Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Roleplaying" in RPGs

I've been having a frustrating couple of weeks with Story Games. It seems like the interesting threads with good topics get ignored, while bickering and inane banter just piles up the comments. I guess I'm mostly frustrated because I feel like I've made some interesting comments which haven't had any kind of useful response. So in other words, I'm feeling whiny because I haven't been getting enough attention.

Rob Bohl started an interesting thread about encountering players for whom "roleplaying" was an undesirable impediment to the process of playing roleplaying games. The thread (and my comments in it) didn't get the attention I think it deserved, so I'm blogging about it here.

This is largely a semantic issue, which usually means it's boring and pointless, but I thought it was a good opportunity to expand on a thought that had been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.

I think that "roleplaying", in the sense that the gamer Rob is talking about means it, is best described as a set of techniques. An (incomplete) list of these techniques would look something like this:
  • Saying aloud what your character says
  • Thinking about and describing "what your character would do"
  • Having your character interact socially with other characters in the fiction
  • Describing non-essential information about what your character does
These techniques are often very important to people's experience of roleplaying games, to the point that games that don't support these techniques are often described as "not roleplaying games".

Defining what a roleplaying game is is a notoriously difficult subject, because, I think, there's no clear consensus on which techniques are essential to defining a game as such. For example, there are a large number of techniques that are employed in "traditional" RPGs but not in some newer games, leading some people to lable those new games "not RPGs". Some of these techniques include:
  • Each player controlling one in-game "piece"
  • Increasing in-game effectiveness
  • Mechanics for simulating violence
  • A "GM" or similar
I think most people likely to be reading this would agree that none of those techniques are essential to a roleplaying game. I'd like to argue, therefore, that the techniques from the first list are not essential either. They're all techniques that are commonly associated with RPGs, but none of them alone make or break the definition.

So are there any techniques that are essential to something being an RPG or not? The best I can come up with is the idea of a shared imagined space.

"Shared Imagined Space" is the idea that the players all contribute to a shared understanding of what is happening in a fictional space. In short, it's players describing fictional stuff about what's happening in the game, and the other players all agreeing that yes, that is happening.

But Shared Imagined Space itself doesn't make an RPG, right? Otherwise you could describe stuff happening in your game of Monopoly, like "oh, the hat and the iron are getting married" or whatever, and make it an RPG. Some people play a lot of games like this (especially games like "Bang!" and "Lunch Money"), but I don't think that makes them RPGs.

Or maybe it does. I don't know, but it doesn't sit easy with me, mostly because I hate playing games like this.

So another way to think about it, that gets around that problem, is to define RPGs by the use of the technique of Shared Imagined Space with impact on the mechanics of the game.

In other words, you describe stuff, and what you describe has an impact on how the rules of the game work. Purely based on judgements about the fictional content of the game, you make decisions about how to impliment the rules of the game.

That's a pretty controversial definition though. It excludes some indie favourites like "Contenders", and nearly excludes "My Life With Master", and I would argue (based on my previous post) that it comes close to excluding D&D4E as well.

So it's close, but not quite right. It's floating around in there though. It's something about how the Shared Imagined Space impacts on the game, or on the decisions that the players make.

In the end though, I don't think it's a very useful thing to have a definition of what is, or is not, an RPG. I think it's more useful to look at the whole list of techniques I described above, and look at a game as having more or less "RPG qualities". That's a useful definition I think, because it frees up thinking about designing and playing games. There is no technique that is "essential" to an RPG, and there is no technique that is forbidden. Not all RPGs use the same techniques, and when you play an RPG, it is useful to be aware of the techniques it supports.


  1. This is a very interesting topic. Could you post a link to the SG thread?

    I have some comments:

    «These techniques are often very important to people's experience of roleplaying games, to the point that games that don't support these techniques are often described as "not roleplaying games".»

    Ironically enough, I have trouble finding people who value these elements so that I can find comments on a design I'm working on.

    «Otherwise you could describe stuff happening in your game of Monopoly, like "oh, the hat and the iron are getting married" or whatever, and make it an RPG»

    You can make a RPG out of Monopoly, just as Dread makes a RPG out of Jenga, or D&D makes an RPG out of rolling dice and comparing them to random numbers.

    As you say later on, RPGs use Shared Imagined Space with an impact on the mechanics of the game. To me, that's a pleonasm. If the system doesn't impact the SIS, it is no longer Shared, and because it's not shared, you're not playing a Role-Playing game.

    But why would that definition exclude MLwM or Contenders? I fail to follow your reasoning there.

    Last, but not least, I agree on your conclusion. It's a common mistake to make, and it has a lot to do with expectations, what lit crit calls the "horizon of expectations".

  2. Hi René,

    Those are some insightful comments.

    The thread is here:

    Do you follow Vincent Baker's blog? I ask because some of what I'm saying here draws on his "clouds and boxes" posts.

    What Vincent says in those posts, is that system is how we agree on what gets entered into the shared imagined space (the lumpley principle), but that ideally, what's in the shared imagined space will influence how we use the mechanics.

    Traditionally, games have had plenty of rules that ask you to make a judgement about what's happening in the shared imagined space before you know what to do with the system. That's rules like "+2 for the higher ground" or in Dogs in the Vineyard "don't roll Acuity if your character is asleep".

    More recently, games like Contenders and MLwM have been made without rules that ask you to make a judgement about the SIS. The mechanics tell you what changes in the SIS, but what you describe in the SIS doesn't affect how you use the mechanics (except for MLwM's "desperation" etc. rules)

    Recently Luke Crane started a thread about his (apparently controversial) definition of RPGs on Story Games (thread is here: He says: "[An RPG is] A game in which a player advocates the goals, priorities and survival (or doom) of a persona who, in operation of the game's mechanics, is confronted with one or more ethical choices."

    His definition is pretty good as one way of thinking about it, but I'm like "now what?" What does that definition teach us? What does it help us understand?

    I'm not saying his definition is useless, just that I'd like the discussion to move on to what insights the definition can give us.

  3. Hi, Simon. I'm patiently waiting for the dust to settle in the discussion about Luke Crane's definition, because it's an eye opener in a lot of senses (even if it's just really a rewording of Lumpley's Principle).

    On the main topic: I'm not sure that neither Contenders (only read) or MLwM (played) are really excluded on that definition (and neither does D&D4). Certainly fiction impacts the system in both games, but the effect is not explicit. Also, I believe the discussion in Anyway leans more towards considering this supposed lack of impact a design flaw more than anything else.

    Finally, I've been discussing lately the possibility that there are a lot of fringe cases, which may include things like D&D4, certain wargames and boardgames that can be played as role-playing games, depending on whether a SIS exists or not during play. There may be nothing that forces you to create it, but you might do so anyway. It was from this state of affairs, after all, that role-playing games came to existence in the first place.

  4. I don't know if you've heard about a recent podcast on this exact topic:

  5. I hadn't heard that. I don't really have time to listen to podcasts much, but Rob's got some really interesting ideas, so I'm sure there's some good stuff expressed there.