log in or register to remove this ad

 

Worlds of Design: What Makes an RPG a Tabletop Hobby RPG?

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. I describe some characteristics.

View attachment 102280Picture sourced from Pixabay.​

I must be crazy to try to define/characterize a segment as large and diverse as this one in a few words. But here goes.

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 at length, even though not all of the group will have all of those characteristics. I’m trying the latter, but keeping it simple.

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 adventure.
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 includes some business and other training/education simulations. I’m interested in what makes a game a hobby RPG, a game played frequently by hobby game players.

What’s a “Pure” or “Real” Avatar?

  • A single thing that represents the individual player, most commonly a humanoid
  • All the player’s actions in the game emanate from the avatar
  • The “real” 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 into the avatar.

Many board games use a sort-of avatar that is not the source of all action, nor does the game end if the avatar is killed or captured. That’s not an RPG.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller

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 (which give more capability)
  • Collecting magic items (which provide extra options, defense, offense, detection, etc.)
  • Acquiring money (which can be used for lots of things)
  • No doubt there are some RPGs with other ways to improve, for example if social standing is formally tracked
Does it need levels? No, but that's typically (conveniently) how increase in capability “without using loot” 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 a series of stand-alone novels 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.
Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” Amelia Earhart

Co-operation, Adventure, and a Gamemaster who Controls the Opposition

  • Yes, opposition. It’s not a game (traditional sense) without opposition, though it might be a puzzle or a storytelling engine
  • I don’t see how there can be significant opposition without a GM/referee
  • If there’s no co-operation, if it’s player vs player, it’s more or less a board/card game
  • Or it’s a storytelling aid
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 as the defining aspect of RPGs, and it’s certainly vital; but think of an imposed-story RPG where the linear plot (typical of such stories) forces players to do just what the story calls for. That’s not freedom of action. Yet many still call this 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.

I include adventure, because the stories generated by 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, though *I’m* certainly not interested in RPGs without adventure.

Some people won’t agree with this characterization. That’s inevitable. The purpose of such exercises (aside from encouraging people to think) is to narrow down something so that we can talk about it intelligibly. If the question “what’s an RPG?” tends to be answered with “whatever I think it is,” discussions become difficult.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

pemerton

Legend
I'd like to explore "Opposition". Because above conflates character opposition with player opposition, and I don't think they have anything to do with each other.

This goes back to the goal of RPGs. How does the GM win? How does the GM lose? It doesn't have to do with did an encounter kill all the PCs, or blocked any advancement by putting forth a puzzle or challenge that was unsolvable -- those are usually marks of a bad session. Did they run an enjoyable session for everyone (themselves included) could be a goal.

Player goals are similar. If players "win condition" is to have an enjoyable time, and part of that enjoyment is overcoming challenges, then putting opposition in front of characters is putting enjoyment on players.

So it becomes pretty clear that in-world opposition is actually a method used with players to increase their satisfaction. The GM isn't opposing the players at all - they are all working together to have a fun session.
This doesn't work for me. When I play backgammon, I need another player to play against me. And that increases my satisfaction. You could even say that the point of a game or three of backgammon is to work together with the other player to have a fun time. But within the context of the gameplay, there is undoubtedly opposition of each player to the other.

I think that in many RPGs, it is the role of the GM/referee to introduce elements into the fiction that create opposition or challenges {of some sort or other) for the players' characters. And - if the game is well-designed - the GM should be able to play these elements as hard as the rules permit (this is why "encounter design" in some form or other is an important aspect of many RPGs - those without good guidelines of this sort often make it difficutl for the GM to play hard, which can make play of the game rather insipid).

Of course the overall point of doing that is for everyone to enjoy the game and have a fun and satisfying session - but within the context of game play, the interaction has an oppositional dimension.

Some RPGs make this clearer, even going so far as to explicitly reward players with plot currency for having bad things happen to their characters. FATE compels are a good example. Others only mechanically reward character success with things like loot and XP, and from that viewpoint it's easy to think that character success and player success are the same.
I think those sorts of mechanics can be seen in cost-benefit terms. I don't think the player is necessarily setting out to have his/her PC hosed - but is prepared to trade off suffering now for capacity when the stakes are higher!
 

log in or register to remove this ad

pemerton

Legend
I've said this before but what makes a game an RPG is pretty clearly a "family resemblance." This kind of searching for a clear logical boundary in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions/defining features is, therefore, bound to fail. It serves very little useful purpose. There are simply going to be a lot of counter-examples or features that don't quite work out
"What is an RPG?" is a meaningless question. An RPG is whenever a group of two or more people get together to play "Let's Pretend" using some form of codified rule system for handling disagreements about what happens next.
I think that the "avatar"/preteneding to be someone else aspect is pretty central to most RPGs. Likewise some sort of resolution system, though many RPGs have only ad hoc or highly-GM mediated rules for resolving conflicts. The resolution system focused around actions declared by the players for their "avatars" helps distinguish a RPG from a non-RPG cooperative storytellling game.

Another element that I think is pretty central is the ability to play the fiction. The fiction should matter to resolution, and changes in the mechanical game state should be feeding through to changes in the fiction. This is what distinguishes a RPG from a boardgame or less "open-ended" wargame.

Cortex+ based, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Doesn't have a progression mechanic, as such.
My players beg to differ on that one - they play their Milestones to the hilt to earn XP and improve their PCs (probably around 5 to 10 XP per session, for pretty steady improvement - the system suggests after a story arc "resetting" the PCs and that is definitely good advice as it doesn't take too long for the PCs to power up quite a bit).

"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."

Take that, Traveller!
To be fair, he did include loot as an improvement mechanic. That's not essential to Traveller, but it's fairly common to it (whether credits, a better starship, or both).

is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?
You know there's a US Supreme Court case dealing with this issue (Nix v Hedden)? The short version: there is both a botanical and a folk culinary use of these terms, and tomatoes are fruits in the botanical sense but vegetables in the culinary sense, as they are served as part of the "principal part of the repast", not as dessert.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
This doesn't work for me. When I play backgammon, I need another player to play against me. And that increases my satisfaction. You could even say that the point of a game or three of backgammon is to work together with the other player to have a fun time. But within the context of the gameplay, there is undoubtedly opposition of each player to the other. <...>

Of course the overall point of doing that is for everyone to enjoy the game and have a fun and satisfying session - but within the context of game play, the interaction has an oppositional dimension.
The social situation of backgammon you describe is not typically a zero-sum game. However, backgammon itself is a zero-sum game. If you win, your opponent loses. You could play backgammon strictly for money and have no additional social interaction with the person (see online backgammon played for money).

The opposition of a DM to the PCs is, by contrast, not a zero-sum game. The DM's job (in most circumstances) is to provide a strong yet achievable and beatable challenge. There's no "story" to backgammon pieces (a point you made in another post). The opposition in an RPG, by contrast, is usually in the service of that, however broadly defined "story" and "narrative" may be in the game. Essentially they exist to be foils for the PCs. Example: The paladin's mortal enemy is the undead prince that took her family's lands. He shows up in that final battle! He shouldn't be a wimp but general meta-expectations are that the campaign will end with his defeat, ideally with the paladin's sword delivering the final blow, although the vagaries of the dice may not allow that to happen.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This doesn't work for me. When I play backgammon, I need another player to play against me. And that increases my satisfaction. You could even say that the point of a game or three of backgammon is to work together with the other player to have a fun time. But within the context of the gameplay, there is undoubtedly opposition of each player to the other.

I think that in many RPGs, it is the role of the GM/referee to introduce elements into the fiction that create opposition or challenges {of some sort or other) for the players' characters. And - if the game is well-designed - the GM should be able to play these elements as hard as the rules permit (this is why "encounter design" in some form or other is an important aspect of many RPGs - those without good guidelines of this sort often make it difficutl for the GM to play hard, which can make play of the game rather insipid).

Of course the overall point of doing that is for everyone to enjoy the game and have a fun and satisfying session - but within the context of game play, the interaction has an oppositional dimension.
But you are not playing against the DM. The DM doesn't lose if the player wins and vice versa. If the players overcome a challenge it doesn't dimish a DM - it boost them up, since it advances the adventure/plot/etc.

If it was real opposition, the DM wins. Always. The DM can always beat the player. We have a long standing culture that such adversarial DMs are bad. A DM who is actual opposition is the antithesis of fun in the game.

Also, this only focuses on the parts of the game where there is a challenge. The DM also provides all of the quest-givers, all of the friendly or allied NPCs, the sages where the characters can find out more information, etc. These do not fit under the guise of a DM as opposition, they make no sense in that context.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I think that the "avatar"/preteneding to be someone else aspect is pretty central to most RPGs. Likewise some sort of resolution system, though many RPGs have only ad hoc or highly-GM mediated rules for resolving conflicts. The resolution system focused around actions declared by the players for their "avatars" helps distinguish a RPG from a non-RPG cooperative storytellling game.
This is particularly important and I think is the thing that really sets RPGs apart from other types of games. But of course, the boundaries are porous. So you could, for instance, RP your Talisman piece if it happens to be, say, the Warrior of Chaos. Talisman is the old Games Workshop boardgame and is clearly set in the Warhammer world. I'd say it's not an RPG but it clearly has some RPG inspired elements.


You know there's a US Supreme Court case dealing with this issue (Nix v Hedden)? The short version: there is both a botanical and a folk culinary use of these terms, and tomatoes are fruits in the botanical sense but vegetables in the culinary sense, as they are served as part of the "principal part of the repast", not as dessert.
This is, IMO, a very good point. Words often have multiple, contextual definitions. This reminds me of Luria's classic study of folk vs scientific classifications. They're not the same and neither is "wrong." To a chef trained in traditional Western cuisine, a tomato is a vegetable (99% of the time, anyway). It acts in a manner that is much more like other vegetables than does, say, an apple, although apples are often used in savory dishes as well. To a botanist, an apple and a tomato are both fruits. Of course, this is cuisine-specific: North African cuisine uses the same basic ingredients in quite different ways, for instance putting many things traditionally considered "fruits" in Western cuisine in savory dishes or using spices deemed "sweet" in a savory way.

Thus it is with words like "game." They have a broad meaning but within specific contexts they gain more specific meanings. You can have a game within a game, for instance, if you're playing an RPG but the PCs end up playing cards with each other or with opposition. People playing definitional games are often trying to use definitions to get away with something, typically trying to win an argument with foes by defining adversaries off the field.

That Wittgenstein guy seems smarter every day. :p
 

pemerton

Legend
The social situation of backgammon you describe is not typically a zero-sum game. However, backgammon itself is a zero-sum game. If you win, your opponent loses. You could play backgammon strictly for money and have no additional social interaction with the person (see online backgammon played for money).

The opposition of a DM to the PCs is, by contrast, not a zero-sum game. The DM's job (in most circumstances) is to provide a strong yet achievable and beatable challenge. There's no "story" to backgammon pieces (a point you made in another post). The opposition in an RPG, by contrast, is usually in the service of that, however broadly defined "story" and "narrative" may be in the game.
But you are not playing against the DM. The DM doesn't lose if the player wins and vice versa. If the players overcome a challenge it doesn't dimish a DM - it boost them up, since it advances the adventure/plot/etc.

If it was real opposition, the DM wins. Always. The DM can always beat the player.
I agree fully that in a typical RPG the players aren't playing against the GM. But I think there are contexts within a RPG where play is oppositional. In 4e, for instance, combat resolution has that character; in classic dungeon-crawling game, if the reaction dice show that inhabitants are hostile then the GM should be playing them with suitable hostility; etc.

I'm pushing towards two points in the above. (1) There is a meaningful distinction, on the GM side of a typical/mainstream RPG, between (a) setting up an ingame situation and (b) resolving the situation. As far as (a) is concerned, that is where having regard to "story", encounter balance, what level of the dungeon is being stocked, etc, is crucial. A GM who puts an umber hulk on level 1 of a classic dungeon; or who sets up boring situations for the players in a more contemporary-style game; is a bad GM.

But when it comes to (b), I think the GM needs to have a high degree of regard to the internal logic of the fiction, which might include its oppositional dimensions, and be prepared to push hard. This is what helps avoid insipid or railroad-y play, in my view.

(2) My second point builds on the preceding paragraph. If the GM plays the fiction - including the oppositional NPCs and other elements - in a way that holds back, or subordinates the sense of the fiction to demands of "story" - I think that can produce insipid play.

I'll admit that this is a subtle and to some extent at least subjective point. I think that 4e combat is a fairly clear and well-known illustration - the GM, in framing, has to pay maximum attention to the story context, the mechanical balance, etc. But the pay-off of that is that, in play, the GM can go all out with his/her NPCs/creatures and rather than crushing the players this will produce an awesome RPGing experience!

An example from a somewhat different game is the following comments that Vincent Baker makes in his GMing notes for Dogs in the Vineyard (p 89):

What’s at stake: do you get murdered in your bed?

— The stage: your room at night. A possessed sinner creeps into your room without waking you.

. . .

I should tell you, in an early playtest I startled one of my players bad with this very conflict. In most roleplaying games, saying "an enemy sneaks into your room in the middle of the night and hits you in the head with an axe" is cheating. I’ve hosed the character and the player with no warning and no way out. Not in Dogs, though: the resolution rules are built to handle it. I don’t have to pull my punches!

(You’ve GMed a bunch of RPGs before, right? Think about what I just said for a minute. You know how you usually pull your punches?)​

As Baker points to, with some RPGs it's hard to get (a) right, or with some framings the (b) will lead to a GM auto-win, and these cases mean that (a) and (b) bleed into one another, and the GM finds him-/herself holding back. I'm personally conscious of this possibility when I GM Traveller (the most "old school" game I'm currently running), and am therefore extra careful about how I frame things.

The DM also provides all of the quest-givers, all of the friendly or allied NPCs, the sages where the characters can find out more information, etc. These do not fit under the guise of a DM as opposition, they make no sense in that context.
The role of this stuff is obviously rather contentious across the range of RPGing - how much of this is GM control over the story, vs GM framing, vs outcomes of action resolution. But I agree it's often not oppositional/challenge-oriented.

the boundaries are porous. So you could, for instance, RP your Talisman piece if it happens to be, say, the Warrior of Chaos. Talisman is the old Games Workshop boardgame and is clearly set in the Warhammer world. I'd say it's not an RPG but it clearly has some RPG inspired elements.
I agree that boundaries can be porous - earlier this year my group played a session of A Penny For My Thoughts which is probably best classified as a structured story-telling game. At certain points I was narrating what I (as my character) did in a way that was very similar to a RPG; but the game has no action resolution system. Rather, it has a system for forcing the player to choose between alternate narrations at certain key points.

I've played Talisman back in the day, and these days play a similar old Avalon Hill game called Mystic Wood with my kids (a much better game than Talisman in my view!). These have the "avatar" dimension of a RPG, and they have elements of action resolution, but you can't play the fiction. (Which is to say that the "moves" a player can make are pretty tightly defined.) I think that is the most fundamental way in which they differ from RPGs.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Hussar

Legend
/snip

You know there's a US Supreme Court case dealing with this issue (Nix v Hedden)? The short version: there is both a botanical and a folk culinary use of these terms, and tomatoes are fruits in the botanical sense but vegetables in the culinary sense, as they are served as part of the "principal part of the repast", not as dessert.
Funnily enough, when I lived in Korea, it was quite common to put cherry tomatoes on a parfait. ugh.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
My players beg to differ on that one - they play their Milestones to the hilt to earn XP and improve their PCs (probably around 5 to 10 XP per session, for pretty steady improvement - the system suggests after a story arc "resetting" the PCs and that is definitely good advice as it doesn't take too long for the PCs to power up quite a bit).
This may be interpretation of "improvement". If you play Monopoly, are you "improving" if you gather a lot of cash? Does a change count as "improvement" if it only exists within one instance or arc of play, and is then discarded?

I have played in Magic: the Gathering closed deck tournaments in which the winner of a match got cards from the loser, improving the deck. The deck becomes my avatar, we have improvement. The "cooperation" point is a bit sketchy anyway, as a lot of RPGs have PvP elements. The GMed adventure... is a gladiatorial combat tournament between captive mages, with the referees as the GMs! Voilà! MtG is now a Role Playing Game!
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
I have played in Magic: the Gathering closed deck tournaments in which the winner of a match got cards from the loser, improving the deck. The deck becomes my avatar, we have improvement. The "cooperation" point is a bit sketchy anyway, as a lot of RPGs have PvP elements. The GMed adventure... is a gladiatorial combat tournament between captive mages, with the referees as the GMs! Voilà! MtG is now a Role Playing Game!
That's interesting, actually. Obviously, MtG isn't an RPG. But if you put some kind of narrative framework in place where the players are all powerful planewalking mages, and the resolution mechanic would be actual games of Magic, could you generate something that looked like an RPG?

I think it's difficult but not impossible to do so, and it speaks to an idea I'd float that "fiction with game elements on top" is more RPG-like, and "game with fiction elements on top" is more board game like. I mean, I wouldn't say that either Talisman, Monopoly, or Uno is an RPG, but Talisman is certainly more "RPG-like" than Monopoly, and Monopoly is more "RPG-like" than Uno. (Having a piece, moving it around and buying "property" gives at least the illusion of a narrative.)

If we want to bring up hoary old chestnuts about what constitutes an RPG, let's look at 4e. While I personally view it as a RPG (and a good one), the fact that the combat rules are so detailed and omnipresent, and don't rely on feeding into a fictional state to function is what led to the constant refrain of "It's not an RPG, it's a tactical skirmish game with RPG elements attached." Having strong elements to gameplay that can exist independent of the narrative are going to make a lot of people have trouble declaring something as an RPG, whether that be "playing a game of Magic" or "skirmish combat".
 

pemerton

Legend
If we want to bring up hoary old chestnuts about what constitutes an RPG, let's look at 4e. While I personally view it as a RPG (and a good one), the fact that the combat rules are so detailed and omnipresent, and don't rely on feeding into a fictional state to function is what led to the constant refrain of "It's not an RPG, it's a tactical skirmish game with RPG elements attached."
I know you'll be shocked that I've been moved by your post to reply . . .

I strongly disagree with the claim that 4e's combat rules don't rely on feeding into a fictional state, or at least that they differ from any other version of D&D in this respect.

The core rules - roll to hit, roll damage, manage a hit point total - are no different from any other version of D&D, and none of these systems depend upon the fiction nor yield any fiction (until we get to the final blow). In Vincent Baker's terms, they are all "boxes to boxes". Baker suggests that a successful hit roll generates leftward-pointing arrows (ie generates some fiction - "you hit me!") but that's been very hazy in D&D at least since Gygax's DMG; in 4e this is often less hazy because the conditions inflicted suggest clearer fiction than an abstract "you hit me".

The movement rules in 4e are - in the relationship between fiction and mechanics - no different from 3E. (They are different from AD&D, which doesn't use a mechanical system - real or notional squares - for establishing position, and relies more heavily on unmediated fiction.)

In all versions of D&D, the most significant way in which fiction feeds into combat resolution (ie rightward-pointing arrows) is in the form of terrain and positioning. I'm behind a wall so am harder to hit. I'm under a tree and so have cover from the griffon. Oops! I just stepped over the edge of a cliff and so am falling. I want to melt that ice slick and so I blast it with a firebolt or apply a torch to it. 4e is no different in these respects to any other version of D&D, except that in some cases it uses keywords to facilitate these mechanics-fiction connections (eg if my ability has the fire keyword it's the sort of ability that can be used to melt an ice slick).

I know - from various posts over the years on ENworld - that there are some 4e tables which take the view that a fireball can't melt an ice slick or set a tree alight. And that a tree can't provide cover against a griffon (attacking from above) any different from the cover it may or may not provide against a monkey attacking you from within it. My view is that those tables (i) are ignoring the 4e rules, especially the rules on keywords (in the PHB) and the rules on affecting objects (in the DMG), and (ii) are playing a skirmish game, or at least a skirmish sub-game within a larger RPG chassis. I don't think that 4e would be unique in this respect either - I would expect that such tables may well have played 3E and may well play 5e much the same way. For instance, I've seen it argued on these boards that a fireball spell in 5e can't set fire to a scroll a character is holding - that's an absence of arrows between boxes and clouds!
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
That's interesting, actually. Obviously, MtG isn't an RPG. But if you put some kind of narrative framework in place where the players are all powerful planewalking mages, and the resolution mechanic would be actual games of Magic, could you generate something that looked like an RPG?
Sure, you could use MtG as the resolution system, though it would probably be a long walk for a short drink of water in that case.


I think it's difficult but not impossible to do so, and it speaks to an idea I'd float that "fiction with game elements on top" is more RPG-like, and "game with fiction elements on top" is more board game like. I mean, I wouldn't say that either Talisman, Monopoly, or Uno is an RPG, but Talisman is certainly more "RPG-like" than Monopoly, and Monopoly is more "RPG-like" than Uno. (Having a piece, moving it around and buying "property" gives at least the illusion of a narrative.)
RPG elements show up in a lot of computer games that aren't CRPGs. For example the legendary Deus Ex was one of the first FPS games to have elements of RPG advancement, substantial attention to player agency, and a lot of story with a pretty serious (as opposed to campy) tone, all of which was decidedly unusual at the time. For example, FPS grandbabydaddy Doom had character advancement but really only in the form of better guns. Now you see many games having them. The excellent Tomb Raider reboots (3PS not FPS) have strong RPG elements now, both character skills and gear.


If we want to bring up hoary old chestnuts about what constitutes an RPG, let's look at 4e. While I personally view it as a RPG (and a good one), the fact that the combat rules are so detailed and omnipresent, and don't rely on feeding into a fictional state to function is what led to the constant refrain of "It's not an RPG, it's a tactical skirmish game with RPG elements attached." Having strong elements to gameplay that can exist independent of the narrative are going to make a lot of people have trouble declaring something as an RPG, whether that be "playing a game of Magic" or "skirmish combat".
4E was an example of an RPG that took on lots of attributes of a tactical minis games and CCGs. I don't think it didn't fit the fiction, although it could encourage players away from them if they spent too much time thinking about their options and many of the adventures were written very much in the manner of a minis game. But I recall playing 4E that was definitely more RPG-esque. (Overall I wasn't a fan but acknowledge that 4E had many good ideas.)

All of these are illustrations of why I think we're talking about a family resemblance.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

pemerton

Legend
This may be interpretation of "improvement". If you play Monopoly, are you "improving" if you gather a lot of cash? Does a change count as "improvement" if it only exists within one instance or arc of play, and is then discarded?
Well, my understanding of Monopoly is that gathering a lot of cash is winning/

In MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic it is possible for PCs to improve by earning XP without succeeding in their goals, because a PC's milestones - which trigger XP accrual - are independent of a PC's goals. I think this generates play which is quite similar to comics (or at least the Marvel comics of the 70s through mid-90s, which are the ones I know well) in which character development and transformation arcs are somewhat independent of the minutiae of the plots they are engaged in, which to some extent provide a backdrop to that development. Eg Wolverine can demonstrate trouble with his temper whether he is being captures by the Brood or beating up on Hellfire Club thugs.

I find this aspect of the system an interesting change from 4e - in which the system generates a more robust tendency towards PC success - and Burning Wheel, which is much more intense and interweaves PC goals and concerns much more tightly into the details, and even the minutiae, of the external fictional situation.

Anyway, is this improvement? At my table it is - the players contrast Cortex+ Heroic, which has fairly significant PC improvement, with Classic Traveller which has little or none.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
I strongly disagree with the claim that 4e's combat rules don't rely on feeding into a fictional state, or at least that they differ from any other version of D&D in this respect.

The core rules - roll to hit, roll damage, manage a hit point total - are no different from any other version of D&D, and none of these systems depend upon the fiction nor yield any fiction (until we get to the final blow). In Vincent Baker's terms, they are all "boxes to boxes". Baker suggests that a successful hit roll generates leftward-pointing arrows (ie generates some fiction - "you hit me!") but that's been very hazy in D&D at least since Gygax's DMG; in 4e this is often less hazy because the conditions inflicted suggest clearer fiction than an abstract "you hit me".
Sure. I think it's an aspect of most of the D&D family that I'm familiar with (I haven't played enough 1e or Basic to speak with any kind of expertise), 4e just stripped off enough of the illusion of simulation to put it into a RPG "uncanny valley" of sorts.

The games where I've seen a fair amount of people say "It's not REALLY an RPG" are the ones I feel could provide examples that help clarify some of the delineations the OP is considering; 4e, sadly, falls into that category despite my disagreement.

RPG elements show up in a lot of computer games that aren't CRPGs. For example the legendary Deus Ex was one of the first FPS games to have elements of RPG advancement, substantial attention to player agency, and a lot of story with a pretty serious (as opposed to campy) tone, all of which was decidedly unusual at the time. For example, FPS grandbabydaddy Doom had character advancement but really only in the form of better guns. Now you see many games having them. The excellent Tomb Raider reboots (3PS not FPS) have strong RPG elements now, both character skills and gear.
Sure. It's hard to find a AAA game these days that doesn't have RPG elements. Heck, sports games have RPG elements now.


4E was an example of an RPG that took on lots of attributes of a tactical minis games and CCGs. I don't think it didn't fit the fiction, although it could encourage players away from them if they spent too much time thinking about their options and many of the adventures were written very much in the manner of a minis game. But I recall playing 4E that was definitely more RPG-esque. (Overall I wasn't a fan but acknowledge that 4E had many good ideas.)

All of these are illustrations of why I think we're talking about a family resemblance.
Yea, I definitely agree with you on the family resemblance aspect. It's why I'm curious about some of the systems that have a tendency to be called out as "3rd cousins twice removed" of the RPG family. :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Well, my understanding of Monopoly is that gathering a lot of cash is winning
But, it is *also* the resource you spend to make things happen in the game. A Monopoly dollar is a victory point, and a resource you spend to hopefully win more victory points.

Anyway, is this improvement? At my table it is - the players contrast Cortex+ Heroic, which has fairly significant PC improvement, with Classic Traveller which has little or none.
Set aside your personal table for a moment, because we aren't talkign about you, but about games in general. In the game as written the basic intent is that you pick up a pre-generated character and play through an Event. The next time you played, you pick up a different character, and play a different Event, and any improvement you made in the first Event is not relevant to the second.

So, I ask again - does it count as improvement if it only lasts for one instance or short arc of play?
 

pemerton

Legend
Sure. I think it's an aspect of most of the D&D family that I'm familiar with (I haven't played enough 1e or Basic to speak with any kind of expertise), 4e just stripped off enough of the illusion of simulation to put it into a RPG "uncanny valley" of sorts.

The games where I've seen a fair amount of people say "It's not REALLY an RPG" are the ones I feel could provide examples that help clarify some of the delineations the OP is considering
Well now we're in the interesting territory!

In RQ, being hit (in the mechanical sense) isn't an illusion of simulation. That mechanical outcome correlates to a rather specific outcome in the fiction (we know where you were hit, and have a pretty good sense of how badly you were hurt, whether your were maimed, etc). Likewise in Burning Wheel, Rolemaster most of the time, etc.

In MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, which in mechanical terms is a very contrasting system to those one, there is no illusion of simulation either. If you are adversely affected then we know how (Physical stress, Mental stress, Emotional stress, or a descriptive Complication) and we know, roughly, how badly (d4 - hardly at all, d12 - almost succumbed, greater than d12 and you're out of the action).

MHRP/Cortex+ won't generate as many rightwards arrows on its own, however. In RQ, BW or RM if your arm is maimed then that bit of fiction excludes action declarations like "I hack away at them with my two-handed sword!" Whereas in MHRP/Cortex+ an opponent can put a stress or complication die into their pool (ie my penalties are your buffs) but that can play as purely boxes-to-boxes until the opponent actually uses that pool to generate some new fiction. This is part of what makes MHRP/Cortex+ far less gritty than a system like RQ, BW or RM.

When we get to the D&D family of games, there are generally no gritty leftward or rightward arrows in combat (unless we turn to magic). Nor are their descriptors that can be leveraged in the MHRP/Cortex+ style. There's just positioning and hp ablation. This is why I find the idea that 4e "tore away" some veil of simulation so hard to make sense of. To me, it actually increase the number of leftward arrows because it has such a wide range of condition infliction - so eg when the fighter with his polarm does Come and Get It we don't just know that he's attacking 4 gnolss, but that he's wrongfooting them with his polearm. That's more fiction than you get with AD&D.

On it's own that fiction won't generate rightward arrows - in that respect it's a bit like MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic. But anyone playing it as purely boxes-to-boxes is (to my mind) not exploiting the system to its full. (Eg p 42 clearly depends upon rightwards arrows.)

It seems that the "illusion of simulation" may not have been much more than my mechanics use feet rather than square as a unit of measurement or my mechanics for determining how hard something is to hit include the phrase "natural armour bonus". But that's not rightwards arrows. We don't have some mechanics-independent sense of how tough a red dragon's skin is, which then lets us read off a natural armour bonus (this contrasts with RM, RQ and BW, in which the opposite is true).

For my money, fiction in RPGs isn't about labels. It's about the actual processes that we use to play the game and resolve declared actions.
 

pemerton

Legend
Set aside your personal table for a moment, because we aren't talkign about you, but about games in general. In the game as written the basic intent is that you pick up a pre-generated character and play through an Event. The next time you played, you pick up a different character, and play a different Event, and any improvement you made in the first Event is not relevant to the second.

So, I ask again - does it count as improvement if it only lasts for one instance or short arc of play?
An "event" might last for half-a-dozen sessions or more. If my PC is getting more effective over that time (in virtue of spending the XP I accrue to improve my numbers, eliminate disadvantages, etc) then I count that as improvement. I've got not reason to think that my intuitions or my table's perceptions are particulary at odds with the norm here.

From the point of view of design, you could also see this as a way of reconciling the defeault use of pre-gens with a degree of player choice in respect of PC build. One of the first things my players like to do is to spend XP to adjust their affiliations to their taste and/or what they see as the emerging patterns of play.

Do you disagree? When you play MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, do your players not set about earning XP and spending it?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Sure. I think it's an aspect of most of the D&D family that I'm familiar with (I haven't played enough 1e or Basic to speak with any kind of expertise), 4e just stripped off enough of the illusion of simulation to put it into a RPG "uncanny valley" of sorts.
I've used the term "uncanny valley" for this before, too. It really lines up with the idea that a genre is a family resemblance, uncanny being when something is in between families, like Planet of the Apes apes, who are too human to be apes and too ape to be human.


The games where I've seen a fair amount of people say "It's not REALLY an RPG" are the ones I feel could provide examples that help clarify some of the delineations the OP is considering; 4e, sadly, falls into that category despite my disagreement.
4E was an RPG but it fell into the "uncanny valley" by virtue of putting so much detail in terms of novel mechanics, setting shifts, etc. As I have said before, there were a lot of good ideas in 4E despite me not liking it that much overall (playing was OK; I hated DMing it).


Yea, I definitely agree with you on the family resemblance aspect. It's why I'm curious about some of the systems that have a tendency to be called out as "3rd cousins twice removed" of the RPG family. :)
Well I think the general mechanism is that when you end up with a game that's "neither fish nor fowl" people don't quite know what to make of it.

4E was a good example of this. There were just a ton of changes from prior editions, and many of the changes were in the direction of pushing players towards miniatures and maps and the power cards just pushed people towards the obvious conclusion of minis game/CCG influences. I noticed longtime players thinking this way and becoming more like they were playing that kind of game, being much more focused on their characters enumerated powers. The original 4E adventure design philosophy was also very much in the minis game mode, too.Now if it had been a totally new game without the "family history" of being D&D people might have said "oh, interesting minis game and CCG elements... OK". Of course it wouldn't have sold super well because basically no other game but D&D really sells, but there it is. I think there were similar issues with shift between old World of Darkness and new World of Darkness, but the fact that World of Darkness players weren't nearly as vehement about mechanics and nWoD didn't make for a notable mechanical shift. The fact that D&D tends to be the "only game in town" for a lot of people changes its status, too.

Again, this doesn't mean it's a bad game! An analogy might be having fine dining experience at a place that's supposed to be a bar and grill.
 

pemerton

Legend
4E was a good example of this. There were just a ton of changes from prior editions, and many of the changes were in the direction of pushing players towards miniatures and maps and the power cards just pushed people towards the obvious conclusion of minis game/CCG influences. I noticed longtime players thinking this way and becoming more like they were playing that kind of game, being much more focused on their characters enumerated powers.
I believe spell cards were published for AD&D. And for as long as I can remember, players of spell casters in RPGs would address situations by reviewing the spells they had available.

This relates to my post in reply to [MENTION=205]TwoSix[/MENTION]: the idea that the player of the AD&D caster is engaging the fiction when reviewing a spell list (because in the fiction the PC has memorised spells) while the 4e player is only engaging the mechanics (because in the fiction the PC doesn't have all these rationed powers) rests on a very thin/veneer idea of the fiction. It's not actually engaging and changing the shared fiction.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I believe spell cards were published for AD&D.
But not in such a core and central way.

And for as long as I can remember, players of spell casters in RPGs would address situations by reviewing the spells they had available.
Indeed they would, but the difference is that 4E made everybody operate in that fashion and do so essentially every round.

This relates to my post in reply to @TwoSix: the idea that the player of the AD&D caster is engaging the fiction when reviewing a spell list (because in the fiction the PC has memorised spells) while the 4e player is only engaging the mechanics (because in the fiction the PC doesn't have all these rationed powers) rests on a very thin/veneer idea of the fiction. It's not actually engaging and changing the shared fiction.
Yes, absolutely, but why does, say, the fighter think "oh, I can only do 'Come and Get It'" once per day?

Vancian style casting always was one of the sore points that people had in Ye Olden Dayes of D&D. Folks constantly changed that and fiddled with the system. Now I get that 4E Daily powers aren't exactly the same thing if you want to argue that point, but they're very much in the general idiom of Vancian spells. 4E, by making a common framework for all characters, dramatically emphasized this. From a game mechanical/game balance standpoint it may have worked well, but I recall many players saying, essentially, "I'd really rather be able to just roll to attack and not have to worry about all these powers." A friend of mine is a good example---he's a great player in many ways, but he really just hates the level of character building and tactical play that was necessary to get much out of a 4E character. Yet 4E, especially the early version, made everybody do that, certainly assuming they wanted to be effective.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

pemerton

Legend
But not in such a core and central way.
Power cards weren't core to 4e either. An AD&D caster can use a written list of spells rather than spell cards. A 4e player can use a written PC sheet rather than power cards. (My table didn't use power cards after the first session or two, when it became clear that they were annoying and inefficient compared to a more traditional PC sheet.)

I recall many players saying, essentially, "I'd really rather be able to just roll to attack and not have to worry about all these powers."
Sure. But that doesn't bear at all upon this "uncanny valley" idea about the relationship between fiction and mechanics. Presumably that player didn't enjoy playing mid-to-high level AD&D casters, or if he did he played fairly poorly or relied on others to tell him what spells to cast.
 

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top