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AboutOn Roleplaying Games

What's in an RPG?

Things are not so clear cut when we try to distinguish certain types of board games or computer games from roleplaying games when they allow for some form of roleplaying and the mechanics also seem associative.

We can safely say, for example, that Candyland is not a roleplaying game because you’re not adopting the role of a character and you're making choices in the game as a player, not a character.

But is Magic the Gathering a roleplaying game, based on these criteria?

Role & Play in Other Games

Ostensibly, Magic the Gathering allows you to adopt the role of a planeswalker (a powerful wizard) who conjures up monsters to fight other wizards.

As play commences, players assemble their magical armies and do battle against each other using sophisticated card mechanics. I would argue that these mechanics are associative, if we’re being generous and accept that the player is playing the role of a planeswalker in the fiction of the card game.

For example, a player controlling a monster card with the power “Trample” can pass damage over to other monsters and harm the enemy planeswalker. Furthermore, there are numerous player-to-player “sorceries” that players can use to bypass the magical armies standing between them. There are even certain cards that give the player a specific character identity with a backstory described by the card and the game’s external lore. And although it's not relevant to the activity of adopting roles or modeling character action through associated mechanics, Magic, like many roleplaying games, depicts an expansive fantasy setting through the flavor text on its cards. 

Then there are digital games which are categorized as computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) by game publishers. In these games, you typically control one or more characters that you navigate through the computer-generated fiction.

The Final Fantasy series is probably the most famous CRPG in history. In any iteration of Final Fantasy, there is a principal character (like the PC) whose perspective is assumed to be the player's, and supporting characters (like NPCs) that he may or may not directly control. You are allowed to make decisions as the principal character (in the form of a conversation tree), with other NPCs rendered by the game engine.

In this way, a CRPG is like a solo or GM-less roleplaying game, where the GM is the computer running the simulation. It's not a stretch to argue, then, that the player is adopting the role of the principal character in the fiction, and that actions the character makes are modeled (behind the scenes) by the computer with associative mechanics.

Despite all this, I don't think either of these examples constitute roleplaying games, even though both feature roleplaying-game activities. Something else is missing that makes them fundamentally different types of games.

Which means "roleplaying" and "associative mechanics" alone are not enough to distinguish the roleplaying game from these types of games.

Are you sure?