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Worlds of Design: What Defines a RPG?

It’s a daunting task to try to define and characterize a segment as large and diverse as tabletop role-playing games in just a few words. But here goes.

rpg.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller​

Some people won’t be happy with my definitions--which is my opinion, drawn from experience. But the purpose of such exercises is (aside from encouraging people to think) to narrow down something so that we can talk about it intelligibly.

Defining the Undefinable​

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, even if it’s possible that some will not have all of those characteristics. I’m trying the latter, being general enough to think all the characteristics are necessary.

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 opposed adventure.
Simple enough, but in defining a concept it’s sometimes easier to explain what it isn’t.

What RPGs Are Not

Role-playing games, as defined by the last word, are games and therefore require opposition. An RPG is not a puzzle (with a correct solution); an RPG is not a means for the GM to tell a story (reducing player agency immensely); an RPG is not a storytelling mechanism, whether for players to tell each other stories, or for the GM to tell a story. These things all exist, but to include them in the definition goes far beyond the realm of game. A game is a form of play, but most forms of play are not games.

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 even includes some business simulations. I’m more interested in what makes a game a hobby RPG, a game played frequently by hobby game players. So I’ll discuss role-playing in terms of avatars.

What’s a “Pure” or “Real” Avatar?

  • A single thing/entity that represents the individual player, most commonly a humanoid
  • All the player’s actions in the game emanate from the avatar
  • The “pure” 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 or fictional character background into the avatar.

In many games, a "kind-of-avatar" is not the source of all action, nor does the game end if the avatar is killed. That’s not an RPG.

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/features (which give more capability)
  • Collecting magic or technological items (which provide extra options, defense, offense, etc.)
  • Acquiring money/treasure (which can be used for lots of things)
  • No doubt there are some RPGs with other ways to improve, for example via social standing if that is formally tracked
Does it need levels? No, but that's typically (conveniently) how increase in capability “without employing the loot I've got” 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 novel series 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.

Co-operation, Adventure, and a Gamemaster That Controls the Opposition/Enables Adventure

  • Yes, opposition. It’s not a game (I use the traditional sense) without opposition, though it might be a puzzle or a parallel competition
  • I don’t see how there can be significant opposition without a GM/referee; unless you go to computer programming
  • If there’s no co-operation, if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game in concept
I include Adventure, because the stories coming out of 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 (surprise), though I’m certainly not interested in RPGs without Adventure.

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 (extreme player agency) as the defining aspect of RPGs, and it’s certainly vital; but think of a story RPG where the linear plot (typical of stories) forces players to do just what the story calls for. That’s not freedom of action. Yet story form may be the most common form of tabletop RPG.

And consider games like Minecraft. You can try to do almost anything there, too, but it's not 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 . . . But my goal was to define hobby tabletop RPGs.

Your Turn: What’s your definition of a role-playing game?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
That's a bit of an obvious non-answer since it's clearly by design or otherwise it wouldn't have been designed that way, but that doesn't mean it's good design.

What I mean is that a fighter is intended to be provicient in a smaller number of skills, to balance out the fact that he gets a lot of feats. This makes him very powerful in combat, but less so in exploration and roleplaying challenges. I don't think that is bad design at all. Each class has its strengths and weaknesses.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
What I mean is that a fighter is intended to be provicient in a smaller number of skills, to balance out the fact that he gets a lot of feats. This makes him very powerful in combat, but less so in exploration and roleplaying challenges. I don't think that is bad design at all. Each class has its strengths and weaknesses.
...apart from the fact that the Fighter was simply outclassed in the combat pillar by the Wizard who was also better in the exploration and (arguably) social pillars than the Rogue and Fighter.
 

But that is what the term generally means. Especially in relation to Magic the Gathering. The problem here, I think, is a general misunderstanding of the goal of the system.



It is not a useless feat. That's the point! It's a suboptimal one. But sub optimal feats do not break your character the way a bad deck in Magic the Gathering, or a bad skillbar in Guild Wars would. Plus it is not a competition, and everyone in your party will be fulfilling different roles.

None of these things above are true:

1) In MtG and in 3e, the metric is “subpar” and “worse than a replacement cost option.” That is not remotely the same as “made worse” unless it’s (as above) “in comparison with a replacement cost option.” The problem with “Timmy cards” (Toughness or Skill Focus) and Monogreen decks (the Fighter) isn’t that they “make you worse.” It’s that they’re both quite subpar yet not clearly so or signposted as such.

Looking at this exclusively from a GM’s perspective, my issue has always been the same (using Golf as the analogy):

If you’re actively losing ground against a baseline (playing above par as in Golf or “subpar” elsewhere) while the other PCs are actively gaining ground (sometimes profoundly (below par - as in Golf), YOU’RE MAKING MY JOB AS A CONTENT GENERATOR (GOLF COURSE DESIGNER) MORE DIFFICULT (SCALING WITH THE DISPARITY RELATIVE TO THE BASELINE/PAR) POSSIBLY TO THE POINT OF IMPOSSIBILITY OF JUGGLING THESE BALLS (AT ALL) WHILE ENJOYING THE JUGGLE.

I don’t want to heavily curate content as a GM and I don’t want to have to apply Force to make the game work.

2) @Ovinomancer was coming at this from a Player’s perspective and that is equally legit.

It is completely legitimate to (a) expect your archetypal shtick to consistently emerge organically through play because (b) it shapes the trajectory of the gamestate/story through its not-infrequent deployment. In fact, I’d go further. If it’s not, then play has a thematic/archetypal coherency problem.

The player (or players) having a problem with this paradigm isn’t their problem. It’s to be expected.

and speaking of value judgements, how is placing that at the feet of the players not a value judgement on their character (as a person)?

3) Finally, back to value judgements again. How is “this is (exclusively) a cooperative game...stop being a jerk player” not 2x value judgements?!

Any approach to play that isn’t exclusively cooperative is not appropriate.

Expressed sentiment that laments disparities (even if those disparities dovetail with thematic/genre incoherency) is a sign of not accepting cooperation as the exclusive play priority and will not be brooked.

Not only are both of those value judgements, but they’re not true. TTRPGing at large and D&D specifically isn’t exclusively a cooperative game. Having some fun competition (within the fiction like Legolas and Gimli or out of the game as you recount your play and have a laugh while playing cards or whatever) and “keeping score” is a totally legitimate play priority and has been one that helped propel most of my games since forever. It can completely sit right alongside and play nice with “cooperation” as a play priority.
 
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pemerton

Legend
sub optimal feats do not break your character the way a bad deck in Magic the Gathering
I don't know what you mean by this. It's a long time since I played any M:tG, but I have played with "bad" decks. But they didn't "break" themselves - for instance, I don't ever remember seeing a deck that included a card that destroyed all the players' creatures in play for no discernible benefit. A bad deck is just one that is slow to get going, or contains too many high-mana creatures with no good way of generating ready mana to get them into play, or relies on synergies that are statistically unlikely to come to fruition in a typical play sequence. And those decks don't break themselves, they just lose against better-tuned decks.

@Ovinomancer's complaint is that his PC was poorly tuned despite picking an option that presented itself as a good way to tune up his PC.
 

pemerton

Legend
Also what @Manbearcat said: a "trap" option is one that is worse than the alternatives but that doesn't reveal itself as such.

If I'm building a classic D&D wizard, and have to choose between a +1 dagger and a +1 sword (eg maybe this is part of a suite of build options presented as part of preparing a party for a tournament run), the sword is not a trap option. Because it's obvious to me that my wizard can't use the sword, and so even though on its face it is better than the dagger, the dagger is obviously better for me as a wizard player.

@Ovinomancer's complaint is that the game (i) presented Intimidation as a viable strategy for his fighter/rogue, when it fact it wasn't, and (ii) presented Skill Focus as a useful way to pursue this strategy, when in fact it wasn't. Those build resources could have been, and from the point of view of rational character building ought to have been, spent on some other feat, probably in pursuit of some other strategy.

The analogue in the context of my preceding paragraph would be a tournament context that presented the +1 sword as a viable, even attractive, pick for the wizard only for it to be revealed through the rigours of play that a wizard is forbidden from using a sword. And it's that revelation of the hidden suckitude which is what leads to it being labelled a "trap option".
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
@Ovinomancer's complaint is that the game (i) presented Intimidation as a viable strategy for his fighter/rogue, when it fact it wasn't, and (ii) presented Skill Focus as a useful way to pursue this strategy, when in fact it wasn't. Those build resources could have been, and from the point of view of rational character building ought to have been, spent on some other feat, probably in pursuit of some other strategy.

The analogue in the context of my preceding paragraph would be a tournament context that presented the +1 sword as a viable, even attractive, pick for the wizard only for it to be revealed through the rigours of play that a wizard is forbidden from using a sword. And it's that revelation of the hidden suckitude which is what leads to it being labelled a "trap option".
A build isn't non-viable because someone could, by the rules, pull it off cheaper with another method. It isn't even non-viable if someone in the same adventuring party does so. Resources aren't that tight and there are plenty of situations in which having more than 1 PC capable of intimidating the opposition is useful.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm unsure about viable or not, but I do think what you've framed here is pretty much the consensus definition of a trap option for RPGing, broadly speaking.
Yes, this really reads like there's little actual disagreement, just a semantic conflict on word choice.

EDIT: It's like there's a want to defend the system mastery necessary to avoid poor options, but also a conflicting desire to not actually say this or make sure it's not a criticism, only a feature.
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
Are you talking about competing with your own party members on who is better at a skill? Why would you do that? And why would you presume the bard is always there to bail you out? The party does occasionally split, right?

Given the degree to which I've observed RPG parties resisting splitting when there's any chance a significant skill roll may need to be made, I think its entirely legitimate in many cases to answer "vanishingly rarely".
 

Yes, this really reads like there's little actual disagreement, just a semantic conflict on word choice.

EDIT: It's like there's a want to defend the system mastery necessary to avoid poor options, but also a conflicting desire to not actually say this or make sure it's not a criticism, only a feature.
And it can be both (feature and criticism).

My primary issue is this:

* Extreme class disparity + system mastery at the build level = progressively increasing intraparty imbalance and party : obstacle imbalance...

WHICH IN TURN REQUIRES...

* Extreme GM curation of content + GM Force as the answer.

1) If you feel like the first is a feature and the second is either a feature or A-OK, then the system will obviously produce rewarding play.

2) If you either feel like the first is a criticism or the second is a criticism, then the system will not produce rewarding play.


It really turns on how you feel about the play priority of "skilled play at the build level" and how you feel about heavy GM curation of content and GM Force as a technique.
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
It does have to be bonuses because that's the way the game works. The game says "here is the way to be good at something" and that way is to have the highest bonus to your roll. The game does not give you any other way to be good at something.

Hmmm. I'm not sure I agree with this. I seem to recall feats that allowed you do things with time or repeatability that was not normally possible; you can argue those are roundabout ways to add bonus and hide it, but its not just adding a bonus to your roll, and it can matter quite a bit. Same for the feats that allowed Take 10 in situations you normally couldn't.
 




In many cases, assuming designed intent for the more toxic inclusions is the less charitable stance; ignorance implies no malice.
We don't have to make assumptions. We can read their words directly (which dovetails with every other observable element surrounding the design of the game and the culture of the game which accreted around it) which winnows the possible inferences to a singular one. Again:

"Magic also has a concept of "Timmy cards." These are cards that look cool, but aren't actually that great in the game. The purpose of such cards is to reward people for really mastering the game, and making players feel smart when they've figured out that one card is better than the other. While D&D doesn't exactly do that, it is true that certain game choices are deliberately better than others.

Toughness, for example, has its uses, but in most cases it's not the best choice of feat. If you can use martial weapons, a longsword is better than many other one-handed weapons. And so on -- there are many other, far more intricate examples. (Arguably, this kind of thing has always existed in D&D. Mostly, we just made sure that we didn't design it away -- we wanted to reward mastery of the game.)

There's a third concept that we took from Magic-style rules design, though. Only with six years of hindsight do I call the concept "Ivory Tower Game Design." (Perhaps a bit of misnomer, but it's got a ring to it.) This is the approach we took in 3rd Edition: basically just laying out the rules without a lot of advice or help. This strategy relates tangentially to the second point above. The idea here is that the game just gives the rules, and players figure out the ins and outs for themselves -- players are rewarded for achieving mastery of the rules and making good choices rather than poor ones."

  • build choices were designed to be deliberately better and worse than others.
  • "good" and "poor" choices exist. They were encoded into the game.
  • their purpose is to reward system mastery.
  • because of this we were vigilant to not design away these disparities (4e, as we know, did).
  • players figure out the encoded disparities and are rewarded.
 


I have to say, I'm a little puzzled why the concept of TTRPG design around "encoding a suite of decisions/moves with a continuum of bad < > good results and attendant rewards for choosing skillfully (or less than)" is assumed..."toxic" and anyone who points it out is assumed "uncharitable."

That italicized bit? That should look familiar!

That_is_literally_D&D Delving 101!

All that happened in 3.x is that the PC build stage was expanded and absorbed into the premise of play!

Its not "toxic" game design to have a game built around that italicized bit. Its not toxic game design to expand that to the PC build stage and have it absorbed into the game's premise. And its not uncharitable to point that out!

It just is. This should not be controversial and it certainly isn't interesting. Now the implications of the design decisions are a lot more interesting to talk about.
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
Its not "toxic" game design to have a game built around that italicized bit. Its not toxic game design to expand that to the PC build stage and have it absorbed into the game's premise. And its not uncharitable to point that out!

It just is. This should not be controversial and it certainly isn't interesting. Now the implications of the design decisions are a lot more interesting to talk about.

Except, of course, some of us think that deliberately building significant amounts of that into the PC build stage, especially in a version of the game that does not permit reworking as part of its default design, is toxic. Its the designer equivalent of a "gotcha".

I'm really not sure why that should seem odd.
 

Except, of course, some of us think that deliberately building significant amounts of that into the PC build stage, especially in a version of the game that does not permit reworking as part of its default design, is toxic. Its the designer equivalent of a "gotcha".

I'm really not sure why that should seem odd.
I can understand not liking it nor liking the downstream effects on play (I don't like it nor do I like those downstream effects). And 4e Retraining (like many things 4e, it was a reaction to the sentiment you're espousing) is surely a response to exactly what you're talking about.

But I don't understand the perspective of it being "toxic" and I guess the reason why is I'm looking at it is this:

If that design move (introducing the same dynamics of "at table D&D" into the PC build stage) is indeed "toxic", can we not also, from first principles, claim that D&D skilled play is "toxic?" I mean, its really just about a temporal adjustment to decision-making because the nature of the feedback loop is the same:

Make less than skillful decision > get punished > deal with consequences which mean either meet Loss Condition or increase likelihood of descending toward Loss Condition > overcome downstream effects of less than skillful decision or start new game if Loss Condition met.

Is the difference here embedded in the autonomy angle of the agency conversation we were having? The "but this is my PC and I should have complete autonomy over it?" If true, then I'm left wondering what the response would be if a 3.x designer said "well...you do have autonomy to make PC build decisions over your character in the same way you have autonomy to play skillfully during a delve/conflict at the table...choose wisely."
 


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