Twice today, entirely by coincidence, I've run across different versions of a claim that might seem uncontroversial, but is worth questioning. The first version hails from a recently republished post from 2019, “On the Rules of the Game “, on Courtney Campbell's Hack & Slash blog.
A role-playing game is a game in which you play a role.
The second instance comes from an even older post, “Dissociated Mechanics – A Brief Primer”, on Justin Alexander's blog, The Alexandrian, which I've had open in my browser for a few days but hadn't gotten around to reading until tonight. Alexander states the claim a touch more strongly:
Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role.
Are they, though? There's a case to be made that roles were genuinely central to early versions of D&D, but to understand what we mean by that, we would have to begin by clarifying what we mean by “role.” Alexander elaborates:
Playing a role is making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character.
So now we have, if not a definition, then a correlation, at least: a role is something you play by behaving like a character. Linguistically (which is, as far as I can tell, the way in which the initial claim is “self-evident”) you could tie this to the theatrical use of “role” to mean a character played by an actor. In the context of role-playing games, though, the association is perhaps less straightforward than it might seem. In practice, role and character end up being somewhat different, and those differences can add up to quite a lot, depending on the game.
Take, for example, Bilbo Baggins. Much of the dramatic tension of The Hobbit stems from the mismatch between his character (fussy, domestic, timid) and the role (burglar) that Gandalf has assigned him. Playing the burglar eventually reveals that Bilbo can also be resourceful, pioneering and brave, but those, too, are elements not of his role, but of his character, his personality. The role has merely revealed them.
As best I can tell, the roles in early role playing games were drawn along similar lines. They were, that is to say, behavioral expectations that relate people to one another in a particular social context — namely, the context of an adventuring party. Like The Hobbit's burglar, they were described in pseudo-occupational terms, or “classes.” Fighting-man, magic-user and cleric served to divvy up the tasks that make it possible to successfully undertake the sorts of adventures D&D presented. You could portray your character as a distinct personality, and I have little doubt that players did so from the very start, but the behaviors that moved the game along were those you performed by virtue of playing occupationally — by playing, that is, roles in the more or less plain sense of the term.
(Race and alignment complicate the picture a bit, and it could be argued that adding those to class results in a bundle of traits you could reasonably call a character. Cleric alone may be a role, but your character isn't just a cleric, she's a lawful halfling cleric. Does that dissolve the character–role distinction I've drawn? I don't think so, but even if it did, we may not be comfortable with the result. Part of the reason so many fantasy role playing games are open to accusations of biological determinism is that, in practice, implementations of race tend to play like a role. They set behavioral expectations; they reinforce those expectations with stats, abilities and special rules; they proscribe social relations. To see “halfling” as a major component of character invites a reductive view of personality, and to what end? On the whole, it may be better to see race and alignment as two ways early RPGs complicated the roles afforded by class. They meant that two players could choose to play as the same class without becoming utterly redundant thereby.)
Observing the distinction between role and character allows us to see two things more clearly. The first is how character-playing arose largely as an additive layer that players brought to bear on games that, at the textual level, structured play around roles. Much could be said about this — much has been said, though in different terms, perhaps — but for now suffice it to point out that this shadow game is almost as important to our conception of role-playing as nearly anything else in the hobby, and it grew so rapidly in parallel with the written rules as to be practically coeval.
The other point is that, in some ways, the situation has changed. There are still many, many games where “character generation” is a process of building a role. The tradition of defining a character according to class persists, as do the complications of race and alignment (though often in altered form), both explicitly in games with direct ties to D&D, as well as in modified form, as with the playbooks of the Apocalypse World lineage. But other games have de-emphasized role construction altogether. There are “classless games,” where the features that distinguish characters are the result of possessions or behaviors made during the course of play. The backgrounds of games like Troika often split the difference between role and character prompt. Other games have devised rule-based procedures for encouraging and guiding the expression of character. One might even suppose that the impulse to distinguish “story games” from traditional role-playing arose in part from a desire to foreground character-play by embedding it at the level of design. If the various renaissances and revolutions that make up the current era in role-playing are characterized by explorations of form, then character-play should be recognized as one of its frontiers.