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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

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
On a related note I think mainstream play culture has a pretty severe problem when it comes laying judgement on people for basically trying to play the game in front of them. This judgement is often not even reserved just for players who are trying to play the game hard. It's very possible to accidentally make a character out of a given group's power preferences in either direction.

The absolutely worst experiences I have had with this phenomenon come from playing Classic World of Darkness and Exalted Second Edition. Both games feature extraordinarily open character creation with a vast difference in the spread of player power. When coming into a new group it is damn near impossible to tell where the line is when it comes to things like Willpower, Essence, Attributes, and Skills. Particularly in a game where things cost different amounts during and after character creation. Add a culture of play where sometimes even asking questions about where those lines are drawn is seen as a sign you may be a scary "Power Gamer". I have even experienced that sense of judgement being directed from one player to another in games I have GMed where I was fine with a given build.

I do not think it is healthy to create an environment where players feel like they have to walk on egg shells when it comes to the way they play the game.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
I'm not a particular fan of Cook, but I see no need to bash him. He just designs games that no longer speak to me (they once did). Nothing wrong with that.
IMHO Cook tends to get the lion's share of blame when it comes to LFQW design in 3e, though this tends to ignore that Jonathan Tweet was lead designer and that Skip Williams was likewise a co-designer. I liked Arcana Unearthed/Evolved quite a lot back in the day as well as a number of d20 system compatible products that he published under Malhavoc Press (e.g., Books of Eldritch Might, Beyond Countless Doorways, Books of Hallowed Might, etc.). IMHO, I think that he is a stronger setting designer. He's good at coming up with interesting settings, but as a mechanics/system designer, he falls fairly heavily in the traditional side of things (e.g., GM power/role, etc.) even when he's trying to push the story/narrative side (e.g., character options shopping lists in Cypher System and Invisible Sun, etc.).

The Cypher System is a solid system that I quite enjoy as well, though not as much as I once did. However, my issue with the Cypher System at present is that I don't think that it's really being expanded in interesting ways right now, and the base game (i.e., Numenera) is fairly basic. (In let's say the way that Free League Publishing is doing different things with the YZE.) The past few years of publications have been mostly about expanding the system in terms of genre/setting books (e.g., fairy tales, hard sci-fi, superheroes, etc.) rather than trying to push the boundaries of the system in novel ways. Writing different genre/setting books seems more like showcasing the pig in different colors of lipstick.
 

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.

This is possible for sure.....as I mentioned, my knowledge of 3e and its versions was at one point strong, but at some point, I stopped buying all the splat books, and it's also been several years since I last played it.

Allowing a second roll or a roll with advantage or a bonus die......something like that....would have been a good alternate way to support the idea that a character may be good at something beyond the standard bonus of "+x to your roll". If there are examples of this in 3e as you suggest (and I think I do recall some feats allowing a second roll, as you mention) I would say that they're few and far between, and probably very often overshadowed by other mechanics or game features that render them less meaningful.

As I said, I think in an attempt to break some of the shackles of earlier editions.....multiclass limits, level and class limits by race, weapon limitations by class, and similar restrictions......they moved a bit too far. Some folks want to play against type, and that's fine, but that doesn't mean that you don't start at a point that's well within the archetype that's in question.

To me, one of the core ideas of a Barbarian is that they're physically imposing and intimidating. I'd go so far as to say this is more essential than what is often seen as their core feature in D&D, their rage power. They should be scary people whose prowess and mannerisms are intimidating to others. If the system doesn't support this, if it very easily renders this idea meaningless mechanically, then I think the system has failed in this regard.

There should be some inherent ability for a Barbarian, and also a Fighter, that gives them a strong ability to Intimidate. In my opinion, it's the Bard or Rogue that should have to focus on improving it if they want to play something a bit off-type. Other classes should have to put in effort to be as Intimidating as a Barbarian or Fighter, not the other way around. Even if they still went with the "+x to a check" route, they could have done something like "A Barbarian adds their Strength Bonus as well as their Charisma bonus to Intimidate rolls" or something like that. I mean, I would have preferred they opened up the design a bit instead of everything being codified static bonuses, but even within their narrow design, they could have pulled it off.

Or if they gave the Fighter or Barbarian a Feat that allowed them to add their base attack bonus to Intimidate checks, that would be thematically suitable and would (I expect, going off memory) put them in line with any other class. Of course, such a Feat would render something like Skill Focus even more of a trap, and it still gates what should be an inherent part of the class behind a Feat, but at least the big scary warrior guy would actually be scary.
 

Given my experiences with internet gamer culture, I'm pretty sure it's correct. Sorry, not sorry, if you feel targeted or something.
No - what you're now doing is claiming some sort of objective truth to your position while those you argue against are falsely labelled 'biased' and 'value laden'.

Given my experience with gamer culture, you're bringing in just as much prejudice and bias as anyone - and making accusations of others while making biased and value-laden posts remains hypocrisy.

Sorry, not sorry, if you feel targeted or something.
 


pemerton

Legend
@chaochou: In @billd91's defense, Cook-bashing does strangely seem to be a thing among some TTRPG circles.
Every other RPG has people able to post about what they do or don't like in its design. I frequently post about some of the quirks and limits of Classic Traveller. In this very thread I posted about a tricky feature of my Cortex+ LotR/MERP game. @Manbearcat and I have frequently discussed, for years now, some of the weaknesses of 4e - eg the very non-smooth combat/non-combat interface.

I don't get the idea that 3E and 5e D&D are somehow immune from scrutiny or criticism.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, 3e is immune to criticism, because, well, if you don't hold 3e to be the epitome of game design, beyond any criticism, then you must hate 3e (and by association, Pathfinder) and must be a 4e holdover edition warrior. :erm: Unfortunate, but, apparently it's still impossible to discuss shortcomings in 3e design. 5e apparently is less immune to this. You can criticise 5e without being labeled as a hater.

Now, rolling this back to the original question, I wonder if looking at the purpose of the mechanics in games might not lead to differentiating RPG's from other games. I'm thinking out loud here, so, bear with me if I'm not making much sense.

In a board game, all the mechanics are there to lead the players to the ultimate conclusion of the game - determining the final state of the game. You follow the game mechanics, from turn to turn, until the game ends. All mechanics in the game are there to tell the players what to do next until that end state is reached.

But, in an RPG, that isn't true. You don't (generally) have an end state in an RPG. Certainly not an end state defined by the mechanics. The mechanics are only engaged with in certain circumstances and are generally only there to determine success/failure conditions in order to explore the fictional positioning of the players' characters. IOW, you can play an RPG for significant amounts of time without using any mechanics at all. We've all had sessions where virtually no dice were rolled. Yet, when asked, we'd still say we were playing X RPG.

If no one deals any cards, can you claim to be playing poker? If no dice are rolled, can you progress in (almost all) board games? Yet, I can play an RPG without engaging mechanics so, there must be a fundamental difference in the purpose of mechanics between board games and RPG's. The same applies to video games, only that the mechanics in a video game are hidden (largely) from the player.

Does this make sense?
 

@Hussar It does make sense, and I think you’re onto an interesting idea. However, I would think that a player declaring what their character does is an instance of play akin to rolling dice or drawing a card. “I head to the tavern local tavern”requires no mechanics of the kind we talk about in a RPG, but it’s a fundamental part of playing the game.

So I don’t think it’s a case of all that time passing without engaging in....maybe “process of play” suits more than mechanics.
 


Aldarc

Legend
In a board game, all the mechanics are there to lead the players to the ultimate conclusion of the game - determining the final state of the game. You follow the game mechanics, from turn to turn, until the game ends. All mechanics in the game are there to tell the players what to do next until that end state is reached.

But, in an RPG, that isn't true. You don't (generally) have an end state in an RPG. Certainly not an end state defined by the mechanics. The mechanics are only engaged with in certain circumstances and are generally only there to determine success/failure conditions in order to explore the fictional positioning of the players' characters. IOW, you can play an RPG for significant amounts of time without using any mechanics at all. We've all had sessions where virtually no dice were rolled. Yet, when asked, we'd still say we were playing X RPG.
This thesis is somewhat undermined by RPGs like Band of Blades that do have explicit final states of the game (with victory/loss conditions even): i.e., get your army back to your mercenary company's keep with X number of your troops alive.
 

Well, 3e is immune to criticism, because, well, if you don't hold 3e to be the epitome of game design, beyond any criticism, then you must hate 3e (and by association, Pathfinder) and must be a 4e holdover edition warrior. :erm: Unfortunate, but, apparently it's still impossible to discuss shortcomings in 3e design. 5e apparently is less immune to this. You can criticise 5e without being labeled as a hater.

Now, rolling this back to the original question, I wonder if looking at the purpose of the mechanics in games might not lead to differentiating RPG's from other games. I'm thinking out loud here, so, bear with me if I'm not making much sense.

In a board game, all the mechanics are there to lead the players to the ultimate conclusion of the game - determining the final state of the game. You follow the game mechanics, from turn to turn, until the game ends. All mechanics in the game are there to tell the players what to do next until that end state is reached.

But, in an RPG, that isn't true. You don't (generally) have an end state in an RPG. Certainly not an end state defined by the mechanics. The mechanics are only engaged with in certain circumstances and are generally only there to determine success/failure conditions in order to explore the fictional positioning of the players' characters. IOW, you can play an RPG for significant amounts of time without using any mechanics at all. We've all had sessions where virtually no dice were rolled. Yet, when asked, we'd still say we were playing X RPG.

If no one deals any cards, can you claim to be playing poker? If no dice are rolled, can you progress in (almost all) board games? Yet, I can play an RPG without engaging mechanics so, there must be a fundamental difference in the purpose of mechanics between board games and RPG's. The same applies to video games, only that the mechanics in a video game are hidden (largely) from the player.

Does this make sense?
Yes, but not in the way you intend. Many board games have a number of actions that require no dice rolls, and have minimal mechanics besides alteration of an element of the game state and it's conjoined story state.

For example, in Star Fleet Battles, coasting along the course. There is a default assumption that, on impulses you are scheduled to move, you move forward. If you are operating under a particular optional rule, or using Mauler equipped ships on the default hexgrid movement system, you are accruing points with no die roll, which are not reflected on the board, and which affect a later reflected on board state - the accumulation of progress towards a turn alters the Mauler's alignment to the hex-grid. In standard play, it's presumed that this is, indeed, happening all along, but is reflected in the sudden 60° game piece rotation only at the conclusion.

Likewise, in Diplomacy, and in Pax Brittanica, the treaties have no direct mechanics, but they are a major part of play, being something that exists only as an ephemeral agreement. In PB, there is a slight bit of game effect - violating a treaty can generate a casus belli but has no other direct mechanical effect (and casus belli can be generated in a number of mechanical ways, as well), but the route to victory damned near requires statesmanship. (and a calculator. Or, better, a PDA, tablet, or Phone spreadsheet for the economics).
 

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.
Not always. Sometimes publishers or IP owner/licensors do stupid stuff and break designs, or interfere with the playtest process (EG: Black Industries deleting mechanical feedback to Chris Pramas during the WFRP 2E playtest).
I agree that it's less than ideal, but, fundamentally, no designer can predict how a mechanic as written will be received by a broader market with absolute clarity.

Every design has flaws, and those flaws are usually due to ignorance of some aspect of the design; playtesting is supposed to be where one finds out what does or doesn't work.
 

On a related note I think mainstream play culture has a pretty severe problem when it comes laying judgement on people for basically trying to play the game in front of them. This judgement is often not even reserved just for players who are trying to play the game hard. It's very possible to accidentally make a character out of a given group's power preferences in either direction.
Different games attract different cultures, often ones the designer didn't plan for
I do not think it is healthy to create an environment where players feel like they have to walk on egg shells when it comes to the way they play the game.
I've seen that in several non-RPG fandom environments, too...
Hot Trek-fan subjects include, "Does Starfleet have a marine corps?" "Did they abolish Commodores between TOS and TNG?" (ST: Picard shows that if they did, they reinstalled them before the last movie.) "Is TAS Cannon?"

IMHO Cook tends to get the lion's share of blame when it comes to LFQW design in 3e, though this tends to ignore that Jonathan Tweet was lead designer and that Skip Williams was likewise a co-designer.
Tweet and Williams seem to have been less willing to talk about the process and decisions...
... which makes Cook more of a target, because he's the one talking.

Cook certainly has benefitted personally from taking about D&D design... it's made his later variations more inherently visible because of his visibility.
 

@pemerton, I am explicitly talking about Monte Cook-bashing and NOT simply criticism of the 3e system.
I’ll let @pemerton speak to how “Cook-centered” his post was vs 3e broadly (he may have just used your post as a springboard for the commentary).

But my agreement with his post is on the general sentiment. It could be because the roots of this place is a 3e website, but it has always seemed to me that there has been a unique and vociferous defense and advocacy for 3e on these boards (SWAG math for the extreme 4e reaction and edition warrior ranks on this board was probably 1 part OSR, 4 parts 3.x/PF).
 
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Hussar

Legend
Isn't Band of Blades basically a module for Blades in the Dark? As in, it's a scenario, not a stand alone RPG? Could you play Band of Blades without owning Blades in the Dark?
 


Aldarc

Legend
I’ll let @pemerton speak to how “Cook-centered” his post was vs 3e broadly (he may have just used your post as a springboard for the commentary).
Maybe, because it seemed like a non sequitur argument.

But my agreement with his post is on the general sentiment. It could be because the roots of this place is a 3e website, but it has always seemed to me that there has been a unique and vociferous defense and advocacy for 3e on these boards (SWAG math for the extreme 4e reaction and edition warrior ranks on this board was probably 1 part OSR, 4 parts 3.x/PF).
That's possible, but I don't think that I could say one way or another, though I've been on the boards since the 3e days.
 

Maybe, because it seemed like a non sequitur argument.


That's possible, but I don't think that I could say one way or another, though I've been on the boards since the 3e days.

Alright, alright. You win. I admit...I overestimated.

Carry the 2. Cancel out the 7. Its 1 part OSR, 3 parts 3.x/PF.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Alright, alright. You win. I admit...I overestimated.

Carry the 2. Cancel out the 7. Its 1 part OSR, 3 parts 3.x/PF.
I win? But I'm not playing at anything here. You may be right. I'm simply admitting that I don't know or remember well enough to say one way or another. 5e is clearly the preferred game nowadays, but I'm not sure how many 3e apologists are wanting to bat for it since most have hitched themselves to the 5e fan wagon.
 

I win? But I'm not playing at anything here. You may be right. I'm simply admitting that I don't know or remember well enough to say one way or another. 5e is clearly the preferred game nowadays, but I'm not sure how many 3e apologists are wanting to bat for it since most have hitched themselves to the 5e fan wagon.
I was just looking for a laugh (Re-review my post for the spectacular nonsense)!

Cheer up old boy!
 

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