Tabletop RPGs & Play Without Games

Are tabletop roleplaying games like dungeons & dragons games? How about ones that de-emphasize rules-based play & focus on the improv aspect, like ones based on apocalypse world?

Usually, yes, but not always. They’re games paired with Roleplaying, or Communal Storytelling. Depending on your group, the amount of game and amount of storytelling can vary. Some groups play tabletops as straight-up games, some of them use the systems as ways of mediating communal storytelling and generating interesting outcomes for the story. Within the framework of communal storytelling success or failure isn’t so important, it’s all about working together to make an interesting story. To this end, DMs rig outcomes, fudge die rolls, and don’t stick to strict game rules, they don’t (usually) compete with the players and the rules are set up to where most of the interactions between DMs and players are indirect, facilitated through impersonal die rolls. There’s even one tabletop RPG called Dread, focused on horror, which features no stats or dice of any kind. Instead, situations are resolved by pulling a block from a Jenga tower, and if the tower falls over, you get caught by the monster or whatever.

In the transition to digital, the meaning of role playing game changed. It stopped being about communal storytelling, with everyone making up a bit of the story, and started being about stats (which even relative to tabletop roleplaying games makes a bit of sense, since the innovation of the earliest Tabletop RPGs over the war games they were inspired by was the addition of stats tied to a character that grow over time). This is why a lot of discourse on RPGs is so confused, because people take the name of the genre literally. See all the people arguing about whether Legend of Zelda is an RPG or not. It fit right in next to the action RPGs of its original time period, but in retrospect it’s very clearly not in the same mold, and some people argue, “but it’s still a ROLE-playing game, I’m playing the ROLE of Link,” or worse, get confused and ask how any game can be a role-playing game since you play a character’s role in practically every game. Some games still try to fit the mold of communal storytelling by having branching storylines and letting players pick dialogue or characterize the character through personality scores that change over time (like fable’s good and evil points, or mass effect’s paragon and renegade points), but in my opinion you can’t meaningfully roleplay without other people, so RPGs on computer systems will always be a misnomer.

There are types of play that aren’t specifically games, like playing Doctor, or a tea party, or the role-playing exercises in improv groups. These don’t have any form of goal or objective, They’re just intended to produce interesting outcomes rather than establish winners or losers.

Tabletop roleplaying games can run the gamut here, it depends on your specific group.

2 thoughts on “Tabletop RPGs & Play Without Games

  1. Jaime August 1, 2018 / 8:50 pm

    I’ve never liked RPG as a genre because it’s unclear what it encompasses. It’s a genre that contains Final Fantasy, Skyrim, and the Legend of Zelda, all of which are fundamentally different games that we’re supposed to treat as being related. In comparison, third-person and first-person shooters are treated as separate genres despite having more similarities than the mentioned RPGs.

    The problem I’ve had is coming up with alternative groupings that are sufficiently specific in what qualifies while broad enough to be used generally. I could describe Final Fantasy as a turn-based combat game, but how would that differentiate it from XCOM which focuses on squad tactics over FF’s reliance on pure stats? I could use a genre modifier and say that Skyrim could be classified as a narrative-driven first person shooter, but the argument could be made that DOOM 2016 is driven by a narrative, going back to the initial issue of being too inclusive.

    Is this ambiguity on what is considered an RPG something we’ll have to just accept? Is it the RPG just a matter of finding a better name, should it be broken up into more accurate genres, or some other alternative?

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  2. Chris Wagar August 1, 2018 / 11:23 pm

    Role playing game historically meant like improv acting, collaborative storytelling. If you take acting classes you will still see this usage. Over time it’s come to mean persistent stat gains retained across a game’s duration.

    I’m fine with this redefinition, I think it’s mostly consistent. The thing about game genres is, they’re more like tags. They’re a bunch of shared mechanics that spread promiscuously and mix together for any given game. A game could have a bunch of genre characteristics from different genres and determining the overall genre is a matter of which fits best. Genres aren’t a real thing, they’re just collections of similar enough things for convenience.

    XCOM is turn based tactics, which tends to mean the units move around on a field. Skyrim is largely about your stats more than any other factor of gameplay. I don’t define by being narrative driven.

    I don’t think rpg is ambiguous, it’s just a simple enough set of mechanics to fit nearly anywhere. Subgenres are helpful too.

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