Well, you might think “D’uh, of course it is! It’s the original!”, but at the same time, the implication is obvious. If I present this question, I clearly think it is questionable. (Although, as a teacher, I do often present questions on stuff that might seem obvious to make you think about them. This is not one of those situations.)
Okay, it is true D&D is often considered the first role-playing game. However, things change. For example, for the ancient Greeks, comedy was a form of drama, not it’s opposite or different genre. Drama was the whole of theatrical arts, which had two main forms: tragedy and comedy. They were differentiated by how they ended. Tragedies ended poorly for the antagonist, while comedies had a happy ending. Of course, this was often reflected in the rest of the story being either darker or brighter. Awful used to mean awe-inspiring. Pink used to be the color of warriors and even hundred years ago it was the color of choice for boys’ clothing. Also, all small children were known as girls. Boy was a name for male-servants.
So, calling D&D role-playing game, because it used to be that, doesn’t really hold water. But in order to go any further, we need to define a role-playing game. Well, that should be easy, he said, in a sarcastic tone.
If I ask Google to define it (meaning search for ‘define:role-playing game’), I get the following:
a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures, typically in a particular fantasy setting overseen by a referee.
Okay. That doesn’t really work. I mean, most of my sessions aren’t really adventures. Adventures are supposed to be exciting and exotic. Maybe there was some amount of exoticism when I played an inquisitor bent on killing one of the other characters in De’ Medici (you can find it here), I wasn’t really on what you might call an ‘adventure’.
Maybe try another one? Wikipedia says the following about Tabletop role-playing games:
A tabletop role-playing game (or pen-and-paper role-playing game) is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a set formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.
Okay, this sounds better. Let’s look at one from a RPG book. They often have a section for the beginner (at least they used to), which tries to explain some of what this is about. This is from HeroQuest 2nd Edition:
Roleplaying is a hybrid experience, combining elements of game play and collective storytelling. A group gathers together to talk its way through a spontaneously created story. All but one of the participants, called players, creates a fictional character (called a PC, for player character) defined by various abilities listed on a record called a character sheet. Using these abilities, the PCs pursue various goals in an imaginary world portrayed by a participant called the Narrator. The Narrator controls various other people and creatures in this fictional environment. The players describe how their PCs pursue their goals; the Narrator challenges them by putting obstacles in their path. Sometimes these barriers to success come in the form of supporting characters who oppose them; at other times, they’re impersonal physical or mental challenges, like a lock that must be picked or a cliff the characters have to climb.
Well, this is kind of specific to HeroQuest, but there’s nothing here that would rule out D&D either. Okay, so I guess I can’t use existing definitions. What I do want, though, is that you need a narrative, but it shouldn’t be pure freeform storytelling, and you need rules, but those rules should serve the narrative and encourage characterization.
My problem with D&D is the latter. The rules emphasize combat quite highly. Sure, you have some skills to use outside of combat and some spells as well, but the whole system is about how your own little killing machine can become better at killing things through killing things. Ruleswise, it’s a miniature game, with very tightly defined rules on everything… within combat.
Sure, you can argue that you can play a role within that system. Yes, you can. You can also play the part of a dog in Monopoly, but in that case the rules are about taking over a city financially. You can still wag your imaginary tail when you buy real estate or someone lands in your scare. The fact remains that the rules don’t serve a story or characterization.
Games don’t become role-playing games just because you say they are. Just because you have some representation of a character doesn’t make it one either. I mean, no-one thinks of Magic: the Gathering as a role-playing game (well, most don’t, I bet you can find players who fully embrace playing a role) even though you often have a lot more interesting and complex representation of your character (your deck).
In all games, the rules should be there to tell you where the fun is (paraphrasing Mark Rosewater). In D&D the rules are there for combat purposes. Not exploring the inner workings of your character or participating in an interesting story. If you try to explain someone what a role-playing game is, you (hopefully) wouldn’t mention combat. Letting go of the idea that D&D is a role-playing game would serve the whole hobby well. Why can’t we just separate the miniature combat games from actual role-playing games? We shouldn’t be tied to this idea because of history. We should know better or at least try to know better.