Action-oriented RPGs often limit the way that their mechanics are published, however. The guns in Mass Effect have statistics, and the enemies have health bars that must correspond to hit point-style numbers somewhere under the hood. But it's under the hood
, not transparent, and that sets it aside from even other RPG/shooter franchises like Borderlands, a series that delights in bombarding the player with numbers and statistics.
Interestingly, the RPGs that cause the most arguments tend to be transparent outside of combat, the most traditionally common mechanic. For example, Skyrim
's combat may lack transparency, but its practice-improves-skills approach, without experience points, ends up being quite transparent about what your character does. Mass Effect is transparent in how its conversation and reputation system combines, even as its combat sections seem more similar to a Gears of War
than a Baldur's Gate
Transparent abstraction is part of what gives role-playing games their charm, which is why fans dislike it when it's removed; but it also leads to weirdness. When RPGs take a vague concept and give it concrete meaning, it can end up corresponding to the real world in surprising or unfortunate ways. For example, many older RPGs give female characters slightly different base attributes, like Wizardry VII
bumping women's strength down and charisma up. Perhaps to you this seems appropriate in those circumstances, but RPGs also tend to give the same transparent abstraction to things like race without corresponding to the real world. That is, it's normal for games to treat Elves as faster and smarter than Humans, but just imagine the deserved outcry if a real-world RPG said that some races were smarter or faster than others.
This is part of why RPGs go so well with fantasy specifically, and speculative fiction generally. By moving outside of real-world rules, a game can be transparent and abstract without being ridiculous. Want to say that a certain clan of vampires are all ugly and have certain rules applied only to them? You can do that in speculative fiction. This helps explain the rarity of real-world settings for RPGs outside of a few tactics games, like Jagged Alliance
and Silent Storm
Fantasy and role-playing support each other in both directions. The sort of fantasy and science fiction settings used in RPGs also uses similar forms of abstraction as the games do. Complex concepts like "good and evil" are literally true, though sometimes muddled. Other "races" exist as comparisons for humanity, like wise and magical elves compared to impatient humans. Even the science fiction stories usually used in RPGs work similarly – Asari are wise and magical just like Elves, while Turians are steadfast and tough, just like Dwarves, and so on. It's a way for the stories to feel bigger, more epic, and more archetypal. RPGs tend to function at similar levels, using their game mechanics to solidify their metaphors.
Of course, RPGs aren't alone in using transparent abstraction. Strategy games, particularly wargames, often utilize it. This makes sense, as all of these genres have tabletop origins. It has similar effects, as gamers generally consider the genres old-fashioned, while fans debate the authenticity of games use real-time and other less overtly transparent systems. There are also some odder effects. I've seen the strategy game Crusader Kings II
praised as being one of last year's best RPGs, thanks to its excellent, transparently abstract relationship mechanics virtually demanding that you mentally play the roles its world provides.
You can't define role-playing games only by transparent abstraction, as the Crusader Kings II
example indicates. RPGs also tend to have fewer characters, stronger written narratives, and more linear progression models, to name a few traits. But how RPGs model/publish their mechanics, with their dice-rolling history always there in the background, may be their most important component.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.