Defining TTRPGs and the the International Roguelike Development Conference's "Berlin Interpretation"

dragoner

solisrpg.com
The advantage is that there are so many more videogamers and designers out there. Its ok to have sub-genres cause folks naturally gravitate to their interests. Nobody thinks all video games are Super Mario Brothers quite like folks think all TTRPG are D&D.
Though at the same time, if you were in Russia, or the Czech Republic, you can say "DnD" and people will know what you are talking about, so there is an upside to that distinction. Esp for someone like me, when half my communication is with non-English speakers.
 

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Yora

Legend
I think any attempt to identify the distinguishing traits of what is an RPG and what is not would have to start with looking at the edge cases and getting a general consensus on which ones we think are definitely RPGs, and which ones are not. It's only in the remaining area between them that any traits can be identified that add to a meaningful distinction.

So the first question would be: What looks like an RPG and might be mistaken for an RPG, but really is not at a closer look?
Any examples?
 

payn

Legend
So the first question would be: What looks like an RPG and might be mistaken for an RPG, but really is not at a closer look?
Any examples?
I think it would be more productive to talk about traits a TTRPG contains first. Then, apply it to games individually for how much or little they contain of those traits. Starting with what is mistaken as an RPG is going to get entire works tossed out for not being true enough. Eventually, you'll get to only D&D is an RPG instead of D&D is a type, maybe even the archetype, of TTRPGs.
 

Yora

Legend
That sounds like you want to have a definition that is as wide as possible, to include anything that could be regarded as an RPG.
Then my question is, what useful information could we possibly gain from this?
 

payn

Legend
That sounds like you want to have a definition that is as wide as possible, to include anything that could be regarded as an RPG.
Then my question is, what useful information could we possibly gain from this?
Well, like videogames you can start to group games in genres which makes it easier to discuss them and get them notoriety. It's also inclusive, which Ill be honest, the community isnt always great about.
 

Yora

Legend
I am being contradictory here, but again: Do we even have any products that people are ignoring because they are not defined as RPGs, but might be intersted in as RPG fans?
 

payn

Legend
I am being contradictory here, but again: Do we even have any products that people are ignoring because they are not defined as RPGs, but might be interested in as RPG fans?
I've seen games like Fiasco called collective storytelling, but not actual RPGs. I've seen this aimed at games like Powered by the Apocalypse as well. These games are growing in popularity, but can barely hit the radar in many discussions.

Often, CRPGs are written off as not being RPGs because they dont provide infinite possibilities without a human GM. Also, many have you take on the role of an existing character, and many feel it isnt roleplaying unless you make a character from whole cloth.

Some board games have an RPG element to them, but lean heavily on mechanics. Once again, too limiting for some folks to be considered an RPG.

I think all of these are RPGs and worth discussing. There are shorthands for discussing these already, but it would be nice to have genre conventions instead of just abbreviated titles to differentiate them.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
This right here gives me a headache already.

Yes, but it is the basis of a useful genre definition. Get yourself a big list of genre elements and tropes. If a thing under consideration has enough of the tropes, it belongs in the genre, if it basically lacks the tropes, it does not. There'll be stuff in the middle ground, of which you are unsure if it qualifies. Get used to the idea that that's okay.

Trying to create clear, narrow lines that divide between In and Out seems to usually turns out to be an exercise in gatekeeping than an exercise in talking about the genre.
 
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payn

Legend
Yes, but it is the basis of a useful genre definition. Get yourself a big list of genre elements and tropes. If a thing under consideration has enough of the tropes, it belongs in the genre, if it basically lacks the tropes, it does not. There'll be stuff in the middle ground, of which you are unsure if it qualifies. Get used to the idea that that's okay.

Trying to create clear, narrow lines that eivide between In and Out seems to usually turn out to be an exercise in gatekeeping than an exercise in talking about the genre.
Uh, I dont disagree with any of that. My point was the community has a hard time agreeing on genre elements and tropes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Uh, I dont disagree with any of that. My point was the community has a hard time agreeing on genre elements and tropes.

Well, that's the thing - they shouldn't all have to unanimously agree on the list. If you are not willing to accept that the list has some stuff you don't care about, or that some things you care about do not appear on the list, you've missed the point about how useful genre definitions are fuzzy around the edge.

Genre definition is not about getting unanimous and universal accord on what is in and out of the genre.
 

I think any attempt to identify the distinguishing traits of what is an RPG and what is not would have to start with looking at the edge cases and getting a general consensus on which ones we think are definitely RPGs, and which ones are not. It's only in the remaining area between them that any traits can be identified that add to a meaningful distinction.

So the first question would be: What looks like an RPG and might be mistaken for an RPG, but really is not at a closer look?
Any examples?

I'll offer a few, though I'll admit that I don't know if the answer is yes or no as to whether or not they are RPGs. I just know that they're at least somewhat different from what we commonly consider RPGs.

I'll post the list I made earlier in the thread, including the adjustments suggested by @Tun Kai Poh :

  • One or more participants adopt fictional roles
  • There are one or more fictional spaces, which may be shared between participants
  • There are rules and processes that determine what happens in the fictional space and who gets to decide and when
  • There is usually some randomizing factor used to help determine the results of actions when the outcomes are in doubt


Microscope by Ben Robbins- It's advertised as "A fractal Role-Playing Game of epic Histories". This is a kind of storytelling game where participants build a fictional world together and then take part in the setting. It certainly has rules that determine who gets to say what and when, and it involves participants assuming roles in the fiction. There's obviously a shared fictional space....that's largely the point of the game. It's been a while since I played, but I don't think there are any randomizing elements like dice or cards; I think there's always a clear answer to who decides something (I could be wrong though, so anyone who's more familiar or played more recently can correct me). But this game is often not considered an RPG in the general sense. Why not? I'm not sure, but I think it's because there is no competetive angle at all. I know we think of RPGs as cooperative, but there are elements of competition, even if it's not against other participants. Is it because participants potentially adopt multiple roles over the course of the game? Or because their decisions as players are almost always based on what would make the best story rather than in advocating for their adopted character?

Gloomhaven- this dungeon delving boardgame was very clearly inspired by early RPGs, most notably D&D. In the game, each participant takes on the role of an adventurer, and they go exploring a dungeons and ruins. The game is meant to be played over many sessions, and the characters will advance in ability as things move along, and they'll discover new locations and new threats. The description of this game could be used to describe a game of D&D. So what makes it not an RPG? It seems to tick all the boxes of the list above, so we'd either need to expand that list or expand the definition of RPG. Is it because there's a board? Cards? None of these would seem to disqualify other games from being RPGs.

Thousand Year Old Vampire- This is a solo journaling game that caught a lot of attention last year. I've not yet played it, but I thought it was sufficiently unique to list here for some examination. In the game, you play as the titular vampire, and you use prompts to depict their centuries long life from the time they are turned until their destruction. Again, this game seems to tick all the boxes above. It won some Ennie awards...which we always consider RPG awards, but which now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not quite sure how they're billed. It only involves one player, but that shouldn't be an obstacle; there's a long history of solo adventures or takes on solo play. So what would make this game NOT an RPG?


That's just a few games to maybe get some discussion started. I'm sure we can come up with others, too.
 

A few more edge cases (and a bit of self-promotion?). Lyric games:

Ech0 by Poh Tun Kai and Elisha Rusli, free text versions available in English and Korean. Players take roles of the digital ghost of a dead pilot and several curious children, and play through several scenes involving exploration of the remains of giant war machines, using random tables to generate the landscape. There are elements of map-drawing and freeform roleplaying. There is no conflict resolution system and there are no stats.

The Tragedy of GJ237b by Caitlynn Belle and Ben Lehman, a role-playing game for no players. It describes an idyllic world inhabited by a tiny, well-developed intelligent clade of lifeforms, unknowable by humans, because first contact would immediately wipe them out. The game requires a printed copy of the rules and some pencils, dice and other items to be placed on a table in a room with one exit, in a well-trafficked area (like a gaming convention). When someone enters the room, they are the human explorers that have arrived on GJ 237b. The game ends. This is an example of a lyric game where simply reading the game is participating in the roleplaying/storytelling experience.
 

Defining TTRPGs and the the International Roguelike Development Conference's "Berlin Interpretation"

A lyric game in the form of a public forum thread.

Describes an example system used to describe qualities of Roguelike games without forming a single hard definition.

Invites forum readers to discuss and debate how to describe or define TTRPGs in the same way.

The goal is to raise questions, not to answer them.

There is no end state.
 

"LONGKANG WARRIORS VS PADANG KNIGHTS is a live action role playing game for a virtually unlimited number of players where the only objective is to beat the s--- out of one another."


A lyric game by my friend Sam, meant to evoke a strong reaction by describing a playground LARP activity involving children using real weapons to fight. The activities in this game probably reflect his actual childhood experiences in Malaysia, and are also probably highly illegal. 😑
 

Yora

Legend
Ech0 by Poh Tun Kai and Elisha Rusli, free text versions available in English and Korean. Players take roles of the digital ghost of a dead pilot and several curious children, and play through several scenes involving exploration of the remains of giant war machines, using random tables to generate the landscape. There are elements of map-drawing and freeform roleplaying. There is no conflict resolution system and there are no stats.
This sounds like an RPG.

The Tragedy of GJ237b by Caitlynn Belle and Ben Lehman, a role-playing game for no players. It describes an idyllic world inhabited by a tiny, well-developed intelligent clade of lifeforms, unknowable by humans, because first contact would immediately wipe them out. The game requires a printed copy of the rules and some pencils, dice and other items to be placed on a table in a room with one exit, in a well-trafficked area (like a gaming convention). When someone enters the room, they are the human explorers that have arrived on GJ 237b. The game ends. This is an example of a lyric game where simply reading the game is participating in the roleplaying/storytelling experience.
This sounds not like an RPG.

Now the obvious question is why?

Echo seems like it has multiple players playing characters that interact with each other and their environment. Tragedy does not. It seems like collaborative writing with randomized parameters.

I guess that's one thing by which I define a roleplaying game. Collective interaction with a reactive game world through characters.
 

This sounds like an RPG.


This sounds not like an RPG.

Now the obvious question is why?

Echo seems like it has multiple players playing characters that interact with each other and their environment. Tragedy does not. It seems like collaborative writing with randomized parameters.

I guess that's one thing by which I define a roleplaying game. Collective interaction with a reactive game world through characters.
I will point out one major difference between the two: Ech0 has a fixed end-state that cannot be avoided (read the free rules to see this) - it's more like a "walking simulator" in video game parlance. The only thing players can do is decide how to respond to the endgame events.

Tragedy doesn't necessarily end with the destruction of GJ237b. If nobody walks into the room, GJ237b survives. It's literally the embodiment of "the only way to win is not to play." But it is a game with more than one possible ending.

In that sense, is Ech0 more of a game?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
If you're having trouble seeing the forest for the trees, go look up definitions of "game" and "role-playing."

"Tabletop," I'd hazard, was inserted purely to prevent confusion with computer games.

Echo seems like it has multiple players playing characters that interact with each other and their environment. Tragedy does not. It seems like collaborative writing with randomized parameters.

I guess that's one thing by which I define a roleplaying game. Collective interaction with a reactive game world through characters.
Echo is an improvisational play. There is no competition. Plays have players and characters.
I will point out one major difference between the two: Ech0 has a fixed end-state that cannot be avoided (read the free rules to see this) - it's more like a "walking simulator" in video game parlance. The only thing players can do is decide how to respond to the endgame events.

Tragedy doesn't necessarily end with the destruction of GJ237b. If nobody walks into the room, GJ237b survives. It's literally the embodiment of "the only way to win is not to play." But it is a game with more than one possible ending.
Tragedy isn't a game because it has no players. Calling something an RPG doesn't make it an RPG.

Microscope by Ben Robbins- It's advertised as "A fractal Role-Playing Game of epic Histories".
See above.
But this game is often not considered an RPG in the general sense. Why not? I'm not sure, but I think it's because there is no competetive angle at all.
Right, it's not a game without competition.
Gloomhaven- this dungeon delving boardgame was very clearly inspired by early RPGs, most notably D&D. In the game, each participant takes on the role of an adventurer, and they go exploring a dungeons and ruins. The game is meant to be played over many sessions, and the characters will advance in ability as things move along, and they'll discover new locations and new threats. The description of this game could be used to describe a game of D&D. So what makes it not an RPG?
Answer: players interact with board-game elements - cards, tokens, maps, etc. - to a greater degree than they are required to role-play.
Thousand Year Old Vampire- This is a solo journaling game that caught a lot of attention last year. I've not yet played it, but I thought it was sufficiently unique to list here for some examination. In the game, you play as the titular vampire, and you use prompts to depict their centuries long life from the time they are turned until their destruction. Again, this game seems to tick all the boxes above. It won some Ennie awards...which we always consider RPG awards, but which now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not quite sure how they're billed. It only involves one player, but that shouldn't be an obstacle; there's a long history of solo adventures or takes on solo play. So what would make this game NOT an RPG?
There's no competition in Thousand Year Old Vampire, so it's not a game. There's also no role-playing, unless you walk around the room talking to yourself.
 

This is an interesting, if fraught topic. Of the five fringe games presented for analysis, my sense is that TYOV is very much on the border (you have to assume a role, but its not clear in what sense you'd be classed as "playing" it), GJ237b is not (the game aspects are largely illusory from the description, and as normally presented, those involved in that element don't even know they're playing until they've already made the decision; in other respects it clearly seems more of a deconstruction than anything else). The other three land within the very rough boundaries (nothing about having a lot of board-game like trappings intrinsically makes something not an RPG, for example). Ech0 seems limited in scope but still within it.

As an aside, there are absolutely LARPs that are functionally indistinguishable from some TTRPGs. They have mechanics, people assume characters, and the characters have defined traits. The fact you (sometimes) move around a lot from room to room and dress up like your character seems no more than set dressing.
 

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