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.


This is the mechanics, the math. This is what to model, how to model it, and what dice we roll when it happens. This is the most basic thing you can produce and sell and still call it an RPG. And yes, that means that I think some of the roleplaying “games” on the market aren’t games as-written. Genesys is not a game. GURPS is not a game. Cortex Prime is not a game. Fate is not a game, though Fate Core contains enough preset dials that there is a starter game in the book.

The vast majority of systems aren’t sold standalone, of course. We’ve talked about 2d20 by Modiphius and Year Zero by Free League, and these systems are only sold as part of the various games in the companies’ respective libraries. Interestingly, these and other systems are given away; the System Reference Document (see? I didn’t just make the nomenclature up this time) is a format of system intended to help others design their own games using that system.

When people say “system matters”, they’re saying that the underlying math upon which a game is based produces different results. This is incontrovertibly true, and the entire reason the phrase still incites Twitter drama is essentially bad-faith arguments. Saying ‘system matters’ isn’t saying nothing else matters, but rather reminding the whole hobby that its formative years were spent just emulating D&D, and the amount of progress we’ve made away from that initial system in fifty years is, to be blunt, pathetic. To credit the designers in that time, though, we’ve made a whole bunch of games, some of which did very well to stretch the little subset of potential roleplaying systems we’ve actually explored.


Separating system from game is unique to RPGs only from a marketing perspective. Take, for example, Ticket to Ride. Ticket to Ride is a popular board game where players must complete train routes dealt to them at random on a map. The game combines strategy and luck in a way that makes it easy and fun for new players but still sufficiently deep for board game nerds. There are different versions of the game which use different maps; the two most popular versions are Europe and the United States, though there are many others. Each of these maps is, truly, a different game. They may use the same system of a route deck, a train deck, plastic trains and maps with specifically colored rectangles, but each version has a different optimal strategy, different interfaces depending on player count and, in some cases, slightly different rules. It is very similar to how one could play both the new edition of Twilight:2000 and Forbidden Lands and understand that, despite a few differences, the two games have very similar feel (gritty, a bit desperate), center on the same basic mechanical strategy (when or when not to push rolls, resource and gear management, home base management), and generally are geared to tell similar stories. Now, these two might be the closest cousins in the Year Zero portfolio, but when you go read Vaesen or Blade Runner, it should be clear to even a modestly experienced gamer that the rules have lanes to play in and there’s only so far you can really stretch before you need to write new mechanics to cover the difference or consider a different system.

Systems can be more or less flexible depending on their math and mechanics, and you can write very different games with the same system. The fact that RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu were written using the same mechanics is fairly impressive, and the fact that Eclipse Phase was using only a mildly modified version of those same mechanics again more impressive still. On the flip side, you can use different systems to write the same game. We see this all the time with D&D, it gets copied so often. Dungeon World is the classic example, writing D&D using PbtA, although due both to being early to the PbtA game as well as relying perhaps too much on assumptions from the system of D&D, it may not be the best one. Torchbearer is essentially a version of Basic D&D using the system from Burning Wheel, and while it doesn’t turn out exactly the same it shows you can use the same set of underlying gameplay assumptions with completely different mechanics to great effect. And of course there are the conversions. Interface Zero started in Savage Worlds and migrated to Fate. Rifts was recast in Savage Worlds. Legend of the Five Rings was (ugh) converted to D&D. Converting games is the clearest example that the designers believe that the setting and character elements of the game, the parts that affect what you’re fictionally doing in the game, can be portrayed equally well in multiple systems.

It makes sense that we believe games are portable. Most people are significantly more interested in what they’re doing and what sort of story they’re telling. For every Shadowrun fan who actually really likes massive sized dice pools, there are ten who are just really into sci-fi with magic and fantasy races. And among all those players who are most interested in the settings, worlds, and characters, there are multiple preferred ways to make those worlds and characters work at the table. At the level of player preference, though, the RPG goes fractal. When players actually sit down to play, that’s when they create a campaign.


No table ever has the same campaign as another, and no table has the same campaign twice. This is an unavoidable truth of roleplaying games, and even in constrained ones, like Alice is Missing and Fiasco, it is still true (ask me about the three different times I played the Fiasco playset Camp Death). Incidentally, this fundamental truth also explains why so many prepublished adventures are, structurally, so bad. I say structurally because it’s not hard to find prepublished adventures with neat ideas, well-done maps and dungeons, and cool plotlines. That said, most of them fall apart when faced with player free will. Justin Alexander critiques many large D&D modules and their obsession with railroading over at his site The Alexandrian. Seamus was mostly quite positive when he reviewed Star Trek Adventures and its, well, adventures, but “Missions are sometimes written out with a very specific series of events in mind” is a very polite way of saying “this is a goddamn railroad”. I know there are exceptions (someone is trying to get me to play A Pound of Flesh for Mothership but I haven’t taken them up on it yet), but broadly I think the best campaigns are those that are built at the table.

The campaign is the thing that makes critiquing RPGs very challenging, both because of the reality of the experience but also because of how they end up being written. To use some of the above examples again, games like Alice is Missing and Fiasco invite critique because they are clearly trying to evoke a specific experience. While everyone will have a different game still, everyone will absorb the key intent of the game and be able to understand if it accomplished that intent as well as if it was fun, easy to play or learn, or other things which seem to be the purview of the ‘product review’. There are some broader games which, through very intentional, very specific rules, do also convey intent, even across different campaigns and experiences. Incidentally, you can tell if a game has strong intent if it has a segment of the fandom that vocally loathes it.

Anyway. One assumption baked into RPG design from wargames, and a much more subtle one than ‘has a combat system’, is that RPGs are meant to be more toys than media. An RPG is what you create the campaign with, it is not a piece of media that presents you with a story or a conflict or a world. RPGs are, in traditional circles, meant to be SimCity, not The Witcher (yes, I realize the immense irony of that comparison). The book you buy is meant to be the tools that create that cool campaign with your friends at your table, not a thinkpiece or something from an auteur. This is of course taken to extremes, which get us to the point that some gamers bristle at the statement ‘if you don’t follow the rules, the game won’t work’. In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is another one of those incontrovertibly true statements; games which work better when you ignore rules are poorly designed.

The power of the campaign to transcend derivative games and crappy systems has made it into a huge source of apologia for game designers who continue to color inside the lines of games which should have stayed in their decade of birth (usually the 70s or the 80s). This is what the critic must identify and push back on; at the end of the day someone wrote a game and it was crap, and that doesn’t change no matter how great the campaigns were. I’ve enjoyed pretty much every game I’ve played with my primary gaming group over the last 18 years, and those I didn’t were usually in systems I liked with a GM style mismatch. That said, the fact that I enjoyed our Exalted campaigns doesn’t mean Exalted isn’t an overwrought mess, and the fact that I enjoyed our Shadowrun campaigns doesn’t negate the fact that I will never, ever play Shadowrun again.

So what is an RPG made of? Well, there’s a setting and conceits and premises from the game, then the system has rules and math to tell you what to do and tell the GM what happens. But ultimately, after you set those parts of the foundation down, the experience of an RPG is largely you and everyone else at the table with you. The thing is, though, when we look at our gaming experiences and how they were shaped by our tables, our friends, our con acquaintances, and everyone else we’ve played with, we’re looking at a self-selected group. Everyone who is here found something they liked already, even if some of them are still looking for something different or better.

You can say the people are the biggest part of the roleplaying game and I won’t even disagree with you. But when we’re looking at the audience, looking at who actually comes over and is enticed by Vampire or Cyberpunk or D&D, we’re looking at people who have already decided this is for them. That’s ultimately why I write about games rather than write games; there is so much potential to take this medium, one of the best creative and social outlets I’ve ever had, and make it for everyone. But to do that we’re going to need to expand what the game is. We need more and better games; no more monopolies and something in our top 5 lists that’s less than 30 years old. We need more people too, in all corners of the hobby; it’s not really useful or fair to highlight indie games that sold 500 copies at most and pretend that they’re driving the hobby in any material way. We need to figure out, in a much broader sense, what’s bringing people to the table. In the end, that means working on everything an RPG is made of. Honestly, the people I’m less worried about. I’ve heard so many stories of people bringing friends, co-workers, family members, and even complete strangers to a table and showing them a good time. There are tons of good people in this hobby, people who want to share what brings them joy. So what we need more of, what we need to keep improving and doing better, are the systems and the games. They do matter. And we can do better than continuing to revisit the ones we already have.

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