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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

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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.)
One could certainly not use them, but they were very much the default assumption, just like the use of minis and a gridded map were.


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.
I didn't know him in the pre-4E days, so I can't say. He plays a 5E cleric fine, though it took him a while to get in the swing of how casting worked so you're probably right.

The reason it bears on the fiction and the mechanics is that many prior D&D characters totally didn't work as pseudo-Vancian casters before. Only casters did and pseudo-Vancian casting always worked poorly with fiction (except in Vance). Read how in, say, Dragonlance, Raistlin is described as being fatigued by casting, but spell casting does no such thing in actual D&D rules.

In 4E, however, everybody had the same structure of Daily/Encounter/At Will, which was very jarring for a lot of players, my friend being a good example. In prior editions of D&D, if you didn't want to play a character that didn't function like a caster, there were numerous choices. In 4E everybody functioned in a similar manner. This was good for game balance but problematic for many in other ways and I think it was often jarring for the fiction, hence my "Why can I only do 'Come and Get It' once a day?"

Cooldown on discrete powers works well mechanically, but it's weird to a lot of people. Folks might rationalize it away for casters but when it gets applied to everyone it starts to become a problem, even if, like I said, from a game mechanical standpoint it works well. Other folks gakked at the map. I personally like and continue to use 4E's square counting rule, but plenty of times I saw people just freak out at how non-intuitive Chebyshev norm is due to diagonals being as long as verticals or horizontals. They would cope on a 2D map and then lose their minds when figuring out vertical distances even though it's all the same. Yet other folks gakked at other changes to the fiction: The alignment system, the world, etc.

The reason I use the "uncanny valley" term is that it's fairly rare one can point to exactly one thing that is definitive when something drifts into the uncanny valley. It's a cumulation of many small things any one of which wouldn't be that big of a deal. Many of the changes could even be things that are acclaimed! So whatever will be one person's last straw will often not be someone else's. New Coke is a potentially illustrative experience. Coke executives had noticed that Diet Coke sales had gotten strong and their market share had slipped next to Pepsi. "New Coke" was the diet formula with sugar instead of artificial sweetener, more or less. They did a bunch of blind taste testing and found that the "new" formula tested better. Of course, all research methods books tell you testing should be blind! However, consumption turns out not to be, especially when nostalgia is a big part of your brand identity. I wonder if 4E was D&D's New Coke?
 

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Hussar

Legend
But not in such a core and central way.



Indeed they would, but the difference is that 4E made everybody operate in that fashion and do so essentially every round.



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.
I think you have a very good point about the Uncanny Valley concept, but, I think you might be going about it a bit wrong. Mechanically 4e and 5e share a lot. Like tons. The same criticism, "Why can my fighter only do Come and Get It once per day" applies just as much to 5e. Why can my Battlemaster only do Commander's Strike once because I've Parried three times? It's the same thing.

Where it's different though is how it is presented. 4e had a formatting and writing style that was very, very different from earlier editions. Even though mechanically, 4e and 5e are not too far apart, the writing style of 5e makes it look like earlier editions and thus avoided the Uncanny Valley response that so many people had.

I mean, if you wrote a 4e character sheet the same way you write a 5e one, they'd be very, very close. Very little difference. But, the style of 4e made so much "in your face" that people couldn't get past it.

It's not so much the mechanics themselves that caused the Uncanny Valley reaction but rather how they were presented.
 

Jhaelen

First Post
I don't think there's much of a point in trying to go beyond the basic definition of an RPG. As the article says in the introduction, an RPG is a game involving roleplaying. And that's really all that's required. Adding any additional requirement is going to result in one or several RPGs that clearly _are_ RPGs to be excluded.

Imho, the most important aspect is the 'roleplaying', though. I don't agree that there are many video games that deserve the name. Sure, the player is often represented by some kind of avatar, but that doesn't turn it into a roleplaying game. 'Doom' doesn't become a roleplaying game just because I'm represented by some kind of generic space marine. There must be some way to make meaningful decisions from the viewpoint of an individual space marine. There must be some basis for roleplaying: personality traits, a history and motivations.
Unfortunately, even most of the video games that are categorized as CRPGs fail on that account, especially the ones where you control a whole party. The adventure game genre actually often does a much better job in that regard.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I think you have a very good point about the Uncanny Valley concept, but, I think you might be going about it a bit wrong. Mechanically 4e and 5e share a lot. Like tons. The same criticism, "Why can my fighter only do Come and Get It once per day" applies just as much to 5e. Why can my Battlemaster only do Commander's Strike once because I've Parried three times? It's the same thing.

Where it's different though is how it is presented. 4e had a formatting and writing style that was very, very different from earlier editions. Even though mechanically, 4e and 5e are not too far apart, the writing style of 5e makes it look like earlier editions and thus avoided the Uncanny Valley response that so many people had.
Very good point. 4E was totally in your face about its differences with the past, which carries for many an implied "you were doing it wrong, here's how you're supposed to do it" judgment. Of course not everyone will perceive it that way but enough did to make Pathfinder viable.

I do think there are differences of note, though. In addition, 4E didn't present real options of characters that didn't work that way (at least until much later). However, 5E had notable examples, such as the Thief Rogue and Champion Fighter which don't function in that fashion and, of course, it's just a lot less in your face. The Basic game only has notable Vancian aspects to the Wizard and Cleric.
 

Hussar

Legend
But, even the rogue has a shopping list of abilities that are "encounter" (Ok, short rest refresh) based. And many abilities with pretty much no actual in game explanation. I mean, why can my rogue run significantly faster than any other character? After all, I get a bonus action move if I want. Other than maybe a high level monk or barbarian, no other class can come close to beating a rogue in a foot race.

Fighters as well come built in with Short Rest powers - second wind, action surge. And, at higher levels, non magical regeneration. So much for the whole HP=wounds thing. :D

Like I said, most of the mechanical arguements that you can make about 4e equally apply to 5e. It's why I find it so ironically funny to watch people who repeatedly disliked 4e suddenly sing praises about 5e. 4e's issue wasn't mechanics. If it was, then 5e wouldn't be half as popular as it is. No, the issue was how it was presented.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
But, even the rogue has a shopping list of abilities that are "encounter" (Ok, short rest refresh) based. <...> Like I said, most of the mechanical arguements that you can make about 4e equally apply to 5e. It's why I find it so ironically funny to watch people who repeatedly disliked 4e suddenly sing praises about 5e. 4e's issue wasn't mechanics. If it was, then 5e wouldn't be half as popular as it is. No, the issue was how it was presented.
I agree a lot of it with 4E was the in your face aspect, but to me the fairly core abilities of several classes really are essentially at will. The main loop of a Champion is beating on things. Yes, Second Wind, Action Surge, and a few others are definitely more like old 4E abilities, but it's not the whole superstructure. I'm not saying 5E is a simulationist game---it certainly isn't.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
The reason it bears on the fiction and the mechanics is that many prior D&D characters totally didn't work as pseudo-Vancian casters before. Only casters did and pseudo-Vancian casting always worked poorly with fiction (except in Vance). Read how in, say, Dragonlance, Raistlin is described as being fatigued by casting, but spell casting does no such thing in actual D&D rules.
I recall reading that the game which the novels were grounded in wasn't D&D/AD&D... the D&D modules were ported from the other game.
 

Hussar

Legend
I recall reading that the game which the novels were grounded in wasn't D&D/AD&D... the D&D modules were ported from the other game.
Now that's a new one. Never heard that before. Not sure what other game it would be grounded on considering they were playing in the late 70's.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Now that's a new one. Never heard that before. Not sure what other game it would be grounded on considering they were playing in the late 70's.
Some of the classic modules are clearly directly inspired by novels or stories. The most notable example of this is G1: Steading of the Hill Giant King, which is very clearly based on the first de Camp and Pratt Incompleat Enchanter novel.

The claim though (responding to my post about Raistlin) was that Dragonlance was originally played in a different game, not D&D. At least from the Wikipedia entry, Dragonlance was conceived by Tracy and Laura Hickman on their way to Lake Geneva for a job interview in 1982. I would not be surprised if the "Raistlin being tired when he got low on spells" trope was RP fluff that whoever played Raistlin in the original games put on combined with the fact that Raistlin's Con was fairly low. Certainly it's the kind of thing that Tolkien had had Gandalf say in LotR so it makes sense that it was a way to RP. But it's nowhere in the game itself.
 

Hussar

Legend
Some of the classic modules are clearly directly inspired by novels or stories. The most notable example of this is G1: Steading of the Hill Giant King, which is very clearly based on the first de Camp and Pratt Incompleat Enchanter novel.

The claim though (responding to my post about Raistlin) was that Dragonlance was originally played in a different game, not D&D. At least from the Wikipedia entry, Dragonlance was conceived by Tracy and Laura Hickman on their way to Lake Geneva for a job interview in 1982. I would not be surprised if the "Raistlin being tired when he got low on spells" trope was RP fluff that whoever played Raistlin in the original games put on combined with the fact that Raistlin's Con was fairly low. Certainly it's the kind of thing that Tolkien had had Gandalf say in LotR so it makes sense that it was a way to RP. But it's nowhere in the game itself.
AFAIK, you have this backward. They played the adventures then wrote the story. The tropes, like wizards getting tired, were a way to try to get around the derivative nature of Vancian casting. Funnily enough, in Raistlin's D&D stats, his Con was average. The whole "Sick Raistlin" thing was from how the player played the character. As is usually the case, the player basically ignored the character sheet. :D
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
AFAIK, you have this backward. They played the adventures then wrote the story. The tropes, like wizards getting tired, were a way to try to get around the derivative nature of Vancian casting. Funnily enough, in Raistlin's D&D stats, his Con was average. The whole "Sick Raistlin" thing was from how the player played the character. As is usually the case, the player basically ignored the character sheet. :D
I haven't seen Raistlin's stats in a long time. That's pretty amusing, though. I don't think I had it backwards, but may have said it in a confusing way. Dragonlance started as a D&D setting and they added the stories. Vancian casting really doesn't describe well in fiction. I've read Vance and mages don't actually cast all that many spells so it's hard to tell how it affects them. It's been a while since I read it, though, so I con'd recall how consistent Vance is.
 

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