Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Not A Board Game

Staring out at my dining and living room areas, I see a lot of board games that have been played in the last week or so: Axis & Allies, Life, Clue, Cranium, Monopoly, Chess. This is a bit unusual for the fam, but we've had a lack of external obligations and a heaping pile of, I've just wanted the kids to do something besides fire up some sort of portable screen device. I'm a curmudgeon that way. 

Board games are not Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen a lot of "board game" posts and discussions around the blogs the last couple-three days...various angles, no one particular thread or thought...and I thought I might take a moment to belabor the point for a moment. Just because. 

Because I think it's important. 

Because, these days we often draw a line between "tabletop games" and "computer games" and while D&D is often (or potentially) played at/on a table, it's not the same thing as a tabletop game. Role-playing games of the "table-top" variety are NOT the same thing as common board or parlor games. 

I think we forget that. We talk about "un-plugging" from our phones or Switches or consoles (or whatever) to play an analog game and we lump RPGs in the same category as backgammon. They aren't the same...they're not even close. Sure, B/X was purchased in a box. So, too, are fancy cigars. 

Not. The. Same. Thing.

Consequently (and this is my much as I ever have one), it's hardly any use judging RPGs by the same standards as other games. Yes, they have rules. Yes, they are played for enjoyment. The same could be said of a musical instrument. A saxophone is not the same as Chinese Checkers. Neither is an RPG.

RPGs need to be examined by their own standard. How well do they do the "RPG thing?" It's the only standard by which it makes sense to examine and analyze them. 

[*sigh* I don't know why I bother writing this since I'm sure it will either elicit cries of "duh" or deliberate and hard-headed denial. I suppose I just want to record my thoughts of the moment]

People choose to play RPGs for a variety of reasons. People choose to play golf or baseball for a variety of reasons. Pleasure, challenge, camaraderie, stimulation (mental, emotional, whatever), escapism. The "whys" of play is less concerning, less interesting to me at this moment than the hows and whats: What is an RPG? How does its design facilitate play? 

And of the hundreds or so RPGs I have owned, read, and/or played over the years, there is one RPG that stands head-and-shoulders over the entirety of the others with the way in which its HOW delivers on the promise of its WHAT. 

RPGs provide rules for participants to explore an imaginary environment. There's the WHAT.

That's "all" they do (yeah, it's a bit of a large "all"). But it's certainly different from what a board or computer game provides, namely a fixed structure of finite possibility. There may be exploration that takes place in a computer/board game, but it is always...ALWAYS...a limited potentiality.

RPGs are not structurally limited. Their environs...the imaginary realm in which games are played...are limitless. The rules provide procedure and (some) structure, but the potential for infinite possibility exists in every single RPG, even a game as constrained by procedure as, say, My Life With Master or Dogs in the Vineyard

The game of chess has a finite number of possible moves or combinations of play, just as does Tic-Tac Toe. Unlike the latter, those possible combinations number so many as to be...for practical purposes...uncountable. But given enough time (or enough computer memory) one could map out every possible sequence of plays given a board with a limited number of spaces and a limited number of pieces. 

That's not possible with an RPG. that I've defined the "what," we can look at the "how" and for the vast majority of RPGs, we can observe that designers tend to include some sort of conflict or "drama" to help drive the game or (at least) instill action in the game's participants.

Recognize that such conflict isn't necessary to the play of most RPGs (depending on how structurally tight their rules/procedures are). What if I said my fighter wanted to give up the mercenary work and start a farm? What if I decided I wanted to find a local village woman to woo and start a family with? What if the only "role-playing" interaction I wanted was with my neighboring villagers, discussing their issues and petty soap operas?

If the Dungeon Master and other players are on board with this type of game, nothing precludes the campaign from following this road. Maybe the magic-user wishes to start a school for the village children. Maybe the cleric wants to help the local pastor put a new roof on the church. Maybe the party thief decides he's done with his life of crime and decides to be the town sheriff, using his abilities to do "detective work," while being pleasant and sociable and atoning for his past pickpocketing and housebreaking. 

Certainly, the rules provided in the PHB and DMG support (and encourage) a different style of play from this, but nothing prevents the group from going this route. Nothing stops the Dungeon Master from having an alien spaceship land in the village green one day, either...perhaps with friendly extraterrestrials that wish the village to board their ship and travel to a distant star to build a new colony or help terraform a planet that's atmosphere is conducive to humans (but not the e.b.s). 

Endless possibilities with RPGs. Because the only (stated) objectives of play are "have fun" and "don't die" ...and the latter objective is secondary due to players' capability of creating replacement characters as necessary.

All that being said, the design of an RPG (the "HOW") is what provides the basis of comparison between different RPGs effectiveness of delivering an RPG experience. And in reviewing various RPGs and their designs, I cannot find a design more satisfying than that of Dungeons & Dragons. The premise of the game and the asymmetry of available player options combine to create a unique cooperative experience with modulated levels of adrenaline/stress/satisfaction that is a function of both GM creativity and players' own comfort level with regard to risk-reward.

It is (to me) unfortunate that later iterations of the D&D game have sought to limit and depress these elements.

But most RPGs aren't nearly so pointed or well-designed (at least in concept...all editions of D&D fall down at times in execution of the concept). And, yes, I write that knowing full well that the soundness of D&D's design is due as much to "happy accident" as to any real design chops. Regardless, of the RPGs that I've had the pleasure of playing over the years, there is really only one that comes to delivering, conceptually, as well as (and in as like fashion as) Dungeons & Dragons does. And I'm kind of surprised by the answer:


All the more surprising, because A) I didn't come to that conclusion before just now (when, while coming to this point of my writing, I stopped to review a mental list of all the RPGs I've owned, read, and played over the years), and B) I've been doing some....mmm..."stuff" with Cry Dark Future the last couple days.

[more on that later]

Okay, enough blathering. I've said my piece. Hopefully I'll have a thing or two to say on campaigns and treasure in the next few days. Hasta pronto.


  1. Having read some academic game design papers, it does seem that RPGs poke holes in just about every attempt to define just exactly what a "game" is. Pro sports can as well, but not as badly. And you are spot on as to why RPGs don't fit. Open ended and limitless play - in both duration and scope.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I would say though that straying from fantasy/medieval in game play in D&D may not be as enjoyable as using other systems. Which leads me to ask the question (and point me to past posts if already covered), do you think spin offs like Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers or Top Secret retained the same magic of D&D but tailored for these game environments... or are they poor cross-overs filling a niche and grabbing cash? (I loved reading them as a kid, only played Gamma World a bit... just curious on you view of these in light of the current D&D post.)

    1. That’s a good question…two questions, really, as they aren’t mutually exclusive. My short answer (to both) is “Maybe…but probably not.”

      I think it’s a mistake to try classifying D&D by genre. However, there’s no denying that genre plays a part in what attracts players to specific games that represent a specific type of emulation. I dig on spaghetti westerns (for example) so I want a gunfighting cowboy RPG, etc.

      Early RPGs, like the ones you cite, were designed to fill niches of different types of adventure, different types of fantasy. Many of these were products of their time (or, rather, products of the imagination of the designers who wrote them based on their own interests)…and what has interested designers have changed over time (moving from post-apocalyptic to near-apocalyptic dystopian future, i.e. cyberpunk, for example…or vampire stories or “steam-punk” or anime or whatever).

      But while genre-specific rules are designed to emulate specific fantasies, they aren’t (IMO) able to meet the same heights - in terms of execution of concept - as D&D. Mainly (I think) due to the “magic” of D&D being attributed to accidental design AND the focus of niche RPGs being genre emulation INSTEAD OF game design.

      My analysis is not meant to be disparaging of genre RPG designers, nor do I mean to heap huge amounts of praise on the heads of Gygax, Arneson, etc. We’ve just learned a lot (more) about design over the last 40 years.

  3. Shadowrun held sway over me ever since I picked up a free little pamphlet in a Walden books announcing it.

  4. JB, if you want to get more rigorous in your thinking about the definition of "game," I'd recommend _The_Grasshopper_ by Bernard Suits. It's a fun read, and even if Dr. Suits hasn't reached the ultimate definition of what games are it's a stimulating treatment of the subject.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm not particularly interested in exploring "general game theory" so much as RPG design...especially as relates to D&D.

      But I'll keep it in mind.

  5. It is for many of the reasons you state that I have little to no interest in board games.

    I used to as a kid but as I got older I realized that what I liked about RPGs wasn't the 'game' aspects of it. It's likely why we (you and I) differ on certain elements of play. I am less excited about the parts of RPGs that ARE similar to board games.

    I am my players are not as motivated by scoring points (such as XP), gaining money and resources for the sake of it, or 'going up in level', though the latter is more of a video game conceit then a board game one.

    Board games do indeed have winners and we are (generally speaking) not out to 'win the game'.

    1. Um..."video game conceit?" You do understand that board games and RPGs came before video games and included numerous methods of keeping score prior to the first video game created, right?

      Adam: you have a particular style / agenda of play that you use RPGs to engage in. It is one of several "valid" styles. Whether or not the RPGs you play support this style is debatable.

      D&D's system supports a different style of play from your preferred style. Because of the medium ("RPG") you could still use it to run the kind of game you want, but it's a bit like trying to cut down a tree with a steak knife (or carve one's steak with an axe). It's not designed for that action. There are better systems to use for that type of game. Etc.

      Have you ever played Risus?

    2. "Have you ever played Risus?"

      I have! In fact, it is one of the key inspirations for the game I published, 'The Googly Eyed Primetime Puppet Show'.

      As for, "You do understand that board games and RPGs came before video games and included numerous methods of keeping score prior to the first video game created, right?" Um...are you serious?

      Perhaps you didn't get the context of what I was saying. Removing RPGs from the equation for a moment, do you see Leveling Up more often in Video Games or Board Games? I mentioned 'Going up in level' and meant to clarify you don't see that in Board Games [which is the thing being addressed] so much as Video Games. Video Games have Leveling (like TRPGs) and Board Games (usually) don't.

      There could be Board Games with Levels but I can't think of one.

    3. There are, in fact, “board games with levels.” Siege of the Citadel is one; City of Chaos is another. Those are just off the top of my head.

      However, these games are clearly influenced by RPGs. Levels are not a “video game conceit;” they are a trope and game convention popularized by RPGs.

      Your initial statement (that advancing in level is more a ‘video game conceit’ than a board game) is nonsensical. Your request to “remove RPGs from the equation” to clarify the “context” is equally nonsensical. There’s probably some analogy I could draw to point out the ridiculousness here, but I am too lazy (at the moment) to do so.

      Not all RPGs include “leveling” as a system design. Many (D&D, Top Secret, Gamma World, Villains &Vigilantes, Palladium, etc.) do. You don’t like them…no worries. They are not inherently necessary for a game to be an RPG, nor even a “good” RPG.

      Computer games (and some…few…board games) use levels for specific design reasons. Generally, I’d say this is due to pursuing a type of game play similar to those old RPGs (like D&D) that incorporate the mechanic in an effective fashion.

      But it’s not a requirement for effective RPG design…not even for competitive, “mission based” RPG design. Shadowrun doesn’t use levels. Neither does InSpectres. Yet both of these RPGs are focused on obtaining mission objectives AND money/resources (each in their own way). That doesn’t make them more “board game-y” (or “war game-y” or “video game-y”). It is simply a shift of focus of play…a shift in the “HOW” of exploration in the imaginary world.

  6. Role-Playing Games are, I believe, social games. I think they have more in common with Apples-to-Apples, Scattergories, Cranium, et al than Monopoly or Life or Sorry. I think that when they are played as social games rather than wargaming extensions or heroic tactical battle simulators, they are at their best.

    1. @ O_C:

      I disagree with both your premise and your conclusion, but blame myself for not giving enough time to an explanation of RPGs specifically in this post.

      Those "social" board games are still board games with set objectives and a limited (finite) field of play...even heavy story/social games like Once Upon A Time.

      RPGs (at least D&D...some others as well) were indeed outgrowths of wargaming, but they are something very different because of their limitless capacity/potential. There are numerous ways in which RPGs can be played, unlike board games, and social elements will vary between groups...much as they do with board games (and both Monopoly and the current version of Life have huge "social" elements to them despite the focused goal provided by a finite structure).

    2. The social game is the same across groups: survive, get treasure, level. These are accomplished through cooperation and problem solving as a team. Sometimes it’s a story that drives the progress, sometimes it’s open or sandbox play. Combat, puzzle solving, et all are just mini games to drive the social goals.

      It’s like Cranium except you get XP and loot instead of points. :)

  7. You know, on reflection and having played a lot of Moldvay D&D over the last few months, I think Moldvay D&D is more boardgame like than any of them. It's procedures are specific (listen, search, move, or open a door), the turn and the combat round are well-defined along with light, movement, encumbrance, and resource management. It's the most traditionally board game-like of any of them, if you consider the adventure map the "board"

  8. I love RPGs and hate Boardgames with similar passion.

    You would not believe how many times I've told people I like RPGs and they answer: "yeah me and my couple also love them, we have Settlers of Catan at home, we should play someday"


  9. I'm curious...was there a dearth of discourse equating D&D to board games recently somewhere that I missed? I mean, I did post about Hero Quest a few days ago, but by no means do I think the two are equivalent.

    I love your posts, but this has got some serious "old man yells at clouds" energy, my guy.

    [Which is exactly what my blog is a chunk of the time ;) ]

    1. These days, I'm actually an "old man yelling at squirrels" type o guy.
      ; )

      Dude, I'm just recording my thoughts. See today's "discourse." No, you didn't miss anything (much) controversies, no flame wars, no drama. Holidays/winter's approaching and everyone's thinking indoor gaming...that's it. Next week, I'll probably be writing about turkey and cranberries.

    2. We're doing ham and duck. :D