Sign up ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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?

share|improve this question
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
Joe, instead of summarising answers in your question, summarise them in an answer with extra detail and discussion, then accept it. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 23 at 0:32
Both. And remember, the accepted check is most useful to you. If a summary is most useful to you, accept it. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 23 at 0:37
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["role-playing game"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the ["game"] involved in this case is not that." – DuckTapeAl Jan 23 at 13:51
I think that the existing answers cover the ground pretty well. I was just trying to make a joke about the Jacobellis v. Ohio Supreme Court case: – DuckTapeAl May 4 at 4:04

11 Answers 11

up vote 41 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.

share|improve this answer
+1 for "actions are only limited by his imagination" – Rob Jan 10 '13 at 8:43
-1... A false distinction - many early wargames (including the 19th C. Kriegspiel) limited actions solely by what the referee decided to allow, and encouraged referees to take seriously any reasonable orders. In fact, this very approach is also part of the Braunstein games - which were still technically minis games - which lead Arneson to modify chainmail and contact Gygax... It's also part of several other refereed wargames which lack character scale entirely. – aramis May 1 at 9:14
Character scale, according to this answer, isn't a defining part of roleplaying games. The example you name is a bit of both types of game. – Erik May 1 at 10:36
@aramis No matter where the line is, it's pretty clear that the line is fuzzy. The best 'definition' that we're likely to find is still going to have some edge cases that give unexpected results. The games that you describe are the immediate predecessors to modern RPGs, so it makes sense that they straddle that line a bit. – DuckTapeAl May 1 at 12:52
Kriegspiel is a hundred years prior, and sets the standard for wargames until the 1960's... when 2-player non-refereed games begin to take over the field. – aramis May 3 at 16:37

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).

share|improve this answer
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

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).

share|improve this answer
Please don't argue in comments. If you have competing theories, answer the question. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 28 '14 at 7:32

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.

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer

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).

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer
Campaigns aren't defining, nor required, RS. one-shots have been around since 1975, if not before, in the form of convention games and T&T solo modules. – aramis May 3 at 16:42

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.)

share|improve this answer

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.

share|improve this answer

Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences choices and outcomes of play. As a group, the people playing create fictional events, items, and characters, and all of these things can shape the outcomes of play.

With boardgames, the choices and outcomes can be made without ever having to create a fictional element at all, and choosing to imagine things ("My knight runs down your bishop! 'Die infidel!'") doesn't actually change the events in play. Likewise, your interpretations as a player doesn't change how a videogame operates, either - the outcomes are decided by preset options coded into the program.

This doesn't mean that a roleplaying game cannot have rules based on physical components (maps, grids, miniatures, cards, etc.) but that fictionally imagined events and objects will matter to some level and be able to affect the game play.`

This applies equally regardless of the game's goals: "beating" a dungeon as a challenge with win/loss conditions, simulating events in a world based on realism or genre tropes, aiming to create a compelling and interesting story - all of these still operate through the same medium of imagined fiction having some weight in the actual game play. Vincent Baker describes the process with his diagram of fiction, people playing, and physical cues.

share|improve this answer

RPG's are a non-exclusive clade defined mostly by either self-proclamation and/or player acclamation as a Role Playing Game.

The clade of general acceptance includes several non-unique traits:

  • Role Assumption - encouragement to make decisions as if in the role assumed
  • Character Scale - the fundamental unit in play is usually scaled to the individual character
  • Open-ended action list - the GM/Referee/moderator can adjudicate non-standard actions.
  • Lack of clear victory conditions - the players don't have a clearly defined way to "win" other than by enjoyment of the process.
  • focus on story - either emergent from play or shaping play from a starting state
  • character advancement - the character is able to be altered by play, usually increasing in competence.
  • One character per player - usually, each player controls one and only one character.
  • Campaign Play - usually, RPGs are played in multi-adventure sequences

None of these is universal in RPGs. None of these are universally absent in board games. And several games are routinely argued to be both board games and RPGs, depending upon who and how played.

Most active duty military, police and detective games have a pretty clear victory condition: Complete the mission or solve the case. Having clear victory conditions is not an exclusion from the RPG clade. Likewise, several board games lack a clear victory condition, tho' many don't consider them exactly games: Ouija, The Ungame, and several others.

Character Scale: In Mars:2100, the unit scale is actually a corporation (or a faction), and the head thereof. The majority of actions in the playtest draft are resolved by use of the corporation's attributes, not the head of that corporation. Likewise, when using Classic Traveller's Alien Module 2: K'Kree, the unit scale is a K'kree family - the dominant male, his wives, servants & bodyguards, and their wives. And many boardgames are character scale.

Open-Ended Action List: Kriegspiel, which dates back to the 19th Century, has an open-ended action list, which the referee was encouraged to adjudicate upon the merits of the situation and come to a decision on how to resolve and the outcome thereof. It's a wargame. Likewise, in the ___-world series of games, there are only mechanical resolutions for a handful of things, and anything else is either "say-yes" or assign to one of those few actions. And in Mouse Guard, the GM is actually allowed (even encouraged) to limit the ways in which GM-turn situations can be resolved. This is probably the most distinctly RPG-defining element, as almost all RPG's allow non-listed actions, even if they lack mechanical resolutions for them. It's not common in board games, but it's not absent from all board games. Kriegspiel wasn't the only one - refereed wargaming was pretty much the standard until the 1960's, and even into the 1960's remained standard in miniatures games.

Focus on Story - whether it's a story emerging from play, or intent to flesh out a plot that's already written, a focus to some degree on the story is present in all RPG's. Many boardgames, however are just as strongly story focused. Examples of story focused boardgames include Hobbit Tales, Once Upon A Time, Aye Dark Overlord, Careers, Life, and several others. In Careers and Life, like in traditional old-school RPG playstyles, the story emerges from play, in that the play of the game generates clear story events. In Hobbit Tales, Once Upon a Time, and Aye Dark Overlord, the goal of the game is to tell a story using elements on cards that are played - a sensible story using one's hand is the victory condition for OUaT and ADO.

Character Advancement - The ability for a character to be changed is non-unique to RPG's, and is extremely common in RPG rules. Again, it's not universal. Several games do not have character advancement other than by change in possessions, but clearly are meant to have emergent story, and open ended resolution is explicit, as well as self-declaration as an RPG by the author. Likewise, many boardgames do have character advancement while clearly not being RPGs, including the character scale Candamir, Talisman, and ElfQuest board games.

One to one: In general, most RPG's encourage a single character per player. This is not true of all, as mentioned with Traveller and the K'Kree, STRPG with the Binar, Star Thugs with a captain and crew, and D&D with hirelings and henchmen, and in Gygax's games, often 2-3 PC's per player.

Also, note that the clade is non-exclusive - some items defined as board games are also defined as RPGs. The classic overlap zone includes:

  • Car Wars: especially in campaign play
  • Battletech/Mechwarrior: since Mechwarrior's titular role is usually resolved with Battletech, and even in boardgame mode, Battletech hits most of these except focus on story and character scale
  • Battlestations: the Brothers Siadek refuse to specify which, and say yes when asked "is it a board game or an RPG?" They also have released both a Roleplaying adventure and several boardgame-play focused expansions.
  • The Fantasy Trip - Metagaming's magnum opus was released as an expansion of a pair of character scale wargames into a full-on RPG, but the Trademark was used for the whole line in either mode.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (the original one from the 1980's). Labeled as "3D Roleplay", filled with random character generation tables, a fairly strong emergent narrative expected, Character Scale (albeit multiple per player)
  • Dungeons and Dragons - The term Role-Playing does not appear in the original edition of the D&D game. It was used in advertisements, and in the magazines, but doesn't actually appear in the 1976 edition of the boxed set. (Note that the 1976 is the revised version due to the Tolkien lawsuit.) It does appear in the ad copy in the back of the supplements, also dating to 1976. Many players played D&D as a form of tactical wargaming; many others as a roleplaying game, and even to present there are players playing each of the various editions as a form of character scale wargaming, despite D&D being axiomatically a role-playing game. In the case of victory conditions, several editions note that surviving the dungeon and having fun is the victory condition. For reference, the core original edition box title is: Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures (title case capitalization errors are from original).

Campaign Play is also not definitive - the first convention one-shots were in 1975 or so. Also, many modern RPG's are not intended for long term play, instead being one story and done. Likewise, campaign play was extremely common in miniatures games.

Overall, it's safest to say RPG's are a subset of boardgames, but that's unsatisfying to most. So...

At the end of the day, a roleplaying game is a roleplaying game because the designer thinks it is, or because the players think it is, and no clear distinctions can be made from board games. Every distinction is muddled by the overlaps.

share|improve this answer
What do you mean by the "___-world series of games"? – Joe May 1 at 23:44
I'm not sure the wrapup at the end is supported by the preceding arguments. It sounds to me like it's a roleplaying game if it fits certain criteria, although there are some fuzzy edges. More importantly, what do you mean by "title case capitalization errors are from original"? That title is fine. – DCShannon May 2 at 2:13

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.