When I’m describing roleplaying games to folks who aren’t totally brined in endless daily showoffy theory threads, I start with the assumption that we all agree that RPGs are just what they say on the tin: games where you play a role. So right off the bat, if there are no roles involved, or if it’s not central to the point of the thing (Microscope, A Quiet Year, whatever), that’s a huge help. To be clear: we love and play those games too! Luckily there aren’t many of them, so it gets pretty easy to set those aside.
But lordy, the universe of RPGs is huge.
I think about RPGs in terms of how much they have of three ingredients, shown in the Venn chart below.
One of them is Fortune. That is, is there some randomness involved in figuring out who got what they wanted?
Another is Specificity. That is, is the game specifically tuned to describe a place or a situation? How narrow is the premise?
The third is the thing I talked about in my last thread, and that is Narrative Awareness. I was being a little flip about what all I include in this: that is, it’s really more than whether there are “scenes” or not. What I’m getting at is the whole range of tools and perspectives and aesthetics that lead us to think about the experience in terms of authorship. Of course every moment of every kind of RPG we’re all “authoring” stuff; that’s an old fight not worth having. Here I’m talking about intent: is the goal of play to create or emulate a cohesive narrative, or is the narrative an afterthought? As Cam Banks pointed out, trad games can be storygames for some players! It’s a matter of preference and playstyle. Take Cortex Plus (a generic trad system) and play it with narrative awareness and specificity, bam, you’re playing a storygame.
Hopefully it’s pretty clear here that there aren’t freestanding games inside the “Specificity” and “Narrative Awareness” circles. This may make it an imperfect Venn, and that’s okay, I can accept that. This is just a quick rough-up to talk about. Those areas are more like uh…dials, I guess. Like, there’s a tiny bit of implied setting inside straight D&D and kind of a broad outline of a premise (go into old ruins and get gold), but that dial is turned down so low that in my mind, it’s just a generic trad system. But turn it up a little through developing your own campaign or buying shelves of Eberron books or whatever, and ta-da, you’re playing a trad RPG.
Same with the things I call “generic storygame systems” in that bottom zone. Burning Wheel doesn’t come with any specificity, but you have to add it to play the game, and ta-da, it becomes a storygame.
Freeform, lordy, this was discussed to death like a decade ago, and I so do not want to dredge up any bad feelings or unresolved fights. In my own mind, these are the RPGs with plenty of specificity and narrative awareness, just no fortune to prod things along. I also call these “talky talky” games here in the IGRC.
Anyway, it’s a sketch of how my own brain works and how I position expectations when I’m pitching games to friends and at con tables. This is not an attempt to impose a taxonomy. I have no stake at all other than helping friends understand what they’re getting into.