"A role-playing game is a free-form, open-world, cooperative game in which participants take on one of several roles, represented through avatars or characters in the game, with the purpose of achieving one of several goals, which may be variously defined by the game rules or by the players themselves, by overcoming the obstacles and challenges presented to them by the game master, a participant who is responsible for designing the world-setting and game rules, and for acting as the interpreter and adjudicator of the world-setting for the players."
This above was the motivation for my writing this post, not because I disagree with any of the above; I think it goes the nth-degree in maintaining the sense of openness and flexibility that is needed to describe the game, addressing correctly the substantial motivation for game success and neatly side-stepping the usual description of the game's facilitator as all-powerful god and decision-maker.
And so I will not try to better this definition; instead, I will try to address what goes on while a role-playing game is in session. When playing, what is happening?
In the moment, we're certainly not kicking back and thinking, "Wow, it is so great to play in this free-form, open-world with our avatar representations and all these great challenges." That is what's happening, but that's not what we're thinking. To get a handle on how to better our thinking, and how to handle the business of playing moment-to-moment, we had better consider just how the game manifests at the ground level. I'd like to take some time and do that.
Let's try it first from the considered argument that role-playing is a "story." If we try, we have to ask, where does that story begin? In someone's mind, yes, either the DM or the player. The player thinks, "I have an idea in my head that my character has always wanted to ~" and the details of the story doesn't matter. The next move the player has (or the DM, if the story has emerged from the DM's mind) is to tell the story. This makes the third move of the cooperative activity the interpretation of the story by others and the fourth move, necessarily, either the acceptance or the refusal of that story, since what's being asked for is that other players should now join in with the precepts of the story as envisioned by the individual who conceived of the story.
This should ring alarm bells for some, but for a lot of people it doesn't. This seems like a natural progression. Someone has to invent a story, or else none of us will know what to do. All we want for certain is that it is a good story, one we can identify with and thus interpret favorably, causing us to want to "buy in," thus ensuring that the story can now be fabricated as a group activity.
This seems to be what 99.9% of all role-playing game tables are doing. Players join together, individually fabricate backstories, then compare the backstories to see who has the best one, which can then be improved by jointly including elements of the other backstories at the table into the final form. When the game begins, then, each moment of the game is related to the backstory. We encounter a monster and the monster, in some way, serves as an obstacle/enhancer for the story (because the DM is expected to make each part of the adventure relevant to the story). Overcoming an obstacle (monster or otherwise) purposefully moves the story to the next stage; the DM fills in fluff or meaningful information about the NPCs or the world in general that explains what happens as the players pursue the story until, finally, the story is brought to its inevitable and exciting conclusion, one that we hope will satisfy all the players. The threads are tied up, the individuals receive their rewards for taking part, and the moment comes when the players and DM once again set themselves to come up with a new story, which can then set the framework for the next adventure.
As the players progress, they use the story as their guide: their ability to make sense of or clarify a given moment is found within the story itself, as the final conclusion is necessarily logical and gratifying. Otherwise, it is not a good story and players will balk. This orc, that impassable bridge, this confusing letter, the motivation of the prince when he cut his own throat and so on, all tie in together to form the puzzle of the story: and piecing together the puzzle, session by session, is the brain teaser that makes role-playing so great.
This is not how I run my games.
I am not telling a story. I'm not creating a setting that has to produce a given set of predictable results. None of the creatures or obstacles that I put in my world has anything to do with a preconceived story. Characters may create stories or pursue plans, but none of the things they meet along the way will necessarily relate to those plans. I'm under no obligation to ensure that any NPC has a comprehensible or relatable motivation once they happen to appear on the character's horizon. A given event may, or may not, be linked to other events that are also happening in the game setting.
That is because, while I believe that stories do occur in a game, I do not believe that stories occur one at a time. The people met, the places occupied, the events witnessed, may belong to a given story the players recognize or they may not. The fighter who appears at the bar to fight the players will as likely as not have no connection whatsoever to the princess the players have been striving to save. Sometimes, a rude fighter is just a rude fighter.
Why is this preferable?
The story is a crutch. It is a narrowing of the possible reasons why anything that occurs within the game can occur, or does occur, because it must occur within relation to the interpretable story, else it doesn't belong. Thus the players are not given the question, "does this matter?" but the question, "how does this matter?" This vastly simplifies the parameters of the game, making it easier for the players to interpret and easier for the DM to run.
It also substantially reduces the free-form aspect of the game, in that player and DM perception alike is regulated by the number of possible obstacles that can meaningfully "make sense" in the context of the pre-fixed story. By conceiving a story, whether by a player or by the DM, the size of the universe becomes vastly reduced.
The Haphazard Setting
Let's come back around and ask the same question that I did at the beginning of the last section, in line with the present header: where does the setting begin?
The setting begins at a place. There is no story. As far as the setting is concerned, the players might just as well not exist.
If the players can operate in the absence of a story, the first question they must ask themselves is not, "Where ought we to go," but "Where can we go?" In any game that I run, this is an open-ended question, limited only by the player's abilities and the physical laws of the setting. The players cannot fly, they cannot have personal knowledge of places they've never been, they cannot ride a horse unless they've learned how, they cannot be sure whether the road to the west or the road to the south is the best choice. But they must make a choice. They must move.
And so, from moment-to-moment, the game is not about their destiny but their action. It is explained to the players that if they wish to take an action that will increase their wealth, personal power, knowledge, status or sense of novelty, it will have to be an action that incorporates risk. Without risk, there is no reward. So the players are invited, initially, to choose the sort of risk they'd like to undertake.
If they do not wish to undertake a risk of any particular kind, then the risk will be brought to them. Because this is the game. Just as a game of monopoly is about moving about the board and buying property, the role-playing game is about moving through the setting, encountering risk and overcoming risk.
A monopoly player can choose not to buy property, ever; but the game will quickly turn against that player. If all the players at the start of the game make an agreement that none of them will buy property, ever, they have not broken any of the game's rules; but they have lost the sense and the meaning of the game and the experience is fruitless.
Thus, in a given moment, when players encounter a situation of risk, the structure of the role-playing game is to not merely to reduce the risk, but to eliminate the risk entirely in the most effective, cogent, efficient way possible, to promote survival while simultaneously effecting change on the game's setting.
Each step along the way is presented as a series of options that all appear to offer a reasonable course of action that will make this possible. Some of these courses of action will be a trap; many of them will not. Some will be far more effective than others. Some will be effective only if the dice roll in the player's favour. No one, not player, not DM, can be certain of which course of action will be the best because any might be adjusted by a unique, never-before-considered possible action that will only occur to the player in the heat of a given moment. Sometimes this eloquent, fortuitous happenstance will only occur because the dice roll a certain way; sometimes it will occur because the participants can't go with their original plan because something has gone wrong, such as a character dying or a door being permanently closed through misadventure. Situations such as these force innovation, as story-lines NEVER can. Innovation overcomes risk.
Momentary, inspired innovation, achieved by the momentary flash of enlightenment, is the golden trophy for which 0.1% of us play this game. It cannot be planned for, it cannot be preconceived, it cannot even be sorted out of the existing possibilities except in the moment when it suddenly emerges as the only possibility.
Few people experience this, ever. Even fewer people know how to create the circumstances to let it emerge from the synchronic gestalt that a role-playing game enables. Most have no idea this is even the goal, as they've never experienced this moment in any degree that would let them either reflect upon it or willfully perpetrate its presence again.
Role-playing is a means of doing so. It is an artificial way of forcing us, as human beings, to respond to risk in the same way that human beings, responding to risk through our racial existence, overcame each obstacle and allowed us to formally occupy the planet. We're designed as biological constructs to think our way out of problems when we are threatened; by encouraging that feeling of threat, by forcing us to risk something that we treasure, we think like gods.
When we construct the game in a manner that eliminates risk, reduces threat, promotes certainty of eventual success, narrows our framework so that the unexpected need never been compensated for, we think like children.
It is up to us, really, what sort of game we want to play.