Kelgray and Beyond

int game_engine(void) {

The Charactorial Theory of Roleplaying Games

Last time I started to talk about the Charactorial Theory o f Roleplaying Games, but I left the definition of what that is somewhat vague.  So now let’s explore it a bit further and see if we can make this work as a solution to the demarcation of roleplaying games.

 So the Characrtorial Theory of Roleplaying Games states that a game is a roleplaying game if and only if you are able to define your character through the game mechanics.  So let’s start by defining what’s meant by game mechanics.  If this term is used too loosely then any game that allows you to enter a description about your character would be included, so we have to be a bit more specific and say that it is the in-game mechanics that matter.  That is to say the part of the game where you actually consider yourself to be playing, rather than the part where you are setting yourself up, getting ready to play.  So the actual character creation part of any game would be excluded in the Charactorial theory of roleplaying games.  Which would mean that according to this theory, it wouldn’t matter what “class” of character you are, be it mage, thief, warrior, etc.  The game mechanics that are set up because of the character creation, therefore, also wouldn’t matter, as we would say that you would simply be playing a different version of the game.  Basically, if your character relies on the game mechanics for his/her definition, then the game mechanics cannot rely on your character for theirs.  One or the other has to come first, and so we’re saying that the game mechanics must come first and the character be made out of them.

Next let’s talk about what we mean by “define”.  In what way can the game mechanics define your character?  When I talk about the definition of a character, I’m talking about the characterization that you go through.  Like the way characters are defined in fiction.  This is another reason to exclude the character creation part of the game.  In the writing world, good writing is often described as ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.  A character is defined through his/her actions, rather than simply text that talks about the character.  In the same way, in an RPG a character should be able to perform actions that define some aspect of himself.  I’ll take a couple of examples of these sorts of actions from the two games that made me want to come up with the theory in the first place.  Oblivion, and Fallout.

In Fallout 2, In just the city of New Reno, you can star in a porno movie and get the Porn Star trait.  Or you can sleep around and get the Gigolo trait.  These are examples of game mechanics that allow you to define aspects of your character ()namely, the aspect that your character likes sex more than your average bear).  In Oblivion it’s a bit less pronounced, but still there.  After meeting certain conditions your are contacted at night by a member of the brotherhood of the Dark Hand.  At this point you can join the assassin’s guild, walk away, or kill the member.  These are options that define things about the morality of your character.  To join the guild, to be a pacifist, or to rid the world of something that your character sees as evil. 

It’s these sorts of definitions that are required for characterization.  But these examples by themselves still cannot be enough, lest we include games like Duke Nukem where you can decide to pity kill prisoners or leave them be.  So we need more.  Unfortunately this is the weakness of the Charactorial Theory of Roleplaying Games.  We cannot avoid a gray area here and so we are still left with a somewhat fuzzy definition.  All that can be said is that the more that you are able to define your character, the more of a roleplaying game it is.  We can draw arbitrary lines like, if you are able to define your character enough through the game mechanics alone that if a story were written about it, it would be enough information to make a unique character.  Which is a good line to be sure, but still arbitrary nonetheless.  At the moment I can’t think of a solution to this problem so I’m gonna have to think on it a bit more.  Any suggestions?


April 25, 2007 - Posted by | Epistomology, Ethics, Fallout, Games, Metaphysics, Oblivion, Philosophy, Roleplaying Games, RPG, Technology, Videogames


  1. No suggestions, sorry :) just wanted to say that the discussion of this piece at the Bethsoft Fallout 3 forum is really interesting.

    Comment by briosafreak | April 26, 2007

  2. I’d never thought before on the game mechanics as a vehicle for character definition. To try and answer your question, I think that the answer lies with the definition, “a game is a roleplaying game if and only if you are able to define your character through the game mechanics”.

    The duke nukem counter-example, that sorta breaks up the theory, ignores the idea of feekback. I would argue that, for the game mechanics to really define a character, there must be some feedback from the game. Defining interactions between the character and the world should be recognized by the game mechanics. That’s the big difference between an RPG and an FPS with moral situations.

    A example of this would be alignment or reputation systems, where the net result of many tiny actions are summed to weight in a larger effect.

    Comment by evord | April 29, 2007

  3. If you ever give a new edit to the texts, change something here and there, add things that are more clear to you know do send me the full article so I can put it as a special feature on my blog.

    It’s not that I agree with everything you say, but I like to post articles from different viewpoints, and I like for my readers to exercise their minds on a bit of good old fashioned speculation about the RPG and gaming worlds. Think about it and than contact me through my meebo or this comments thread.

    Comment by briosafreak | April 30, 2007

  4. Will do. I’m still trying to work out the details, but I think I’m gettin closer.

    Comment by Taylor | April 30, 2007

  5. This topic interests me greatly. I’ve done some of my own thinking on how computer game genres can be properly classified. I should probably write about it, just as you’re doing. I suppose I’m still in the thinking stages.

    I would like to offer one suggestion that may help with your effort. I believe that your ongoing challenge lies in the fact that you are trying to create a definition of RPGs based on distinct criteria, such as “game mechanics.” Consider that a focus on things like game mechanics may actually be preventing you from arriving at a meaningful definition. I expect that you are finding that the nature of what you are trying to discover is elusive in some way, despite the fact that you are trying to focus on very relevant aspects of RPGs, such as game mechanics. While an aspect such as game mechanics is certainly important to any game, it’s a technical detail, and may not help us figure out what meaningfully distinguishes RPGs from other computer game genres. It’s not a technical detail we’re after, but rather, the ESSENCE of RPG gaming. We won’t arrive at what this essence is by focusing on technical details. If we persist with this course, the answers we seek will remain elusive.

    It’s very easy to get lost in a sea of particulars, which can distract us, and cause us to lose sight of the very thing we are searching for. The temptation to focus on technical details is strong, especially when the goal is “classification.” But it must be avoided when trying to create the kind of formal and essential definition that you are looking for. Otherwise, you may continue to be plagued with the presence of unpleasant exceptions to your definitional rule, games that cannot be satisfactorily incorporated into your definition. These exceptions to the rule, these quasi-RPGs that are failing to fit nicely into your chosen definition, are doing so precisely because of a focus on razor sharp distinctions. As long as technical details are the focus, stubborn exceptions will remain. The only way to satisfactorily capture the essence of RPGs is to seek a more generalized definition, instead of a particularized one.

    The way I would approach this, is to think about what makes RPGs a meaningful experience for gamers, irrespective of how any particular RPG may have been technically constructed. Once we figure out what RPGs actually DO for gamers, and what gamers are wanting out of an RPG experience, then we will have a formal definition of RPGs that doesn’t depend on particular features or technical details. Then we will be able to say that any game that captures that aspect can be meaningfully understood to do what RPGs are supposed to do, and for that reason, can be understood to be an RPG. Naturally, various games with radically different technical aspects may be able to be classified as RPGs this way. Perhaps some will meet this definition that we wouldn’t initially expect. But the definition will be far more universal, and essential, than any technical one. A technical approach tends to force us to exclude potential candidates, whereas a formal approach may allow for many of those quasi-RPGs to be included in our definition.

    But what we will have when we are done, hopefully, is a definition that captures the vital essence of RPG gaming.

    Comment by Richard D. | June 30, 2008

  6. Was just rereading this and don’t remember being notified of the last comment, so I spose I’ll try to respond 2 years later as opposed to never.

    The problem with defining things based on the experiences they provide is that those experiences are entirely subjective, and while it’s okay for a description of roleplaying games to allow some people to consider different games to be RPGs than other people do, it doesn’t work for definitions as it does not solve the demarcation issue of what is an RPG and what is not an RPG. I’m trying to find an objective way of defining the genre in which the status of whether or not any given game is an RPG will be the same for every person who uses the definition, which means looking at the intrinsic qualities of the game itself (which is to say you should be able to classify a game even if nobody has ever played it, which means we have to look at what a player can do as opposed to what a player does).

    This article was inspired largely by the Philosophy of science and the demarcation issue there where a definition of what the scientific method is must include things like experimental physics and reject things like astrology. That’s why I focus a lot on the “quasi-RPGs”, but when I talk of them I’m only trying to point out that the definition remains too vague if a game which is obviously not an RPG falls within it, and conversely, if a game which is obviously an RPG doesn’t.

    Remember that this theory is trying to create a concrete definition of a specific kind of RPG (specifically, what I consider an RPG to be). I would never expect everyone to agree with it and I would never expect it to describe the genre, but rather to be a common frame of reference under which whether or not a game is an RPG is an objective fact as opposed to a matter of opinion.

    Comment by Taylor | July 25, 2010

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