There used to be a day when I had to explain to people what a Role Playing Game is. Nowadays many people are familiar with the term RPG, mostly due to the rise of MMORPGs, which have guided the genre into the mainstream. (For the newbies, that stands for Massive Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Games). Still, the need for explanation stands. People practise several activities in MMORPGs, but roleplaying is only a minor one of them. So, what am I talking about?
The idea of a RPG is that you assume the role of an imaginary character, living in an imaginary world. Game Masters (GM's) or game designers and administrators design that world and your character can explore it. You direct your character in interacting with the gameworld and so storylines start to develop. It's like reading an adventure story or playing in a theatre play, but with the difference that your part of the script has not yet been written and you have to fill in your lines yourself. You can improvise on the spot, but it helps to think about your game persona in advance. If you know your character, you can think up your "lines" in an instant, because you know your role inside out. That is roleplaying.
Types of RPG's
The first roleplaying games were "tabletop" games. In these, a group of players sit around a table, help themselves to some beer and chips and start to play out a story. One of them assumes the role of GM. He / she designs the world, draws up the background of the adventure and acts as arbiter in disputes about interpretation of the roleplaing rules that are used. Tabletop games use roleplaying rules, but these tend to be loose and are used more as guidelines than as laws. Because both GM and players are in the same room, they can develop a highly interactive story that can feel a bit like improvisation theatre. Tabletop crews usually have little material to visualize their game, so they must use their imagination to see the story unfolding in their minds.
Players of "live" RPGs dislike the abstractness of tabletop games. They want to sense the gameworld around them. So, like actors, they dress in customes and travel to a suitable background location and play their story out in a tangible environment. They replace beer and chips by mead and rye bread, adopt archaic speech and manners and create they atmosphere they need. Live RPGs are more demanding in preparation, but make the sensory experience much more realistic and engaging.
Computers can display movies on screen and make them interactive, rather than conventional movies. This makes them very suitable for hosting RPGs and this type of game is among the oldest of computer game genres. But contemporary computers do not yet come close to humans in flexibility and intelligence. Therefore computer RPGs tend to use very strict and limited rules and fence in the creativity of the player. Nonetheless, they can be fun to play.
The rise of the internet in the 1990's opened the way to tackle one important lack of tradtional computer RPG's: the lack of social interaction. In MMORPGs, hordes of players can share the same gameworld and interact with eachother. Players can form teams and go on adventure together, just like in tabletop and live RPG's.
The roleplaying aspect of MMORPGs is small, because it involves creative storytelling an interaction, things that require labor- and cost-intensive effort. As these online games are hosted by companies that try to make as much money as they can, there is little room for anything beside the standard scripts. Mostly MMORPGs are endless races to bash monsters, gather experience points and magic items and proceed to the next level where there are more monsters, experience points and magic items. There is social interaction, but it is often set next to the game story, rather than woven into it. Still people keep playing them, sometimes to excession, getting addicted to the instinct to continually press towards the next level.
Types of roleplayers
People play RPGs for various reasons, but five main types can be discerned. If you are a roleplayer, you will probably find that you have some of at least one of these types in you.
The powergamer wants to be the best. Maybe he/she is unsuccessful in real life and tries to compensate for that in the game world; maybe he/she is successful in real life too and trying to be on top is just how he/she is. Powergamers want the best ability scores, the most powerful magical artifacts and the highest level. They will explore the game rules to find ways to use them to maximum advantage and some will even exploit holes in the rules. But for many being on top is not the ultimate goal; reaching that level is. So when they have finished a game, ending up as top ace, a sequel or expansion pack will easily draw them in for a second round. If none such is available, they will often play the same game again, walking the route from bottom to top at maximum pace. Powergamers are very good customers for lazy commercial game designers.
This type of player likes to solves problems, for the intellectual challenge of them. Traditionally, every adventure has turning points where might is useless and wit prevails. Traps or locks must be puzzled out, strategies devised and disputes resolved. Problem solvers relish these. They like puzzling games just as much as RPGs, or probably more.
Explorers are not overly concerned with "playing" a RPG, i.e. following the storyline. They are just fascinated by the strange and eerie worlds that some game designers set down. They like to just walk around in these, see and explore and enrich their personal experience with it. Some enjoy the scenery, some explore the environment, others like to find out what strange beings inhabit the game world, etc. etc.
Social people like to interact with other people. The setting is irrelevant. They socialize at home, at work, on the internet, in a RPG, or just everywhere. You will not find socialers in traditional single-player computer RPGs, because computers are very bad at communicating. But they relish MMORPGs because there are so many other people to meet there. As there are so many socializers, they form a potential market for MMORPG developers that is currently only very partially exploited.
I end this list with the least common type, which should be top dog, considering the name of the game. Roleplayers like to get into the role of another person, to experience what their character experiences and react like their character would, not like themselves. They bring RPGs the closest to acting, like described earlier. They find computer RPGs, either desktop or online, poor platforms, because the game worlds are so limited there. Maybe when these grow more flexbile, like tabletop and live RPGs, will the roleplayers surface there. Then everyone can be a moviestar, though the audience will be small.
Personal contributions: AD&D, CC, Lanik, Manik and Totte
During my tabletop-based adventure career I've concentrated almost completely on a game system called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,
created by Gary Gygax and his henchmen,
expanded by the guys from Wizards of the Coast, nowaday owners of former TSR,
then bought by big game manufacturer Hasbro and now being milked out by them.
AD&D is a shaky system, but it's well-known and has a huge base of installed players. Of course it can be done better, and has been done. In the 1990's I created an extension to AD&D, called Customized Classes. Later I've built several completely new RPG systems, culminating in Totte. This is a system without ties to AD&D, and in my humble opinion, superior.