Worlds of Design: What Makes an RPG a Tabletop Hobby RPG?
  • Worlds of Design: What Makes an RPG a Tabletop Hobby RPG?


    What makes an RPG a tabletop hobby RPG? An RPG, as we talk about them in the hobby, is a human‑opposed co‑operative game. I describe some characteristics.

    Picture sourced from Pixabay.

    I must be crazy to try to define/characterize a segment as large and diverse as this one in a few words. But here goes.

    There are two ways to define something: 1) specific (as in a dictionary), but this usually leads to dispute even when what’s being defined is a single word; or 2) describe typical characteristics at length, even though not all of the group will have all of those characteristics. I’m trying the latter, but keeping it simple.

    What makes an RPG a tabletop hobby RPG? An RPG, as we talk about them in the hobby, is a human‑opposed co‑operative game. There are four characteristics:

    • avatars,
    • progressive improvement,
    • co-operation, and
    • GMed adventure.

    Not Just Role‑Playing

    Technically, a role-playing game may be any game where you play a role – which is a LOT of games, tabletop and (especially) video. It includes some business and other training/education simulations. I’m interested in what makes a game a hobby RPG, a game played frequently by hobby game players.

    What’s a “Pure” or “Real” Avatar?

    • A single thing that represents the individual player, most commonly a humanoid
    • All the player’s actions in the game emanate from the avatar
    • The “real” avatar is fully subject to risk: if it dies/is destroyed, the player loses (at least temporarily)

    An avatar could be a spaceship, a tank (World of Tanks) or other vehicle, even a pizza‑shape (Pac‑Man). In video games, the avatar typically respawns. In hobby RPGs, the avatar is a creature, usually human or humanoid. (For more detail, read "The most important design aspect of hobby RPGs is the Pure Avatar")

    Avatars sometimes have a separate developer‑provided “history” and personality (Mario, Sonic). Sometimes an avatar is a blank slate so that the player can more easily infuse his/her own personality into the avatar.

    Many board games use a sort-of avatar that is not the source of all action, nor does the game end if the avatar is killed or captured. That’s not an RPG.
    Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller

    Progressive Improvement

    This can happen in many kinds of games. But in what we call RPGs, it’s some variety of:

    • Gaining experience to rise in levels, and the levels give more capability (though the term “level” might not be used)
    • Gaining skills/feats (which give more capability)
    • Collecting magic items (which provide extra options, defense, offense, detection, etc.)
    • Acquiring money (which can be used for lots of things)
    • No doubt there are some RPGs with other ways to improve, for example if social standing is formally tracked

    Does it need levels? No, but that's typically (conveniently) how increase in capability “without using loot” is expressed.

    So a game where the hero(es) don’t progress in capability – or only a little – might be an interesting game, but it’s not an RPG. Many of you can think of board, card, or video games of this kind. Well-known heroes in a series of stand-alone novels rarely progress significantly in capability, for example James Bond.

    You can have avatars without progression, you can have roles without “pure” avatars, you can have progression without avatars, but those are not what we categorize as RPGs.
    Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” Amelia Earhart

    Co-operation, Adventure, and a Gamemaster who Controls the Opposition

    • Yes, opposition. It’s not a game (traditional sense) without opposition, though it might be a puzzle or a storytelling engine
    • I don’t see how there can be significant opposition without a GM/referee
    • If there’s no co-operation, if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game
    • Or it’s a storytelling aid

    The GM also allows the players to try to do “anything” that could be done in the current situation. Some regard this freedom-of-action as the defining aspect of RPGs, and it’s certainly vital; but think of an imposed-story RPG where the linear plot (typical of such stories) forces players to do just what the story calls for. That’s not freedom of action. Yet many still call this an RPG.

    Where does this leave computer RPGs? There’s not exactly a GM, though the computer tries to be. There’s certainly not as much freedom of action as with a human GM.

    I include adventure, because the stories generated by the original RPGs would be called adventures. In the 21st century we do have novels that don’t seem to have any particular point other than describing everyday life, and I think that’s leaked over into so-called RPGs as well. Whether adventure is necessary is a debatable point, though *I’m* certainly not interested in RPGs without adventure.

    Some people won’t agree with this characterization. That’s inevitable. The purpose of such exercises (aside from encouraging people to think) is to narrow down something so that we can talk about it intelligibly. If the question “what’s an RPG?” tends to be answered with “whatever I think it is,” discussions become difficult.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 50 Comments
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      I'd like to explore "Opposition". Because above conflates character opposition with player opposition, and I don't think they have anything to do with each other.

      This goes back to the goal of RPGs. How does the GM win? How does the GM lose? It doesn't have to do with did an encounter kill all the PCs, or blocked any advancement by putting forth a puzzle or challenge that was unsolvable -- those are usually marks of a bad session. Did they run an enjoyable session for everyone (themselves included) could be a goal.

      Player goals are similar. If players "win condition" is to have an enjoyable time, and part of that enjoyment is overcoming challenges, then putting opposition in front of characters is putting enjoyment on players.

      So it becomes pretty clear that in-world opposition is actually a method used with players to increase their satisfaction. The GM isn't opposing the players at all - they are all working together to have a fun session. That specifically includes putting challenges in that can be overcome. (And not without risk - because many players derive the most enjoyment out of that real risk.)

      Some RPGs make this clearer, even going so far as to explicitly reward players with plot currency for having bad things happen to their characters. FATE compels are a good example. Others only mechanically reward character success with things like loot and XP, and from that viewpoint it's easy to think that character success and player success are the same.
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      So a game where the hero(es) don’t progress in capability – or only a little – might be an interesting game, but it’s not an RPG.
      Therefore neither Champions nor Marvel Superheroes nor DC Superheroes the way people actually play them are RPGs.

      If there’s no co-operation, if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game
      Paranoia - also not an RPG! Who knew?

      Also Vampire the Masquerade the way a lot of people I know played it in the 90s is apparently also not an RPG. Well that will please a lot of crotchety old gamers I know who hated it in the 90s I suppose.

      I could go on with counter-examples, but it's pointless. Why be so reductive? If you'd like to describe a particular category of tabletop adventure role-playing games then do that. What you've done here is generated a bunch of prescriptivist rules that don't apply to games that have been recognized as RPGs for decades, rather than trying to come up with a set of traits that describe actual RPGs as seen in the wild. Rules like that are pointless in general - they don't help designers understand what the design space is or where there's room for new ideas, and they don't help players understand the hobby game environment to find new games.

      The only purpose rules like this serve is so that someone can say "well, Fiasco isn't actually a role-playing game" or "DramaSystem isn't really a role-playing game system" or "Nobilis is a narrative tool not an actual role-playing game" or whatever. It's purpose is to exclude, not explain. I have no need for rules like that - give me characteristics that describe games that actually exist and that will be of use.

      (Again I think these rules are a perfectly acceptable start to try to describe a narrow category of "long-form serialized adventure gaming" within the RPG world. But if you really think that this is the sum total of what "hobby RPG gaming" is, then you're missing out on a huge part of the market. And cutting yourself off from some great gaming experiences, I might add.)
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      So D&D stops being an RPG if it's a one-shot where you don't find any loot? That doesn't jive.

      I've never bought into the notion that progression is mandatory for it to be an RPG. As long as it's a game where you role-play your character, by making decisions from their perspective rather than from your own, then that's an RPG.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jer View Post
      Therefore neither Champions nor Marvel Superheroes nor DC Superheroes the way people actually play them are RPGs.
      Depends on the version of Marvel Superheroes - if it's that version that came out in the mid-1980s, you gained karma points for future games, which influenced rolls. I can't speak to DC Superheroes, or any new versions of Marvel RPGs.




      Paranoia - also not an RPG! Who knew?

      Also Vampire the Masquerade the way a lot of people I know played it in the 90s is apparently also not an RPG. Well that will please a lot of crotchety old gamers I know who hated it in the 90s I suppose.
      Yeah, I think the "opposition" should be more openly defined -- PvP opposition is a well-known aspect of many narrratively focused RPGs. As you mention below, Fiasco is a GM-less game, with only the loosest-defined "award" mechanic, but it is very much a role-playing game -- in fact an eponymously purer RPG than D&D or many other commonly known ones.

      The only purpose rules like this serve is so that someone can say "well, Fiasco isn't actually a role-playing game" or "DramaSystem isn't really a role-playing game system" or "Nobilis is a narrative tool not an actual role-playing game" or whatever. It's purpose is to exclude, not explain. I have no need for rules like that - give me characteristics that describe games that actually exist and that will be of use.

      (Again I think these rules are a perfectly acceptable start to try to describe a narrow category of "long-form serialized adventure gaming" within the RPG world. But if you really think that this is the sum total of what "hobby RPG gaming" is, then you're missing out on a huge part of the market. And cutting yourself off from some great gaming experiences, I might add.)
      I do however, think that a definition is a useful thing, not for just exclusionary thought -- a game like the Waterdeep board game, or the old "Dungeon" board game, is not an RPG, even though containing most of the elements of Hobby RPGs. It is helpful to define what elements make up the concept so as to distinguish when someone asks the question of "what is a role-playing game?" and "what is a hobby RPG?"

      On the topic,
      avatars,
      progressive improvement,
      co-operation, and
      GMed adventure.

      Avatar is kind of non-negotiable, even if you are playing a version of yourself. Similarly, a meeple on a board would not apply -- it needs to be a character with some semblance of a narrative existance.

      Progressive improvement is not a given - as in the case of Fiasco, or Dread (the Jenga mechanic game) or other similar games, there might be an "award" mechanic, but even story itself is an award in some cases.

      Co-operation - i can do without this one, because of many contrary examples (Paranoia being just one.)

      a GM, again, games such as Fiasco and Capes don't use them, and I'll go one further to say Capes is a good example of a game that can have progression without a GM.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      I've said this before but what makes a game an RPG is pretty clearly a "family resemblance." This kind of searching for a clear logical boundary in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions/defining features is, therefore, bound to fail. It serves very little useful purpose. There are simply going to be a lot of counter-examples or features that don't quite work out for nearly every game and rapidly lead to pervasive logical absurdities. Picking through some of the examples above and adding a few to illustrate why the search for a clear definition in terms of conditions is ultimately pointless:


      1. The one-shot game of D&D usually leads to no advancement or meaningful loot all of a sudden becomes not an RPG. Really?
      2. What about a superhero game or Modiphius' Star Trek Adventures that involves very little advancement of PC ability or loot but is just focused on story, though it features stern opposition to the PCs? In STA it's not at all uncommon for the PCs to fail, just as happens in the source material the game is emulating.
      3. Different sessions can have different focuses. For example, if a game session mostly focused on philosophical interactions among the PCs it doesn't have opposition or advancement---something very plausible in a number of games, for example Mage the Ascension. Is that session all of a sudden "not an RPG?" even though the previous session involved a nailbiter combat?


      Ultimately I wonder what the motive for trying to provide such a definition even is, although I do find value in laying out the features that make up the family resemblance. It reminds me a lot of the kind of exercises in dorm room musicology that used to try to define rap as "not music" to be able to avoid making an aesthetic judgment. Clever move to be able to knock out a genre you don't like as not even being music at all! By the way, this is the well-known "No true Scotsman" informal fallacy.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      Co-operation - i can do without this one, because of many contrary examples (Paranoia being just one.)
      I think cooperation in Paranoia is kind of meta. Players know that the goal of a game like that is for the characters to die in a glorious and memorable manner and, of course, serve the Computer. This breaks the fourth wall, though. Presumably the characters themselves don't think that but are instead trying to survive, advance, etc. The cool aspect of Paranoia (a game I like only in very small doses) is that it plays with the usual conceits of RPGs.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Heh.

      RPG's are game building systems. You don't actually play an RPG directly. In order to play an RPG, someone (whether one person or the group or some balance thereof) needs to define the parameters of what you will be doing. In other words, someone needs to make some sort of scenario that will be played.

      To me, that's what differentiates RPG's from virtually any other game. The fact that, unlike most other games, you cannot sit down, follow the rules and start playing. RPG's tell you how to play. They do not tell you what to play.

      And the dog piling commences in 3...2...1...
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      So by the above definition, Pandemic Legacy could be an RPG, even though it doesn't have a GM. There's avatars, progression, cooperation, and opposition.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      RPG's are game building systems. You don't actually play an RPG directly. In order to play an RPG, someone (whether one person or the group or some balance thereof) needs to define the parameters of what you will be doing. In other words, someone needs to make some sort of scenario that will be played.

      To me, that's what differentiates RPG's from virtually any other game. The fact that, unlike most other games, you cannot sit down, follow the rules and start playing. RPG's tell you how to play. They do not tell you what to play.

      And the dog piling commences in 3...2...1...
      Not dog piling but this doesn't work either (supporting my position that no definition resting on necessary conditions really does): Games like Advanced Squad Leader or Tobruk are really just rules frameworks for scenarios. These games had lots of modules and expansions and indeed some of the classic war-games had ways to make your own scenarios and people indeed did a lot of that.

      I do think you're onto something, though: TTRPGs are unbounded in a way that no other game really is or is intended to be. The GM has a ton of leeway to interpret rules (RAW lawyers notwithstanding), create a setting, and add to the game markedly more than you'd be doing with ASL. And, of course, you're unlikely to be roleplaying your squads.
    1. Dragonblade -
      Progressive improvement is NOT a defining characteristic of an 'RPG'. This is absolutely false. You can absolutely have an RPG that doesn't feature mechanical advancement as a thing. I've even run games like this before.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      "What is an RPG?" is a meaningless question. An RPG is whenever a group of two or more people get together to play "Let's Pretend" using some form of codified rule system for handling disagreements about what happens next. This usually, but doesn't have to, involve a referee player. This usually, involves some form of avatar insertion for the players, but even this is not absolute. Player's avatars are usually working cooperatively towards goals but they don't have to be. No matter how many "requirements for an RPG" you make, there will always be exceptions. This is why my requirements above require only a conflict resolution system and people pretending to be someone or something else.

      I've run Theater of the Mind games where there were no rulebooks at all. The codified rule system was "What Joe says happened, happened." The was no system of advancement. I think it would surprise the players of that game if they were told we were not playing an RPG.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dragonblade View Post
      Progressive improvement is NOT a defining characteristic of an 'RPG'. This is absolutely false. You can absolutely have an RPG that doesn't feature mechanical advancement as a thing. I've even run games like this before.
      Yeah, he really hosed it on this one.

      Cortex+ based, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Doesn't have a progression mechanic, as such. It is totally a role-playing game. It lacks a progression mechanic, I think, as a business decision - they intended you to use Marvel pregenerated characters in their published adventures based on major stories in the Marvel comics universe. For that, you don't generally need a progression mechanic.

      It also wasn't a great business decision - while most of the mechanics are good, the lack of a good character generation system was a major flaw. Folks may sometimes want to play their characters, but really, we like making our own heroes.

      But that's an aside. Apparently, the author thinks he can define "RPG" for us. We'll see how that works out for him. :/
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      And the dog piling commences in 3...2...1...
      Nah. For one thing, that dead horse has been beaten. Lots of us think this is a bogus contention, and we told you why, and you ignored us. Whatever floats your boat, man.

      For another thing, in comparison to the audacity of claiming to define what an RPG is for us, your posit isn't controversial enough to pile on.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dragonblade View Post
      Progressive improvement is NOT a defining characteristic of an 'RPG'. This is absolutely false. You can absolutely have an RPG that doesn't feature mechanical advancement as a thing. I've even run games like this before.
      I think the general problem here is is we're trying to define a genre. And you can never define a drama by its borders. There will always be bleed in and out from other genres. It's like trying to define "forest". Just how many trees does it take to make a forest? You can't really say. But, we all know what a forest looks like. It's one of those semi-vague concepts that works in the middle but gets kinda tricky at the edges.

      Saying that many RPG's have progressive improvement is hardly contentious. Saying that RPG's need progressive improvement to be an RPG would be false, but, as a general rule, saying that an RPG has progressive improvement generally is not a totally unfair thing to say. While there are RPG's that don't, there are many, many that do. And, certainly in most mainstream RPG's (say, any game with more than about 100k players) progressive improvement is a feature.

      @Umbran - disagreeing with you is not the same as ignoring you. But, fair enough. I'll let this horse lie.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I think the general problem here is is we're trying to define a genre. And you can never define a drama by its borders. There will always be bleed in and out from other genres. It's like trying to define "forest". Just how many trees does it take to make a forest? You can't really say. But, we all know what a forest looks like. It's one of those semi-vague concepts that works in the middle but gets kinda tricky at the edges.
      That is exactly why I cited the notion of a "family resemblance" before. In this situation there is a bundle of potential features, not all of which will appear in all cases. Furthermore, in a very real respect the idea of what makes up a game is essentially contestable:

      So long as contestant users of any essentially contested concept believe, however deludedly, that their own use of it is the only one that can command honest and informed approval, they are likely to persist in the hope that they will ultimately persuade and convert all their opponents by logical means.
      (It's quoted in the Wikipedia article but I have in fact read the original, though many years ago.)

      If that doesn't describe many online arguments and attempts at providing the "definitive statement" I don't know what does!
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Sounds like the best plan then is to stick to the simplest definition possible - a genre of game in which one plays a role, usually in conjunction with other players. Or something like that. Everything else that’s been described are often but not always included in role playing games. There’s still value in a definition - it’s just that the more you try to note specifics, there are equally exceptions.
    1. S'mon -
      "So a game where the hero(es) don’t progress in capability – or only a little – might be an interesting game, but it’s not an RPG."

      Take that, Traveller!

      Obviously tons of TTRPGs don't have significant advancement in PC capability, so I don't think this can be more than just a common feature.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I think the general problem here is is we're trying to define a genre.
      Yes, but the article doesn't seem to get that.

      Genre definition is generally inclusive - if you have enough of the tropes or characteristics, you belong, whether or not you also have other characteristics, or some common ones are missing. And a given example might easily be part of multiple genres, and that's fine. Many folks are not terribly comfortable with genre definitions, because they aren't clear cut, black and white things. They are fuzzy around the edges, and there's usually a lot of edge. Inclusive definitions often don't allow one to definitively *prove* correctness of a proposition.

      The article, however, seems to be aiming at a more exclusive approach - if you have these specific things, you are an RPG, if you don't have them, you're not. And, it seem slike a lot of folks disagree both with the exclusivity, and with the choice of characteristics.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
      Yes, but the article doesn't seem to get that.

      Genre definition is generally inclusive - if you have enough of the tropes or characteristics, you belong, whether or not you also have other characteristics, or some common ones are missing. And a given example might easily be part of multiple genres, and that's fine. Many folks are not terribly comfortable with genre definitions, because they aren't clear cut, black and white things. They are fuzzy around the edges, and there's usually a lot of edge. Inclusive definitions often don't allow one to definitively *prove* correctness of a proposition.

      The article, however, seems to be aiming at a more exclusive approach - if you have these specific things, you are an RPG, if you don't have them, you're not. And, it seem slike a lot of folks disagree both with the exclusivity, and with the choice of characteristics.
      Yes, I'd pretty much agree with all of that. Like you said, genre is this very fuzzy mess. While you can usually point to something and say, yup, that's part of that genre, there are 15 other things that fit that genre but also fit other genres too, depending on your criteria.

      Or, as an easy example, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      I'd like to explore "Opposition". Because above conflates character opposition with player opposition, and I don't think they have anything to do with each other.

      This goes back to the goal of RPGs. How does the GM win? How does the GM lose? It doesn't have to do with did an encounter kill all the PCs, or blocked any advancement by putting forth a puzzle or challenge that was unsolvable -- those are usually marks of a bad session. Did they run an enjoyable session for everyone (themselves included) could be a goal.

      Player goals are similar. If players "win condition" is to have an enjoyable time, and part of that enjoyment is overcoming challenges, then putting opposition in front of characters is putting enjoyment on players.

      So it becomes pretty clear that in-world opposition is actually a method used with players to increase their satisfaction. The GM isn't opposing the players at all - they are all working together to have a fun session.
      This doesn't work for me. When I play backgammon, I need another player to play against me. And that increases my satisfaction. You could even say that the point of a game or three of backgammon is to work together with the other player to have a fun time. But within the context of the gameplay, there is undoubtedly opposition of each player to the other.

      I think that in many RPGs, it is the role of the GM/referee to introduce elements into the fiction that create opposition or challenges {of some sort or other) for the players' characters. And - if the game is well-designed - the GM should be able to play these elements as hard as the rules permit (this is why "encounter design" in some form or other is an important aspect of many RPGs - those without good guidelines of this sort often make it difficutl for the GM to play hard, which can make play of the game rather insipid).

      Of course the overall point of doing that is for everyone to enjoy the game and have a fun and satisfying session - but within the context of game play, the interaction has an oppositional dimension.

      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      Some RPGs make this clearer, even going so far as to explicitly reward players with plot currency for having bad things happen to their characters. FATE compels are a good example. Others only mechanically reward character success with things like loot and XP, and from that viewpoint it's easy to think that character success and player success are the same.
      I think those sorts of mechanics can be seen in cost-benefit terms. I don't think the player is necessarily setting out to have his/her PC hosed - but is prepared to trade off suffering now for capacity when the stakes are higher!
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