What are RPGs made of?

The roleplaying experience cannot be solely defined by which books you pick up at your hobby shop. More than essentially any other medium, RPGs are changed by the people who play them and what they attempt to do with the game when they play. It is both the medium’s greatest strength and its greatest source of annoyance when trying to both critique published RPGs and set standards of good play.

If there’s one thing the RPG community is better at than anything else it’s talking past each other, and in a way this is inevitable. Every game and everything about each of those games which makes them good, bad, memorable, or forgettable is dependent on the people sitting around the table (on the discord, in the LARP space) actually playing. Now, this human element doesn’t discount what the rules bring to the game, and the ability to enjoy yourself in spite of a game doesn’t make it good (likewise, having a game bounce off your group because of your particular preferences and predilections doesn’t make it bad). This does mean, though, that we need to know what we’re talking about.

RPGs are more complicated than other games because they present three separate surfaces of writing which, in other media, either aren’t separated or don’t exist at all. The RPG system is the scaffold, the underlying mechanics, rules, and math which define how games work. The game is the group of elements built around that scaffold, the setting, procedures, and options which tell the players what the game is actually about. Finally, the campaign is the game itself, either from the players’ heads or from a pre-written adventure or two (or three). These elements in total build up to the game a group will actually play, and all of them bring something different and important to the final product.

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