Describing RPGs is hard. Often we fall into fuzzy metaphors. Generally, it is better to classify things by what they have than what they are. I’ll try here to make a list of binary attributes of RPGs. So they are either on or off. That should be easy to verify.
Those attributes should not itself contain RPG lingo in their definitions. For example when I say a game has Character Classes, what does that mean? I’d say Vampire has character classes, namely the clans, but others disagree. So I’ll try to limit such points of contention. The very first criterium says “GM” though, which certainly is RPG specific lingo. So doh.
The list will certainly be incomplete. If you have additions, feel free to comment. If you want to know about a game that sets a particular switch to yes or no, feel free to ask.
I tried to capture some of those fuzzy descriptions with criteria. I have not found anything that makes a game “narrative” by itself. Probably because that label has been applied to anything that isn’t D&D3.5/Pathfinder. I also feel unablte to differentiate this way between the differing experiences provided by playing PbtA or Fate. I kinda know what it is, but I feel unable to say it this way.
This about general “jobs” at table. Answering yes to these, makes a traditional core kinda.
- Role1/GM: There is one and only one GM.
- Role1a/GMFrame: The GM is responsible for framing scenes, describing who and what is there.
- Role1b/GMDiff: The GM is free to set challenges, difficulties or the number and power of opponents.
- Role1c/GMReward: The GM is free to offer mechanical rewards to players.
- Role2/PCs: Every other player plays one character, henceforth called a PC.
- Role2a/Party: The PCs work together as a team.
Again, “traditional” RPGs answer yes to all of these.
- Rand1/Fortune: There are randomizers in the game
- Rand2/dx: The game uses exclusively d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and/or d20.
- Rand3/NoFace: Everyone at the table uses these randomizers.
“Traditional” is everything but Traits.
- Char1/Stats: Protagonists feature several numeric stats describing their capabilities.
- Char2/Formulas: Some stats are derived from other stats by applying tables or formulas.
- Char3/Chargen: There is a codified process to make protagonists.
- Char4/Trees: During chargen some choices lead to further choices, forming a decision tree (skill trees, class powers, playbook moves, sub splats)
- Char5/Traits: Chargen requires freely naming certain mechanical elements for the character.
The first two are very common. Capstone is built into D&D as the level progression ends, but not usually games that rely on point-buy. Gurps of course has no Tiers. You can in theory take anything at any point.
- Adv1/Experience: Protagonists get better throughout play.
- Adv2/Tiers: At least once throughout the advancement process protagonists can choose options that were not available at an earlier point.
- Adv3/Capstone: The built-in advancement process ends at a certain point.
- Adv4/Retirement: There are rules according to which a protagonist is supposed to retire.
Tact2/Targets might be surprising. Games like With Great Power have rounds, but as a player you always attack the GM in abstract, not indivdual opponents.
- Tact1/Combat: The game has a round- or turn-based combat system.
- Tact2/Targets: Players can choose a specific target to attack.
- Tact4/Resistances: The game has rules that make certain approaches more effiective against certain opponents.
- Tact5/Minis: The game uses formal positioning, either trough a grid, graph or measurement with a ruler.
- Tact6/DeathSpiral: The capability of combattants decreases as they get injured.
- Tact7/Ticks: A character’s choice of action influences when their action or next action will happen.
- Tact8/Teamwork: Allied characters influence each other’s actions through posititiong, state or previous actions.
- Tact9/Environment: Properties of the fictional environment formally influence combat actions.
This category is especially about a magic subsystem. If every action in the game is magic, like for the divine characters in Nobilis, this category does not apply. D&D 4th edition might have this category for the rituals. The Wizard’s class Powers are just like any other class’ Powers in the game and thus do not constitute magic rules for these purposes.
- Mag1/Magic: There are specialized rules for supernatural powers for the protagonists to use that differ from the general rules of the game or expand them.
- Mag2/NoMajs: Only some kinds of protagonists do use these magic rules.
- Mag3/Affinites: Magic protagonists differ in what kinds of magic they can access or have an easier time with some.
- Mag4/Spells: What can be achieved with these rules is described in a finite list of effects.
- Mag5/Reserves: A character is limited in how much magic they can use by some resource that is regularly refilled or reset.
Setting is one of those vague terms in describing RPGs and related to those even vaguer terms of “universal” rpgs. People talking about “universal” games probably assume a kind of cut-off point in this category’s list. This category is about “official” information only. For things you make up as a group, see the next section.
- Set1/CoreStory: There is a core story, an idea of who the protagonists are, what they usually do and their role in the world.
- Set2/Start: The game includes a starting location / region / adventure that can be used for introducing the game.
- Set3/Regions: The game details several distinct regions/countries/worlds with individual features, flavors or plot hooks.
- Set4/Icons: The game details powers or organisations who work in the setting at large.
- Set5/Metaplot: The game has an ongoing history that is revealed in further publications.
I had some trouble naming this category. It’s mainly taken to capture those games where preparation of play not only involves building characters but also building their shared background. I have taken the name from Ars Magica.
- Troup1/GroupGen: Completing a protagonist requires input from other players creating protagonists.
- Troup2/Home: The game includes a process to collectively create the protagonists’ hometown / base / faction / starship…
- Troup3/Companies: Factions in the world can interact with other such factions through specialized rules.
This is about structuring time and narrative in the game. There is a surprising variety in how games do this and it is rarely discussed. “Traditional” games may feature any, except for codified Acts and an explicit End.
- Struct1/FictSI: The game refers to real time units like minutes or days that passed in the fiction.
- Struct2/Tabletime: The game refers to table sessions or real time passed at the table.
- Struct3/Scenes: The game explicitely refers to scenes or encounters.
- Struct4/Adventures: The game explicitely refers to adventures / missions / episodes / …
- Struct4/Acts: The game has an explicit narrative structure within those episodes.
- Struct5/Downtime: The game includes rules for skipping periods of fictional time.
- Struct6/End: The game has an inevitable endgame after which play stops.
This category describes various subjects that received specialized rules in various games. Specialized means they are more specific than whatever the game uses to handle non-specialized actions. Many of these could be expanded like Tactical and Magic. I do not number them for this reason.
- Sub/Hazards: The game has specialized rules for enivronmental hazards like temperature, falling, drowning.
- Sub/Overland: The game has specialized rules for overland travel.
- Sub/Chases: The game has specialized rules chasing other characters on foot or other means.
- Sub/Ships: The game has specialized rules for maritime or space vessels.
- Sub/Psych: The game has specialized rules for depicting characters’ mental state.
- Sub/Relations: The game has specialized rules for personal or professional relationships.