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What is an RPG (reprint)

A pointless exercise in definition by Stu. (reprinted from

For those unfamiliar, RPGs, or Role-Playing Games, are are games where each player takes the role of a character. One player, called the Gamemaster (or GM), takes the role of storyteller and referee. The GM provides storylines, portrays supporting characters and antagonists. A system of rules (called game mechanics) determin the players abilities, as well as the abilities of the antagonists. The game mechanics are used to resolve these conflicts.

To an experienced RPGer, I would use the following definition to describe my philosophy about the hobby:

“A role-playing game is an unbalanced, yet cooperative, form of improvisational storytelling, using agreed-upon game mechanics to express challenges and conflicts and to move the story in unexpected ways.”

A lot of people probably don’t agree with it. That’s okay. There are tons of different reasons to play RPGs, and they’re all valid.

I did not start out with that sort of philosophy.

I came up with this definition backwards: I thought back to the games I found most enjoyable and tried to describe what those games were and how we approached them.

I found that there were some common threads

  1. Unbalanced, yet cooperative – The GM is in charge — he is the final arbiter of the game — but he’s there at the behest of the players. His job is to provide the players with an enjoyable game. If they’re not enjoying the game, they need to tell the GM, and the GM needs to act on those sentiments.
  2. Improvisational storytelling – It is the GM’s responsibility to prepare the world, come up with the macro-story that brings the action to the players (or causes the players to spring into the action). He prepares the maps, the dungeons, the towns, the NPCs, the monsters, etc.
    What the GM doesn’t do is prepare the players’ responses to these things. Good players will do what they believe their characters would do, and sometimes the GM can anticipate this. More often than not, the GM will be surprised.
    So when you’ve planned the long land journey to the lonesome temple on the wind-swept hill, don’t be surprised if the players say, “we’re going to hire a ship to take us the other way,” because that’s exactly what might happen.
  3. Game mechanics provide a consistent way to resolve all kinds of challenges — climbing a jagged cliff, subduing a goblin, disarming a trap, haggling for a new sword. Following a consistent set of rules just creates a fair playing field.
    The major difference between game mechanic systems is how they affect the flavor of the game. GURPS stresses realism. Combat is dangerous, often deadly. D&D? Cinematic. Heroic. Barbarians cleaving through a sea of goblin minions.
  4. Move the story in unexpected ways – This is where some of the greatest story telling happens. The party’s fighting a group of trolls to rescue the King’s son. The trolls get the better of the party. They are defeated.
    What happens next? Is the prince eaten? Is the party taken prisoner? Or do they come to and slink away, licking their wounds?
    What happens to the larger story? Does the aging King, who now lacks a successor, suddenly find his courtiers rising up to take his crown? Does civil war break out? Do the dark hordes take advantage of the chaos?
    An unexpected turn of events, determined by a few dice, can create a whole new chapter in the story no one could have predicted or foretold.

With all this being said, RPGs are above all else games. We play games because they’re fun — they’re an entertaining way to pass the time.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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