Roleplaying, taken descriptively, is a means, which can be applied to a wide variety of ends. Before proceeding to expand on this claim directly, consider the following analogy with another activity, in the physical domain, that is also a means: running. Apologies in advance for the exceedingly literal discussion that follows, but it will be useful later. First, descriptively: running is locomotion which includes an “aerial” phase during which all feet are above the ground. The activity is recognizable on a treadmill, in a forest or alley fleeing a predator, on an athletic track, in the context of a competition, alone or in a group, on a sidewalk toward a bus leaving soon, in quadrupeds, and so forth. Learning how to run well in one context likely translates to others, though perhaps incompletely. Varieties of running exist, such as sprinting and endurance running, which activate different biological energy recruitment and waste management systems (aerobic and anaerobic respiration, for example). Running well can include both comparative performance, such as speed or duration, but also technique, judged on aesthetic other grounds.
Descriptively, roleplaying is taking on the role of a fictional character, either through direct narrative acting—speaking “as if” the player was the character or pantomiming, perhaps incompletely, physical actions that a character performs. Or, with reduced immersion, through explanatory puppeteering—my character opens the door, my character reacts with surprise. The activity can be recognizable in a military war game exercise, a mock trial, the behavior of a digital game avatar, acting in a play, as an exploratory or practice exercise during a therapy session, and, of course, playing a tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D. Similarly to running, roleplaying well can include both performance, such as inflicting damage, recovering treasure, or solving puzzles, but also technique, judged on aesthetic grounds—coolness, sincere and expressive performance—or in the quality of tales recounted after the game between human players.
I suspect this is so far noncontroversial, but consider the different kinds of satisfaction that people can experience by means of the same activity applied to different ends. For example, compare a 20 minute sprint that raises the heart rate to a specific point and proceeds at a given pace, in one case pulled by a bus schedule and in another case pushed by a pursuing mugger. The physical description of the activity in terms of vital readouts, shorn of context, might be identical. The difference, then, comes from, at least: contextual constraints, situational expectation, and personal goals. Another: running across a room to meet a loved one returning from a long trip compared to running across a room to catch a teetering vase.
Now consider a roleplaying example where the agreed end would be to play through the events of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps with minor variations, but hitting all the major movements of the story. Especially within the OSR (or what have you) tradition, this may seem unsatisfying, perhaps barely even roleplaying, due to the highly constrained, almost entirely predetermined, set of narrative outcomes. Yet, the activity is still descriptively roleplaying, obviously so, despite the lack of playing to find out what happens. Considering the prospect of playing such a game incites little enthusiasm from me, but if I take a step back I can see how someone might experience satisfaction through reenacting The Lord of the Rings by means of a tabletop roleplaying game framework.
The term “reenacting” is perhaps a clue; why might someone take pleasure in putting on a production of Hamlet? Wages are one reason, but other motivations also likely exist. One might object that reenacting The Lord of the Rings might be roleplaying but that doing so lacks some sense of game since failing is by hypothesis difficult or impossible. It is easy to modify the case to handle this objection by, perhaps, awarding points for remembering textual details, persistence attainments for reaching milestones, creative reinterpretations, or clarity of self-expression through the constrained vehicle of Tolkien’s plot (notably distinct from Tolkien’s literary accomplishment). Is Super Mario Brothers any less of a game because all players must proceed through the stages following broadly the same sequence?
Could reenacting Rise of the Runelords, or Gygax’s G-D-Q modules, provide a similar form of satisfaction? Would introducing the possibility of character death and replacement substantially vary the experience, or would it remain reenactment even if particular details of how the players proceed from episode to episode varied? I pose these questions less to express my personal interest in playing or running such a game and more as a thought experiment to understand unknown pleasures. Many players seem self-evidently to enjoy compartmentalizing the game elements of roleplaying games in different parts of the activity, whether in the deck-building subgame of character build optimization, the tactical chess of 4E grid combat, the accumulation of loot, the collection of relationships with non-player characters, the exploration of bonds with other player characters, the uncovering of campaign secrets, the skillful, entertaining performance of character acting, or another accomplishment of your own devising.