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March 2, 2011

What makes an RPG an RPG: a universal definition

The human brain is a categorization machine. Cognition as we know it is made possible only because of this fact. By putting things into categories, we understand that those things share certain exclusive qualities.

This is as true with games as it is with anything else. Game genres are categories that make it possible to understand games in relation to each other. Consider the efficiency boost we gain from being able to describe Halo as “an FPS” rather than having to rattle off all the multivariate qualities of first-person shooters. Imagine having to describe the qualities of games like Rogue every time you share a roguelike, rather than simply being able to refer to the category by name.

Yet ultimately, what good is categorization when a category grows so large that the objects it contains cease to have any sensible relation to each other? To the casual observer, it may seem that this fate is befalling the computer RPG, an already-huge genre that risks exploding from bloat as developers indulge the seemingly irresistible urge to categorize their decidedly non-RPGs as RPG hybrids.

Even now, however, I believe the computer RPG remains a coherent category of game. The goal of this article is to present a workable definition of “RPG-ness” that transcends J and W, action and turn-based. What central thread ties together games as disparate as Dragon Quest VIII and Deus Ex, yet at the same time separates them from games like Myth: The Fallen Lords, Heavy Rain, or Grand Theft Auto IV?

It sounds like a riddle, but it’s one I believe I’ve found the answer to. Read on, and you can decide for yourself if you agree with my conclusions. We’ll start by discarding some unsatisfactory alternative definitions.

Playing a Role

“A role-playing game is a game where you play a role.” This definition gets trotted out every time this debate comes up, and just as reliably, it gets shot down.

This definition doesn’t work because–with very few exceptions–you play a role in nearly every video game, regardless of genre. In Half Life, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, a research scientist. In Super Mario Brothers, you play the role of a mustachioed Italian plumber with fantastic jumping abilities.

To make “playing a role” the definition of a computer RPG is to make all games (with isolated exceptions like Bejeweled and Tetris) computer RPGs. This defeats the whole purpose of having a “computer RPG” category in the first place. Thus, we must reject this definition.


Fallout 1
When most people think of RPGs, they think of humans, elves and dwarves running around with swords, casting spells and killing monsters. But that’s just setting. An RPG can take place anywhere. You don’t need elves, dwarves or dragons, as games like Fallout, Persona and Mass Effect clearly prove.

Meanwhile, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Golden Axe or Gauntlet are RPGs. Ultimately, setting proves simultaneously under-inclusive and over-inclusive as a definition of RPG-ness. We can discard this definition out of hand.


Exploration is undeniably a core feature of many RPGs. But one can say the same of exploration in modern action games and first-person shooters.

Moreover, exploration is not a universal feature in RPGs. Some RPGs feature relentlessly linear game worlds. The Fire Emblem games—excellent tactical RPGs by any standard—include no exploration whatsoever.

Although providing for exploration of the game world certainly ranks among RPG best practices, it simply isn’t going to get us very far in terms of defining which games do and do not fit into the genre.


What about combat? Combat is enshrined as the primary (and sometimes, only) mode of meaningful interaction the player has with the game world in most RPGs. One might think that combat provides the unifying link. However, one would be wrong.

The RPG began as an outgrowth of tabletop strategy games—consequently, the genre inherited their laser-brained focus on dealing randomized damage to things. But only a select handful of RPGs, mostly relegated to the subgenre ghetto of “strategy RPGs,” still have something resembling the old grid-based, turn-based tactical affairs of their forbears. Indeed, some of the greatest gems of the genre feature real-time combat and free movement.


Meanwhile, RPGs have increasingly begun to poach from other genres for their combat systems. RPG battle systems now range from Diablo-style clickfests to Bejeweled-style puzzle minigame battles to over-the-shoulder shooter combat. And yet, all of them are still recognizably RPGs. Clearly, whatever RPG-ness is, it isn’t something that resides in any particular combat system.

Numbers Going Up

The cynical reader will be rolling his eyes right now. “Get to the point, Craig. It’s stat progression. RPGs are about making numbers go up. We know this already.” To a limited extent, that’s correct. After all, RPGs are fundamentally about the development of a character or characters. Development is typically represented in-game via stats. You accumulate enough of a certain resource (say, experience points) and the stats increase. Hence, it’s about making numbers go up.

But it isn’t. That’s too simplistic. Consider a hypothetical “Button Clicker RPG,” in which the player presses a button in the middle of the screen and watches a number increase by 1 every time she does. The “click to increase stats” mechanic really isn’t all that qualitatively different from playing a Diablo-alike, but the experience doesn’t have the feel of a RPG.

Why? A few reasons. Perhaps the most salient reason is that our hypothetical RPG has no character. The numbers exist in a void. They represent nothing.Those numbers have to have some significance to the characters’ interaction with the game world. So we have to add to the cynical definition of an RPG: it’s about making numbers go up to develop a character or characters.

This isn’t enough either, however. Beyond all that, the characters also have to be unique, playable individuals who persist in the game world. Consider the old Bungie classic Myth: The Fallen Lords. Units in Myth are, to an extent surpassing most strategy games, unique characters. Each unit has its own name. It grows tougher each time it survives a battle. When veteran units return for the next battle, they are harder to kill and attack with greater speed and accuracy. Sounds like an RPG, right?


But it isn’t. Each swordsman is a carbon copy of every other swordsman, each bowman just like all the other bowmen. With rare, mission-specific exceptions, the only thing that distinguishes one unit from others of its class is veteran status.

Veterans, in turn, only show up in the next battle if the battle permits units of that type to be used. So even though you’ve successfully kept Malcolm the bowman alive over the course of five battles, if battle six doesn’t give you bowmen, you’ll never see Malcolm again. Even the most rudimentary RPG takes pains to make your characters your characters, and not just temporary, interchangeable instances of a particular unit type.


So RPGs are character-centric—they are about progression of characters. Based on that fact, maybe you think I’m going to conclude that RPGs are therefore really all about the story. But I won’t, because they aren’t. Not exactly.

While it is true that story is important to the RPG genre, it’s a particular kind of story that ultimately proves central. It’s about the character/party as your avatar, and your quest to shape that avatar. (That doesn’t have to be the game’s central plot, mind you—it just has to be part of the arc of the story, as told by you playing the game.)

Consider this idea for an RPG: you play an elderly man, an alchemist living in a small town. One day, a band of thugs visits the town and demands tribute. Your town, being poor and small, cannot afford to give the thieves the tribute they demand. Under cover of night, they retaliate by secretly poisoning the town’s well with a flavorless, colorless, slow-acting toxin. As the game begins, every last person in your town—including your character—has ingested a lethal dose of this poison.

Realizing what has happened, the player character scrambles desperately to concoct a serum to counteract the effects of the poison. He does so in time to save his own life. However, he only has enough ingredients to save himself. Even then, the best he can manage is to ward off the poison’s effects for a few months, buying himself time to either achieve revenge or find a cure.

Over the rest of the game, your character grows steadily weaker. Combat is exhausting—far from making him stronger, each encounter saps his vitality further. He lacks the energy to learn any new skills. Your character is clearly dying from the poison; the only question is whether he will successfully achieve his objectives before that happens.

Now, ask yourself: fully apart from whether this is a satisfying story or not, is this an RPG story? Here we have a persistent character with unique skills starring in a straightforward revenge tale set in a fantasy setting. We even have the classic trope of the protagonist leaving behind his wrecked hometown and setting forth into a dangerous world, which serves its usual purpose of allowing us to play the character in a way inconsistent with his backstory.

But we’re missing something. This character begins the game as powerful as he will ever be. He follows a steady downward trajectory. He will not grow; he will shrink. There is something about this that flies in the face of RPG-ness.

And it isn’t just because the numbers aren’t going to go up. The reason this ruins the RPG quality of the game is that it removes the player’s capacity to shape the character. RPGs are fundamentally creative games: even the ones about killing and destroying everything. Because even those RPGs aren’t really about destroying. They’re about building and shaping your character, your party, your avatar. Exploration, quests and monsters—those are the rough stone from which you mine resources to build your characters. Inheriting a complete character and trying only to slow his descent into oblivion, while potentially interesting, just doesn’t give the player the power to develop him.

It’s that creative power to mold and develop your avatar over the course of the game that makes an RPG an RPG. It is, in effect, a sort of self-improvement by proxy.

But we’re still not done—even that doesn’t tell us the whole story.

Choices With Consequences

RPGs are also about making consequential choices. This dovetails with our conclusion above, though this may not be entirely apparent at first. There are some choices that obviously affect a character’s development in all RPGs, whether those be exploring, making tactical decisions to win battles, selectively upgrading gear, collecting loot, or distributing stat points.

But upgrading, winning fights, and collecting new items to gain power over the course of the game are features of many games that are absolutely not RPGs. Half Life (along with just about every FPS before and since) features a story arc in which the player grows more powerful through the collection of new weapons (and, consequently, abilities). That isn’t enough.


What makes these events significant in an RPG is that they come about through consequential choices made by the player. In turn, the choices themselves are made consequential largely through scarcity and the need for specialization. Want to pump all your character points into strength? You’re going to have to forego the benefits of putting those points elsewhere. Want to create a wizard character? You’re going to have to make significant trade-offs to make that happen.

Those aren’t choices you see in Half Life. You’re never asked to give up your MP5 to get the Gauss Gun. You’ll never face a choice like deciding whether to take a permanent hit point loss in order to learn new offensive abilities. The player is never required to specialize his character in any respect. Everything the player character finds, he instantly masters.

These same limitations hold true for party-based RPGs as well. Characters in the party are created with different strengths and weaknesses. Though the party may be well balanced, it will be well balanced because the different attributes of the party complement one another, not because the party members are all Gordon Freeman do-everything behemoths.

Even RPGs with rigid character progressions still enforce scarcity and specialization throughout the game by forcing the player to manage limited resources. Most strategy RPGs, for instance, only give experience points on a character-by-character basis, thereby forcing the player to make constant trade-offs between risking the safety of weaker characters and allowing them to fall behind relative to the development of the other characters.

Consequential choices can go well beyond these sorts of pedestrian considerations, of course, and that’s where the RPG genre really shines. Even in areas where choices seemingly have no measurable impact on the development of your character’s stats and capabilities, a hard decision that other in-game characters remember can influence how you’re viewed by others in that world, affect the state of your party, and even change your character’s story.

Sadly, I can’t include this last point in the definition of the RPG. Player-driven character development in a qualitative, non-stat-based way is far from universal in the genre. And this article is descriptive, not normative: it seeks to see RPGs as they are, not as they should be. That second, perhaps greater, task will have to wait for another day.


A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a persistent character or characters via the making of consequential choices.

  • j.smith

    if i may interject on that thought…nnThe genre bending you mention aren’t so new, nor are they revolutionary at all (not trying to put words in your mouth). The abandonment of character stats has been done for some time by LARPers, and while i recognize that not everyone sees LARPing as a form of “game” ( the end of post 14 here) but every where i’ve looked, LARPing is considered a variation of RPG, and a variation of game in general.nnIf RPGs require character stats and abandon player skill, then LARP does not fit the bill. I prefer to view stats and “dice rolling” RNGs as merely the mechanics by which RPGs are played, not the exclusively defining factor that the poster in that thread i linked to maintains they are.nnRPGs may be identified by them, but they are not strictly necessary.u00a0

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  • Stb Hernández

    I will just let this here [], which is a Google+ post sparkling a discussion around the subject touched here.

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  • Safi Karim

    This article communicates exactly what has been in my head for a while now

  • Jon

    I think I would agree mostly with your statement but it’s only when I read the exact sub-arguments you use when I disagree.

    See, I can agree mostly with this statement: “A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a persistent character or characters via the making of consequential choices.” So what’s the problem? Well, I’ll try to explain by addressing separate elements.

    What’s a persistent character mean? I don’t think the game has to keep a character alive for them to be persistent. Neither do I think a character has to be completely explicitly unique. In one of your arguments you used the units in Myth: The Fallen Lords. They have a name, a class and an experience level. Your argument was they’re carbon copies of each other and aren’t guaranteed to last for more than a few missions. Where do I disagree? First of all. they have unique names, right? Therefore, the name helps to make them unique. The fact they also have a class and an experience level further makes them more identifiable. The fact they’re lost forever if the next mission doesn’t use their unit type doesn’t mean they were not a unique character. Furthermore, the most important thing is all of this is HAPPENING IN THE PLAYERS MIND. What if Malcolm the Bowman just happened to be the last man standing in a fight and pulls off a kill to give you a victory? And just at that moment he makes a random quip which coincidentally is the cherry on top of an awesome moment? He immediately becomes part of YOUR story, the game does not have to tell you he’s a part of YOUR story. He’s persistent inside your mind and important to you. Just because he may or may not appear in the next mission does not mean he won’t remain in your mind for years afterward. I’ve always enjoyed strategy games which give the units names and levels for this reason. For you to so blissfully tread over this and leave its corpse behind like fodder is asinine to me.

    Lastly, you tried to say Half Life and other games like them do not have consequences or cannot have consequences? How so? The fact I cannot use every weapon at once means I’m making a choice when I use a particular one, correct? Even if a game has a class and I can freely switch from one to another at anytime does not dispel the fact I cannot play all of them at once. I still have to settle on one at any particular point in the game. This means if I do not make a good choice about which class or weapon to use then I can lose things during the course of the game which might impact my final score or performance. And if I choose not to save scum this point is stronger. So what’s my feeling here? Consequences are not unique to RPGs, they can exist in all genres.

    I guess if I had just read the last sentence (re: your conclusion) I would have mostly agreed. It’s only the details where you and me disagree.

    Here’re some things I wrote down which I think distinguish RPGs:

    1. A well defined diverse world
    2. Well defined diverse characters, usually employing stats/skills to give them explicit details
    3. Player is making choices, not just following a story

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  • Nicholas Thompson

    I’m a little bit confused. If an RPG is a game with player driven character development does that mean any game that has upgrades is an RPG? And what exactly do you mean by consequential choices? You mean if you have to choose between upgrades and that decision can’t be reversed? So any typical action game becomes an action RPG as soon as you add an upgrade system? That doesn’t seem right to me although I am kind of getting the idea.

  • CraigStern

    Action games have been cribbing from RPGs for years now. I think there’s an argument to be made that they’re still better referred to as “action games” if the RPG elements are sort of tacked-on and not actually central to the experience. (See:

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  • late4dinner

    I feel like you’re deliberately being obtuse in your reply here. At no point in his article does he say that other games do not have consequences or that you don’t have choices in other genres, what he’s saying is that in his definition of an RPG, the choices you make bring game-defining consequences. You argue that “The fact I cannot use every weapon at once means I’m making a choice ….” While that is essentially correct, you still can choose to change your mind at any point and switch your pistol for a bazooka. In an RPG, once you’ve given up that bonus strength for a new heal spell, you can’t change it even if you later want to (in most cases).

    As to your first point about memorable characters, the difference is in scope. If you have 100 bowmen in each battle and you only remember the name of one of them from one battle, then they are not characters, you just happen to have remembered the random name generated on that cookie. It takes more than a well-placed randomized sound byte to make a character as I believe you well know. While I do not argue that Malcolm the Bowman may be memorable to you in that instant, you probably could not come up with more than 2 other names from specific bowmen in that same battle. In a true RPG, each character is unique and specific. If you talk to Final Fantasy players and try to ask them about Tifa’s awesome healing abilities, they might look at you funny. You may as well have just commented about Mickey Mouse’s last horror film for all the sense that would make to them. Tifa is a well-defined character to them as a strong fighter, not a healer.

    Sorry, don’t mean to rant at you, but I read your comment and had to reply to a few points.

  • j.smith

    “In a true RPG, each character is unique and specific.”

    Each, perhaps, but not every. There are exceptions to this (NPCs in just about every RPG ever, random characters in Final Fantasy Tactics).

    Finally, this seems like a sort of “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

    “A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a
    persistent character or characters via the making of consequential

    I also disagree with this, though not because i’ve played Myth 2, which is an RTS with RPG elements, but because i’ve played pure RPGs that feature no such player-driven development. The much lauded Final Fantasy series is by no means immune to this, as the earliest game in the series did not have much, if anything, in the way of player-driven development of the persistent characters.

    Secret of Mana, an Action RPG, had many weapons and spells in the game, each requiring time to grind them to their full potential, but no sacrifice was made as you could raise them all to max with each character. The one character who “gave up that new heal spell for a strength bonus”, to paraphrase, did so because the game required it, not as a player choice. The player is just along for the ride during moments like these.

    I also find it a little funny that on the one hand you are a proponent of player-driven development, then in your next point use Tifa as an example of a character who does one thing well and not another. Contrast this with any playable character from Final Fantasy 6, who were distinct and memorable, each having their own unique area of expertise, but could also master any form of magic you choose. Terra could be all out black mage, or white mage, or both. Edgar uses his special tools, Sabin uses his martial techniques, Cyan uses his sword techniques, Mog uses dances, Setzer uses fortune skills, Locke uses thief skills, but they are all customizable outside their “class”, and no sacrifices are made to do this.

    I’ve not played much of FF7, so i had to look it up, and found that some people do use Tifa as a healer, so i’m not sure how that helps your argument either.

    Wow… last time i commented on this blog was 3 years ago…

    Anyhoo, peace yo!

  • CraigStern

    The purpose of this article was to come up with a definition that encompasses those games already commonly referred to as RPGs. Taking games that are not commonly known as RPGs to begin with and complaining that they’ve been excluded from the scope of the definition is to misunderstand the fundamental point of the article. “No true Scotsman” is not really applicable under these circumstances.

  • Joe E Dangerously

    I think this is a pretty good description here for the most part. And since the consensus seems to be mostly good let’s examine a specific game. You start the game with a character you name, interact with other characters who experience progression and you aid in that progression, you make consequential choices that affect how you play the game and how the game turns out, at least to a degree, you gain hit points, improve attack stats and possibly defense if you choose to go that route, you make choices that sacrifice certain attributes for others and decide what kind of player you are and what kind of character you want to be, and in the end you have to make a choice. Do you sacrifice the rest of your life to save the characters you’ve met or do you finish the task and sacrifice the others to get your life back? There is a village, there are side quests, there are optional upgrades, and you impact the game world in a very profound way.

    I am of course talking about The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

    For some reason many RPG fans seem hellbent on insisting that the Zelda games cannot be RPGs. The reasoning ranges from not explicitly leveling up to Link gaining all upgrades through items and not combat and rising numbers. But this seems a very narrow definition in my view. Why does the method of progression matter so much when so many RPG conventions are here? Not to mention the almost immeasurable impact Zelda has had on the RPG genre. Technically Hydlide did come before Zelda and do a lot of the same things but it was never even a small fraction as popular and it did not influence entire generations of players and designers. Zelda did. It can be argued, in fact, that the popularization and maybe even creation of the action RPG subgenre can be credited to the popularization of The Legend Of Zelda. The original seems very different from what we consider RPGs to be today in many respects but perhaps that’s just because it was produced in the early days of the genre before the definitions were as rigid as many consider them today. Does that, then, mean LoZ is no longer an RPG but once was? Or does it mean that the genre has since evolved and Zelda is an example of a transition within the genre? I think it could definitely be argued the latter is an entirely valid description of the game. Perhaps both are. But the definitions of RPG are not so stringent that no Zelda game could ever qualify except in the minds of those who for some reason are invested in separating it already. The Legend of Zelda and all its sequels are action adventure games. I’ll go ahead and make that argument for you. That’s perfectly valid. But that doesn’t mean they’re not RPGs as well. Going back to Link’s Awakening there is a level 2 sword you can choose to get or not to get, you can steal the Yoshi doll and be referred to as “THIEF” for the rest of the game, you can go through the game without dying to get the good ending, and in the DX version you can choose the red or blue tunic. These are choices, character progression, interaction, consequences, and attributes that, while somewhat limited, are controlled by the player.

    Essentially the fact that so many people argue that Zelda is in fact an RPG means that it feels like one to those many people. And if it feels so much like an RPG and possesses so many elements of an RPG, then does that not make it an RPG? Perhaps not a traditional RPG but it seems clear that it does have a place in the genre. No one argues that Super Mario Bros, Sonic The Hedgehog, Doom, and Tomb Raider are RPGs. No one argues that Crazy Taxi and Metroid are RPGs. But for Zelda, they do. And often. Does that not mean that it at least has a place within the genre? I think considering the amount of elements present in almost all the games one can legitimately argue that The Legend Of Zelda is a series that can at least partially be classified as an RPG series.