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So, D&D 4th is coming soon, and there's been a lot of sound and fury, as might be predicted. It looks like it's going to have a strong tactical emphasis, possibly moreso than 3rd ed. In the worst possible light, this has created a fear that the game will be little more than a glorified boardgame, and no longer a roleplaying game. That has, in turn, lead to a lot of deep thought and fervent discussion of what is and is not a roleplaying game. Given that, I throw in my two bits, and admit my definition is much more generous than most.

See, my my definition, a roleplaying game is defined by the choices I have as a player. If those choices are limited to a fixed set of options, it may be a game, but it is not an RPG. If, on the other hand, they are unlimited (or at least unlimited within setting logic - I'm ok that I can't choose to sprout wings and fly) then we're probably talking an RPG. In an RPG, I can declare I'm doing anything, and expect that the rules will find a way to express that. In a game, I can only declare those actions the rules stipulate.

Now, I acknowledge there's a sliding scale here. In D&D, for example, many actions are laid out explicitly within the rules, so many that it is conceivably possible that you will never need to take an action which is not one of the outlined choices. D&D 4th seems like it will have even more explicitly detailed choices, so it is even more likely that you can play it without ever deviating from the fixed list. The gravity of specific examples is such that people will often choose to take the explicitly laid out actions because they are there.

But that merely shows that D&D can be run as a pure game, but not that it must be. This can be a razor-thin line, and a lot of it comes down to where the impetus for action is coming from. Let us take a theoretical game system and say it has a 'distract' maneuver that has some mechanical effect. For me, there is all the difference in the world between:

Player: I want to perform a distract maneuver.
GM: Ok, how do you intend to do so?
Player: I'll throw my drink in his face


Player: I throw my drink in his face!
GM: Ok, mechanically I'll treat that as a distract maneuver

The former case is a game with color. It is akin to describing how your knight captures a rook, and it can be a lot of fun, very creative and entirely satisfying, and I do not begrudge it for an instant. I play a ton of games that are like this - Clix, Talisman, Arkham Horror - and I enjoy the hell out of them, and they're akin to RPGs because the range of choices is very broad, but ultimately I don't view them as RPGs because broad is not the same as open.*

In the latter case, the player's choice is unbounded by the rules. She is doing what seems right to him (by whatever criteria that player digs) , and the GM is using the rules to interpret it. The GM could just as easily have decided it was a flammerjammer maneuver, and the player would have still thrown the drink. Yes, hopefully the GM and the rules all play together in a way that make the outcome a reasonable one, but at that point we're getting into whether or not it's a good RPG, and I'd rather not go there.

So given that, can D&D3E (and presumably 4E) be run as a pure game? Of course it can. And a very good one at that. But so long as I can toss that drink in your face (and they don't actually introduce a 'toss drink in face' maneuver) then it's still an RPG to me.

Now, note that this says nothing about drama or story or personality or playstyle or really anything besides a simple mechanical distinction. That's intentional. I think that making something an RPG is very easy, but once you do there are still many, many choices to make to help support or resist other ideas of what you think is going to be fun, whether that is tactical problem solving, internal conflict or just looking awesome in black. Those are hard, fun, painful, fascinating choices, and they interest me much more than the question of what an RPG is.

* Minor Caveat - I fully acknowledge that this sort of play can often serve as 'training wheels' to get a players used to the idea that they really can do anything, so given that, there are cases where the line gets quite blurry. I don't think that detracts from the point, but I mention it just to underscore that I think it can be awesome, fun and cool.



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 11th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
Player: I want to perform a distract maneuver.
GM: Ok, how do you intend to do so?
Player: I'll throw my drink in his face


Player: I throw my drink in his face!
GM: Ok, mechanically I'll treat that as a distract maneuver.

I don't quite get the nuance here. Simply because both of these examples could happen at the same table, SIDE BY SIDE. Example A can be a person who is far more intimate with the rules, but detail isn't as pivotal. And it seems to depend more on player and GM style than anything.

And I question example B. Because I don't see how that would go down, exactly. I mean, either the player is doing it 1) intentionally to distract, or 2) doing it because the guy insulted his mother, so to speak. #1 precludes the player desiring a goal, and thus is facilitating it by his description of his action (Thus, your first example). Yet #2 may translate to 'he's undergoing a distracting maneuver', but if there's nothing to distract him from at that time, then it's just an unnecessary rule because it's not coming into play.

To put #2 another way, allow me to use silly example:

Player: I go outside and pee on some bushes.
GM: Roll damage.
Player: What?
GM: Roll damage to the bushes.
Player: But I'm just taking a leak because that's what you do.
GM: Urine does damage to plants. Roll 2d4.
Mar. 11th, 2008 02:44 am (UTC)
I think that's a good definition, Rob, and I think further that rechan's example highlights another way of stating that main difference between games (used more generally) and RPGs:

in an RPG, there will always be stuff that's not directly mediated by rules/mechanics.

Overusing the mechanics, as rechan rightly points out, leads to silliness and often bad play—precisely because making someone roll damage to pee on the bushes is the sort of thinking that arises from the GM not understanding the distinction you're drawing.

Mar. 11th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
For some amusing potty gamer humor that's vaguely on topic: http://goblinscomic.com/d/20070120.html
Mar. 11th, 2008 12:06 pm (UTC)
I was thinking about this a little last night and the same thought occurred to me, but I took it a little differently. One of the reasons D&D works so well is that is it can very robustly support both modes at once, and that's pretty freaking powerful.

(I also consider the RPG element to be infectious - if a game mixes both, it can still be an RPG, but that takes a subjective point and makes it even more subjective) :)

To clarify a bit on #2, I'm assuming that a mechanical interpretation of effect is desirable in that situation - perhaps there's a fight going on or your buddy is ready to cosh the guy or something else - exactly what isn't terribly important The rule itself is unimportant, and your example is a good one for why using rules as physics can get silly.

Instead, what's important is that the player can state whatever action they want and the rules will, if necessary, account for it (though they may account for it badly or well, depending on the specifics of the rules). A decent rule of thumb is this: If I hide all the rules from you, will you still be able to play? I assert that in an RPG that at least for things the player has a frame of reference for (moving, talking, fighting but not os much game-specific things like spellcasting) you could simply describe the situation, and ask them what they do, and then you could use the rules as appropriate yardstick for how things go. If they say they want to climb a rope, you look at their stats and skills, tell them to roll something (or maybe just roll it yourself) and resolve it. Now, this may not be optimal - god knows with multiple players this would get insane very fast - but the concept is critical because without the rules, the player will make choices that are bound only by what seems reasonable.

Now, that's not a good yardstick for all RPGs. Some have predictive elements or specific rules fiddly-ness that makes that impossible, so that question can test for a positive, but not a negative, so while it's useful for illustration, it's not essential to my definition.

Anyway, to faintly restate the core point - in a game you have a fixed list of options, and you can expand or contract that list situationally. In an RPG you have an unlimited set of options, bounded only by what is reasonable. Deciding what is reasonable is sometimes a challenge, and those bounds can shrink and grow, but within those bounds are multitudes, including bad or boring choices aplenty, but also including the profoundly unexpected.

Edited at 2008-03-11 12:08 pm (UTC)
Mar. 16th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
I was about to say... I've seen both modes of play in the same game. Could it be that one player is playing a roleplaying game and the other is not?

I can think of more extreme cases that would make me say that, but in this case, I'd stop short of calling one player's experience and RPG and another's not. It seems unnecessarily divisive and a bit too much like John Wick's recent redefinition of RPG to exclude D&D 4th edition.

This reminds of another classic debate in the D20 space. As you may know, D20 defines a few interaction style skills like Bluff and Diplomacy. But at many tables (including mine), it's not sufficient to simply say "I bluff the guard", you have to role play the situation. The debate comes in whether the roleplaying is the lead-up to the roll (possibly with a modifier for your effort) or the results. Though I prefer the former, in the end it's a taste thing and either approach is valid.
Mar. 16th, 2008 06:39 pm (UTC)
I think it's _possible_ to have the game where one player is just playing a minis game and the other person is roleplaying (by whatever definition) but in reality, that barrier is so permeable that I can't imagine that sort of difference sustaining. Both players impact the other, and the synergy makes it something cooler. And I admit that any definition of RPGs should be infectious, so it all becomes an RPG to me. :)
Mar. 11th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)
That is the best definition of an RPG I've ever seen. I know it's not the right definition for everyone, but for me, it puts in a nutshell what makes RPGs fun (and makes many RPGs un-fun): there's a way to do whatever I want to try. Thanks very much.
Mar. 11th, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)
Quick side note about 4e's tactical nature.

If you look at the array of defenses (i.e., target DCs) PCs have now (AC, Ref, Fort, Will), you may notice that Mearls (probably) snuck in the back door the idea of a basic check mechanic for pulling off "stunts," i.e., stuff not in the book. One example that was floating around is that of an opponent who dives under a table someone else is standing upon, with the goal of kicking it over from underneath so the other creature falls off. Mechanically, this could be seen as a Str attack vs. the target's Ref.

Basically, the array of defenses each creature possesses and the idea that there are different kinds of "attacks" one can use against any of them opens up a lot of room for exploration beyond (what looks like) the tightly-defined maneuvers in 4e. It's looking like any bonus can be pitted against any defense.

I.e., facilitating the tossing of drinks and whatnot.

Sure, there's nothing that prevents doing this stuff in 3e, but it's less obvious. The only DC on a 3e character sheet is AC. Any unconventional move thus means you have to decide if it's a save or a check, is it opposed or a static DC, circumstance modifiers, etc, etc.
Mar. 11th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the overall streamlining of how to do stuff _generally_ (defenses, skills and such) has excited me much more than the stuff I've seen about how to do stuff _specifically_ (special attacks and whatnot). I think even if the overall form of D&D4 does not end up matching with my tastes, the core of it is going to be pretty compelling. A lot of it looks like things I like from true20 taken to the next logical level, and that's not a bad way to go.
Mar. 11th, 2008 06:07 pm (UTC)
I don't really buy it. None of that has to do with rules for playing a character, which is the major essense of what makes a "roleplaying" game different from a game. Your example is only the illusion of openness. I don't see a quantitative difference between "I throw my drink in his face!" being interpreted as a distract manuever or flammerjammer manuever or playing chess and going "Sir Pouncealot throws a drink in the enemy king's face!" and moving into check or taking a bishop. The only difference is that it's the same player deciding what rule reflects the color. In fact, I'd argue that when the player can decide what rule they are enacting, it's more open than when they have to get approval from a single person at the table for an action to have meaning. But I don't think openness has anything to do with roleplaying, or at least, nothing very helpful for a definition.

Regardless if its D&D or Chess, I think they both could be run with roleplaying. But pretty much anything can. People use IRC as a roleplaying system. But that doesn't make IRC, or a specific RP channel, an RPG. What makes an RPG is when roleplaying is either required to interface with the rules at all, or the rules provide a benefit to doing so. In D&D or Chess, there's no reason to throw a drink in anyone's face. Yeah, it adds color and that is fun, but you're just as benefitted by doing a distract manuever or putting the king in check. But in, say, Spirit of the Century, if you have an aspect that ties into throwing drinks in peoples faces (which could be a variety of things like "How Dare You!" or Throw My Drink), there's a direct mechanical benefit for doing so.
Mar. 11th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
The problem is that there are really two potential approaches to the question of definitions of an RPG (and I'll stick with RPG, roleplaying has many, many, many meanings, including games, outside of this narrow sphere.)

The first is to establish criteria, what is and is not an RPG, then methodically apply those criteria. This is very clean and very satisfying, but it also creates the perfect arena for the archetypical geek fight - arguing over the rules because whoever sets the rules wins the game.

The second is observational. What is and is not an RPG? Why? Kick those boundaries and a limits and see if you can find something that ties them all together. This is utilitarian and pragmatic, but it can also be self serving, since it allows a person to exclude samples they do not like as 'not RPGs' without rigor.

My sins are very much of the second variety. For me, I needed a definition that encompassed every version of D&D to date, Gamma World, the Amber DRPG, FATE, Risus, Feng Shui, Rolemaster, Cold City and about a zillion other games while at the same time excluding Talisman, Arkham Horror and Console RPGs, all of which I love. I also needed it to be useful to be in illustrating the other edge of the envelope - games like Polaris where action is quite constrained, but according to very different rules than games that have gone before.

And this definition allows that, so for me, it is ultimately a matter of utility.

(now, that said, I'd originally meant to mention that it is implicit that one is playing a character - unlimited choice with a ball is not quite the same thing, but I'm hoping that people will accept that as a given)

The thing I think makes this problematic is this: Many of these things I consider RPGs are, in fact, very bad rpgs. They suck, for one reason or another, and to differing degrees of importance based on the needs and interests of the group. Generally, they suck because they lack something that someone else will consider essential to an RPG. A list of the number of things that Red Box D&D doesn't do would be overwhelming, but to say it's not an RPG because, say, it has no mechanism for inner conflict is cutting a nose to spite a face.

Now, don't get me wrong - I think that many of these things that people demand in an RPG are awesome things. Signs of quality, often. And if someone wants to argue that they must be there for an RPG to be good for fun or satisfying, then I think that's a great discussion to have.

For all that, there is another priority in my thinking, and that is one of respect. My definition is intended to be as broad and respectful as I can manage it while still being useful (at least to me). Partly this is a practical upshot of it being observational - it needs to account for a lot of games after all. But in part it is also that i have no desire or interest to condemn some part of our hobby as "not roleplaying" because I see no percentage in that - it's petty and divisive, and we have enough problems as is. And I hasten to add, i do not suggest that you are proposing anything to the contrary. Rather, I look at the tone this conversation has taken at large, and I cannot help but feel that point needs to be underscored.
Mar. 11th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
I'm honestly tired of the "What is and isn't an RPG?" question. The whole discussion, every time it has come up across the years, seems to me mainly a way for some people to piss on other people's fun: basically, geeks acting like jocks, using intellectual muscle instead but the same old clique-based scorn. The whole thing bothers me deeply.

Oh, and I'm not saying this to indicate you are doing so here, maybe I'm just saying it to vent. Clearly my choice to stay away from discussions of 4th Edition (you've been through one edition war, you've been through them all, especially when you've been through three others already) has been a wise one and spared me much aggravation.

Anyways...I am left wondering if you would consider ORX an RPG by your definition above? (Given it's procedural structure and that you narrate your choice/action/attempts post-roll.)
Mar. 11th, 2008 07:20 pm (UTC)
See, it's questions like that which make it worthwhile, to my mind, to hunt up a definition despite all the other complete and utter bullshit it brings up (which you outline nicely, and I have no disagreement with), because I think that is a _great_ question.

And like most great questions, my first response is "huh. I'm not sure."

I've actually been chewing on that question in a broader sense, since ORX is hardly the only game to bring up such questions. There are a lot of games which have taken the awareness of the rules and shaped it into the flow of decision making in a way that shakes things up. I would even say it's postmodern in the _useful_ sense of the word. :)

In the abstract, I think the question is whether or not it's sophisticated parlor game. There are games which are effectively 'draw a premise from a hat, act it out, then pass the hat to someone else.' The game often exists to shape the contents of the hat so the whole effort has some coherence, but I would not necessarily call that an RPG, but I would not consider that a sleight. It is very similar to how Jeepform has been explained to me, and i think that's neat and fascinating, but it also sounds a lot like 'acting', which I'm told is a perfectly good word too.

Unfortunately, the realities of certain games are a bit more complex, and with ORX you have opened up a whole other can of worms with the introduction of humor. If the purpose of a game is to be humorous, is that something essential to its nature or is that just a goal, like being tactically satisfying. It _seems_ like it should be the latter, but the priorities of humor are very different from many others.

I'm discovering I could chew on this indefinitely, so I think I'll boil it down to a very strange question, that may or may not be useful: Is it possible (not desirable or intended, just possible) for a game of ORX to be railroaded in the classic sense?

Edited at 2008-03-11 07:25 pm (UTC)
Mar. 11th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Good question. I mulled it over for a bit, and I guess my tentative answer is: "No. Because I don't see how."

I don't see how because of the nature of play. I've tried to write "adventure modules" for the game, but other than creating an initial situation and perhaps creating a setting bible to work from (though by no means required), the narrative rights* lie with the individuals making the rolls, who have free reign beyond whatever method the group uses to establish consensus. Especially in a particularly silly game, where absolutely anything would go.

* which freely allow up to full-on Director stance

As well, mechanically, the inability of the gamemaster to fudge dice rolls -- as all rolls are in the open and "take backs" for anyone would have a severe impact on the overall system -- would be problematic to ensuring certain desired outcomes.

However, I've honestly never tried, so maybe one could somehow navigate the game so as to bring about a series of specific events/encounters including a pre-ordained conclusion (per the usual fight with the Big Bad of the moment).

This might be an interesting experiment to try with an old highly-linear D&D module as the scenario basis, to see what develops. (To be fair: I'd put money on the results being a wildly different outcome/adventure than imagined/intended.)
Mar. 11th, 2008 07:27 pm (UTC)
Also, the more I think, the more I'm feeling like "yes" because (if I remember the rules right) while the sequencing determines what sort of success you can pursue, that's a limit on _outcome_ not on the choice itself. But I may be fuzzy headed on this.
Mar. 11th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
No, you're recalling correctly. That's exactly how it works.
Mar. 11th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
I have to say, as a player of 0ed/1ed (I'm not sure which one it is, opinions are divided, about what we had here).

Most RPGs have nothing in them to suggest role-playing, the systems are wholly tactical board game-esque, whatever RP is done is added after the fact, and in spite of the rules.

Likewise, most "Story Games" are the same, while they create Story, they do not let you assume the role of a character and play as it, well, maybe they say you can in advice/text, but the rules do nothing to promote it.

This is why I state in my definition of "CSI Games" that it may or may not actually have any RP activity in them. I admit the truth that others do not face.

I do call the site "Competitive RPGs" because that's the easiest way to define it.

People do play RPGs, but they get the G from someone else, and they add the RP in spite of the G.
Mar. 11th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
See, I respect these categories, but they are worlds apart from my own experiences, and they depend on creating some pretty specific definitions. I totally dig that you have a definition of roleplaying that makes it a pretty pinpoint thing, and you are certainly not alone in this, but I am unlikely to share it. The heart of these old games to me is no tactical exercise - some puzzle solving, certainly, but hell, we were lucky to have graph paper we'd stolen from school. Miniatures and maps were things the guys in _college_ had. The promise of those games, to me, was "Be a hero. Do cool stuff." Yes, it also had no shortage of non-heroic, non-cool stuff, much of it downright dorky, but hell, I was 14 and I'm not about to complain about something else being dorky.

So, again, I seriously respect methodology and categorizations, but I am looking to describe what I have seen, and what I've seen is that play is a lot more robust than many rules might let you think.

Mar. 11th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
I agree wholeheartedly.

Even Snakes and Ladders can be played as an RPG.

The question is whether we define the Rules Body as an RPG, or the outcome of the activity in which we participate?

Because honestly, Cops and Robbers is a CSI Game, a dysfunctional one because there are no rules to negotiate the "Interactivity" between the players, but there is a game one can "win" or "lose", and there's often a story being told, even if only in the mind of the players.
You could also say they play a role.

But the mechanica, the boiled down definitions? I dunno.

Yes, I too played DnD as an RPG, but the game text? In no way did it lead to that, it was what we were told by previous gamers, what could be gleaned from little and far-between pieces of text advice in the manual with no rules backing them up.

As we often say in the case of modern indie games: "It needs to be in the book, not in your mind." And DnD worked because of what was shared socially, not through the book.
Mar. 11th, 2008 11:02 pm (UTC)
In another discussion, I came to a realization that there's a specific taste question that asks if any amount of characterization and narrative can turn chess into an RPG. I don't think there's a _right_ answer, but I think whichever answer one gives will inform the subsequent conclusions, but in a weird way. Saying that Chess can be an RPG seems to, paradoxically, be the more restrictive definition. Not sure what I think of that.

I might argue that D&D worked because of more than just socialization. For a lot of folks, there was only the book, and for all that it fails in many ways, it triggered the sense of wonder. Now, maybe that's an intrinsic thing in people drawn to these games, or maybe it's something that came from the combination of art, text and color. Pinning down what that origin is can be tough, and probably worth exploring. Texts have absolutely gotten better at cutting to the quick, but I am uncertain that's the sole thing that gets to play.
Mar. 12th, 2008 01:32 pm (UTC)
And I think it came to me in the night. An even more important question seems to be "Is roleplaying, in the context of RPGs, about situation or persona?" (Persona may not be the best of words for this, but I'll trust the idea of playing a role is broad enough that it can make sense.) Is it about facing fictional situations and interacting meaningfully with them, or is it about creating meaningful motivation, character and story and interacting meaningfully with them?

Now, I cop out a little in that I say "both", but we've established that I cast a wide net. But I think that some of the friction comes out of limiting things to one or the other, or more specifically, from defining it as persona not situation. The people who favor situation merely dismiss the persona folks as nancy boys and bed wetters, but they still call their games RPGs.

I think it's problematic to dismiss the situational. It's easy to point to uses of roleplaying outside of gaming that are entirely situational (practice interviews, problem simulations) but that's cheating. I think we can look inside games and see that there's is a lot of emotional power and capability in explicitly building on ourselves. Call it projection if you will, it's certainly the simplest form of roleplaying in my eyes. The act of playing yourself, only with a sword and facing danger, is fun, compelling, and its scope grows as you do it.

Obviously, I think RPGs can be more than that. That there are techniques and rules and methods and tricks, all of which that can take the experience somewhere else and to my mind improve it. But once that kid flips the switch and is imagining himself with mighty thews and engages the imaginary landscape, even if he is otherwise still a kid from the suburbs, he's crossed the threshold.

Now, spinning off in another direction, there is another very basic form of roleplaying - emulation. People take very naturally to playing at people they know from books and movies, and I say naturally with express intent. Watching the behavior of children (and, heck, fanfic authors) I feel comfortable saying that this is something that is as instinctive as bouncing a ball to a child. Again, this is not hugely sophisticated and there are many things that can improve upon it, but I mention it to suggest that playing Aragorn in the Mines of Moria is something that can be taken to with only minimal prompting.

I mention all this because I think the D&D game text _did_ give enough guidance to support these modes, and that's a pretty big deal. It may not have taken it further than that, but that first steps a doozy, and the fact that it may now be as instinctive as breathing makes it easy to overlook.
Mar. 12th, 2008 02:08 pm (UTC)
I agree with everything but the last paragraph, which I am not sure I agree or disagree with at this point.

I want to point out that I am not an exclusivist, my definition does exclude certain things, but I don't treat my definition as the sole right one. I think that you're doing ok when you say "both", because you at least define it in some manner, which in my mind is more useful than not reflecting on the manner at all, which is something I somewhat object to.
Mar. 12th, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)
Which is fair, and if I were totally honest, I would qualify that the D&D text worked for me to achieve that end, but that had a lot to do with the fact that I ended up coming in pretty much purely through the books, and is sufficiently anecdotal that it may be unreasonable of me to draw a broad conclusion from it.
Mar. 12th, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
Well, one could argue that my method actually removes the "objective definition".

There isn't a text who is an RPG and one who isn't; there are games played, real sessions, that in which people portray characters and/or tell a story, or not.
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