The Usual Suspects

Something that occurred to me just this year: having an encyclopedic knowledge of RPGs hasn’t actually made me happier. In fact it’s probably made me less happy participating in my hobby, because I don’t share the same assumptions as the players with whom I spend most of my time. It’s given me all the tools I need to understand my own unhappiness, though.

Maybe it would be different if I were playing largely online. A diffuse body of players themselves will more often cross-pollinate ideas, particularly if they’re all drawn together by the idea of cross-pollination. But that’s just not the case with the folks who show up at your home on the regular.

The same thing happens a lot when I’m running some weird indie shit at a Games on Demand-style space at a larger mainstream convention. The indie weirdos are probably down for whatever you throw on the table. But you’ve also got the not-indie folks, the trad crowd whose tickets are actually making our indie corner possible. In that case, I know the common assumptions – the traditions that comprise “trad” play – I’ll face, and build those into my pitch and explanation.

Rediscovering your own beginner’s mind is the postgraduate work of roleplaying.

Beginners are so much easier to work with. And it’s so hard to be a beginner, again and again.

Category and Rhetoric

The problem I think comes down to players either making category errors or rhetorical stands.

Rhetoric shouldn’t come as a surprise in a hobby rife with tribalism: all RPGs are D&D hacks is the umbrella claim. Stop me if you’ve already heard these bangers:

  • You can’t trust the GM
  • The GM is God
  • The point of play is to make your character stronger
  • All games ape other media
  • Throw away any rule you want
Ehh…it’s all basically folk dances, right?

More often, though, a player’s operating assumptions aren’t rhetorical. They come from a profoundly different understanding of what the activity “is.” For me, a former composition major, roleplaying is music: there’s a huge range of styles, orchestrations, methods, and structures filtered through history and venues. For others, all roleplaying is waltz music: jam that melody into a ¾ time signature whether it fits or not, play it at a dance pace no matter what, one chord per bar no matter what, and treat every single piece of music as ultimately derivative of folk dances.

The (Eight) Usual Suspects

These are the eight topics I find demand specificity at tables with experienced players, because they (experienced players) come loaded with assumptions from other games. Any one of these could be a complete essay! And maybe they will be. Just let me know if any of them sound interesting enough for another few thousand words.

Intent, conflicts, tasks and moves

Maybe the most common point of confusion I run into is what happens after players touch dice (or some other procedure-with-uncertainty). It’s especially confusing if the player is unclear why they touched the dice in the first place. What’s the cause and what’s the effect? What are the rules even for?

Some games use randomizers to determine success or failure of a specific, tangible task: that’s your straight up task resolution method. Others require players to state their intention before the roll: this is either transparency (if you’re clarifying why you’re doing a task, as you do in Burning Wheel) and/or conflict resolution (if you’re resolving an entire scene and you’ve described what you want out of it, like Dust Devils). Others use randomization to introduce surprise into the fiction, the aspirational — if not frequently unrealized — goal of PbtA style moves.

Why are we rolling again? When are we rolling? What do I stand to gain? What am I risking? Maximize my agency but don’t overwhelm me with options.

The purpose of a roll has the most room for misunderstandings and disagreements, even within genres or traditions of play. Especially within genres or traditions of play. What happens when you state your intent but a move doesn’t hit it? What if you just perform a task but don’t discuss your intent (maybe to leave yourself some wiggle room ex post facto)? What if you expect more granularity and the whole scene ends up resolving with a single roll? And so on.

There’s also the question of when you engage with a game’s procedures. PbtA moves (usually) trigger when something happens in the fiction. FitD actions (usually) trigger because the players want to achieve something. Trad games (usually) instruct the GM to tell the player which skill to roll and (usually) only when what they’re doing has a chance of failing. Lots of (usually) in there, right?

Inputs and outputs are such a fundamental bit of The Transaction and yet there are so many ways of doing both. The curse of being an experienced player is that you’ve probably developed preferences along the way.

Collaborative vs adversarial facilitation

Many games of the current era aspirationally describe themselves as “collaborative,” frequently to imply that those other games are not. But the rules may or may not support actual collaboration. Games with goals, for example, are hard to run collaboratively if the play product is supposed to feel like accomplishment. Does it still feel like winning if everyone agrees that you won? I’ll get into that one more in a future column I’m working on.

Calm down, control freaks.

There was an old Forge bugaboo about authority, broadly referred to as Mother May I. You can probably imagine what this looks like from the player perspective, constantly having to seek approval for your play choices. Lots of indie games were specifically designed to get away from traditional power structures, but it doesn’t mean the players have. Your GM might still act like a Mother, and the players might also treat the GM like a Mother! Things can get real weird when those power structures get reimposed by players because of their assumptions.

Downtime as abstract bookkeeping vs open play

Play phases are a more recent design phenomenon. You see it a lot post-Torchbearer and its Adventure/Camp/Town breakdown, and popularized by Blades in the Dark’s Downtime procedure after every Job. Rather than a constant play-the-day flow of action, the game has formal breaks where stuff happens that’s not about the adventure, or the job, or whatever.

Spend one more Coin on recovering from harm. As a treat.

Sometimes the phases are meant to be pure abstraction, or the players treat it as such: the Fellowship phase of The One Ring, for example, doesn’t really need to be played out. You take a break, jump ahead a few months, and the characters spend that downtime healing, training, and so on. And sometimes the not-adventuring phase is meant to be played out, just without the mechanical weight of the action sequences: the Investigation phase of Voidheart Symphony is my most recent exposure to this.

More often than not, the text doesn’t actually say much about how much “free roleplay” is meant to happen during these phases. Different players and facilitators will treat this in very different ways. No surprise, then, that players may be caught off-guard when they’re asked to dig into their downtime stuff. Or GMs may be caught off-guard when the players bing-bang-boom work through their checklist, eager to jump into the next procedurally dense bit of play.

Structural goals vs embodiment play

This isn’t a great description but let me unpack what I’m getting at.

Band of Blades, Fellowship, and Voidheart Symphony all have explicit goals in mind. Band of Blades’ goal is for the characters to reach Skydagger Keep while racking up the highest possible score. There’s a score! Fellowship characters will ultimately face the Overlord and defeat them. Voidheart Symphony is about facing and defeating a series of big bads who serve the Void, the universe’s visceral urge for toxic individualism. But goal-oriented games use their goals for different reasons: Beating the Game might be one, but pacing might be another.

Compare these to Urban Shadows, Mutant, or Blades in the Dark. “Get rich or die trying” in Blades is a driving motive for your crew, but it’s not really an endgame goal. Finding Eden in Mutant is a goal, but you don’t defeat Eden, you go there and see what happens. Urban Shadows has “storms,” thematically connected PbtA style fronts, that just structure what’s going on in the game’s big picture.

Cool, cool, glad you liked your 7-9.

Players looking to shoehorn goals into embodiment games are gonna have a rough time, just like embodiment players are gonna make the goal players crazy in goal-oriented games.


This basically comes down to two problems: mechanical tricks that look similar but aren’t the same, and common words that mean different things (or different words for functionally identical ideas).

Why is it always clocks, anyway? Who wouldn’t want a slice of this?

Clocks, for example, got popularized in Forged in the Dark games, but the graphical presentation has shown up in other games to confusing effect. The clock in Voidheart Symphony’s Investigation phase is just counting the days since the characters became aware of the next Vassal; they can’t run the clock and achieve a goal by filling it. Those are two different applications of the same graphic design idea.

Assets are all over: sad things on index cards! But they work differently in Fate, Cortex and Dune. Easy to assume Assets all do the same thing but they definitely do not. Assets are an easy place for players to get confused and frustrated. You can invoke an Asset in Fate, for example, but you can’t assume that’s a thing outside of Fate. There are (different) economic constraints to Assets in Fate and Cortex, but not in Dune.

I ran into a problem with the word/concept of Advantage in Fellowship, where it represents an opening you can exploit against an opponent and not a third die, take the highest. Frustrating! Or Value Statements from Tales of Xadia, which look a little like Beliefs from Burning Wheel but are actually more like Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero.

(This is what I was saying at the top of the essay: encyclopedic knowledge won’t make you happy, but can explain why you’re unhappy!)

Or take skills from most any game as compared to actions in FitD games. Functionally similar, but there’s some subtle differences there worth exploiting. Actions are bigger and more thematic than skills, except in games where skills are meant to be big.

Economic incentives vs pacing

In a game with an economy of some kind – Fate Points, Plot Points, Artha, Doom Pool, Darkness Points – it can get very confusing as to what the economy is for. Sometimes economies are there to incentivize play choices, like taking a d4 instead of a better die in Cortex and getting a Plot Point in return. But sometimes economies are pacing and GM-constraint tools and don’t have any sort of incentive purpose to them, like Darkness Points in Coriolis or your scene budget in Burning Empires. I frequently need to explain what an economy is “for,” but players will explore them on their own no matter what you say.

But I don’t want all this Artha. I just want to have more than you.

Let’s also not forget that many incentive schemes do not incentivize players who don’t care about them.

Explicit responsibility and implied authority

What exactly each player is responsible for at the table used to be a pretty clear-cut thing, but lots of indie game design challenges traditional authority breakdowns in novel ways. I run into this one a lot! Players who think that, since they had a mandate to narrate their own successes in one game, that’s just how all games are going forward. Not so! Or GMs who are expected to make rulings in one game are explicitly forbidden from doing so in another.

I picked gm-less for a reason.

In some games, there’s no actual GM at all of course. But there’s almost always some version of facilitator at the table. That’s not great when other players start treating the facilitator like a GM and abdicate their responsibilities.

The mechanical weight of fiction, the fictional weight of mechanisms

Does it “matter” how you’re armed or armored, what equipment you have, what the landscape looks like? Is fiction just color or is it constraining? Does the fiction provide interesting new affordances or can you only do what the character sheet says you can do? Does the fictional positioning meaningfully change after the rules touch it, and if so, does that change what you can do within the procedure?

You think that’s air you’re breathing?

I wish more games were better at calling this out specifically. But it’s an ongoing struggle, at least in the beginning, to suss out the relationship between the fiction and the procedures in any game.

But The Rules Say…

Besides the fact the players bring their assumptions to these things, let’s not forget that plenty of game texts themselves do a poor job of clarifying their own assumptions. Designers are gamers as well, and they have their own blind spots. In other cases, they’re writing toward a specific audience with their assumptions in mind. See most everything that calls itself OSR, for example.

Treating this stuff as having any sort of meaningful shared assumptions is impractical, even with explicit textual explanation. To strain some metaphors, it’s like a baseman tackling another player as they run between bases because, hey, there’s tackling in football so why not baseball? They’re both ball games.

Closing Thoughts

It’s not a complete list of every possible unaddressed assumption, but it’s as complete as I can make it. Writing the list left me wondering, is there a lowest common denominator to this category of activity? What defines “roleplaying” and makes it stand apart from other, related activities?

Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much there, beyond “embodying and authoring a role within the constraints of an agreed-upon set of fictional criteria.” That might be it, the very minimum definition. Which, of course, means we should be thinking long and hard about fanfic and other forms that fulfill all those criteria but don’t look a thing like any RPG you might see on a shelf.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think that it’s just so impractical to expect every player to completely discard every assumption every time and start from scratch. Going once more back to the sports metaphors, there are only so many sports you might participate in. You’d be forgiven for conflating pickleball with table tennis and regular tennis (which I did recently). But there are just so darned many RPGs, and we prize novelty in the indie space. It can be exhausting to come at every text with beginner’s eyes.

2 thoughts on “The Usual Suspects”

  1. I think it’d be better if more games didn’t assume that the GM-like role is also the person doing practical facilitator tasks. It can work really well to split up the responsibilities. And with a lot of games that don’t position the GM-like role as god, the GM doesn’t necessarily even need to be the one most familiar with the rules.

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