A recent CRPG Addict post brought up the topic of how you distinguish RPGs from games that just have the appearance of an RPG or which borrow RPG mechanics. This is a topic I've been interested in for a while. Establishing clear genre criteria for the sake of gatekeeping or filtering is not interesting or really possible, but it's possible to establish an analytical framework with which to view a game's genre. The Berlin Interpretation is a well-known attempt to create such a framework for roguelikes. The CRPG Addict has both a baseline definition of an RPG (to filter his game list) and a rating rubric called the GIMLET (to quantify how well the game suits his preferences for RPGs). The baseline definition he offers is very broad and reasonable:

A role-playing game is one in which character development is the driving mechanic of gameplay. Specifically:

  1. Throughout the game, the character must become stronger, more resilient, and more capable of overcoming the game's challenges, including combat.
  2. Such character development must be separate from inventory acquisition.
  3. Such character development must not consist solely of improvements to maximum health.
  4. Players must have some control over the rate or details of development.

I think this is a great definition, but it includes a lot of games that most people would not consider RPGs. Arguably, it applies to a lot of scrolling shooters and beat-em-ups. That said, the purpose of this definition is to exclude vaguely RPG-ish games that got miscategorized on MobyGames. There's no risk of someone expecting the CRPG Addict to play Gradius. (As an aside, one way of tightening this definition without excluding anything important would be to add "permanently" to the first criterion.)

The GIMLET, on the other hand, includes a lot of criteria that certainly contribute to a good RPG, but which are not exactly core to one, either. That has resulted in some interesting ratings oddballs like Challenge of the Five Realms, which got a Recommended-level rating on the basis of Game World, NPCs, Quests, and Gameplay (nonlinearity) despite having virtually no character development, weak combat, a shallow equipment list, and an irrelevant combat.

This got me thinking. What I'm interested in is not a rating system like the GIMLET nor a set of filtering criteria, although a good analytical framework can inform the creation of such systems. Instead, I want a way to describe the basic structure of a recognizable CRPG – the mechanics and qualities that form the bones of a classic entry in the genre. In order to do this, I went back to the origins of the computer RPG, less than a year after Dungeons & Dragons hit the scene. These games were actually a lot closer to D&D than you might think – tabletop roleplaying and computer RPGs developed in their own directions over the years in ways that favored their strengths. But the D&D that came from Gary Gygax's table and the early PLATO RPGs had the same structure:

  • You, the player, directly control a character in the game world.
  • Through the character, you explore a dungeon.
  • Through the character, you encounter monsters, traps, and other dangers, and  you overcome them with the character's abilities and equipment.
  • By exploring and overcoming difficulties, your character collects treasure and equipment.
  • By exploring and overcoming difficulties, your character advances in ability.
  • Your increasingly powerful character continues to explore more difficult dungeons and overcome more difficult obstacles until they die, retire, or accomplish some goal.

This is the "dungeon crawl" or "old-school RPG" structure. It's worth noting what's not here. There are no NPCs with their own thoughts, hopes, and dreams (other than to kill the PC). There is no dialogue other than maybe "die!" and "arrgh!". There is no overarching narrative, no intrigue, no worldbuilding. There's no macro or micro simulation. There were no difficult decisions to be made which made you think about your ethical philosophy.

Now, to be clear, all of this stuff did and does actually happen at D&D tabletops. But it wasn't the core structure, the nuts and bolts of what went on. Later tabletop systems have made narrative core to the mechanics, and later CRPGs have done the same. But their shared ancestry is rooted in that very simple cycle – explore, slay, loot, promote.

This is intentionally simplistic, and there's a lot of ways to construe those four verbs more or less literally. But I think the following are uncontroversially true:

  • A game where you control one or more discrete characters is more RPG-like than a game where you control an army or a nation.
  • A game where you choose where your character goes next is more RPG-like than a game where your destination is predetermined.
  • A game where you use your character's skills and equipment to overcome challenges is more RPG-like than a game where the player's skills are used instead.
  • A game where you are materially (i.e. with gold, treasure, equipment, etc.) rewarded for overcoming challenges is more RPG-like than a game where you are not materially rewarded for overcoming challenges.
  • A game where overcoming challenges allows you to permanently enhance your character's abilities is more RPG-like than a game where your character's abilities remain static.

I argue that a game will feel like an RPG if it sufficiently fits all of the above criteria. A game that is substantially lacking in one or more of the criteria may feel like a "RPG hybrid" or like it has "RPG elements". A game that lacks most of the criteria will not feel like an RPG at all.

One interesting thing about this framework is that only one of the five criteria is key to adventure games (playing a discrete character) and only one other could be considered a major component (exploration). Distinguishing between RPGs and adventure games has historically been difficult – the two genres are frequently hybridized, and the granddaddy of adventure games, Colossal Cave Adventure, was inspired by D&D. Having a set of criteria that poorly fits adventure games is a good sign that it's a precise fit for CRPGs.

I also want to clarify here, for the record, that I love interesting characters, thought-provoking plots, cool worldbuilding, tense dialogue, and so on. I'm a huge Obsidian fanboy, I like Ultima more than Wizardry, I love Final Fantasy, I'm obsessed with simulationist action-RPGs. None of this is meant to disparage those elements or to suggest that they're not desirable or important in RPGs. It's also completely valid to be someone who loves story-rich RPGs and has no time for dungeon crawls, no matter what certain internet forum-dwellers might suggest.

In the future, I hope to write in some more detail about this framework. Hopefully by then I'll have a better name for it. In the meantime, here's some quick applications (PC: discrete player character, X: explore, S: slay, $: loot, P: promote):

Star Control 2 - PC: No, but your flagship kind of is X: Yes, in your flagship and lander S: Yes, but heavily action-driven $: Yes, both from combat and planets P: Yes, upgrading the flagship Verdict: The most RPG-y non-RPG ever

Ultima IV - PC: Yes, and you get to choose a class X: Yes: overworld, towns, and dungeons S: Yes, although kill not the non-evil beings of the land! $: Yes, but get not others' gold! P: Mandatory if you wanna be the Avatar, plus there's the Orbs Verdict: Extremely RPG

Deus Ex - PC: JC "Jesus Christ" Denton X: Partial credit for side objectives and more ventilation ducts than you ever asked for S: Remember, we're cops. Stick with the prod (More seriously, you don't get XP for combat. Partial.) $: Yes, there's tons of fun stuff to loot P: Yes, both skills and augs Verdict: Shooter-RPG hybrid, but the RPG creds are strong