What Is a Table Top Role Playing Game?

What is an RPG? I have said before, over and over…A game is not a story. Yet, RPG’s feel like a story. If the experience of playing a game is not a story even though it feels like one (kind of) then what is it?

Can’t we just go with Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it?” We could and for most of our purposes that’s fine. If we are going to design games or adventures for other people, we ought to be clear on what we are designing. The two most important questions in design thinking are, “What’s it for,” and “Who’s it for?” If we know who it’s for and what it’s for we have a much better idea of what it is.

Generally speaking, RPG’s are for entertainment and social interaction. Sometimes they are intended to educate or inform the players. Participants will often be informed or educated by the game they are playing but that is typically an emergent by product not the primary intention of the game.  I do want to encompass all the reasons why a person might want to play a game. Games don’t necessarily have to be about fun or escape. Many players want a mental challenge and that is not always “fun” but for them it is entertaining. It can be like going to the gym to do some brain curls.  Some people want place themselves in the uncomfortable position of a minority amidst a discriminatory culture as a way to walk a mile in the other non-binary person’s shoes. Not my thing, but if it works for you, be my guest. I think we can tie all of those reasons up into a nice package by saying, “RPG’s are for having an intellectual or emotional experience that can’t normally be achieved in real life.” 

That leads us to, “Who is it for?” Broadly speaking, TTRPG’s are going to be for people who want to have those experiences they don’t get to have in their every day lives. They want to be a hero, a homicidal transient wizard, the pilot of a space freighter, a cybernetic hit man, a vampire trying to hang on to a shred of humanity or any of hundreds of other personalities. It is an interesting experience to put yourself into the role of a star-ship science officer and try to figure out how to communicate with the alien who keeps eating your security team. When you can do that with your friends, even better.

I would love to be more precise about this. In the italics below, I have a description of, “who’s it for,” but I don’t find it very satisfying. Maybe a researcher somewhere has done a proper study about the psychological or demographic make up of RPG enthusiasts but for now…

Tabletop RPG’s are for people who enjoy the experience of playing the role of a being in a situation unlike their own everyday life.

We have the what and the who. TTRPG’s are for people who want to play the role of a fictional character for the purposes of social interaction, entertainment and sometimes education. This, I think, tells us a lot about what RPG’s are.

Recently, I took an online workshop about telling stories in the context of marketing. The course material defined story as follows, Characters- In a situation- Making choices. Red Riding Hood (character) is walking through the woods (situation) and talks to a stranger (makes a choice).

You might, think to  yourself, “Self, he’s just defined what happens in an RPG! RPG’s are stories after all,  ya jerk!” Not so fast. My definition of an RPG is similar but slightly different.

A role playing game is a game where there are player controlled characters, in a situation, making choices that have consequences/outcomes following from the choices the players make.

The players are making the choices. That is the essence of a game; player decisions. Remember our “who”. People who want to play the role of fictional characters. They want to be in control over those characters. In story telling, the story teller controls everything. The story teller is especially in control over the actions, beliefs and thoughts of the characters. In games, the players are in control and their decisions need to have consequences for good or for bad.

Some of the worst game mastering advice out there is about herding player characters through the GM’s “story.” This fails to acknowledge why the players are there in the first place. They are there to play their characters. Remember what our players want, to be entertained through the medium of the game. If you are playing a game, it is not entertaining to have choice taken from you. This is why Candy Land sucks. You have no choices. The card is telling you that you have to move to the next purple space and there are no choices.

If the game master is “the storyteller” then the game master is making the choices and determining the outcome. If that is the case then the players are there merely to fill in the “how did they get there” part of the story. That’s fine, if that is what you want, but that seems like an interactive story using the framework of a game but isn’t a game.

I’d rather play a game that uses story to inform the game. That requires player controlled characters, in a situation, making choices that have consequences following from the choices the players make.

2 thoughts on “What Is a Table Top Role Playing Game?

  1. Thanks for your comment on my post on this topic today.

    We both seem to be coming at it from a similar perspective and with a note about “Story Before” being – if nothing else – less than satisfying~


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