Since at least dozen or so years, a discourse about „mainstream” and „indie” TTRPG exists. Mostly about publishing; and in my opinion, those labels only describes methods of publishing stuff. But it started to be used as a way to describe TTRPG games as a whole. I raised a question. How to compare seemingly „indie RPGs” like Blades in the Dark (released by a publishing company) and act of individuals like Honey Heist, for instance?
Then „Traditional” vs „Non-Traditional” labelism appears. What is it about? What is that „traditional ttrpg”? In my opinion, you can use those labels to describe TTRPG reality, but one axis is not enough. I decided to measure it (whatever it may mean) in more than just one, single, arbitrary way. OK, there are eight arbitrary ways present in this article, but eight is better than one…
The topic is really complex and I consider that’s uneasy to draw clear boundaries.
Definition of „Traditional RPG”.
It’s hard to define something, that went through 40 years of development, but I’ll try.
Traditional TTRPG is a playstyle developed by most popular TTRPG of 80s and 90s (XX c.), like D&D, CoC, WFRP, GURPS or oldest World of Darkness. It relies on a fine division between two roles at the table: „Game Master” (sometimes called „Dungeon Master”) and „Players”, while the former stand as a dominant position with authority. Session are played mostly by using „modules” or „scenarios”; as an agreement about experiencing and playing a set course of events and action. Player’s characters are adventurers, or at least they resort to adventuring behaviour. Traditional RPGa include special, complex combat resolution, designed for scenes framed for a purpose of playing skirmishes and tactical battles. While there’s a notion of writing rules for any possible course of action (in form of „character skills” and/or some dedicated procedures), the Traditional RPG seems to be loosely attached to a given theme of a game. Advices for GM’s like „Golden Rule”, „Rule of Cool”, „Rule Zero” or call for arbitraly choice of tools and rules are heavily favoured. There’s a strong emphasis on setting (the world, it’s geography and lore plus a space for player’s characters). Additionally, a seemingly universal promise of „playing really long, years-lasting campaigns” persists.
OK, those features above developed a bit after D&D 3rd (2000) and some later games. However, I think that defining a notion called „Traditional RPG” is necessary, if we want to talk about the opposite: „Non-Traditional”. By naming itself, „Non-traditional rpg” is about abhoring to, rejecting or simply not utilizing established techniques from the most popular way of gaming. It’s more like spectrum: „Non-Traditional RPG” can potentially start, when a game decides to abstain from at least one single criteria from the definition above…
What’s „traditional” and what’s „non-traditional”?
Imagine a point, from which you can move anywhere. Directions, you may call it „axes of movement”. That center point is the most extreme „Traditional RPG” as you can imagine. It’s important, because even seemingly most die-hard traditional „mainstream” TTRPG can have it’s own answer to one or two of those axes below…
I assembled eight „directions” into a table. A given game doesn’t need to meet all eight Non-Traditional („right side of a table”) criteria to be labelled such way. It’s about distance, how far given game went from the most popular standard…
|Traditional RPG||Non-Traditional RPG|
|#1||„GM” and „Players” roles with set narrative rights.||No division of a participant’s roles.|
|#2||Gaming about premade story/narratives.||Gaming without prepared story/narratives.|
|#3||Player Characters as adventurers.||Any possible playable concept.|
|#4||Combat as a main conflict.||Every conflict is resolved equally.|
|#5||Emphasis on versatility of rules/ruling.||Emphasis on specific theme of a game.|
|#6||Significant buy-in for a setting||Little-to-no buy-in for a setting.|
|#7||Unlimited length of gaming, a promise of „multiyear gaming”.||A designed (set) length of gaming.|
|#8||A rulebook with hundreds of pages.||A rulebook as a tiny book or even various non-book forms.|
You could invent more ways of discerning between „traditional” and the other one. Because my article is lenghty enough, I’ll just stick to those eight „axes” and explaining each of them.
„GM & Players”/absence of refined roles
The tradition of having a GM of a gaming table is so firmly set, that even just weakening „power” of that role seems to be radical. And what about GM-less games? I have an impression that playing a GM-less TTRPG works like profounding rebelious act. Consider this: many games deeply rooted in other „traditional” ways were labeled as „indie” or „non-traditional”, when they just simply called for shared responsibility at the table…
This axis is about asymmetry of roles at gaming table. Traditional RPG relies on single centered authority. Someone, who has that final say; who moderates, hosts and runs the play. Non-Traditional RPG relies on a symmetry of narrative rights, no particular game’s faciliator and they embrace shared responsibilty. „Middle ground” options do exist, for instance:
- TTRPGs with rotating GM role (In A Wicked Age, Bliss Stage)
- TTRPGs with asymmetry of roles, but without profound GM role (Kagematsu, Dog Eats Dog).
Gaming about someone’s story
For a referrence: it’s not just about playing official adventures. It’s about agreeing about playing someone’s story. Actually, it’s about playing to learn and experience well-crafted story, and possibly interacting with it.
„Shared storytelling” or making Story Now are wider concept than just „playing to find out”. Even at the beginning (70s), people played not only dungeon modules, but also open formulas like sandbox. What about playing one-shots with defined starting point, but with open playthrough and unknown endings?
This axis is about how story (fiction) is made, when and by who. Traditional RPG says that someone needs to prepare the content for a session . Non-Traditional RPG is about lack of any premade events, story or assumptions about what will happen.
Adventurers Vs Anybody
Maybe it’s a bias from D&D, but indeed playing adventurers is almost synonymous with playing TTRPG at all. Not every TTRPG is about earning loot or dungeoneering, however, premise of „making a shortcut through social structure by adventuring” lingers in many titles…
Very first attempts of trying to make TTRPG „different” relied on challenging such premise:
- Paranoia (1984): we play clones who tries to obey The Computer
- Pendragon (1985): we don’t play adventurers, but knights in social order. OK, there are still adventures, but the big picture is about knighthood, domain and (not only) political affairs
- You may say, that Ars Magica’s premise was about life of mages, not particularly „adventuring mages”…
First truly „non-adventuring TTRPGs” appeared 15-20 years later. This axis, however, isn’t just about whether we’re playing dregs of society, or not. Non-Traditional RPGs tends to be designed around particular social role. Examples:
- Dogs in the Vineyard (young travelling priests, who tries to dispell The Sin in a community)
- Love in the Time of Seid (protagonists of a medieval romance and drama)
- Fiasco (ordinary people intertwined with unordinary trouble)
- Breaking the Ice (two people during their first dates).
- Stoke Birmingham 0-0 (Norwegian Stoke supporters talk about boring soccer match).
Combat-only/Everyting is a conflict
The legacy of wargames for TTRPG is that a combat becomes the centre point of a gaming. An axiom „everything could be roleplayed, but combat has to be played” didn’t came from a vacuum. It created a specific dynamics, I would even call it as a structure: cycle of „combat” and „non-combat” scenes. That shapes the specific way of thinking about TTRPG session (how much combat? „combat vs non-combat” issues). Traditional RPGs love combat, even when they try to de-focus from it…
Non-Traditional RPGs started with attempts to implement complex resolutions like debates, parleys or chases. Another way was to frame whole game engine to resolve possibly everything as a conflict. You may argue whether complex resolution of a debate really differs much from a combat. I think, that the notion of making non-combat scenes more intense and dramatic happened to be a sole difference of division in TTRPG gaming…
Versatility Vs Niche Specific Theme
GURPS is the most prominent example of making a game as versatile as possible. T cover possibly everything that can be imagined or needed to resolve. In recent years, WotC’s policy about D&D 5e seems to claim that throne. Another examples are Savage Worlds and Cortex Prime.
Other ways of achieveing versatility in Traditional RPGs is either by making a game „system-agnostic” or by creating main setting (universe) so vast and wide, that many possible themes can find a way. „Kitchen sink” settings and alike labels. Until D&D 5e, whole D&D line was somewhere in between: it suggested many settings, with their own taste and slight difference in playing…
Non-Traditional RPGs in a context of that axis can be described as „a game with only a single niche theme”. Whole game is about given specific theme, and nothing else. It has tailored tools, mechanics and elements for a specific premise.
Necessity of Buy-In for a setting, or not.
It’s about required buy-in into the fictional world and setting. It doesn’t mean that the setting has to be officialy made and released.
That axis is really interesting, because it doesn’t align with common way of thinking about „mainstream vs indie rpg”. Many story games assumes, that players will put a lot of commitment into a fictional environment. Burning Wheel, DitV, Circle of Hands, even Blades in the Dark or Night Witches. Alternatively, you may wonder how much buy-in for a setting you really need to play D&D, for instance…
Traditional RPG according to that axis is entrenched deep into TTRPG culture of 80s and 90s. Rich, dazzling complex worlds with their inner depth, metaplot and hundreds of pages with vivid description of society (and life). World of Darkness, Glorantha, Earthdawn, Traveller and alike. Even Call of Cthulhu suggests some substantial focus in chosen decade.
I think, that Traditional RPG invites us for experiencing the setting of it. The world, the feel, richness of ephemera. The Non-Traditional RPG abstains from using that schtick.
(Un)limited length of a gaming
Assume the term called „campaign”. The word „campaign” means „at least multisession gaming, with more than one story arc, or one really long and multithreaded”.
This is a tricky axis, because in practice, only some really sophisticated examples like GURPS or World of Darkness frames their campaigns without any session limits. Only games like them can be the only true equivalent for Traditional RPG for that axis. D&D, for instance, has their levels since a beginning.. Since 3rd Edition, a set frame of 1-20 levels told us about desired campaign structure. However, you may ask, how hard (or soft) are those recommendations…
While I’d define Traditional RPG as „unrestricted gaming without a hard structure and without limits for a campaign length”, when I started to describe the other one (Non-Traditional RPG) I met various solutions. And I stumbled upon. They muddy the water. The only way of describing Non-Traditional RPG for that axis is to ask, whether the game itself asks for a set amount of sessions:
- One-shots or set amount of gaming hours or played scenes (Lady Blackbird, Fiasco, Love in the Time of Seid, Psi*Run, October Rust)
- Gaming for 2-5 sessions, around single adventure (Fall of Magic, The Mountain Witch, Lord Scurlock)
- Playing seasons, from couple to dozens of so sessions (DitV, BitD, many games around PbtA philosophy, Shadow of the Demon Lord)
- SotDL is about playing a collection of adventures, from 0. to 10. level. One adventure per level, 1-2 session per each.
- Multiple 2-5 sessions, as a cycle of adventures (Night Witches, Adventure’s Paths for Pathfinder).
Do you see? Pathfinder’s APs and SotDL muddy the water!
A book formula and something else
I think, that talking about how the rulebook has been released is worth it’s own criteria. I mean, there are many TTRPGs, which weren’t released as a book. Like Nanobook (tiny cardboard), Lady Blackbird (pages to print), CBR+PNK (a brochure), or tons of one or two-page games. Sweet Agatha as a interactable newspaper form? Printable Fiasco playsets, quick to use?
I mean, those 250-600 pages in the rulebook didn’t come from a vacuum. Deliberate explanation of rules, many pages about setting and lore, putting all playbooks because why not. Samples, adventures, inspirations, quotes and table generators. This had been put into a book form, and how Traditional RPG comes from.
In that sense (that axis) – for instance – Blades in the Dark is almost paying a homage for the brick-books of the past. Traditional RPG form is about using a book for gaming. Non-Traditional RPG is about experimenting with form of a release („not book” essentially).
Let’s put it into a conclusion…
You may wonder, „what even Traditional/Non-Traditional really is”, because you may find it hard to find any game, which fits nicely into all eight „right” or „left” criteria. That was intended. I wanted to show, that „Traditional/Non-Traditional TTRPG” issue is a spectrum of designer’s decisions which had been made, possible gaming cultures. Foremost, about challenging the well-established norms (or paying homage to them).
Keep in mind, that given „rebelious indie rpg” could actually rebel against only few keypoints of „Traditional RPG”, for instance. Not everyone acted against everything. Some non-traditional TTRPGs had been made about something which already existed before, but in spite of „making it better”…
I wanted to show you, that judging non-traditionality of a given game is more about exceptionalism, less about puting things into brackets. It’s about how far you can go out from the most popular design choices. OSR and Forge-related TTRPGs can be equally distant from Traditional RPG, while being set apart from each other…
It’s about distance, about the own way of a given game. It’s about diversity of a design.
You may ask, why I even wrote that damn blog article. I wanted to show you the method of how you can pick the topic against the grain. My eight axes are just an example for similar and – I hope – better takes about the „Trad/Non-Trad” topic in the future. You can do similar thing with „D&D” and „Not-D&D” take, for instance.
I just don’t believe in dividing whole TTRPG scene into two half pieces, with possible space („middle ground”) in between.