The Myth of the Role-Playing Video Game

The Witcher 3

I have come to the very real conclusion that role-playing video games are a myth. This is not a metaphor. This is not a simile. This is not an analogy.

It is my sincere belief that, much like the pipe depicted in René Magritte’s Treachery of Images is not an actual pipe but a picture of a pipe, RPVGs are not “role-playing video games” but “fantasy-flavored adventure video games.” It doesn’t matter how many stats they have.

The Treachery of Images

Let’s see what Wikipedia says about role-playing video games.

A role-playing video game (commonly referred to as role-playing game or RPG, and in the past also known as computer role-playing game or CRPG) is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a character (and/or several party members) immersed in some well-defined world.

According to this definition, let me tell you about the first RPVG I ever played. In it, I controlled the actions of an amateur table tennis player while immersed in a world in which table tennis balls were square-shaped.

I have (somewhat disingenuously) described Pong. You know the game. It’s the one where the two lines keep bouncing a square block between each other.


But let me back up for a minute. I recently set upon this thought journey — in which I try to untangle the definitions of terms like RPVG — because everybody keeps suggesting I play The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3

I suppose I might actually be down for a game of Gwent or two (I mean, there are actual cards, surely?). But if I wanted to role-play the experience of being an old man who wanders around and is met with disapproving grunts and glances by the people he passes by, I’d just power down the computer and walk outside. In fact, I play games to avoid that whole scene. I’m certainly not going to throw a bunch of money at a company that recently trademarked the word Cyberpunk in order to do so.

Let’s be clear here: By no means am I trying to imply that The Witcher 3 is a bad game. I am only using it as an example of a popular game that is widely considered to be a great RPVG.

Some might even go so far as to call it a masterpiece.

The Witcher 3 - Geralt in a Tub

“But the graphics are so good!” people tell me. These people are clearly not understanding my point.

Following my previous analogy, the graphics in real life are even better. And you don’t have to deal with upgrading your rig. Or drivers. Or screen tearing. Or upgrading your rig again. Or resolution. Or mods. Or upgrading your rig yet again.

If you’re trying to impress me with an RPVG, don’t mention the graphics at all. Instead, tell me about the following:

  • How the game world subtly changes based on my interaction with the more powerful members of the society that I’m in.
  • How I can design my own character from the ground up within the reasonable limits of that universe/setting.
  • How I can change my mind about things (“Hmmm, I might try melee for a while.”) but I can’t undo the consequences of my early choices (“Oh, I actually suck at melee because all my points are in ranged.”).
  • How dialogue actually matters in the narrative.
  • How the game’s design choices are integral to my understanding of its world. (I do not want an arrow over the top of the heads of quest givers. That’s not role-playing; it’s basic shape recognition and obedience training. Have a question mark if you like, because that at least invokes curiosity, if only by some vague symbolic association. But arrows are for the knees of ex-adventurers, not for floating above the heads of villagers.)
  • How there’s a consistent logic to the game world. I should not be Head Mage of the World or whatever because I did ten simple quests over the space of two hours.

Because without these elements, a game simply isn’t a role-playing video game by my own personal definition.

But there’s so much more to it than that.

Neverwinter Nights 2

Neverwinter Nights 2 is a game that addresses every single item listed above yet still fails miserably at being an actual RPG. To be fair, that’s due to the railroading nature of the storyline (this is the only time that Chris Avellone hasn’t impressed me) rather than game mechanics. Still, what this game ends up actually being is the same thing most RPVGs end up being: a fantasy-themed romp through various fantasy tropes.

This is because the framework used in creating RPVGs is rarely robust enough to be considered worthy of a true RPG. Indeed, the fact that there is a very noticeable distinction between RPGs and RPVGs is the essence of my argument.

You’ll notice that I keep using the phrase “role-playing video game.” That’s because my issue with the whole scene has to do with the video game aspect of it.

So let’s examine the RPVG through the lens of the traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games (PNP RPGs). Let’s start with three popular characters and explore their traits using three criteria: race, class, and defining traits.

The Witcher 3

Geralt: Human (err, Witcher, if that counts). Monster hunter. Tough as nails but charming.

Star Wars Battlefront

Darth Vader: Human (err, cybernetic human). Sith Lord. Has godlike power levels of Electrotelekinetic ability (which is totally a word so just shut up about it).


Batman: Human (for real this time). Pugilistic Detective. Has superhuman levels of determination and is a master sleuth.

Now, here are four basic things that a PNP RPG should have:

  • Setting and story.
  • A dungeon master who doesn’t actually play the game, but instead tells the story and frequently changes that story based on the actions of the players.
  • Two or more players with characters they created based on the setting.
  • Dice for skill checks and combat as the players make their way through the game.

So, for instance, let’s set our adventure in the continent of Faerûn from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D)’s 3.5 Edition — probably the most popular PNP RPG setting in the known world, possibly because it’s the one used in most of the AD&D licensed games.

The Witcher 3

Geralt in Faerûn would translate effectively as a Human Ranger who had magical beasts as his Favored Enemy. His levels of power and personal attributes could easily be used to create a hardy character that would fit nicely into this world.

Batman in Faerûn would make an excellent Fighter/Thief multiclass, if his points were allocated properly. For instance, most of Bats’ knowledge would translate as Lore skill, so the player would have to pump those skills. But they wouldn’t be allowed to be rich, so they couldn’t roleplay the exact Batman as we know him.

The real problem here is that Batman is a strong all-rounder, which is something that AD&D actively fights against. As a role-playing way of dealing with that, the player could use a set of custom armor, which the Dungeon Master would need to slightly rewrite the story for. But just like the real Batman (don’t get me started on the phrase real Batman), they’d have to strike a balance between armour and agility. There could also be a few passive or active abilities tied to the suit to enhance the roleplay factor (like some form of night vision or a once-per-day Find Traps spell), but that’s fine; AD&D can allow that.

Darth Vader could also translate to Faerûn, but you’d have to make some sacrifices: There’s no Cybernetic Human option, so you have to make do with a Human Blackguard with high Strength and Constitution but low Agility and Wisdom (triple role-playing points if you make his Wisdom so low that he doesn’t get access to spells). As for his Eletcrotelekinetic power levels — nope.

To be clear, he could exist as an NPC with his power levels unchanged, but the balance inherent in the AD&D system means that a human player can’t have such a big advantage without any negative effects. However, there could be any number of workarounds with the Dungeon Master for this. Were I the Dungeon Master for a game featuring Darth Vader, I would allow the character, but with a very strong caveat: The character must be an Evil Fighter so that they don’t ever get access to any overpowered non-combat abilities or magic spells, and all of their proposed powers have finite uses per day, never level up, and are tied to the suit, which cannot be removed and has a very severe debuff to Agility.

That’s just one way to do it. There could be many workarounds.

You can’t do that in a RPVG without cheating or using mods. Because RPVGs don’t have Dungeon Masters, see?

The Witcher 3

Speaking of RPVGs…

Let’s reroll this experiment, only using The Witcher 3‘s game world as a setting.

Gerault would effectively translate as himself, yes. In fact, if you want to role-play Geralt, then this game was made for you. Literally.

Batman would make a good Geralt, but he would look and act just like Geralt, and have Geralt’s history, and he wouldn’t dress as a bat or have futuristic gadgets or say “I’m Batman” (which is half the fun of playing him).

Darth Vader wouldn’t have a lightsaber, the Force wouldn’t work anything like it should, he wouldn’t be second in command in the most powerful empire in the galaxy, and he wouldn’t have been the cutest little podracer ever when he was a kid. But hey, at least he could still hate sand! Probably. I mean, who even likes sand? Nobody, that’s who. So, if you can just get over all those hangups, then you can totally play Darth Vader in The Witcher 3.

Now, sticking the the definitions we’ve established, if The Witcher 3 is an RPVG, then so are the Arkham games. I mean, the Arkham games are all video games were you take on the role of a character (Batman) in a well-defined universe.

I’m not wrong about all of this, am I?

Am I?

Incredibles Syndrome

It’s as if Syndrome from The Incredibles had targeted RPVGs instead of superheroes: “If every video game is an RPG, then no video game is an RPG.”

An that makes me… Syndrome?


(rolls dice)


(rolls dice)


(rolls dice)


(Everybody else sighs, wishing they were playing an RPVG — except for Chad from Accounting, who simply says “You should probably invoke Tymora for something like that, you know.” And then he leaves.)

Now that is an experience you just don’t get in video games these days. Unless we’re talking MMORPGs, I suppose, but that’s a can of worms that’s best left unopened.

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