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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

Umbran

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

5e clearly isn't immune. Heck, Morrus is currently running an entire game-design project for a his own spin on 5e, due to what one might term its inadequacies. And folks are critiquing and home-brewing solutions of bits and pieces of it they find insufficient on the site all the time. There's sometimes a bit of wrangling over "it ain't broke don't fix it" but it is nothing compared to the animosity of the past.

If you have issues speaking about 5e, we might have to consider that there's a tone issue involved - because how and why you talk about it may bring out the worst in some people.
 

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Thomas Shey

Adventurer
Well, honestly, the current Big Dog among editions of a game always have the advantage (and disadvantage to critics) that there's going to be a disproportionate number of people who will defend it, and some of them rather--vigorously. That's always going to be pretty tiring. That doesn't mean its more resistant to criticism than any other edition, but it does mean it requires more energy to do so because of the raw amount of pushback you'll get.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I don't get the idea that 3E and 5e D&D are somehow immune from scrutiny or criticism.
They're obviously not immune to criticism, but people can nevertheless be pretty touchy when you criticize things that they have invested themselves into psychologically and emotionally. But go on nearly dedicated TTRPG system community and criticize the system, and you will get pushback from some fans who believe that the system in question can do no wrong.
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
They're obviously not immune to criticism, but people can nevertheless be pretty touchy when you criticize things that they have invested themselves into psychologically and emotionally. But go on nearly dedicated TTRPG system community and criticize the system, and you will get pushback from some fans who believe that the system in question can do no wrong.

Yup. Used to see it on the M&M boards when they were still alive regularly. Doubly so if you come across as an outsider in any way.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Yup. Used to see it on the M&M boards when they were still alive regularly. Doubly so if you come across as an outsider in any way.
I think my opinion of the Cypher System also personally soured a bit after interacting with some fan content creators (not anyone at MCG mind you) who were not interested in engaging (i.e., shutting down) even critical questions about weaknesses/problems of the system or possible areas of improvement.
 

Yup. Used to see it on the M&M boards when they were still alive regularly. Doubly so if you come across as an outsider in any way.
Its especially annoying for two-fold reasons:

* The Purity Test for being able to critique seems to frame the commenter as having to be a fundamentalist; someone so deeply partisan that they wouldn't criticize the game in the first place!

* Those demanding the fealty to the above Purity Test often have less experience (sometimes far less) running the system than those they're demanding bend the knee to the Purity Test (eg, the number of commenters on these boards that have more experience than I running AD&D or 3.x is VANISHINGLY remote...yet, they get to tell me that I have no right to critique those systems?).

Its a circular cluster-eff.

1) Are you a fundamentalist partisan that would never offer a critique in the first place? No? Well then you can't criticize!

2) Do you have less experience than me running this game? No? Well then you can't criticize!

3) Do you have more experience than me running this game? Yes? See 1!

Quite the critique-insulating loop!
 

Hussar

Legend
Not a module, a hack (like Scum and Villainy).

Yes, stand-alone game.
Again, I freely admit my ignorance.

But, you're saying I could play this game without any prior experience with Blades in the Dark? Or, do they simply reproduce enough of the mechanics from BitD so that I can play this scenario. Because, from the description, that's exactly what this sounds like. You're playing a BitD scenario, exactly the same way I'd play a D&D module. It's not meant to be replayed, nor is it meant to be a complete RPG in and of itself, in that I won't use these mechanics to make new scenarios.

There's a question. Is something an RPG if you cannot use the mechanics to create scenarios with it? Thus, a module isn't an RPG - you don't use Isle of Dread to do anything other than play Isle of Dread. And, yes, I realize I'm tiptoeing around the idea of RPG's being game creation engines, but, I think it's a valid point. Something that distinguishes RPG's from other games is that we use RPG's to create something, and it's that something that we play.

If a game cannot be used to create something, is it an RPG? Or simply what is commonly referred to as a module?
 

pemerton

Legend
If a game cannot be used to create something, is it an RPG? Or simply what is commonly referred to as a module?
I thought Band of Blades was mentioned as an example of a RPG with an end-state. My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls are presumably two more examples of this. Arguably so is 4e D&D, though I would accept the counter-argument that the end-state is so "off in the distance" relative to the normal course of play that it doesn't exercise much practical constraint on gameplay.

As to whether a RPG must be used to create something - well, all RPGing in the course of play will create a fiction. (Unless the play is super-hyper-scripted, in which case it will produce a variant interpretation of a pre-existing fiction. I think some CoC modules lean in this direction.)

Presumably Band of Blades will produce a fiction via play. I don't know it, but I imagine it's replayable. (I'm happy to be corrected by @Aldarc or @Manbearcat if I'm wrong on that.)

As to whether creation in advance of play is important for RPGing - I personally don't think so. I've run games where we just sit down and start.
 

Campbell

Legend
5e clearly isn't immune. Heck, Morrus is currently running an entire game-design project for a his own spin on 5e, due to what one might term its inadequacies. And folks are critiquing and home-brewing solutions of bits and pieces of it they find insufficient on the site all the time. There's sometimes a bit of wrangling over "it ain't broke don't fix it" but it is nothing compared to the animosity of the past.

If you have issues speaking about 5e, we might have to consider that there's a tone issue involved - because how and why you talk about it may bring out the worst in some people.

I think critiques that are primarily technical in nature like how many skills a fighter gets or how stealth mechanics work are more apt to get taken as a matter of taste. I think it's much harder to have conversations that are critical of the underlaying play process, division of authority, goals of play, etc. without it being taken more personally. One is critical of a small piece. The other is calling into question how the whole project should function.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
One is critical of a small piece. The other is calling into question how the whole project should function.

So, what you miss (and it is kind of typical that folks miss it, so don't take that personally) is that the other is calling into question how the person you are talking to runs their own game, if they use that product.

Critique of that overall process of play, et al. is almost never phrased in terms of personal preference, but of absolute right and wrong of gaming. And if I am running a 5e game, and 5e is bad, then my game is bad by extension. It is therefore personal. They aren't defending 5e, so much as they are implicitly placed in the position of defending themselves.

Folks are generally too deep into the theory they prefer to remember that people use it, and love it. Anyone who wants to critique it wants to be so correct, and speak their point so emphatically, that they forget that their critique needs to be leavened by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have loved it for years now, and that probably ought to be considered as an empirical cap to how objectively bad that process, et al. could possibly be.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think critiques that are primarily technical in nature like how many skills a fighter gets or how stealth mechanics work are more apt to get taken as a matter of taste. I think it's much harder to have conversations that are critical of the underlaying play process, division of authority, goals of play, etc. without it being taken more personally. One is critical of a small piece. The other is calling into question how the whole project should function.
So, what you miss (and it is kind of typical that folks miss it, so don't take that personally) is that the other is calling into question how the person you are talking to runs their own game, if they use that product.
What I observe, which perhaps is something @Campbell also has observed, is sometimes a bit different from this. That is, sometimes a poster will say something about their own preference - eg for how authority might be distributed in the playing of a RPG - and explain or even imply that 5e or 3E D&D doesn't and probably can't easily satisfy that preference. And that statement of preference and explanation will be taken as an attack upon those who are paying those games and enjoying them precisely because they don't have that preference.
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
Folks are generally too deep into the theory they prefer to remember that people use it, and love it. Anyone who wants to critique it wants to be so correct, and speak their point so emphatically, that they forget that their critique needs to be leavened by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have loved it for years now, and that probably ought to be considered as an empirical cap to how objectively bad that process, et al. could possibly be.

Well, there's another side to that though; there's no lack of people from either the GM seat or the player seat complaining about games they're in to one degree or another. So I think its legitimate to question how much of that is flaws with the basic process of the games they choose that they're not realizing contribute to this.

Where it gets off the rails is when you go in sure that's what the problem is, rather than just suggesting that there can be reasons for someone to keep playing a game that's part of the source of the problem (this is particularly easy to suggest with something like the current version of D&D which has such a big networking footprint that its easy to see situations where people continue to play it because it What You Play locally in a lot of places). You aren't sure; its speculation, possibly thought through speculation with some general foundation, but you can't just take it as an a priori.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What I observe, which perhaps is something @Campbell also has observed, is sometimes a bit different from this. That is, sometimes a poster will say something about their own preference - eg for how authority might be distributed in the playing of a RPG - and explain or even imply that 5e or 3E D&D doesn't and probably can't easily satisfy that preference. And that statement of preference and explanation will be taken as an attack upon those who are paying those games and enjoying them precisely because they don't have that preference.

As a moderator, I have frequently (very frequently... almost constantly) noted that people who claim to be speaking about their preferences, often use phrasing that does not indicate such explicitly. Or they say it in the first sentence of their piece, and then continue with phrasing that drops the personal-dependence. When I point it out, they defend themselves with, "Well, since everything in gaming is about personal preference, it should be assumed..." or "I shouldn't have to say that, everyone knows..."

And everyone here knows what happens when you expect people to assume....

This is sloppy writing that forgets how people read and consume information - if you want the audience to remember that you are speaking about personal preferences, you have to remind them of it frequently. To maintain that understanding, the "in my opinion" and "at my table" and so on needs to be sprinkled liberally around the work for folks to keep that context, especially if your writing style is otherwise kind of officious or pretentious (because that often reads as condescending to start with), and double-especially if you don't frequently acknowledge that other speakers who disagree with you have points that are correct, and what they are doing is entirely valid gaming.

Also, on this site and many others, you are speaking to an audience that has frequent contact with (intentional or not) bad actors. They have been battered about by people who aren't speaking about personal preferences. Or, they have gotten into bruising arguments with people who were talking about personal preferences, but the discussion got out of control anyway. If you sound like the things that have been damaging, the life experience of the reader will color what they see in your writing.

Which amounts to a note that... very frequently, folks are so busy getting their own points across they forget to consider the audience.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Well, there's another side to that though; there's no lack of people from either the GM seat or the player seat complaining about games they're in to one degree or another. So I think its legitimate to question how much of that is flaws with the basic process of the games they choose that they're not realizing contribute to this.

Where it gets off the rails is when you go in sure that's what the problem is...

Yes. To be blunt, you (generic, not you, Thomas Shey) weren't there, and the report you are getting is minimal and by necessity colored by the speaker's emotions and perspective on events (which will be negative, as we are talking about a complaint - the speaker is by definition unhappy to some degree). You likely don't even know the goals of play for the various participants in a particular complaint - how on Earth can you then question the process they use to reach those goals? How is it not armchair quarterbacking at such remove?
 

Thomas Shey

Adventurer
Yes. To be blunt, you (generic, not you, Thomas Shey) weren't there, and the report you are getting is minimal and by necessity colored by the speaker's emotions and perspective on events (which will be negative, as we are talking about a complaint - the speaker is by definition unhappy to some degree). You likely don't even know the goals of play for the various participants in a particular complaint - how on Earth can you then question the process they use to reach those goals? How is it not armchair quarterbacking at such remove?

All absolutely true.

On the other hand--a forum is about discussion. When you come in with a complaint about an experience, to some extent you invite armchair quarterbacking.

But you should always go into that with the understanding that, as you say, you're getting a very limited perspective about the situation. One person, no matter what his relation to a gaming situation, is unlikely to have the full picture or necessarily expressing the picture he has well.

(I'm admittedly particularly cynical about how people characterize their game group and its sociodynamic, because I've seen a few too many cases where I heard one characterization when dealing with a person privately, and then when I either saw it directly or talked to other people it turned out the case seemed quite different. As such I hear warning bells with phrases like "Well none of my players have a problem with this," or "The GM never cuts us a break" because I've seen exactly those phrases expressed when that turned out to not be the case. It can even occur without malign intent; some people just have tunnel vision (in the latter case) or players who aren't confrontational (in the former case). And that's trying not to even get into the issue that its statistically likely that at least a few people in these discussions are trying to gaslight you. But I'll admit that isn't always the most useful trait to have to create a productive discussion.)
 

I thought Band of Blades was mentioned as an example of a RPG with an end-state. My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls are presumably two more examples of this. Arguably so is 4e D&D, though I would accept the counter-argument that the end-state is so "off in the distance" relative to the normal course of play that it doesn't exercise much practical constraint on gameplay.

As to whether a RPG must be used to create something - well, all RPGing in the course of play will create a fiction. (Unless the play is super-hyper-scripted, in which case it will produce a variant interpretation of a pre-existing fiction. I think some CoC modules lean in this direction.)

Presumably Band of Blades will produce a fiction via play. I don't know it, but I imagine it's replayable. (I'm happy to be corrected by @Aldarc or @Manbearcat if I'm wrong on that.)

As to whether creation in advance of play is important for RPGing - I personally don't think so. I've run games where we just sit down and start.
Again, I freely admit my ignorance.

But, you're saying I could play this game without any prior experience with Blades in the Dark? Or, do they simply reproduce enough of the mechanics from BitD so that I can play this scenario. Because, from the description, that's exactly what this sounds like. You're playing a BitD scenario, exactly the same way I'd play a D&D module. It's not meant to be replayed, nor is it meant to be a complete RPG in and of itself, in that I won't use these mechanics to make new scenarios.

There's a question. Is something an RPG if you cannot use the mechanics to create scenarios with it? Thus, a module isn't an RPG

- you don't use Isle of Dread to do anything other than play Isle of Dread. And, yes, I realize I'm tiptoeing around the idea of RPG's being game creation engines, but, I think it's a valid point. Something that distinguishes RPG's from other games is that we use RPG's to create something, and it's that something that we play.

If a game cannot be used to create something, is it an RPG? Or simply what is commonly referred to as a module?

@pemerton 's quote above does the necessary work to answer your question.

Just some clarity:

* Blades in the Dark isn't just an (a) action resolution system and (b) a set of play priorities and (c) GMing ethos. Its a game with (d) a specific setting, (e) a specific Win/Loss Con. Then it has (f) a particular set of mechanics that integrate and facilitate the realization of that a - e.

So all of that a - f has to be in there for it to be BitD.

* Forged in the Dark (FitD) is just like Powered By the Apocalypse (PBtA). Its a chassis that always incorporates (a) (though not exactly the same in each instantiation), (b), and (c). Meanwhile, d - f is subtly (or more) different in each case.

* Band of Blades is a stand-alone, FitD game that is different d - f than Blades in the Dark.
 

I think critiques that are primarily technical in nature like how many skills a fighter gets or how stealth mechanics work are more apt to get taken as a matter of taste. I think it's much harder to have conversations that are critical of the underlaying play process, division of authority, goals of play, etc. without it being taken more personally. One is critical of a small piece. The other is calling into question how the whole project should function.

Whenever an alternative to the cultural establishment is proposed, whether its a minor critique or a regime change like 4e, it is inevitably perceived as a threat.

This quote from Moneyball (very apropos) will seem familiar to you!

"I know you're taking it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloodied.

Always.

This is threatening not only the way they do business but, in their minds, really what its threatening is the game. Its threatening their livelihood. Its threatening their jobs. Its threatening the way they do things.

And every time that happens, whether its a government...a way of doing business...or whatever it is...the people who are holding the reins or have their hands on the switch...they go batxxxx crazy."
 

Hussar

Legend
@pemerton 's quote above does the necessary work to answer your question.

Just some clarity:

* Blades in the Dark isn't just an (a) action resolution system and (b) a set of play priorities and (c) GMing ethos. Its a game with (d) a specific setting, (e) a specific Win/Loss Con. Then it has (f) a particular set of mechanics that integrate and facilitate the realization of that a - e.

So all of that a - f has to be in there for it to be BitD.

* Forged in the Dark (FitD) is just like Powered By the Apocalypse (PBtA). Its a chassis that always incorporates (a) (though not exactly the same in each instantiation), (b), and (c). Meanwhile, d - f is subtly (or more) different in each case.

* Band of Blades is a stand-alone, FitD game that is different d - f than Blades in the Dark.
Sorry, but, what is the specific win/loss condition of Blades in the Dark?
 

Sorry, but, what is the specific win/loss condition of Blades in the Dark?

Loss Con

  • TPK
  • Founding members retired and Crew dissolved
  • Tier 0 > weak Hold > lose Hold (this is nigh unrecoverable as your lair comes under assault from your - more powerful -enemies; Alamo conditions)

Win Con

* Tier 5 > strong Hold. There is nowhere to go from here. Technically, you could attempt to bump off The Leviathan Hunters, City Council, and The Ministry of Preservation to ensure there are no Tier 5 Factions (but that isn’t what the game is about...it’s about ascending to the top of the ladder...not toppling all power centers, governance, and infrastructure).
 

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.
You've managed to hit a landmine here and explicitly (re)opened the question of "Are storygames RPGs?" The term Storygame was used because there was a huge outcry at the publication of My Life With Master (in which the PCs are minions of a tyrannical master) because that game included an explicit end state that was being driven towards - one of the PCs getting completely fed up with the Master and trying to kill them.

The term "Storygame" was created so that the gatekeepers would stop complaining that that wasn't an RPG (despite being one in all other aspects) and those who wanted to create games could get on with things.
 

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