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A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world.
Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements.
Traditional role-playing video games shared five basic elements:
The ability to improve your character over the course of the game by increasing his statistics or levels.
A menu-based combat system with several choices of skills, spells, and active powers as well as an active inventory system with wearable equipment such as armors and weapons.
A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline and additional (and usually optional) side quests.
The ability to interact with elements of the environment or storyline through additional abilities (e.g. lockpicking, disarming traps, communication skills, etc.)
The existence of certain character classes that define the characteristics, skills, abilities, and spells of a character (e.g. wizard, thief, warrior, etc.)
Modern and hybrid RPGs do not necessarily have all of these elements, but usually feature one or two in combination with elements from another genre.
RPG video games originate from tabletop or pen-and-paper RPGs, such as Rolemaster or Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) — a type of game in which the players impersonate their characters by actively describing their actions and thoughts.
In video game RPGs, the part of the “game master” (who acts as both the narrator and the referee) is automated, and the computer’s artificial intelligence (AI) decides the actions of the various non-player characters (NPCs) and enemies.
The development of a central storyline used to be a fundamental part of old-school RPGs, but is not a requirement anymore in more modern games such as massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPGs).
Most RPGs are set in a fictional world with traditional fantasy or sci-fi elements that are incorporated into the game mechanics. For example: choosing a race such as dwarf or elf can affect the character’s in-game choices or modify his characteristics or spell-casting abilities.
In classic tabletop RPGs, a set of clear rules defined how characters could interact with the environment. Usually characters had to roll a die to determine whether their attempt at a certain action (such as striking an enemy or scaling a wall) was successful.
Video game RPGs started out very similar to paper-and-pen games, but the dices were substituted by automated rolls performed behind the screen. Combat was handled with interactive menus, and could occur either in a turn-based or real-time fashion.
Modern games, however, introduced many hybrid variants that significantly broadened the genre.
The most important sub-categories of the RPG genre are:
Games mostly focused on the combat aspects rather than the narrative ones. Battles usually occur in real-time, and the player frequently control a single character rather than a party.
Examples include: Diablo, Zelda, and Dark Souls franchises.
Games where battles take place on a map and character units are deployed against opponents.
Character and party development are more important than battle choices since stronger, higher-leveled enemies tend to overwhelm underdeveloped parties.
Examples include: Neverwinter and Final Fantasy franchises; and include important sub-genres such as: Rogue-like RPGs (e.g. Zangband, or The Dungeons of Moria); and Tactical RPGs (X-COM, Jagged Alliance, etc.)
Games where the emphasis is no the narrative rather than on the action elements which are usually lighter.
The player must advance through the story by collecting certain items and special weapons, meeting key NPCs, or performing important tasks.
Adventure RPGs usually fall into other categories, as well, such as the Fable franchise (which is also an Action RPG), or the Divinity series that falls either in the Adventure RPGs niche (Divine Divinity, Beyond Divinity); or in the Strategy RPG one (Divinity: Original Sin).
Some Metroidvania RPGs (such as Metroid or Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest), are usually Adventure RPGs with platforming elements, as well.
These are multiplayer games where large amounts real-life players from interact over a shared world in what is essentially an endless RPG.
MMORPGs mix many different elements from the other sub-genres, although they’re usually very combat-oriented with a strong focus on collecting rare and powerful items to enhance the character’s abilities or its appearance.
Famous titles include World of Warcraft (WoW), Ultima Online, and Guild Wars.
The popularity of the role-playing concept — becoming someone else, somewhere else — assures that many more variations on the theme have yet to emerge.