I no longer support this debate, but wanted I spent time writing all of this so I figured I may as well share it. See my article titled Elvis Presley was a Musician for my thoughts on why definitions of Role-Playing Games are pointless.
I was standing in the shower this morning and began piecing together a new definition of Role-Playing Game that I felt was better suited for my discussions. On my way into work I listened to John and Zak attempt to define the alchemy that turned Dungeons and Dragons into a Role-Playing Game. All of these factors collided with a handful of other notions I have in my brain and as I listened and eventually I settled on the following definition:
Role-Playing Game: A game in which a the primary means of enjoyment for a player comes from the process of making meaningful decisions for a single personal character.
In my mind there are three key points to this definition; The primary means of enjoyment, making meaningful decisions, and a single personal character. I’d like to elaborate on these thoughts but seeing as how each statement informs the next I’m going to have to start from the back of the definition and work forward. Hopefully this isn’t too confusing.
Lets start with the idea that Role-Playing Game players are limited to the viewpoint of a single personal character. While games can allow for a certain level of body-hopping, gameplay is still restricted to an individual viewpoint. From a mechanical stand point, while you may control multiple characters you are expected to decide each character’s action on an individual basis using only the factors that the specific character would be exposed to. It’s frowned upon to use top-down, or Meta, knowledge to inform a character’s decisions. Which brings us to the next element, the meaningful decisions.
When I say that you need to make meaningful decisions, I’d ague that the decision itself isn’t the important part of this definition, but if it is meaningful or not. For me, if a decision without consequence, either positive or negative, that impacts the game in a significant way then it’s not meaningful. Overall, I like to think that this section of my definition opens up the topic to consideration and discussion. The group needs to decide what actions are meaningful and have a significant impact. For some it’s a choice between weapons, for other’s its effecting the lives of NPCs, or contributing in someway to the plot of the narration.
Finally, these decisions of a character have to give the primary means of enjoyment for the game. The enjoyment can not be derived from mere interaction with the rules alone or achieving a preset victory condition. In fact, I believe that having a “win” condition operates against a game’s ability to be defined as a Role-Playing Game. When attempting to qualify a game as a Role-Playing Game I truly believe that the experience of an character’s decision making needs to be the main reason to enjoy the game.
I think this definition can also explain why some players can Role-Playing in games that weren’t originally designed as Role-Playing Games. Board games almost always have a set victory condition but when a player is unable to achieve that victory or uninterested in that victory they need to find a new way to derive enjoyment from the experience. For some, it’s turning the game into a Role-Playing experience.