A Theory Point: RPG Essentialism & RPG Exceptionalism

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There are, I think, two twin ideas that underpin a lot of rpg theory, to its detriment. Let’s call them rpg essentialism and rpg exceptionalism.

RPG essentialism is the idea that deep down, all rpgs are the same game. Like, “in all rpgs…,” “rpgs are designd for…,” or “in ttrpgs…” without any further qualifying.

It’s the idea that different rpgs aren’t different games, they’re different approaches or tools you can use to play what is essentially the same game.

RPG exceptionalism is the idea that deep down, rpgs are fundamentally unlike all other games, or aren’t games at all. That roleplaying is an activity separate from playing other games. As in, “unlike other games, rpgs…” or even “the g in rpg is a misnomer,” I’ve seen once in a while.

They often go together. I think of them as two sides of the same idea, but they might be more separable than I think.

RPG Exceptionalism

A venn diagram. Under the heading "games":
board games
card games
playground games
games of chance
video games
party games
Under the heading "not games":
roleplaying games

When I encounter a view in rpg theory I haven’t seen before, which is often, I always hold it up to these two ideas. Let’s see, maybe I can come up with an example.

A while ago on Twitter* I saw the sentiment that ttrpg design can never tell us how to play, only how someone’s played before. The implication being that game designers are holding play back, tying play to past practices, by definition never bringing play forward into the future. Only players can do that.

Maybe it’s true! It seems a little bit true.

But if you substitute card games or video games in for rpgs, you get, like, “video game designers can never create new ways to play, only how we used to play” or “card game designers are holding card game play back.” Neither of which seem true to me at all.

This means that rpg exceptionalism underlies the idea. Maybe it’s true, but only if we first take the view that rpgs are fundamentally unlike other games. That rpg designers have a fundamentally different relationship with rpg play than card game designers have with card game play or than video game designers have with video game play.

* I don’t remember who tweeted it, or honestly whether I’ve got the details right. Whoever you were, I apologize for not giving you credit and/or for misrepresenting you!

RPG Essentialism

Screwdrivers labeled D&D, GURPS, S:SSF, AW, BitD, Etc. A screw labeled "the singular rpg thing."

One of the strangest ideas to me in rpg thinking is the idea of “your ideal rpg,” the rpg that, if you had it to play, you wouldn’t need any others.

The idea of “your favorite rpg,” I totally get. I have a couple of favorite video games, after all. I have a few favorite card games. Naturally I have favorite rpgs too.

But I’m going beyond the idea of our favorites here. The idea of trying to find the ideal rpg I’m talking about is, trying to find the ideal route to the singular rpg. The ideal tool for doing the essential rpg thing. We’re trying to find the best way for us to play D&D, or if not D&D, the best way for us to play that single game that we think all rpgs secretly are.

Take Meg’s and my game Murderous Ghosts. I don’t think it’s anyone’s ideal rpg. I wouldn’t hope for it to be, that’s not my design spec. I don’t even know if it’s one of anybody’s favorites. What I do know is that it’s a fun and interesting game, it makes effective use of roleplaying as a technique, and it’s worth playing as a game in its own right, on its own terms.

If ttrpg design is about the search for the ideal rpg, Murderous Ghosts shouldn’t exist. That it exists means that Meg and I aren’t searching for the ideal rpg, we’re exploring a landscape of possible games. The more the better! The more different the better.

RPG Essentialism, Exceptionalism, and D&D

Screwdrivers labeled D&D, GURPS, S:SSF, AW, BitD, Etc, and collectively captioned "ways to play D&D.". A screw labeled "the singular rpg thing," but crossed out, with "D&D" written over it.

Because of D&D’s position in the marketplace, rpg essentialism and exceptionalism favor D&D. Insofar as D&D = roleplaying, rpg exceptionalism says that D&D isn’t like any other games, and rpg essentialism says that other ttrpgs are really just different ways to play D&D.

“Use any rules that you like, from any game you find. You’re still playing D&D!”

“Your game isn’t actually a roleplaying game, it’s only actually a roleplaying game if it’s like D&D in this arbitrary technical way. Stop calling your storytelling exercises roleplaying games!”

Non-Essential Differences

Game cover images:
Los Hombres Lobo de Castronegro
Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands
Cash & Guns
Final Fantasy 7

As far as rpg exceptionalism goes, my view is that any medium of play (eg video games, ttrpgs, sports, casino games, mind games, jigsaw puzzles) has its own array of features and drawbacks, available to design for (or against) and play with (or against). They aren’t interchangeable, but they aren’t fundamental either, they’re just the beautiful technical qualities of the medium.

I try to think about what the different media make possible and impossible, easy and difficult. What they can do, not what they make games be. For instance, video games can include much more complex math, because computers, than you’d ask a person to do on the fly, not “video games are more complex” or whatever. Or, their intimate and conversational medium means that it’s possible for ttrpgs to be interpersonally intense, by design or in play; but I’d never say that ttrpgs are by nature interpersonally intense.

RPGs are Cool and Interesting, NBD

A road sign, "DANGER," showing a bridge out.

Now, if you hold to rpg essentialism and/or rpg exceptionalism, that’s fine with me. If you think that D&D is the yardstick of all rpgs, well, okay. If you’re on the quest to discover or create your ideal rpg, go for it! If you think that the differences between rpgs and other games transcend the technical and reach the fundamental, I mean, what am I going to say? I’m not here to talk you out of it.

Ultimately, for you, for me, for each of us, the measure of your own rpg theory work is how useful you personally find it, not whether I or anyone else agree with you.

For me, they’re ideas that I try to escape. My view is that:

  • TTRPGs are no more fundamentally alike than video games, sports, or any other arbitrary game category. Take three ttrpgs and in principle they might be as different from one another as triathlon is from baseball is from hacky sack. Or as different from one another as Mario Kart is from The Wolf Among Us is from Minesweeper.
  • The act of roleplaying — like, pretending to be someone — is widespread in games, not special to ttrpgs. It’s a technique that games can include, each game for its own purposes, just the same as it might include skill, endurance, memory, pattern recognition, storytelling, randomization, sorting, patience, or anything else.
  • Roleplaying games are interesting and surprising games in a lot of ways, but they aren’t all fundamentally like each other or fundamentally unlike other games. They’re just, yknow, some games, with all the same kinds of fads, schools of thought, cross-influences, innovations, compromises, and iterations that other games have.
  • N, as they say, BD.

Either way, I return to the ideas of rpg essentialism and rpg exceptionalism in my thinking a lot. They’re signposts for me: danger bridge out ahead. I want to lay them out here because, knowing this, when you encounter some of my other rpg ideas, you might see better where I’m coming from.

Thanks for reading!

As always, if you have any observations or questions, please ask! It’ll be my pleasure.


He / him.

13 thoughts on “A Theory Point: RPG Essentialism & RPG Exceptionalism”

  • As someone who has previously said that line (i don’t know if i’m the person you saw say it or just one of many) “ttrpg design can never tell us how to play, only how someone’s played before” — I wanted to elaborate on that because I think my specific point got lost in a series of conflated points! I consider play to be very encompassing, and includes imagining playing and dreaming. What I’m trying to articulate is that a TTRPG text is a recording of the designer’s perspective as they visualize and experience play, and that that can help one’s design work.

    I don’t agree that designers can’t imagine new ways to play or that designers are holding play back (that’s much more a Jared Sinclair thing), but I do think the statement “designing a game is a process of playing a game and then recording how things went when you played (with a very very loose lyrical definition of play)” can and should be extended to video games and card games. I think my perspective gets really caught up in the writing I’ve done on playground theory, but I think all of that still holds up no matter what games you’re talking about.

    • Good morning Vincent, Jay,

      This is Ben, co-designer of Ma Nishtana, here.

      Often when I here folks say that TRPGs are not games, they mean the experiences we have with them are not “frivolous”. The implication for some is that the very term “game” connotes immaturity or something that can be approached without care.

      But roleplaying games – by which I mean tabletops, larps, and laogs – are special in so far as we experience them with a degree of vulnerability, that we might not with other forms of play. Otherwise we would not need to approach these games with the degree of care we do (as expressed in the culture of safety that has been blooming for the past decade or so).

      Personally I have felt that while I may have similar emotional and even cathartic experiences (looking at you Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) with card games and video games, I experience these games at a remove. I experience them at arms length, while with RPGs I feel that I am the one wrapped within their embrace.

      Roleplaying is often very “tactile” experience; whether its within the theater of the mind (tabletop) or embodied physically out in the woods (american style boffer larp), the dreamscapes that we make real with roleplaying games have a heightened potential to influence us: whether to expose to fresh new ideas, or to expose us to actual harm. Otherwise we would not find the need for a culture that supports safety mechs. I was struck by this the other day when reading an article about bleed in larp by Sarah Lynne Bowman.

      As you often say Vincent, each game has an argument or some goals in mind. I think that because of this tactile proximity that we have to roleplaying games, that our designs can leave such lasting impressions. Due to their immediacy, we have to be more receptive to ideas within, which influence how we act outside of play.

      For example, I’ve been mulling over some of Jay’s text from the introductions of Dungeon and Wanderhome. Even just leaving the space of play, I feel their resonance, more than any dialogue from a video game has:

      “Your kid should never die, no matter the hardships they face.” (Dungeon)

      “(Wanderhome) as a game isn’t preoccupied with failure. Often, in life, we don’t fail.”

      These are some of the core ideas, “arguments” as you say Vincent, of the games. They are powerful not just in how they are expressed through the games designs but rather because, in part, the medium of roleplaying games amplifies them.

      Roleplaying Games are games. This is true. But they are also unique in their potential for individual impact: they increase the potential for both growth and harm in their players—precisely because they offer the spaces for us to be more vulnerable than with other mediums of play.

  • Hello Vincent!

    First of all thanks a lot for this interesting reading!

    Let me say that I tend toward your very same idea about these two tendencies. I think (hope) I get what you are saying and I mostly agree with you.

    Nonetheless, I have a couple of thoughts and I’d be interested in knowing what you think about it.

    As designer (or wannabe one) I have to believe that RPG exceptionalism is not true. If it was true, designing ttrpgs would be so damn harder.
    At the same time I believe two things:

    1) ttrpgs are unique due to the fact that they involve creativity. I’ll explain better: usually, being creative while playing a game means being able to come up with innovative/alternative strategies to win. In ttrpgs you can use creativity in a more artistic, less goal-oriented way. This seems like a very unique feature and it has a number of ramifications that affect both designing and playing ttrpgs imho.

    2) I think ttrpgs have another very unique feature that is the number of different kind of fun they can provide.
    Let me simplify brutally here: you can play TTRPGs for strategizing during combats, to have fun roleplaying a character, to tell/listen to/collaborate in telling a story and many more.

    I think that the number of tools people came up with to address these two characteristics are a proof of this.
    You don’t go through a survey to understand what players want from their next Smallworld game.
    And you don’t spend time putting everybody on the same page in terms of tone and expectations when you play FIFA.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I would be happy to hear more of of yours on the subject!

    Again, thanks a lot!

    Edoardo 🙂

    • Hi Edoardo!

      First of all, I really do mean it when I say, I’m here to explain my own thinking in case you find it interesting or useful, not to say you’re wrong.

      Since you ask:

      1) I agree that the ttrpg medium lets you be creative in fun ways. Some ttrpgs are definitely about using your creativity to come up with innovative/alternative strategies to win, though. And I don’t think that artistic, non-goal-oriented creativity is the special domain of ttrpgs, either.

      Lots of party games call for non-goal-oriented creativity, for instance. A few board games do, and a few video games do. But here’s a weird one: some fortune telling / spiritualism games might be even better for non-goal-oriented creativity than many ttrpgs are.

      2) Same thing, I agree that ttrpgs, as a medium, offer a lot of different kinds of fun. But I really don’t see it that ttrpgs offer more kinds of fun than, like, all board games throughout history, or all video games from Pong to today.

      So, I agree with you to a point. I think that any gameplay medium does have unique features compared to others, ttrpgs’ conversational medium no less than the rest. Every kind of game gives you opportunities that others don’t, and takes away some that others offer. So, yeah, ttrpgs are unique, with a lot of very cool and interesting features. But I think they’re unique the same way every game medium is, they aren’t special-unique.

    • Edoardo, I think your point 1 identifies an interesting point, but I don’t think it’s unique to roleplaying games. I was talking to a friend about the distinction recently and we identified it as the difference between games that ask “how best should you do X” and those that ask what I find to be the much more interesting question “what should you do/be?”

      I have come across computer games (particularly Paradox’s ‘Grand Strategy’ games) that can do the latter, but I find it fascinating how many players seem to leap upon some essentially arbitrary X and play as if the game were actually asking the first question. I wonder whether there is something psychologically in the first question that some folks find intimidating, maybe? Or if, perhaps, the way we are educated makes answering the first type of question what we are conditioned to expect? I find it interesting, regardless.

  • Mads Egedal Kirchhoff says:

    A version of RPG Exceptionalism I’ve more often encountered, probably due to being a part of the freeform Fastaval scene, is as being unique among story-telling mediums. Replace the variety of games in your first diagram with “Books”, “Movies”, “TV-series”, etc. A common refrain: “That scenario was so railroaded it might as well have been a book/movie!”, judging that the game was ‘bad’ or barely a roleplaying game because it was too like another medium and didn’t make use of the inherently unique ‘roleplayingness’. I’ve grappled a lot with this, especially as a fan of sandboxy, emergent story games and was inclined to agree. But I eventually arrived at much the same philosophy as you, that the differences between story-telling mediums are signifigant(!), but not fundamental. There is not one thing that is the most important thing about roleplaying that all should aspire to do. Rather, there’s so many strengths, that it’s unreasonable to expect *one* game to incorporate all of them, or the one strength which is your personal preference. And it’s unproductive and limiting to focus on a specific feature of the medium and hold it as essential.

    I even lived through a condensed version of this in the last year, discovering online roleplaying as a medium of it’s own, with it’s own array of features and drawbacks, yet not so fundamentally different from analog roleplaying as I and many of my peers thought.

    No question or disagreement, just re-aligning my thoughts through your well-expressed thoughts. Thanks!

  • I find some parallels between RPG design theory and programming language design. I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but FWIW I have read elsewhere other people expressing the same thought.

    Anyway, re: RPG Essentialism: that is certainly something that happens in PL discussions a lot: “you could also do that in MyFavouriteProgrammingLanguage!”. This is called the “Turing tarpit” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_tarpit). In this case, we know for a fact that all programming languages are equally powerful (i.e. a given program can be written in any of them). But the point of the metaphor is that this equivalence offers no practical insight into the _actual_ differences between PLs as tools.

    Just a random thought.

  • Klaude Thomas says:

    Hi there, I loved your thoughts here and for sure I agree with them. Naturally I have a doubt! In the past you suggested that RPG’s are differentiated from other types of game by their inclusion of fictional positioning. Do you still view RPG that way? Supposing someone does (could be me, you, an unknown stranger), does it mean that person is committed to seeing RPGs as fundamentally unlike other games because they have a property no other games possess? Or supposing it doesn’t, what would you say helps most toward seeing that?

    That was a long time ago and I’m not trying to stitch you up in any way! I could easily be misconstruing your ideas, too! I found the fictional positioning argument pretty compelling, and I find this one compelling, too. They feel potentially at odds to me, so I wondered how one best dissolves or reconciles that?

    • Oh sure.

      Fictional positioning is a technical feature that some games have and other games don’t, just like shuffling and dealing cards, moving pieces on a board, or using a screen and a controller.

      I’m perfectly comfy with the idea that rpgs are games that include fictional positioning, sure. Some games do, some games don’t, and there’s no problem giving the ones that do, a name. RPGs, card games, video games, playground games, party games, social deduction games — no problem.

      So take games that include shuffling and dealing cards and games that use a screen and controller. You’d never say that they were fundamentally unlike each other, categorically different activities, just because of this technical difference. Same thing with fictional positioning.

      Fictional positioning doesn’t alienate rpgs from other games. It’s just a fun, cool, interesting, unique, challenging feature they have.

  • […] Secondo altri, al contrario, non c’è niente che renda i GdR strutturalmente più idonei di altri giochi, come i giochi da tavolo non di ruolo e gli sport, ad adattamenti e personalizzazioni: la maggiore frequenza con cui si riscontrano è un fatto culturale. A questo proposito è interessante anche questo articolo di V. Baker: A Theory Point: RPG Essentialism & RPG Exceptionalism. […]

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