a family of Russian handheld anti-tank weapons that fire shaped charges propelled by solid propellant traditional games, usually played with pens, paper and dice. RPGs have also migrated to the electronic form, creating CRPG games, but they are by and large relegated to /v/, unless they are based on an actual pen and paper game.
Roleplaying games began their journey somewhere in the mists of history as simple storytelling and play pretend, evolving later through reenactments and "theatre games", then continued to grow in forms of organized war games (with the first "official" GM ever being a professor in the Prussian Military officer's school using the game Kriegsspiel; he was there to make sure officers couldn't change the orders of their models when those were too far away to feasibly receive them, as well as to moderate the game in general). RPGs truly sprang into life in 1974 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson produced the Dungeons & Dragons game. At first D&D was just a way to play individual characters from the Chainmail fantasy wargame, but it spawned an entire hobby that grew into different directions and produced a vast number of different games.
What are RPGs?
Roleplaying could be best described as collective storytelling, and cowboys and Indians with rules, preventing the "Pew pew! I shot you!" "No, I'm immortal!" syndrome (although most adults are supposedly mature enough not to pull shit like that). In other words, players gather round a table (or campfire or whatever floats your boat) and engage in producing a story, by taking on the role of protagonists or Characters within the game's world. One of the player takes the role of the Game Master who is not a protagonist but instead serves as the overall narrator, describing the world, events and non-player characters (antagonists, monsters, redshirts...) and their actions.
Roleplaying games take place in many different settings and use many different genres, with fantasy, science-fiction and horror being the prime examples. Some games provide only a system which can be used to play anything (FATE, GURPS), others are designed and produced in a manner that heavily favors just one specific genre or setting(Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Dungeons and Dragons).
It's worth noting that there are many vidya gaems that call themselves RPGs, particularly the MMORPG genre that games like this phenomenon hail from, but most of the time, this is inaccurate. Typically, the only things that videogame RPGs have in common with pen-and-paper RPGs are classes, the ability to gain/level up different skills and quests. But due to the limitations of technology, it's not (yet) possible to truly roleplay in the tabletop sense; and so most players don't even try. A few games do at least offer some preset dialogue options, but this always leads to a preset conclusion. Either way, the story is going to be railroaded to one degree or another, and your actions will be heavily limited to whatever the programmers coded in. For example, you might be given a "disguise" skill as an arbitrary pass/fail score, but the game might not allow you to gain a bonus from stealing a guard's uniform (or not even allow you to loot a uniform in the first place) when logic dictates you should, because the programmers never thought of it. In a pen-and-paper game a good GM can compensate for any oversights in the game-makers' scenario they didn't anticipate; but the scripts governing what happen in a video game are immutable while in play.
TL;DR vidya's a nice diversion, but don't allow for creative thinking as in RPGs.
Rollplayan vs Roleplayan
There has always been some controversy whether RPG means a rollplaying game or a roleplaying game. Both categorizations are muddy, so what follows is a general overview of the two and should never be taken as final or completely accurate.
The advocates of rollplayan insist that RPGs are, all in all, games and thusly throwing dice and numbers around is their central point of existence. Because nobody really finds moving numbers around and doing calculus fun in and of itself, the crunching usually serves a purpose. Rollplayers are thus usually equated with hackan & slashan, munchkinism and optimization. All of these views focus on the game's mechanic and creation of characters that use them to their best advantages or even exploit them. This tends to be very unpopular with a lot of people, simply because it operates under the assumption that the game must be somehow "won", while the contrary is precisely what largely separates RPGs from most other tabletop games. Rollplayers tend to regard the GM as a source of challenges or even an enemy they must defeat by creating the most efficient characters possible. A less extreme view claims that rolling dice and crunching numbers to solve tactical problems can be fun, and shouldn't be confined to the scope of head-to-head wargames.
Roleplayers tend to put more emphasis on the narrative, and insist that the dice stay in the backstage, operating from behind the veil with minimal or no intrusion in the actual "story" being played. This is why they are often called dramafags. A popular distinction puts rollplayers in the D&D campus while roleplayers are supposed to be WoD players, goths, wannabe "deep" etc. Roleplayers are also often ridiculed for writing extensive backgrounds for their characters, which "no one ever reads" and for falling too deep into the whole 'play pretend' aspect of RPGs. This also puts them closer to LARPfags whom nobody likes (except Scandinavian ones, that shit puts hair on your chest). As with the previous example, this view consists mostly of stereotypes and generalizations.
The truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle and there are always exceptions to the rules. Hardcore examples of both sides can often ruin the fun for the rest of the people at the table either by propagation of their Mary Sue fantasies, that nobody is interested in, or by creating characters that beat everything up before anyone else gets the chance to act. Neither side is able to see eye-to-eye with the other because they operate under different mindsets and arguments and they will never strike the right chords as they're hearing different frequencies.
A similar distribution has been proposed by the GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist) Theory which is not applied to gamers but the games themselves. GNS as a whole has been recently dismissed as bullshit by pretty much everyone; however, its individual categories can still be useful for explaining some concepts.
- Gamist RPGs focus on the "game" aspect. They are closer to wargaming and boardgaming in the sense that the rules or mechanics themselves take the spotlight. Like you don't play Monopoly to pretend that you're capitalist shit, gamist RPGs don't care about "getting in character" or playing in a "believable world" and so on. There is no real "reason" why a knight in chess moves in an L-pattern, except that it makes for a tactical strength or viability, horses don't really move that way. Gamism in RPGs is best suited for beer and pretzels games and simple hack and slash slaughterfests.
- Example: The way Powers work in D&D 4E.
- Narrativist games try to be quite the opposite. The storytelling and narration is the focus of the game and the mechanics are mostly or completely subdued to it. In Narrativism, you don't use a mechanical effect to perform an action, your action and its success tries to grow directly from your narration, while the rules just support this. Narrativist games usually don't ask themselves what would be the most realistic outcome or the most tactically viable, but what would be the most dramatic, story-propelling effect. If chess were narrativist, the knight's piece would move depending on your descriptions of his actions and implication for the story, and not in a pre-set L motion.
- Example: The conflict resolution in Dogs in the Vineyard. Pretty much everything in Mystic Empyrean.
- Simulationist games try to "simulate" the workings and mechanics of a believable world, depending on the setting and genre conventions. Simulationism usually takes an emphasis on realism, but since most RPGs take place in fantasy or sci-fi worlds, "believable" is the more correct expression - a simulation of a superhero world is something different than a simulation of a real WW2 battlefield. Simulationism takes pain in attempting to resolve actions and events in a way that would be expected "in real life"; this is usually accomplished by numerous tables and random rolls. If chess were simulationist, the knight piece would move in a manner and direction decided by the player, but the end result (speed, direction, etc) would be determined by various factors such as abstract averages, circumstances (weight, size, terrain, exhaustion), randomizers (dice) and so on, seeking to evoke a "what would really happen" result.
- Example: The GURPS system, combat in the Riddle of Steel RPG.
In reality most games feature a inseparable mixture of all these elements.
- Example: Play Spirit of the Century, you'll see what we're talking about.
Innovations in RPGs
Here's where roleplaying games can claim their "me first!" status. (most of this research was done by J.H. Kim)
- Unified resolution mechanics
- Traveller (1977) put everything into rolling 2d6 vs. a target number, but had different outcomes for situations.
- RuneQuest (1978) had combat and skills into "roll under XX on d100," for pass-fail.
- Point-build characters
- Steve Jackson's Melee (1977), although your characters only described fighting abilities.
- Champions (1981) had point-buy include social & psychological features, and negative point-buy of flaws to get extra points.
- Personality mechanics
- Bushido (1980) had an honor system, a measurement of a character's strength of virtue.
- Call of Cthulhu (1981) had the Insanity rules, obligating players to change their characters' behavior when taking sanity damage.
- Champions (1981) had Psychological Limitations as an optional part of character creation.
- Pendragon (1985) was the first to have a fully-fleshed out demeanor and mannerisms as part of a character's description mechanics.
- Levels of Success
- RuneQuest (1978) was the first to have critical hits in combat.
- James Bond 007 (1983) was the first to introduce levels of quality to success (and failure) for all skill rolls and conflicts.
- Players spending points to modify a resolution
- Top Secret (1980) had Fortune/Fame points, but they were spent at the GM's discretion.
- James Bond 007 (1983) did it first with Hero Points that could be gained and spent during a conflict.
- Ghostbusters (1986) combined experience points with hero points.
- Dramatic modifiers to resolution (not just "that was cool, so I won't roll dice," but actual rules for this)
- Champions (1981) had bonuses for "surprise maneuvers" for something cool the player described.
- Paranoia (1984) and Toon (1984) had explicit modifiers for players adding drama to a scene.
- Mechanics for social resolution
- James Bond 007 (1983) had skills and rules for contests in social situations.
- Modular Rules
- Worlds of Wonder (1982) was the first to have a set of generic core rules and then add-ons for specific genres.
- GURPS (1986) was the first set of rules that didn't require exceptions for some genres; a character from any setting could be transplanted to any other setting with no mechanical differences.
- Rewards other than killing monsters
- Dungeons and Dragons (1974) had you gaining experience points for treasure gained. This often meant killing monsters and taking their stuff, but not always.
- Traveller (1974) and RuneQuest (1978) had an experience-point system for skill use or training.
- Rolemaster (1980) had experience points that were more than just a progress bar for leveling up.
- Marvel Superheroes (1984) had Karma points to coerce players into heroic behavior.
- Dice Pools
- Ghostbusters (1986) was the first to have bonuses & penalties as changing the number of dice you rolled
- Ars Magica (1987) used a universal mechanic for rolling attribute + skill + d10 and comparing the sum to a difficulty number to determine success.
- Character Templates
- Star Wars (1987) had not just pre-made characters, but a generic pre-made character you could tweak to make it closer to what you wanted.
- Character sheets designed to keep track of things like equipment, Hit Points, total experience, ect.
- Metagame control / Director Stance
- Champions (1981) had a flaw called Hunted where the player could dictate the nature of a recurring villain, and the frequency of that villain showing up, although the GM still chose the exact moment of appearance and played the role.
- Ars Magica (1987) had its Whimsy Cards for players to bumping the plot into new directions instead of the GM, and troupe-style play that allowed players to share in the narration.
- 93 Games Studio
- 9th Level Games
- Alderac Entertainment Group
- Atlas Games
- Catalyst Game Labs
- Crafty Games
- Spycraft (Formerly by AEG)
- Driftwood Publishing
- Eden Studios, Inc.
- Evil Hat Productions
- Exile Game Studio
- Fantasy Flight Games
- Free League Publishing
- Mutant: Year Zero
- Coriolis the Third Horizon
- Tales from the Loop
- Game Designer's Workshop (Defunct)
- Green Ronin Publishing
- Guardians of Order (defunct)
- HERO Games
- Key 20 Publishing
- Lumpley Games (Vincent Baker)
- Magnum Opus Press
- Mongoose Publishing
- Paizo Publishing
- Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
- Palladium Games
- Paradox Entertainment
- Pelgrane Press
- Pinnacle Entertainment Group (Also published content under the "Great White Games" label during 2003-2005)
- R. Talsorian Games
- Sanguine Productions
- Steve Jackson Games
- GURPS (Castle Falkenstein, GURPS Traveller)
- Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR) (Defunct)
- Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
- Victory Games
- West End Games
- Wizards of the Coast
- White Wolf, Inc.
- Massif Press
- E. Gary Gygax
- Greg Stolze
- Dr. Jenna K. Moran (previously Rebecca Sean Borgstrom)
- Luke Crane
- Robin D. Laws
- Dungeons: the Dragoning 40,000 7th Edition (ditto to the above)
- Final Fantasy RPG
- Lasers and Feelings simple
- Four Color System superhero, free
- Mini Six: Bare Bones Edition free
- Microlite20 (entire game is in the wiki article)
- OpenD6 system (pdfs and SRD)
- Ops & Tactics
- Pandora London
- Risus simple
- Soul Eater RPG
- Tiny d10
- UKRP Design Collective
- The Window
- World of Metal Gear Solid
- FAPP (The core rules are free, but most of the expansions are not)