Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.

What is an RPG?

No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.

Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.

There are several books that explain the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was something decidedly new at the time. Arneson and Gygax were making it up as they went along, sometimes quite literally. It’s relatively recently that the text of D&D even acknowledged the wider category of “role-playing games.” The very first D&D boxed set described itself as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames,” and some editions called it an “adventure game” rather than an RPG. While we think of role-playing as central to RPGs today, D&D arrived at it simply by way of increasingly open-ended wargames, with more emphasis on the challenges of a dungeon than portraying characters per se. Even as D&D experienced a meteoric rise, a lot of the existing wargame fanbase found a variety of reasons to dismiss it as simplistic and immature. There are also some aspects of D&D that were rare among published RPGs from the moment people who didn’t work for TSR started making them, and there are several major aspects of gameplay that newer versions of D&D have mostly abandoned, largely in response to how people were playing the game at the table.[1] D&D was the first RPG, but we can’t use D&D as the sole basis of a definition. (Plus, D&D isn’t so much a game as a family of a dozen or so games, and that’s just counting the ones that are tabletop RPGs published under the “Dungeons & Dragons” name.)

The word “game” itself is even more contentious. Some definitions of “game” demand consequential player choices, which excludes wholly random games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. For most purposes that’s reasonable, but Target isn’t going to take Candyland off their game shelves any time soon. There are cases where developers have used the form of a video game more as a medium of storytelling, resulting in an interesting genre that some skeptics deride as “walking simulators.” RPGs often have less rigid structures than many other kinds of games, and if you ascribe to a definition of “game” that requires a win state, then most RPGs don’t quite qualify. GMs and players will routinely create situations for which victory and defeat are possibilities, but they’re not encoded into the rules of the game like in chess. Regardless, an RPG generally does need to give players the ability to make consequential decisions, even if that can mean very different things in different games.

Within the realm of RPGs, there are also places where the medium starts to bleed over into improv theater. If you go by the words “role-playing game” it’s hard to imagine these kinds of games not qualifying, since they are in fact games where you role-play, but just as you don’t do much resting in the restroom, words don’t always have definitions based on their etymologies.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that there’s no good way to definitively say what is and isn’t an RPG. Instead, let’s try to describe a “prototypical” RPG. Here I’m talking about a concept from linguistics called “prototype theory,” which holds that there’s a central idea of what a word refers to, but other things can sit further out from that and still be a part of it. If someone tells you to think of a “bird,” you’re likely to picture something like a pigeon, blackbird, sparrow, hawk, etc., an egg-laying creature with a pointed beak, covered in feathers and capable of flight. That doesn’t mean that penguins and ostriches aren’t birds, just that they’re less central to what human beings typically think of as birds. A prototypical RPG looks something like this:

A group of around 3-6 people gather around a table. One of them is the Game Master,[2] while the rest are the players. The players each have a single character, defined with a series of statistics and other traits, some of which alter how the character interacts with the rules, while the GM portrays the world around the players’ characters and that world’s inhabitants, and adjudicates the rules. A major part of the game is free-form role-playing, where the participants play out the actions of their various characters, but the game has rules for handling certain activities, particularly combat. These rules use a combination of the characters’ statistics and randomness provided by polyhedral dice to determine if the characters can succeed at the things they attempt. Successful and interesting characters will get points that let the player improve their statistics and abilities over time.

I think that’s a reasonable description of a traditional RPG, even if the details aren’t exactly right for every game. On the one hand, absolutely everything there is optional, but on the other hand at a certain point it becomes hard to justify calling a game an RPG per se. I’m not interested in drawing a hard line demarcating the edge of the definition, but at a certain point I need to restrict the scope of what I’m talking about to have this book be, you know, finite in length. So, let me try for my own rough working definition:

An RPG is an activity you do with a small group of people, with a focus on portraying a group of characters through a series of events through role-playing. RPGs often use mechanical rules like those of wargames and board games to help adjudicate certain situations and guide the overall experience.

That’s kind of a vague definition, but I think it’ll do for now. People have proposed names like “story games” or “social fiction” to label games that use the general form of RPGs for a more collaborative, story-oriented experience. I don’t want to delve into those kinds of distinctions because they aren’t particularly relevant to my design process. While several of my games could be called “story games” or “social fiction,” I don’t set out to make an RPG or a social fiction game. I start with a premise and see what kind of game is best suited to realizing it.[3] Occasionally I end up wandering off to make a card game or trying to write a novel instead.

A Brief History of RPGs

People generally consider Dungeons & Dragons to be the first role-playing game as we understand the term. The actual history is more complicated than that, because there were several intermediary steps between the miniatures wargame scene and the D&D boxed set that TSR first published in 1974. There were wargames that innovated new mechanics, and a general trend of experimenting with smaller-scale battles and human referees. That experimentation led to David Wesley’s Braunstein, which was a Napoleonic wargame set in a fictional German town, in which, in addition to the two commanders, other players took on the roles of various non-military authorities. This open-ended form of wargame led to Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor fantasy game, which in turn led to D&D proper when Gary Gygax took Arneson’s notes and shaped them into something the fledgling TSR could publish.

There have been several other forms of role-playing that predate D&D by a decade or more, including educational and therapeutic role-playing, as well as things like historical reenactments. There were also a few cases where people read about Braunstein and Blackmoor in wargaming zines and did their own similar games, and some were even experimenting with other genres before D&D was published. There are usually a lot of offshoots, antecedents, and transitional forms on the way to the version we typically think of as the first of any invention, and RPGs were no exception.

Once TSR started getting D&D out into the world it was a runaway hit, and the company quickly grew from a tiny wargame publisher to the leader in an emerging phenomenon. It didn’t take long for other publishers to try their hand at similar games, as well as D&D-compatible material. Ken St. Andre has the distinction of being the creator of the second ever published RPG, Tunnels & Trolls.[4] He read a friend’s D&D books for a bit, found the rules confusing, and decided to make his own take. The result was a more tongue-in-cheek and freewheeling game, and while T&T isn’t a big player in the industry, it has had a prolific product line and a loyal niche following. Judges Guild meanwhile got a license from TSR and produced a prolific line of D&D supplements.

With the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, many of the earlier RPGs feel like reactions to D&D in various ways. T&T came out of St. Andre making what he felt were more sensible rules (so for example armor absorbs damage rather than making you “harder to hit”), while Metamorphosis Alpha experimented with sci-fi by making a vast spaceship the setting for the “dungeon.” RuneQuest made a big deal out of being a fantasy RPG without character classes, and Chivalry & Sorcery presented fantasy in a more historically accurate medieval setting.

It’s also important to note that early D&D play was highly varied. Gygax deliberately made a game that you were supposed to tweak to your tastes, because that was a major part of the miniatures wargaming subculture he came out of, and the original version of D&D had enough gaps that it wasn’t possible to play a fully “rules as written” campaign. Regional differences emerged as the game spread to different areas, sometimes without the help of a direct oral tradition. One of the most famous regional changes was the Perrin Conventions, a set of printed house rules that were popular in California. In gaming scenes more closely derived from the TSR staff, DMs tended to run larger games for whoever could show up that week, using whatever characters they brought along.[5] In contrast, gamers in the UK mostly got D&D in written form (originally via Games Workshop, before the company jettisoned most of its non-wargame endeavors), and no such tradition emerged there.

Numerous publishers of various types jumped into this burgeoning new medium, but probably the most important in terms of advancing the state of RPG design was Chaosium. In addition to RuneQuest, they published Call of Cthulhu in 1981. CoC is now one of the greats of old-school RPGs, and likely responsible for Cthulhu’s popularity in geek culture. It made its mark on RPG design through its insanity rules. In H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, confronting supernatural horrors saps a person’s sanity, leading them inexorably into madness. CoC turns this into Sanity (SAN) points, and certain things make a character lose those points until they go insane. It adds a new dimension of risk, and in 1981 it was an unprecedented way of encoding a story element into game mechanics. During the 80s, people were still figuring out what you could do with this new medium, but there were some real gems from publishers like Chaosium, R. Talsorian Games, and West End Games.

White Wolf was easily the biggest new force in RPGs in the 1990s. Although Ars Magica was a vital influence (and a game that White Wolf published for a time), Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) was the beginning of White Wolf’s World of Darkness line of “Storyteller Games.” Vampire aimed to let players create sophisticated stories of personal horror, with Anne Rice’s vampire stories as a key inspiration. While Vampire and the other WoD games that followed were more traditional in design than not, each one did include unique mechanics that were central to playing the type of creature in the game’s title. Vampires needed Blood Points from drinking blood, but risked losing their Humanity points and becoming inhuman monsters. In practice, there were a lot of people who wound up playing in a genre jokingly called “superheroes with fangs” based on where the game’s rules led them, but there were also those who earnestly pursued the storytelling style that the game’s text promoted. In hindsight, the early World of Darkness reeked of clumsy teenage rebellion, but it was also a resounding success that opened new doors in the world of RPGs.

The 1990s were also the era of “metaplot.” This refers to when the publisher of an RPG has an overarching plot for the setting, which they develop through successive supplements. I won’t say that metaplot was all bad, but it often resulted in prioritizing books for reading over games for playing. It led to games with a little too much left for future supplements, and with godlike NPCs as the real movers and shakers of the setting. World of Darkness had its issues with this, but so did other games like DeadLands and Legend of the Five Rings.

TSR went belly-up in the late 90s, in large part due to a series of bad business decisions,[6] and Wizards of the Coast bought them out. While this killed off a lot of TSR’s lesser product lines, they brought D&D back with a 3rd edition. They deliberately tried to update D&D to the RPG design techniques of the time, giving it a unified resolution mechanic, more customizable character creation, and a skill system, while otherwise sticking close to D&D convention. The result was a wildly popular and fun game, but one that had numerous rules exploits that only became more glaring with time. Even so, it provided a lot of people with a lot of fun gaming, and it defined a generation of RPG players.

For a variety of reasons, WotC launched 3rd Edition with an open license, allowing others to publish material for it under the “d20” label without paying a licensing fee. The d20 license was a mixed blessing for the RPG market. New publishers like Green Ronin and Paizo rose on the strength of their d20-based offerings, but non-d20 games sometimes got pushed aside. There was a lot of d20 product, but despite some flashes of brilliance, there was a lot of trash that wound up haunting game stores’ bargain bins. I don’t know of any notable publishers that went out of business solely because of the d20 boom and bust, but there were several that embarrassed themselves with inferior d20 products. The d20 system is an iteration of D&D, and while it does have potential to be adapted to other genres, as written it comes with a very specific set of assumptions that can run against the grain of anything that isn’t dungeon fantasy.

With the notable exception of Wizards of the Coast, in the early 2000s a lot of the bigger RPG publishers were having to adapt to a shrinking market. Some went out of business (Guardians of Order), some placed a greater emphasis on other types of tabletop games (Atlas Games, AEG), and some reworked their product lines (Pinnacle Entertainment Group).

While independent RPGs were always a thing going back to the early days of TSR, Ron Edwards launched a discussion site called The Forge to encourage people to sustainably publish their own RPGs and explore different approaches to RPG design. It was contentious and I won’t deny that it had its flaws, but it also helped birth some exceptional games like My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Mountain Witch that broke new ground in RPG design. Edwards eventually closed The Forge, declaring that it had served its purpose. It’s the nature of these things that it’s hard to say exactly how much influence it’s had, but in my estimation, there are countless games that show the influence of ideas that originated from The Forge, though these days often a couple steps removed.

In 2008, Wizards of the Coast launched the 4th Edition of D&D. Viewed from a vantage point that takes in RPGs as a whole, it’s unquestionably a D&D game, but it was still different enough that a lot of D&D fans detested it. I’ve played it extensively and had a lot of fun, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it does have a number of legitimate flaws, albeit ones that its most vocal critics are largely unaware of, because those flaws seldom relate to relatively cosmetic things like a unified structure for classes or a simplified set of alignments. The game put an even greater emphasis on tactical combat than 3rd Edition, and in that respect, it was an exceptional work of game design. However, other aspects of the game were underdeveloped, and the copious updates to the game largely neglected them. The game thus had a robust combat system that drew elements from MMORPGs and European board games, mixed with some intriguing ideas like rituals and skill challenges that suffered from flawed execution and minimal support in supplements.

Since Wizards of the Coast opted to end their contract to have Paizo do the Dragon and Dungeon magazines in favor of the D&D Insider online subscription service, Paizo launched Pathfinder, an updated version of the d20 system. Pathfinder has been a major success for Paizo, with a strong fanbase, considerable product line, and several spinoff games.

Around this time, the OSR (Old School Renaissance) began to pick up steam, promoting the older versions of D&D. Where before people had seen these games as outdated and incomplete, there was now a group of people advocating for these games, and more importantly explaining their appeal. Where before the old white box D&D was virtually impossible to obtain and borderline incomprehensible if you did manage to get a copy, you can now get either the PDF of the original or any number of “retroclones” with the same mechanics, and copious advice on how to put them to good use. The OSR has published quite a bit of new material, and numerous variant D&D rulebooks. While the OSR isn’t big on innovating in the actual rules, they’ve nonetheless produced some genuinely impressive stuff within the D&D framework.

In 2010, Vincent Baker released Apocalypse World, which would become one of the most influential independent RPGs. It’s an excellent post-apocalyptic RPG with a distinctive style, but moreover it lends itself to hacking into other settings and genres. The first edition book even had some notes on hacking included in the text, and now there are dozens of “Powered by the Apocalypse” RPGs exploring countless different types of subject matter and styles. Since I’m among the people it influenced, I’ll dig into the specifics a great deal over the course of the book.

Wizards of the Coast announced a 5th Edition of D&D in 2012, and released it in 2014, after rounds of surveys and public playtesting. The staff that was largely responsible for 4th Edition had already left the company, and while the new edition didn’t totally abandon everything it had established, it was very deliberately a return to form. The new elements that it adds (like advantage and disadvantage) are interesting and in a few cases even brilliant, but apart from the official D&D name, for the most part it’s one dungeon fantasy game among many. WotC has kept the 5th Edition product line surprisingly small, especially compared to the sprawl of supplements they produced for 3rd and 4th Editions. While some fans would undoubtedly like more material, the smaller product line is a boon in some ways, since in both 3rd and 4th Editions it got unwieldy and too laden with options.

So where are we now? Orthogonally to its publication history, D&D is enjoying a new form of engagement as shows like HarmonQuest, Nerd Poker, and The Adventure Zone bring the game to life by presenting actual play from comedians. Kickstarter has revolutionized tabletop game publishing, with Monte Cook Games emerging as one of the most successful crowdfunded RPG publishers. Independent publishing has continued to flourish as new generations of games and designers have shown that they can gracefully synthesize their favorite elements of the different design traditions. All in all, it’s a pretty phenomenal time to be into RPGs.

That’s my biased and abbreviated account of RPGs in the English-speaking world, and if you want to delve into the history of the medium I recommend checking out Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons.

Other countries have had their own distinct RPG subcultures, and they can be quite different, especially where there are language barriers. The Japanese TRPG (“table-talk role-playing game”) scene only gets a certain subset of English-language games in translation (notably D&D, GURPS, World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu,[7] and Tunnels & Trolls), and while they’re popular and influential, at best they compete on an even level with Japanese-made games like Sword World, Double Cross, and Arianrhod. The Japanese TRPG scene had neither the dominance of D&D nor the divide between traditional and indie,[8] and many designers have arrived at what we might think of as “indie” style mechanics through their own experimentation. That’s the example that I feel qualified to write a paragraph about, but there are other RPG scenes with their own quirks in places like Korea, Latin America, Spain, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries.

Role-Playing

Role-playing is one of the most fundamental and interesting things about role-playing games, and I think it’s worth taking a little time to discuss it in depth. Role-playing is where a person takes on a specific role and acts it out on the fly, with no script. There are many different types and styles of role-playing, and while we gamers tend to think of it in terms of portraying a fictional character, there are role-playing activities that ask you portray yourself or someone else in the room in a particular situation. Therapists will sometimes use psychodrama and other forms of role-play to help people work through problems, language students role-play everyday situations to practice their skills, and people role-play themselves to practice things like job interviews.

Even if we strictly stay within the realm of tabletop games, there’s still a lot of variety. What we call “role-playing” is something of an umbrella term for a few different mental and emotional processes. Different people role-play differently, and the same person can shift between different approaches to role-playing, even within the same game. I’m a little wary of jargon and categories, but I’m going to try to outline what I see as the major forms of role-play people employ in RPGs.

Many people role-play by immersion, and for them a character is like a second self they slip into for a while. This kind of role-play uses our human capacity for empathy. Empathy is a process by which you use your own experiences to create a mental image of someone else’s emotional state.[9] This is likely an important aspect of how people function as social animals, and is one of several prosocial instincts in both humans and other species. Some people are more naturally empathic than others, and a portion of other people’s differing experiences will be more of an abstraction to you. Even so, empathy is a basic part of being human. Therapeutic role-playing uses this capacity to foster a cathartic release and greater empathy with others, while RPGs use it to let us vicariously experience some of a fictional character’s emotional state. Instead of putting yourself in your significant other’s shoes to better understand their point of view, you put yourself in your character’s shoes to enjoy seeing and interacting with the game world as they do. While it’s not the only way to role-play, it’s where traditional RPGs excel, and where many people find the fundamental appeal of playing an RPG. It does have some drawbacks though, most notably that it can be emotionally taxing at times, and can make players invested in their characters to the point where they pursue their character’s wellbeing and success at the expense of the group’s overall experience.

Others use a more calculating, performative approach. This is more like improv theater, where even if you outwardly portray a consistent character, your mental state is focused on creating a particular performance. RPGs are for smaller groups of people than improv shows,[10] so it’s a bit different from playing to an audience in a theater, and I suspect that performative role-playing in a tabletop RPG is a bit more geared toward one’s own enjoyment. Regardless, it shifts the priority from the character’s mental state and objectives to presenting a particular outward performance of the character. It’s a less emotionally engaged way to role-play, but it makes it easier to separate what you want the character to be like from your character’s own desires. People are more likely to use this form of role-playing when they’re trying to portray a well-established character.

Still others are most comfortable when acting more like an author. In this mode, you control your character from above, steering the overall story in whatever direction you think is best. It’s another step removed from immersive role-playing, but players are free to concentrate on making the best story they can. There are a number of independent games that specifically foster this style of role-playing, particularly when they have mechanics that require players to make decisions and give creative input from a vantage point outside of the character. It’s a very different way to play an RPG, but it can create really fun, unique experiences.

Because most RPGs are also games with mechanical, board game-like rules, players also sometimes role-play less as a portrayal of a character and more in terms of playing a game, even if they do so in a way that’s consistent with their character’s abilities and personality. RPGs often ask players to make decisions based on practical and mechanical matters, especially when it comes to combat. In this mode, the character becomes more of a playing piece, and the mechanical distinctions that the game provides the character are more important than the character’s personality and emotional life. This is the mode that’s the most difficult to rightfully call “role-playing,”[11] but it’s also an important part of many of the most popular RPGs. Games like D&D can provide lots of interesting things for players to do in this space, and learning to skillfully wield the mechanical aspects of a character is part of the fun of playing such games. This mode doesn’t necessarily have to be about hard mechanical matters either. Players who are debating who gets what treasure or trying to formulate a plan can wind up speaking as themselves rather than their characters, even if the “game” they’re playing is made up of words and concepts instead of numbers.

All of these fall under the umbrella of role-playing to some degree. Some games work better with particular approaches, and people are often more comfortable with some approaches than others, but what people actually do at the game table is fluid. It’s good to be aware of how your game might pull people towards certain approaches, but it’s not necessary to force players to stick to one mode of role-playing. The thing to be wary of is asking players to do too many of these things at once, especially when they have opposed motivations. RPGs that ask players to act more as storytellers tend to suffer when they also encourage players to heavily identify with their characters, because what’s good for the story can often conflict with what a character wants for themselves. Likewise, if you have rules that pull players into more of a board game mode, you can’t expect nearly as much in the way of conventional role-playing out of them while those rules are in play.

It’s been my experience that as a group, beginners don’t inherently gravitate towards any one style of role-play. People who cut their teeth on traditional RPGs sometimes assume that immersive role-playing is the most natural, but I’ve found that a significant portion of first-time role-players naturally think they have power over the story around their character, such that teaching them to play a traditional RPG is a process of getting them to pull back and only control what their character is attempting to do.

Game Mastering

A Game Master is an essential part of most RPGs, and while a GM’s job encompasses role-playing in its various forms,[12] there’s a lot more to it than that. Traditionally the GM is in charge of everything that isn’t the PCs, which is a lot for one person to keep in their brain. As with role-playing, different people approach being a GM in different ways. Broadly speaking I see two major styles of GMing: world simulation and improvisation. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each requires different cognitive abilities to do well. Also, as with different kinds of role-playing, many games work equally well with both, but some pull towards one or the other.

The world simulation approach is more the sort that old-school DMs tended to excel at. While they inevitably have to improvise and use reference materials at times, this kind of GM essentially makes a model of the world in their head, and moderates the PCs’ interactions with it, judging and presenting the consequences of their actions in a consistent and plausible way.

The improvisational style is much like improvisational role-playing in that it’s based more on shaping the game in the moment towards a desired form. Because of how my mind works, I’m more or less forced to GM this way all the time. The mental space that I make for the players to play in is small, but can shift in wildly different directions over the course of a game session.

Games that tend more towards presenting a situation and seeing what the PCs do tend to lend themselves more towards a world simulation style of GMing, while games that readily introduce new elements into the continuity (whether from the rules, a cue to the GM, or the players) force the game away from world simulation and towards improvisation, as the underlying nature of the imaginary world will be in flux so much more.

The improv style can have a lot of variety in terms of how the details of introducing new information into the game world work out, whether because of how people choose to handle things at the table or through the specifics of the game mechanics.

While different GMs (and games) tend towards different styles, I don’t think it’s really possible to be 100% one or the other. An improv-oriented campaign still needs a certain amount of internal consistency to be coherent, and every GM winds up with players who force them to make stuff up on the spot.

Distinctions from Other Games

While the “game” part of this medium is important enough to merit taking up one of the three letters in the acronym, RPGs are also distinct from most other types of games. It’s obvious if you play RPGs much, but it’s still worth thinking about.

One thing that people only sometimes mention about RPGs is that they’re a type of “game” where there are no winners or losers per se. In a game of D&D it’s possible for a character to die, and it’s normal for you to discover or create situations for which there are stakes and a possibility of victory or defeat, but the game doesn’t have a win state or lose state in the sense that a board game would. There are a few competitive RPGs like The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, but they’re the exception to the rule, and they still tend to be more about the journey than deciding a winner. Truly competitive RPGs are pretty rare, and for a lot of people the cooperative, collaborative nature of RPGs is a major part of their appeal. While I’ve come to enjoy board games a lot more than I used to, I’ve never been particularly competitive, so I’d much rather play a game that’s about something other than who wins.

The blending of role-playing and game is also vitally important to distinguishing RPGs from other games. While there are RPGs that are more mechanical, the norm is that when push comes to shove the role-play takes precedence over the written rules, usually per the GM’s discretion. That’s not a bad thing, but I do think that designers should strive to create RPGs where the rules and the role-play are less often in conflict. However, even if the GM isn’t choosing to deviate from the written rules at all, they will make countless judgment calls about how to apply and interpret those rules. That can make the GM’s job more demanding, but it also lets a game deal with a massive variety of situations. The ability to make rulings and outright go outside the rules means that players aren’t limited to things that are on the character sheet. They can have their characters try just about anything. The fuzziness of the rules is often pervasive, and when used well it can be a profound strength.

Games as Art

In recent years, people involved with games have struggled a bit with whether games are art. “Art” is another of those terms that can be vague to the point of uselessness, but games do go into unusual territory for what people traditionally think of as art. There was a time when we boxed art into certain categories, and you knew if you were looking at a painting by Da Vinci or a sculpture by Rodin it was definitely art.[13] But as I write this, Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal with “R. Mutt” written on it and presented as art, is just over a century old. The doors have well and truly been kicked down, and Duchamp’s radical deconstruction of the whole concept of art is now part of the status quo.[14] “Art” is now basically any kind of human expression, whether it shows off technical mastery or raw emotion.

Games are different from most other media in that they’re interactive, but interactive installations have been a part of the art world for a long time now. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a piece by Carl Andre called Copper-Zinc Plain, consisting of a 6×6 grid of squares of copper and zinc. While the piece itself is inert, the museum lets visitors walk on it, experiencing it from a different perspective and subtly changing it with the soles of their shoes in the decades since its creation. Eric Zimmerman has created several “art games,” such as Sixteen Tons, a simple strategy board game presented in the form a board on the floor and pieces made of heavy sections of steel pipe, to make participants think about the meaning of labor. While interactivity isn’t at the core of the overall field of fine art, it’s been a part of it for decades now.

Creating interesting interactions and putting choices in the hands of the audience is a powerful artistic tool that can create experiences that deeply affect people. There’s also the simple fact that even without overt interaction, all art has an ongoing process of reinterpretation. No two people look at a painting in quite the same way, because they have different life experiences, perspectives, emotional landscapes, and cultural frames of reference that affect how they interpret what they see.

When Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games would never be art, he was speaking in terms of quality. He felt that video games would never create a digital Shakespeare or Van Gogh. To me that’s a very different conversation from whether or not they count as “art.” It’s something that game creators absolutely should think about and grapple with, but I just don’t see how the label of “art” is something you withhold from anything that hasn’t achieved that kind of legendary fame, or else there’d be precious little art in the world, and we’d be poorer culturally without all the weirdos who are trying stuff out because they can’t help it.[15] Insofar as it’s a question that even matters, making a pronouncement one way or the other about the artistic potential of a medium that has spent so much of its short history overcoming technological limitations seems silly to me. It’d be like declaring film can never produce true art when they were just barely figuring out how to do sound.

Art doesn’t need a seal of approval from any authority figure, and doesn’t even need to call itself “art.” While I’m sure there have been some people who sat down with the aim of making masterpieces that would be remembered for generations, I think for the most part art happens because someone simply has the urge to create. People like Van Gogh and Kafka certainly didn’t think they would make such a mark on history, and history didn’t give a damn about them until after they died. The important thing is the striving to create and to express yourself, and always working to improve. Likewise, there are a lot of different audiences out there, and no shortage of people who can appreciate entertainment that isn’t so much about artistic expression. While there’s something to be said for taking on challenging, sophisticated art, Ebert himself was a defender of films that were simply fun.

We also tend to draw a distinction between things that are for pragmatic or commercial reasons and things that exist for pure human expression. While I think the latter is more deserving of the word “art,” even the most cynical ad campaign involves that spark of creativity, as does virtually anything that isn’t completely practical in nature. The distinction between product art and fine art is useful, but shouldn’t be a straitjacket. People can find something worthwhile in an elegant subway map[16] or a cheesy old movie, and the fact that those things originally existed simply to show where trains go or be a backdrop for teens to make out at a drive-in theater is ultimately irrelevant. From what I know of him, Gary Gygax most likely had no pretensions of artistic achievement behind D&D, but his creation is certainly something that people have been able to find deeper meanings in, whether or not they’re what he intended. There are actually two different books titled Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy, and the likes of Patton Oswalt and Wil Wheaton have written memoir-like accounts of playing D&D when they were young.

Tabletop games cut across our neat categories and make this kind of analysis more complex. Board games include games like chess that have centuries of history, and came about before we had a particular concept of games even being something that a person can design, much less as a form of artistic expression. Once they did become a medium in which people could be creative, board games were still more a medium for fun activities but not deliberate expression per se. There is artistry and skill in creating gameplay and designing components, but board games aren’t generally aimed at expression in the way a novel is. That isn’t to say that they can’t be expressive by any means, just that artsy, emotive board games are rare.

While interactivity doesn’t disqualify a work from being art, RPGs demand so much of the audience that what players do at the table becomes a performing art of sorts.[17] That doesn’t preclude the possibility of an RPG being art, but they are less a painting and more a paintbrush. Although there are similarities to other media, RPGs are their own distinct form, and the audience doesn’t interact with them in quite the same way as any other type of entertainment. On the other hand, their participatory nature is so deep that an RPG can potentially affect the audience in ways that few other media can hope to.

What all of this means to you as a game designer is ultimately up to you to decide. There’s nothing wrong with just ignoring any pretensions of art and making a fun RPG, but it’s also entirely valid to make games that try to express a strong message. Given the state of RPG design, I think it’s the latter that I need to remind people of though. When you design an RPG, you are expressing something unique to yourself. It doesn’t have to be artsy, but it can be distinctly yours, something only you would make.

Games and Culture

D&D is a pastiche of elements from countless works of fantasy literature and mythology from all over the world. Its takes on these things have in turn become major touchstones for the fantasy genre. For example, where mythology and even Tolkien were rather vague on the distinction between goblins and orcs, D&D has clear-cut differences between the two, which in turn made their way into games like Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft, and for that matter even the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s works. RPGs have long been part of an overall cultural conversation, and we still routinely follow in Gygax’s footsteps in terms of making games that express and explore the pop culture that surrounds us. Most RPGs don’t have anything like the influence of D&D, but they naturally transmit bits of culture and empower players to express cultural elements of their own.

All games, and for that matter all human pursuits, happen in a cultural context. The tone of even an abstract game can change depending on the circumstances around the players and their own cultural backgrounds. From a purely abstract point of view, the fact that chess pieces come in black and white and the white side goes first is essentially an irrelevant and arbitrary choice, but there are any number of ways that convention could take on different meanings.[18] While we would like to think they are simply easily-distinguishable colors, they can also represent good and evil, different races, or any number of other things that can take us into uncomfortable territory. Since chess is a traditional game that came about over thousands of years, there’s no one creator we could ask about the intended significance of the colors of the pieces, and even if there was, people naturally create their own meanings as they engage with it.

It’s important to keep different interpretations in mind as valid within the proper context. For example, an American feminist blogger wrote an article interpreting the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica through a feminist lens, and got some flak from Japanese feminists for whom the series was part of the decidedly non-feminist, male-oriented anime fandom scene. While the series itself is relatively restrained, the merchandise certainly panders to male fans, and the media conglomerate behind it is more than happy to sell body pillows and swimsuit-clad plastic figures of the characters. In my opinion, the American feminist interpretation is still valid, provided it’s not presented as more than it is, and no one tries to treat it as definitive or more important than Japanese views. The series does present female characters with real agency, and passes the Bechdel test in most of its scenes, even if it’s still problematic in some ways, especially if we consider the overall media franchise and merchandising machine. It’s important not to dismiss or discount the views of the originating culture, but the differing ways in which people interact with and interpret creative works between cultures is an entirely natural occurrence, one of the most fascinating things about that whole process.

From a designer’s point of view, the shifting cultural contexts affect how you communicate with your audience, so that depends a lot on what kind of audience you’re trying to address. For Golden Sky Stories I created an original setting book called Fantasy Friends, which essentially transplants the heartwarming, pastoral stories of GSS into a D&D-style fantasy setting. While I imagine it wouldn’t be totally inaccessible to someone who’s unfamiliar with D&D, in writing the book I leaned on D&D references quite a bit, and someone steeped in D&D lore would definitely get more out of it and understand more of the in-jokes I slipped in.[19] There are games like Empire of the Petal Throne and Exalted that present worlds at least as deep and detailed as any in D&D, but they arrive there by way of lengthy explanations. Fans clearly find these to be worth the effort, but those games aren’t as accessible to non-fans.

One particularly curious example of cultural factors in play is the response to Maid: The Role-Playing Game. Maid came from a brilliant Japanese game designer (Ryo Kamiya), and he created it as a satirical response to the maid fad that was such a big thing in Japan at the time. There were anime and manga about maids, maid cafes popping up in centers of fandom like Akihabara, and it was such a big thing that even mainstream Japanese pop culture took notice, albeit with the kind of shock and eye-rolling they typically give otaku weirdness. From that, Kamiya created an excellent work of game design and a wad of anime tropes in RPG form.

I won’t for a moment say that people are wrong to be skeeved out by the part about the game being based in fetishizing maids (even with a veneer of parody), but a lot of people seemed to have just as much trouble with the part about it being culturally grounded in anime. There’s nothing wrong with not being into anime—there is a lot of trashy anime out there after all—but some people seem oddly resentful of it, and strangely proud of not getting it. Moreover, there are a lot of people who make drastically wrong assumptions about what’s culturally relevant.

I became an anime fan in the late 1990s, when the selection available to us was limited and hard to get. Back then even people who were obsessed with anime would be unlikely to have seen much of Gundam or Urusei Yatsura, the key inspirations for Mike Pondsmith’s games Mekton and Teenagers From Outer Space. Today a lot of anime series get simultaneous releases on Crunchyroll, and you can buy anime and manga stuff from Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble. The audience skews younger, but it’s at least as much a cultural institution in the U.S. as fantasy literature. That’s probably why, although Maid RPG has a different audience from games like D&D, by independent RPG standards it’s been a rousing success, selling thousands of copies all over the world.

All of that said, for people who don’t have the pop culture background that Maid RPG calls for, it’s a nonsensical game laden with references and clichés they won’t get, and a general concept they may not find all that appealing. What people involved in RPGs tend to miss is that D&D is every bit as much situated in a specific pop culture knowledge base, and without that knowledge it can be an equally head-scratching experience.

Form Factor

The standard form factor for an RPG is a book. Early on RPGs tended to have boxed sets, but even then, the majority of the stuff in the box was in the form of booklets. Although PDFs have become an important part of the industry, they’re mostly just book layouts in digital form. There are some games that experiment with other form factors, and while these are genuinely exciting developments, books continue to be the most obvious, familiar, and cost-effective way to present an RPG.

At the table, RPGs typically use character sheets (specially made forms for recording information about a character) and dice that the players provide for themselves. There’s been a growing trend of sheets providing more and more comprehensive reference material for the game and the particular character’s abilities, but overall the fundamentals aren’t that different.

The actual game that people play is a process that happens at the table.[20] It’s a mental construct that they operate together, keeping some parts in their heads, and loading in other parts as needed from the book and other reference materials. This view of a game as a process and mental construct is more obvious in board games, particularly those with more abstract components, and perhaps less so in video games, but it’s a factor in all games. For an RPG, the book has to serve a number of purposes simultaneously, the most crucial of these being as a medium for transmitting the process and a reference for its finer details.


[1] Most notably, Gygax envisioned characters taking on leadership roles at higher levels rather than continuing to be a small group of adventurers, but such an overwhelming portion of the fanbase went the latter route that those elements have been gone from the game for a while now.

[2] D&D of course uses the term “Dungeon Master,” and there have been any number of games that use alternate terms like Storyteller, Referee, Animator, Master of Ceremonies, Hollyhock God, etc. If you are making a reasonably traditional game, Game Master/GM should be just fine, but if you are significantly changing the nature of the role, a different name legitimately could be appropriate.

[3] Which isn’t to say that I think it’s wrong for designers to use labels other than “RPG” for their games. Depending on the game and the audience you’re pitching it to, a different label is potentially more effective. For a lot of my games, starting with “It’s like D&D, but…” would be downright misleading. Quinn Murphy came up with the term “social fiction” because he felt it better fit what he was creating and how he wanted to pitch it to the non-traditional audience he’s chosen to pursue.

[4] The trend of alliterative titles with an ampersand in the middle originated in wargames, but it was common in early RPGs.

[5] This meant that there was a wider social context to D&D play, and a DM who was overly generous with treasure was potentially making life difficult for their peers.

[6] A lot of people blame Lorraine Williams, who took over TSR after its founders were ousted. It’s hard to definitively say whether the company would’ve fared better without her, but there definitely were a lot of bad business decisions, and she personally benefitted from some of them.

[7] Call of Cthulhu is surprisingly popular in Japan, and given the niche status of TRPGs there it’s even more surprising how much cultural reach it has. More than once I’ve come across anime and manga that reference SAN points, not to mention Nyaruko: Crawling With Love, which introduces Nyarlathotep in the form of a cute girl.

[8] There is a crowd in the Japanese TRPG scene that’s convinced that the medium is only for traditional fantasy stuff, but they’re pretty minor in the scheme of things.

[9] Not a scientific definition, just my attempt to explain the concept as I understand it.

[10] You can insert your own joke about improv comedy shows with small audiences.

[11] Hence the kinda dumb and overused thing of calling it “roll-playing.”

[12] Though I suspect that GMs naturally move away from immersive role-playing, since getting emotionally invested in a particular NPC makes it harder to do the rest of a GM’s job.

[13] Plus the thing that through most of history in the Western world art, at least the sort that the public got to see, was beholden to the authorities, both religious and secular.

[14] In an interview, musician Brian Eno related how he felt that Fountain’s point had been made, and spending tens of thousands of dollars to transport it to art galleries was ridiculous. That was how he became one of the first of several people to use Fountain as an actual urinal. Art is weird.

[15] Also, every college would have to rename its “art” department to something else I guess?

[16] The map of the DC Metro trains that serve Washington D.C. and the surrounding area is a thing of beauty.

[17] Daniel Mackay’s book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art explores RPGs in depth from that perspective, albeit from a D&D-centric perspective and published in 2001.

[18] Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, typically has pieces in black and red. In Chinese culture white traditionally represents death, red represents good fortune, and black is a neutral color.

[19] For example, the book says that it’s not clear whether Driders are created as a reward or a punishment by the dark elves’ spider goddess, as a subtle jab at how their origins have fluctuated over the course of different editions of D&D.

[20] Throughout this book I refer to what happens “at the table” or “at the game table.” If you’re playing online this becomes metaphorical, but the point is that I’m talking about what happens when you’re actually playing.

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3 thoughts on “Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

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