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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

pemerton

Legend
* 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.
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!
In my play experience, AD&D exhibited the first of your two features but in a different way from 3E: at mid-to-high levels spell users outstripped non-spell-users, but the system mastery that helped produce this outcome was spell load-out selection, and selection of which spell to use when.

A more 3E-style of system mastery emerged in late 2nd ed AD&D played with Player's Option-type PC design. I remember building a cleric that to me seemed pretty good. In the first session there was a fight, and it turned out that my cleric was a better fighter than any (perhaps all combined!) of the three fighters in the party. Because this was a club game, we had built our PCs separately and I didn't know those fighter players outside of the context of the game, and so it wasn't until play got going that I learned that they didn't know how to build their PCs. Once I got to know one of those players fairly well, at his request I taught him about points-based PC building. He was able to significantly strengthen his PCs' effectiveness as a result.

In Rolemaster, which I was playing around the same time, we also found a caster/non-caster imbalance, driven mostly by a fairly ubiquitous item in the system, the power-point multiplier. In our first long campaign, this resolved itself by all the players gradually drifting to caster builds. In our second long campaign we dropped/revised some of the spell-lists (especially teleportation and predicting the future) and dropped multipliers. The result was that we had two viable non-caster characters (though one picked up a few low-level Mentalism spells once he reached c 20th level) and three viable semi-casters all the way through to 27th (or thereabouts) level. One of the fighters was manifestly better at fighting than the other, but not in virtue of any "trap" choices: the player of the other fighter deliberately included other elements into his build (crafting, social, athletics) so that his PC could do other stuff.

I don't play RM these days, and probably won't again - it requires time and patience that I no longer have. Part of the required patience pertains to PC build. But generally it does what it says on the tin. I don't think it's likely to produce a situation where one player sets out to build a cleric, the other sets out to build a fighter, and due to disparate skill at selecting from the build options the first player's cleric is not only perfectly viable in that respect but also out-classes the fighter.

My most recent experience of build disparity has been a bit different. In our Cortex+ LotR/MERP game, Gandalf's player has the most mechanically powerful options, but these are counterbalanced by an increased propensity to grow the Doom Pool when they are used. The times when that player has cut loose, the result has been that the immediate opposition is defeated, but the Doom Pool has grown to 2d12 which as GM has allowed me to end the Scene, preventing the PCs from getting the overall goal that they want (recovery of a stolen palantir from some Orcs). There's a sense in which that's balanced, but it tends to give Gandalf's player a greater degree of control over the trajectory of play than the other players. This is probably true to the source material!, but equally probably isn't ideal for RPGing. The system has ways to handle this - the other players could try and persuade Gandalf to stay true to his mission, which in mechanical terms could place debuffs on him to cut loose - but that (i) requires a degree of system insight and (ii) a willingness to depart from some of the traditional conventions of party play.

In classic D&D party play, at least as presented by Gygax in his rulebooks, there is a degree of tension between the cooperative element - which is undermined by extreme build disparities - and the competitive element, which might allow an individual player to earn more XP or just to more strongly shape the dynamic of party choices. But as probably many of us have experienced, there is some risk here if the tension leads to something snapping! My LotR game has a bit of the same risk because of the Gandalf element.

My feeling is that 3E seems to ratchet up this tension, and hence the possibility of something snapping in the absence of very strong GM curation/force.
 

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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."

The issue is that the recovery capability is vastly different in single event problems, and character design elements, especially since cascade problems (where a decision early in the character's career ends up walking them down the primrose path to hell over time) are far more likely.

Basically, there's at least the opportunity to run the hell away when something goes wrong during an adventure. The closest equivalent to that in character design errors in the 3e era was to create a whole new character and hope the GM was understanding about level introduction.

(Also, I should note there are people who are not big fans of needing too much skillful play in-game, far as that goes; a fair number of people want to just go out and slug things. If you want to see examples of this in the wild, follow PF2e threads for a while).
 


Is it maybe because folks sense that there isn't sufficient telegraphing of the implications of the build choices such that its not possible for folks to make informed decisions at the moment of choice?

Yep. That's some of it. But I'd say it goes a little further in that.

It's one thing for there to be a complex game in which there are many synergies that can be exploited, so many that the game designers cannot foresee them all. It's another thing to deliberately include crap synergies to screw over "the noobs" or whatever the hell thinking was behind it. Sorry, should I spell that "n00bs?"

I like complex games. I suspect most people round these parts do. Complex games will contain less effective and more effective strategies. But when writing a complex game the designers could, and should, say something like "There's a lot of possible synergies here. We can't even know what all of them are. So be flexible and be willing to allow changes to characters and everything else as the game evolves." They might also include advice on what the intent for a given feature is. "Toughness is really only for elf wizards, and Endurance is garbage that we only put in to waste your time."

So yeah, deliberately hiding crap choices in among the features comes across as... well I believe I said "smug wankers" and "gate keeping BS."

EDIT: on re-reading I see that my response comes across as kinda angry. I'm sorry, and it's not directed at any of the posters here. Some of the designers referenced on the other hand...
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
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.
The issue here is they didn't build traps to catch newbs with any sort of intent to deceive - which is essentially what calling them traps connotes. There are options that are better in certain contexts than others - something virtually unavoidable when there are lots of options and lots of different circumstances. That doesn't make them "traps".
 

pemerton

Legend
@DrunkonDuty's post made me look up the Endurance feat. That in turn reminded me of a PC in the first long RM campaign I GMed, who was (in D&D terms) an archer/mage specialising in illusion and charm/deception effects. This PC was also a very able runner and skier. (The player is an amazing athlete/hiker/adventurer who ran under two-and-a-half hours in his first marathon, in his 30s; the PC resembled the player.)

I'm not going to try and explain the intricacies of RM's build rules, but one feature of them is that, after maxing out on your "core" elements (like archery and spells for this PC) you generally have points left over for other stuff. So this PC wasn't choosing between core competence and athletics/endurance. (What I've just said isn't quite true for spells, which is a problem - but that problem tends to manifest at higher levels, where some spells start to crowd out some skill options - in this case, teleportation spells crowd out athletic travel abilities. But this PC was mostly played from 1st to around 12th level and these spell issues didn't manifest at those levels.)

In 3E, on the other hand, it seems that just about every feat option (I'm not sure about skills) can be spent on the "core" area of expertise, making something like Endurance a waste of time.

There may be a further issue about expected gameplay: there are features of D&D (even 4e displays this tendency, at least in my experience) which tend to make dealing with immediate issues of foes and of local architecture/topography more salient, in play, than dealing with travelling and getting tired and having to get from A-town to B-ville in a hurry. Whereas Rolemaster is a bit different in this respect, as is (say) Burning Wheel and (I would say, though based on a bit less experience) RuneQuest. I would expect needing to go a long time without eating, or to have to march or run or swim for a long time, to come up more often in those non-D&D systems than in default D&D play. And of course every session it doesn't come up is another session in which Endurance was a pointless part of the PC build.
 

pemerton

Legend
The issue here is they didn't build traps to catch newbs with any sort of intent to deceive
I don't know of any game that is build with the intent to deceive. Which would mean that there are no games with "trap" options!

But the concept of "trap" options is a thing, from which we should probably infer that deceit isn't at the core of it. What's at the core of a "trap" option is the game presenting things as effective on their face which, in the cold light of play, turn out not to be.

The most common form of such presentation is including the option on a list with other options which are, by the build rules of the game, substitutable and exclusive options: ie you can spend this slot to buy A or B but not both. That might be putting a card into a deck in M:tG, or putting a feat onto your PC sheet in 3E D&D. It is compounded by presenting the option as a discrete "thing" without explaining its place in the broader build or play environment.

For instance, in M:tG high-cost high-stat monsters, especially if Rare, present themselves as fun options for stomping your opponent. They don't come with a label that says in typical play sequences by the time you have enough mana to play this creature the game will be mostly decided. The player has to work that out for him-/herself. So it is the surface-level enticing-ness in conjunction with the system-determined lack of effectiveness that creates the "trap". This doesn't depend on any "intent to deceive" - but it is a consequence of an intent to design the game such that there is room for skill in build as well as in play choices.

In this thread we have Monte Cook telling us that 3D &D was designed with the same intent - to reward skill in build as well as in play choices. And it works the same way - build options that, through name and surface-level content look like they will enable your PC to do X or to be Y, in fact turn out not to deliver that X-ness or Y-ness in the typical run of play.

With Skill Focus (Intimidate), the complaint is that at the surface level it seems like a choice that will make the character a good Intimidator, but in fact it turns out not to: even with the feat the character's Intimidation is pretty mediocre. This isn't because the feat "lied" - it granted the +3 bonus just as it said it would - but because the feat doesn't come with a commentary that explains what a +3 bonus does or doesn't imply (especially when earned at the cost of a feat) in the overall context of 3E build and play. @Ovinomancer had to find that out the hard way.

With Endurance, the complaint would seem to be the same. It looks like a feat meant to make the character hardy in relation to travel and the environment. But on my reading of it seems to mostly interact with rules for taking non-lethal damage, and so I'm going to guess that other aspects of PC build - eg hit points, recovery abilities etc - largely or even completely dominate the effect that Endurance has on the ability to survive environmental rigours. Thus if I want a hardy character I should build to those things, not look at Endurance.

What I've described in the preceding couple of paragraphs is exactly what is meant by calling a build option a "trap".
 

@pemerton. I played RM for a few years (5-6 years IIRC) back in the olden days. I liked that characters could be much more flexible and rounded than was available in DnD. (It should be said that even Palladium offered more rounded characters than DnD at the time.)

But to the point at hand: Endurance. Yeah. It's a feat that improves your character in a part of the game fiction that almost never comes up. And as you point out, there's other ways of dealing with this same (rare) occurrence.

The fact that buying a dud feat spends a sizeable proportion of the character's build collateral just compounds it. The opportunity cost on this particular feat is huge.

Anyway, here I am griping over a thing from 20 years ago (although it continues to exist in my PF 1e game) as if it matters. I should get outside more.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I don't know of any game that is build with the intent to deceive. Which would mean that there are no games with "trap" options!
Something I would generally agree with - it would be a pretty perverse intent to deliberately design options to trick people into taking. Generally, a trap would be a ploy emerging in competitive play that a player falls for.
What I've described in the preceding couple of paragraphs is exactly what is meant by calling a build option a "trap".
Yeah, I know. And as I've been saying, it's a value laden term, one that, I believe, reflects more of a deficiency in the culture that coined it rather than being honestly descriptive or constructively critical.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Something I would generally agree with - it would be a pretty perverse intent to deliberately design options to trick people into taking. Generally, a trap would be a ploy emerging in competitive play that a player falls for.

Yeah, I know. And as I've been saying, it's a value laden term, one that, I believe, reflects more of a deficiency in the culture that coined it rather than being honestly descriptive or constructively critical.
I'm curious what deficiency you're speaking to. Is calling an option that should be avoided or used off-description (and will be if you have sufficient skill at the system) a "trap" indicative of a deficiency? It's a simple term that grasps the core concept -- that this option is best avoided as it will be less useful that others.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Regardless of designer intent or personal feelings on what players should be motivated by I think it's fairly obvious that some games are more susceptible than others to a player who is trying to realize a particular sort of character failing to actually do so. It's much harder to do so because of build choices in PF2 than PF1. Same goes for Exalted Third Edition in comparison to Exalted Second Edition. Same for recent versions of Vampire and Legend of the Five Rings compared to prior iterations. A lot of more recent design has been aimed in the direction of removing counterintuitive stumbling blocks when it comes to character design.

To be fair at the same time a lot if of more modern design is pointed towards shifting that burden instead to play. I am personally a fan of that, but I have also seen players get deeply frustrated by games like PF2 and Exalted Third Edition that leave living up to your conception of your character up to choices made at the table. Like I had a player walk out of an Exalted game because they just wanted to hit things and be awesome instead of engaging with the mechanics. This player was fine with more build centric games, but not more gameplay oriented ones.
 

pemerton

Legend
A lot of more recent design has been aimed in the direction of removing counterintuitive stumbling blocks when it comes to character design.

To be fair at the same time a lot if of more modern design is pointed towards shifting that burden instead to play. I am personally a fan of that, but I have also seen players get deeply frustrated by games like PF2 and Exalted Third Edition that leave living up to your conception of your character up to choices made at the table. Like I had a player walk out of an Exalted game because they just wanted to hit things and be awesome instead of engaging with the mechanics. This player was fine with more build centric games, but not more gameplay oriented ones.
I think 4e provides an interesting example of trying to combine build and play.

The build rules are mostly free of "traps", I think (not completely: Power Attack always looked bad to me). If you want to build (say) an archer, or a polearm expert, you do have to go through the work of putting it together, but for any given option you look at it's generally pretty clear whether or not it will help you.

But once you've got your build you can't just turn up, hit "play" and sit back. The system will force you to make choices, and making those well or poorly can have quite an influence on how your character turns out.
 

Aldarc

Legend
In many cases, assuming designed intent for the more toxic inclusions is the less charitable stance; ignorance implies no malice.
I don't necessarily think that there was malice on the part of the designers - none at all actually - but poor design choices from ignorance of how their system plays out in practice is not exactly a compelling argument either, but regardless of whether the design choices (and associated implications) were done from malice or ignorance, the culpability rests with the designers.
 


pemerton

Legend
The semantics of "trap option" are pretty clear:

build options that, through name and surface-level content look like they will enable your PC to do X or to be Y, in fact turn out not to deliver that X-ness or Y-ness in the typical run of play.

Is there a word in English for something that has a different and undesired upshot relative to what it suggests by its surface appearance?

Yes. Trap, used as a straightforward metaphor.

EDIT: I went back upthread and found the same point made here:

The "trap" option is that the option doesn't do what's anticipated -- that you need to have a strong understanding of the entire system to understand how that option can be used. If you just select skill focus going by what it says, it underperforms and you can end up with exactly my situation.

<snip>

That this is labeled a "trap" is because it is -- if you don't know to look for it, you can fall into it, just as I did in my example.

FURTHER EDIT:
Of course the word "trap" is value laden. A trap is, by its very nature, something you don't want to fall into. And that's the case with these build options: you don't want to end up with stuff on your sheet that doesn't deliver the outcome, in play, that it led you to expect when you selected it.

Is it good for a game to have traps? Well Classic D&D has heaps of them in its gameplay, from stuff that, in the fiction, is literally a trap to highly metagame stuff like mimics that trick looting players or traps that are triggered when you poke 10' in front of them with a pole or rotating rooms that muck up your map.

Outwitting these is part and parcel of play.

Whether they should be part of PC build in a RPG seems a matter of taste. But 3E D&D clearly seems to have them!
 
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Aldarc

Legend
IMHO, part of the problem with 3e's basic design was that playing nearly anything that wasn't a Cleric, Druid, or Wizard (and possibly later Artificer) - or roughly Tier 1 (and to a certain extent Tier 2) - was the real trap regardless of what feats, whether traps or not, you selected to optimize your character. But I suspect that this was partially unintended due to the designers both overestimating (e.g., fighter combat feats, Strength, etc.) and underestimating (e.g., Spell DC, spell auto-scaling, bonus spells, etc.) certain design elements they chose.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
You're a fine one to write things like this and then accuse others of 'value-laden' posts and bias.

Hypocrisy in plain sight.
Given my experiences with internet gamer culture, I'm pretty sure it's correct. Sorry, not sorry, if you feel targeted or something.
 



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