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What's the difference between a roleplaying game and a non-roleplaying tabletop game?

An RPG using miniatures looks (at a glance) a lot like a non-RP miniatures game. Some RPGs use cards, but they're not card games. Some games don't use boards or cards (like Pictionary), yet they're not RPGs. Some games (like Werewolf) don't even have any components, yet they're not RPGs.

So what makes a game a roleplaying game?

Edit: The top few answers on here are excellent, if they were combined into a single answer somehow, I'd be glad to accept it.

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linking to your other similiar question: boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/9731/… –  Colin D Jan 10 '13 at 21:14
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After mod discussion, we feel like this question has value on the main site. Some answers may not be good - that's what the SE format is designed to help fix. Theory has value too! Start a meta discussion to debate further if required. However, please don't use comments as discussion threads. Edit in/clean up or write your own answer. –  mxyzplk Jan 11 '13 at 22:00

9 Answers 9

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Finite and infinite possibilities

In regular tabletop games you have very tight rules, and a concrete number of actions and options that a player can do. Although generally huge, it would be possible to make a game tree with all the different outcomes of the game. A few of them has some infinite elements (like the answers on a trivia game) but the actions are always limited to what the game designers previously thought (or the players if there are house rules).

In RPGs the player actions are only limited by his imagination, and by the logic of the game world. Even in a combat situation a character could play dead, beg for his life, dance, sing, spin, take his pants off and many actions that doesn't necessarily have to be covered in the manuals, if his player wants to. Also, the objectives of the game is what the player want for his character, that is, they can be infinite (become king, build a temple, be rich, conquer the love of a knight, protect your family,...).

A regular tabletop game usually have an end condition. Most RPGs usually end when the players (including the GM) want, although it seems there are a few of them with end conditions.

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+1 for "actions are only limited by his imagination" –  Rob Jan 10 '13 at 8:43

A game theory answer

A board game is generally a zero sum game in the game-theoretic sense: one players wins, the others lose. Cooperative board games (say, Arkham Horror) are pure zero-sum games: either the board wins or the players win. Sometimes board games rank players: one player has a higher gain that the others, we call them "winners". Other kinds of games, like card games or sports, also work this way.

This, of course, does not say anything about enjoying playing the game. You can (and should) be able to enjoy a game whether or not you win. You might even play to let the other person win. However, this does not change the fact the rules of the game define a clear set of winners and losers.

A role playing game is not easily modelled via game theory as the gain function is variable per player and does not necessarily depend on the actions of other players. There is no winners or losers: everyone should be getting the same level of gain out of the game. Whether the point of one game is be to tale a story, another game is to achieve level 20, yet another to see how long the PCs can survive the hordes of zombies; all have only one thing in common: entertain us. This is not an easy concept to translate into an utility function.

Yes, by this definition competitive games like Blood Red Sands and Everyone is John don't qualify.


Here are some good primers on the mathematics of game theory: Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict by Roger Myerson and Statistical Decision Theory and Bayesian Analysis by J.O. Berger (which is what I used to learn game theory).

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Please don't argue in comments. If you have competing theories, answer the question. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 28 at 7:32

RPGs and board/card games do have a lot in common, including the shared first goal of entertainment. I'd say what sets RPGs apart is that they make an effort to actively have their players attempt to envision themselves as being another person or being and step into that role - that RPGs have an acting or theatrical element that's wholly absent in non-RPG tabletop games. Yes, games like M:tG or Vampire Hunter have flavor that is incorporated into the game but you don't sit down to either and really try to think, "So what's it like to be a Planeswalker/Vampire Hunter?" Even silly RPGs play up this mindset, even if it's only for a joke (or if, like Toon, it IS the joke).

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Perhaps legitimate, but I'd argue that such party games don't really fall into the category of 'tabletop games'. Still something to think about, though - even games like Everyone is John and Dread create a story! –  Lord_Gareth Jan 10 '13 at 17:32

Let me try to boil it all down to one sentence. A role playing game is a subset of all games that features the players taking on the roles (actions and/or affectations) of characters in an attempt to tell a shared story. All other defining characteristics have exceptions, but this is the core of what an RPG is.

Games have a few defining characteristics of their own. In most cases RPGs are really collections of games rather than a single game, but that's getting pedantic. Games aren't games if they don't meet these basic qualifications:

  1. They have a set of rules by which the game is played and judged. These rules can be strict or flexible, but all games have rules.
  2. Games feature advancement and/or winning and losing conditions. Not all games have winning and losing conditions but it isn't a game if it doesn't contain advancement of some kind. In some RPGs this advancement is very abstract and is purely the advancement of the story, in most there are levels or other advancement, some have a series of challenges which have win/lose conditions and some are so structured that they appear more like a board game than what we might normally consider an RPG.

Traditionally we call a 'game' that lacks the second qualifier a 'simulation' but often, and especially in the area of video games, they are lumped in with games. There are simulation heavy games as well, D&D 3.5 is more simulationist than D&D 4e, but both ultimately satisfy criteria 2. Acting in a play, crashing a party and pretending to be someone else, lying; these are all examples of 'play' that satisfies criteria 1 but not 2.

There are also role playing scenarios that don't satisfy qualification 1 but do satisfy criterion 2. When children play, they often each play by their own rules which aren't specifically stated, but are aiming towards winning/losing conditions or are otherwise keeping score. Cops and Robbers will end with either the cops or robbers winning, but the rules aren't clear.

Adults engage in this kind of role play often without knowing it. The rules of success in a career often go beyond the written job descriptions of the specific job, advancement of the career is not contingent on a clear set of rules that can be followed. Still, careers often require role play - in this case pretending to be a slightly better version of yourself - so they satisfy criteria 2 but not 1.

So to be an RPG you need the G and not just the RP.

Most RPGs have similar memes - xp, levels, dice, character sheets, rulebooks, classes - but these aren't defining characteristics of RPGs, every one of them is absent in this game or that. It is important none-the-less to mention some of the paraphernalia that can help someone identify an RPG from a non-RPG table-top game.

  • RPGs have non-identical characters. Not all table-top games lack this, but (nearly)all RPGs feature the players playing as different people from each other. If the game you are watching features identical sets of characters, it isn't an RPG. Many table-top army games will look like an RPG miniature game but will have two identical armies. This is a tell.
    • The odds go up if each player is playing a single character. Not all RPGs require the players to play only one character, but if they are only playing one each, you probably have an RPG.
  • Table-top games that aren't RPGs tend to lack stories. Most RPG-like table-top miniature games don't have a focus on story. They might have some setup to explain the conditions of the battle at hand, but players generally don't try to maintain a story within the game play, other than where goals might be concerned.
    • For example, two armies meet on a battlefield and one needs to defend a flag from the other army. There might be some setup story for flavor, but once the game begins the players aren't trying to think like the orc with a chainsaw, they just move him around the field. They might yell a battle cry, but only because it is fun, not because it advances a story. This would be a table-top miniatures game, and not an RPG.
      • There is no reason a game like this couldn't also be played as an RPG, if the players decided to inject a story and use the miniatures game as a framework to house the story and they really did try to enter the head-space of the orc and satisfy his motivation, it could be an RPG. But as detailed above, it is not.
    • Munchkin aims to look like an RPG played with cards, but lacks a story. The players play one character each and those characters are basically unique, but they don't work towards the telling of a story so it isn't an RPG itself. Just a parody of RPGs.

So to restate: the one defining characteristic of an RPG is that it contains players taking on the roles of characters to advance a story. That's what separates all other table-top games or standing-and-talking games from RPGs.

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Generally speaking, I would say that the fundamental distinction of a standard role-playing game is that there are two "games" going on simultaneously: playing a traditional game (in D&D, it's a tabletop miniatures combat game) combined with a game of cooperative, often ad-lib storytelling and acting. When we were all children, we called the second game "Pretend." The fundamental part of this second game is that instead of asking yourself "what would I do?" you ask "what would my character do?"

The mix of the two games is entirely left up to the players at hand. I've had sessions of D&D where not one die was rolled for an entire 8 hour session and everybody went home happy and exhilarated with what we did. I've also had sessions of D&D where we busted out miniatures and went from encounter to encounter stopping only long enough to heal and only thinking about what my character would do in a trivial sense. I went home from some of those sessions as equally happy as the sessions where no dice are rolled.

The only other fundamental difference, I would say, is that most board game objectives are to try to cause the game to end, while standard role-playing games the objective is all about making the game all but nearly endless. The only way to lose a role-playing game is to cause either of the games to end.

This is why being a Game Master often feels like you're playing two completely distinct games. You really are! Sometimes you're constructing a story framework for the characters to follow, and you typically set it so that the players can succeed. You're working with the players to extend the game and make it enjoyable. At other times, you're playing as the opposition in combat. If you ever completely win the combat, however, you might actually cause the game to end. That's why most DMs do back flips to avoid a Total Party Kill. That's why the end of a campaign is bittersweet or sad for most players. You, essentially, lose the game when you stop playing. In my mind, at least, I always imagine that the story of my character continues without me. In that way, it feels like a victory.

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Here's my definition. If it meets these conditions, it's a role-playing game:

  1. There is a fictional world.
  2. All the players agree with what is happening in it.
  3. 'Playing' means suggesting changes to the fictional world.
  4. Players and refs decide what moves you can make by deciding if it is sensible within the fiction.
  5. The primary audience are the players themselves.

Where it gets confusing with board games and such is that it's quite possible to add in any new elements you like, like boards and rulebooks and such, usually to manage #3 and #4. But those elements don't tell you if something is role-playing or not, since they are missing from lots of RPGs.

Rule #4 is the really interesting, one, though, and needs a bit of explanation...

In a board game, the moves you make are defined entirely by the written rules. Chess is a classic example — a knight moves two ranks and one file, or two files and one rank, and that's that. You can never say "Through a brilliant act of horsemanship, my knight moves three ranks forward."

In a role-playing game, the moves are only constrained by the fictional world everyone is imagining. In a role-playing game, you can say "Through a brilliant act of horsemanship, my knight leaps over the high fence" — and everyone around the table decides whether that's a reasonable thing to happen. They might do this through, say, a dice roll, but they could just do it by agreeing it's reasonable.

So this is the key thing to look for: is anyone making sensible decisions about what happens in a shared imagined world, doing something more than just applying the rulebook?

So to classify some games:

Non-RPG miniatures game, like Talisman — It doesn't matter what you say, or how silly a move is — if the rules allow it, you can do it.

RPG with miniatures, like D&D — Think about conversations between the party and NPCS. If a player says something like "I levitate above the ground while we talk" another player will say "Stop being silly", and that doesn't happen.

Pictionary doesn't have a fictional component that everyone agrees on.

Werewolf/Mafia is interesting. I think it might actually be a role-playing game, albeit short-lived and limited. (I assume we're talking about the party game, not Werewolf: The Apocalyse). Consider a live role-play where there is a trial -- it looks a hell of a lot like Werewolf. I can't think of a reason to say one is and one isn't.

Freeform LARP obeys all the rules. Improvised theater looks very similar, except it doesn't meet #5 (audience).

Live-action Role-play also obeys the rules.

Computer 'RPGs' aren't like tabletop RPGs since the possible moves are not negotiated between the players (#4).

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Roleplaying games and traditional games both incorporate fictional beings and imaginary actions, but RPGs are a unique class of games that make the shared fiction of play an end unto itself, something that not only provides emotional color and useful metaphors but also drives player decision-making in the game.

In detail:

Most games have some kind of fictional context. Consider the "set-dressing" of a range of games like Magic: the Gathering, Risk, and Hangman — both the way the game pieces represent fictional beings and objects and the narrative flavor of game actions as well.

  • The fictional context of the game allows us to use real-world metaphors to understand the game's mechanical flow. Think about how much easier it is to think in terms of "moving troops" or "spending money to build a house" than purely abstract resource allocation.
  • The fictional context also contributes to emotional investment in what's going on in play. Drawing the little Hangman picture creates a much greater feeling of dramatic tension than you'd get from just making tally marks for each wrong guess. Hitting an opposing player with a Lightning Bolt is much more satisfying than simply playing "Mark off three points."

The defining feature of roleplaying games as a class is that they elevate the fiction to a higher status. Instead of merely using the fictional context of the game to understand what's going on mechanically, the players actually make decisions based on desired fictional results. In other words, their play goals are defined in terms of fictional outcomes as well as game-mechanical ones. Players can still enjoy the more transparently "game-like" activities for their own sake (e.g. the tactical challenge of a combat scene), but narrative matters even when it doesn't touch game mechanics.

Because the game fiction is so important, it's also shared. It doesn't really matter how much or how little I try to actually imagine the events that are going on in a game of Monopoly; either way, I can still productively play the game. It also doesn't matter whether I and the other players around the table actually agree about what moving a thimble and a race car around the board actually represents — as long as we agree on the mechanics, I can have my own image of what's going on and you can have yours. In an RPG, in contrast, we're all describing imagined events to each other directly, and trying to maintain agreement about what has happened in the shared narrative of play.

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I mention this in the comments, but after thinking it may be worthy of an answer.

They exist on a spectrum.

It's hard to point to a clear dividing line, because there are plenty of things that don't fit easily into either category. You can say as others do that an RPG has a backstory, involves an imagined world, etc. And these are probably traits that are necessary, or nearly so. You can also find plenty of things that really feel like a boardgame but still have a deep backstory and an imagined world, Cosmic Encounters for one. Magic: The Gathering probably also fits that.

You can say that most board games are competitive and involve a winner and loser(s). But not all board games involve that since some are cooperative with an "us against the game" feeling, which is very similar to how some RPGs feel. For instance, Legend of Drizzt can be played purely cooperatively and deliberately incorporates a lot of RPG mechanics, but it at least leans towards the boardgame side.

Also, there are a lot of RPGs that have strong boardgame like mechanics. Anything that involves miniatures is probably a good contender for that. With a lot of them, it is perfectly possible to toss away the story and just construct characters with equal starting resources and then play out the battles. (Some like BattleTech/Mechwarrior officially have versions for just fighting or for bolting on a story to the fighting and I played both ways many years ago.)

So, no clear dividing line, but some guideposts.

As with many things on a spectrum, its hard to construct a clear divider, but there are some traits that are associated with roleplaying games and the more of them and more significant they are, the easier it is to call it a roleplaying game. But, that may be a roleplaying game with some very strong boardgame elements, or it may be a boardgame that borrows a lot of roleplaying elements.

Those common RPG traits include, but aren't limited too:

  1. There is a detailed backstory and a detailed setting.

  2. Players use characters that have names and histories. The players often made those characters and much of the history themselves.

  3. RPGs often don't have a concept of winning or losing or score.

  4. RPGs are often cooperative or "many against one".

  5. RPGs often focus on the story over any particular goal.

But of those factors, I would say only #1 is really essential to call something an RPG. But you can find examples of board games with those elements, and examples of RPGs that are missing all of them other than #1 (even violating #1 might be possible, I just can't think of an example.)

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A tabletop roleplaying game; where the players interact, as their characters, with a setting with their actions adjudicated by a human referee typically, but not always, through interrelated sessions called a campaign.

The rules are used to define the abilities and capabilities of the characters and other inhabitants of the setting. They are also used as guidelines by the referee in adjudicating the players actions.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games differ from boardgames because they are designed as games where anything can be attempted by the players. Designed to be open-ended with no set condition for ending the game. These difference are ones of focus not mechanics. There are several wargame/boardgame which had the mechanics of playing and advancement of individual characters. For example SPI's Freedom in the Galaxy. What made Freedom in the Galaxy different from WEG's Star War RPGs was what the designers of the two games choose to focus on.

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