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My Attempt to Define RPG's - RPG's aren't actually Games

...now, I was going to say that you can't play, say, Traveler with D&D rules, but there /are/ RPGs with which you could fairly accurately play other RPGs, by not only modeling all the same characters, challenges, and setting info, but also while aping the other game's system artifacts...
...it's a tad hilarious to do, actually.

My name appears in the credits for d20 Traveller rules... T20 Traveller's Handbook.

It's got some quirks, like it was playtested with half the XP rate given... so high-level play is not as well balanced as it should be.

The game engine can be thought of as a system architecture, yes... but it's much more profound an impact than playing, say, Lego Star Wars on Playstation2 vs Game Cube vs Wii vs X-box.

Still, lots of people talk about, "Lets go play some X-Box" without stating which software they're going to be playing.
 

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Hussar

Legend
Suit yourself. I think it's kinda hokey, though, to make a claim like the game rules and game play are two different games, and then take off when you are challenged on it.

And, if I actually said that, you'd have a point. Meh, I'm taking a break from marking exams, so, let's run at this wall one more time and see if it gets through. Doubtful, but, hope springs eternal.

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RPG's are games. Yes, of course they are. Let's get that out of the way right at the outset and, as I said before, that was a very bad idea on my part to drop click bait in the thread title. Mea Culpa.

However, what distinguishes RPG's from other games is that the rules of an RPG are unplayable as is. Unlike virtually any other game out there, be it a card game, or a board game or a sport, you flat out cannot actually play an RPG straight from the books. RPG's require that intermediate step of scenario creation. There are three levels - RPG rules ---> scenario ----> actually playing the game. In virtually every other game out there there are only two steps - game rules ----> actually playing the game.

RPG's are essentially both games and operating systems for those games. You can read your RPG rules until the ink bleeds out of the paper, but, until such time as someone creates a scenario, you can't actually play the game.

Take the introduction to Moldvay Basic page B3

It is the DM's job to prepare the setting for each adventure before the game begins...

Later on, it expands the role of the DM:

Moldvay Basic page B51 said:
Before players can take their characters on adventures into dungeons, the DM must either create a dungeon or draw its map or become familiar wit hone of TSR's dungeon modules...

Now, it goes on to give some pretty good step by step instructions on how to construct a scenario. But, at no point does it tell you what a scenario is or should be. And later we have:

Moldvay Basic Page 60 said:
The success of an adventure depends on the DM and his or her creation, the dungeon.

Even back then, the three levels of an RPG were pretty clearly outlined. You don't pick up any other game and then use that game to create a specific game for you and your friends to play. Non-RPG's are (rarely) game creation engines. You play THAT GAME. Sure, the game might have variations or variable set-ups or whatnot, but, while you can create different scenarios for, say, Catan, the differences between one scenario and another are mostly cosmetic.

Again, you don't use the rules of Poker to play anything other than Poker. But, you can use the rules of an RPG to play virtually any scenario you can dream up. Sure, some rulesets lend themselves better to certain types of scenarios, fine. But, that doesn't mean that you can't do Game of Thrones and Ravenloft and The Great Train Robbery using a single RPG ruleset. Board games quite simply do not have that intermediate step that all RPG's do - creation.
 

However, what distinguishes RPG's from other games is that the rules of an RPG are unplayable as is. Unlike virtually any other game out there, be it a card game, or a board game or a sport, you flat out cannot actually play an RPG straight from the books. RPG's require that intermediate step of scenario creation..

But people have been responding to this very clearly: Scenario design is part of the game. Any complete RPG book (and many are incomplete on this front because they know their audience already understands the ins-and-outs of scenario design, include not just guidelines on scenario design, but tables, mechanics, procedures, etc. You can literally run a dungeon crawl out of the box using nothing but random tables in the DMG and random monsters from the monster manual (so additional steps on your part required, not books beyond the core books, etc). It is part of the game. And it is worth pointing out, many board games require this kind of thing as well. I mentioned board games with random hex placement for instance. But there are also games like Battle Cry that require you set up the board each time for a specific historical battle. Well, that is a scenario. Even games like Candyland or Monopoly, have a 'scenario'. It just comes with the game, and there is only one. But you can still abstract the mechanics and the 'game' from the scenario if you are determined to separate those two things.
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
And, if I actually said that, you'd have a point. Meh, I'm taking a break from marking exams, so, let's run at this wall one more time and see if it gets through. Doubtful, but, hope springs eternal.

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RPG's are games. Yes, of course they are. Let's get that out of the way right at the outset and, as I said before, that was a very bad idea on my part to drop click bait in the thread title. Mea Culpa.

However, what distinguishes RPG's from other games is that the rules of an RPG are unplayable as is. Unlike virtually any other game out there, be it a card game, or a board game or a sport, you flat out cannot actually play an RPG straight from the books. RPG's require that intermediate step of scenario creation. There are three levels - RPG rules ---> scenario ----> actually playing the game. In virtually every other game out there there are only two steps - game rules ----> actually playing the game.

I can't think of virtually any games like you describe. Almost without exception, games including RPGs use three levels. Rules --->game setup ---> play the game. RPGs, chess, checkers, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, and so on. They all have the game setup stage. Hell, you can't even play Tic Tac Toe with just the rules. You have to take a second or two to draw the 4 lines as part of game setup. RPGs just have one that is longer than most.


Take the introduction to Moldvay Basic page B3

Later on, it expands the role of the DM:

Now, it goes on to give some pretty good step by step instructions on how to construct a scenario. But, at no point does it tell you what a scenario is or should be. And later we have:

Even back then, the three levels of an RPG were pretty clearly outlined.

I should hope so. If the rules don't clearly tell you how to set up the game before you start playing, it's badly designed.

You don't pick up any other game and then use that game to create a specific game for you and your friends to play. Non-RPG's are (rarely) game creation engines. You play THAT GAME. Sure, the game might have variations or variable set-ups or whatnot, but, while you can create different scenarios for, say, Catan, the differences between one scenario and another are mostly cosmetic.

As I said above, the difference is only that an RPG has a longer setup than the other games. That's it.

There are lots of board games where you will rarely, if ever, play the same game twice. Board game play doesn't involve the variety of different moves that players in an RPG can make, though. However, the three levels are the same for virtually all games.

Again, you don't use the rules of Poker to play anything other than Poker.

But you are are required to get out a pack of cards, shuffle them, and allow someone else to cut the deck as part of the second level. THEN you can play the game.

But, you can use the rules of an RPG to play virtually any scenario you can dream up. Sure, some rulesets lend themselves better to certain types of scenarios, fine. But, that doesn't mean that you can't do Game of Thrones and Ravenloft and The Great Train Robbery using a single RPG ruleset. Board games quite simply do not have that intermediate step that all RPG's do - creation.

If by do not have, you mean have, then you are correct. RPGs just have one that is longer to enact and has more variety.
 
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Aenghus

Explorer
I prefer RPGs that are games, that have sufficient mechanics provided with them to allow a complete game without being forced to go outside the box. Accordingly I disagree with your premise.

While it's true in many cases that a scenario needs to be acquired or created to run the game, in most RPGs that's the responsibility of one person, and one that's mostly or entirely voluntary.

Precisely because RPGs tend to have so many moving parts, it's very difficult to meaningfully discuss them without pinning down most of those moving parts, and have a clear scenario or example to talk about.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
In virtually every other game out there there are only two steps - game rules ----> actually playing the game.

I will say, again, that this is not really true. Here's a case in point - among the most iconic of games in the modern age. I put forth that if your point does not hold for this game, it does not really hold, in general... I give you THE RULES TO MONOPOLY.

Can you play the game, given *just* those rules? With *only* what is in that pdf?

No. I will grant that the playing pieces, buildings and money are trivial, because they are effectively only game-state markers. However, there are things not in the rules that contain game information: You need a board. You need Chance and Community Chest cards. You need deeds. The content of these items is not stipulated in the rules, but greatly impact game play.

In Monopoly, the cards, deeds, and board all amount to the scenario. With most games, you buy the scenario with the rules. But the scenario is still separate from the rules.

RPGs allow you to create your own scenario with far more ease than other games do. But you can purchase them, if you wish - see the previously mentioned Starter Set as an example.
 

RedShirtNo5.1

Explorer
RPG's require that intermediate step of scenario creation. There are three levels - RPG rules ---> scenario ----> actually playing the game.
First, I don't think this is true. There are RPGs that have a single pre-constructed scenario and no rules for how to make other scenarios. I haven't played it, but my understanding is that Lady Blackbird is an example of this.

Second, how does this differ from tabletop wargaming? There you have rules for the interaction of the miniatures, but someone has to create a scenario (e.g.. the field of play and the win conditions), and then you actually play it. Would you agree that tabletop wargames are RPGs?
 


pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION], apparently there is no escape! (Though I can sympathise with the need to take a break from marking - thus was many an ENworld post born!)

You can read your RPG rules until the ink bleeds out of the paper, but, until such time as someone creates a scenario, you can't actually play the game.
I'll have another go too - this claim, as you are presenting it, is not true.

Here's a description of a Traveller first session that I actually played. No scenario creation in advance of playing the game. (I'd rolled up a couple of worlds in advance of play, but neither was the starting world, and I could have done that just as easily during play.)

Here's a description of a Cortex+ Heroic first session that I actually played. No scenario creation in advance of playing the game. (I'd pre-genned some PCs, but you don't seem to be fastening on PC creation as a special feature for RPGs)

Here're two descriptions of other first sessions - one Burning Wheel, one 4e Dark Sun. Neither had a scenario created in advance of playing the game. Both used setting and genre elements that we didn't make up ourselves (Greyhawk sword & sorcery, Dark Sun sword & planet), but in both cases the rules speak directly to that genre (the settings add proper names and some background - I could have made that up if I had too, as in the other two games) and you haven't told us yet what your theory of genre is. (Setting up a wargame involves deciding wherther its 30 Years War or Napolenoic or whatever, doesn't it?)

Here's an account of a Prince Valiant session I played not much more than a week ago. No set up - I opened the books, the players made PCs, we started things off, I dipped into the books for scenarios (really more like scenes or situations) when I needed them and made stuff up when I needed to.

I think Moldvay Basic gives a misleading impression on this point. It is giving advice on how to run a particular sort of RPG - classic dungeoneering - which generally requires a predrawn, pre-stocked maze (though it can be done with random charts, the quality may be mixed). But not all RPGing is maze- or puzzle-solving.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
After reading [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] 's recent second (and much clearer!) try at defining and explaining his viewpoint I think this time I can see where he's coming from.

With Monopoly or chess or most other games, what's in the box - rules and equipment - is enough to get you going and to play a complete game; reasonably ignoring for these purposes the occasional need for additional common equipment e.g. a pen and paper to keep score in some games.

With some RPGs, assuming TotM play, this is also true:
- those that come with a starter setting and-or adventure included in the initial box/book(s) e.g. the 5e starter box; and-or
- those that come with random dungeon and-or setting creation rules included e.g. the 1e DMG/PH/MM set of books.

With other RPGs, those that come with neither of the above, Hussar has a point: you can't play the game right out of the box/books using only what's provided. Someone - usually the DM - needs to by whatever means create a setting and-or adventure and-or background before play can begin.

Is this a big deal? No, at least not for me - I really don't care. But it not being a big deal doesn't mean Hussar is entirely wrong in what he says. The part I don't understand is why any of it matters. :)
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
After reading [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] 's recent second (and much clearer!) try at defining and explaining his viewpoint I think this time I can see where he's coming from.

With Monopoly or chess or most other games, what's in the box - rules and equipment - is enough to get you going and to play a complete game; reasonably ignoring for these purposes the occasional need for additional common equipment e.g. a pen and paper to keep score in some games.

With some RPGs, assuming TotM play, this is also true:
- those that come with a starter setting and-or adventure included in the initial box/book(s) e.g. the 5e starter box; and-or
- those that come with random dungeon and-or setting creation rules included e.g. the 1e DMG/PH/MM set of books.

With other RPGs, those that come with neither of the above, Hussar has a point: you can't play the game right out of the box/books using only what's provided. Someone - usually the DM - needs to by whatever means create a setting and-or adventure and-or background before play can begin.

Is this a big deal? No, at least not for me - I really don't care. But it not being a big deal doesn't mean Hussar is entirely wrong in what he says. The part I don't understand is why any of it matters. :)

What RPGs don't tell the DM how to create or run(assuming no myth) a scenario?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
With Monopoly or chess or most other games...

With some RPGs...

With other RPGs...

The point some of us are making is that, if you are looking for a generalization about the very nature of RPGs, having, "With some, X, with others, not X" fails to indicate anything about the intrinsic nature of the game.

What we are seeing here is a matter of marketing and packaging. Some games are sold with their scenarios, others are not - but they all need scenarios. I don't dispute that RPGs often ask the players to find a scenario separate from the rules, and that they invite the players to create their own scenarios. But that doesn't make it fundamentally different, as a game. It is only traditionally different.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
So, in one campaign, we play a high RP game with virtually no combat and barely reference any rules for sessions on end. In another, we play a down and dirty dungeon crawl with pretty much zero RP and nothing but endless tactical combat.

I'm playing the same game?

Let's ask you the question with alternative formulation: If a football team runs their offense based on a passing game but the other one always runs the ball down the field on the ground, are they playing the same game?

The answer is obviously yes. They're both playing football - they're just doing it in their own idiosyncratic ways.

But to keep on with the football metaphor here - you generally also require a certain amount of intermediate structure between getting the rulebook and the physical pieces (the field, the goalposts, the pads, the ball) in the same place with enough players. Teams formulate plays that they will execute on the field and assign players to certain roles. Sure, they could be as simple as - offensively - everyone go out for a pass and -defensively - everyone get the guy with the ball, but they're typically a LOT more elaborate than that and required to play at a certain level with any degree of competence.

So really, this is all a question of degrees. RPGs easily fit within certain types of games that range on various scales looking at completeness and mutability (not as complete as chutes and ladders but more mutable, yet not as mutable as Calvinball).
 

That there are players with pieces who make moves is, I think, sufficient (even if not necessary) to make a RPG a game. This also helps distinguish a RPG from simply shared storytelling.

That the pieces and the moves relate to, and are contributions to generating, a shared fiction is what helps distinguish RPGs from boardgames and wargames that otherwise have some pretty close resemblances to much RPGing.

Several "board games" directly use a narrative, including Hobbit Tales, Once Upon a Time, Aye, Dark Overlord. They lack the character ownership aspect.

Many others play in what can easily be related as a character-scale narrative: Wizards, Myth Fortunes, GW's HeroQuest/Advanced HeroQuest, Space Hulk, Advanced Space Crusade, Dungeoneer, ElfQuest, Firefly: The Boardgame, Car Wars, Gorilla Games' Battlestations!.

Car Wars crosses the line intentionally, as does Battlestations!. HQ, AHQ, SH, and ASC are close to RP, but fixated on the combat/exploration side. Still, AHQ rules can be (and by some, have been) used as full up ultra-light RPG rules.

Many minis games can be used as a core for an RPG, simply by adding a non-combat attribute or two.
 

Hussar

Legend
The thing is, while you can create "scenarios" for board games and wargames, those scenarios are still extremely limited in scope.

You can't create a murder mystery scenario for your Warhammer 40K game. It just won't work. Nothing in the Warhammer 40K ruleset will allow you to run a murder mystery. In the same way you can create a new board for Catan every time you play, but, nothing in the ruleset will allow you to run a travel scenario or even an exploration scenario. Choosing which defense to use in Football doesn't alter the fact that the rules of football will only let you play football. It changes the outcome of different plays obviously and changes the outcome of that game, but, it doesn't actually change the game.

Even [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]'s examples, you still have the DM creating scenarios with the input of the players. It's being done pretty much as you go, but, it's still being done. Whether the scenario creation is being done 10 seconds or 10 days beforehand, doesn't change the fact that without that scenario creation, you simply cannot play.

And, in RPG's the game itself doesn't actually tell you what kind of scenarios to create. The scenarios are pretty much entirely the creation of the GM (or GM + Group). The mechanics let you play out the scenario, but, don't actually do anything to create the scenario itself.
 

Hussar

Legend
Just read [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]'s play examples.

The trio decided to return to Lady Joan of Kent's castle to take up employment, which they did - father and son as men-at-arms, Sir Justin as a master of horses. They then came up with a plan to try and deceive the Wild Huntsman, but it would have required very good luck to succeed, testing their rather low Hunting abilities against his superlative skill, and so it failed. And so instead of falling for their trap, while they were waiting in the forest on the night of the next full moon they heard the baleful horn blowing back at the castle. They rode back in a hurry, and Sir Tristaine defeated the Huntsman in an opposed Riding check and so got back in time to interpose himself between Huntsman and quarry.

Where in the rules was there a suggestion that the players take employment? Now, I realize you were using canned adventures from the book in order to get things rolling quickly, but, are you saying that there are no other scenarios that could be played with this game? The scenario seems largely generated by the players, not the rules. The rules just let you adjudicate the scenario, not create the scenario.

A better example comes from Traveller:

Given that I had these worlds ready-to hand, and given that the players had a ship, I needed to come up with some situation from Lt Li that would put them into play: so when Roland and Vincenzo (just discharged from medical care) met up with her she told the following story - which Methwit couldn't help but overhear before joining them!

Lt Li wondered whether Vincenzo would be able to take 3 tons of cargo to Byron for her. (With his excellent education, Roland knew that Byron was a planet with a large (pop in the millions) city under a serious of domes, but without the technical capabilities to maintain the domes into the long term.) When the PCs arrived on Byron contact would be made by those expecting the goods. And payment would be 100,000 for the master of the ship, plus 10,000 for each other crew member.

...

(I had been planning to leave the real backstory to the mission pretty loose, to be fleshed out as needed - including the possibility that Li was actually going to betray the PCs in some fashion - but the move from Methwit's player forced my hand, and I had to come up with some more plausible backstory to explain the otherwise absurd situation I'd come up with. And it had to relate to the worlds I'd come up with in my prep.)

Where in the rules did it tell you that? It's a pretty straightforward scenario, sure, but, it's not like the rules gave you that scenario - you came up with that yourself. It would seem to me like you created a scenario first (granted without a lot of time beforehand) and then played out the scenario. The scenario wasn't randomly generated, it came from you, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION].

Thus, my exact point - Game ---->Scenario -------> Play. The game may have helped you generate the scenario, but, it in no way actually generated it. Without you coming up with that scenario, it would have been four or five people staring at each other around a table.
 

pemerton

Legend
Where in the rules was there a suggestion that the players take employment?
Well, it's not expressly stated in the scenario notes. But it's implicit in the idea that the PCs are knights, some of whom might be taken on as mercenaries. This is the sort of thing I mean by "playing the fiction" - it's pretty core to a RPG, I think.

Where in the rules did it tell you that? It's a pretty straightforward scenario, sure, but, it's not like the rules gave you that scenario - you came up with that yourself. It would seem to me like you created a scenario first (granted without a lot of time beforehand) and then played out the scenario. The scenario wasn't randomly generated, it came from you, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION].

Thus, my exact point - Game ---->Scenario -------> Play. The game may have helped you generate the scenario, but, it in no way actually generated it. Without you coming up with that scenario, it would have been four or five people staring at each other around a table.
But at the appropriate level of abstraction, that is me making moves as a referee. If I don't make those moves, then I agree nothing happens. But lots of games depend on someone to make the first move.

I'll agree that once we reduce the abstraction the moves in a RPG are pretty different from the moves in bridge. But this takes me back to the drum I've been beating in this thread - the moves in a RPG involve authoring, manipulating, contributing to, and otherwise engaging with a shared fiction.

(It's not that I disagree with you that there is something that makes (most) RPGs different from (most) boardgames. I just think you're looking for it in the wrong place - structurally, rather than in the actual details of the game play and what it involves.)
 

The thing is, while you can create "scenarios" for board games and wargames, those scenarios are still extremely limited in scope.
.

This is the first thing anyone who plays a tabletop RPG usually notices. All you are saying is the unique thing about tabletop RPGs is that you can go beyond the normal constraints of a typical game (i.e. you can go off the map, off the planned scenario, off-script). The thing that immediately struck me when I first played, was I could try just about anything and the GM had to come up with a response (hopefully one that made sense and added to the experience). It was much different from a video game, because there you can only do what the programmers have accounted for. Different from a board game because you can go beyond the bounds of the board and examine things in whatever detail you wish. But this isn't about another step being added. It is about the fundamental difference between table top RPGs and other types of games: a human rendering a judgment in a way a computer or set of rules can't that expands the experience. In traditional play, the the player announces intentions and the GM makes the judgment (sometimes using the mechanics, sometimes deciding what the outcome is---all dependent on the kind of situation). With some games, that authority may be distributed between many players but human judgement and flexibility are still the thing setting them apart from boardgames. But again, this is just a feature of the game itself. It is something everyone understands about RPGs.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The thing is, while you can create "scenarios" for board games and wargames, those scenarios are still extremely limited in scope.

You can't create a murder mystery scenario for your Warhammer 40K game. It just won't work. Nothing in the Warhammer 40K ruleset will allow you to run a murder mystery. In the same way you can create a new board for Catan every time you play, but, nothing in the ruleset will allow you to run a travel scenario or even an exploration scenario. Choosing which defense to use in Football doesn't alter the fact that the rules of football will only let you play football. It changes the outcome of different plays obviously and changes the outcome of that game, but, it doesn't actually change the game.

Even [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]'s examples, you still have the DM creating scenarios with the input of the players. It's being done pretty much as you go, but, it's still being done. Whether the scenario creation is being done 10 seconds or 10 days beforehand, doesn't change the fact that without that scenario creation, you simply cannot play.

Just as without the board and pieces, you cannot play Chess. Without the board and pieces, you cannot play Chutes and Ladders. Without the cards, you cannot play poker. Without the game setup portion, you cannot play most games, including RPGs. There is still nothing you've said that alters the following formula, which applies to almost every game, including RPGs. Rules--->game setup--->play.

And, in RPG's the game itself doesn't actually tell you what kind of scenarios to create. The scenarios are pretty much entirely the creation of the GM (or GM + Group). The mechanics let you play out the scenario, but, don't actually do anything to create the scenario itself.
The mechanics typically don't, but the rules do. The rules give the DM advice on how to go about creating scenarios and the game world.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Where in the rules was there a suggestion that the players take employment?

There are multiple places in the 5e DMG that either mention employment, or are adventure ideas that involve employment, such as guarding a caravan.

Where in the rules did it tell you that? It's a pretty straightforward scenario, sure, but, it's not like the rules gave you that scenario - you came up with that yourself. It would seem to me like you created a scenario first (granted without a lot of time beforehand) and then played out the scenario. The scenario wasn't randomly generated, it came from you, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION].

Thus, my exact point - Game ---->Scenario -------> Play. The game may have helped you generate the scenario, but, it in no way actually generated it. Without you coming up with that scenario, it would have been four or five people staring at each other around a table.
There's a large section on creating adventures and the world. Plenty of rules and ideas that tell you how to do it.
 

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