Thursday, February 27, 2014

Tabletop Gaming 101

Here, in this work-in-progress blog post, is a kinda-sorta comprehensive list of everything you may need to know about tabletop gaming. If you clicked a term used in one of my entries, scroll down and find the definition for that term. I'll link to this post frequently when discussing various tabletop ideas and terms, so newcomers to the hobby can check it out and understand what I'm talking about.

First, the big-picture definitions:

What is a role-playing game? 
Like any good thing that people love and geek out about, there are many variable definitions of the term "roleplaying game." Here is a general-purpose definition that I use when I think of the term:

-A role-playing game (RPG) is a game where players portray characters interacting in a fictional world created by another player. This other player, known as a Gamemaster (GM), usually has a set of rules, details, and ideas about the gameworld, as well as an interactive storyline, commonly known as an adventure, that the players embark upon.

Unless I specify otherwise in a blog entry, I'm always referring to tabletop RPGs. Games like Dungeons & Dragons, played at a table, face-to-face with other people, using books, papers, and polyhedral gaming dice. I am not (unless, again, specifying that I am) referring to console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, which are a genre of videogame that often attempts to emulate specific traits of their tabletop parents.

What is a boardgame?

A little easier to define within the context of tabletop gaming, boardgaming is any multiplayer, non-electronic game that has rules and a goal of somekind. Note that when talking about tabletop gaming, a game with no board is often still considered a boardgame (for example, Dominion is a card game, and does not have a board, but is still commonly referred to as a boardgame). Since RPGs do not have an implicit goal, RPGs are not considered boardgames.

Now, in as alphabetical an order as I can manage, are the definition of various RPG terms...but first, the Obvious But Still Should Probably be Said Disclaimer:

I am not, nor do I claim to be, an authority figure on any of these definitions. All of the following definitions freely and unapologetically carry my own bias. Though many of these definitions are pretty clear-cut, there are several that are open to interpretation and debate. I will try to point out my more controversial definitions below with the "(controversial)" tag.

Ameritrash-Slang term used to describe boardgames made in America. (controversial) Though it carries an obvious negative connotation, the term is sometimes used without judgement, e.g. "We don't play too many Ameritrash games around here because everyone's really into Puerto Rico right now."

Analysis Paralysis-Common boardgaming phenomenon where a player takes an inordinate amount of time studying all the various options avaiable to him or her. (controversial) A common complaint of some eurogames is that their gameplay fosters this particular problem.

Asymmetrical team game-A boardgame where the players are divided into two intentionally uneven teams. I use this term to describe boardgames where everyone is against one player, such as Descent or Mansions of Madness.

Crunchy, crunch- Gamer slang used as an adjective describing rules-heavy, "simulationist" style RPGs, e.g. "I like D&D because it's got plenty of crunch," or "I don't like D&D; it's just too crunchy for me!" Also can be used to refer to parts of an RPG book, as opposed to a descriptor of the entire book, e.g. "I love the fluff in Rifts, but hate the crunch."

d20, d8, d6, etc...-These are specific types of polyhedral gaming dice used in most RPGs. The number is the number of sides on the dice (i.e. d20 refers to a 20-sided die). A number in front of the "d" is the amount of dice in a paricular roll (i.e. 2d10 refers to the rolling of two ten-sided dice, with the numbers added together).

d20 System-Very popular roleplaying game system, first used by the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Deckbuilding, deckbuilder-Boardgame mechanic where a player assembles a deck of cards throughout the course of play. The assembled cards form a deck that the player draws upon to perform various actions. Can be used to describe the mechanic directly, or to broadly address all games using this mechanic, e.g. "Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is my favorite deck-builder."

Dungeoncrawl-Common type of adventure where players are tasked with exploring or clearing out a dungeon full of monsters, traps, and treasures.

Eurogame-Boardgame made in Europe, or carrying many traits of boardgames commonly made in Europe. Traits commonly associated with eurogames include:
   1. Victory by gaining the most points by game's end (as opposed to other games that have more specific goals such as defeating another player)
   2.  Abstracted gameplay components (i.e. the use of wooden blocks or pawns to represent things, rather than plastic miniatures or figures)
   3.  "Peaceful" themes, such as running a farm (Agricola), or developing a city (St. Petersburg)
   4.  Non-traditional turn structure (not "you go, then I go," but rather a game where everyone goes at a certain time, or people take turns going in one phase of play only, etc.)

Failing Forward-Common advice given in RPGs to novice GMs. It means "Do not let the game come to a grinding halt just because the players failed at something; rather, try and work that failure into part of the continuing narrative." Since a major recurring theme in my writing is how tabletop gaming influences my life and vice-versa, I thought this would make an appropriate name for my blog.

Fate, Fate Core- A roleplaying game system, favored by me, known for its flexibility and emphasis on dramatic, cinematic action and narrative focus.

Fluff, fluffy- The opposite of "crunch," referring to details within an RPG concerning story, history of the world, and character details, e.g. "This book has so much fluff in it it's almost more of a novel than an RPG!" Can also be used to describe parts of an RPG book, as opposed to the book as a whole, e.g. "I love the fluff in Rifts, but can't stand the crunch."

Grognard-Term of endearment used to describe fans of older RPGs (early 90s and earlier) or modern, "old-school-style" games that emulate those older RPGs.

Grok-Gamer slang often used for "to understand something," e.g. "I didn't like that game, I just couldn't grok the strategy of it."

In media res-Latin for "in the middle of things," a GMing technique borrowed from film and literature where players begin an adventure in a stressful, intense and/or chaotic situation.

Living card game(LCG)-Style of cardgame/boardgame where expansion cards are sold by set, rather than in randomized packs, like a collectible card game (CCG).

Multiplayer solitaire-Common complaint attributed to eurogames where the gameplay perpetrates limited or no direct interaction between players.

Player character (PC)- The individial character portrayed by a player in an RPG. This as opposed to a Non-player character (NPC), a character portrayed by the gamemaster.

Player-agency-RPG design technique where the players have a certain degree of creative control over the world. This is in contrast to more traditional RPG design, where the gamemaster typically has total creative control of the game world outside of the players' characters.

Player-facing-RPG design technique where all rules are manifestations of player character interaction with the world. For example, in most RPGs, a GM would roll dice to determine if a monster successfully bites a player character. In a player-facing RPG, however, the player would roll dice to determine if he or she can successfully avoid being bitten. Numenera is a modern example of a player-facing RPG.

Pregen- Short for "pre-generated character," a character prepared by the gamemaster (or provided by the game) to be used for play immediately, as opposed to characters created from scratch by the players.

Railroading- GM technique where the gamemaster has a specific idea of how an adventure should progress, and actively discourages players from trying anything outside his plan. This technique is often discouraged, and considered a bad habit common to rookie GMs.

RPG-in-a-box-Term used to describe a boardgame with several elements similar to RPGs, such as characters leveling up, the use of polyhedral dice, etc.

Story game- (controversial). Often used interchangably with the term RPG, a story game is an RPG that tends to place a heavier aspect on the creative, collaborative storytelling elements of an RPG, as opposed to the more mechanical/technical aspects. Politically, this term is often used to divide games into "our games" versus "their games" debates, e.g. "I like playing REAL role-playing games, not those story games!"

Worker-placement- Boardgame mechanic where each player has a certain number of pieces representing actions or "workers," which are placed on various areas of the gameboard throughout play. This term can be used specifically about the mechanic, or generally to group all games using this mechanic in a sub-genre, e.g. "Puerto Rico is my favorite worker-placement game right now."

*World Games, Apocalypse Games, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Apocalypse Engine- A series of games, originating with the 2010 release of Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, that uses a rules-lite, highly-collaborative system. (controversial) Its sharp focus on narrative, shaped by player action, has earned it and its myriad of spin-offs a reputation as the flagship of story gaming.


  1. I don't know how common this is but I have also heard "crunch" and "fluff" used to refer to the rules part and the setting part of an RPG, regardless of how crunchy or fluffy that is overall. So someone might say "When it comes to Rifts, I love the fluff but the crunch is basically unusable."

    1. I've heard that, too...I've now specified that those terms can be used not only to describe the entire game, but parts of it, as well. Thanks!


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