still exists, then maybe it’s not too far gone!!! 

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