A role-playing game (RPG) is a game where a player takes the role of a character within the game universe, and takes actions as that character in order to try to beat the game. I’m mostly familiar with single-player RPGs you can play on a computer (browser games or video games) but the genre itself existed before computer games did; at that time it took the form of tabletop RPGs (which still exist today, of course!).
RPGs are a huge and internally diverse genre, ranging from text-based interactive fiction to expansive, graphically-demanding, open-world adventures. In general, though, I find them really enjoyable. Some of the subgenres that exist within RPGs are:
- turn-based RPGs: This is also an internally-diverse grouping, but in general it’s my favourite kind of RPG. This is the type of game where gameplay is conducted in turns, not in real time like in action RPGs (below).
- tactical RPGs: A variant of turn-based RPGs where the positioning of characters (and enemies) on terrain is an important strategic element in battles. Sometimes people also say “strategy RPG” to refer to this kind of game, but other people insist that’s a different thing. These kinds of games can involve the player having a large number of “units” to position, rather than a smaller number of individual characters.
- dungeon crawlers: Not all dungeon crawlers are turn-based (they can also be action) but the earlier ones were. These are games where character progression (levelling up, getting skills, receiving loot, crafting better equipment, etc.) is the central focus. Generally they don’t have very overt narratives, although the lore behind the game can be pretty extensive.
- action RPGs: This kind of game generally takes place on a 2D or 3D map, and you as a player character move around and carry out actions in real time. This generally includes some kind of fighting or attacking, hence “action”. Action RPGs are so much more in vogue than any other genre these days that at least one article argues we shouldn’t use the term at all (basically we should just pretend other kinds of RPGs stopped existing) and instead talk about the intended experiences:
- narrative RPGs: Games that set out to tell a specific story. Like with other forms of storytelling, these kinds of games should offer an immersive, cohesive experience without stuff that’s truly superfluous; everything in the game should be moving the story forward.
- sandbox RPGs: Games where the player is more or less free to do what they like in a huge open-world environment. These kinds of games also give players a huge amount of customisability over their player character, because the idea is also that they can be whoever they want.
- hack ’n’ slash: Also known as a “dungeon crawler” (see above) but those aren’t always action games (traditionally they were turn-based). The focus in a hack ’n’ slash is still on character progression and looting, but also on button-mashing gameplay as combat is in real time.
- simulation RPGs: These kinds of games are generally also in real time, but the focus is not on fighting or “action”, but something else (like trading, or farming, or just characters living their lives…). Generally they’re also pretty open-ended and sandbox-y, but the world isn’t necessarily huge. Sometimes there is combat, but it’s not the main focus of the game.
- roguelikes: These days there are plenty of roguelikes that I think you could barely consider an RPG at all, but the original Rogue was a turn-based dungeon crawler and that’s where the genre of roguelikes traces its heritage to (although many now are real-time). Roguelikes are brutally difficult procedurally-generated games with permadeath, such that a player’s expected to die many, many times before they win even once.
- MMORPGs: Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs. This is the kind of game where the game world contains a large number of player characters, and where you’ve gotta work with (or against) other players to achieve your goals. These kinds of games often feature guilds to enable player organisation, and in-game economies where players can trade with each other.
Overlapping these, of course, are the more traditional “genres” that characterise other forms of media, e.g. fantasy, science fiction, horror, comedy, Western, steampunk, crime/noir, action (like the “dude running/driving around a city shooting guns” kind of action).
Traditionally there was a divide between JRPGs (Japanese RPGs) and WRPGs (Western RPGs). Basically in times gone by, Japanese RPGs tended to feature turn-based combat, predefined characters that you couldn’t really customise, a rigid story that you couldn’t deviate from… while Western RPGs featured more character customisation (or even let you create a totally custom one), more opportunity to influence the story through your choices, and were faster to switch away from turn-based combat to action. I even see some gamers today arguing that the JRPG–WRPG distinction remains the only “meaningful” one! But personally I think this is indefensible unless you detach “J” and “W” from their literal meanings of “made in Japan” or “made in the West”. There are plenty of JRPG-style games made in the West, and plenty of games made in Japan that are action-based with open worlds and/or less rigid stories and/or character customisation. Personally I think a real-time vs turn-based dichotomy makes more sense.
Another term you sometimes see is CRPG (computer RPG). Honestly I feel like this is a very old-fashioned term; it seems like it was invented to contrast the then-new RPGs that you played on a computer to the familiar tabletop RPGs that you played with paper and pen (and dice), and then stuck around a little while longer as consoles took a while to catch up to the power of personal computers. Some people redefine the C in it to mean “classic”, and then use the term to refer to a specific era of turn-based PC games, which kinda makes sense to me.