RPGing and imagination: a fundamental point

pemerton

Legend
A lot of games invite players to imagine things while playing them. But not all.

Chess doesn't. Nor does bridge.

The card game Crew, which is a cooperative variant on bridge, has flavour text that bridge lacks. But the invitation to players to imagine things is pretty tenuous: the card play does not particularly invite imagination, and is the overwhelmingly dominant experience of play.

The board game Forbidden Island has flavour text that chess lacks. It invites a bit more imagination than Crew - probably about the same as Monopoly. Characters move around, and suffer tribulations or the occasional triumph. The game, shorn of its flavour, would be less engaging. (This is a difference from Crew.) But the imagination is ancillary to play.

Of course a player of Forbidden Island, or of Monopoly, can build up their imaginings in the course of play, and even invite other players to participate in it: there could even be in-character conversations. But these would be independent of the actual play of the game: the making of moves, the resolution of those moves, the determination of winning or losing.

In a RPG, imagination is not just something you while playing the game. Shared imagining is the core of the play of the game. The other parts of the game - character sheets, stat blocks and maps; making dice rolls and noting their results; mechanics and other rules that explain how to interpret and apply dice rolls, how to make changes to character sheets and maps, and how to change the fiction - are all in service of the shared imagining.

A RPG ruleset which makes imagining purely optional or ancillary, as it is in Monopoly or Forbidden Island - because the procedures of play set out in the ruleset can all be undertaken without needing to imagine anything - is a failed RPG ruleset.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
A RPG ruleset which makes imagining purely optional or ancillary, as it is in Monopoly or Forbidden Island - because the procedures of play set out in the ruleset can all be undertaken without needing to imagine anything - is a failed RPG ruleset.

Pointing out other people's failure isn't nearly as cool as folks seem to think, though.
 



Putting aside that this seems aimed in particular at me, or perhaps just to get reassurance that Im wrong, I'll post these neat snippets:

Screenshot_20231120_191411_Samsung Notes.jpg


Screenshot_20231120_192007_Samsung Notes.jpg


When we want to talk about the mechanics of an RPG, the above is what we're talking about. Tangential to this is the aesthetics of the game, which is what these abstract mechanics actually represent within the confined reality of a gameworld (the "shared fiction"). The dynamics meanwhile cover how these two interact with each other and the player(s).

And as it relates to the topic this was spun out of, important to note that PBTA et al are not strictly just RPGs; they're also story games and so they're introducing different mechanics the above doesn't (and doesn't need to) consider.

But even more than that, in the tabletop world virtually all of these games are also inherently hybridized with some form of implicit improv game, which adds yet more and different mechanics. This is much of where OP is getting the idea that a shared fiction is what these games are about; thats what improv games are about and hinge on to work, but they're not necessary.

An RPG that prescribes its possible actions and thats it is still an RPG (see every cRPG ever made, from Pokemon to Skyrim to Elden Ring), but as soon as you introduce the idea of doing "anything", you're hybridizing with an improv game.

And none of that is a bad thing. Saying a Baker game or whatever isn't actually just an RPG isn't a value judgement, even if its often conflated with one (ive certainly never held back on that), and recognizing that pretty much all of these games have some form of implicit improv game embedded into them is, imo, key to recognizing part of why these games can be inaccessible just by the books alone. Improv takes skill to be good at, and most games aren't treatises on being good at it.

But anyway, in design terms, we should be aiming for accuracy and as such we need better, clearer, and more concise ways to describe where the desired experiences come from so that we can make something with them. Complicated jargon that isn't universally applicable isn't that, as much as we might feel that they're correct. They may well be from a specific perspective, but we can achieve a broader clarity by simplifying.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
According to the cited text, classic D&D lacks the playing-style reinforcement that is being treated as synonymous with RPG elements. Is there more to it, or is that all there is to RPGs according to that text? Because if it’s the latter, then a definition of RPG that doesn’t include D&D in all its iterations seems like a problematic definition of RPG.
 

According to the cited text, classic D&D lacks the playing-style reinforcement that is being treated as synonymous with RPG elements. Is there more to it, or is that all there is to RPGs according to that text? Because if it’s the latter, then a definition of RPG that doesn’t include D&D in all its iterations seems like a problematic definition of RPG.

Original DND is a mini's based wargame. That changed over time as the wargame elements were emphasized less and less in favor of emphasizing playstyle. The Thief was the first instance of the pattern being used and it only exploded from there.

Edit: it actually explicitly calls itself a wargame. The conflation of that wargame with roleplaying (the implicit improv game I was referencing) came later.
 
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kenada

Legend
Supporter
Original DND is a mini's based wargame. That changed over time as the wargame elements were emphasized less and less in favor of emphasizing playstyle. The Thief was the first instance of the pattern being used and it only exploded from there.
The thief class added in Supplement I advanced according to the table. That was also the case in Holmes Basic and B/X. AD&D 1e also had a static table for the thief class. NWPs, allocating thief skills, etc all came later. That seems to agree with what you’re saying, but I want to make sure I’m understanding it correctly: without those later things, D&D’s still not an RPG? That doesn’t seem right.

In particular, two things in the cited text stick out to me. The first is it where it cites RPGs as a quintessential example of playing-style reinforcement, which suggests that there are other (non-RPG) games using playing-style reinforcement. The second is where it starts the examples section by noting many tabletop RPGs use playing-style reinforcement — but many is not all. It even refers to OD&D as a role-playing game. It seems that having playing-style reinforcement is neither necessary nor sufficient for a game to be an RPG (particularly for tabletop RPG).
 


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