Towards an Objective Perspective on TTRPGs




This post is a foray into the thoughts I had when I first heard that Hank was writing a Manifesto. I was considering writing this in an essay format, but I realized that the best fit for this community would be a forum post. This is more a way to begin a discussion than it is me telling my conclusions. I am looking forward to your responses. Each statement is meant to be judged and/or challenged by the community so we can improve it.


An RPG is a narrative game in which players make meaningful choices in limited roles to build a fictional history.

Allied Arts

The two closest arts to the TTRPG are the Oral (a.k.a. Primary) Epic and the Impromptu Theatre. Both are in-person arts, both require some bit of improvisation, and both are adapted to the current audience.

Oral Epic

The GM has the most obvious tie to the Oral Epic. The Rhapsode (one who recites the oral Epic) memorized the episodes of any given poem and would compose verses which embodied those episodes on the spot. He would do this by memorizing components of verse (such as ‘Eos Rhododactylos’ or ‘rosy-fingered dawn’) and practicing extempore verse. This is analogous to GMing, by which we prep concepts (episodes) which we embody in situations (encounters/rooms/etc.) which are analagous to metrical lines. These are built of story beats (metrical feet).

Impromptu Theatre

Roleplaying is close to impromptu theatre because it is extremely situational. Each person at the table, due to their limited role, is acting and reacting in the context of their peers, not in the context of a script. Even the concepts/situations/beats hierarchy must be left loose enough to allow free response. This is why published adventures are rarely able to be run as-is, and can only be mined for ideas. As soon as it coalesces into a script or a ‘choose your own adventure’ format the story is no longer adaptive enough to be suitable for a TTRPG.

On RPGs and Morality

TTRPGs are a form of art, not a form of moral action. Art is an intellectual virtue ordered to how to make a thing of a particular kind. Considerations of whether it would be good to make art of a particular kind should be made prior to considering how best to make that art. When the thing is begun at the table one should be concerned with how to do what is happening at the table in the best way possible (i.e. with excellence) as opposed to whether or not it give across a particular moral message. This does not give people license to do evil in gaming, but rather puts the responsibility on people to talk to each other like adults and make expectations clear beforehand.

What makes a TTRPG excellent?

A TTRPG is excellent when it pleases the players (including the GM) during the game. This is achieved in the way any other art achieves this, namely through ‘integrity’, ‘due proportion’, and ‘clarity/radiance’.

In TTRPGs, integrity is achieved when the parts of the history are consistent and weave together to make one hole. As such it is important for GMs to guard plausibility, and it is important for the players to engage in the world through character creation and appropriate character action.

Due proportion is when the work fits in its setting: for the GM the game has to work with the crew that is playing, with the GM themselves, and by some way reflecting real world values. The players should also make sure to adapt their play to the table, including cooperation with the GM, and should reflect real world values. Fantasy should be an escape from the negativity of the real world, not a fugitive rejection of responsibility and manners.

Radiance is achieved by the GM when they identify the form and character of the game, then work to represent that in a clear and memorable way. Make the cozy village the coziest village, and the villain truly evil. Exaggerate the hard choices and the stakes. Conflicts and rewards should be truly conflicting and truly rewarding. Players achieve their characters by knowing their characters and playing them well. This does not mean playing the numbers. RPGs don’t need numbers. RPGs need choices. It’s done by having a clear definition of one’s persona, an obvious trajectory, and making one’s decisions in-character.

Rewards and Conflicts are Internal and External at the Same Time

Last note: Because rewards and conflicts shape the course of the game (they are the major push-pull dynamic), it should be noted that they are both internal (in the player) and external (in the narrative) at the same time. Because of this conflicts and rewards should be considered in both aspects at the same time. Hank has discussed this to some degree with the moral imperative and trap theory, but it’s important to go beyond that. From an objective perspective, we have to realize that human beings are both objective and subjective in their loves (thus what is rewarding to them) and in their anger (what draws them into conflict). Love is gravity in a TTRPG, and people (GM and Player alike) will be invested by what is good. When an ‘evil’ threatens that good (either an internal good such as one’s sense of justice or an external good such as that favorite NPC) it will cause them to resist that and thus engage in conflict. These emotional forces are what drives story. Players won’t be heroic because that was the logical thing to do. If they are, they won’t look back on those deeds with fondness, the way we so often do with our games. We will love the histories we create because they were worth loving, because they were good and beautiful things to do.


Like I said: this is not an organized essay or a firm set of statements. These are my opinions and are put out here specifically to be challenged and see what holds up. As the discussion goes I may stray into further topics, but let’s see where this goes for the time being.


Perhaps you should consider what the aim of your definition is, and use that aim as benchmark rather than whatever we think.

TTRPGs are a sprawling hobby, so it will be extremely hard to write a general description that encompasses all. For example, not all TTRPGs have the player/GM dichotomy, not all have limited roles, many would consider themselves more akin to codified child’s play or war games than art, etc.

So without a clear purpose for the definition, chances are that we don’t share a common understanding of what it is you want to define.


Could you give examples of what RPGs do not have limited roles?

As a point of clarification, I am not saying that RPGs need to have a dichotomy in the GM roles and the Player Roles.

I do solo TTRPGing, for example. It could be said that I don’t have a GM/Player dichotomy, but I do have a player role and a GM role. They just happen to be the same person doing both.


Maybe I misunderstood what you mean by roles (or by limited)…

I assumed “limited roles” meant “you have x responsibilities in the game, and you play as an elf”, in which case there are games that don’t work this way (for example Polaris, where responsibilities rotate, and supporting characters are introduced during the game).

Perhaps you mean that there are roles like “gm” or “map drawer” or “caller” that are limited in the sense that the task of the map drawer is limited to drawing maps, but that the player can have a large number of roles simultaneously? If so, I’m still not sure that it is always definitionally true (for example, do all these roles make meaningful choices?).

That said, it is really neither here nor there what I think; if your definition works for you it’s a good definition!


I think most RPGs are played much more like war games than like improv theater, and I think there are several games whose design revolves around story beats and mechanics to enforce them (Fiasco and many of the PbtA games).

That said, I’m not certain why we are seeking a formal definition of a TTRPG. It might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but I don’t know what practical purpose it serves to draw distinctions and say, “this, not that” about the hobby.