When I’m Describing RPGs

When I’m Describing RPGs

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.

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0 thoughts on “When I’m Describing RPGs”

  1. Honestly, this is probably best imagined in three dimensions, with the height being how emphasized each thing is. No idea how to model that in a way that anyone could make sense of. But this is why Archipelago and Burning Wheel take up the same space in my own head.

  2. Possibly within your “specificity” circle, you could include the genre of fan-fiction writing known by aficionados of that art as “roleplaying”. I know I’ve had many confusing conversations with people from that branch of that particular hobby who weren’t even aware of “roleplaying” as a collaborative social activity with randomisers, instead they are simply focused on their specific stories, and how their interpretations of characters would react if the world were tweaked in some minor way.

  3. so since this is spectrum based, annalise falls outside your “fortune” venn diagram because, even though you do roll dice at the start of outcome determination, most of the actual determination is done through bargaining after the fact?

  4. Well… like it or not this is a taxonomy of sorts. But honestly, I’m so used to thinking about taxonomies from the perspective of design that I don’t even know what to do with this. More so, this is unapologetically simplifying system down to (almost) a binary of fortune or no fortune, with a possible dose of something like local play style/culture layered on top (then again, I get the impression there is more to “Narrative Awareness” then you’re letting on here, which is potentially explosive).

    I’m going to be blunt: I don’t get it, Paul.

  5. I think the fact that there’s nothing in those two categories (Specificity and narrative awareness) suggests a problem with your categories that limits the usefulness of a Venn diagram for this. I suspect the number of games with no “fortune” is similar to the number of games with no “role”.

    And really, in those games, your role is just collective (A Quiet Year) or transient (Microscope) rather than non-existent. More director stance rather than actor stance.

    Finally, to what degree are you actually describing instances/styles of play rather than game systems?

    Actually finally, what is the analytic goal of this exercise?

  6. Hamish Cameron no analytic goal at all. I thought that was clear in the title of my post.

    I think the urge for taxonomy and analysis is such an online gamer talk thing. This isn’t that at all.

  7. Also agreed that it’s an imperfect Venn. A more accurate presentation might possibly be a scatter chart within the Venn, with individual games nudged closer or further from the three corners.

  8. Gene Parish of course I’d totally put Forgotten Realms in that trad slice. I’d originally included Eberron to illustrate D&D + campaign.

    EDIT: oh wait I did include Eberron. Yes. Pure trad roleplaying: fortune and specificity without (much) narrative awareness.

  9. So, all that would be missing (I don’t think anything is really missing, but my OCD is kicking in… bear with me) would be Generic Freeform game, at the Narrative awareness Blue circle center (Is there such a thing?) and Generic Systemless campaign settings/media at the Specificity Pole (red circle) (Like, I dunno… HarnWorld? Most IP media which are non game oriented, but serve as the source of inspiration for our games? )

  10. I had included Harn and Ruined Empires in the red circle, but I thought that would distract from the point that I wanted to talk about rpgs, not supplements or whatever.

    I’d also contemplated Mythic GM Emulator in the middle of the blue circle, but again…maybe distracting.

  11. Tim Koppang it’s okay that you don’t get it, you’re a designer! This Isn’t For You. 🙂

    I guarantee that I oversimplify how I talk about rpgs to people. Sorry but it’s true: all your marvelous nuance gets treated with the full respect it deserves in play (read my Collection, that should be abundantly clear). But when I’m pitching and setting expectations? These are the salient areas I think are worth talking about.

  12. Paul Beakley From the OP, I would say your analytic goal is to come up with a way to usefully describe RPGs to new players. If so, do you think this does that in practice? It seems to me that the Fortune circle is too broad for this to be useful, but again it depends why you are describing RPGs to new players. Is it to narrow down game choice from a set of pitches? Something else?

  13. I think this works in practice because it’s what I use, yeah.

    Fortune is too broad if you treat it like a binary. As a total system nut myself I promise I get that it seems (is!) oversimplified. Buuut for normal civilian roleplayers looking for a rough pitch? The light-heavy continuum is kind of enough.

  14. Paul Beakley oh interesting! So you have a Venn diagram comprising three continua?

    Now trying to imagine how to visualize that and I think a Hound of Tindalos just showed up!

  15. Hamish Cameron​ totally agreed. It was even my first comment. 🙂

    Not even 0800 local time and I think it’s pretty clear that this is an incomplete, imperfect and totally ignorable bit of fluff I tossed together at nearly midnight last night. All to help illustrate the way I use the phrase “storygame” per my previous thread.

  16. The fires of the eternal theory wars never truly guttered out. All it takes is the tiniest hint of battle to call forth the warriors from their slumber.

  17. It’s Not For Him either.

    I mean, good grief. I know it’s a chart. If I’d understood how exciting charts were I’d be posting nothing but charts in this Collection.

  18. Venn diagrams are kinda like the modern, secular version of the magic circle… meant to contain and circumscribe things greater than ourselves.

    At the very least, they seem to draw a lot of attention everywhere! It’s either that or the pretty colors 😛

    (And now I’m just wandering off into crazy talk space… carry on. Don’t mind me.)

  19. A maybe-helpful clarification on Fortune: I’m thinking about not only light-heavy but more like…intrusiveness? Prominence? Like, how much does the system insert itself into the experience? How much do you have to engage with it? How important is mastery? All that stuff would be my z-axis, I suppose.

  20. I think that one of the most interesting (to me!) distinctions that has arisen from this thread and its counterpart from yesterday is the idea that one might use language different ways depending on one’s audience.

    Like, in conversation with “your dad” (here representing anybody who is outside the hobby and doesn’t know any of the terminology), one might say “A roleplaying game is X” but in conversation with someone at a con, when one is safe to assume a bit of baseline knowledge, one might say “A roleplaying game exists on a spectrum between X and Y.”

    While useful, that kind of distinction can be really difficult if literacy in the topic at hand grows more widespread, or at least if the terminology grows out of its original community.

    Luckily, that’s not looking to happen any time soon in This Hobby of Ours.

  21. One of my greatest hobby-lifetime disappointments was that video games secured the term “roleplaying game.” So now our thing has to get modified into “TABLETOP roleplaying game.”

    When I’m autarch things will be different. Starting with a mandatory shift to “RPG” and “VRPG”.

  22. In an early version of this silly chart, I’d also added outlines around the ovals (?) where two overlaps touched. Because those things take up space in my head and in my descriptions of games to people as well.

    So like… the “freeform” and “storygame” areas together make up “hippie games.” Heavy emphasis on narrative awareness across all those games.

    Storygames and generic storygame systems together, yeah…”storygames.” It’s badly self-referential. But, like, none of those system do anything until you give ’em some specificity. It’s a problem with this being a Venn and not something else.

    Just like how “traditional” and “storygames” put together are just “rpgs.” That one is my nod to politics, as well as an acknowledgement that the main difference between the games in both those areas is really, to me, the amount of narrative awareness at work. Which then prompts me to dig deeper into just exactly wtf I mean by “narrative awareness,” which starts fights.

    So basically everyone should be grateful that I’m not asserting more than I am with this.

  23. Nice diagram! So, in terms of usability, do I take a game I’m talking about and rate it in terms of intensity or commitment to those three areas? Like, this game is very narratively aware, but with little Fortune, and non-specific? (e.g. Archipelago)

  24. Because some games are designed to be precisely tuned to a very specific circumstance, and others aren’t. And I think that’s important to convey. Like, you can’t run anything but Night Witches with Night Witches. High specificity. But Dungeon World is specific insofar as it evokes the aesthetics of D&D but it’s otherwise pretty non-specific when it comes to its setting and premise. Or Hero or Primetime Adventures, obviously non specific.

    Honestly all three can be trivially picked apart if you’re looking for this to be a theoretical structure.

  25. Oh, I understand what it is, I think! I’m curious why you consider it of such high importance. Why is it one of the “three pillars” here?

    It’s unusual in that most other similar taxonomies consider that to be a side-detail, but here you clearly consider it of prime importance. I’m curious why; do you think that’s an important feature of design, a common concern among gamers, or some other reason?

  26. I think it’s incredibly important, yes. It usually indicates the amount of authorial freedom you may expect to have, and/or how much blank page syndrome you may need to deal with. Highly specific designs are highly constrained play spaces for good or ill.

  27. Paul Taliesin I would think it’s markedly important when pitching a game… It’s very different to say: I want to play something PbtA because I enjoy the snowballing moves, and ease of play, than saying I want to play Night Witches, because I want to explore the challenges faced by Russian women bomber pilots etc, etc.

  28. Makes sense! A lot of people choose games to play based on their aesthetics, or the setting and genre involved. (Referred to sometimes as “Colour first!”)

    The reason it’s somewhat odd to me, perhaps, is because I would expect just as much information if I were invited to, say, play GURPS. I’d want to know what kind of setting, genre, etc, is actually being pitched.

  29. Also, Paul T, “the GURPS game you are being invited to play” is a somewhat different beast than “GURPS,” with a different spot on the chart, almost certainly moving up the specificity axis (and possibly but less likely, the narrative-awareness axis). Same as Burning Empires is in a different spot from Burning Wheel, or Eberron from D&D.

    In fact, if there are rules components being added or subtracted for setting/theme purposes, it’s probably gaining in both setting and procedural specificity.

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