On the Vocabulary of Role-Playing
Towards Critical Consistency?
By Phil Masters
Ever since formalized role-playing first took off, players and GMs have been developing a fairly extensive specialized vocabulary, which has often been terse, expressive and descriptive. Unfortunately for this journal its contents have rarely been formally defined, and inevitably ambiguties and variations of meaning have developed.
It would be pleasant to say that this article is designed to remedy this. However, the author is slightly too much of a democrat, and far too flippant, to try any such thing. As the subtitle says, what follows is a set of notes. Others are welcome to use them to develop something more substantial.
This article is partly descriptive (describing terms in widespread use), a little prescriptive (suggesting some definitions that the author thinks deserve more popularity), and frequently combative (suggesting where existing terms, or the thoughts they embody, are misleading or misguided). This is not, perhaps, the most academically respectable way to do things; but the author enjoys it, and he has attempted to make clear distinctions between the different modes of discourse.
Actor: A player or GM (qq.v.) who attempts to simulate the voice, facial expression, etc., of a character being played, rather than using detached or third-person descriptions of behaviour.
Actors are generally good role-players who provide the other participants with a great deal of entertainment (intentionally or otherwise) but at their worst, they may come to dominate a game at the expense of less extrovert players. Actors who use their perforrnance to intimidate or pressurize the GM can be a particular problem.
Beer and Pretzels: A term, clearly of American origin, for games that can be played without undue mental effort, in a highly sociable context, often with a substantial humorous content. Consumption of alcohol or snacks while playing such is not obligatory, but should be possible.
The words may originally have been used by board war-game manufacturer SPI to describe largely non-humorous games that were simple by SPI's standards. It was subsequently co-opted by role-players.
Classic Beer and Pretzels RPGs usually simulate frenetically humorous genres such as cartoons. However, the complexity and commitment involved in role-playing often clash with the demands of Beer and Pretzels play, and many role-players tend to opt for non-role-playing games when they are looking for such amusement.
Blue-Booking: A term originated by Aaron Allston for a role-playing technique in which the actions of individual characters, especially out of combat and away from the main character group, are described in writing rather than speech, creating a permanent log of the character's fictional life. Blue-Booking allows for character development and minor 'solo' plot activity without distracting the GM unduly from the main, group-based, plot. It evolved from the note-passing common in many playing groups as a means of dealing with individual character actions of which the rest of the PCs are unaware.
Many playing groups who engage in Blue-Booking enjoy it immensely, and regard it as a major role-playing refinement. However, it can be criticized on the grounds that it de-emphasises the social group aspects of the game, and may lead players to shift from interactive gaming to a highly self-indulgent form of solitary fiction-writing.
Builder: Another of Aaron Allston's terms: a player who 'wants to have his characters have an impact on the world-to build institutions, to clean up a city, to change things'.
Builders are generally harmless and even useful players, who can add much to the interest value of a game for all concerned. However, their interests sometimes clash with those of other participants, as they demand that the campaign focuses on their character's achievements. Like any highly-motivated player, a Builder can have a strong influence on the game - to its benefit or detriment.
Campaign: A term adopted from formalized role-playing's early roots in wargaming, meaning a linked series of game 'incidents', usually set in an internally consistent gameworld and featuring a recurring cast of player and non-player characters. Campaigns may be open-ended, lasting as long as players choose to continue with them, or limited-duration, with a fixed objective or plot-climax that terminates the story.
Some role-players have come to dislike this term, feeling that it over-emphasizes the military aspect of games. Certainly its meaning is more self-evident in the context of wargaming, where individual games usually represent single, simulated battles, and a 'campaign' is a linking framework for a series of such. However, the term has now become so firmly established in role-playing that it is hard to foresee its demise, especially as no better alternative seems to be on offer.
Character Design: A type of role-playing game-svstem in which characters are created, usually by the allocation of a set number of points, with little or no random element. Contrast 'Randolll Generation' (but note that part-random, part-design systems are possible, and many exist).
Character Design systems emerged later thall Random types, but rapidly caught on, as they gave players greater control, and eliminated the feeling that blind chance could produce an especially strong or hopeless playing piece. (Hero Games' Champions was an early, fairly complex and typical example; its designers give due credit for inspiration to a rather different system designed by American gamer Wayne Shaw, but never formally published.) Thev might noq be in the majority, but for the continuing popularity of the long-established Random Generation system Dungeons & Dragons (in its several variants).
A common criticism of Design-based systems, especially the more complex ones, is that they are open to exploitation by Mini-Maxers (q.v.), who studiously analyse and exploit imbalances in their mechallisms. This is indeed often a problem; the usual answer is to say that a Design-based system requires and presupposes a sensibly attactive GM to bar or otherwise counter gross manipulations of the rules. A less common but perhaps equally valid criticism is that Random Generation systems can and do lead players to explore the possibilities of character types they would otherwise avoid. However, many players simply reject randomly created characters who do not meet their tastes, or become disenchanted with games that force them to play such.
Character Disadvantage: Character Design (q.v.) systems sometimes allow increased character power at the cost of accepting specific Disadvantages.
This can be a useful tool in encouraging the creation of detailed, balanced characters. However, even non-Mini-Maxer (q.v.) players may become overly interested in the benefits granted by taking extensive Disadvantages, leading to distorted characters. If these characters' Disadvantages are enforced, they may become the centre of the campaign, at the expense of plot and other elements; if the GM avoids this by underplaying some Disadvantages, the players may come to regard them as free points, and protest volubly if they are enforced later. As it is essential for the GM to be perceived as fair, this can wreck campaigns.
Class and Level: Rules systems, such as Dungeons & Dragons, that define characters by reference to a limited set of 'classes' - professional or functional categories ('soldier', 'wizard', priest, 'pilot', etc.) - and model the development of character abilities by relatively large, fixed increases in general 'level'. Often contrasted with 'Skills-Based' (q.v.) rules systems.
Class and Level systems are long-established, and considered dated and crude by more sophisticated gamers. However, this terminology defines a set of paradigms rather than a sharp dividing line; even D&D nowadays has rules to incorporate a fair amount of flexibility in characters within a class, and many other systems incorporate 'Class and Level' concepts into other, more flexible devices: for example, many games provide modifiable character templates linked to various professions, or include tribes or clans which specialize in various abilities.
Combat Monster: Allston's term for a player who 'wants his character to fight, fight, fight'. This is not necessarily equivalent to Mad Slasher (q.v.) play, Power-Gaming (q.v.), or even to a taste for Hack and Slash (q.v.); the Combat Monster may recognize the existence of other aspects of the game, but chooses to emphasize this one.
The Combat Monster's chief interest in a game appears to be catharsis. Although such a player can contribute a useful element in a group of PCs (most games having aspects that require a violent solution), single-minded obsession with combat can be tiresome to other players.
Complexity: References to games as more or less complex or simple are almost invariably concerned with rules mechanisms, and usually embody some kind of subjective judgement. Complexity in game settings is almost universally considered desirable and probably inevitable if a campaign (q.v.) is to evolve and display any kind of depth or subtlety.
Complexity in rules systems is usually mentioned only to be criticized. The fashion among those who compare and contrast systems is to prefer simple mechanisms which are seen as less likely to obstruct the more important aspects of the game. However, a case can be made for employing complex rules, if they genuinely model the complexities of a complex gameworld with efficiency and descriptive power. The automatic condemnation of complex games may well prove to be a passing phase, in both individual gamers and the hobby as a whole.
Problems may have originated with rules designers who increased complexity on the assumption that it was equivalent to Realism (q.v.) of some kind. This led to baroque, unplayable systems. Another real dificulty may be to disentangle concepts at the other end of the scale - such as 'simple', 'simplistic', and 'abstracted' - which are often matters of personal taste. One gamer may be content with a single die roll to resolve the success or failure of a character's activity, while another might prefer hours of discussion and (possibly) dozens of rolls for subsidiary activities.
Computer-Moderated Gaming: Games in which a computer is used to administer elements of the mechanical side of the game. This can range from simple use of word processors and random number generators to highly mechanics-oriented games where the main interest lies in the challenge of working successfully within the system.
Despite the enthusiastic adoption of the term 'role-playing' by the computer industry, many enthusiasts of conventional (non-computerized) games consider that no computer is capable of the subtlety, flexibility, and characterization demanded by 'true' role-playing. Extensively computer-moderated role-playing games, in the sense defined here, are probably rare, and can perhaps only be considered 'role-playing' to the extent that the human referee acts to introduce elements of characterization and personality.
Co-operative Playing Style: A player may co-operate usefully with the GM, other players, or ideally both. Co-operation with other players means acknowledging their interests, the nature of their own playing styles, and the need for their characters to accomplish their own goals. As the problems set in role-playing games often require team solutions, even intelligent Power-Gamers (q.v.) are usually co-operative in this sense; the opposite approach leads to breakdowns in both the game and inter-player social relations. Co-operating with the GM is perhaps the most important meaning of this term. Fully co-operative groups all work together to explore the game, setting and plot. As the GM has the largest task in a game, a co-operative approach implies respecting the GM's personal interests and 'style'.
As most gamers acknowledge that role-playing is a group endeavour, co-operative play of both sorts is generally admired. However, the pressure to conform to group norms may become restrictive. If role-playing is about the creation of fully-rounded characters, such characters cannot always be expected to co-operate with each other, and their actions may not always be within the range expected by the GM. Furthermore, an overly co-operative group may develop a style that precludes much of the excitement and uncertainty found in other games. Contrast the GM-as-Enemy style (q.v.).
The problems implicit in all this have no easy solutions; some groups regard failure to conform as tantamount to sabotage and selfishness, whereas others revel in stress and the unexpected - perhaps at some cost to campaign development.
Copier: Allston's term for a player who is strongly interested in reconstructing a character (or a close equivalent) from another source- - usually a favourite book or film. Although not impossible in any game, this behaviour is most encouraged under a Character Design system (q.v.).
Copiers are often enthusiastic players, but their approach to a games sometimes rather one-dimensional, as their sole concem may be in adapting the game to the model.
A variant of this model is the 'One-Character Player'. who 'copies' the same character - from whatever source - into every game they play. This might indicate a deep interest in developing a particular characterization; it might also indicate narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination.
Diceless: Systems in which no random-result moderation mechanism is employed. Diceless system enthusiasts consider the use of a card deck or other such mechanisms in place of dice to be missing the point; determination of random factors should be the province of conscious GM and player decision.
Diceless games are sometimes lauded as the next big (or trendy) thing, but they remain rare. The only one in commercial circulation, Amber, inspires considerable dedication from its minority following.
Aside from market inertia, the use of randomizing elements in games can be justified rationally because, amongst other things, they restrain unconscious GM bias and frequently inspire the GM with possibilities that would not have otherwise occurred to them.
DM: Abbreviation for 'Dungeon Master', the term widespread among early games players - especially players of Dungeons & Dragons as a synonym of GM (q.v.). 'Dungeon Master' and the abbreviation are trademarks of TSR Inc.
This term has now fallen into some disrepute, perceived as implying that a game is restricted to Dungeon-Bashing (q.v.). The same letters were also used by the first edition of Traveller as an abbreviation for 'Dice Modifier', a fairly self-explanatory rules mechanism. Steve Gilham has pointed out that the latter expansion described the prime function of many DMs in the former sense.
Dungeon: This word has developed a broad, loose meaning, covering any more-or-less subterranean complex of rooms and passages, usually in a fantasy gameworld. See'Dungeon-Bashing'.
Since many early games focused heavily on dungeon-bashing, the word was often used in a very broad sense. Any Scenario (q.v.) that focused on a specific location in detail might be termed a Dungeon and sometimes, the usage became even broader - see'World'. This terminology has been inherited by computerized MUDs (q.v.).
Dungeon-Bashing: A term used, with varying levels,of self-deprecation and disdain, for the once-common style of game play based around the exploration of (mostly subterranean) complexes, combat with monsters and the plundering of treasure. This type of game (aptly summarized, possibly first by Steve Gilham, as 'skirmish wargaming in an underground menagerie') does not embody many of the more intellectually respectable aspects of the hobby. Nonetheless, even the most pretentious of gamers may sometimes become nosltalgic for its simple pleasures - a fact that may partly explain the continuing widespread enthusiasm for variations of the original Dungeons & Dragans rules.
Entropy: See Power Level.
Four-Way Split: A concept suggested by Glenn Blacow as long ago as the late 1970s; the categorization of types of role-playing behaviour into 'Role-Playing', 'Story-Telling', 'Powergaming', and 'Wargaming'. Blacow may have been the first to attempt to forrnalize use of these four terms, much as they are defined in this article.
Freeform: Perhaps the role-playing game term with the widest and most deceptively subtle range of functional definitions. Different groups have defined it variously as play with no fixed set of rules; games with an extremely loosely-defined setting, high levels of player input to the plot, and simple rules; diceless games; and games with a large element of Live-Action (q v.) play and a great deal of non-violent social interaction between characters.
It would be pleasant to achieve a consensus on this term, but since all the other meanings would require new names, ambiguity looks to be the pattern for the foreseeable future. The word 'freeform' should only be used with care and a lot of attached explanation.
Generations (of Games): Attempts to define 'generations' of games, in terms of qualitative developments in rules mechanisms, playing styles or whatever, have been made on several occasions. However, no consensus seems ever to have been reached on such analyses, and this term cannot yet be regarded as defined.
(See also 'Where We've Been, Where We're Going' by Greg Porter, in the first issue of Inter*action.)
Genre Fiend: Yet another Allston term, referring to a player (or GM) who is determined that a game should emulate all the conventions, tropes (q.v.), and possibly cliches of the fictional genre on which it is based.
To the large extent that role-playing games are a highly derivative form, the genre fiend can be a useful stabilizing force. However, such an individual can also seem tiresomely obsessive in their attachment to cliche, and may disrupt attempts by other individuals to explore, modify or subvert the genre.
GM: Abbreviation for 'Games Master' (sometimes, perhaps pretentiously, 'Game Moderator') - the individual acting as referee and scene-setter in a game.
Many games have used their own names for this function, starting with Dungeons & Dragons's 'DM' (q.v.), and including Call of Cthulhu's 'Keeper (of the Arcane Lore)', Toon's 'Animator' and Ars Magica's 'Storyguide'; early variations were more or less serious attempts to avoid the genre-specific implications of 'DM' before 'GM' became widespread, while later efforts attempted to emphasize various aspects of the games. Traveller, rather puritanically, prefers 'Referee'. However, 'GM' has become commonplace and is certainly useful, simply because of its flexibility (and despite the slight hint of sexism - 'Games Mistresses' are rarely discussed).1
GM-as-Enemy Playing Style: The opposite of fully Co-operative play (q.v.) - an approach to gaming in which the GM is assumed to be setting the characters serious and potentially lethal problems, and the players set out to defeat these by any means permitted by the rules. In such a game, disruption of the GM's intentions is often seen as desirable.
Obviously, given the power available to any GM, unrestrained hostility from that quarter will quickly lead to the extermination of player characters; however, GMs who are willing to play 'hard but fair' can provide players with genuine but not insuperable challenges. This may lead to a more exciting and engrossing game than one with overmuch co-operation - in which players may come to rely on friendships with the GM to save their characters from the consequences of inept behaviour. Because of the need to maintain a balance of perceived threat and survivability, and the incentive to players to identify and disrupt the GM's plans, true 'GM-as-Enemy' games area great deal harder to referee than may appear.
Like truly 'Co-operative' games, 'GM-as-Enemy' play is something of an extreme case; the paradigm may only rarely be found in reality, and most real games contain elements of both styles. However, the two terms reflect real components of gamers' mind-sets - differences in expectations between players and GM in this area has probably led to more problems in games than almost anything else.
Hack and Slash (often abbreviated to Hack'n'Slash): A style of game dominated by combat, in which player-characters resolve most problems by violence, and character development is de-emphasized.
Although all styles of game have their occasional defenders, Hack'n'Slash is widely regarded as tedious; players who never discover anything else seem certain to sooner or later become bored with the entire hobby.
Linear (Plots): Scenario (q.v.) or Campaign (q.v.) plots with a single narrative strand - usually heavily enforced by the GM. Linear plotting is often the result of a determined Story-Teller (q.v.) GM or games designer, or simply an unimaginative one, who conceives of a scenario consisting of a complete set of incidents leading to a single conclusion, and who is not prepared, practically or emotionally, for any deviation by players from this plan.
Linear plots are easier to design, can be entertaining and are often the best that a beginning GM can manage. However, they can also lead to problems with players who expect more or who simply delight in wrong-footing the GM; improvement in refereeing skills is often a matter of learning greater flexibility. Arguably, highly skilled GMs may learn to anticipate player behaviour so well that they can create plots that are highly linear, while retaining an illusion of complete PC free will.
No obvious word for the opposite of 'linearity' has yet been suggested, but would be useful.
Live-Action Role-Playing ('LARP'; occasionally 'LRP'): Games in which players act out many elements of their characters' activities in person - usually while wearing more or less appropriate costumes. To avoid injury to the players, combat is simulated with dummy weapons and a large number of rules and restrictions. Live Action play seems to have evolved mostly from a large number of games in which the primary activities were combat and treasure-hunting - which in turn owe their inspiration to Dungeon-Bashing (q.v.) table-top play.
Some gamers have an aversion to LARP, for several reasons. Those who have studied other forms of simulated or real combat tend to argue that LARP combat is so stylized and frivolous that it bears no relation to reality. Further, obvious limitations make LARP less effective than tabletop (q.v.) play at simulating extreme environments, bizarre characters (or simply characters of the opposite sex) and some social interactions. To the extent that players bring their personal attributes and social skills to their characters, it also limits and distorts characterization.
A third reason is that the general press, in attempting to find photogenic aspects of the hobby as a whole, tend to concentrate on individuals wearing bizarre costumes and wielding obviously fake weapons, creating an eccentric and limited image that less extrovert gamers find tiresome. To the extent that the costumes imply and flaunt a childish detachment from reality, this 'image problem' is a serious one. That said, many LARP players point out that, combat aside, a little practical experience soon expands a player's appreciation of certain aspects of adventuring - such as what can and cannot be carried and used in a dark, narrow, underground corridor - and anyway, they enjoy their version of the hobby and should not be deterred by a few lazy newspaper reporters. Certainly LARP is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future.
(See also 'Live Role-Playing: the meta play' by Jay Gooby, in the first issue of Inter*acti@n.)
Mad Slasher: Aaron Allston's label for a type of gamer at the extreme end of the Combat Monster and Hack and Slash spectrum (qq.v.); someone whose sole concern with games is to use the combat system for personal catharsis. The Mad Slasher's character responds to all obstructions by killing the other characters involved.
Generally, Mad Slashers are either immature personalities who find the repetitious description of extreme violence amusing, or genuinely disturbed and frustrated individuals. Fortunately, the former are perhaps the more common, and less violent playing groups eventually respond by ejecting them. However, there is a suggestion that, like other player vices, this one has a subtle, player-level variation.
The Player-Level Mad Slasher is one who responds to personal frustrations by attempting to dominate the player group. This is unlikely to involve physical force, but it can involve a great deal of psychological and emotional manipulation. This type of play is also seen from personally assertive Power-Gamers (q.v.), and here the two types may overlap.
Mini-Maxer: a player who attempts to explolt every aspect of a game's rules to maximize character power for minimum cost of any kind - hence, by implication, a variety of Power-Gamer (q.v.).
Mini-Maxing is often easiest within Complex (q.v.) Character Design (q.v.) systems, but any game that allows a degree of player choice within the rule system - say, in combat - may potentially be susceptible to this treatment. Mini-Maxers are not widely admired, at least in their extreme form, but many numerically adept players behave this way from time to time, and they at least serve to demonstrate the potentialities and quirks of any system. Arguably, too few games on the market were properly play-tested by competent Mini-Maxers before publication.
Modes (Child, Parent, and Adult): Terms for styles of behaviour, borrowed from a brand of pop psychology by the author of this article. Three Modes are defined. Child-Mode behaviour is playful, irreverent and frivolous. Parent-Mode behaviour involves criticism of others and an implicit assertion of superiority. Adult-Mode behaviour is practical and pragmatic, and accepts responsibility for necessary tasks.
Role-players and their characters tend to demonstrate all three modes; arguably, a good campaign demands all three. GMs operate primarily in Adult-Mode; Child-Mode behaviour can destroy the atmosphere and sense of structure in a game, and Parent-Mode GMing tends to be perceived as restrictive and coercive. The players have more freedom, and often amuse themselves by shifting to Child-Mode, but if they wish to achieve a goal, some Adult-Mode behaviour is necessary. Parent-Mode play is rare, but not unknown, especially from players who become annoyed with others who will not shift out of Child-Mode, or with other problems of any kind.
Character behaviour tends to reflect the player Mode - but not always completely; a Child-Mode player may depict a character behaving in a ludicrously excessive Adult-Mode or Parent-Mode way, while an Adult-Mode player can acknowledge a character's tendency to behave in any Mode. Parent-Mode players tend to make their characters behave in Parent-Mode, but may 'pointedly' shift to Adult Mode.
MUD: Abbreviation for 'Multi-User Dungeon', a form of computerized game, usually played over networks and longer-range telecommunications links, in which a number of participants operate characters who can interact with both the environment and each other. MUDs are supervised by human referees, but much of the routine activity is purely computer-controlled. The activivity has generated its own 'sub-subculture', which overlaps with the rest of the role-playing community, but retains a clear separate existence.
MUDs may be considered an impressive example of heavily Computer-Moderated Gaming (qv), and have achieved considerable complexity in recent years. However, the practical constraints imposed by the medium imply limitations. For example, the need for a relatively simple, definable setting leads to a style of game-world that many tabletop gamers would consider rather dated; the retention, in this context, of the word 'Dungeon' (q.v.) is indicative. However, MUDs are a thriving area (albeit with a relatively small following as yet), with advantages of their own, even in terms of characterization; a player who cannot be seen by other participants may feel less inhibited about playing characters of the opposite sex, with exotic personal quirks, or whatever. Future developments in the world of MUDs may well be very interesting.
(See also 'Multi-User Dungeons' by Alan Cox and Malcolm Campbell in this issue.)
Narra-Real: See Realism.
NPC: Abbreviation for 'Non-Player Character' - a game-world character operated by the GM.
Some writers seem to have taken against this term, presumably because the GM is, in a sense, a player, or because the term is defined as a negative - which may indicate limited personality development in the NPC. Alternatives on offer include, plausibly enough, 'GMC' ('GM Character'). However, 'NPC' is yet another term that is probably too well-established to shift.
Patron: A stock NPC role first formally defined in Traveller, but known in many games. They are socially significant characters who employ the PCs to perform a particular task, conferring financial and social benefits on them in exchange for (in the game world) assistance and (on the GM/player level) willing involvement in the plot.
As Traveller demonstrated, such functions could sometimes be performed by characters who did not meet any traditional definition of a 'Patron', such as an impoverished bar-fly who provides the PCs with a string of interesting clues. Role-playing adaptation of conventional language in such ways can be both fascinating and dangerous to observe.
Plamondon's Test: Defined by American gamer Robert Plamondon, this test is embodied in a principle: 'If incidents in a game cannot be described without reference to the game's mechanics, then those game mechanics are too intrusive'.
This rule has a glaring weahless; namely that a sufficiently dedicated and imaginative narrator can rationalize and rephrase almost any incident into non-game terms, no matter how intrusive and unrealistic the rules involved. However, the philosophy implicit in the Test has its uses; any description of a game that refers to 'character level', 'points totals', behaviour that was mandated by 'character class', or whatever, suggests that the speaker is not visualizing game-events fully.
Play-By-Mail (PBM): Games (not necessarily role-playing) in which moves are processed by postal communication between players and referee (or between players).
Although many very popular non-role-playing PBM games exist, depending on the Post Office for role-playing is rather limiting; good characterization and development often depends on interchanges at conversational speed. On the other hand, slower speed play may often be more thoughtful and subtle.
The growth of computerized communications has led to variations on this theme - sometimes known as 'Play-By-Modem' games. These may allow a faster turn-round speed, if not necessarily enough to raise the flexibility of the game to face-to-face levels. In the USA, where internet access is relatively cheap and easy, 'Play-By-Email' (PBEM) games are very common - it is said that one or two start up every week on Usenet. The rate of subsequent disappearances is not reported. This category merges into MUDs and hence into other computer-moderated games (qq.v.).
(See also the article 'Play-By-Mail' by Wayne, in this issue.)
Player: A game-participant other than the GM (q.v.); one who operates very few characters (often one), in relative ignorance of the plot, without the GM's (sometimes only theoretical) power of fiat.
Like most long-established terms, 'player' has met objections from some quarters, if only because the GM is 'playing' too. However, it does have the virtue of reasonable clarity, with a meaning obvious to anyone who has encountered it in other games or sports.
Plumber: Aaron Allston describes this type of player as liking to 'create a character with a finely detailed and intricate personality, and then spend his gaming career plumbing this character to its depths'. Such an exploration generally demands a morally and emotionally complex game-plot.
While the Plumber would be regarded by many as the epitome of good role-playing, see the comments below under ,'Power-Gamer' for reasons to qualify this praise.
Power-Gamer: A player whose primary interest in the game is the acquisition of a sense of raw power. This is usually taken to mean physical power in the context of the gameworld, pursued either by legitimate if limited character tactics, or manipulation of the game rules.
However, it is interesting to consider that the underlying urge - personal dominance in the context of the game - may find other, more subtle forms of expression. For example, a player might seek power over plot development, or simply over other players.
Thus, an 'Emotional Power-Gamer' might be defined as a player who seeks (perhaps not consciously) to dominate and manipulate the process of characterization and the more melodramatic aspects of plot development in a game. Some such players attempt to dictate to others - usually by assertively expressed 'suggestions' - the personalities and past histories of their characters; others dominate other players more crudely, through put-downs and snide remarks.
It might be desirable to find separate terms for the two types. A 'Plot Power-Gamer' would be a player who attempts to influence the campaign's narrative by psychological manipulation of the GM, a 'Rules Power-Gamer' continuously suggests revisions to the games mechanics, a 'Time Power-Gamer' simply takes up as much playing time as possible with their own ideas and concerns - and so on.
See also Four-Way Split.
Power Level: The 'Level' of a campaign is usually defined by the personal physical power of the player characters, and hence of their opponents. This may be related, albeit not very exactly, to their personal significance in the gameworld. Power levels are most easily measured by comparison with other games using the same rule-system.
Some gamers have used the word 'Entropy' for this concept, which may be slightly more precise, but is liable to confuse readers who are unaware of its exact significance in thermodynamics.
Random Generation: In effect the opposite of Character Design (q.v.) in the philosophy of game mechanics; the basis of a system in which characters are created by a chance-based mechanism, usually the roll of a die.
For all their capacities for serendipity and amusement value, Random systems always cause annoyance for gamers who would prefer either more control over, or more power for, their characters. It is mildly amusing to note how much the oldest Random Generation systems have mutated over the years as publishers have sought to assuage such impulses.
Realism: This word, in terrns of game systems, can have various, subtly divergent, meanings. Early in the history of role-playing, it was often taken literally, so that criticisms of rules as 'unrealistic' were dismissed with the comment that magic and the like, which loom large in games, are not 'real'. However, even on those terrns it is possible to argue for realism in the depiction of non-fantastical elements such as weights and measurements of mundane items, and 'realism' was soon consciously redefined as something like 'fidelity to the implicit laws of nature in the fictional genre being simulated'.
This, of course, begs questions about what those implicit laws are, and the exercise of deciding this can itself be interesting. Of course, many genres embody strong assumptions about the nature of elements such as 'heroism' or 'fate', but attempting to simulate these in game rules can be dangerous, as it tends to conflict with the right of the GM and players to make their own decisions. Perhaps the best approach to Realism in games is to attempt to ensure that willing Suspension of Disbelief (q.v.) is generally maintained - which makes different gamers' idea of Realism potentially very different.
Robin D. Laws has coined a set of terms such as 'Narra-Real' and 'Simu-Real' to describe fidelity to the various implicit laws of narrative, objective reality, and so on, but these phrases are not widespread.
Referee: See GM.
Role-Player: Generally, anyone participating in role-play; more narrowly, any player whose primary interest is the depiction of PC personality.
Although the narrow use of the term is at least as old as the concept of the Four-Way Split (q.v.), the potential for confusion with the broad meaning, and the value judgement implicit in the suggestion that only a narrow-definition Role-Player truly merits the term, makes its acceptance undesirable. On the other hand, a better word for the behaviour pattern may be needed.
Romantic: A player who is most interested in their characters' personal relationships - especially (but not uniquely) romantic ones. Such relationships may be central to a campaign's plot, but if the campaign is highly 'action-oriented', they may be seen by other players and the GM as peripheral. This is another of Aaron Allston's terms.
Romantics, with their interest in character and some aspects of narrative, are often highly regarded as players. However, they can be rather obsessive personalities, and in their attempts to 'romanticize' every aspect of a campaign, they can prove to be the worst kind of 'Emotional Power-Gamers' (q.v.).
RPG: The accepted abbreviation for 'role-playing game', little-known outside the hobby, nearly universal within.
The author of this article spent several years of his life as a computer programmer specializing in a language called RPG ('Report Program Generator'), and military technology (a subject which some role-players study obsessively) give us Rocket-Propelled Grenades - but confusion is not usually a problem.
Rules Hacker: An individual with a strong and persistent interest in the mechanical aspects of a game's rules, and particularly a tendency to tinker with and fine-tune them.
Although Rules Hackers have a very different approach to many other players, who would prefer to get on with actual play, they are generally regarded as mostly harmless, lacking the vanity and abrasiveness of Power-Gamers or Rules Lawyers (qq.v.). It should be said that few successful published systems have been designed by Rules Hackers; their productions tend to be overly detailed, reflecting too many personal quirks - and in any case, a real Rules Hacker never considers a set of rules entirely complete, which makes publication difficult.
Rules Lawyer: A player who seeks to gain game advantage by invocation of the letter of the game's rules.
Rules Lawyers may be the product of too much GM-as-Enemy (q.v.), style play. They are widely regarded as annoying; play to the letter of the rules is not usually seen as the point of role-playing. That said, they can be a useful brake on the whims of an overly self-indulgent GM, and their attitude is as likely to result from an over-developed sense of fairness and precision as from an urge to Power-Game. A true Rules Lawyer may even insist on a literal reading of the rules which may work against the interests of their own character. Rules Lawyers who become GMs are usually tolerable as long as they know the rules system properly (otherwise they spend too much time leafing through rulebooks), but they may not display as much flexibility as player enjoyment demands, and their games will be unforgiving of incompetence.
Rules Rapist: Another Aaron Allston term; the Rules Rapist is a player who gains amusement by stretching the game mechanics in use to the limit, usually in an extreme display of Power-Gaming (qv.).
The Rules Rapist can be distinguished from the Rules Lawyer (q.v.), despite their similarities. The Lawyer usually has some respect for the rules system - perhaps too much. The Rules Rapist, by contrast, displays contempt for the spirit of the rules by exploiting them.
Scenario: Another long-established term, imported via board wargaming from the movie business and futurology. A Scenario is a more or less self-contained game situation which can be played out as a piece of coherent narrative - usually an adventure. Published 'full' scenarios usually include geographical data on their settings, personality descriptions and game details on NPCs involved, and notes on incidents in which PCs may become involved. 'Mini-Scenarios' and 'Scenario Seeds', which often appear as space fillers in games, supplements, and magazines, usually contain only the central idea and a few NPC personality notes.
Scenarios may be compared, very roughly, with short stories - in which case, campaigns might be compared to novels. Most campaigns are made up of a number of linked scenarios - but then, picaresque and 'fix-up' novels bear the same relationship to short fiction.
Sense of Wonder: A term much used by SF fans in describing the emotional effect of the genre, and sometimes transferred to role-playing.
The phrase has also been defined by Alison Brooks as: 'Why many of us bother.' Arguably, the evocation of such a sense is something that all games should aim for, and too few achieve.
Simu-Real: See Realism.
Skills-Based: Term for a rules system in which characters are defined by a list of discrete skills and abilities, possibly at widely varying levels of competence. Contrast Class and Level (q.v.).
The advantage of Skills-Based systems is that they generally allow the simple definition of much more varied characters than Class-Based systems; to the extent that skills reflect personality, they make for more flexible characterization. The disadvantage is that they may lead to the creation of characters with an implausible mixture of unrelated strengths and weaknesses - although many rules include mechanisms to control this problem. These definitions are to a greater or lesser extent caricatures; many rules systems combine elements of the Class-and-Level and Skills-Based approaches.
Story-Teller: A type of GM (or occasionally player) whose primary interest is in the development of narrative structures in the course of the game. The American company White Wolf formally adopted the idea by referring to their products as 'storytelling games', although the words had been in widespread use long before, and were employed by Blacow in defining the Four-Way Split (q.v.).
Story-Telling is often presented as the highest aim of role-playing, and a campaign or scenario with a strong, rich narrative thread is certainly an impressive thing. However, GMs who regard their activities primarily or solely as 'telling stories' can be something of a problem for their players, as they frequently attempt to enforce their predetermined concepts of plot and character development on the players, without regard for the players' own tastes or ideas. At its worst, this behaviour shows the GM up as a failed novelist - and demonstrates the reason for this failure.
Suspension of Disbelief: A fairly self-explanatory term; the mental process involved in engaging with the plot of a book, film or game with any regard for its emotional dynamic.
The degree of Suspension of Disbelief seen in games varies widely, from deep emotional commitment to amused, cynical detachment.
Tabletop: Originally wargames played with miniature figures and model scenery, as opposed to those played with cardboard counters on printed boards (and other games of any sort). The term may even have had a yet more specific usage, being contrasted with very early wargames in which the scenery was modelled in a sand-box. Today, it is used in contrast to 'Live Action' (q.v.), for role-playing game-play that takes place as a set of verbal descriptions between players and GM, with or without the aid of small props such as miniature figures. LARP gamers seem to have initiated this use of the term.
Like many other terms given here, this one is slightly inaccurate - not all groups use a table - but generally useful and widely understood, providing that non-role-playing games are explicitly or implicitly excluded from the discussion.
Template: A generalized character definition that may be adopted by a player for use as a PC, usually with the option of modifications. See Class and Level.
Tragedian: Another Allston-originated term, describing a player who 'likes literary tragedy and wants to play out something similar'.
This term is rare but useful; the same can be said of the player type it describes. As Allston remarks, a tragedian may help develop the richness and depth of a campaign, and provide an outlet for the GM's more sadistic urges. Plumbers and Romantics often pass through phases of tragedy-obsession, and the popularity of White Wolf's game Vampire: the Masquerade may indicate the existence of greater impulses to tragedy than previously realized (if it is being played as its rulebooks suggest). However, Tragedian GMs, while known, may be regarded as a menace by non-Tragedian players, for obvious reasons.
Trope: A term borrowed from literary criticism, defined by Chambers as: 'A figure of speech, properly one in which a word or expression is used in other than its literal sense'. Genre critics often use it for the stock features of SF or fantasy, with implications similar to, but less pejorative than, 'cliche'.
Role-playing can be said to have tropes independent of the literary genres from which it borrows, such as the Dungeon and the Patron (qq.v.).
War-Gamer: Literally, one who plays wargames - the simulations of military activity that are both cousins and antecedents to formalized role-playing. More colloquially, one who plays role-playing games 'as war-games' - as conflicts to be won by optimized strategy, with little regard for characterization or narrative. As role-playing games rarely involve much balanced or impartial conflict, this attitude may be somewhat misguided, although a GM may be willing and able to set up such conflicts in the course of a game, and hence satisfy the player's impulse. The term is part of the definition of the Four-Way Split (q.v.).
A War-Gamer may be a rather more cerebral personality than a Combat Monster (q.v.), being potentially willing to avoid actual combat if this is an effective way to 'win'. However, the two types certainly overlap. That said, War-Gaming - in the broad sense of problem-solving and conflict resolution - can certainly be an enjoyable aspect of role-playing, and many playing groupS find that War-Gaming members provided a useful element of discipline and efficiency in play.
World (or Game World): The setting and background for a game - especially for a campaign (q.v.).
Many game-worlds are, in fact, fictional worlds, in the sense of being single planets (or similar). However, others may be either smaller (perhaps a loosely delimited region, country, or continent) or larger (say, the explorable universe of a space-travelling science fiction game). Even so, the word 'World' may be used as a loose, convenient term. In the early days, whole, detailed game-worlds were sometimes referred to as Dungeons, especially if they evolved from simple Dungeon-Bashing settings (qq.v.). Other gamers have preferred 'Universe', as not implying a single planet - although their creations have not necessarily been particularly extensive or detailed.
A Game-World may also be defined as a world or setting created originally for a game, and perhaps subsequently developed in other media, such as novels. As many such 'developed' game-worlds have featured in unremarkable novels, dominated by the intrusive tropes and excessive detailing of the originating game, the word has become somewhat derogatory in its use by some literary critics.
Phil Masters had an article in an early issue of White Dwarf and two monsters
in the original Fiend Folio. Since then it has been downhill all the way.
The author thanks the contributors to
The author thanks the contributors toAlarums and Excursions, especially Alison Brooks, Dave Flin, and Steve Gilham, along with the editor of Interactive Fantasy, for their many, invaluable comments on early drafts of this article. A number of terms are drawn from the Champions supplement Strikeforce by Aaaron Allston, a shrewd and perceptive writer whose analyses apply well beyond one game system.
1Interactive Fantasy uses 'referee' as its standard term for administrators, co-ordinators, facilitators, story-leaders, umpires or whatever else they may be called in all the various fields of interactive story-telling. Make of that what you will. - Editor
21st January 1999: ifan394.htm