In which I try to create a model to discuss any TTRPGS and fail yet still make something that others can use even if only to see how they disagree with it.
Why the Hell Do I Care?
Because you’ve always wanted to discuss ttrpgs with others but grown frustrated with the lack of a common language to do so. You want more than “I prefer…” or “crunchy versus light”, or worse, “narrative versus simulation”.
You understand that these are subjective topics, but recognize that subjective matters can be contrasted and discussed with meaning if you have a model to work with. you also hate GNS theory as much as I do maybe.
By reading and using the model defined here, you’ll be able to better contrast and define tabletop role playing games.
What This Is and Is Not
This is my attempt to provide a layer of analysis for rpgs which provides technical language, enabling better communication about what games achieve and what players gain from a system, as well as give designers a framework to consider their own games.
Considering how awe inspiringly broad ttrpgs can be in approach and design, I’m certain my attempt will not be a complete model, nor do I think a model can ever exist. But it can provide a framework to take players and designers beyond simple subjective statements of liking or disliking something. Hopefully by its use, it can lead to an even better model for such analysis.
Further, I’m not the authority on elf games,
Patrick Stuart is. Nothing I say has any weight at all beyond what others choose to use, and you are invited to disagree and criticize this system. Doing so will only make it better!
Finally, this Is not complete. This is the definitions of terms, a look at common TTRPG words using these terms, and an analysis of character benefits. Future posts will explore other aspects of TTRPGS using these definitions and model.
Note that the examples below have a slight dungeons and dragons bent, but that is to provide examples that are recognizable by the largest demographic. This model was not designed it’s dnd in mind, but all TTRPGs.
The game – the act of engaging with systems in order to create a shared fiction between players and the referee.
The Fiction – The agreed upon fantasy that you create with other players and the referee in which all characters, hazards, and other elements exist whiling playing the game.
The systems are not the game, and nor is the fiction itself. It is the relation of both that make the game.
Players – while I believe that the referee is a player, for the purpose of this model players are those who control primarily one or sometimes a small group of individual characters and do not typically have control over the presentation of the fiction outside of their own character(s).
Examples – Steve, your friend from work. Alyssa, who just sat down at your table at a convention.
Referee – the person who prepares fictional elements and usually chooses or creates the systems for the game, as well as portrays all hazards and calling for risks. Players sometimes share these roles but often it’s one person who is not a player.
Examples – you, probably. The DM. The storyteller.
Characters – individual fictional beings who possess values or traits that dictate how they interact with the game, usually created by a player.
Examples – Falstav the penniless. Grognar thunderslam.
Systems – a collection of rules that govern a portion of the game. Systems usually dictate how or when resources, abilities, and values are used. They can as simple as calling for a risk to be rolled or as complex as providing several charts to refer to.
Examples – combat. Spell casting. Character Advancement. Alchemy. City management.
Abilities special actions that that characters can only do by possessing this ability.
Examples – smiting evil. Werewolf form. IRON RAPTOR TECHNIQUE. Rage.
Hazards – hazards are anything that reduces a character’s resources, abilities, or fictional elements, usually by exposing them to a risk.
Examples – monsters. Traps. Difficult terrain. Tense social situation.
Risks – some sort of chance based event that can lead to a reduction in a character’s resources, abilities, or fictional elements. Usually resolved with funny dice.
Examples – saving throws. Last breath. Soak rolls.
Resources – Fluctuating values that be deleted or used with abilities or through hazards and risks.
Examples – hit points. Miracle points. Dice pools. Magic dice. Essence. Zeon.
Values – Static measurements that define a character in some way, providing a numeric basis for game systems.
Examples – Attributes. Skills. Humanity. Ac.
Fictional elements – everything that exists in the fiction that is portrayed through the dialog of the game, both covered and not covered by the game systems.
Examples – the tavern you’re in. The dragon emperor’s Royal guard. These pillars in the entrance chamber. The other cars on the highway. The daughter’s regret.
Using the Definitions to Contextualize Common Terms
Let’s see how these definitions can be used to give better context to common TTRPGs terms that are thrown around when discussing them, and see if they can get us to a deeper level of understanding.
- Crunchy versus rules light
A crunchy game is one that includes a high number of systems, usually ones that interact with one another. There will be a lot of resources to track and use, and a lot of abilities that interact with those systems, as well as a variety of hazards and risks to account for. Essentially, a crunchy game is one that offers a lot of abilities, resources, values, and systems to players so they can define their character more, or have a more complex game. Anima Beyond fantasy is an example of a crunchy game since it has several distinct systems that can all interact with each other, and hazards can pose risks to several different values or resources.
A rules light game is one that has very few systems, and very few or abstracted resources. Some may have a very small number of abilities or even just a shared list of abilities that players all can use. Rules Light game can have a lot of choices within those fewer systems but will often focus on providing a tighter, more thematic selection of character abilities, and almost always have a very small number of hazard and risks. For example, Lasers and Feelings only has two possible risks you can roll, and I just said both of them.
- Character builds
Players who want to focus on “builds” are those that want to find the ways that abilities can be combined to gain advantages in the game’s systems. They want to be rewarded by being able to minimize risks, maximize the use of resources, and gain higher static numbers by choosing the abilities that work best together.
This is why most players who engage in “builds” tend to think of themselves as preferring crunchy systems, since they have more options to combine. However, a rules light game that has a significant number of player facing abilities, such as the GLOG, could satisfy players want to engage in building a character this way.
First, a formal definition:
a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
Thus, the narrative IS the game. By engaging in a spoken or written account of connected events, a narrative is always created. You literally can’t not have a narrative in a game without the most surreal, non sequitur game imaginable.
So using “narrative game” is always pointless in this framework. All games have at minimum a spoken or written account of connected events. A better analysis as presented here is to discuss how well the systems of a game support creating those connected events, or even how better to support the type of narrative you want to create.
For example, if you wanted to run a game of every day people struggling to survive in the harsh winter, choosing exalted for your game systems is a poor choice since the systems are designed for nearly godlike martial artists. the system will not help your game generate the kind of connected events you want.
Sometimes people will claim a game is simulationist. Using our language, this would mean that a game’s systems try to mirror the real world outcome and probability as much as possible within reason.
However, all games are simulations on some level. Since all systems in a game are going to create a narrative of events, and since those events are are likely to take place in a fictional space that at least pretends to be like our own on some level, the rules should allow a player a high level of verisimilitude.
So when someone says simulationist in relation to game, it is likely that they mean that:
The game is willing to add more complexity through additional systems, resources, values, etc if it means it better models real world scenarios
the resources tracked mirror real world resources such as exhaustion or bodily shock when injured instead of a singular, abstract resource for survival
The abilities of the game are designed around real world actions like martial arts techniques or firearm firing modes
The systems use real world values such as meters, pounds, etc instead of units or squares
- Unified Mechanic
Games with a unified mechanic utilize a single system to resolve all risks, resource usage, hazards, and abilities. For example, You always roll 2d6 and add something, no matter if you are dodging a punching, lying to a lover, or tampering with the occult.
- Story Game
A story game is one that attempts to emulate a genre of fiction specifically and gives players some narrative control. Instead of abilities being actions one can perform as a character, they give actions one can perform as a player. For example, some games allow you to add new elements to the fiction, such as making up a person you know who can help, or even rewriting an event like undoing getting shot by spending some resource. You can discuss these with the same common language as long as you can clearly define what is a character specific action and what is a player action.
A Character Benefits Analysis
With the above language, let’s took at the benefits that characters and players can enjoy through playing the game. Note this doesn’t try to define fun – this is an examination of what one can earn or unlock to make fun in the game.
- Access to new abilities
This is the usual benefit to characters, such as new spells, training in a skill, or the ability to stab people in the back real well.
- Access to whole systems
You might gain the ability to craft potions, build a business, or even start talking to spirits. These could introduce whole new systems to engage with during the game.
- Access to knowledge you otherwise wouldn’t have
Learning about locations, enemy weaknesses, rituals, secrets, etc. note that an abstraction like 5th edition dungeon and dragon’s arcana skill doesn’t fit this description – that’s an increase to a static value which is part of an existing system.
- minimizing risks and resource drain
Reducing the cost of certain abilities or getting a bonus on some kind of risk, like saving throws, fits. Anything that lets your character stay in the game longer or do more stuff.
- New types of resources
Gaining superiority dice as a fighter in 5th edition dnd, or gaining access to a magic lantern. Anything that is used up by systems.
- Increase a static value
Make a number bigger. Gain a dot in firearms. Improve your Reflexes aptitude.
- Reduce hazard values
Gaining a special type of defense against fire, or making all traps do less damage would be two examples of this.
- Introduce new elements to the fiction
Being able to declare you know a guy who’s an expert in something or having narrative control for a moment so you can say a strong wind picks up would be examples. This isn’t common in most dungeons and dragons adjacent games but is far more common in light party rpgs, FATE, and some Power By the Apocalypse games.
- Change elements of the fiction
Like above but you can say the expert is your old friend from college or that the strong wind is specifically blowing against your back.
- Remove or undo an element of the fiction
The ability to cancel some fictional element, like removing a successful attack, declaring that an enemy couldn’t damage you because you have some trait, or otherwise taking narrative control from the referee.
- Meta currency
The three above often require a meta currency that characters can gain access to, such as fate points or inspiration. This currency isn’t a measure of the character itself but instead an abstraction for the game so players can control the fiction as collaborators.
And Player Benefits Too
While very rare in today’s rpgs, these used to be a thing back when games were competitive and ran at conventions.
- Access to new character creation options/self expression
Being allowed to play a rare species or play a monster for example.
- Proof of prestige or accomplishment
Some token or acknowledgement that they completed a difficult challenge, like a video game achievement. The book of legend in wraith world is another example.
I’d love to see how someone could use this to analyze a game or explore another facet of games like character creation or advancement mechanics as a system.
Even more, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how it could be improved! What did I miss? What could I rephrase better?