RPGs and definitions

July 31, 2010

I got a chance to listen to the Geek Nights Podcast interview of Luke Crane & Jared Sorensen it’s a fun listen- it’s good to hear folks just talking about games and play in general.

What is an rpg?

So, at one point, it comes to that classic bugaboo of “What is and isn’t an RPG?”, and Luke and Jared point to the idea that in an rpg, “You make mechanically suboptimal decisions” (John Wick has also said the same thing).

I think this is close, but not quite right on. Making suboptimal choices is a clear example of something that happens in rpgs that doesn’t happen in other games, though, it misses a wide swath of games and gameplay.

For example, what about the old school D&D game where someone parleys with the evil Elves because it’s the optimal strategy? Would you say they’re not roleplaying?

A better definition would be this:

Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences choices and outcomes of play.

That fiction might force you to do the suboptimal thing (“We are not robbing the dead! We bury them with honor!”), but it also affects optimal things as well (“No, they’re actually right, we’re trespassing on their territory. Let’s see if we can perform a deed or task for them in exchange for the right to pass through- after all, we’re outnumbered 20 to 1.”)

When you play chess, it really doesn’t matter that you have knights running down bishops, or that the Queen is threatening another King – there’s no specific need for fiction, you can play the whole game as an abstracted tactical exercise.

Even games that have a lot of interesting color, like wargames or recent boardgames, the fictional stuff doesn’t direct your choices. The best options based on where the pieces are, scores of the units, cards in your hand, all of that is all you need to interact with to make a choice.

In roleplaying games, the things that aren’t numbered, aren’t rated, might just be the most important things to pay attention to.

“That’s not a roleplaying game!”

Aside from the usual strawmen arguments this gets used in, from throwing it at games that are different than what folks are used to, to using it when the rules are actually expected to be followed, there is a small subset of folks who are basically saying, “I don’t know how to engage with the fiction in this game”.

(Vincent’s old post on Cues and Fiction is worth reading if you haven’t yet.)

For that group, when they encounter a game where this is a problem, they’re having a tough time seeing how to take fictional choices and carry it over to the mechanical aspects, and then take what the system and Cues deliver and put it back in the fiction.

This may or may not have anything to do with what the game has design-wise, in actuality, and more to do with gamer culture, but it’s a worthwhile thing to consider if you’re introducing new games and/or designing games.

Mostly, it comes down to clear examples pointing to exactly how you carry the fiction to mechanical choices (which, generally isn’t so well done in a lot of games) and then lots of repetition. There’ll always be some amount of folks with really poor reading skills, but this seems to be the best way so far to helping people familiarize with the idea.

I see it a lot with crunchy games like Burning Wheel or D&D 4E, where, folks see the rules, but fail to see how and where fiction makes an impact in the rules (for Burning Wheel, it’s embedded in to skills, Helping Dice, FORKs, and Advantage Dice, for D&D4E, it’s all in Skill Challenges, Quests, and pg. 42 on the DMG).

I suspect in both of these cases it has to do with the fact that the major rules for carrying fiction to mechanics in these games has a few pages compared to a few hundred pages of other rules. The monkey-brain easily mistakes quantity for importance.

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