Received wisdom would have it that of course it is. You create your own characters. You portray worlds of adventure in the theatre of the mind. Your own characters, your own plots.
But how creative is it?
Whenever you consume a piece of media (and by consume I mean enjoy it in the manner it's designed to be enjoyed, whether it's listening to music, watching a movie, or playing a video game, a board game, or a role-playing game, you engage with it imaginatively.
An illustration inspires associations in your head,1 a book encourages you to picture it, a comic book inspires you to hear the voices and see the movement of the sequential narrative. Even TV and movies engage your imaginative faculties.
But it's important to note the way that media engages you. See, it co-opts your imagination, it recruits it for its own ends, directs your imagination in ways that serve it.
I have to be careful here: this is not a bad thing in and of itself. This is part of the process of engaging with media. You interact with it, you enter a conversation, and just as when you're talking with a person and they're talking about a specific thing and you engage with that (like, if I'm talking about the weather, you can't segue into Kierkegaardian philosophy without a context), in the same way your imagination plays by the rules of conversation. It travels along specific avenues. When you're watching a really good horror movie, you get chills and jumps, because you're engaging imaginatively; when you're watching something funny, you express amusement because your imagination is engaged in the terms that the media is made to engage it.2
And I mean, yeah, sometimes you don't engage; sometimes something intended to be dramatic inspires laughter; sometimes you just don't find stuff funny.3 That's normal.
In role-playing games, you have that extra element of active engagement with story or setting, depending on how you want to express that. Here's the thing: the thing that you create with a role-playing game's systems and settings is directed and constrained by those systems and settings. Things that have been codified push where you're going to go.
For example, in the original Deities and Demigods book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, you had mythological gods of various pantheons given game statistics in terms of things like Armour Class, Hit Points, how much damage their attacks dealt, how many spells from the Player's Handbook they knew, how much treasure they have and and so on; on the other hand, about their temples, mythology, priesthood, you had nothing.
If you define Zeus on those terms, the sort of games where he pops up are more often than not going to be the sort of games where player characters are going to try to kill Zeus and raid his coffers. And of course you don't have to do that, but the game is made for it.
Or, here's another example: a friend ran a Cyberpunk 2020 game that fell to pieces in the first session; he had said to the players, OK, we're just doing it at beginning level. So just basic characters please, and he got all of his players turning up with stacks of guns and cyborg bits. Tooled up to the nines. Because that's how Cyberpunk 2020 is written. The game does that as its function.
Or Green Vampire, where, as I've written before, the tension between the conflicting mechanics is deliberately conducive to personal horror. You can change that, of course you can, but then your creative action is still in the context of the game.
Then of course comes the question of how to engage with a world when that world is the intellectual property of a corporate body. To what extent is it your story when it's in someone else's world?
As a writer, I'm not immune to this. It's sort of weird to think that one of my most beloved and long lasting player characters is now owned by White Wolf, for example, but then that's how the contract worked, and I knew that I was giving Lucy up when I wrote that stuff. When it's someone else's world, all you're doing is playing in someone else's sandbox. And that's OK! But you have to know it's someone else's sandbox. Even if you have lovingly made your own D&D setting, you're still playing with fighters and wizards, elves and dwarfs.
Again, to what extent can playing an RPG be a creative act?
Well, I mean, it's obviously creative. It is. But it's directed creativity, and that's important to realise, because you can't mistake it for unbridled creativity; if you think that you can use Savage Worlds or FATE or Apocalypse World or BRP or whatever for any sort of story, you're barking up the wrong tree; all are about creating differing subsets of a certain sort of genre story. Even Robin Laws' Heroquest, which I have always felt is the closest I've ever seen to a generic RPG, uses the language of conflict and power to express its process, and that directs the language of the game fully as much as the examples of play in the game, all of which are genre bound: yes, Heroquest can do gladiators in Ancient Rome just as well as it can do cosmic space gods or futuristic teenagers piloting giant robots and punching monsters, but all of those things are still action-adventure genres, which have more in common with each other than you might think.
"Anything as long as it's an action story" is not the same as "anything".
I think that it's dangerously limiting to think that a narrow range of creativity is all the creativity there is, or that Dungeons & Dragons (and please, I love that game) is the full range of everything that could be done with a role-playing game, that it's the be-all and end-all. Understand the limits of the act of creation you're indulging in, the better to use them, and perhaps even the better to transcend them.
I'll be honest, I write my own games from scratch because I'm the sort of person who wants an act of creation to be pure; of course there's no such thing as a pure act of creation. We do these things in the constraints we're given. But recognising what the limits of the things we do are is the first step to finding new ways.
Because the flipside to all this is that just as creativity has limits, creativity depends on its context to exist in the first place. You need something to build on. And the limits in which you work are the foundations for new things.
1My old PhD supervisor once told me the story of a student who turned in an assignment that was two drawings and a cover sheet that read, "I understand that a picture tells a thousand words. In lieu of a 2000 word essay, therefore, here are two pictures." The student savoured the reaction, and then handed in the actual assignment a couple days later, and still on time. (back)
2Not long ago, someone posted an edited video of an episode of The Big Bang Theory without the laugh track, which, without the audience laughter, was a comedic vacuum, which goes to show how the way in which a thing is framed changes how you react to it. (back)
3I saw Bruce Almighty the other night. Didn't crack a smile. That doesn't mean that a lot of people might not find it funny. (back)