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The Legendary Zoltan

How to define what games are RPGs

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Mind Wanderer made a point to me in another thread about what is considered an RPG and that is really on my mind now. What exactly classifies a game as an RPG? I know it's an age-old question but let's talk about it here.

Here are some games that everyone agrees are RPGs.

Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, The Elder Scrolls, strategy RPGs such as FF Tactics and Disgaea, Tales of Anything, Anything of Mana, Breath of Fire, etc.

Zelda games are highly debated as to whether or not they are RPGs, though people seem to agree that Zelda 2 is in fact an RPG. If Zelda games aren't RPGs, then Alundra isn't either.

Any game with experience points and leveling up is often considered an RPG. Should we count Borderlands as an RPG?

I'm not sure where I stand on Symphony of the Night anymore.

There is plenty to think about. I look forward to answering the question of what defines an RPG.

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An RPG, I think, can be determined by looking at it and then looking at a game of Dungeons & Dragons and seeing how similar they are.

Persona 3 - main character whose appearance is set but can change roles, party members who level up and gain new skills in the process, delve into dungeons and fight monsters, very story-based. Game's timeline is pretty linear but you have flexibility in equipment and spells. An RPG.

Skyrim - Character whose skills and stats level up and fit into classical RPG classes (fighter, mage, rogue), delve into dungeons, fight monsters, has side-quests and "main quests" a la what a D&D GM would write the world for. Definitely an RPG.

Zelda - Main character whose appearance and class is set, who delves into dungeons, fight monsters, only proceeds through getting set equipment and proceeding through things in a set order, very very puzzle-based, only ammo and health is regained in killing enemies. Feels like the framework of a D&D game without any of the meat that makes it D&D. Not an RPG.

Final Fantasy I - Literally an automated AD&D campaign, complete with stealin--er, borrowing a ton of monsters from the D&D monster manual. Very RPG.

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I think the defining element of an RPG is character progression in terms of levels, stats, and/or skills increasing during the course of the game. If you get more powerful by fighting stuff, then that's an RPG. Of course, it's possible to be an RPG and another genre at the same time.

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If you can level up and equip items that alter your character's stats, it's an RPG by video game standards as far as I'm concerned.

Also, bonus points if the game is absurdly long (at least 3 PS1 discs) but the story is nowhere near good enough, if it makes any sense at all, to justify it being that long.

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I have even LOWER standards! For me, you just have to play as someone other than yourself, have stats, and be able to level up in a story (so Fruit Ninja doesn't count)! Role-playing! C'mon. :lol:

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I think the defining element of an RPG is character progression in terms of levels, stats, and/or skills increasing during the course of the game. If you get more powerful by fighting stuff, then that's an RPG. Of course, it's possible to be an RPG and another genre at the same time.

I agree with this, but man do I miss turn-based RPGs. :(

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My favourite blog is called The CRPG Addict, where the blogger is playing through all the single-player computer role-playing games released for home computers (so console games are excluded from this particular endeavor). The blog uses the following criteria to define an RPG:

My definition of "RPG" requires the game to have three core criteria: 1) character leveling and development, 2) combats based at least partly on attribute-derived statistics, 3) inventories consisting of something other than just puzzle items.

Here's some more discussion on the topic; I'm pretty sure there's a later post when the blog had matured a bit, but of course I couldn't find it..

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For me, I tend to agree with a comparison to traditional pen and paper RPG's like D&D. That is, the game should have a numerical system of power progression, and generally a strong emphasis on story. Many games of various genres will have a focus on story to some degree, and almost all games have a progression of power, but RPG's place even more on theme, plot, character, setting, etc. and use some of the conventions established by D&D and other games like it to track that progression, such as experience points, levels, and character stats. Therefore, Final Fantasy is an RPG, Zelda is not. Zelda is an adventure game, as it doesn't use a numerically tracked leveling system or anything like it. Games like Zelda II or Symphony of the Night that blend genres are doing exactly that; they are multi-genre games. For both of these examples I would call them adventure/RPG's.

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I'm not a big RPG player, but I feel as though many of the games labeled as "RPGs," including the majority of the JRPG sub-genre, don't really fit. For me, the key lies in those first two letters; role-playing. When I think of the original D&D archetype all of these games are based on, it's not just about rolling a D20 in an encounter or leveling skills on your character sheet, it's about actually fleshing out a character and putting something of yourself into them. Look at the great BioWare titles like Star Wars: KOTOR and Mass Effect, where you decide most of how your character interacts with the world around them, even down to their gender and relationship preferences; that's pretty much the definition of taking a role and making it your own. Then compare it to something like Chrono Trigger: even though it's a beloved classic that I enjoy very much myself, there's little to nothing I can do to affect how Crono behaves as a character, and the overall story is extremely linear. Those are two extremely different philosophies of game design, and I think that labeling them both as "role-playing" is something of a disservice.

So then what should we call games like the mainline Final Fantasies as an alternate? Hmm..."stat-based battling adventure games"? Okay no that's pretty terrible, but you get the idea.

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Wouldn't Monster Rancher fall under the rpg genre since it has stat building and exploration segments? Simulation with some rpg elements.

I thought the Monster Rancher games were considered RPGs? Was there someplace where they didn't call them that? Because they are sim games, but then again so are the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games and they're considered RPGs.

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When I think of the original D&D archetype all of these games are based on, it's not just about rolling a D20 in an encounter or leveling skills on your character sheet, it's about actually fleshing out a character and putting something of yourself into them.

Actually, I'm under the impression that D&D originally (like, in the 70s) was much more about trying to get your character to survive (and improve) through whatever fiendish testing grounds the dungeon master was capable of devising. Emphasis on story-telling comes much later, 90s even. Both console and computer role playing games (if you want to distinguish between them) start their evolution before that.

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Mind Wanderer made a point to me in another thread about what is considered an RPG and that is really on my mind now. What exactly classifies a game as an RPG? I know it's an age-old question but let's talk about it here.

Here are some games that everyone agrees are RPGs.

Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, The Elder Scrolls, strategy RPGs such as FF Tactics and Disgaea, Tales of Anything, Anything of Mana, Breath of Fire, etc.

Zelda games are highly debated as to whether or not they are RPGs, though people seem to agree that Zelda 2 is in fact an RPG. If Zelda games aren't RPGs, then Alundra isn't either.

Any game with experience points and leveling up is often considered an RPG. Should we count Borderlands as an RPG?

I'm not sure where I stand on Symphony of the Night anymore.

There is plenty to think about. I look forward to answering the question of what defines an RPG.

That's an interesting question that you have posed :3

Yeah I think that Borderlands is like an RPG - Hellgate London was similar to that respect...pity the game flopped. Also, I think that Alundra and Zelda count as they have that RPG feel - action RPG they call it right?

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I'm not a big RPG player, but I feel as though many of the games labeled as "RPGs," including the majority of the JRPG sub-genre, don't really fit. For me, the key lies in those first two letters; role-playing. When I think of the original D&D archetype all of these games are based on, it's not just about rolling a D20 in an encounter or leveling skills on your character sheet, it's about actually fleshing out a character and putting something of yourself into them. Look at the great BioWare titles like Star Wars: KOTOR and Mass Effect, where you decide most of how your character interacts with the world around them, even down to their gender and relationship preferences; that's pretty much the definition of taking a role and making it your own. Then compare it to something like Chrono Trigger: even though it's a beloved classic that I enjoy very much myself, there's little to nothing I can do to affect how Crono behaves as a character, and the overall story is extremely linear. Those are two extremely different philosophies of game design, and I think that labeling them both as "role-playing" is something of a disservice.

So then what should we call games like the mainline Final Fantasies as an alternate? Hmm..."stat-based battling adventure games"? Okay no that's pretty terrible, but you get the idea.

The thing about video game RPGs, though, is that compared to pen-and-paper RPGs, flexibility and interactivity are practically nonexistent in their storytelling -- even in sophisticated games such as BioWare's. The pen-and-paper model both allows you to do literally anything (within the scope of what the GM will allow) and is inherently social, with the decisions of other real people affecting the way your character develops. Video games can't be anywhere near this flexible; as such, I would classify Chrono Trigger and BioWare games as being much more similar to each other than you would, with BioWare's games simply being a more sophisticated attempt to capture what pen-and-paper RPGs do naturally.

I read an interesting description of the origins of computer RPGs (and I wish I could remember where) that talked about the early split between stat-/battle-oriented Final Fantasy/dungeon-crawler games and description-/puzzle-focused games such as Zork and King's Quest as being a result of attempts to capture different aspects of the role-playing experience found in traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, since computers couldn't adequately recreate the entire experience.

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I don't really think about what I consider that much honestly. Pretty much if it's got some sort of system in which you get stronger by fighting and/or have some customization over how your character develops, I'd consider it an RPG.

But there's definitely no objective criteria or anything, so all the arguments over whether or not Zelda is one will never get anywhere. It's pretty much another "Are esports actual sports" thing. It's interesting to see how everyones' definitions are different though.

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I remember I got asked to play D&D once. It went like this one day on the bus after school:

A friend of mine was like "Hey, you should come play D&D with us after." I was like, "That sounds really nerdy, but it's better than doing homework." He went back to his seat and talked to some other mutual friends of ours who would be playing too. A few minutes passed and he came back over and said, "We don't want you to play D&D with us."

and that is the story of how I almost played D&D once.

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I remember I got asked to play D&D once. It went like this one day on the bus after school:

A friend of mine was like "Hey, you should come play D&D with us after." I was like, "That sounds really nerdy, but it's better than doing homework." He went back to his seat and talked to some other mutual friends of ours who would be playing too. A few minutes passed and he came back over and said, "We don't want you to play D&D with us."

and that is the story of how I almost played D&D once.

I played AD&D in college (the same version that my mom played when she was my age - and I even used her dice!)...until the DM literally threw a rulebook at me one day when I needed to get spells written down for my new bard.

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I played AD&D in college (the same version that my mom played when she was my age - and I even used her dice!)...until the DM literally threw a rulebook at me one day when I needed to get spells written down for my new bard.

...I could never stay awake during D&D...all those rolls, saving rolls and rolls to check to make sure that the roll is a correct roll so that it can be re-rolled. Then rolled again for good measure. Yawn.

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I played AD&D in college (the same version that my mom played when she was my age - and I even used her dice!)...until the DM literally threw a rulebook at me one day when I needed to get spells written down for my new bard.

At least you were cool enough to be allowed to play D&D.

Another fundamental difference between pen & paper and video game: No need to fill out a stupid application form most of the time. I looked at some of those sheets before and was like, am I creating a warrior or applying at Medieval Times?

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Actually, I'm under the impression that D&D originally (like, in the 70s) was much more about trying to get your character to survive (and improve) through whatever fiendish testing grounds the dungeon master was capable of devising. Emphasis on story-telling comes much later, 90s even. Both console and computer role playing games (if you want to distinguish between them) start their evolution before that.
Not really. D&D was based on Chainmail, which was a tactical wargame (like Warhammer). D&D was an effort to take that setting, make it so that you control a single character, and tell their story. That's why it was a "role-playing game," you literally played the role of the character. The term "role-playing game" wasn't unique to D&D at that time, either; it's used in drama and therapy, too.

That's why you had not just three "physical" attributes, but three "mental" ones (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma), plus alignment (just Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic at the time--although that was perhaps based on Chainmail factions, I don't know for sure). Heck, Charisma is totally pointless unless you're interested in character role-playing. And the settings (Greyhawk and... I forget the other one) were also definitely intended as story settings. Although kicking down doors in a dungeon was definitely a big part of it. The stories were sort of like Diablo: you had a town base and you'd explore the dungeon nearby, because bad guys always based their operations in the dungeons.

Then CRPG's started coming out. Early ones, like Akalabeth, were explicitly modeled on D&D. They had visible stats which improved over time, and you controlled a party of adventurers working together. Early CRPG's didn't have much of a story, but there was always one in there somewhere.

As for my opinion... it's really a pretty silly term to begin with. You don't "play a role" in Gateway To The Savage Frontier any more than you in Pac-Man. Your characters are faceless, their significant actions are scripted, and their opinions are irrelevant. By that definition, Mass Effect is more of an RPG, despite the fact that the gameplay is that of a 3rd-person shooter.

The way in which the term "RPG" is useful is in conveying expectations to potential consumers. But again, that means different things to different people. I have many friends who enjoy "RPGs" because they require no reflexes or precision. Others enjoy them for the deep, lengthy, complex storylines and world-building. Others enjoy the ability to customize a character's development in different ways and watch them "grow," improve, and become unique. But all of those are optional: Final Fantasy X-2, XII, and XIII require speed (although not direct control), Secret of Mana does afford direct control (although it's really slow), Dungeons of Dredmor has no story, and Final Fantasy IV has no customization. I'd consider all of them to be RPG's.

I don't dogmatically require "leveling up" to be a requirement of RPG's, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a counterexample. I definitely don't think that having an inventory and leveling up define an RPG, though--I'd call the Castlevania games and Zelda 2 to be adventure games with RPG elements.

(Interesting sidenote: Nintendo marketed Zelda 2 and 3 as "adventure" games. When the N64 came out and was criticized for not having any RPG's, and was losing market share to Sony and Final Fantasy VII, they tried to brand Ocarina of Time as an RPG. I think that's when it started to become such a fuzzy term.)

...I could never stay awake during D&D...all those rolls, saving rolls and rolls to check to make sure that the roll is a correct roll so that it can be re-rolled. Then rolled again for good measure. Yawn.
It's better when everyone at the table knows what they're doing.

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My definition of an RPG is a game in which you play a role..... now I realize that's pretty liberal and would make many games an RPG that some might not consider to be one. But that's so much less confusing for me, anyway.

For example Excitebike is an Action RPG because you take on the role of an exciting biker.

What if they released a Final Fantasy where you didn't gain any experience or level anything up, but everything else was exactly the same? Would it not be an RPG? In my opinion whether something is an RPG isn't limited to whether it has experience systems... Is Candy Crush an RPG because you gain score to level up and unlock new levels?

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Games like Zelda II or Symphony of the Night that blend genres are doing exactly that; they are multi-genre games. For both of these examples I would call them adventure/RPG's.

And now Games like Symphony of the Night got their own tag. The leveling system plus exploration in a vast open world is now called 'MetroidVania'. Thus is a blend of RPG and Exploration/Adventure.

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...I could never stay awake during D&D...all those rolls, saving rolls and rolls to check to make sure that the roll is a correct roll so that it can be re-rolled. Then rolled again for good measure. Yawn.

It wasn't even that for me, it was waiting for everyone else to do their thing. For me it was just a couple of rolls and telling the DM what happened, and then waiting for the two or three other people to do the same. My character had already cast Mirror Image and used a Magic Missile on an enemy in the same time that it took another player to figure out the logistics of their grapple mechanics!

At least you were cool enough to be allowed to play D&D.

Another fundamental difference between pen & paper and video game: No need to fill out a stupid application form most of the time. I looked at some of those sheets before and was like, am I creating a warrior or applying at Medieval Times?

I dunno, the character customization in games like the Elder Scrolls titles are pretty infamous for being time-consuming and involved. :P

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And now Games like Symphony of the Night got their own tag. The leveling system plus exploration in a vast open world is now called 'MetroidVania'. Thus is a blend of RPG and Exploration/Adventure.

Ooh, but! Consider that in SotN, you get experience points when killing monsters and gain levels that way, while in a typical metroidvania you build up strength and capabilities by finding items. So, SotN is an "RPG" while Metroid is not.

I know, it's silly. There's a good question in addition to the one in the topic: "WHY to define what games are RPGs", answer to which affects also the answer to the "how" question. For instance, in the blog I linked to, the blogger has that quest to play them all and explore the history of CRPGs along the way. He has action RPGs in there as well, and generally the marginally RPG stuff results in pretty interesting posts.

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As another user said, RPGs are typically focused on narrative reflection where you put yourself in the characters' shoes. As a gamer who views himself as an academic, I tend to like genres, mostly RPGs, where you get a tiny amount of personal development in return for playing for hours and hours.

For example, there's a great scene in one of my favorite games (not gonna say which one due to spoilers) where the supporting heroine is killed by the villain, and the hero can't really do anything about it. It's quite anti-Hollywood. At first the character, and thus the player, is sad because you have build a (romantic) relationship with her, but you quickly learn to get over your grief and continue your quest - just like if something bad or similar happens in real life. I love when games can educate oneself in such a way, and it's almost only RPGs that can do such a thing because you get so attached to the characters, not only by leveling up, but also because of the storylines that are generally long and thought-provoking in RPGs and often so good that you read analyzes about them online.

Planescape Torment is a good example too of how a game can inspire your thinking about your own world.

P.S. Greetings from Denmark;-)

Edited by Okami-2

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