The Sorites Paradox: RPG Edition



This is a rather complicated and long-ish read, so I decided to separate the following wall of text into several thematic chunks.

The philosophical bit

Being a philosopher by trade (as if one could trade with that) I excel at very little except (over)thinking. Applying said thinking to “game design” or the question of what gives a game its identity I find myself confronted with a version of the paradox of the heap, also called sorites paradox. There is a positive and a negative version of the paradox. I will only concern myself with the positive version, which is as follows:

(1) A collection of one million grains of sand is a heap.
(2) If a collection of n grains of sand is a heap then so is a collection of n-1 grains.
(3) A collection of one grain of sand is a heap.

Now, oof. What does that have to do with throwing dice and playing ICRPG, D&D or whatever?
If we apply the sorites paradox to TTRPGs and game mechanics, we can reformulate it as such:

(1) A collection of n game mechanics is a specific game (let’s say ICRPG)
(2) If a collection of n game mechanics is ICRPG then so is a collection of n-1 game mechanics.
(3) A collection of one game mechanic is ICRPG.

As far as I can see there’s at least two solutions to the paradox if applied to the example I chose here.

The first solution would be to deny that “ICRPG” is a vague predicate whereas “a heap” is. One could simply say: “Shoo! Away with your logical paradoxes. You are overthinking this.” and declare that ICME p. 5 clearly lists the key system innovations that make ICRPG ICRPG: Turns, Effort Dice, Targets, Clean STATS.
Taking away any of those would make ICRPG not ICRPG anymore. Easy-peasy.
This provokes another question, though: if I took these key system innovations and added other things to them, would there be a point where I would not be playing ICRPG anymore but something else (another “new” game?).

The second solution would be to argue that applying the paradox to the question what number of game mechanics makes ICRPG ICRPG is a purely logical and formal problem that has nothing to do with the real world of gaming.
In other words: the problem arises not because it is a real problem but because the philosopher (in this case: me) has simply misused language. Everybody understands what we mean when we say that we play ICRPG or can at least talk about what we mean whne we say that we play ICRPG. One might even argue that it is not a matter of X game mechanics but rather a matter of a certain mindset. Asking which game mechanics make ICRPG ICRPG would therefore be the wrong question.

The moral bit

So, why all this stuff about paradoxes and game mechanics? What remains in my opinion is not a logical problem but a moral question prompted by the question that arises from the first solution: if one made a game and took the mechanics found in ICRPG would any additional rules ever change the identity of the game? Would any game using mechanics found in ICRPG ever be its own game or would it remain an ICRPG-hack? When will it become its own game and when will it remain a hack?
If I took the key system mechanics (or maybe only some of them), renamed them as to avoid copyright claims and put them in a game that I wrote and then sold: would it really be my own game or am I just taking other people’s hard work to profit from them? Wouldn’t I not only creatively but also morally be obligated to do my own stuff?

The tl;dr bit

Are game mechanics part of a game’s identity? Can you take key mechanics of games you like and put them in your own (commercial) game without feeling like a hack?


Shoo! Away with your logical paradoxes. You are overthinking this. :joy:

At its core, ICRPG is roll a D20, add any applicable modifiers, and meet or beat a target number. But so is D&D. And a ton of other D20 games.

Other games have a -3/+3 system, they just don’t call it easy/hard. Other games use target numbers or difficulty numbers.

Other games have effort as a concept. Even the 5e DMG references giving a door ten hit points before you chop it down (though ICRPG’s extension of this to also picking the lock is unique).

Lots of games get played in turns. Tons of games use hit points. Zelda chunked them up into hearts. Other games use stat assign. Although simply assigning your bonus is somewhat unique to ICRPG, I am certain that has existed elsewhere in the universe of RPGs.

This is one of the reasons you can’t copyright mechanics themselves. Some of them exist across scores of games.

But. To answer your first question, all of these particular mechanics are part of ICRPG’s identity. The collection of these particular mechanics; the focus on simplicity; the way they are packaged and presented; and the use of easy language to understand them makes ICRPG what it is. They are more than grains of sand in a heap. They have important differences and purposes that distinguish each, which is where your example falls apart.

Can you take mechanics from games you like and put them in your own commercial game without feeling like a hack? Yes. Absolutely. Just be careful how you word everything and how you present it and package it, so you don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright. ie, don’t write things out verbatim and structure your game in exactly the same way.

All of that being said, to me, I find it pretty hard to beat ICRPG, and so, why not just play ICRPG? I have been using the system almost exclusively since 2017 and have played in dozens upon dozens of amazing campaigns and one shots using those simple, fast, fun, and flexible mechanics that together make ICRPG so unique.


Speaking to the philosophical aspect of the question: the link below is to an excellent TED talk called “What is Original?” The focus is on the music industry, but it speaks directly to when is something stealing? When is it “inspired by”? Etc. Worth a listen.


Reminds me of my barbarian standing over a corpse explaining to the rest of the party, “This Ted. Ted talk too much.”

In all honesty – > start with the creation of three characters. No RPG books open. Define what you think makes that character a character; STATS, GEAR, ABILITIES. Jot it all down. Then make your game around it. If your result looks like something new, run with it. If it looks like something that exists, go play that.

If your characters exist in a setting you haven’t seen done before or you have a different take on a setting than what you have seen, use your favorite rule system as the core and build your setting. Leave out any rules one would find in the referenced rule book (you should not share those and should instead point back to said rule book). Create tables, monsters, and any information on rule adjustments.

Do the same thing if you like the rules and the setting but have an idea for an Adventure or a Campaign. Insert yourself into the rules and build your tale around them without over sharing from the rule book.

To answer your question – > don’t be a hack.


I don’t even agree with the definition of a heap of sand. You can’t make a heap out of 2 of something! That’s not a heap; that’s just two of something next to each other.

Following that, a heap of sand and a collection of rules have only one thing in common: they each of multiple components. After that, they are completely dissimilar, and using the definition of one to describe the other is a complete contrivance.

Finally, I don’t think your moral question requires the previous metaphor, and can be resolved quite easily: if you feel like a hack, you’re doing something wrong, and you should do something else; regardless of feeling like a hack, if you are deriving creative work from someone else’s creative work, it behooves you to understand at least the basics of copyright law.


The Philosophical Bit:
This is why I tend to judge games more based on the settings they present rather than any particular rules mechanic. For me the appeal of Runehammer is more to do with Warp Shell, Viking Death Squad and the upcoming Hardsuit (which I’m really looking forward to) and less to do with the particulars of dice resolution. People pitching me yet another system of mechanics to run what’s basically D&D with the serial numbers filed off, on the other hand, does nothing for me but dry up my soul into a sad husk.

In fact, I feel like Runehammer games are at their most Runehammery the more they are their own thing and not variations on the game systems of That Other Company. For my part I don’t hate the idea of taking the VDS Hack rules that come with Viking Death Squad and using that to run ALL my Runehammer games.

But at the same time I hack the rules all to bits no matter the system and rework them so they best fit the feel and themes of the settings. Because a big part of the Runehammer ethos is a DIY ethos.

The Moral Bit:
Be upfront. If a game you run is ICRPG with some rules hacks, let folks know. If your game is your own thing sprinkled with some ICRPG mechanics, let people know. If you’d like to publish a game and are inspired by ICRPG’s mechanics and would like to use them as a leaping off point, I’d get in touch with Hank to get his blessing and at the very least credit ICRPG in your product–or whatever you crazy kids work out between yourselves.

No matter what though, I’d say be loyal to the creative spirit of the game settings and you’ll be running it from the right place.

Also post campaign journals and let us know what happened in your game!


I’d argue two blankets is a heap of blankets…



By “is” do you mean “can be” or “must be”? I can argue that heaps not only have lower limits on the number of objects that could make a heap, but also upper limits, as well as limitations to the kind of objects which can be part of a heap.


I would argue that a “heap” is descriptive of the shape of the construct the constituents form, similar to “stack”. So long as you end up with a roughly rounded cone shape at the end, no matter how many constituent parts, you’ve created a heap. I have kids. I’m familiar with heaps. :grinning:


That is a new philosophical definition which you inferred from the original, but which was not presented. Also, based on your definition, you can’t make a heap of sand out of 2 grains or sand. :stuck_out_tongue:


I consider that a feature rather than a bug because a heap of two grains of sand isn’t an outcome we’d want from our definition of “heap” anyway. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:


Then another feature of your definition is that it must be different from the one presented at the top, which reads:

So, it seems the definition really is “ours”, being yours and mine (we agree a heap cannot be 2 grains), as it logically can’t be yours and kagozaiku’s.