What is a roleplaying game?!

I probably should have written about this decades ago, but I didn’t. If I had written it when I first thought of it, it would have been in a notebook. If I had later transcribed it when it seemed more important than it does now, that would probably have been as a WordPerfect document for my MS-DOS machine or worse, PFS Write. In the intervening years a lot has been said on the topic, and given my reach and interests, it likely would not have gone anywhere or accomplished anything of value. I don’t care about being an originator or being first. I do care about seeing clearly and being a part of sharing useful perspectives and information. Why am I writing it now? For the most part, it feels like it is time to have my thoughts out of my head in a place where I can see them and share them more easily. With that in mind, let’s begin.

This post is also available in a podcast episode version: HERE

If there is a single part of a roleplaying game text that I hesitate to read, it is the section which sometimes tries to explain, or sometimes just copies what someone else wrote in another game to explain, the nature of an RPG. That I have grown cautious about expecting too much from such sections, does not mean that I dislike the question. Far from it! I think that this is a question that any roleplayer should ask themselves if it is one that they can clearly explain the answer to.

A lot of these sections in game books, however, seem to obfuscate that their composition comes from surface observation and relies on brevity and a call to action.

All you need is…. and you can be a part of… with your friends!

I came to the answer that I find satisfying a long time ago. This no doubt has something to with having started long enough ago that games were being made with a different set of expectations, and Computer RPGs were not yet upon us – though they soon would be. In contrast, sometimes, with our eyes on what is different, we can come to see details that we might miss or never really be exposed to otherwise.

My answer to the question of what an RPG is strips things back as far as I can take them, distilling the answer down to what I think are its basic components, reducing the notion to the bare minimum of qualities a game needs to even be considered an RPG, and from the combination and recombination of which we might draw a connection to any RPG we might find. More recent explanations I have been encountering in the last 20 years or so do not seem to do that. One game or type of game or another seems to get left out. That gives me some sense that I might be on a good path toward a place I want to go.

When I came across Ron Edwards’ Big Model I felt a sense of connection, like what I was seeing was related to or was a part of what he was seeing. I have said before that I believe Ron has already thought and written about every RPG idea I will ever have. It might not be true, and in this particular area it does not seem to be true, but despite that, it feels true. Perception defines reality, after all. The Big Model shows us everything that goes into the play of an RPG, including a lot of what makes an RPG an RPG, but it does not, I believe, set out to answer what an RPG is. It sets out to address what we do, and helps us to discuss what that means.

I felt a weaker connection to what I originally misconstrued as the work of the Forge, then later misconstrued to be the work of John Kim, and only recently have learned was primarily the work of Mary Kuhner. I had come to similar conclusions as espoused in Kuhner’s Threefold Theory on my own, and it was reaffirming to see strangers removed from me in both space and time seeing the same things in the same way. GDS and its offshoot GNS were interesting, and I think useful, but not really an answer to a ‘What is…?’ question. These are more about whys and hows. That makes them important, but not as much in answering the question at hand in this post.

I keep tabs on ideas and theories developed through actual play, interview, and debate, and mature enough to have dramatic names and a mix of informed and uninformed adherents. Of these, I have found the most in common with distillations of the ideas put forward in the Meilahti model, but again – not complete agreement and for a couple of reasons. I find that the specific focus on the game roles of the players is a problem when defining *at a basic level* what an RPG is, and I find that a focus on diegesis is another point at which that model and mine diverge.

In fact, this focus seems to be an idea that is growing and we are far enough along in the track of RPG development now that well-grounded players in the hobby can be too young to have even heard of games which were constructed without it.

When we look at the past with modern eyes, what do we miss because the grit of our time is obscuring our vision?

I was also quite taken with Vincent Baker’s juicy statement that RPGs are a conversation, but where that answer seems to go off into how system creatively and interestingly helps make the conversation into a particular game experience, I found myself feeling like we had just driven past a turn-off that was beckoning to me. I am still not entirely sure about that one, but in interaction with people online, people I note who are neither Meguey nor Vincent Baker, but who offer up the incomplete statement that RPGs are a conversation in that way that posers do to end conversation…? Yeah – my response is to simply ask: About what? The silence is deafening or worse, we get dragged back to diegesis but with no one knowing that word.

You are talking a lot, but saying nothing…

So, what is my take on the answer? For me, the essence of things is decision-making. I like to phrase it this way: RPGs are about decisions. I do not like to define whose decisions per se, but I do like to go a bit further by offering support for the statement:

An RPG requires:

  • 1 or more people
  • a context for making decisions
    • things like a setting and/or a situation, a PoV
  • a method of arbitration (ie: the system)

“If an RPG is a conversation, then ultimately, it is a conversation about decisions – made, unmade, and about to be made.”    

That conversation is one that occurs in the social context created for it – the ‘in-game’ space – and spills over into the social space within which the ‘in-game’ space is created and maintained – the ‘out-of-game’ space. It can last for mere moments, such as over a quick coffee while discussing a future or past session of play, or over dice that are still settling into stillness. It can last for hours, such as when at a session of play. It may or may not include people peripheral to the play of the game, such as an observer who adds to the audience without being a participant.

The fun of that conversation is shaped and colored by the context given to it for decision-making (ie a fantasy quest, a noir investigation, a high-action space opera, an inevitable break-up, a ghost unaware that it is one, etc) and by the interaction of its players with that context (solo play) and with each other or both (group play) as both Participant and Audience simultaneously. 

An RPG is a game in which fun is had by being able to frame and commit to decisions of various types alone or with other people.

This very simple definition lets us recognize the commonalities between games like Call of Cthulhu and Fiasco, between a generic rules set and a specific one, between a game for solo play and one for a group. RPGs are about making decisions.

These decisions might be about things like what a character does, or differently, what you would do as the character if you were in their shoes, or differently still, about what are going to do. They might be about small things like opening a door or ending an argument. They might be about things of importance, but again small scale, like to kill or not kill. All of these small, personal scale, character level decisions matter, and for some games, these might be all that the conversation that carries an RPG as its medium of transmission is about. The intention for play, and all the conversation about play, might never touch on, nor need to touch on anything other than this type of decision: ‘What are you going to do?’

These days, RPGs are seen as a way to be a part of a story.

This is not required.

They might go further than that in a direction away from the character level and on toward or beyond a more authorial view on decision-making. The decisions might instead be made on a larger scale and about elements of story like where and when to insert a new character, or a note of sadness, or a cutscene to other times and places. They might, in other words, be all about ‘the story’. They might. This is not required.

Critics might point out that it might leave so much room that we might include games like Monopoly and its widespread reports of people roleplaying as the shoe or the iron. I invite the critics to note that the people claim to be roleplaying and are deriving some fun from doing so, either as a solo expression of play within the greater context of that game, or as a shared one including specific shoe-related actions, characterizations, and dialogue. Is Monopoly an RPG? Well… do you play it like one?

Ok… but why should I care?

I am not sure that you should. I hope that you will, but in the day-to-day play, it might not come up all that often in a way that will be important. I like to focus on the practical and for me an understanding of how things work (theory) goes hand in hand in an eternal loop with making things work (practice), so that implementation improves to the benefit of all participants. We play, we have successes and failures, we assess our play, we make adjustments and refinements, and that cycle continues without stopping.

If I can see that an RPG is ultimately about making decisions, then what will that mean when I find that in practice a group is being denied the sort of opportunities to make the types of decisions that they want? Won’t that mismatch of intentions lead me to help that group make the adjustments that they need in order to have more fun?

This sort of idea is useful on the large and general scale, and usually less useful on a more granular scale like how a badly-written rule on page 42 can be interpreted, or what to do about Todd who keeps promising to show up, but always flakes on the game.

It is still a useful thing to consider, though – especially when you make it personal.

If an RPG is an opportunity to make decisions, what RPGs do you choose to play and what do you do when you play them?

NB: I do not care one way or another if people think that Monopoly can be construed as an RPG or not. I will not be surprised if that is the big takeaway from this post, though.

8 Responses to “What is a roleplaying game?!”
  1. Well, that’s a lot to chew on. No easy response. I want to acknowledge the heady thought process involved on your part. Well crafted… but before I agree or disagree, I’m going to have to live with it a bit.

  2. Batjutsu says:

    Reblogged this on Batjutsu.

  3. Travis says:

    Great post. I have very similar thoughts about RPG’s. I particularly liked the emphasis you placed on practicality. Theory is nice but if it doesn’t lead to “better” games then I don’t have much use for it. I wrote a post about my definition of an RPG’s a while back. It matches up fairly well with yours which is nice to know that other people are having similar thoughts.
    The TL:DR version is… “A role playing game is a game where there are player controlled characters, in a situation, making choices that have consequences/outcomes following from the choices the players make.”
    You can read the post if you are interested.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Anthony Boyd, whom you assuredly know better as Runeslinger, has taken to his Casting Shadows blog to address the question to which I now turn my attention, “What is a Roleplaying Game?“ […]

  2. […] question is ‘what IS the product of play?’ For me, as has been noted most recently here, an RPG is a game based on making decisions. To be more specific, it is often a multiplayer game […]

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