What is an RPG?

I need to take a moment to describe what I feel is an RPG. This seems easy, but more and more in the modern era, the RPG genre in particular has gotten more and more loose. Part of the problem is that systems that used to be common tropes to only RPGs like levels and stats, have started to be moved to other genres. And for some odd reason, companies have wanted to tag their games as RPGs even loosely to try to increase their potential playerbase (even though the RPG player base has always been niche).

I can’t say that what I’m offering up is a definitive guide as to what makes the genre an RPG. I can only say this is what I am looking for at this moment, and this guide is subject to change as time goes on. Also, there’s nothing wrong with other genres, people think that me arguing that a game is not an RPG often makes them feel like I am saying it isn’t good, that isn’t the case. This is just defining a specific genre (also if a movie is not sci-fi that doesn’t mean it can’t be good).

1.) The game must have a meaningful story, but must be more than just a story. A meaningful story is something more in depth than just “go save the princess.” This is very much a grey concept and is of the eye of the beholder. It is also something that changes based on generation. What passed for a meaningful story on the NES may not pass on the PS5. I add in the “More than just a story” because Visual Novels are a genre that often gets mixed in with RPG. RPGs have complex gameplay and mechanics… Novels are generally just novels… That being said, other genres the focus is gameplay, and while RPGs gamplay tends to be very complex, the focus is still usually on the story. The mechanics often are made to move the story not just for the fun.

2) There must be meaningful choices, in either Character Development or the story…. preferably both. Early Bioware games did this really well… do you save the NPC or do you kill them? These are options that RPGs should have. Even early games like Final Fantasy 1 had them to a lessor degree in that oftentimes, you had certain things that you needed to do, but how you went about doing them was up to you. These games are rarely on rails.

3) Players are playing a role of a character (or characters) within a universe, they are not playing themselves in that universe. This is a VITAL part of being an RPG and it isn’t straightforward in what it means. The essence of what this means is that YOUR skills as a player, while exist, are marginalized. The character’s skills are what is important. Yours are important, but generally speaking it is your character’s agility that allows him to hit opponents faster than they hit him, not your ability to click a button faster. RPGs de-emphasize twitch play, and emphasize figuring out scenarios. This is true even in action-oriented RPGs which often have pauses to let you set things up and still rely on character stats to figure out order and damage. Character stats mean a lot in these games.

4) Characters grow stronger as the game progresses via stats, skill, and/or levels. I’d say in this day and age, this particular rule is the one that carries over to other genres pretty regularly, but not always. I also think this rule has a potential to get broken, however, I think games that try to do away with stat growth tend to get pushed to Adventure games or Visual Novels.

5) Stats. They just have to be there. I don’t care if I even see them necessarily (though I feel like a good RPG shows them to you), but they have to be there in some way shape or form.

6) An inventory must be available with items that are used for more than quests. This rule was taken from CRPG Addict, and before I read it over there, I never really thought of it, but I think it’s pretty good. It essentially gives a solid differentiation between Adventure games and RPGs.

I do feel like there is another rule in here somewhere relating to the complexity of systems in RPGs. But I don’t know how to properly verbalize it, and it’s also increasingly more difficult to quantify anyway with modern video games which even seemingly simple games have complex mechanics underlying them.

Overall, I think this is a fairly straight forward list defining what it is to be an RPG. It does a pretty good job, I feel like removing a lot of tweener games that keep creeping into the genre. But like I said, there are things that don’t feel quite right all the way and I anticipate this being an evolving definition.