Edited: note to self - do not write while sleepy, you'll forget a lot of things and jump out of the text.
Role-playing games have as many definitions as there are players of said games. And lately it has become more and more common that RPG mechanics are implemented into games of different genres, such as shooters (CoD multiplayer) or even driving games (I remember some driving game having abilities that player could increase in order to drive faster etc). This obviously blurs the line between 'pure' RPGs and games that implement RPG mechanics, so what really makes a role-playing game? Abilities you can rise between 'levels' obviously alone isn't enough for that.
Some would argue that a role-playing game is defined by the skills of your character having greater meaning than the skills of the player him-/herself. This is quite problematic in a way, as some games implement the importance of skills way differently than others - some calculate every attack whether it hits or not (Dungeons and Dragons games usually) and others trust it's up to player to hit the enemy (Demon's Souls and some ARPGs). In the latter case character's skill usually only affects the damage in combat and if the game has non-combat skills, the success of these skill checks. So, are the latters really RPGs by definition? I would argue yes, although they'll be a more 'lightweight' version of role-playing game compared to the former case. Even though ARPGs tend to focus on the combat side of RPGs, your character's abilities still matter when calculating how much damage you do and perhaps if your enemies are able to hit you.
Character, character creation/development and story
First thing first, I don't really think character creation itself warrants that the game will be a RPG. Sure, most RPGs have it, but some don't (The Witcher [which I've reviewed here, btw] for example). Does the lack of character creation make those games any less of a RPG? I don't think so. Which brings me to this: I believe that pre-determined character doesn't mean that the game would not be a RPG. Although PlaneScape: Torment had character creation, you would always be The Nameless One, a human, starting the game as a fighter and True Neutral. What I think is more important to a RPG than ability to create your own character, is that the game gives the player a chance to play the character, shaping him/her by decisions and the way he/she is played. This is what, in my opinion, is what separates RPGs and adventure games, though some adventure games too have ways of decision making.
Some would argue that a good story indicates RPG. Well, no. Sure, story does have a large role in RPGs, but stories aren't inheritently tied to RPGs, as most of the good stories in games (opinions inbound!) are actually in adventure games (Gabriel Knight, Overclocked, etc) or horror games (SH2, my all-time favourite). That doesn't mean, however, that RPGs shouldn't have a good story - I do think that a big part of a good RPG is the story, and how well it can adapt to the choices of the player or how much playroom it gives to the player. Story-driven RPGs usually restrict the players capabilities to explore the world, but in exchange can deliver a really good story. However, there should always be room for side-quests and exploration so that the player can 'lose' him-/herself in the game's world. Most RPGs usually start by throwing the player into the games world and then player uncovers the world and its people alongside the plot. And this is quite fine, but I'd still like that the player has a chance to read some background on the world (as in, from a manual or something like that) so that the beginning wouldn't be so confusing. However, if the game is too focused on the story and forces the player to wander in a narrow path (looking at you, FFXIII), I'd argue that it isn't necessarily a role-playing game even if it has character development system. In my opinion these games would be more like adventure games with RPG mechanics.
Then there are open-world RPGs that, to some extent, I feel are the counter-part of story-driven RPGs. Open-world RPGs, like The Elder Scrolls, usually have huge amounts of things to discover and the player can decide him-/herself the pace at which he/she progresses the main storyline. This often comes at the price of story-pacing and, unfortunately, the quality of main storyline. But on the other hand they are, in my opinion, even more RPGs than story-driven RPGs, as the player is truly free to come and go as he/she pleases, although the consequences of his/her actions often tend to be quite small, if even visible.
The argument of story-driven vs open-world RPGs comes down to the personal taste. I personally enjoy both, although I like a lot more story-driven games if the story is actually good.
Then there's the thing with character classes. They are mostly related to RPGs, but classes have existed in other forms of gaming for ages (Team Fortress Classic for example), so character class obviously isn't the thing that separates RPGs from other games. And to be honest, RPGs actually wouldn't even need character classes if they were designed in such way from the beginning. For example, The Call of Cthulhu d20-edition (I don't know how things are in the older d100 version) doesn't stricty have character classes, there are some 'classes' from which your character can have only one, which means what skills he/she has ('class skills'), but you also get to select (if I remember correctly) 3-4 skills extra as 'class skills'. I actually thought about making my system such, but I feel more comfortable with character classes. The Elder Scrolls series technically has character classes, but in my opinion it plays a lot like a system without strict classes.
Well, this has, and still is, quite a problem to me. Alignment system (such as Dungeons & Dragons') is inheritently somewhat restricting, as it categorizes the character in certain way. Dungeons & Dragons' system is, personally, quite good as it the the good and evil aren't really all that absolute, and neither are lawful and chaotic ends of spectrum. And what's even better, the player isn't really forced to play according the character's alignment, as player's actions can cause alignment changes. And alignment actually has some gameplay effects, such as some weapons dealing extra damage against creatures of some alignment or grants protection from some alignment and so forth. Some classes have restrictions about alignments, and if a Paladin for example loses his position on the Lawful-Chaos axis and becomes neutral, he loses his Paladin special abilities (or so I remember, correct me if I'm wrong!). But it still is categorizing the player as a certain type of person, which in my opinion is unfortunate and may come in the way of role-playing. Your mileage may vary.
Then there is the no-alignment system, which is much more allowing for players to truly play their character, but then comes a dilemma - how to track the character's reputation or, well, alignment. And it imposes a restriction for the designer. In DnD, as I said above, some classes must follow their alignments in order to be able to use special abilities or talents. So, how to do that in a system that has no alignment system? If in lore the paladins are protectors of the order and weak, how do you tell the player that in order for the paladin to stay true to their path and retain their skills? It's a dilemma that I haven't been able to solve as such, but I have a "sort-of" solution. Let's take the Paladin yet again as the example. Let's say that in lore it is said that they are protectors of the weak and justice. How to control the player to try to act accordingly? Well, you don't. There will always be those, who stray from their path. If the player wants to become one, let him. But he should also know, that it will have consequences, such as special "hunters" who seek out Paladins who have betrayed their path. It requires more work than having an alignment-system, but I believe, that if well implemented, it will enhance the player's role-playing experience. In the end though, this also comes down to person's preferred tastes, some like having "clear" alignments and some like muddy, shades of gray ones.
Of course, most games have some sort of alignment-system, even if not visible to the player. Fallouts had reputation, which would determine your standing and people's reactions towards you. Some games show this reputation to the player, some don't, and as such, is quite interesting system. Then again, there could be a list of global variables about what the player has or hasn't done, and people would react accordingly, but that could prove to become quite a mess if it's not well designed and/or implemented, but if well implemented, I feel that this would be the best system.
Combat and skills
As said above, in most RPGs the character's abilities define his combat capabilities, not the player's skills. But how to implement the combat and spell systems? Should you try to strive for realism, stress the many variables that are in combat, or should you strive simple mechanics that would also be fun? Or something in-between? This also comes down to personal taste. And, in the end, it is something that defines the game heavily. If you strive for realism, you may soon notice that a single mistake can cost your life, and if playing PnP, one turn can take quite a long time, just because you'll be throwing so many dice. On the other hand, if you strive for simplicity, turns will be over soon. It has the benefit in the feeling, as usually combat rounds in PnP last somewhere along 3-10 seconds, so short turns will enhance this experience. But it can also feel very unsatisfactory, because you may feel that there are variables that should also be noted when it comes to combat.
I personally enjoy all three kinds of combat, but I feel that from designer's point of view, the in-between is the best choice for complexity that is visible for the player. It isn't as hard to implement as the more realistic system and it will be more complex than the simple system. The point on the line between realism and simplicity comes down to personal preferences. I feel that PnP games shouldn't take forever to resolve one turn, but on the other hand they still should have enough variables to make the combat feel realistic. Others want to stress the realism even further and it's just as fine as wanting a simpler and faster system.
The same can be said about skill systems. You could always design a system that strives for realism and has a gazillion different skills, but it would be obvious that not all of them are useful. On the other hand having an overly simplistic system may feel stupid, as some skills are used to resolve many very different situations, and in which the skill being used may feel very stupid and illogical. As an example of this I would have to say DnD 3.5e, such skills as Listen and Spot that use Wisdom as skill ability modifier. Wisdom in DnD is defined as follows:
It makes sense, in a way, but I personally feel that this ability should have been named Perception just because of this. But that would spin the table quite a lot, as some other skills that are actually associated with wisdom would need a new ability to be tied in (Heal, Profession). This problem, I feel, is quite inheritent in a PnP RPG that doesn't strive to be too realistic. Designers must find the fine balance between a logical gameplay system and avoiding overcomplexity (and making some abilities very useless or useful in rare cases).Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. [..] If you want your character to have acute senses, put a high score in Wisdom.
Then there's the 'abstract' system as some call it, which I'm not really familiar with, but I'll try to write something, and if I'm mistaken, feel free to correct me. The 'abstract' system is usually used in JRPG-games, but because I have limited experience with them, my viewpoint will be limited (mainly to FFVII and FFVIII). These games have usually a way different system about both character development, character's skills and combat abilities, as skills aren't always tied to the character but certain items he/she has (such as Materia in FFVII) or some other possessions (link-system in Lost Odyssey for example, or summons in Final Fantasies in general). Character development when leveling up is usually just that your character gains more HP and his abilities increase, he/she may not always gain new skills. The skills must be 'equipped' a little like skills. I don't say that this is a bad mechanic, and it's actually quite interesting and allows adjusting the character for what is needed in the next encounter, but I personally prefer the 'western' systems.
What makes a RPG then?
I'd say that the combination of all things above to some extent, but if I'd have to pin top three aspects, they would be as follows:
- The skill of the player is less meaningful than the skills of his/her character
- The ability to role-play your character in a meaningful way
- Choices and consequences (closely related to the above)
Role-playing mechanics have found their way around a lots of games, but that doesn't mean that RPGs themselves would be dead. Sure, evolution is in progression now and as it would seem, the mainstream RPGs are taking the line of Swords-and-Discussion (or in the case of Mass Effects, Guns-and-Discussion), there are many games with more 'pure' RPG aspects in the 'underground'.