What’s an RPG?

So…. What’s an RPG?  There’s a lot of different game genres these days.  Sports, Racing, Fighting, Hero Shooters, MOBAs, Strategy Games, Battle Royale, Rogue-likes, the list goes on and on.  One of the oldest and most pervasive of these genres, though, is the RPG.  It’s tropes go back to some of the earliest days of gaming, and today, modern games are still using those same mechanics to expand their audience.  

So, what exactly is an RPG?

World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth Anduin vs Sylvanas
World of Warcraft – Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

What’s an RPG?

RPGs are an acronym for Role Playing Game.  For a very very high-level shortcut, you can think elves, magic, and Lord of the Rings.  This is a pretty absurd reduction, but there’s a reason it works.  Many many games in this genre focus on those elements.

I’ll get into some various approaches to the genre in a moment, but there are some commonalities across all of them.  In terms of gameplay, in most cases, the Player is trying to save the world from some great evil and this usually involves “leveling up” or “grinding” on enemies to get stronger and stronger.

So, in a typical RPG, the player starts out at Level 1.  They’ll go out and kill some rats that are plaguing a town – getting 2-4 points apiece from them.  When they get to, say 10 points, they move up to Level 2 – a process called “Leveling Up”, and in that process they get stronger — Generally meaning they can do more damage and take more damage, unlock new skills or abilities, and in some cases, unlock the next area or piece of the narrative.

An interesting element of this genre is that many other genres are pulling from it.  So, for example, you could have a shooter game where your character levels up.  This is usually what’s meant if your kid says a game as “RPG Elements”.

Big Games in the RPG Genre

  • Fallout
  • Skyrim
  • Dragon Age
  • Mass Effect
  • The Witcher 2 and Witcher 3
  • Stardew Valley
  • Final Fantasy Series
  • Dark Souls Series
Witcher 3 - Image Courtesy of CDProjektRed
Witcher 3 – Image Courtesy of CDProjektRed

The list above is just a small handful of titles that span a whole range of subgenres.  Oh, yes, there are many different types of RPG – let’s take a look at the major ones.


MMORPGs — Also often called “MMOs” stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game… Yeah, there’s a reason they just shorten that to MMO, seeing as in the time you read this sentence, your children have grown up, graduated college, and are embarking on a life of hating their boss.

So, at a high level, MMOs or MMORPGs operate along the same sort of principles talked about for RPGs in general – the biggest difference being that your kid will be playing with thousands of other people at the same time.  In the same place — That’s a big driver for a game like this.  Most require the cooperation of several different classes (think roles:  Like Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, etc…) to excel.

This also means lots of interaction with folks — Now, keep in mind, this is not a free for all chat room, the chats are logged and monitored.  That said, if your kiddo likes to play these games, might be a good idea to check in on them now and then, they’re talking with real live people out there – and some people aren’t particularly nice.  I’ll be going into more details on MMOs in other posts.

Full Disclosure:  I actually worked on an MMO game in my career: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

So what are some big MMORPGs?

  • World of Warcraft
  • Elderscrolls Online
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic
  • Black Desert Online
  • Final Fantasy XIV
  • Guild Wars 2
  • Neverwinter
  • Tera

Action RPGs

Click. Clickety-Click.  Clickety Click Click.  That’s what you’ll hear a lot of if your kid is into Action RPGs.  As with most everything with modern games, there’s a lot of bleed over of different ideas into different genres and subgenres.  Action RPGs are no different, but in general Action RPGs usually involve very little text and whole… Whole lotta loot.  

An Action RPG has the same basic loop as any RPG.  Go out. Kill evil things. Get points. Level Up — What an Action RPG offers that sets it apart from its brothers in the genre is it has a tighter “mini-loop”.  You run your character out into the field.  Have it kill an evil denizen (usually by clicking on it) and it dies in one or two clicks, and then usually leaves you items — adding a second path to increasing the power of your character.  There’s a bit of a slot-machine mechanic going on under the hood, so for any of you parents out there that have gotten lost for hours in the slots, can understand the appeal.

Diablo 3
Diablo 3. One of the most popular Action RPGs around — Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

Other popular Action RPGs

  • Diablo 3
  • Diablo 2
  • Grim Dawn
  • Torchlight 2
  • Path of Exile
  • Magicka 2

Turn-Based (or Strategy) RPGs

Pretty much the polar opposite of the Action RPG.  In a Turn Based RPG, the combat in these games takes place in rounds and turns.  The focus is much more on strategy and planning than on twitch & click skills.  Turn Based RPGs tend to be much much heavier on story and narrative as well.  Because the gameplay rolls out over a series of turns, and players can take pretty much as much time as they want to decide on their moves, Turn-Based RPGs tend to be more complicated and exacting.  So if your kiddo is looking for a relaxing diversion, tends to get frustrated easily, or is not a big fan of narrative-driven games, keep all that in mind.

Divinity Original Sin 2
Divinity Original Sin 2 – A very very popular turn-based RPG — Image Courtesy of Larian Studios

There are quite a few popular Turn-Based RPG series and games.

  • Divinity: Original Sin II
  • The Banner Saga
  • Wasteland 2
  • Valkyria Chronicles
  • Persona
  • Disgaea
  • XCCOM 2
  • Pillars of Eternity

JRPGs & Western RPGs

These aren’t genres as much as a cultural definition.  JRPGs are Japanese Roleplaying Games whereas Western RPGs (which, contrary to the name are do not revolve around cowboys) refers to RPGs developed in the Western hemisphere (Mostly US/Canada – And Europe, which, granted, is not exactly in the Western hemisphere)

The main difference between these two divisions is that JRPGs tend to be more linear in structure, have very fantastical plots, and rely heavily on the narrative.  In many ways in a JRPG, the player is cast into a role, similar to how an actor is cast into a role for a movie or show.

Final Fantasy 15
Final Fantasy 15 – The latest in a fantastic series of JRPGs – Image Courtesy of Square-Enix

Conversely, Western RPGs tend to be far more open world and free from.  Gameplay is focused much more on exploration than on narrative (though there’s usually still an overarching story).  In Western RPGs, players have a greater latitude in how they go about their objectives – and even choosing what those objectives are.  In these games, the players take on a role.

Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 – An extremely successful Western Style RPG – Image Courtesy of CDProjecktRed

Keep in mind that this division is on a continuum, and is more useful as a general guide than a specific marker. You’ll find Western RPGs with very very extensive plots (Like the Dragon Age series from Bioware) you’ll also find some JRPGs with more open and free-form play.

What Else You Should Know about RPGs

Wrapping up, I want to touch on why knowing about RPGs is so important to understand your kids’ gaming.  Namely that many of the tropes and mechanics found in RPGs (like levels, skills, character customization) are being spread out to games of all types.  You’ll find RPG like mechanics in the latest Madden and Call of Duty — These mechanics are fantastic for providing a sense of progression, reward, and mastery.  They also have an added benefit of teaching kiddos the value of work and practice.

Talking To Your Kiddos About RPGs

If your kiddos love RPG games, there’s a lot of ways to start a dialogue about them.  You can ask them what level their characters are.  You can ask them to talk about their favorite skills or items.  Another good idea is to have them talk about the story and world of the game.  Most RPGs have a very rich backstory and lore – so there’s a lot to be gleaned from this approach.

If you or your kiddos love RPGs or RPG mechanics in other games – or if you have more questions about the genre or games, please leave a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you all.


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