What are the Core Elements of an RPG?

What is the least a roleplaying game must have that will still allow players to have a fantastic time? This is an important question because, when you are a game designer, it is always easy to come up with another new feature or another new rule. Therefore, asking what is the most you can do to create a roleplaying game isn’t a useful question. There is always more that can be added or expanded upon.

Instead, it is much more interesting to think about what are the fewest essential core elements a game must have to provide a rich and rewarding play experience. “Perfection is achieved,” so they say, “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

David and I are potentially interested in expanding Infinite Black into roleplaying games. Therefore, we have been thinking a lot about possible approaches. One of the most important decisions from the standpoint of designers and publishers is whether or not to license an existing RPG engine or to try to develop our own. There are a lot of factors that go into making that decision. If we developed our own system, it would be a major undertaking. That is why we started pondering what the least is that a game must have in order to fulfill its purpose.

Considering this within the context of purpose is very important. I think there is no absolute right or wrong with roleplaying game design. There is only right or wrong and better or worse for a particular purpose. Games have different mechanics, at least in part, because there purposes are to provide different play experiences for the players. Whether or not these are the right mechanics is probably best discussed in relation to whether or not they are contributing to the game’s purpose.

Arguably, one of the major purposes of a roleplaying game (besides having fun) is for the players to tell a story. Creating a narrative is a common feature to many roleplaying games, but different games focus on this is in different ways. Some will focus on a large and world-wide epic. Others have no problem allowing the story to be constrained (at least for a while) to how a tactical battle unfolds in detail. Different systems cater to telling stories at different scales.

Another major purpose of many roleplaying games is to evoke a certain feel. This is often closely tied with allowing players to experience a world. Some roleplaying games try to invoke the feel of Middle-earth, Westeros, or the Firefly universe. Certainly, the skill of the game master is a critical part of this, but the mechanics of the game can be an important factor in invoking the correct feel. 

What do you think? What are the essential elements of a roleplaying game? If you were designing a game for a particular purpose, what would you want to make certain it includes?

Heath Robinson
Follow me on Twitter: @EHeathRobinson

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