What Is a Tabletop Role-Playing Game?

What is a role-playing game? I have said before, over and over…A game is not a story. Yet, role-playing games 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, then 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.

What is it for?

Generally speaking, role-playing games are for entertainment and social interaction. Sometimes they are intended to educate the player about a subject or inform the players about a social issue.

Games don’t necessarily have to be for fun or a mental escape from reality. Many players want a mental challenge and that is not always “fun.” It can be 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 person’s shoes.

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, RPG’s are going to be for people who want to have those experiences they don’t get to have in their everyday lives. They want to be a hero, a homicidal transient wizard, the pilot of a space freighter, a cybernetic hit man, a vampire grasping to their last shred of humanity, or any of hundreds of other personalities. It is fun to play the role of a star-ship science officer attempting to communicate with the alien who keeps eating your security team. When you can do that with your friends, even better.

Who is it for?

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. Tabletop role-playing games 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 storytelling for 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 a role-playing game is similar but slightly different.

What is it?

A role-playing game is a game in which there are player controlled characters, in a situation, making choices that have outcomes resulting 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 storytelling, the storyteller controls everything. The storyteller 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 game master’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 is terrible and children get bored with it quickly. You have no choices. The card is telling you that you have to move to the next purple space.

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.

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.

7 thoughts on “What Is a Tabletop 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~


  2. Pingback: Superficial Heroism – Grumpy Wizard

  3. Pingback: Your Story Sucks – Grumpy Wizard

  4. Pingback: What is Enough? – Grumpy Wizard

  5. Pingback: A Message to 5E DMs: You Only Have One Ass. – Grumpy Wizard

  6. Pingback: Review: The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity – Grumpy Wizard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s