RPGs are about choice.
As the Angry GM explains it:
Here’s the deal: an RPG is about choice. That’s what makes an RPG an RPG. Players project themselves into the minds of characters in another world and they make choices. Those choices have outcomes. They have consequences. And from that, a game emerges. And I’m not going to deny that. Choice is the single most important aspect of every RPG. It isn’t story. It isn’t challenge… It isn’t imagination. At the heart of every RPG is the freedom to choose and the promise that choices have consequences.The Angry GM, “Jumping The Screen“
I like that definition because it cuts out all of the crap that tends to accumulate around the question of what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game.
RPGs are about choice.
You take on a role – what one British exam board defines as “the function assumed or part played by a person or thing in a particular situation” – you take on a role and you make choices from the standpoint of that role.
Choices have consequences and, as Angry suggests, from those a game emerges.
Roleplaying: More Than Interaction
Sometimes your choice involves interaction with other characters in the world in which we are playing. You might choose to interact in first- or third-person, but you are interacting nonetheless. Just because a player is interacting in first-person and acting the role with a different voice, body mannerisms, and even a set of clothes or other props doesn’t make it anything other than an interaction. Roleplaying is when, during that interaction, you make a choice in role as the character. In other words, you are thinking more like the character in the situation and less like yourself. That is roleplaying.
Interaction, just as much like exploring a space, or hitting something, or climbing something, interaction is one set of choices you can make. What makes it interesting isn’t only WHAT you choose to do – although actions are inherently going to lead to outcomes, and outcomes are generally interesting – not only WHAT you choose, but also HOW you choose to do it. Method matters as much as decision. This is especially true in interactions – bribing the guard versus flirting with the guard is qualitatively different, for example. Thus, in a roleplaying game, you play the role of your character and make choices – choices about what you do or say, and choices about how you do or say it.
It is no less a roleplaying game when the situation is a combat scene. You face a challenge – a physical threat – and you must decide how you will survive it. Combat is roleplaying too. You are asked to make choices and those choices are meaningful because – most of the time – the stakes are the highest that stakes can be for the character: it’s potentially life or death. How we fight is interesting. What approach we take matters.
This is just as true of exploring a location. It’s true of interaction. But, please, stop calling interaction anything other than what it is: interaction. Roleplaying is when we are making meaningful choices in the role of our character.
Playing, Not Roleplaying
When play stops being roleplaying is when the reasons for your character’s decisions, actions, and methods are not driven by the role you are inhabiting.
If you are playing as yourself, and everyone knows this, then yes – you are roleplaying. You are placing yourself into a different set of circumstances and playing out the decisions and consequences. This can be fun.
Where I believe roleplaying stops is when the decisions are not driven by the role – when we do what is decided for us by the mechanisms of the game, or where we stop making decisions that are based on the perspective of the character in the described situation.
It’s a fine, blurry line. Often we can’t tell when we’ve crossed over into playing instead of roleplaying. If something other than the perspective of the role you are playing is driving the decision-making, are you really still roleplaying?
My advice is to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and focus on your own role: are you thinking in-character? I find it helps to speak in-character, first-person… but your mileage may vary. The key is to make decisions, declare actions, tell the Game Master WHAT you are doing and HOW you are doing it. From there, it’s adjudication time.