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