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RPG Theory- The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My World


Well, I'm glad that you thought it was a good framework. I hope you understand that I am choosing not to respond to the post because it is, for some people (like me) deeply insulting. If anyone can appreciate hyperbole, I can. But I don't really enjoy having the same group denigrate my playing preferences again. I'll explain after the jump!

Imagine a slightly different perspective. Let me take this away from 5e for just a second before going back in, because it's not really about 5e. Whenever there is a conversation about TTRPG theory, or something interesting, it always ends up being the same people talking about the same things. It's not like 'Murika (I mean, really?). It's more like a high school cafeteria, where the same bullies patrol the area. They make fun of all the kids for either being part of the "crowd" (who wants to be like all those people, they don't even know what they want) or they make fun of any other smaller group that isn't like them. No other conversations are allowed, or they get shouted down (or reported to the principal).

I can understand this because I've seen it occur. Do you want to have a conversation about FKR and the recent re-discovery of interest in rules-lite neo-Arnesonian games? Yeah, no. Sorry. Can't talk about that. It doesn't fit in the box for the cool kids. Do you want to have a jargon-free discussion about 5e, so you tag it with "5e" and say it's about 5e and try your darnedest ? Yeah, no, can't talk about that either. Even though it's a 5e discussion, you aren't allowed to have it because it's ... 'Murika?

This thread wasn't about 5e at all; it's about the rejection of this singular dogmatic approach. That's what this thread was about. Umbran got it in one.

It is okay to have a favored framework, but for goodness sake realize that it is only a framework, not TEH TRVTH!

That's why I put in a number of different resources- and because I don't consider myself the arbiter of the truth either, I included in the list of sources what I think is the best, and most representative, example of something that I think is kinda divisive. And if that book is too expensive, you could just look at Playground Worlds (available on-line with a link) starting on page 232. It's all good.

People like what they like.

So yeah, I see a lot of really smart people on enworld. I'm sure you do too- and I keep noticing that most of them don't participate in any of these conversations (I'm not going to name them or 'at' them because I respect their choice- obviously, they are smarter than I am because they avoid these threads). Which is sad to me- because they often have a wealth of real-world experience that I'd like to hear from, and would be more interesting and valuable than just seeing the same quote from (designer who shall not be named) trotted out again. Not to mention that we sometimes see newer people that post here, and don't see again because they get shouted down in conversations because they didn't play some indie game or were aware of someone's playing transcript from 3 years ago.

Finally, I think the issue with 5e (and why it was introduced) keeps getting misunderstood. There is a cadre of people that routinely dismiss it because it is popular (well, for other reasons too, but that's neither here nor there*). It's just branding. Or it's just because people don't know any better. Which are common refrains we often hear to explain away popularity in all sorts of areas- but those explanations usually don't hold up.**

It's far more productive, and interesting, to examine what else is behind that. There are a number of plausible reasons- network effects (it's easier to find a game because "everyone" knows how to play D&D). Division of authority (games that only require a single truly engaged person, the DM, require less 'buy in' from every member of the group and are therefore more likely to be successful with a mixed group of people). Second-best (the concept that D&D does a number of different things "well enough" to make it an overall first choice, even though it might not be any particular person's first choice- kinda like a TTRPG social choice or Arrow's theorem). The reward loop of D&D and the persistent campaign leads to long-term engagement (XP+level+more abilities and rinse/repeat). Or maybe because D&D has a long culture of homebrew and expansions and "hackability," it is considered an incomplete ruleset and people are comfortable modifying it to their needs- which is not the case with other complete rulesets.

I don't have an answer- but those are some ideas, and I think exploring them are better and less insulting than 'Murika, truck yeah. More importantly, if someone doesn't want to engage in discussing the application of theory to 5e (whether it's simple design theory, or division of authority, or whatever), there's a simple solution- don't. You don't have to mock the people that do want to discuss it.

The point is not that 5e is good because it is popular, the point is only that it is bizarre to ignore the most popular TTRPG and the largest dataset when it comes to discussing TTRPG theory.

So I'm going to wrap this up here. And why I usually exit threads after a short period of time. Everything that really needed to be said is in the original post. ;)

*I do think that some portion of the pushback and non-engagement with this specific issue is because it would necessarily require asking about 5e's relative popularity vis-a-vis other versions, and what that says about whether certain aspects of the prior versions, whether it's Gygaxian skilled play and high mortality, 3e's high crunch, or some of 4e's innovations, are effective in broadly popular games at this time. To acknowledge that 5e is broadly popular is to acknowledge that the design decisions of 5e, that are not in accord with prior versions, might be part of that success.

**"Apple fans only like their products because of branding." "The only reason people buy SUVs is because of branding and marketing." "MCU fans only like their movies because they are marketed better." etc. Yeah, marketing and branding can be important- but there's always something more to learn. Marketing and branding works by exploiting things that consumers already like and want.
For someone who claims not to be responding to my post, you sure are clearly making a deliberate and concerted effort to make as many mean-spirited personal swipes at my post as possible. And it's a pretty bad faith take too. For starters, I am not making fun of anyone for being part of the in-crowd nor am I bullying anyone. My post reflects a genuine frustration that I felt when discussing tabletop games, and I tried my best to convey that in a way that I thought it would be easily understood, though with some tongue-in-cheek satrical prodding at American exceptionalism and a relatively common unfamiliarity with how non-American democracies operate.

I certainly have not said that there is only one true way for theory or games, especially since my criticism regarding quasi-nationalistic behaviors surrounding gaming identities was meant to dispel that idea, and I did not single out D&D either there. I do, however, take issue with people who think that D&D's approach to roleplaying is the only way possible or that alternative structures of RP "governance" are somehow inherently badwrong because it lies outside of how D&D does it.

I most definitely can talk about what 5e did well, as I don't think that it's popularity amounts to brand alone, and I have done so plenty of times. I just don't think it's particularly interesting to discuss, because it seems (a) obvious and consequently (b) somewhat self-serving since those reasons are obvious. Should I praise 5e again to appease you? Do I need to pass yet another arbitrary purity test that proves my patriotic appreciation of D&D? But this again goes back to this weird song and dance where I feel like I constantly have to reaffirm fans of the 800 lb. gorilla of its greatness.

Despite what you may think, I did not set about to write that post to insult you. I just wish that you could have shown the courtesy to take my post in the good faith it was delivered and return the favor without the veiled insults. There is no need to make things personal, veiled or othewise.

So I think very few people are going to have an issue with the notion that 5e's design has a meaningful impact on its popularity. I think almost all the pushback comes from the idea that a more popular game is necessarily a better game. 5e is a good game. It's a popular game. It's also not a better game then other games that are less popular.

On what do you base their superiority?
They're not F.A.T.A.L.
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Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
That is not at all a true comment, in my opinion. :)

It (1) elevates TTRPGs to a position of specialness that isn't true, (2) posits that TTRPG fans are more stupid than fans in any other area, and (3) overlooks the nature of fandom.
I think, TTRPGs are unique. Assuming the default entry point of D&D, there are some qualities that other hobbies I can think of don't posses:

Open-ended nature of the game. There are no obvious limitations, quite the opposite, in fact — rule 0 is a thing, after all, and unlimited freedom is a common part of how people describe the hobby to their friends.

A related thing, perceived ease of modification. In, say, videogames, when one thinks "oh my God I love Call of Duty so much, what if it was like Star Wars, with blasters and stuff?", modifying the game to be Star Wars is not really an option. You can do that, sure, but for an average gamer, it's an insurmountable task — it's obviously easier to look for a Star Wars first-person shooter that it is to mod stormtroopers into Call of Duty.

IN TTRPGs, you don't need to know how to code, or make 3d models or levels or sound design. You just need to know how to write. The perceived amount of effort required to homebrew Star Wars D&D is, at least, comparable to the perceived amount of effort required to learn a new system.

Post AD&D 1E complexity of the game also is a factor — after studying 300+ page behemoth of a rulebook for your first game, it's reasonable to assume that other games are just as damn heavy.

The cultural significance. There's no "normie" word for videogames. Like, an average person who is even just vaguely interested in vidya ain't gonna call them all "Call of Duty". Call of Duty, however big, way damn bigger than D&D will ever be, is still a videogame.

There's a "normie" word for TTRPGs — it's "D&D". Dungeons and Dragons is the tabletop roleplaying game.


Mod Squad
Staff member
Heck, I'd be willing to make arguments why 5e (which, to keep clear, I'm not a fan of) is superior to editions prior to 3e.

Because... that's constructive?

I'm going to reject that there is a flat "superior" or "inferior" to RPGs, without regard to goals or intended experiences. Just as there's no objective superior in cuisine, books, or movies. To steal the line from Shakespeare, in its original meaning, there is no accounting for taste.

If you want to make arguments why 5e is superior than OtherGame at doing X, Y, and Z, for your group that wants to have a game with lots of A and B, but no C, that might make sense. But a general, "5e is better than OtherGame" is devoid of context.

Many people I've talked to (or just observed talking to other people), both IRL and on the Internet don't really want D&D specifically, they just want a roleplaying game. When someone tells you a story how they played a 5E campaign without a single combat and how much fun they had investigating a murder mystery or being spooked in a haunted house or just talking in-character or whatever as opposed to boringly slaying goblins, question "then what was the point of using D&D 5E ruleset?" immediately pops to my mind.

There was a thread about social mechanics a while back, and I said I was ambivalent about them (I think I made an offhand reference to FKR and then @Snarf Zagyg kept making new threads and now here we are). And the more I think about it, I think the way that 5e handles it (i.e., by not handling, whether by design or not (probably not)) is actually fine, and is actually a feature, not a bug. It provides a context (fantasy archetypes and strong characterization) and then steps out of the way, and I think people like this. That is, we can look at people describing play experiences that don't utilize the 5e rules and ask if there is a better system for them, and maybe there is! Maybe they just don't know enough about other games. On the other hand, there's maybe something about the 'provide context, then get out of the way' approach of 5e that is actually a preference for groups.

There's something analogous going on with using natural language for combat things. One could ask, how is that good design, if you have a combat mini-game with imprecise language. But I think maybe natural language is evocative and accessible in ways that constitute a preference and are not just an indication that people don't yet know about other systems.

Together with other social and cultural changes, I think this makes 5e a more accessible game to people who had been previously marginalized in the hobby.

Separately, this thread from Avery Alder is interesting for this discussion



As long as i get to be the frog
One thing that might be interesting is if there was a quasi psychological and preference profile that would be capable of predicatively matching players to games they are likely to prefer.


One thing that might be interesting is if there was a quasi psychological and preference profile that would be capable of predicatively matching players to games they are likely to prefer.
This is actually one way that I use D&D. After a level 1-5+ journey of a party, it's generally a fairly easy to assess the sort of things that the players may prefer. I find D&D generally useful for matching players to preferred systems or even alternative preferred play styles within D&D. But that also requires knowing the strengths and weaknesses of D&D as well as the sort of play experiences that other games tend to cultivate or are designed to cultivate.


The success of 5e is obviously a lot about branding and market dynamics. But playing it, and seeing others play it and get into rpgs for the first time, I think what it suggests to me is, to put it pithily, ‘system doesn’t matter.’ Or doesn’t matter to the degree and in the ways that some people think it does. There’s an element to a game system that affords a playstyle by simply not getting in the way. So, we don’t actually need mechanics for fantasy shopping. The character and world building prompts in the game do a better job, without rules, to give people the fantasy shopping simulator they desire. Making sure the ‘system has a say’ would make the experience less fun. When people are trying to perform, having to refer to mechanics can be disruptive. (Similarity we can say that critical role was influential for 5e’s success. But what makes dnd a good vehicle for that kind of game? What about dnd produces the Matt mercers of the world?)
So, this is a tangent on a tangent on a tangent, and a whole can of worms as well, but I think you're working with a much narrower definition of 'system' than the original epithet assumed. For example, personally, 'social combat' mechanics are not something I want in my games, but having things like stakes, an understanding of what different characters want, and a connection to the game's broader trajectory or reward cycle is absolutely necessary to stop social scenes falling flat. A fantasy shopping scene won't work if the characters don't want to buy anything, and if the things they buy can have no effect on the game later. So, even a completely 'freeform' shopping scene in D&D is actually strongly mechanically anchored.

This is pretty much the implication of the 'fruitful void' idea from your later comment. Mechanical procedures are used to generate the space for people to play. This is actually my main line of critique regarding 5e: it has good procedures for creating this void for some use cases, and horrifically inadequate ones for others.


Relaxed Intensity
I agree with much of what Avery had to say. This is pretty much the only space I ever bring up Forge stuff. I mostly prefer post-Forge stuff. It's just that in this particular space I often feel like I'm stuck in the 1990s talking to the White Wolf magazine crowd. Just like getting across that there are like other options than sandboxes and railroads feels daunting. Even expressing that we can like frame scenes, have players just play their character, see what happens, and then frame new scenes just feels like pulling teeth. Every time I see stuff like the inherent cynicism towards people wanting their characters to like matter or get called selfish when I clearly express a preference (with no expectation people will share my preference) it only feeds into the sense that it's still important to keep saying these things. Not because people should play like I play, but because I feel like even after 20 damn years I have to fight for right to even exist and be seen in this space. To even be part of the damn conversation.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
For someone who claims not to be responding to my post, you sure are clearly making a deliberate and concerted effort to make as many mean-spirited personal swipes at my post as possible. And it's a pretty bad faith take too.

So ... to be clear, you want to make absolutely certain that I understand that (1) The post that you made, as a reply to my post, and that I viewed as insulting, was not, in fact insulting, and (2) any response I make to that post to explain what I wrote is not only insulting to you, but bad faith, too!

But to make sure there is nothing unclear, this is exactly what you wrote as a reply to my post, and was the exact part that someone else quoted as a great framework and that I responded to-

This feels a bit like an earlier comment ... that talked about the veiled issue of how one is only permitted to talk about D&D or 5e in terms that showers praise on it while exclaiming it better than the rest. IMHO, it seems that anyone who needs their 800 pound market gorilla praised in that fashion - no matter what we market or product we are talking about - has no genuine intention of engaging in TTRPG criticism or theory, but, rather, are fishing for reassurance for a fragile ego that their gamer identity is the best because ad populum.

I understand that Coca-Cola is a market leader in drinks and I understand why it is popular, but that doesn't mean that I will or should recommend it for everyone or in all occasions. For example, I probably won't recommend it to someone before they run a marathon.

Or likewise: 'MERICA! (Truck yeah!) The USA is the greatest country ever. Praise be the Flag of Flags. America can do no wrong. America is mother. America is father. American exceptionalism is the most exceptional! And so on. But it never ceases to amaze me how many Americans I have encountered either here or elsewhere who have little to no grasp (almost to the point of being offended) of the idea that other fully functioning non-American democracies aren't designed just like America is. The idea, for example, that the citizens of other countries have greater liberties or freedoms in some aspects than Americans is so anethema to American thinking and self-identity. It is so offensive to some Americans that America is not the best at everything. How could this be possible? They are the land of the free. They personally invented democracy in 1776. They have a Constitution with a Bill of Rights. How could other citizens possibly have more freedoms in not-America? (It's okay, I can say all of this as an American citizen, with special cred as a Southerner from Appalachia with both sides of my family living in America for 250+ years.)

So, I apologize if I somehow misinterpreted this.

I don't think I did. At all. But sure, I guess I demand praise for 5e, and demand reassurance for a fragile ego. And have no intention of engaging in TTRPG theory or criticism.

You know, just like all them ignorant 'Murikans who have no idea that a world can possibly exist.

Should I praise 5e again to appease you? Do I need to pass yet another arbitrary purity test that proves my patriotic appreciation of D&D? But this again goes back to this weird song and dance where I feel like I constantly have to reaffirm fans of the 800 lb. gorilla of its greatness.

Okay. If you don't see how someone might take offense at these characterizations, I don't think further explanation is going to help.

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