I’ve made plenty of hay over my opinions about D&D. D&D is not a bad game, but it’s such a limited expression of what a role-playing game can look like. The most common counter-argument I get to saying that a gamer should play games other than D&D is somewhere along the lines of “if that’s what they like, that’s what they should play”. This is usually followed by pointing out several more obscure games, which usually look absolutely nothing like D&D, and harping on about how that’s not the play experience they want. And this straw man argument is one of many reasons I’ve decided to sing the praises of the giant middle ground of the hobby, the traditional RPGs.
Traditional RPGs represent the bulk of designs which have come out over the hobby’s history, as well as the bulk of the playerbase. Yes, that second point is due in large part to the fact that D&D is a traditional RPG (which should go without saying), but also due in part to the fact that most indie games that sell well are either traditional themselves or have used a traditional framework; this includes games like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World.
Okay, okay. I’ve said the word “traditional” a fairly large number of times. In other circles of the hobby, traditional or “trad” has become an “I know it when I see it” sort of phenomenon. So let’s put some stakes in the ground.
There is a GM and players play one character
This seems obvious but honestly shouldn’t be taken for granted in the RPG design space. The fact that wargames developed referees before D&D was created is almost a coincidence, and yet it brought us to RPGs as we know them. This also means there are some quite old yet quite non-traditional games; Ars Magica is one of the first I know of to use troupe-style play, and while its indie-ness at the time could be debated (Lion Rampant became White Wolf) it’s definitely not traditional.
There is nothing about the act of role-play that requires a GM or a limitation on characters per player, but it became the norm and it enabled play that encouraged both character development and character advancement, two such things which make long-form RPG campaigns so fulfilling. It also was solidified as a norm because it enabled the next norm.
The rules are concerned with simulating a world
In a traditional RPG, the rules are written to explain how things behave in a fictional world. While that doesn’t mean that the rules need to simulate with great detail, it does mean that the rules explain the consequences of an action with consistency. Both “this trap is ‘Hard’ to disarm” and “this trap is a pressure plate which, when 150 pounds of force are applied, will trigger a spring-loaded mechanism which fires poison darts” are completely fair ways to describe an obstacle in a traditional RPG. Rules which dictate that a trap appear given something that happened in the fiction are decidedly non-traditional, though not every instance of a story-facing or player-facing rule is as clear-cut.
Traditional RPGs, especially relatively modern traditional RPGs, typically still have story-facing mechanics. These can be as light-touch as Fate Points in Dark Heresy or as intensive as, well, Fate Points in Fate. And yeah, I do consider Fate a traditional game. While there are more story-facing rules and more player agency in Fate than other games, the core of the gameplay, namely the four player actions, skills or approaches, and aspects themselves, all contribute towards simulating a world as opposed to acting in service of a story or character.
Ambiguous outcomes are decided with a randomizer
This is another one that seems obvious but is core to a traditional design. Also, like the first property, it has an early “exception that proves the rule” in the form of Amber Diceless Roleplaying. You can’t have a traditional RPG without some randomizer, though. Adding randomness to events is what allows all RPGs to have emergent narrative, even very grounded ones, and it also helps allow a game to simulate a world without getting bogged down in minutia. Games where outcomes are decided either by numbers or by people at the table have a very different feel, and tend to lead different places than games which center around dice rolls (or card draws or coin flips or whatever).
So why is it important to draw a box around a certain type of game? Well, there is a balance to be drawn between getting stuck in a very narrow and specific paradigm (like that presented by a single game) and losing sight of what is appealing to a target audience. While many (including myself) bemoan the fact that so many people never expand beyond D&D, we must concede that if this is occurring it’s at least in part because D&D is giving its audience something they want. And that’s why I truly think that any real expansion of the hobby lies with traditional games, at least those that hew to a conventional view of ‘the party’, ‘the campaign’, and ‘the character’. PbtA is a successful system because it stays traditional at important key touchpoints, in addition to its innovations.
A great example of how easy it is to get afield from what most people consider an RPG is Fiasco. Fiasco is a brilliant game, it’s fun to play and easy to learn. It’s also not something I would ever run a campaign in or consider appropriate for an ongoing game night. It approaches narrative and character so differently that I don’t even think it scratches the same mental itch that something like Zweihander, Cyberpunk 2020, or (yes, I admit it) D&D would. Now, that same departure means I could play Fiasco with my parents, as well as my board game friends who don’t play RPGs at all. It’s fun and accessible…but if someone argued to me that Fiasco wasn’t an RPG (the sort of taxonomical argument that happens all the time on Twitter and elsewhere online) I’d be willing to at least listen.
Don’t get me wrong, I love indie games (Fiasco included if that wasn’t clear). Stuff being designed now stretches group storytelling in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed of, and is helping the rest of the market innovate. It’s important that designers and reviewers play games like that, ones that expand their understanding of the hobby. Outside of designers and critics, though, most gamers don’t play indie games at all. This is something that those of us who are constantly interacting with the most invested RPG fans tend to lose sight of: we’re a severe minority. You might find a few gamers who have played Dread because it’s “the one with the Jenga tiles”, but even Dread, which is arguably a breakout hit in indie circles, is something the majority and maybe even the vast majority of gamers have never heard of. When you look at any measures of RPG market share, after you hand 60+% to various editions of D&D (Pathfinder included) the rest of it is taken by FFG Star Wars, World of Darkness games, and Call of Cthulhu, with a few scraps left over. These are all traditional games (despite what White Wolf said all through the 90s).
This is arguably a companion piece to my rant on D&D, but coming at it from the opposite direction. I don’t think for a minute that 60+% of gamers want dungeon crawling, Vancian spellcasting, and bastardizations of Tolkien. I do believe that 60+% of gamers want to create a single character who they identify with, see that character grow and develop, and see that character as part of an ensemble cast they get to make with their friends. I do think they want to have a believable fictional world where the story is created by their actions, and where sometimes everything depends on the roll of a die. And I do ultimately think that, despite its limitations in practicality, the long-form campaign is the platonic ideal of an RPG for many, many people.
Designers realized a long time ago that no one RPG can do everything. With that came the realization that an RPG could be designed to do anything. Where we come back to traditional RPGs, though, is where we must realize that the hobby has appeal for a reason. There are core elements to the stereotypical gaming table which people are drawn to, and most if not all traditional RPGs appeal to these elements. With my gaming group I’ve played Cyberpunk, I’ve played GURPS, I’ve played Exalted, and I’ve played D&D, just to name a few. The stories we told were wildly different and indeed the systems are very different, but the core ideas were often the same. We knew what our characters could do. We knew what “the party” felt like. And we knew how the arc of the campaign would change as our characters grew more powerful. What the corpus of traditional RPGs is able to do is provide a core experience that I believe people are seeking, while still being part of a wide and wild ecosystem that provides tons and tons of different story experiences. We in the critical and design spaces may lament the monopoly of D&D, but we must never forget that there is something real that draws people to D&D. And it isn’t elves and wizards.