Canon:Role-playing game

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A role-playing game (RPG; often roleplaying game) is a game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters and collaboratively create or follow stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players can improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

A role-playing game rarely has winners or losers. That makes role-playing games fundamentally different from board games, card games, sports and most other types of games. Role-playing games are typically more collaborative and social than competitive.

A typical role-playing game unifies its participants to play as a group, instead of in competition. Like serials or novel sequences, these episodic games are often played in weekly sessions over a period of months or even years, although some gamers prefer playing one session games.

Role-playing games are a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling. Like novels or films, role-playing games appeal because they engage the imagination. Interactivity is the crucial difference between role-playing games and traditional fiction. Whereas a viewer of a television show is a passive observer, a player at a role-playing game makes choices that affect the story. Such role-playing games extend an older tradition of storytelling games where a small party of friends collaborate to create a story. Most role-playing games are conducted like radio drama: only the spoken component is acted, and players speak out of character to describe action and discuss game mechanics. The genre of role-playing games in which players do perform their characters' physical actions is known as live-action role-playing games (LARP).

While simple forms of role-playing exist in traditional children's games such as "cops and robbers", "cowboys and Indians" and "playing house", role-playing games add a level of sophistication and persistence to this basic idea. Participants in a role-playing game will generate specific characters and an ongoing plot. A consistent system of rules and a more or less realistic campaign setting in games aids suspension of disbelief. The level of realism in games ranges from just enough internal consistency to set up a believable story, credible challenge or full-blown simulations of real-world processes.

Video games incorporating settings and game mechanics found in role-playing games are referred to as computer role-playing games, or CRPGs. Due to the popularity of CRPGs, the terms "role-playing game" and "RPG" have both to some degree been co-opted by the video gaming industry; as a result, traditional non-digital pastimes of this sort are increasingly being referred to as "pen and paper" or "tabletop" role-playing games, though neither pen and paper nor a table are strictly necessary.


Main article: Wikipedia:History of role-playing games

The assumption of roles was a central theme in some early 20th century activities such as the game Jury Box, mock trials, model legislatures, and "Theatre Games". In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups such as The Sealed Knot and the Society for Creative Anachronism began to perform "creative history" reenactments introducing fantasy elements, and in the 1970s fantasy wargames were developed, inspired by sword and sorcery fiction, in which each player controlled only a single unit, or "character". The earlier role-playing tradition was combined with the wargames' rule-based character representation to form the first role-playing games.[1]

Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1974 by Dave Arneson's and E. Gary Gygax's TSR, was the first commercially available role-playing game. TSR marketed the game as a niche product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies total to a strictly hobbyist market.[2] After establishing itself in boutique stores it developed a cult following.

Dungeons & Dragons was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when well-publicized opponents claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims.[3] Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills.[4] Though role-playing has been accepted by many,[5] a few religious conservatives continue to object.[6]

Due to the game's success, the term Dungeons & Dragons has sometimes been used as a generic term for fantasy role-playing games. TSR undertook legal action to prevent its trademark from becoming generic.[7]

Games such as GURPS and Champions also served to introduce to role-playing games game balance between player characters; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games served to emphasize storytelling and plot and character development over rules and combat. In recent years, rules stringency has been combined with literary techniques to develop games such as Dogs in the Vineyard that stress player input into a tense situation to give players moral agency in the course of the emerging story.

Competition from computer role-playing games and collectible card games led to a decline in the role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc. was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast.[8] To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, and to combat growing bootlegging problems, they introduced a new regime of open gaming, allowing other companies to publish D&D-compatible supplements. Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie roleplaying" communities arose on the internet, studying role-playing and developing several forms of role-playing game theory such as GNS Theory, and critical reflection on role-playing games has become popular in Scandinavia leading even to a yearly academic conference.

In thirty years the genre has grown from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry. Grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial while larger projects have attracted several million players worldwide. Games industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999 for an estimated $325 million.[9]


In traditional role-playing games, participants usually sit around a table and conduct the game as a small social gathering. One participant, the "gamemaster" (GM), describes the setting and the actions of the inhabitants, while the others describe their characters' actions and responses. Players usually keep track of the details of their character(s) on paper character-sheets. The game system typically requires players to roll dice or employ some sort of randomizer to determine the outcome of some of their actions, most typically in combat or other stressful situations. These are also known as tabletop or paper and pencil role-playing games, to distinguish them from LARPs or computer role-playing games.

Games that emphasize plot and character interaction over game mechanics and combat sometimes prefer the name storytelling game.

Electronic media[edit]

The challenge of producing a video game with which players can interact through role-playing, rather than simply a framework within which they can interact with each other, is yet to be answered. Within the computer industry, the term "RPG" instead refers to role-playing video games. It has so far proved impossible to recreate the flexibility, characterization, and depth of traditional roleplaying gaming.

Nonetheless, computers and other electronic media are not unknown in role-playing. Computer-assisted role-playing games blend elements of traditional role-playing with computer gaming. Computers are used for record-keeping and sometimes to resolve combat, while the participants generally make decisions concerning character interaction. This may include tools used to facilitate traditional pen & paper games to be played over the internet. Such tools may be nothing more than an IRC program, but there is also specialized software which includes built-in functions for dice, character sheets, mapping, and such (e.g., OpenRPG).

Some role-playing games use the internet as their medium. Online text-based role-playing games, in which players interact through a text-based medium rather than face-to-face, are popular on the internet. Some games are played in a turn-based fashion, whether play-by-mail games using email, or play-by-post games on internet forums. Others are played in a more real-time way, similar to offline games, over TELNET or IRC; these are known as MUDS. Finally, some people use internet chat clients or dedicated virtual tabletop software to play what would otherwise be a traditional RPG.

The upcoming Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is slated to make use of an online Digital Tabletop and numerous online tools to expedite play of the game as part of their D&D Insiders program.


A live action roleplaying game (LARP), is played more like improvisational theatre. Instead of describing their characters' actions, participants act out their characters' actions, often in costume. Further, the players' environment is used to represent the imaginary environment of the game world.

LARPs de-emphasize die rolls and rulebook references. Theatre-style live action role-playing games often use rock-paper-scissors or direct comparison of attributes to resolve conflicts symbolically, while some LARPS use physical combat with foam weapons. LARPs vary in size from a handful of players to several thousand, and in duration from a couple of hours to whole weeks.


Freeform role-playing games are played with minimal or no formal rules and a greater focus on character or plot development, with the organizers as referees. Most free-form games are also live-action games, though they exist in both traditional and computer-assisted forms. Free-form games are most often seen at gaming conventions, though they are also sometimes run by gaming clubs or a dedicated team of independent GM's.

Game systems[edit]

Main article: Wikipedia:Role-playing game system

The set of rules of a role-playing game is known as its game system; the rules themselves are known as game mechanics. Although there are game systems which are shared by many games, for example the d20 system, many games have their own, custom rules system.

Many role-playing games require the participation of a gamemaster (GM), who creates a setting for the game session, portrays most of its inhabitants and acts as the moderator and rules arbitrator for the players. The rest of the participants create and play inhabitants of the game setting, known as player characters (PCs). The player characters collectively are known as a "party".

During a typical game session, the GM will introduce a story goal for the players to achieve through the actions of their characters. Frequently, this involves interacting with non-player characters, other denizens of the game world, which are played by the GM. Many game sessions contain moments of puzzle solving, negotiation, chases, and combat. The goal may be made clear to the players at the outset, or may become clear to them during the course of a game.

Some games, such as Polaris and Primetime Adventures, have distributed the authority of the GM to different players and to different degrees. This technique is often used to ensure that all players are involved in producing a situation that is interesting and that conflicts of interest suffered by the GM are avoided on a systemic level.

Games rules determine the success or failure of a character's actions. Many game systems use weighted statistics and dice rolls or other random elements. In most systems, the GM uses the rules to determine a target number though often the targets are determined in a more principled fashion. The player rolls dice, trying to get a result either more than or less than the target number, depending on the game system. Not all games determine successes randomly, however; an early and popular game without random elements is Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game by Erick Wujcik (1990).

Most systems are tied to the setting of the game they feature in. However, some universal role-playing game systems can be adapted to any genre. The first game to feature such a system, GURPS, is accompanied by a number of sourcebooks which allow games to be created in different genres. The d20 system, based on the older role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, is used in many modern games such as Spycraft and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

In practice, even universal systems are often biased toward a specific style or genre and adaptable to others. For example, although the d20 system has sourcebooks for modern and futuristic settings, most published d20 system material stays within Dungeons & Dragons' combat-focused fantasy milieu.


Main article: Wikipedia:Statistic (role-playing games)

Characters in role-playing games are usually represented by a number of statistics. Statistics are an abstract measure of how successful a character is likely to be at a class of tasks. Many game systems make distinctions between two key types of statistic: attributes and skills. Some, such as Burning Wheel and The Shadow of Yesterday include character motivations among these resources. These names are not at all consistent across different games, however.

Attributes are statistics all characters possess: strength, agility, and intelligence are common examples. These are ranked, often on a numeric scale, so that a player can gauge the character's capabilities. For example, a character's strength rating could be used to determine the likelihood that the character can lift a certain weight.

Skills are abilities that only some characters possess, such as negotiation, horseback riding, and marksmanship. Game systems often define skills that are genre-appropriate. For example, fantasy settings generally include magic skills, while science-fiction settings may contain spaceship piloting skills. However, some skills are found in several genres: a medieval rogue and a Wild West outlaw may both be very proficient at throwing knives.

Character motivations are things that the character will fight for. The Riddle of Steel's Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel's Beliefs and The Shadow of Yesterday's Keys are such features. They might reveal secrets the character has kept, aspirations they hold, or other characters they care about.

Character creation[edit]

Main article: Character creation

Before play begins, players develop a concept of the role they would like to play in the game. They then use the game system's character creation rules to form a representation of their characters, in terms of game mechanics. The character's statistics are recorded on a special-purpose form called a character sheet. Some systems, such as that of Feng Shui, require characters to choose from a set of pre-built template characters with only a small amount of customization allowed. Others, like the d20 System, use character classes to define most character concepts, but allow some freedom with the statistics within those classes. Still others, such as GURPS, allow the player to create their own character concepts by freely assigning statistics.

Game statistics are not a substitute for a character concept. For example, one Wild West gunfighter may become a quick drawing revolver marksman, whereas another with similar game statistics could be a mounted rifle expert. Many systems take this into account, requiring statistics to be described, such as Dogs in the Vineyard's Traits and Possessions.

Template-based systems have the advantage of easy and quick character creation. It also provides the GM with the means to spend less time approving each character for play. The sacrifice is in flexibility and concept. Templates are essentially pre-built characters that are balanced against each other and pre-approved by the game companies.

Class-based systems give slightly more freedom but still require a player to choose from a set number of roles for their character. The character's powers are generally set by the character class, but the specific statistics are assigned by the player.

Character point-based systems allow complete freedom of concept. The downside is that, in many cases, character creation is much more complex, making the GM spend a lot more time examining and approving each character concept.

A few games allow free-form character creation. Characteristics are simply assigned as a player sees fit, and the final result is submitted to the GM or group for approval. Free-form character creation can be implemented in any game system, but is only rarely the prescribed or assumed method.

Campaign settings[edit]

Main article: Campaign setting

Each game has a setting in which adventures and campaigns can take place. Usually a campaign setting is designed for a specific game (such as the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons & Dragons) or a specific genre of game (such as Medieval fantasy, World War 2, or outer space/science fiction adventure). There are numerous campaign settings available both in print and online. In addition to published campaign settings available for purchase, many game masters create their own.

Campaign settings exist for almost all genres of fiction; however, because the world's most popular role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, is part of the fantasy genre, fantasy is also the most played role-playing genre. RPGs of the fantasy genre are sometimes collectively called "Fantasy role-playing games" ("FRP").

The use of the term "world" in describing a campaign setting is loose, at best. Campaign worlds such as the World of Greyhawk detail entire cosmologies and time-lines of thousands of years, while the setting of a game such as Deadlands might only describe one nation within a brief segment of alternate history.

There are three primary types of campaign setting. The first exists in genre- and setting-specific role-playing games such as Warhammer or World of Darkness which exist specifically within one setting. The second type of setting is for games that have multiple settings such as modern Dungeons & Dragons or those that were developed specifically to be independent of setting such as GURPS. The final type of setting is developed without being tied to a particular game system. Typically this last sort are developed first as stand-alone works of fiction, which are later adapted to one or more role playing systems such as the Star Wars universe or Middle-earth.

The range of genres represented by published settings is vast, and includes nearly all genres of fiction. While role-playing's roots began in fantasy, science fiction has been used in settings such as Traveller, horror formed the baseline of the World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu and Spycraft was based in modern-day spy thriller-oriented settings.

A small number of campaign settings fuse multiple genres into a single game. In GURPS Infinite Worlds, for example, the characters play "Infinity Patrol" agents who travel to alternate worlds.


The largest publisher of role-playing games is Wizards of the Coast, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro and publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, the D20 Star Wars RPG, and a number of smaller D20 titles. Most analysts give White Wolf the second largest industry market share, with the company itself claiming an average market share of 22% since 1991 [1], and the highest share in live-action games. Most role-playing game publishers are privately held companies and do not release sales figures, making precise estimates difficult. There has been no publicly available, systematic examination of point of sale data, limiting further estimates to a rough consensus between industry analysts whose conclusions are often controversial.

Market research conducted at Wizards of the Coast in 1999-2000 indicated that more than 1.5 million people played D&D on a monthly basis, and about 2 million people played all tabletop RPGs combined on a monthly basis. The success of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons likely resulted in an increase in those totals. These figures for play are substantially larger than the figures for sales. In 2006, non-Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPGs in the upper echelons of sales typically generated between five and ten thousand unit sales. Most commercially published RPGs are small press products, having less than a thousand units sold. The technology of print on demand is strongly used in RPGs, since it reduces run costs for the typical small print runs.

Business models[edit]

Role-playing games are produced under a variety of business models which succeed or fail based on those models' objectives. The smallest viable businesses are one person companies that produce games using print on demand and e-book technologies. Most of these companies provide a secondary income for their owner-operators. Many of these businesses employ freelancers, but some do not; their owners complete every aspect of the product. Larger companies may have a small office staff that manages publishing, brand development and freelance work. Guided by a developer/manager, freelancers produce most of a game line's content according to a central plan. Finally, a few companies (such Wizards of the Coast and Mongoose Publishing) maintain an in-house writing and design staff.

The standard business model for successful RPGs relies on multiple sales avenues:

  • the so-called three-tier distribution model, under which the company sells products to distributors who in turn sell the products to retailers who sell to customers. This is traditionally divided into the hobby trade (used by the majority of print publishers) and the book trade (viable for a smaller number of companies able to absorb returns and provide sufficiently large print runs). The industry consensus is that hobby retail sales have greatly declined, with the balance of hobby games sales moving from RPGs to miniature games and collectible card games
  • direct sales via the internet, through an online retailer or through the company's own electric storefront.
  • electronic sales and distribution, either without any physical product at all (e-books) or through a POD service. Once limited to small companies, this sales venue is now employed by publishers of all sizes.
  • attendance at conventions and events; this is particularly common among live-action games.

Typically, RPG publishers have a very long life cycle once they manage to generate an initial successful game. TSR, the initial publisher of Dungeons & Dragons was an independent entity until 1997 when it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast, who was subsequently acquired by Hasbro in 1999. Many of TSR's contemporaries remain in business as independent publishers. The core design group of a publisher is often kept as a team within the new company for the purposes of continuity and productivity, though layoffs are common after such mergers and acquisitions. For example, Wizards of the Coast experienced multiple layoffs in the wake of acquiring Last Unicorn Games and after its own acquisition by Hasbro.

Publishing Associations[edit]

The Game Publishers Association (GPA) was formed to assist adventure game publishers. The stated goals of the GPA include facilitation of communication between game publishers and others in the gaming community and promotion of the adventure gaming industry as a whole.[10] The GPA maintains a member database, publishes a mailing list, and offers a "press exploder" tool which issues press releases to game-related outlets. The association guidelines are published on the organization's website.[11]

Indie publishers[edit]

Main article: Wikipedia:Indie role-playing game

Indie games are produced by a self-identified independent games community. The indie role-playing game community often produces games with signature and idiosyncratic character. Some indie publishers often eschew the three-tier distribution model and sell directly online and at conventions, but many do use distribution services. The line between "indie" publishers and "mainstream" publishers is hazy at best. Varying definitions require that commercial, design, or conceptual elements of the game stay under the control of the creator, or that the game should just be produced outside of a corporate environment, or be distributed without dependence on the industry's three-tier retail structure.


Homebrew games are game systems designed by amateurs, most often for use by one gaming group. The term refers to a group's GM making or 'brewing' his or her unique set of rules to fit the campaign setting, or to appeal to the specific interests of the players.

The term 'Homebrew' can describe anything from customizing an existing commercial product (by adding or changing a few minor rules), to creating an entire standalone system.


  1. "Where we've been and where we're going". : "Generation 1" games
  2. Interview with Gary Gygax at Atlas of Adventure
  3. The Attacks on Roleplaying Games - originally from the Skeptical Inquirer
  4. An educator's opinion of role-playing games
  5. Christian Gamers Guild explaining that one may be Christian and a roleplayer at the same time
  6. "Dark Dungeons", a Jack Chick comic tract portraying D&D as the "Filth of Satan" and promoting book burning
  7. TSR, Inc. v. Mayfair Games, Inc., No. 91 C 0417 (1993).
  8. Wizards of the Coast to acquire TSR, Ken Tidwell April 10, 1997
  9. WotC buyout by Hasbro at
  10. "GPA Mission Statement", Oct, 1996 Game Publishers Association Dupuis, Ann <>.
  11. "Game Publishers Association Operating Guidelines", Ratified Jan. 15, 1995 Adopted as Amended June 1, 2005 Game Publisher's Association <>.

External links[edit]

Lists and reviews[edit]


  • RPGNet - a popular general role-playing game discussion community.
  • The RPGSite - another popular general discussion community, often seen as an alternative to RPGNet.
  • ENWorld - A popular RPG discussion site. It focuses on D&D and D20 games, but includes discussions of all RPGs.
  • The Forge - a site maintained by Ron Edwards and Clinton R. Nixon, dedicated to the promotion, creation, design, theory, and review of independent role-playing games.
  • - a web site for developers and players of open-source RPGs; includes a mailing list
  • The Escapist - A role-playing advocacy website devoted to dispelling the myths and urban legends and promoting the hobby through positive means.
  • SABN Network - A Role-playing and writing forum dedicated to expanding the horizons of role-players through developing their writing.
  • Player Registry - a role-player registry where players can find each other by location, a discussion community, and a community calendar.
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