Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs

Let’s start with the title.  When I say RPG, I (usually) don’t mean rocket-propelled grenade.  Usually.

No, this post is meant to unpack the terminology surrounding role-playing games, and to be used as a future point of reference.  I’m also going to refer back to Mattias’ excellent post about role-playing, because he did such a damn fine job of describing what role-playing is.

All three of us have written about role-playing games (check out the GMing category, and look at the older articles).  Yet for the most part our posts have assumed a certain level of familiarity with RPGs and their terminology.  I’ve certainly presumed that other people know what I’m talking about; but what the heck does it mean when I call a system “sparsely elegant“?

In an effort to minimize confusion, here’s a quick primer that will begin to bring you up to speed.  I’ll do my best not to cover things that were done better elsewhere (see Mattias’ article, really), but there may be a little bit of overlap.

The terminology and topics that I plan to cover…

  • PC, NPC, player, character
  • GM, DM, MC, Storyteller
  • Why roll dice in the first place?
  • What is 2d6? 1d20+3?
  • What does “sparsely elegant” even mean?

First off, there are usually two types of players: those who control the actions of a specific (few) character(s), and those (generally just one person) who will control everyone else.  Though everyone is playing a game with each other, those two roles are conventionally divided into the role of “player” (someone with one or very few characters) and “storyteller” (the person handling everyone and everything else in the fiction).

Let’s start with the terms used to talk about players and their characters.  The term PC is just a convenient initialism which stands for Player Character, a character controlled by a player.  PCs can be all kinds of crazy things, depending on the game, but they are often the center of attention.  They’re the ones that the game and story is all about, the main characters (to borrow from Mattias’ article).  They might be heroes, villains, or people somewhere in between, whatever the game calls for.

The term NPC is an initialism for non-player character.  An NPC is a character that is not controlled by one of the players, but that is instead in thrall to the storyteller.  An NPC may occasionally become a PC if long-term control of the character shifts from the storyteller to one of the players, but that is atypical.  Just remember that a PC is controlled directly by someone who is not the storyteller, while an NPC is the opposite.

Different games use different terminology for referring to the storyteller: they may be called the Dungeon Master, the Game Master, the Master of Ceremonies… or whatever else the game’s designers settled on.  I prefer the term storyteller simply because it is so rarely confused with something else.  It is a title of the person’s role, and therefore generally self-explanatory.

Mattias describes the purpose of a game-system extremely well, so I’m just going to quote him at length here:

“This number-crunching (the system of mechanics) is actually just a mediation tool. You know when, as a kid, you played pretend with other kids? What happened when two kids disagreed? Whose imagination won out? Maybe it was the kid other kids liked most, or the kid who painted the coolest picture. In roleplaying games, all of the numbers are supposed to represent a semi-objective way of determining what happens when there is disagreement.”

In nearly every RPG, the storyteller is the adjudicator of such a dispute.  But, as Mattias points out, the game-system and its numbers provide a semi-objective scaffold on which you can construct a collaborative fiction, without having the fantasy come tumbling down around your ears at the first disagreement.

Let me elaborate.  As RPGs have developed over time, growing from their origins as wargames, the systems that they use have developed as well.  These systems are meant to resolve disputes where simple storyteller’s fiat seems inappropriate, and are best applied under very particular conditions.  They are at their most useful when the things at stake are interesting, when the PC’s failure is interesting, and when it seems reasonable to expect that an event could go either way (succeed or fail).

Whether or not a PC can climb up on a table and sing drunkenly, while the PCs are celebrating after having recovered a valuable treasure, doesn’t really meet those conditions.  Even though the PC could fail, there’s nothing really at stake and failure is entertaining but not meaningful.  But when a fight breaks out a few moments later because angry cultists have shown up to recover their stolen artifacts, determining whether the PC can react quickly does meet those conditions; the PC’s status as an obvious target (singing on the table) and her rapid assistance to her friends are both at stake, failure is interesting because it forces her friends to do without her for a little while longer and means she might be hit first, and it could go either way (Moira the swordswoman is frighteningly competent, but she is also frightfully drunk).

These days, most systems use dice to resolve these sorts of situations.  While individual systems abound with mechanical idiosyncrasies and have different expectations about what might be a “good” die roll, the terminology around using dice has become fairly standardized.  Whenever you see “XdY”, read it as follows: the X is the number of dice being rolled, while the Y is the number of faces on the dice being rolled.  Thus 1d20 means one twenty-sided die, while 3d4 means three four-sided dice.  If you see “XdY+Z”, that just means that you add Z to the result of the die roll.

As I said, different systems all have their own particular flavor of complexity and oddity.  Some of them require 4 different rolls to determine a single action, while others have ways to ignore rolling for that action in the first place.  Sometimes there are variants offered in the system that specifically suggest ignoring or using other rules in order to create a different feel to the game, or to simplify or complicate the game to your preference.  Using a system can be anywhere from delightful and rewarding to confusing and frustrating, and a lot of that depends on your personal experience, gaming preferences, and whether the system you’re playing with is meant to handle what you’re asking from it.

So what did I mean when I said earlier that Monsterhearts was sparsely elegant?  I meant that the system’s mechanics are easy to learn, it has very few rules, and that those rules have very few confusing edge cases.  The scaffold meant to support your collaborative fiction has been pared down to a startling degree of simplicity, and yet still intentionally captures a very particular feel.  It is very clearly designed to do one thing, and it does that extremely well.

Are there other terms you’d like to see defined more extensively, or other topics that could use a similar primer?

If you want more on RPGs, I’ve written a few earlier articles about role-playing games and how I like to run them, as well as some other opinionated pieces.  But they’re only the tip of the iceberg.  Like I said before, check out our GMing section and read our older articles for more from Mattias, Jason, and me.


16 responses to “Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs

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  15. Your description of using dice to resolve situations where there are several meaningful outcomes is spot on. In my mind, it’s a sign of a bad system (or occasionally just bad players) when players are choosing their actions based on the rolls available rather than choosing their actions for narrative reasons and letting the rolling come in to determine the outcome of resulting conflict. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on how to keep players focused on the actions of the characters rather than the particulars of the system, both in terms of GMing methods and underlying game design.

    I also think we’re a little too attached to our dice. Are you familiar with many system that use wholly different methods for resolving chance events? There’s a system in development by some people I know called Oracle, where you tell a computer program what type of conflict is happening, and it produces one of thousands of enigmatic, slightly I-Ching-esque “fortunes” associated with that conflict type and you interpret the fortune. I know a few dice free systems, but I’m sure there are more, and you probably have a much broader knowledge of the systems out there than I do.

    • I’m glad you thought so! I too prefer to let players aim for what they want and then figure out what they’re doing. Honestly, I’ve had the most luck with keeping players focused on their actions in Dogs in the Vineyard and in Apocalypse World (and AW hacks). In Dogs it’s because there’s nothing *but* your actions, while in AW it’s because you have to narrate the fiction and nearly everything is simple enough that it will fit into one “move” or another, keeping things fairly easy.

      Sadly, I don’t know many truly dice free systems.

      FATE tries to get away from them a little bit with its aspects mechanic, but often even a compel on an aspect will simply push you in a direction rather than remove the dice from the equation.

      Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World system uses dice, but emphasizes the players’ involvement in shaping the narrative by turning “checks” into “moves,” and letting players pick which narrative options from the move take place. Baker has also been talking about dice free systems in other circumstances, but I’m not totally up to date on that.

      Castle Falkenstein uses cards instead of dice, Deadlands uses cards in character creation and dice in-game…

      Tim Lehnen (a Reedie) has been working on a card based system, with a proprietary deck instead of regular playing cards. He’s been working with a few other people (definitely John Dawson, I’m unsure of others).

      There are games like Fiasco that use dice but in a way that doesn’t tie your roll into those conflict resolutions. Instead, you know at the beginning of any given scene how it will resolve, for good or for ill, then you play to find out what happens.

      I’ve never played Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North, but I understand that it does some pretty interesting stuff, though it still uses dice on occasion.

      Maybe this merits a post?

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