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Gameplay where players take on the goals and behaviors of fictional agents.

Games require players to adopt goals but some games make players adopt the role of fictive people and the roles they have goals. This can require the players not only to strive for those goals but to behave as agents which have those goals, including having the emotional attachment to them that the agents would have having to plan how to strive for those goals and choose between them.

For a detailed analysis of early roleplaying games, see Peterson 2012[1] and for early roleplaying culture see Fine 2002[2]. Mackay 2001[3] looks more generally on Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Cover 2010[4] explores how they help create narratives. Appelcline 2011[5] and Tresca 2011[6] provide two different perspectives on the evolution of these games. In Dungeons & Desktops[7], Barton does the same for Computer Roleplaying Games. For Live Action Roleplaying Games, see Stark 2012[8] for an overview of the American version and Montola & Stenros 2010[9] for the Nordic version.


Many of the best known tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, and Basic Roleplaying, are actually game systems that can use different game worlds. These game worlds can be totally player-created, but there are also commercial game worlds available. Other games, e.g. Ars Magica, Call of Cthulhu, Fallen Reich, Mutant, Paranoia, and the various games in the Storytelling System, are instead created to specifically support on particular game world. The gameplay is based on the group of players that roleplay members of a party going adventuring in sometimes exquisitely detailed fantasy settings with elaborate plot structures. In these games, most often only one of the players is the Game Master (Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons but Game Master is the more generic term) who acts as the game facilitator presenting and resolving the imaginary situations to the players. The gameplay is usually almost wholly based on verbal communication between the players and the Game Master. Rules, resolution tables, and dice are used to resolve the conflict situations, which usually involve combat between players and monsters.

Computer-based Roleplaying Games replaced the need for game masters by having code. This let players engage in Roleplaying alone, e.g. in the Fallout series, and The Elder Scrolls series, and the Witcher series. When computers became networked, this gave rise first to Multiuser Dungeons such as DragonMud and Kingdoms (and re-introduced human Game Masters), and later Massively Multiplayer Online Games such as Entropia Universe, Disney's Toontown Online, Ultima Online, and World of Warcraft. Sleep is Death is noteworthy in this context since it is a computer-based roleplaying game intended for one game master and one single player, as is the Sims series since it lets one player roleplay many characters or Sims.

In Live Action Roleplaying Games (LARPs) such as 1942 – Noen å stole på and Prosopopeia, players act out their characters in real life. The real world is used as the basis for the setting of the game although it may be modified by for example constructing buildings, and players often put many hours into make the appropriate props and equipment as good as possible. LARPs, of course depending on the play style, are usually more oriented on acting out the roles of the characters than tabletop roleplaying games, and some play styles are closer to improvisational theater than playing games.

Gamebooks such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the Lone Wolf series are "single-reader" Roleplaying games.

Some games introduce Roleplaying in the form that players need to pretend they are another form of players than they are. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game does this through having some players as traitors that try to sabotage the efforts of the other players, while in the Team Fortress series spies in disguise need to move as part of the other team in order to avoid detection. The latter example forces the players to enact a type of roleplaying using only movement and facing (since they cannot shoot or talk to members in the enemy team).

For more examples, see the categories Roleplaying Games, Tabletop Roleplaying Games, Computer-based Roleplaying Games, Live Action Roleplaying Games, and Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

Using the pattern

Roleplaying is based on Identification between players and game components that could be Agents in their own right (at least on a diegetic level), so a primary need for the pattern is to create such suitable game components. This is typically Avatars or Characters (making them Player Characters) since they can have goals and intentions associated with them which players can adopt, but arguably Abstract Player Constructs such as countries in the Europa Universalis series or civilizations in the Civilization series can work.

The Agents needs goals and intentions, and some are more common that others since they inherently have more complexity and thereby let players have more Freedom of Choice in how to perform them (having no Freedom of Choice would make the Agents stop being agents). Secret Goals provide an easy was to require multiple levels of Roleplaying, first as having the goals that the Agents have and then trying to hide that one has these goals. Internal Conflicts is a common solution and can exist as Incompatible Goals within the Agent or within groups of Characters through Internal Rivalry. A special case of Internal Conflicts for Roleplaying is that players can have it between him- or herself and the Agents played. AI Players with Own Agenda can be said to do Roleplaying, but it is unlikely that players will differentiate between the AI Player and the Character so this is primarily a structural observation.

Another solution, intended to make Emotional Engrossment easier for players, is to let players choose the goals and intentions for the Agents through Player-Created Characters and the Player-Planned Development of them. This can be extended to choosing their appearance as well (Tabletop Roleplaying Games easily does this while later instances of computer-based games such as the Fallout series have numerous options), up to the level of support Player Created Game Elements. Character Alignments can also be used to provide players with broad set of rules regarding how their players should behave; this can guide players in selecting more specific goals and intentions.

Roleplaying is easily and effectively done by saying or doing what one's Agent is doing. Quite often it is seen as a goal by both designers, Game Masters, and players that those playing should try and use Diegetic Communication as often as possible as a low level of Enactment. However, this means that Roleplaying can encourage players to engage in more Enactment or Physical Enactment, but when a game's design explicitly requires the latter it in reality requires Live Action Roleplaying.

Many games focusing on Roleplaying often wish to provide a large amount of Freedom of Choice and Creative Control for players on how to portray the Agents they are Roleplaying. Sandbox Gameplay can provide players with this freedom while Game Masters can not only roleplay Non-Player Characters but can also improvise ways of allows players to do what they want. However, too much freedom can also be a problem, e.g. in regards to maintaining Thematic Consistency or unfolding a certain Predetermined Story Structure, and in these cases Enforced Agent Behavior may be necessary - but too much control may make Roleplaying limited, impossible, or reduced to pure Enactment without any possibility for players to improvise.

Games with Roleplaying typically require some kind of Dedicated Game Facilitators to support the environment and possible Non-Player Characters. Using human Game Masters allow for improvisation and Evolving Rule Sets while Dedicated Game Facilitators can support the large numbers of players needed simultaneously to create Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

An alternative way of achieving Roleplaying in games is to introduce Betrayal. This since a player is Roleplaying when pretending to have other intentions than he or she in fact has, as for example playing a Cylon in Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game requires. By combining Anonymous Actions, Unmediated Social Interaction and the risk of Penalties, a Betrayal can occur without being detected if the betraying player succeeds in Roleplaying. Sanctioned Cheating in Multiplayer Games works much like Betrayal in relation to Roleplaying expect dealing with pretending not to be doing certain actions.

The same effect can be achieved through having Infiltrate goals (and can be said to work for Single-Player Games), as for example through the spy class in Team Fortress Classic. Secret Goals in any Multiplayer Game can serve a similar purpose but does not have to be as easily noticeable by other since players are not forced to pretend to have any specific goals.

A special case of Roleplaying exists when players pretend to be other players than they themselves are. This may not be to impersonate other, but rather to be able to have a Possibility of Anonymity in games with Social Interaction.

Diegetic Aspects

Games that are to support Roleplaying need at least implicit Game Worlds since the Agents that are to be roleplayed need an environment to offer possibilities and challenges. The use of Persistent Game Worlds (as done for example in World of Warcraft but also most Tabletop Roleplaying Games) can change how Roleplaying is done - for example having to consider long-term effects of actions - but it player actions can change the Persistent Game Worlds then Roleplaying also effect it in return, up to becoming Player Constructed Worlds. Props and Player Aids can help players in experiencing the Game Worlds, are through this help them with Roleplaying.

As part of providing sufficiently detailed Game Worlds, games support Roleplaying often need to provide players not only with the possibility to interact with other players but also to interact with diegetic entities such as Non-Player Characters. For the Roleplaying to become a interactive exchange and have flexibility, Game Masters may need to roleplay the Non-Player Characters rather than having them be their own Agents.

Given that players quite easily may break Thematic Consistency or even Diegetic Consistency when not Roleplaying properly, e.g. by engaging in Non-Diegetic Communication, Player Enforced Actions may be worth considering if these are deemed important.

Reflective Communication directly affects how Roleplaying is done, and since it is a form of Non-Diegetic Communication, there are reasons to avoid it if striving to uphold Thematic Consistency or Diegetic Consistency.

Interface Aspects

While Unmediated Social Interaction makes Live Action Roleplaying as well as vocal Enactment possible, enforced Communication Channels can compartmentalize In and Non-Diegetic Communication to help support Narrative Engrossment. For games with Chat Channels, Emotes can help players express the emotions of their Characters and thereby roleplay.

Players often need to enact what Characters do and be able to relate to these Characters way of thinking when roleplaying. Workshopping and Warming-Up Roleplay Exercises are techniques that can be applied to tabletop and live action games with Roleplaying to help players with these tasks as well as help develop the Characters and their relationships to other Characters if necessary.

Narrative Aspects

Roleplaying games naturally tend to have strong Predetermined Story Structures to motivate the goals and desires of Characters, as well as increasing the possibilities for Identification, Emotional Engrossment, and Narrative Engrossment. However, they may need to be Never Ending Stories if they are to function together with Creative Control in the power of players but Playing to Lose shows another way this can be done.


Roleplaying is a type of performance and can through this create Performance Uncertainty in games. Roleplaying typically leads to Enactment in various forms but not always - while Roleplaying in Tabletop Roleplaying Games can consist of moving Miniatures on maps and speaking as one's Character would, it can also just consist of stating what actions one is doing without any Enactment whatsoever. When it does happen though, this Enactment can help support Thematic Consistency and show Emotional Attachment to what happens in the Game World. Regardless, adopting the goals of Agents can lead to Narrative Engrossment, and choosing how to reach their goals and enact their interactions is a form of Creative Control. While controlling Characters can in itself be enough for players to engage in Perspective Taking of those Characters views upon things, Roleplaying makes this more likely since the Roleplaying puts a stronger foci upon taking into account more diegetic aspects - not necessarily connected to game mechanics - relating to the Characters.

As the Characters that are played are likely to have Social Roles, players engaged in Roleplaying are also likely to take on these Social Roles for how their Characters behave. All Roleplaying games happen in Game Worlds since the Agents need an environment, but the Roleplaying can define the smaller (and sometimes bigger) details of these Game Worlds and with sufficient Creative Control they can become Player Constructed Worlds. Role Fulfillment can be achieved through Roleplaying as soon as players feel that they managed to play according to the wants and personality of their Characters (which can be regardless of if they as people share these things or if the Characters succeed in what they attempt to do). Roleplaying can require Social Skills on two levels: that of enacting the Social Skills of someone and that of supporting others Roleplaying and not dominating Scenes.

Given that Roleplaying can lead to the closure of the goals and intentions of Agents, it can also lead to Character Development when players have Characters that they roleplay, and some of the actions players chose are likely to be Character Defining Actions.

While Roleplaying is most common in Multiplayer Games, and there creates a particular form of Social Interaction, it is not necessary and can therefore Multiplayer Games can be seen as a way to modulate Roleplaying. This Social Interaction can give rise to quite a number of different types of activities, e.g. Gossip during Downtime, and that they have additional limitations, e.g. that Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences. Roleplaying in itself does not specifically motivate Social Roles, but when modified explicitly by "social" structures such as Internal Rivalry or implicitly by the setting through a wish to have Thematic Consistency, it can.

Examples of situations where Roleplaying can occur even when no other player are present, and thereby modulate Single-Player Games, include when making a country behave as it did historically while playing one of the games in the Europa Universalis series or when playing a Character in Fallout: New Vegas as one decided it should behave during its creation. These are further examples of how Roleplaying can support Role Fulfillment.

When done in Multiplayer Games, Roleplaying are often structured so that the players belongs to Teams and this quite naturally demands Cooperation. However, they require Cooperation on another level - that of upholding Alternative Realities and the possibility of Narrative Engrossment. One common issue regarding this Cooperation, and which can require Negotiation, is that Roleplaying may give rise to both In Character Conversations and Non-Diegetic Communication and that different players may have different opinions on their appropriateness and how much it disturbs Narrative Engrossment. Roleplaying games with human Game Masters typically contain large amounts of Storytelling, being not only what Game Masters can use to drive the game forward but also being how players can describe their actions and how Game Masters provide Effect Descriptions of those actions. However, telling what specific Characters do is Roleplaying as long as they act according to their personality and context, so Storytelling and Characters can together give rise to Roleplaying. Conversely, Roleplaying through Enactment gives rise to Storytelling.

In game with Anonymous Actions, Roleplaying can be needed on the level of roleplaying oneself as a player to win. That is, Anonymous Actions can make Roleplaying a requirement for Gameplay Mastery.


Can Instantiate

Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Creative Control, Enactment, Emotional Attachment, Emotional Engrossment, Game Worlds, In Character Conversations, Narrative Engrossment, Non-Diegetic Communication, Performance Uncertainty, Perspective Taking, Role Fulfillment, Social Roles, Social Skills, Thematic Consistency

with Anonymous Actions

Gameplay Mastery

with Characters

Character Defining Actions, Character Development, Player Characters

with Creative Control

Player Constructed Worlds

with Downtime


with Enactment


with Internal Rivalry or Thematic Consistency

Social Roles

with Physical Enactment

Live Action Roleplaying

with Multiplayer Games

Cooperation, Social Interaction

Can Modulate

Single-Player Games, Persistent Game Worlds

Can Be Instantiated By

Abstract Player Constructs, Agents, Avatars, Betrayal, Characters, Game Masters, Game Worlds, Identification, Infiltrate, Non-Player Characters, Own Agenda, Player Characters, Sandbox Gameplay, Secret Goals

Possibility of Anonymity together with Social Interaction

Anonymous Actions together with Penalties and Unmediated Social Interaction

Characters together with Storytelling

Emotes together with Chat Channels

Multiplayer Games with Sanctioned Cheating

Can Be Modulated By

Character Alignments, Communication Channels, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Diegetic Communication, Enforced Agent Behavior, Incompatible Goals, Internal Conflicts, Internal Rivalry, Multiplayer Games, Predetermined Story Structures, Never Ending Stories, Persistent Game Worlds, Player Aids, Player Created Game Elements, Player-Created Characters, Player-Planned Development, Playing to Lose, Props, Reflective Communication, Secret Goals, Self-Facilitated Games, Teams, Unmediated Social Interaction, Warming-Up Roleplay Exercises, Workshopping

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Diegetic Consistency, Enforced Agent Behavior, Thematic Consistency


A rewrite of the pattern Roleplaying that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[10].


  1. Peterson, J. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press.
  2. Fine, G.A. (2002) Shared Fantasy - Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.
  3. Mackay, D. 2001. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game. McFarland & Company.
  4. Cover, J.G. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company.
  5. Appelcline, S. 2011. Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing.
  6. Tresca, M.J. 2011. The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company.
  7. Barton, M. 2008. Dungeons & Desktops. A K Peters, Ltd.
  8. Stark, L. 2012. Leaving Mundania - Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-playing Games, p. 220. Chicago Review Press.
  9. Montola, M. & Stenros, J. (eds.), Nordic Larp. Published by Fëa Livia, 2010.
  10. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.