On the Vocabulary of Role-Playing
Notes Towards Critical Consistency?
by Phil Masters
If we are going to discuss role-playing games with any kind of rigour, we are going to need to define our terms.
Ever since (formalised) role-playing first took off, players and GMs have been developing a fairly extensive specialised vocabulary, and this has often been terse, expressive, and descriptive. Unfortunately, its contents have rarely been formally defined, and sometimes, inevitably, ambiguities and variations of meaning have developed. And, of course, newcomers to the field have not been presented with any kind of comprehensive glossary.
It would be pleasant to say that this article is designed to remedy all this. However, the author is slightly too much of a democrat, and far too flippant, to try any such thing. As the title says, what follows is a set of notes. Others are welcome to use them to develop something more substantial.
As the alert reader will already have guessed, this means that 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.
In an attempt to reconcile rigour and flippancy, each entry incorporates a formalised element of schizophrenia. The first paragraph of each represents at least an attempt at impartial rigour. Everything after that is an expression of personal feelings (and certainly nothing to do with the management). It would be nice if responses respected this division, but that, of course, is up to the offended parties.
Most of these terms have been in common use within "the hobby" for years. While it would be interesting to hear claims for attribution, it is unlikely that many such can be certain. A few others have known (or believed) origins, which are mentioned accordingly. The number of coherent lists of definitions of terms within the field is limited.
One that deserves a mention appears in Aaron Allston's supplement for the Champions game entitled Strike Force, and especially the section headed "Campaigns", and the sub-section on "Types of Champions Players". Allston is a shrewd and perceptive writer, whose analyses apply well beyond one game system. Any term ascribed to him below (and not further ascribed) comes from that book. (Much of what he wrote was recycled in later products related to the same game.)
The author and several people he discussed this subject with derived many ideas from the American apazine ("amateur press association [fan] magazine") Alarums and Excursions; contributors to that journal went through a phase of heavily theoretical, game-technical discussion about ten years ago, and discussions and suggested neologisms have continued to appear in its pages to this day.
The comments on these terms have mostly emerged from years of games and a fair few panels at conventions; individuals who feel they have made especially large unaccredited contributions through such events should, I suggest, write in and say so.
I must thank Alison Brooks, Dave Flin, and Steve Gilham, along with the editor of Inter*action, for their many, invaluable comments on early drafts of this article. The former three have been reading, and writing for, Alarums and Excursions longer than me, and all three suggested themes and opinions that appear below. Like most people who’ve been in this hobby too long, they have their own opinions on all this stuff, which may or may not coincide with what I’ve ended up saying.
The Terms: A player or GM 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 performance to intimidate or pressurise the GM can be a particular problem.
Beer and Pretzels: A term, clearly of American origin, for games (usually, specifically, a type of game system), not necessarily role-playing, 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 wargame manufacturer SPI of (largely non-humorous) games that were simple by their standards - with less than a hundred counters, say, and under two hours playing time. It was subsequently co-opted by role-players.
Classic Beer & 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 (or at least his playing group) 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. If this is done using a school exercise book or similar, a permanent log of the character's fictional life is thus created. 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 refinement to role-playing. However, it can be criticised 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: One 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 formalised role-playing's early roots in wargaming, meaning a linked series of game "incidents", usually set in an internally consistent game-world 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 overemphasises 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. The use of terms such as "saga" seems obscure and pretentious by comparison, as well as implying a linearity of plot that denies the complex subtleties of role-playing.
Character Design: A type of role-playing game-system in which characters are created, usually by the allocation of a set number of points, with little or no random element. Contrast "Random Generation" (but note that part-random, part-design systems are possible, and many exist).
Character design systems emerged later than 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.) They might well now be in the majority, except 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, who studiously analyse and exploit imbalances in their mechanisms. This is indeed often a problem; the usual answer is to say that a Design-based system requires and presupposes a sensibly attentive 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.
This can be a useful tool in encouraging the creation of detailed, balanced characters. However, even non-Mini-Maxer 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 usually 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-quantized increases in general "level". Often contrasted with "skills-based" rules systems.
Class and Level systems are long-established, and considered rather dated and crude by many 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" who specialise 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 play, power-gaming, or even to a taste for Hack and Slash; the Combat Monster may recognise the existence of other aspects to the game, but chooses to emphasises this one.
The Combat Monster's chief interest in a game generally appears to be catharsis. Although such a player can contribute a useful element to a group of PCs (most games having aspects that require a violent solution), a 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 both desirable and probably inevitable if a campaign is to evolve and display any kind of depth or subtlety.
Complexity in rules systems is usually mentioned only to be criticised; the fashion, among those who compare and contrast systems, is to prefer simple mechanisms as obstructing the important aspects of the game (such as character and plot development) less. However, there is a case for employing complex rules, if they genuinely model the complexities of a complex game-world 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.
The problem may have started with rules designers who increased complexity on the apparent assumption that it was absolutely equivalent to realism of some kind, leading to baroque, unplayable systems. The real difficulty 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 activity, while another might prefer hours of discussion and (possibly) dozens of rolls for subsidiary activities. And how is the required value of any such roll to be determined?
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 as aids to the work of a GM in an otherwise typical game, 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-computerised) games consider that no computer is capable of the subtlety, flexibility, and characterisation 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 characterisation 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 are usually co-operative in this sense; the opposite approach leads to breakdowns in both the game and player social relations. However, co-operating with the GM is perhaps the more important meaning of this term, and should be taken as the "default". 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", and not deliberately attempting to confuse the GM or disrupt play.
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, it cannot be denied that 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.
Incidentally, although "co-operation" is often associated with a sophisticated, story-telling-oriented type of game, it was also highly visible in many early, crude "Dungeon-Bashing" campaigns in which acquiescent GMs cheerfully fed the power fantasies of players.
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. Comparisons with real life here would be facile.
Copier: Allston's term for a player who is strongly interested in reconstructing a character (or a close equivalent thereof) from another source - usually a favourite book or film. Although not impossible in any game, this behaviour is generally easiest under a Character Design system.
Copiers are often enthusiastic players, but their approach to a game is sometimes rather one-dimensional, as their sole concern 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 characterisation, but 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 decision.
Diceless games are sometimes claimed as the next big (or trendy) thing, but they remain rare as yet. The only one in commercial circulation, Amber, inspires considerable dedication from its (minority) following, but aside from market inertia, the use of randomising elements in games can be justified rationally as (amongst other things) restraining unconscious GM bias and frequently inspiring the GM with possibilities that would not have otherwise occurred to him or her.
DM: Abbreviation for "Dungeon Master", the term widespread among early games players - especially players of Dungeons & Dragons - as a synonym of GM. "Dungeon Master" and the abbreviation are trademarks of TSR Inc.
This term has now fallen into some disrepute, being perceived as implying that a game is restricted to Dungeon-Bashing. The same letters were also used by the first edition of Traveller as an abbreviation for "Dice Modifier", a fairly self-explanatory rules mechanism. British gamer Steve Gilham pointed out that the latter expansion described the prime function of many DMs-in-the-former-sense.
Dungeon: As used in role-playing, this word has developed a broad, loose meaning, covering any more-or-less subterranean complex of rooms and passages in a (usually fantasy) game-world. See "Dungeon-Bashing" for a definition of the style of game where this term was heavily used.
In fact, as many early games focused heavily on dungeon-bashing, the word was often used in a very broad sense. Certainly, any scenario that focused on a specific location in detail might be termed a "Dungeon"; sometimes, the usage became even broader - see "World". Today, this terminology has been inherited by computerised MUDs.
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 plundering of treasure.
This type of game (aptly summarised, possibly first by UK gamer Steve Gilham, as "skirmish wargaming in an underground menagerie") is not regarded as embodying many of the more intellectually respectable aspects of the hobby. Nonetheless, even the most pretentious of gamers may sometimes become nostalgic for its simple pleasures - a fact that may partly explain the continuing widespread enthusiasm for variations of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules.
Four-Way Split: A concept suggested by American gamer Glenn Blacow as long ago as the late ‘70’s; the categorisation of types of role-playing behaviour into "Roleplaying", "Story-Telling", "Powergaming", and "Wargaming". Blacow may have been the first to attempt to formalise use of these four terms, much as they are defined in this article.
Whether these four categories are precise, mutually exclusive, and all-encompassing enough is debatable, but is irrelevant to the important point; Blacow’s contribution to the vocabulary of the field.
Freeform: Perhaps the role-playing games term with the widest and most deceptively subtle range of functional definitions. Different groups have defined it as, amongst other things, play with no fixed set of rules, and a simple set of dice-based event resolution mechanisms applied in an improvisational fashion by the GM; 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 play and a great deal of non-violent social interaction between characters.
It would be pleasant to achieve a consensus on this term, but then all the other meanings would have to have 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 be regarded as defined as yet.
Genre Fiend: Yet another Allston term, referring to a player (or GM) who is determined that a game should emulate all the conventions and tropes (and clichés) of the fictional genre on which it is based.
To the (large) extent that games are a highly derivative form, the genre fiend can be a useful stabilising force. However, such an individual can also seem tiresomely obsessive in their attachment to cliché, and may also 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' "DM", 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 emphasise various aspects of the games. Traveller, rather puritannically, 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).
GM as Enemy Playing Style: The opposite of fully "Co-operative" play - an approach to gaming in which the GM is assumed to be setting the characters serious and potentially often 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 friendship 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 are a 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 - and a large difference in expectations between players and GM in this area has probably led to more problems in games than almost anything else. The subject needs to be discussed more.
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 become bored with the entire hobby, sooner or later, and drop out. That said, the appeal of the style goes deep into many adolescent male psyches, and one large British games company has made millions from those. Of course, that company has also discovered that an obsession with combat above all else finds more complex assuagements in a certain style of mass-battle wargaming - which also sells more figures, at more profit to the company.
Linear plotting is often the result of a determined Story-Teller 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. (The usual response to such deviation is either a horde of opponents "punishing" the deviating PC, or emotional pressure at the "player level".)
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. (Although 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. One 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 - despite which, it is a popular aspect of this part of the hobby. 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 "table-top" play.
Some other gamers have a more or less violent aversion to LARP, for a number of reasons. For one thing, those who have studied other forms of simulated or real combat (such as fencing) tend to argue that LARP combat is so stylised and frivolous that it bears no relation to reality. For another, obvious limitations make LARP less effective than "table-top" 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 characterisation.
And for a third reason, 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. Terms such as "loonies with rubber swords" are sometimes to be heard. 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'ers point out that, combat aside, a very little practical experience soon expands a player's appreciation of certain practical 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.
Mad Slasher: Aaron Allston's label for a type of gamer at the extreme end of the "Combat Monster" and "Hack and Slash" spectrum; 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 perennially 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, and here, the two types may overlap.
"Mini-Maxing" is often easiest within complex character design systems, but potentially, any game that allows a degree of player choice within the rule system - say, in combat - may 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, who feels they deserve wider currency within the hobby. 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 GM'ing 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 computerised 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 activity 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, and have achieved considerable complexity and depth in recent years. However, the practical constraints imposed by the medium imply some 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" is indicative. However, MUDs are a thriving area (albeit with a relatively small following as yet), with some advantages of their own, even in terms of characterisation; for example, 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.
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; a socially significant character who employs the PCs to perform a particular task, conferring financial and social benefits on them in exchange for (in the game world) payment 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 provided the PCs with a string of interesting clues. Role-playing adaptation of conventional language in such ways can be both fascinating and dangerous to sense.
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".
In fact, this rule has a glaring weakness; a sufficiently dedicated, imaginative narrator can rationalise and re-phrase 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 visualising 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-roleplaying PBM games exist, depending on the Post Office for roleplaying is rather limiting; good characterisation and development often depends on interchanges at conversational speed. On the other hand, slower speed play may often be more thoughtful and hence subtle.
The growth of computerised 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 E-Mail" (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.
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 game-world, pursued either by legitimate if limited character tactics, or manipulation of the game rules.
However, it is interesting to consider that the underlying urge - to 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 characterisation 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 "(Simple) 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 game world. Power levels are most easily measured by comparison with other games using the same rule-system.
Some gamers (with backgrounds in the physical sciences?) 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" in the philosophy of game mechanics; the basis of a system in which characters are created by chance-based mechanism, usually the roll of a dice.
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 terms of game systems, can have various, subtly divergent, meanings. Early in role-playing history, 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 terms, 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 is generally maintained - which makes different gamers' idea of "Realism" potentially very different.
Canadian gamer Robin 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.
Role-Player: Generally, anyone participating in role-playing games; 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, 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 "romanticise" every aspect of a campaign, they can prove to be the worst kind of "Emotional Power-Gamers".
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 specialising 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. It should be said that few successful published systems have probably 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.
(The consummate Rules Hacker is one who incorporates a Rules Update phase into the game combat system's sequence of play.)
Rules Lawyer: A player who seeks to gain game advantage by invocation of the letter of the games rules.
Rules Lawyers may be the product of too much "GM As Enemy" 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 that works 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 rule-books), 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.
The Rules Rapist may be distinguished from the Rules Lawyer, despite their similarities. The "lawyer" usually has some respect for the rules system in use - perhaps too much; the "lawyerly" approach may simply imply overmuch formality. The Rules Rapist, by contrast, displays contempt for the spirit of the rules by exploitation of their letter.
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 British gamer 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 do.
The advantage of Skills-Based systems is that they generally allow the simple definition of much more varied characters; to the extent that skills reflect personality, they make for more flexible characterisation. 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. Note, of course, that 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.
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 the failure.
This replacement of co-operative narrative development with solitary self-indulgence has even been embodied in scenarios published by major professional games companies, whose authors have occasionally then moved on to careers as novelists.
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 to be seen in games varies widely, from deep emotional commitment to amused, cynical detachment.
Table-Top: Originally, "true" war-games 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", for role-playing games 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: As used in many current games - a generalised character definition that may be adopted by a player for use as a PC, usually with the option of some kind 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 may indicate the existence of greater impulses to tragedy than previously realised (if it is being played as its rule-books 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, "cliché".
War-Gamer: Literally, one who plays wargames - the simulations of military activity that are both cousins and antecedents to formalised role-playing. More colloquially, one who plays role-playing games "as wargames" - as conflicts to be won by optimised strategy, with little regard for characterisation 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.
A War-Gamer may be a rather more cerebral personality than a Combat Monster, 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.
Many game-worlds are, in fact, fictional worlds, in the sense of "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 of Dungeons & Dragons-based gaming, whole, detailed game-worlds were sometimes referred to as "dungeons", especially if they evolved from simple "dungeon-bashing" settings. 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.
Copyright ©1995 Phil Masters
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