[English] RPG essentialism – and further explanation

Hundreds of Systems and Engines! Thousands of games! How to play them all? How to understand them; to learn them? Sounds impossible! Also, but why even do this? There are people, who says that all TTRPGs are similar to each other. Perhaps even more! That „everyone has their own roleplaying style, but somehow it isn’t different among others”. If not so, at least „everyone has their own favourite TTRPG System to play all sessions in their life”.

Once time ago, Vincent Baker wrote an article about „TTRPG Essentialism” and „TTRPG Exceptionalism”. I really recommend this lecture! I’ve focused forward on the former concept. To quote Vince:

RPG essentialism is the idea that deep down, all rpgs are the same game. Like, “in all rpgs…,” “rpgs are designd for…,” or “in ttrpgs…” without any further qualifying.

It’s the idea that different rpgs aren’t different games, they’re different approaches or tools you can use to play what is essentially the same game.

TTRPG Essentialism with human’s face

First of all, there’s nothing wrong about looking for, what do you like at the session table. I’m doing it for TTRPG hobby too! Playing different games; learning something about myself. Good stuff.

However, I don’t have a surge to search for TTRPG Holy Grail. I never commited myself to looking for „Perfect RPG”, which I would play all sessions for the remainder of my life. I simply don’t believe in the concept that a single product or publishing line will cover 90 to 100% of my roleplaying needs, wants and curiosities. OK, back in time I had an odd idea of „My RPG Trinity”, but I soon discarded such thing. What I learned instead? I seek variety and try to different gaming styles.

„Search for that Perfect RPG” is an example of TTRPG Essentialism. This is the very concept of that notion, really. It’s something more than to discover your favourite product. It needs a presumption that this Perfect Product will work for every possible roleplaying activity. Or at least for anything that you want to partake…

Most of the time, I ignore all those „universal” guides, methods and „system agnostic” products. I play more and more TTRPGs and I wonder, how I can relate experiences from Kingdom and GURPS to each other, for instance. How all those tricks for „make any RPG spooky” might work for Golden Sky Stories? OK, the last one sounds like a stretch, but not much so, because I learned back in Poland about some oddities as:

  • Horror sessions for WFRP, D&D 5e or Deadlands.
  • Heroic power fantasy trips for Neuroshima (post-apo in USA after some budget Skynet ruined it and hunts down for survivors, while all Player Characters have their terminal illnesses).
  • Playing dead serious feudal Japanese re-enactments in very much adventurous game called Legend of the Five Ring. [possible cultutal appropiation, as Poles try to act like „idealized bushido people”]

TTRPG Essentialism is a presumption, that there are fundamental („objective”) values and qualities, which exists in every TTRPG product and during every TTRPG session. While some solutions present may vary (dice, for instance), seemingly all TTRPG are meant to be played as the same. But what are those values and qualities, really? Who and why decides, which value or quality is „roleplaying one”?

Before I answer that, let’s go to the symptoms.

The Experienced Game Master

In my opinion, discussions over „what an experienced game master means” are evergreen rabbit holes, which lead to nothing but arguing about personal flavours. However, there’s one constant thing, that bothers me, when I notice it while reading rulebooks. Some games lacks a sufficient, precise instruction, how to actually run a session. How to play, facilitate the game? Some of them (like 1-2 page dice rollers) even lacks any guidance. OK, you may learn from them how to roll dice or how to interpret the outcome. But those games lacks critical instructions on how to start the session or how to organize it at the table. According to which agenda and principle players should adhere to? What the session facilitator (game master) should do first and next? How to set and frame scenes? What are principles in mind to fulfill the theme of the game? There’s a huge amount of syntax errors in a similar fashion…

Games like described before assumes that „The Experienced Game Master” will figure it out on the fly. More than not, it’s written between their lines. Authors and designers leave those critical issues of a manual, because their target group is constricted to people, who likes and knows how to figure it out. „To another designers”, we may say (and it’s a fact!). But where we can find the „basis” or reference to fix those issues? There is the notion of „The Experienced Game Masters”! In result, those games are designed only for the people, who consider themselves as „experienced game masters”. Or, perhaps to other ones, who have a luck to participate in a session with „experienced game master”.

Beside of mentioned phenomena, „The Experienced Game Master” concept works as a universal remedy to various problems at the table. For instances:

  • Who invites newcomers to TTRPGs? Experienced Game Masters
  • Who teaches others, how to run a session? Experienced Game Masters
  • Who needs to promote new TTRPGs? Experienced Game Masters

It all looks like the pillar, which barely holds the entire „TTRPG” thing. „Keepers of Communities, Fandoms, Tables and The Market”. In practice, it all works like the duct tape, which hides plethora of all problems in regard of TTRPG communities. Kool Aid solution, really. At least those gaming related. Elevated (gatekeeped?) entrance level, „Game Masters shortages”, everlasting wars over definitions. You can name more of them, that’s for sure!

What is that „The Experience Game Master” unicorn at first place? We may discuss over popular „10 000 hours to master a thing” notion. However, it will quickly get muddied over deliberations of the GM’s nature, their skillsets, their values and their desired qualities. It may even get to the point of discussing „what is a TTRPG experience in first place”. Then, „Golden Mean Fallacy” will sow discord with the magic spell „who is The Experienced Game Master depends on a roleplayer”…

Personally, I don’t need an answer for all of those matters and questions. However, if we ever want to rely on the phenomenas like „experienced game master”, we need first to figure it out, what they actually mean, right? What they are and how they actually work?

It’s TTRPG Essentialism. „Experienced Game Master” concept will always mean someone’s favourite, Perfect RPG; no exceptions. As many Perfect RPGs, as many opinions and roleplayers.

Your RPG System for Everything

An another Vincent Baker’s quote from his article:

The idea of “your favorite rpg,” I totally get. I have a couple of favorite video games, after all. I have a few favorite card games. Naturally I have favorite rpgs too.

But I’m going beyond the idea of our favorites here. The idea of trying to find the ideal rpg I’m talking about is, trying to find the ideal route to the singular rpg. The ideal tool for doing the essential rpg thing. We’re trying to find the best way for us to play D&D, or if not D&D, the best way for us to play that single game that we think all rpgs secretly are.

The very root of the term „TTRPG System” came from 80s, when Chaosium and Steve Jackson Games wanted to make and sell a toolkit, seemingly suited for all possible themes and concepts to play at roleplaying session. We have GURPS, BRP, Cortex or Savage Worlds – they all advertize that „you can play every session in every setting imagined”. D&D 5th has been going further this direction to monopolize and dominate all of the market (as d20 System tried to achieve this previously)…

But how does it relate to TTRPG Essentialism?

Propably you read a lot of various „What is the RPG?” for many roleplaying games. In my opinion, the game instruction (manual) only needs to explain, what that particular game is. If you compare those „What is the RPG?” chapters, you could find some differences. But let’s stop at this point. Why rulebooks even needs to explain, what is „The RPG”, in the first place? Are we playing a particular game, or evercompassing The RPG? It all sounds like many designers wanted at first to introduce to the reader a some kind of universal „RPG” idea, which seems to work „everywhere”. Like explaining, why „this system” equals „The RPG”. Why we even need to explain the entire category of tabletop games?

Obviously, the author(s) of the game teaches us their TTRPG Essentialism. Nothing more. Just marketing.

One of the most common arguments against playing By The Book is the point of „everybody can and will modify the game anyway, why even bother sticking to the manual?”. It doesn’t undermine the idea of sticking to the manual at all. It’s just „Hello folks, I want to play with my own manual”. Some people dabble with rulebooks to transform them into their own favourite picture. More people tend to neglect one or more mechanics or procedures of the games they played. Is it actually wrong?

It leads to uniformization of an experience we may get from the table. Everything will tend to feel „the samey”. In the process, we will play exactly the same game, but by trying different tools to achieve it. It invalidates the very reason of playing different games at all. It kills the potential of a given game concept. The rulebook stops functioning as a manual, it becomes merely a collection of tools to rebuild your Own Favourite TTRPG Session from the stratch. This is TTRPG Essentialism in a nutshell. An approach to use all different tools, concepts, procedures and solutions to achieve exactly the same, desired features and experience.

I get it, why people get really angry, when somebody mentions BTB concept. It’s like saying it loud „I don’t practice The Hobby as you do”, while trying to participate in a community anyway. It’s a different gaming paradigm.

Golden Truths and Mantras

Propably you already knew about „Golden Rules” or „Rules Zero” meta-principles. It’s another symptom of TTRPG Essentialism – checking if people are playing in a certain manner of a certain person (Game Master). Everyone can play as they wanted, obviously. However, I wonder why people need to use those words like spells or mantras in every possible TTRPG discussion. I practice my hobby by playing certain games and by not chossing others. I apply to some LFG posts and not to all others. Sometimes, I do complain about playing less sessions than I want to. I’m picky roleplayer, I’m not gonna lie. Anyway, I don’t spam „Let it Ride” or „Say Yes Or Roll The Dice” from Burning Wheel in every possible discussion, despite BW belonging to one of my favourite TTRPGS. I’ve never fell reason to do it. I don’t take dogmatic stance on Burning Wheel.

All that spell casting feels like people need to defend themselves from a possible „Strong Influential Dominant Roleplayer”, which could possibly emerge and enforce their own Perfect RPG, if not culled down by „Golden Rules” spells. It looks like a prevalent fear of late consequences of TTRPG Essentialism – someone discovers „The TTRPG Essence” and somehow manage to enforce it to all of the people. OK, maybe it’s a overstretch, just for artistic license. For real, I think that people try to cope with the realization, that their roleplaying acquitainances and friends have different tastes and needs, which aren’t quite compatible with their own. The search for common „essence” works as an elusive glue to bind them all. TTRPG Essentialism is an endless journey, which isn’t meant to conclude. At the same time, the goal of this journey seems to match all of your roleplaying buddies with your „Essence”. But how it can really achieve it? Do people simply pretend, that by undertaking this journey toghether, they are looking for the exact „Essence”?

It’s a struggle for what TTRPG is and what is not. Which movements, trends and school of thought are „Roleplaying” and which aren’t.

Does TTRPG Essentialism work?

It works, better than people expected! But not in the way, that some people actually expects.

The Traditional RPG notion literally happened, because of the thought „every TTRPG session is about having and doing certain things”. About combats and non-combat interludes. About experiencing pre-written story, either module or GM’s own. About acting and props used. About adventures. But also about systemic distrust over game’s manual, because many time we’re betrayed by authors promising things they never provided. About games making a difference in dice and math, sometimes about aesthetics, but not for anything else. In another words: Traditional TTRPGs conviced many of us, that every new TTRPG will look the same or very similar to previous ones. We „need” to adjust them to our needs, because those games are never adjusted to us.

But then, controversies aries: over Indie TTRPGs, The Forge followers and creators, then PbtA movement. Slogans like „Blades in the Dark is a BOARD GAME!”. Everlasting complains about oddities of non-traditional TTRPGs. Being upset of GMless games just because of absence of GM role. Because „it doesn’t fit The Essence of TTRPG!”. Because it extends the boundaries and perception of TTRPG category. It shapes the understanding and agreement, what TTRPG is and what’s not! Such struggle is all based about social dynamics. Making changes creates chaos, especially in social environment. The very existence of changes sets the communities into perceived danger. Checks people and their position. Someone may lose their prominent position or influence. Someone become perceived as „expert of something”. Tribal dynamics in a nutshell, really.

There’s a second thing. TTRPG Essentialism neglects where it leads to. A person may discover what they like, what they don’t like in TTRPG session by just partaking such journey for their favourite TTRPG experiences. What they anger them, what they feel bad about. But also, what is exciting, fun and satisfying to them. It’s very valuable thing on it’s own – to be aware of how do you like to play. How to achieve desired experienced; how to have a really good fun. But what TTRPG Essentialism does with all of this?

TTRPG Essentialism deceives a person, that what they discovered, is „The TTRPG”. It supress the fact, that everyone is born as a different person: with different personalities, capabilities, the potential and possible neurotype. It provides you with a blunder, that supposedly everyone is looking for the same thing as you do. As „every roleplayer likes to have fun in a similar way”. But TTRPG simply doesn’t work like that in a real world. Folks likes different things, are playing different sessions. „TTRPG” isn’t an idea nor concept. It’s just a phenomenon which happens, when people decide to play in shared imagined space. Each time, it this phenomenon varies, because by definition it varies: by tools and techniques used, by approach and method taken, by mechanics, procedures and structure utilized, and in the end, by the people participated in.

For me, it’s obvious that a certain technique from a given roleplaying game might not work on another. But why we still pretent, that TTRPG is the same thing? Why we are defaulting to values and qualities, which never functioned as a „default thing” in first place?

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