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What RPGs are NOT

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We have a tendency in this hobby to borrow a lot of terms from other creative endeavors. We borrow terms from creative writing, film, television, The problem is, sometimes we start equating our hobby with those other creative outlets from which we borrowed the terms, when ofttimes our hobby is very different.

RPGs are not Novels

I’ve talked a lot about GMs who mistake table-top RPGs for novel writing, with GMs constantly trying to manipulate the game to tell the story they’ve already decided upon. Some GMs will railroad the party toward the scene they seem hellbent on acting out. Other GMs will engages in the sort of passive railroading, where every action the players come up with leads toward the same destination.

I’ve often said, if you don’t like the players messing with your plans, pour yourself two fingers of Scotch, light up a cigar and start banging away on your typewriter, because you want to write a novel, not GM an RPG.

Storytelling, but Different

We all know that RPGs are a form of storytelling, but it’s very different than the sort of storyteller you’ll see at the public library or Renaissance faire. Those story tellers are almost always one-man (or woman) shows. There’s one story being told and one person telling it and determining how it goes.

Our hobby is entirely different. We engage (or should engage) in a collaborative effort to tell a story or sometimes many stories. Furthermore, in traditional RPGs, our roles are clearly defined as to which part of the story we each control and which we have little or no control over. The GM generally builds the world, the culture — the setting in general. He will create (often with input from the players) the would-be antagonists of the story.

The players create and control the protagonists and their actions. They choose their own destinies. They decided which direction to go and what to do when they get there.

This division of labor sets our brand of storytelling apart from all other forms of storytelling — the closest any of them comes is probably theater improv.

But We’re Not Theater Improv Either!

Theater improv, while the closest relative to RPGs, is still a distant relative. We bring into our collaborative storytelling elements that normally don’t exist in theater improv: game mechanics and setting assumptions.

Before our games begin, we agree on what game system we’re going to play, what the setting and genre are and what the flavor of the game might be. We constraint where our improvisation can go. We limit it, and we govern it with game mechanics.

And What Exactly is the GM?

I wince when I hear people equate GMs to movie directors, screenwriters, etc. We’re obviously not. We don’t possess nearly the power over the story or how it’s told that those in these professions do — nor should we. If you want to write a screenplay, see my advice for novel writing above.

Players are not actors to be directed by the GM. They don’t have (or shouldn’t have) a “script” they need to follow. The point of the hobby — the fun of the hobby — is to explore stories that are unexpected and new to the players and the GM.

I understand why we borrow our nomenclature from other creative endeavors. The RPG hobby is only 30 some years old, and many of these other disciplines have been around much longer. Why reinvent the wheel.

But while we use their terms, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of equating RPGs with these disciplines.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of DoucheyDM.com. He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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5 Responses to "What RPGs are NOT"

  1. […] a similar vein, The Douchey DM ponders on what RPGs are […]

  2. Chris "Doc" MartinNo Gravatar says:

    I use the Actor/Director descriptors in my game, but only as a way to get people to easily understand the rough definitions of the roles. I try to further expand on the metaphor by talking about the script read through, only now everyone takes on the form of the writer to some degree. I agree, the terminology isn’t perfect, but I think it’s really only there to help explain the hobby to people not already involved.

  3. burnedfxNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with your thoughts, Stu.

    I particularly dislike the “improve theater” comparison, because I have seen this common misconception scare off would-be table top rpg players and encourage bizarre behavior in others (since a person sometimes feels they should be “acting”).

    Take off that rob and wizard hat!

    As a player (which isn’t often), I am interested in playing, not listening to a story.

    Granted, I do enjoy the actual play podcasts and sessions write-ups found on the internets, but these are stories told after the game is over. It is not the game.

    The most apt comparison to another genre, for me at least, has been Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks or other Choose Your Own Adventure books. A role-playing game, at its core, is just the DM asking the most basic question, “What do you do?”

    You don’t get that option in books or movies.

  4. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    Here is a question: do we tell the story or does the game unfolding tell a story, personalized to each player sharing it? Does role-playing result in a disparate bunch of stories hung together in an anthology by different authors, or does the game bring about different points of view within a shared story? These are two very different conclusions and reveal two opposing views within the hobby – different game purposes certainly.

    The hobby also borrows liberally from Information Technology to describe itself, resulting in a kind of automated lockstep in some instances of programmed “if/then” statements. Are players inhibited by the statistics on paper called a character sheet or do players breathe life into the character regardless of the statistical probabilities detailed on the sheet to create a record? That the munchkin will view the character as a program within the system that affects his play is certain. But that viewpoint does not need to define the game and such a definition may be deleterious to the hobby growth.

    Systems follow programs follow programmers is a kind of death in creativity statement.

  5. dither001No Gravatar says:

    I followed your points on novel-writing, storytelling, and acting — but I disagree with your assertion about improvisational theater and roleplaying being “distant relatives.” Improv requires setting assumptions — context — and game mechanics — tropes and other basic storytelling structures — for the audience to connect with the performance.

    They aren’t the same, but I think you’ve overgeneralized a bit too much. On the one hand you have the GM, who acts as both audience and stage crew, providing the players with the setting and a means by which to interact with the world.

    Improv may be on the whole less consistent, or less cohesive — but no more or less than some one-shot adventures. I’ve participated in some pretty far-out roleplaying games that threw out the rules as well as many of the things you might assume about an RPG, and I’ve played some pretty rigid improvisational theater. You aren’t convincing me.

    Too right about the other stuff though — D&D is not a novel, nor is it a movie in which the GM directs the players through scenes.

    –Dither

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