The concept of roleplaying games was popularized by the Dungeons and Dragons game. The various DnD handbooks gave players a structured set of rules within which players could act out various medieval fantasies. DnD has been popular for decades now, in various incarnations and revisions, and the dice-based system has been adapted to many other formats.
The concepts laid down by Dungeons and Dragons are also responsible for the rapid evolution of video games. The structure of DnD showed that any part of the world, and not just stuff involving Orcs and Elves, can be broken down into basic formulas and variables. The idea that anything can be expressed in numbers this way is at the very core of video games to this day. Video games with a medieval and/or fantasy themes are as old as video games themselves, and many borrow heavily from Dungeons and Dragons concepts like experience, levels and statistics. It's these types of games, not necessarily taking place in the aforementioned medieval or fantasy setting, that are most commonly referred to as role-playing games.
RuneScape is of course one of the many RPGs out there today, specifically of the massive multiplayer online variety. While the massive, multiplayer, online and game parts of the term 'MMORPG' are certanly accounted for, I feel there is a massive lack of role-playing going on in this game. There is currently one server dedicated to role-playing, yet even that one is rarely used. Personally, I have yet to encounter any actual role-playing taking place on that server.
Of course many players simply aren't interested in role-playing. For them, RuneScape is simply a game of levels, equipment and gold, and that's fine. At the same time, it seems that all MMORPGs, even Runescape, attract players with at the very least a passing interest creating their own characters and forging out paths for those characters to walk within the world JaGex has created for us. However, pretty much all RuneScape related role-playing I have participated in seems to have taken place on RuneScape-related forums rather than within the game itself.
I think part of the problem is that Runescape has a relatively young audience. This might seem like a stereotype, but most stereotypes have, to some extent, a basis in reality. Runescape is sometimes derisively referred to as "Baby's First MMORPG", and while this might be overstating it a little, I do believe that part of the lack of interest in roleplaying comes from the fact that the game does have a younger audience.
I think a major part of the problem is the way players are thrust into the RuneScape game world. The first quests players take part in seem to be based entirely around the most mundane tasks, shearing sheep and gathering ingredients for a birthday cake. These quests are hardly worthy of stalwart heroes of the land. First impressions are everything, and these first impressions of your place in the RuneScape world are hardly ideal.
One thing that most, if not all MMORPG worlds have in common is that they are worlds in conflict, with players being made to pick a side the moment they create their character. Whether it's good or evil, Alliance or Horde or Order or Destruction, players immediately take a direct part in the power struggle and are made to feel like they're making a difference from their cause from the moment they set foot in this new world. When players create their character, the only form of customization that's offered is aesthetical.
Of course it didn't use to be this way. Until about halfway through 2002, RuneScape players creating their account had to pick a class. This was all fairly standard fare, with classes like priest, warrior, mage and ranger. Depending on the class the player chose, they would get different starting equipment and items and slightly modified stats. This system was abandoned however, because in the differences between classes disappeared about 30 minutes into the game. Furthermore, there were no restrictions on what equipment a player could wear beyond the usual combat level restrictions, so a level 3 mage could immediately pick up a full set of iron plate and start hacking away at goblins with almost the same efficiency as a level 3 warrior. Of course to reintroduce classes now would mean that the game would have to be pretty much completely rewritten, so it's not an option.
An even bigger problem than the lack of classes is the lack of playable races. This all comes back to the fact that pretty much every convention that's associated with western fantasy can be traced back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Everything we 'know' about all major fantasy races was defined by him. Elves have pointy ears and talk to trees. Dwarves talk like Scotsmen, drink a lot and like to dig. Humans meanwhile are almost always the young race, the blank slate. An elven warlock would stand out as much as a dwarven druid, yet a human can convincingly be both. This can be somewhat solved by the idea of nations, as we can all understand that a Fremmenik human would behave very differently from a Kharidian one, but again, the game currently offers very little options, beyond skin colour and facial hair, to enforce these differences.
So what can Jagex do to encourage role-playing within Runescape? I think a nice place to start would be to make some small changes to the game's interface, like support for emotes. Clan chats are a nice way to talk privately within a group, but could probably use some more options. Then there's the world itself. The amount of background story available for players to delve into has expanded massively over the past few years, but I still think roleplaying could be encouraged more by giving starting players a better understanding of where they are in the world.
In the end however, I think that for a truly strong roleplaying community to arise, the first steps must be taken by the players, both in the games and on the forums. In the game, roleplayers could unite in their own clan chat to set up events and meetings and just socialize, taking the first steps towards forming a community of players with a shared interest in roleplaying. For the sake of convenience, it would be best if these players congregated on world 42, which is already the 'official' roleplaying server. A strong addition to both the fan and official forums would be the adding of roleplaying subforums which are dedicated entirely to roleplaying set within the world of Gielinor, as existing roleplaying forums are generally little more than a seemingly random mix of fantasy and sci-fi based roleplaying games that have little or nothing to do with Runescape.
So is it possible for a fulltime roleplaying community to develop within Runescape? I would really hope so, as it's something I greatly enjoy in other MMOs, to the point where I generally spend as much time playing on low level alts as I do on my main levelling character, just hanging around various cities and interacting with other characters. For this to happen however, there will have to be a strong effort from both the game developers and the player community. I would love to be able to just sit down in a random bar in Varrock and share stories with another player as if they were the character they're playing, but I don't know if Runescape is the right game for me to do that. However, I certainly think that there are plenty of options that we haven't fully explored either.