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This article refers chiefly to video games. See Tabletop RPG for old-fashioned pen and paper games.
A type of game in which the player controls a character or party of characters in a statistically abstracted way. Most are based around one or more quests, items, stats, Character Customization, and experience points, as characters grow in power over time. While RPGs are a diverse genre, they are all defined by the core reason why people play them—namely, the desire for a sense of achievement that does not require an intense commitment to mastering them. To this end, most RPGs give you easy checklists to tick off (like side quests) at your leisure and clear success metrics and rewards (like leveling up), and also let you tune out and come back at any time. Another way a lot of RPGs engage players is by satisfying their desire to watching their characters grow as the game progresses (both in power and as people).
Role-playing games (commonly known as "RPG") have their origin not as video games but pen-and-paper systems with dice-based combat and character generation, descended from a combination of tabletop wargaming and collaborative theater. Dungeons & Dragons was the first such system to be sold, followed by other early systems such as The Fantasy Trip, Traveller and Tunnels And Trolls. These type of role-playing games are all now known as Tabletop RPGs.
The early video game RPGs focused mostly on simulating the combat aspects of Tabletop games, with other aspects following after. Video game RPGs can be divided in a number of ways, which are elaborated below.
Sandbox RPGs were codified by the aforementioned Ultima series from part four onwards. This subgenre is all about free-roaming exploration, character customization, and environment interactivity. Its incumbent king is The Elder Scrolls series, though the growing number of Wide Open Sandbox games with RPG Elements threatens to erase the distinction between these two categories.
Narrative RPGs are the youngest subgenre codified in the late nineties by Planescape: Torment and the Baldur's Gate series. Such games put the spotlight on their storytelling aspects—a compelling character cast and an engaging storyline—and, in this, are often compared to contemporaneous Eastern RPGs. More recent examples of this category include Mass Effect, The Witcher, and Dragon Age series.
Eastern RPGs (ERPGs) often focus on cinematic narratives and memorable characters, usually (but not always) with more linear gameplay and less direct customization than Western RPGs; Eastern RPGs typically feel like visual novels, movies or anime. Until recently, most such games came from Japan, and are thus nicknamed JRPGs. A good point of distinction is that WRPGs typically have some Character Customization, whereas an ERPG will more likely have a preformed Player Character, who might have some customization applied to their abilities but always looks the same. Eastern RPGs tend to use a turn based or pseudo turn based system where the player individually inputs actions for every character in the team each turn. Good examples of this genre are the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Pokémon franchises.
Action RPGs (ARPGs) is an amorphous collection of gameplay styles united mainly by having real time combat whilst still remaining an RPG (as opposed to an Action Game with RPG Elements, though distinction is rarely easy). In the Eastern RPG context, ARPG is a distinct subgenre, defined by its opposition to turn-based and menu-based combat of traditional ERPGs, while in the Western tradition, it is more of a "genre modifier" (see Video Game Genres), as real time combat can be introduced into any of its three subgenres. Most common categories of Western ARPG are Diablo-clones, FPS/RPG hybrids in the vein of Deus Ex, and Hack and Slash/RPG hybrids like Dark Souls.
Tactical RPGs are related to Eastern RPGs but with a high focus on moving around a gridlike system, often with abilities that take advantage of this to attack multiple people at once, or to fight from a distance note In Western RPGs this type of tactical combat is typical, due to their descent from Wargaming. However, what seperates the Tactical RPG subgenre from other RPGs is that they tend to greatly resemble Strategy Games, but with RPG Elements. On TV Tropes, this type of game is thus lumped in with Turn-Based Strategy, as the two genres are very close. More recent examples of Eastern Tactical RPGs, however, have also incorporated Real-Time Strategy elements. note Tactical RPGs however can usually be distinguished easily from Strategy games, as Real-Time Strategy and Turn-Based Strategy games tend to be much more open ended, and about conquering territory, whereas Tactical RPGs usually have an overarching plot typical to an Eastern RPG.
A further subdivision is a Strategy RPG (SRPGs) which more closely resemble Real-Time Strategy or TabletopRPGs. The distinction separates games that are on a grid system with standard Eastern RPG characters (with abilities, more attack options, and so on) and games that are on a grid system but characters are more properly units (they typically have only base attacks, may not have equipment, and so on). A good comparison would be Final Fantasy Tactics to the Fire Emblem series. The former is a "Tactical RPG" and the latter is a "Strategy RPG". note On this wiki they're grouped together under Strategy RPG out of convenience. Also of note is that though listed as a subdivision, Strategy RPGs were a viable genre before TRPGs.
Roguelikes take their name from the early 1980s ASCII graphics game Rogue. They are defined by the combination of randomly generated worlds and permanent death, meaning that every time time your character dies you have to start completely over in a different set of levels. The focus also tends to be much more on very complex Nintendo Hard gameplay than story.
Whether any actual "Role Playing" is involved in many role-playing video games is often debatable. See also How to Play a Console RPG and PC vs. Console.
For the trope about assuming roles in order to practice something, see Comic Role Play.
This genre is home to many specific tropes.
Lazy Backup If you're only allowed to take three out of eighteen party members into battle, you get a Game Over if those three are killed, even if the other characters are nearby and could logically step in to finish the job.
Combatant Cooldown System A.k.a. Active Time Battle. A combat system where how soon combatants can act again is determined by their Speed stat and by the complexity of their respective previous actions.
An Economy Is You All stores in a city are centered around selling things you in particular will need.
Elemental Crafting The most important aspect of a piece of armor? What material it's made from!
Equipment-Based Progression Occasionally an RPG will make characters more powerful by having them find better equipment, instead of leveling up with experience points (or by having them level up their equipment).
Equipment Spoiler Finding an unusable piece of equipment means that someone able to use it will join the party at some point.
Money Spider Even monsters need to carry money. (What do they spend it on?)
Monster Allies Where monsters fight alongside the party instead of against it.
Mutually Exclusive Party Members Certain characters will refuse to join you if other characters are already in the party, or will leave when someone else joins. Sometimes controlled by the plot, but other times it's just that the two simply can't be in the party together.
News Travels Fast As soon as something important happens in the plot, everyone in the world will know about it.
Plunder Frequently referred to as 'loot', and like Experience Points, it's rewards (but of a physical manner) from defeating your enemies, from money to useful equipment. Arguably, stuff you get from other people as a reward for completing tasks from them count as well (the tasks of which may involve collecting Twenty Bear Asses.).
Plot Tunnel Linear plot sequence that forces you to put your usual sidequests on hold while important plot events develop.
Point of No Return There is no turning back once you cross this line near the end of the game — you can only finish the game or die trying.