Tools for Dreaming: Structures of Play

This is probably the most important chapter of Tools for Dreaming, as it delves directly into the core structures of RPGs and role-play. Particularly in some of the later parts it still feels underdeveloped, but I feel like I’m definitely on the right track in terms of what ideas it is that I’m grappling with.

Role-playing is an activity that you can do without rules. A group of people can decide what characters they’re going to play and in what situation, and just start role-playing. There are a lot of areas where people do just that. In terms of the sizes of their followings, freeform fandom RP, therapeutic role-playing, educational role-playing, and improv each dwarf tabletop RPGs. Saying that these activities lack rules is misleading, but what “rules” they do have are structures and parameters rather than the kind that involve numbers or dice. We’re now seeing a flowering of a niche of RPGs that are closer to these other forms of RP, but these forms are also a useful tool for better understanding how things work even in traditional RPGs.

One non-definitive way to look at RPG rules is as a labor-saving device, a means to shape role-playing to achieve a specific type of play more easily. Freeform role-play forms a baseline, and an RPG is in a sense a set of modifications to that. From that point of view, the question of RPG design then becomes “What modifications do I need to make to help achieve the kind of experience I want?” You might be surprised just how minimal an RPG’s rules can be and still foster compelling and flavorful play, though of course more complex rules have their own merits, provided the complexity is purposeful. While the die rolls are important to how an RPG works, the broader structures of play are vital.

All games have a human element somewhere, though it’s more apparent in some than others. Chess is a very mechanical game, to the point where you can pit two computers against each other, but in practice it still has a human side. For a pair of masters at a high-pressure tournament, the game of chess has a very different style and tone compared to a couple of friends playing in a park to pass the time.[1] Even in single-player video games, different players find their own personalized ways of enjoying each game. There are party games and such that utilize the human element more than others, but few make it quite so central as RPGs do. An RPG can integrate hard rules like those of a board game, but even the more mechanical RPGs draw a lot of their strength from trusting the human element in the right way.

In the world of improv theater there are countless improv games that provide framing and guidance. For example, there’s a game called Alphabet. You start with a premise for a scene, and the performers play out that scene, with the twist that the first person who speaks has to begin their sentence with the letter A, the second starts with B, and successive sentences continue on through the alphabet. It has very silly results, but it also creates something more coherent than if you just told the performers to “improvise something.” An RPG needs to be more sophisticated than that of course, but in a sense, they’re particularly elaborate improv games.

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the different ways in which designers and players structure RPG play, and how you can tailor those structures to the particular experience you’re trying to create.

Concentric Design

Vincent Baker describes Apocalypse World in terms of “concentric design.” The game has four major layers that build on one another, and while the outer layers are still important, you could shear them off and still have a playable game. Here are the circles, from innermost to outermost:

  1. The Conversation, MC Agendas, and Principles
  2. Stats, Dice, Basic Moves, Harm, Improvement, MC Moves
  3. Playbooks, Playbook Moves, Equipment, Threats
  4. Custom Moves, Limited Edition Playbooks

The “Conversation” is what AW calls the general process of talking and role-playing, and one of most important things about AW is that it gave that process a name and a such central place in the process of play. The addition of the Agendas and Principles give the Master of Ceremonies (which is close to a GM, though the differences are important) direction to help foster the intended experience. Playing with only the innermost ring is close to freeform role-play, but the MC role and the guidance the agenda and principles provide have a distinct effect.

The second ring contains the basic mechanical elements that all the players interact with. Some of the games derived from AW have a somewhat different set of elements here, but they’ll serve similar purposes, providing specific rules and interactions. The MC moves are not especially mechanical in nature, but they give the MC a set of thematically relevant developments to bring into the fiction. There aren’t many Powered by the Apocalypse games that stop here, but there are some (like The Sundered Land and my own game Magical Fury). The result is something that has clear rules for handling the major situations that the game invokes, but little if any mechanical distinction between characters.

The third ring has the major things that are highly distinct between PCs. In Apocalypse World proper, this means the playbooks and the major things that those playbooks cover. These give the game a means of quickly and easily establishing PCs of distinct archetypes, and of giving them distinct abilities in game terms. Threats meanwhile are a method for easily developing and tracking potential problems and adversaries. As with playbooks, it’s a way to take the elements in the first and second rings and make them more specific.

Finally, the fourth ring is things that only come up in certain circumstances and styles of play, which will often be omitted. Other PbtA games can of course have different things out on the fourth ring. For example, my Dragon World game has Story Moves (things like being cursed, having a dangerous spell stuck in your head, etc.), which are an optional thing that won’t be a part of every campaign.

This is only one way to do things, but it illustrates a structure in which role-playing with one person taking a lead role can form a core, with the mechanical game rules being something the designer layers on top of that. I have a hard time imagining an RPG that doesn’t have role-playing at its center in some form, but there are countless ways to build that core and what goes around it.

Different Roles

In a traditional RPG, there are two major roles for participants: The Game Master and the players. RPGs don’t generally give a formal explanation, but before you start playing, the GM (possibly with input from the players) decides on the specifics of the campaign and what role the PCs will play. If you’re sitting down to play D&D, one DM might tell you that you’re playing Level 1 adventurers who are inexperienced teenagers from the town of Hommlet, while another might tell you to make Level 8 veterans who are a band of air pirates in the world of Eberron, or any number of other possibilities. The players’ job is to follow the game’s rules and the GM’s parameters to create characters to play. Once play begins, the GM presents the situation, the players say what their characters are doing, and the GM uses the rules and their own judgment to adjudicate the results. This back and forth continues until the end of the session, and for however many sessions the campaign entails.

The division between the roles of the GM and player isn’t what we usually think of as a “rule” per se, but that’s exactly what it is, though certainly a softer, more flexible kind of rule than “roll two dice and move your piece that many spaces.” It’s even a rule you can use in relative isolation, letting a campaign have one person in charge without having the rest be a “game” in a conventional sense. Your average gamer will probably want more game than that, but it’s totally a thing you can do, with clear benefits over just getting some friends together and commencing unstructured role-play. The GM role is an evolution of a referee role that some wargamers used, both to have someone to keep the rules straight[2] and to allow for situations the rules don’t cover, and in fact that thread of thought is a big part of what eventually led to D&D. In our otherwise-freeform example, it helps keep you from winding up narrating a game of Calvinball. A group of people doing freeform RP won’t necessarily run into various issues with who has authority over what and such, but having a GM is one way you could make it less likely to be an issue.

Though the “GM and players” dynamic is the most common way to structure an RPG, and certainly a good way to do it, it’s also one of many possibilities. We sometimes speak in terms of RPGs with GMs and “GM-less” games, but in reality, it’s more that there are countless possible ways to apportion what players do in an RPG. Polaris in effect divides the GM’s job up thematically and rotates the divided pieces according to whose character is currently the focus of the scene, while games like Fiasco and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach put all of the players on the same footing. Even games that still have one player who has an overarching role can make it different from a GM per se, like the Creative in World Wide Wrestling or the Authority Figure in Bliss Stage. The Authority Figure in Bliss Stage is closer to being a specialized kind of player. They handle the overall flow of the game and devise threats and such, but there are specific things given to other players, plus the rules actually create the possibility of another player becoming the Authority Figure and taking over. The Creative in World Wide Wrestling meanwhile always has the task of setting up a series of wrestling matches and even deciding who is booked to win them, so that they control the overall shape of a game session much more than a traditional GM.

RPGs that have a non-traditional configuration of roles typically have to make some things explicit that wouldn’t be in a traditional RPG. One example is the concept of scene framing. People naturally divide narratives into discrete blocks of action, which we can call “scenes.” Traditionally, RPGs didn’t have rules for beginning and ending scenes, and it was something that people did intuitively and informally. If the PCs are traveling and nothing interesting happens on the way, you’ll naturally skip past the journey, or maybe reduce it to marking off rations and such. If there’s a random encounter along the way, that becomes a scene in itself, where you zoom in and deal with it in vivid action rather than quick summaries. Likewise, splitting the party means giving the GM the task of finding a reasonable way to cut back and forth between the groups and keep the players/audience interested.

Although a group of equals can informally handle the task of pacing the action and framing scenes, providing procedures for it can be beneficial in a lot of different ways. It can be a good way to answer the question of who’s in charge of what, it can be a good scaffolding to hang mechanics on, and it helps the players set a certain pace. That said, scene framing can be something of a pitfall for a new designer because saying “On your turn you frame a scene” can run square into the blank page issue. A big part of a GM’s job is figuring out what the scene is going to involve (in a logically consistent way, based on what the PCs are trying to do), and the challenge of it is one of the reasons not everyone who plays RPGs wants to be a GM. If you want to try this kind of thing without it falling flat, it helps to have the game provide some measure of input so that players have some semblance of a starting point they can build off of. In Fiasco when it’s your turn you choose to either establish or resolve the scene, and whichever one you don’t choose goes to the rest of the group. If you’re stumped for how to begin the scene, you can just let the rest of the group figure it out for you, but it means you decide on how it ends.

Games from the Norwegian Style and American Freeform traditions tend to make the overall setup something the game itself provides, so that the players don’t need to do much more than role-play their characters in the situation that the game puts in front of them. For example, Tomas Mørkrid’s game Stoke-Birmingham 0-0[3] is a role-playing poem with a very simple, clear setup. The game has a list of characters to choose from, all of whom are soccer (football) fans who are at a pub after watching a dull match that ended in a 0-0 draw. You have the situation and characters, you set a timer for 15 minutes, and you role-play until the timer goes off. And that’s it. It’s a very experimental game, and maybe not the most exciting, but it leaves little doubt as to what you’re going to play or what limits each player has in the game.

Jason Morningstar’s game The Shab-al-Hiri Roach has a series of events for the course of a school year, each of which also has a list of NPCs. Setting a scene relating to the Founder’s Day Wine & Cheese Social, where “Asst. Professor L. Scott Collins, the young radical” will be in attendance, is a much easier task that simply setting a scene with no guidance at all. Fiasco meanwhile doesn’t give a lot of guidance to how you set up or carry out individual scenes, but it does have a whole setup procedure that helps create a pregnant situation that gives you fertile ground for devising scenes.

Some games (like Polaris) have more of a thematic divide in who gets to decide what in a scene. When one player’s character is the focus in the scene, specific other players are their Mistaken, New Moon, and Full Moon, each of which represents a particular part of the world.


A lot of the non-traditional RPGs are actually assigning the right and responsibility of narration to different players in different ways. This is a distinct shift from how traditional RPGs work, because it not only allows but demands stepping outside of your character to consider what makes for a good story. Some people have trouble with this, while others take to it naturally. I don’t think either approach is better per se, and more importantly each one allows us to accomplish things that the other cannot. Narration is a double-edged sword, in that it provides tremendous freedom, but it can put a player on the spot.

It also requires a certain level of consensus as to what the story is going to involve and what the limits of the world are. Paul F. Tompkins’ Spontaneanation podcast presents long-form improv stories, loosely based on a conversation with a guest and a starting location they provide. That gives the improvisers a nice launching point, but it does mean that their stories are often random and bizarre, and regularly veer into the fantastical. It makes the podcast a lot of fun, but you probably want something a little more grounded for your RPG. Fiasco deals with that by being based in the style of Coen Brothers movies, and it’s at its best when the setting is thoroughly mundane.

One thing to be careful of is mixing narration with things that encourage players to identify too closely with their characters. At least with my gaming group at the time, Jared Sorensen’s game octaNe (which is really cool overall) had the problem that it slotted a roll to see who would narrate in where you would normally roll to see who succeeded, and players who got to narrate would usually narrate their characters totally kicking ass. Since they were rolling decently through the game session, the result was a story with very little tension to it.

What Do You Do?

Another way to think about an RPG is in terms of the question, “What do you do?” There are a few different ways to look at this question.

First, there’s the question of that the characters involved are up to. While there are RPGs that leave that question wholly up to the group playing the game, overall I think it’s better for the designer to have a clear notion of the sorts of things the characters in the game are going to be doing. D&D doesn’t quite answer this question as thoroughly as it might, but there is an overall expectation that you’re going to play adventurers who explore dungeons, fight monsters, discover treasures, and become more powerful, and it greatly informs the system.

There are a fair number of games that take a dauntingly vast array of possibilities and narrow it down to something manageable by setting up a “mission” format. While this is at its most blatant in military-themed games, where PCs will have their main objectives handed to them from up the chain of command, the basic concept of “there’s an issue, you go in and solve it” has wider implications than that. Golden Sky Stories is a nonviolent game about magical animals in rural Japan, and it lays out the default configuration of a game session as involving the PCs running into someone who has some kind of problem that the PCs can help solve. Where Rifts involves a ridiculous number of disparate character options, ranging from the rogue scholar to the dragon hatchling, Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds version assumes that PCs are part of the “Tomorrow Legion,” a distinctly heroic organization that neatly allows for groups of adventurers out fighting the good fight.

There’s also the question of what the players are doing as they play the game. In a traditional RPG, the players’ job is to role-play their character and, with the GM’s guidance, engage the rules in specific ways related to their character’s abilities. As we’ve seen with the stuff about narration, other kinds of games can call on players to do different things.

Both of these are important, because in order to create a functional set of rules you need to break down the action of the game and decide what you need to handle through the rules and how. In that respect Apocalypse World and other Powered by the Apocalypse games are decidedly instructive. The system uses “moves,” discrete chunks of rules that tell you how to resolve specific kinds of actions when they come up. In AW, everything is either a move or something the MC handles informally, so things with moves attached to them stand out that much more than they would in a system where the GM can fall back on a generic stat check.

Even if you’re not making a Powered by the Apocalypse game, it’s a good idea to brainstorm a list of the major things you expect characters and players to be doing in your game.


Different games incentivize different behaviors, and it’s important to take a hard look at what your game is incentivizing, and whether it’s diverging from what you intended.

RPGs that get players to strongly identify with a character will naturally lead the player to want to keep the character alive and have them succeed. There are exceptions to the rule, and there are people who become exceptions at specific times, but for the most part that’s how people think. Having a more powerful character lets you achieve those things more easily, and attaining new rewards is a naturally pleasurable experience as well. D&D readily taps into all those desires by presenting a dangerous world where PCs can gain enormous power and riches over time, and entirely too much of mobile gaming is based on creating Skinner boxes to sell the appeal of numbers going up.

While some people decry power gaming as missing the point of role-playing, there’s an obvious rationality to seriously engaging with the rules of the game you’re playing, especially when doing so poorly can dampen your moment-to-moment enjoyment or outright cut off your participation altogether if your character dies. I think it’s important for the gaming group to be in sync at the table in terms of how hard they want to game the system, but from a game designer’s perspective, it’s something that you should expect. If you create a game where power is desirable and making optimal character choices is a way to get it, of course players are going to try to do that, because you’ve just created a huge incentive for them to do so. Most people aren’t going to take it to the contrived lengths of the D&D charop boards, which became a sort of ancillary hobby for some people, based around finding the most contrived builds to make the system do the most ridiculous things, but most everyone wants to succeed. The designers of D&D 3rd Edition seem to have largely failed to anticipate this, and inadvertently created a charop paradise, to the point where the rigorous balance of 4th Edition seems like a direct reaction to the craziness of late 3.5 Edition as played by Wizards of the Coast forum regulars.

Although the D&D approach has been one of the most common for RPGs, there are others. Call of Cthulhu was one of the earliest games to veer away from the pursuit of power per se by making conventional forms of power variously useless or decidedly double-edged. Your investigator might tote around a shotgun, but for a lot of the challenges a CoC game presents, that’s going to just be more dead weight. CoC characters can try learning magic if they wish as well, but it’s a dangerous, sanity-draining pursuit that can easily backfire.

CoC’s approach is more stick, whereas other games have since switched over to trying the carrot. In Fate, players rely a lot on having Fate Points to spend to boost rolls and such, and the major way to get a Fate Point is when the GM compels an aspect. That means that the GM says something like “Your ‘Martian Barbarian Warrior’ aspect would make you make a mess of this party,” and if they accept, they get a Fate Point. This gives the player a clear incentive for having their character do things that would otherwise be irrational. Compelling aspects has a bit of GM overhead and such, but it helps give Fate games a rollicking, pulpy feel, and vividly brings characters’ flaws to life.

Fiasco meanwhile works by giving players maximum freedom, by stripping away most of the disincentives. It’s meant for one-shot games in the vein of Coen Brothers movies, so the characters can be terrible people you don’t have to identify with. The rules never dictate that your character dies or anything, and even if they do, you can continue participating in the game by having your scenes be flashbacks or expressions of their lingering influence on the world. There aren’t many games that make it quite so easy to have your character die in the first scene and still participate normally if that’s what you want to do. Your final die roll at the end will determine the tone of your character’s ending, but since going down in a glorious fireball is part of the fun of Fiasco, it’s hard to get too concerned about it, especially when it comes just before you end your single session game.

If players are regularly playing the game in a way different from how you intended, there’s a disconnect somewhere. It may be that you’ve stumbled on something more compelling that merits exploring, or it could be that you need to rework some of your game to nip it in the bud.[4]

Aesthetic Mechanics

“Aesthetic mechanics” are what I call RPG rules that serve to add characters, concepts, moods, events, etc. into a game without involving hard game rules per se. Games from the Nordic larp, Jeepform, and American freeform traditions often consist mostly if not entirely of aesthetic mechanics. Until We Sink for example involves a set of cards that give you different characters and events that come up as you play through a series of scenes, but there’s no “mechanics” in the traditional sense.

In creative activities in general there’s a “blank space” issue. A blank piece of paper has infinite possibilities, but it’s easy to get mired in figuring out what slice of infinity you actually want to put on the page. If you start with a piece of paper with some parameters of some kind, it can provide a springboard that has the potential to lead you to create something richer than you might have on your own. Or at the very least, writer’s block isn’t a problem you’ll run into playing Mad-Libs.

Making these kinds of creative tools takes a certain amount of practice and skill, because breaking things down into building blocks that can readily fit together in multiple ways isn’t something that anything in normal society really prepares you for.

I’ll talk about these things a bit more under Aesthetic Distinctions (p. XX) and Aesthetic Randomness (p. XX).

Social Mechanics

In the early days of D&D, different people played the game differently, sometimes drastically so. Some groups undoubtedly role-played much like today, but there was also a common convention of having a “party crier” who would relay the players’ actions to the DM. Gygax lived long enough that his opinions on things changed over time, but he did once complain about people trying to put inferior “play-acting” into his game.  Clearly an RPG doesn’t have to involve deep role-playing, but if those anecdotes are accurate, it seems likely that the overall hobby has shifted towards more RP compared to when it started. D&D has developed a wealth of cliché situations where the art of persuasion is another necessary tool, and that’s probably the most common entry point for the issue of social mechanics. Adventurers bribe guards, flirt with barmaids, parlay with enemies, and confer with kings to get what they want.

More or less since the beginning, there’s been a lot of discussion of how the rules of an RPG can address social aspects of the story, or if they should even try. Earlier versions of D&D had rules for certain very specific social things like how newly encountered NPCs react and the temperament of hirelings. Reaction rules are potentially a nice way to add variety to encounters, and since hirelings are something of a resource for PCs, it makes a certain amount of sense for there to be rules that decide just how loyal they really are. As with perception (see p. XX), when RPGs started adding skill systems, it was natural to include things like persuasion, diplomacy, intimidation, and other methods of social interaction in the skill list. It’s also something that calls for a bit more thought about how it will actually work at the table. You could make fast-talking a guard into a simple die roll, no different from climbing a wall, but it’s kind of an odd thing to do when playing what you claim to be a role-playing game. Not every social encounter is necessarily going to merit role-playing it in full of course, but at least some are going to demand it.

If you leave persuasion purely to role-playing, it can become time-consuming, and it limits players to characters that have whatever level of charisma they can convincingly portray.  If you use a skill check on its own, you take out a big chunk of potential role-playing, and potentially leave a lot of things vague about what actually happened. If you do a bit of both, letting the player role-play and make a check, sometimes the two will so strongly disagree that it doesn’t make sense. There’s also the fact that while we tend to let players run roughshod over NPCs, we’re a lot less willing to let a PC get persuaded by a die roll. On the other hand, in both real life and fiction, people don’t fully control their own minds quite as much as we want to believe. We’re more willing to allow rules to tell us that a character is afraid than that they believe the rogue’s lies, but not everything necessarily needs to come down to Free Will.

Another type of social mechanic that comes up a lot is relationship rules. A lot of genres heavily involve relationships between characters in various ways, so it makes a certain amount of sense to give them some mechanical weight. The Smallville RPG goes as far as to make relationships one of the most basic character traits in the game, so that Clark might have a die pool with his dice for “Chloe” (one of his best friends) along with his “Justice” value and his Kryptonian heritage. These kinds of rules can be really effective when done well, but they have quite a few pitfalls. They limit how well the game can integrate new characters, they can be cumbersome to track, they can be hard to make reflect the current state of affairs, and so on.

My view is that social mechanics can be a very valuable tool, but you need to use them with great care. They are yet another case where the question becomes, what effect are these rules actually having at the table?

To me, one of the most important ideas for social mechanics is the notion that they can create incentives without dictating actions. In Maid RPG, you use the “combat” rules for basically anything where characters are clashing. You make an opposed roll, and the loser takes some Stress points. If you use the combat rules to resolve an argument, the rules don’t mind-control the loser to do what the winner wants, but the Stress points are a significant disincentive to more arguing. In Smallville, instead of damage you take Stress, and that includes emotional types of Stress, but the game effect is that someone acting against you can potentially get bonus dice from that, not that you’re forced to role-play your character as upset or depressed.

Subtractive Design

You may have heard about Juicero, a Silicon Valley startup that raised $120 million for a $700 machine to make high-end juice. They launched in March of 2016, and closed down in September of 2017. They spent a considerable amount of effort setting up a supply chain to make packets of premium ingredients, that you would then stick into a machine that essentially just served to squeeze the packets really hard, but also had a QR code reader and WiFi. One website did a teardown of a Juicero machine, and found that it was beautifully engineered, but also used a lot of complex and expensive parts and techniques that a startup without quite so much venture capital (or just more common sense) wouldn’t have tried. They pretty quickly lowered the price to a somewhat less outrageous $400, but the real nail in the coffin was when a reviewer pointed out that you could just squeeze the packets by hand. It wasn’t quite as effective as the precision engineered machine, but the difference wasn’t nearly enough to justify the price tag.

I first heard about Juicero’s inevitable demise when someone tweeted out a photo that the founder had posted of himself at Burning Man. Mulling it over more, it occurred to me that Juicero might have succeeded if it had simply cut the machine out of the equation. Reviewers were genuinely happy with the quality of the actual juice that the company was bringing them, even if they were balking at the price of the machine. I don’t really get the appeal myself, but there’s no denying that there’s a market for high-end juice products, and putting those packets (or something similar but optimized for easy squeezing) in Whole Foods, maybe with an optional hand-operated squeezing tool, likely would’ve worked.

It’s more true of board games than RPGs, but an important part of game design is learning to recognize and cut through those kinds of Gordian knots.

There’s a bit in the Tao Te Ching that talks about how usefulness comes from what is not there. “Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; It is the holes which make it useful.” I feel a bit cheesy being a white guy invoking Taoism,[5] but in a sense a lot of RPG design works by narrowing an infinite array of options down to something manageable. By (provisionally) giving up unfettered freedom, gamers gain the usefulness of letting someone provide them with ideas and procedures that they can build on.

This might sound like something really experimental, but D&D does it too. Making a GURPS character gives you the potentially daunting task of devising a character concept from scratch and figuring out how to spend points to realize it, whereas D&D narrows the choices down by giving you a limited selection of races and classes to choose from. By limiting the scope of character creation to a set of specific archetypes, the game can present those archetypes more vividly and with more interesting mechanics.

Genre Emulation

There are exceptions, but for the most part RPGs have always drawn extensively from source material for inspiration. They are deeply intertextual, with countless references woven throughout, to the point where even longtime fans aren’t always aware of them. It’s taken decades for explanations of some elements of D&D to emerge, and that’s the most famous and widely-played RPG of them all. While halflings are more or less the hobbits from Middle Earth, the iconic Magic Missile spell comes from a particular scene in the 1963 movie The Raven, a very loose adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe poem, starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff as rival sorcerers. Gygax drew extensively from the fantasy literature he enjoyed, but he also specifically said that D&D was its own animal, and not a tool for simulating Lord of the Rings, hence the rulebook didn’t have any particular need for things work the way they would in a Tolkien story. I don’t think RPGs should be bound to how things work in other media as a matter of course, but I do think that tapping into people’s knowledge and enjoyment of other media can be a powerful tool.

The first explicitly Tolkien-inspired RPG was Iron Crown Enterprises’ Middle-earth Role Playing, a.k.a. MERP. It used the same system as their Rolemaster RPG, so while it used the trappings of Lord of the Rings, in practice it was much closer to D&D. More recent LotR-inspired RPGs like Fellowship, The One Ring, and Final Hour of a Storied Age produce play that more closely resembles a Tolkien story, but in doing so they part ways with the likes of D&D and MERP in numerous ways. One of the big advantages of pursuing genre emulation is that it can break us out of familiar patterns, since it’s very easy to run into instances where traditional RPG rules will lead you away from your goal. For me, part of the appeal of all this unconventional thinking in RPGs is that it’s helped me achieve games like Raspberry Heaven that would’ve been impossible otherwise.

In a sense, creating rules to emulate a genre is creating a simulation, but of a fictional world rather than a real one. Even if your game isn’t deeply unconventional, small changes to what is otherwise a traditional RPG can make a big difference. Toon is a pretty traditional RPG overall, but one of its most critical changes on the way to being a Looney Toons style RPG is that characters that run out of Hit Points will “fall down” and come back a few minutes later. Call of Cthulhu has a number of decisions that make it better for emulating the style of an H.P. Lovecraft story, but the most important is undoubtedly the Sanity rules, which bring home the adverse effects of confronting mind-shattering horrors.

Social Footprint

D&D’s core audience has always been young men, usually single, and if not rich, then at least not poor enough for money concerns to eat up a lot of their time. A lot of things about it, including what Gygax plainly wrote in the original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, show that it’s meant to require a major investment of time and effort, especially on the DM’s part. While TSR later discovered that publishing premade modules and settings could be highly lucrative, they originally expected each DM to build their own campaign world and devise their own scenarios. While players were to have less of a time commitment outside of the game, D&D was still premised on having 6-hour sessions on a regular basis, which could go on for multiple years. For people who have the time to sink into a hobby like that it’s awesome, but for the rest of us the huge social footprint of D&D and other big RPGs is a challenge. It pays to think about the amount and type of time and energy that your game is going to involve.

If you do in fact want to make a game for long, involved campaigns, that’s totally a thing you can do. Be up front about it, and strive to make a game worthy of that kind of investment. But RPGs can be smaller than that too, especially if you design around creating a simpler, tighter experience.

[1] Chess comes off as a very solemn, intellectual game, which makes the weirder incidents around it stand out that much more. It’s hard to know where to even begin, but there is the fact that the USSR banned cosmonauts from playing chess in space because they got into fistfights. Also, in 1923 Alexander Alekhine, one of the great chess masters, got so angry over losing a game that he smashed up his hotel room. There’s also plenty of instances of violence and even outright murder over chess games. It really puts the stuff people have said about D&D in perspective.

[2] Particularly in the historical miniatures wargame scene, wargame rules could be surprisingly ambiguous in places. That’s less true of the Avalon Hill-style board wargames, but it’s nonetheless a characteristic of the medium.

[3] Also, I made my own take on it, about fans flying home from an anime con, called Monday Afternoon Blues:

[4] Or you may have something to tuck away to use in some other game.

[5] And I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that the Taoist concept of “emptiness” has significance beyond things sold at Crate & Barrel.

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