Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Felipe Pepe tackles the nature of the RPG

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 9, 2016

Elitist Old Farts unite! Or… uh, not. Why should we start now?

Felipe Pepe has composed a not-short article describing the nature of role-playing games, which largely breaks down into a discussion of why they are getting so difficult to define, and why they are proving difficult to… *cough* evolve.

Why Are RPGs So Difficult to Classify and Evolve?

Now, Felipe is an awesome guy and a true-blue old-school (elitist fart) kinda guy, a categorization I like to include myself within. We both harbor a love of walls of stats. He may be a bit more open-minded than me for what might be a good approach in an RPG. And he has less of a hang-up about using the word “evolve” with respect to RPGs.

But I do believe that his very title suggests the answer. Categorization limits. Evolution – at least in the way I see it – is a broadening of the category, a pushing beyond the old limits.

The challenge we have now in defining an RPG is trying to draw lines separating the games that we generally acknowledge as being RPGs from those that we don’t consider RPGs – and no matter how we draw the lines, things get included and excluded that we don’t think belong on that side of the line.

What we want is to draw just a few lines and then point out in a 90-degree arc and say, “From here out past the horizon and beyond is RPG. Go forth and bring back samples of the wondrous variety to be found here!” And instead, we mostly just cross-pollinate with the other genres and come out with more hybrids and make the lines blurrier and blurrier and necessitate more lines.

But the truth is – and Felipe knows this maybe better than I do – that this has always been the case. When we talk about “old-school RPGs” we tend to talk about a handful of favorites. We forget all the stillborn attempted evolutionary branches that failed for any number of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with the quality of their ideas. The truth is, there were tons of games back in the 80s that could have been the template for future RPGs that do not represent our concept of “classic, old-school RPG,” and a new, updated version of the title wouldn’t be considered an RPG today… but back then, we didn’t care.

Or maybe we did. I don’t remember. I have to browse through ancient back issues of Computer Gaming World to recall the discussions back then.  Go back far enough, and even the name “RPG” or “Role-playing game” didn’t exist, for tabletop or computer games. You just had games that simulated some aspects that people enjoyed from playing Dungeons & Dragons or similar games.  What aspects scratched that itch varied from designer to designer.

That’s really where we still are today. Except now, we’ve had some styles of gaming that have become the template. As Felipe says, for the new generation of RPG fans, it’s not about whether a game captures the feeling of playing D&D around a table anymore, it’s about whether it captures the feeling of playing Dragon Age or Mass Effect.

As Felipe says, computer RPGs are weird.

I love the RPG label, like I love the “indie” label, too much to give it up. The answer to things becoming difficult to classify isn’t to throw ones hands in the air and eliminate classification. If scientists did that, where would the scientific world be today, anyway? The issue is really one where the label gets appropriated by everything under the sun because it has some level of marketability, and thus all meaning and value gets trampled out of it. But it still serves a purpose. Just like saying “The American Northwest” can get kind fuzzy on the exact borders, it’s still pretty clear that Florida, New York, and Texas do not belong, but Washington and Oregon do. Just like we can argue over whether or not Pluto ought to be a planet.

So… yeah. We can argue over the fuzzy boundaries. There may be different aspects of games that scratch the RPG itch for us. All I can say is thank heavens for the indies (however you want to define “indie”) who are not (usually) following on the mainstream “evolutionary branch” of RPGs and are instead experimenting with the genre in different ways, mixing and matching the different aspects, borrowing from the past as well as the modern.

We’ve still got a long way to get to that horizon of possibility, and along the way we’re going to have a lot of stillborn ideas and epic failures and really weird experiments. We’re gonna have some games that people might call RPGs or roguelikes or roguelike-likes that we really don’t consider part of our own definition of the genre.

But that’s okay. Hopefully we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

Filed Under: Design, Geek Life - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Felipe Pepe said,

    Thanks for the shoutout Jay 🙂

    And you make a fair point about the past. We had games like Rings of Zilfin, a mix of RPG, space invaders and adventure games, yet no one went “it’s just an action RPG/hybrid, not a TRUE RPG!”.

    Somewhere along the way we found an RPG branch and decided it was the only, true path. And that’s never good…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s why I don’t like to use the word “evolve” – it implies a single path of adaptation. While a broad, varied category may fragment the fan base, I think it’s healthier overall.