A Working Model of RPG Elements

Earlier this week, James Ernest invited me to guest lecture on RPGs to his class at DigiPen. He asked me to talk about what a RPG is, how this style of game came about, and the cliff notes on building one.

As you might imagine, “what an RPG is” is, well, a hell of a question. While we (at least in the American tradition) comes from Arneson and Gygax, we’ve moved to a place where games like Fiasco and A Penny for my Thoughts fills the same (or a very similar) space, even though they different wildly in execution[1].

I started with something typical:

A roleplaying game is something you play with your friends around a table…or you don’t. You describe going around and having adventures…or you don’t. When you want to do something, you roll dice to see if you succeed…or you don’t. One person takes on a special role of playing adversity and the world…or they don’t. And so on…

What we’re doing both as player and as characters is so varied that roleplaying games get to a point akin to pornography: you might not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. (And hopefully it excites you.)

But I was to give this lecture, so that wasn’t going to be good enough. As I chewed around what makes up a RPG, I hit upon these four elements:

  • Language
  • Avatars
  • Consequence
  • Persistence

Language is the core medium of roleplaying games, not a table, or a board or grid, or character sheets, or even “pen and paper.” These games are about communicating and describing things that are going on in a fictional world, using rules and structure to focus that narrative — from D&D and Pathfinder focusing a narrative on competent and successful traveling adventurers to Fiasco’s narrative of characters with ambition and poor impulse control to Apocalypse World’s narrative of fighting to gain and keep a little corner or the world in order to make it the place you want it to be.

All of our rules can break down to the following: who gets to describe something, and what they get to describe in that moment. Even things that are solely about mechanics then feed back into the language, as that stuff (which we’ll get to shortly) impacts how we describe things — both to each other and to ourselves.

Avatars are part of what makes a roleplaying game hit on a personal level. It’s on one hand a fancy work for “character” — in most RPGs, you play a character. The word “avatar” is about interaction within the fiction environment we’re describing. We talk about characters doing things or having things done to them, and what that means in the game world. Unlike in, say, war games, we’re focused in on individual characters with characterizations and other, personal elements. Unlike in board games, we’re also interested in the expression of these avatars — how they personally react both internally and externally. A meeple in Carcassonne isn’t an avatar for the player (including the GM) any more than a tank or army is an avatar for the player in a war game

(This gets to the “you can make Monopoly an RPG by having your pawn talk in a silly voice” bullshit argument. The game isn’t engineered around that pawn being an avatar, so “avatarism” is incidental there.)

Consequence & Persistence are the twin elements that have two effects: they make a RPG not just an improv game or a game of Cops and Robbers, and they make a RPG a game. (Or further the gaminess of one.) Consequence is about actions taken in the game world having effects that we adhere to as being true and lasting, at least until some other action or narrative component modifies that effect. The “bang, I shot you!” “no you didn’t!” “yes I did!” of Cops and Robbers is the antithesis of consequence.

When I (and because we’re talking about avatars, we’ll often conflate “me” and “my character” in our language — see how things tie back to language?) attempt to shoot an orc in the face with my arrow, a number of consequences happen that we implicitly promise to adhere to. I might fail, result in the consequences is my time spent, an arrow spent, possibly some other detrimental bit like being open to someone else’s attack or my bow breaking (if the result of engaging the mechanics says something’s that bad). Or I might succeed, in which case the consequences are the orc being hurt or killed, an arrow spent, and side elements like being open to a counterattack or effect triggered by the orc taking damage.

We promise to adhere to consequences. The game pushes us toward different consequences, either generating them directly (such as with attack and damage rolls) or suggesting directions for them (such as Fiasco’s “a scene goes good or bad for the character” resolution mechanic).

Not all consequences are about damage and whatnot. Actions that are about gaining or expending resources involve consequences. Attempts to charm a security guard into letting you pass without a badge involves consequences, either positive or negative. And high-level elements of games, like gaining experience points and leveling up, are consequences of actions. (We could say “results” instead of “consequences,” but the connotation is slightly different there.)

Sometimes consequences are meta, about what you can talk about in the game world rather than more “physical” elements like having hit points reduced or other ways in which your avatar is directly affected. I’ve played games where the consequences were about who gets to describe the aftermath of the event, without prescribing what they aftermath was. I’ve played in games where there were effectively two different sets of consequences: what happens as a result of the aftermath and which player gets to bring that narrative forward. When it comes to meta mechanics, they’re often around language authority.

To then examine in brief: consequences are either about affecting the avatar or affecting the player dynamic. Either way, those affect the language used.

Persistence relates to consequence, in that what happens in a game world is true and lasting, so long as some other consequence doesn’t change that. You cannot just say “oh, that thing didn’t happen” unless you do some action in the game world to undo a consequence. The classic being raising the recently dead — in which case the person still died, and that effect in the game world persisted until someone else did the action to restore the previous state of the character.

Persistence exists in the short and long form. In the short form, from scene to scene in a given RPG session, elements of your character persist until something — an action or event — changes that. In the long form, that’s extended to count over multiple session, covering weeks, months, or even years of game play. And while there are plenty of games explicitly designed for one-session play, if you were to split that time up or extend it for whatever reason, the principle of persistence applies.

These last two elements aren’t just key to the game part of roleplaying games, but also to the story part. They’re what give moments of action teeth — consequence means risk and reward, it means having agency and possibly fighting to keep agency. Persistence means building a narrative that has some form of consistent internal logic. Thus they affect how our avatars experience the game world. Thus they affect how we describe, communicate, and imagine the game.

Some things are kept track of on character sheets — that’s one place where persistence lives. But all moments of play involve some level of persistence, or they’re forgotten.

If you look at 99% of RPGs, you can find what the games:

  • Want you to talk about how how to talk about it
  • Push you into working with you avatar (including aspects of the game world, not just player-characters)
  • Tell you what consequences you should care about and will engage with
  • Tell you what’s important to keep in mind as persistent

There are games that will bend these rules. There are moments of play that will break these rules — like everyone at the table hating the direction a story just went, and retcon that, thus disregarding persistence in that moment. But in my view, this holds true nearly all the time and is a useful tool to see how different games execute creating the narrative space.

In other words: how different games get us to engage emotionally with roleplaying.


I naturally accept criticism against this model. That’s why it’s called a “working model.” What games do you think ignore one of these components, and why? Or take a favorite game and tell me how you think it fits these concepts in novel or unusual ways.

– Ryan

P.S. I’ll finish up the New Worlds post next week!

[1] This is not the forum for your identity politics, if you want to talk about how something I say is a RPG isn’t. That’s called “Twitter.”


18 Responses to A Working Model of RPG Elements

  1. Grayson Davis says:

    How do you feel about choose your own adventure-esque “game books” with this model? They’re often presented as roleplaying games in their own right. I just pulled a “Tolkien Quest” book off my shelf which bills itself as a “role-playing adventure.”

    More generally, I think my question here is: Does your model accommodate “solo” roleplaying? Does such a thing even exist, or are these game books mislabeled?

    I don’t mean to offer this as a counterpoint necessarily. I think your four elements are generally sound, though the “Language” element seems fuzzy to me and could be refined. But I’m not sure this model works well with game books. In particular, you talk about “describing” things, which is something that you basically don’t get to do in a game book.

    I think game books also implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) encourage repeat “play-throughs” and experimentation with choices and consequences, which diminishes a sense of persistence.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      This model applies to tabletop RPGs as a group activity. A choose-your-own-adventure game is akin to a console RPG — they share tropes of group activity games but not play elements. So, this analysis is as applicable to those as to video games. You’re making choices but never narrating or describing anything (though your avatar might be).

      If you can refine the nature of language and human communication, you will make millions. :D I continue to look at that part of this to better understand why what we do is different from other group activities, and I continue to play with (or expand or refine) what that box is.

      – Ryan

  2. Robert Calfee says:

    One think I noticed is that you said “You cannot just say “oh, that thing didn’t happen” unless you do some action in the game world to undo a consequence”

    One of the best things about a GM I had once was his ability to do just that when a scene involving my character went too far awry. Without getting into details it was too upsetting to me to continue with the character, and when I explained the situation the GM was fine with saying “ok, that thing did not happen” and we worked an in game narrative that was satisfactory.

    Now you might add some discussion of lines and veils here, I suppose, but while we as gamers don’t usually go back and re edit a whole campaign, I thing that the fact that some revision is do-able makes RPG different than other storytelling.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lines and veils go into the language box and into a section that has nothing to do with RPGs as much as it does have to do with the nature of group activities in general: social contract.

      Not that it’s unworthwhile to bring up, but it’s a (important) layer or two above this foundation. And in general the “we’re going to ignore the rules at the moment” vibe — either because we want self-determination of the consequences, are not satisfied with the range of game-generated consequences, or because we do not want a consequence generated to have persistence.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      In fact, now that I think about it, you’re bringing up why I don’t include “social contract” as a part of RPGs.

      “RPGs” are a subset of “group activities.” Social contract is an inherent component to a group activity, so while it’s a part of RPGs, it would be like talking about how human beings are a part of an RPG — not the part that is a defining element to such a game.

      But is a core element to all group experiences, so it’s still important to having a good RPG experience. If the division of “important to an RPG” and “core element of an RPG” makes sense.

      – Ryan

  3. blackcoat says:

    Copied (your comments inline) from our g+ thread
    My only problem with your wording is in the persistence section, talking about the resurrection.

    The spellcaster didn’t reverse the death, they performed an action that caused a new persistent state.

    State 1: Avatar (alive)
    Action 1: Avatar dies
    State 2: Avatar (dead)
    Action 2: Ressurect Avatar
    State 3: Avatar (Alive)

    Action 2 doesn’t revert to state 1 (They’re alive and never died), but adds a third state (they’re now alive again) but this costs resources of some sort.

    This isn’t to say that rolling back doesn’t happen, but it rarely (I can’t think of a rule that allows it without consequence) does, outside of players at a table agreeing (“oh, crap. I didn’t realize that would hit him, can I have the target of my fireball two squares left?” “Yeah, that’s fine.”)

    That’s my point, in an attempt to say “that is still persistence, not a lack of persistence.” I’ll re-examine the wording, because we are totally agreeing.

    “in which case the person still died, and that effect in the game world persisted until someone else did the action to restore the previous state of the character.”

    I think it’s the word “restore” and the fact that I’m brain-elbow deep in an SCMbuilddeploy application right now. You’re not restoring state, you’re advancing state to a new one. I knew where you were trying to get, it was just sticking in my brain.

    Also, I like this explanation. I’ll try and do a more thorough write up of thoughts when I’m home (see brain-elbow deep)

  4. Tablesaw says:

    I wonder if the “Avatar” section needs a little more elaboration, because not all of the interaction with a story is through or focused on characters. I’m thinking of games like The Quiet Year, but also in the roles in some games where one player interacts more with the world as an environment. These are games and roles where the “other personal elements” take center stage instead of individual characters, pushing individual characters into the background, if they’re there at all.

    What makes these other things personal? I’m not sure, but I think it’s in line with the core concept of “avatarism.” Drawing a map of a world in How to Host a Dungeon feels very different from laying out the tiles in Carcassone because each part of the map is personal, and we interact with it in personal, creative ways.

    Can we treat non-characters/non-intelligences as “avatars,” then? I know that it feels different when I’m playing with a character compared to when I’m playing with a geography, but maybe it’s close enough for the model.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      We totally can! This is where we’d get into advanced avatar concepts: not all avatars are anthropomorphic, not all of them are continuously owned by any one player, etc.

      However, they still are our points of interaction within the shared narrative space and the things we’re interested in exploring — both what they do with their agency and how they deal with experience.

      Now, when we’re talking about things like geography (for example), and we’re describing it, we’re not necessarily describing geography. We’re also possibly describing a generic avatar’s experience of the geography. And that’s another point that can get weird: sometimes the avatar in question isn’t actually a persistent entity, but a placeholder, generic entity that is observing and commenting on a permanent aspect of the narrative. Which is in no way devaluing, because we still want to talk about that experience.

      For more on agency & experience, check out: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/02/what-does-it-mean-to-have-a-mind-maybe-more-than-you-think/. It’s germain to the concept of avatars in RPGs.

      So, I’d say yeah, it could be elaborated. But there’s a point where elaboration turns from something foundational to something built on top of that foundation.

      – Ryan

  5. blackcoat says:

    Another “I agree with you, and I’m mostly just talking to solidify ideas in my head” post.

    Also: the “you can make an avatar in monopoly by talking in a funny voice” or even by making an avatar out of them (“I’m playing Sir Johnathan Gofhastr, the racing champion sinking his winnings into real estate” etc) you’re no longer playing monopoly. You’re playing a *FORK* of monopoly with (possibly completely arbitrary) mechanics added for purposes of that. You *could* turn monopoly (or Risk, or Chess) into an RPG easily by adding rules for all the players to have avatars, and have the consequences mean something more than just purely mechanical. Basically, an avatar (and it’s relationship with language) is everything that I *couldn’t* automate with a very short perl script. So, as soon as, during bidding I *always* bid higher until I’m flat broke, because I *have* to win, I’m playing monopoly as an RPG.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yes, we could find a way to inject an interest in our Monopoly pawn’s agency and experience (thus making it an avatar), but in doing so, we would no longer be playing Monopoly. Not never a “fork” of Monopoly — even if we’re still using all the components from the game box. Though, we could be playing something that has the same themes as Monopoly.

      But if we’re just taking about needing to win, that doesn’t make something an avatar.

      – Ryan

  6. Andy says:

    On first glance, I really like this! What I find to be the most interesting/helpful is the Language section. I hadn’t really concretely sussed out “games as language” before, but it’s a very good distinction. In particular, what draws a like between an RPG and the more freeform roleplaying is the type of language they use.

    It actually also helps explain why I’m cool with alternative RPG mechanics that interact with the story in different ways. It’s just using a different language than usual.

  7. blackcoat says:

    the “needing to win” was possibly a bad example of wording. It’s the agent has a need to win at everything, (he’s the racecar driver, remember?) even if ‘winning’ in the short term is detrimental to him (he pays 2300md for Baltic, and doesn’t even have Mediterranean but he HAD to win that auction).

    And I agreed that we wouldn’t be playing Monopoly, but some weird variant with tacked on rules regarding what each of the game pieces (our ‘agent’) was like in order to try and feel out where that (subjective) line is. Obviously there are mechanics that define our avatars agency (see: resources and consequences) but where does Sir Gofhaster as a Monopoly:The RPG differ from “The Car”? Is it when we, as players, decide he is? When there are rules that define his existence?

    I guess this might seem needlessly pedantic, but really what I’m trying to figure out is: “Where does agency start?” and why is Sir Gofhaster different from Squall Lionheart different from the ranger I play in my weekly pathfinder game?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I would say this: when a character’s agency isn’t the same as the player’s agency, then we deal enter into having a meaningful avatar. When they’re one and the same, there is no meaningful avatar.

      (There are weird exceptions to this rule, but they get into being inherently about story and conflating character with player — such as A Penny for my Thoughts — but that’s not what board games are doing. And those games are still working toward having a meaningful avatar that meshes with the player.)

      – Ryan

    • blackcoat says:

      I think it’s more “character’s agency *COULD* be different from a player’s agency”.

      My ranger, for instance, wants that Orc dead, because of reasons.
      I, the player, want that Orc dead, also because of reasons.

      Now, the ranger is an avatar because those reasons aren’t *required* to be the same. His could be “because it’s evil” and mine could be “hey, sweet. Farming XP”. It’s when my agency and the avatars agency conflict (that paladin is a friend of mine, I’d never hurt them) and (Hey, sweet. Farming XP) that I consider myself “playing badly”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, it gets intertwined and messy, especially the more traditional RPGs where you say what your avatar does, and you don’t have authority to say what your avatar can’t do. (But, it isn’t 100%, just close.)

      And it also gets to where diving deep into avatars, agency, and experience goes from being foundational to supporting. Which isn’t to shut down the conversation! But to flag it as a higher-level conversation rather than one that fiddles with the core definition.

      – Ryan

  8. Carl Klutzke says:

    I think perhaps “Narration” might be a better label for your first box than “Language”. It seems to be about who gets to tell the story that arises from the interactions of the avatars and the environment. “Language” is a very broad label.

    I’ve been playing Sentinels of the Multiverse a lot lately and enjoying it immensely, but I’m also frustrated with the game because I want an immersive in-character experience that it doesn’t provide. The game definitely has Consequences and Persistence and Avatars, and there’s Language to describe what happens (I guess) but there’s something that keeps it from feeling like an RPG. I believe it has something to do with the decisions that you make as a player. In every situation I make the best tactical choice (usually after consultation with other players) rather than what my avatar would choose to do if he/she were a real being. I think there may be something there that should be considered in your model. I’ve heard Richard Garfield claim that roleplaying is one strategy to prevent the implicit puppet mastery that often occurs in cooperative board games: I think this game is an example of where it might have been exploited, but sadly was not.

    Also, I’m glad you included Avatars. While I think Universalis could be an interesting game, it never seemed to me that it should be considered as an RPG because the characters are not avatars of the players. It’s no more an RPG than Once Upon a Time. (There are probably those that would disagree with me, and that’s fine, and I’d love to hear about what they experienced that made them feel that way.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      No, “Language” is exactly what I mean. “Narration” doesn’t account for a host of stuff we do, and isn’t inherently a medium.

      Part of playing a game is also about engaging the mechanics, and we negotiate those verbally — from “okay, that’ll require a Dexterity roll” to “what are the stake on this conflict?” Polaris is a great example of language most explicitly as medium and mechanics, with its ritual phrases, but in other games we create our own unofficial (even if broadly used in the community) ritual phrases. So, yeah, narration is in this, but that’s not the only thing we’re talking about in play.

      Langauge isn’t the medium of SotM — just because we use language in everything doesn’t make it a base component of every game. Other games have a medium you interact with that has a higher priority and importance to the game than language. And you don’t have avatars in there, because the game doesn’t care about communicating your pseudo-avatar’s experience, just its agency.

      You’ve got me thinking more about persistence, though. Even with a one-shot game, there’s a sense of persistence that doesn’t feel the same as with a board game. And it’s this: we could choose to build on this story with another game — another session, another campaign when the last game was in the history, or even some other system with tangental characters playing out a side story (which I did once for a Dresden Files game). You don’t have that with a board game: if you play that game again, the stale’s wiped clean. There isn’t the possibility of otherwise.

      (Of course, games like Risk: Legacy play with that, which is why I find these four dials to be really intriguing.)

      – Ryan