The Essence of RPGs (3): Role-play
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The Essence of RPGs

What makes something a role-playing game? The Essence of RPGs was a serial in three parts running here at that offered an answer to this question by tracing the essence of these games to two sets of player practices, rule-play and role-play . Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the three parts of The Essence of RPGs, each of which begins with a link to the corresponding part of the source serial:

  1. Children of TSR
  2. Rule-play
  3. Role-play

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


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(Originally posted at

Dear Chris,

I really enjoyed your serial on the Essence of RPGs where you elegantly explained the tension of the game’s duality; that of Role-Play and of Rule-Play. I remember struggling with these two aspects; The obsessive-compulsive side of me did not want any rule to be neglected, while the creative-imaginative side wanted me to witness an epic adventure unfold. I never did resolve the two and have come to accept that I am a divided individual. 😉

Perhaps it is this internal conflict that has generated in me some insights about the tension of Role-Play and Rule-Play. Based on my interpretation of your writing, Role-Play appears to be the champion of narrative, story, and the performance art of acting, while Rule-Play is the champion of simulation, preciseness, and power gaming. They appear to have little in common with each other.

I believe that this is a surface level conflict. Role-Play and Rule-Play may have tensions with each other, but that is because they come from the same place; That place being human imagination and its need for understanding.

Games have a special purpose in the spectrum of humanity’s imagination. Unlike their siblings of philosophy, technology, and art, Games are about the creation of and quest for understanding. This differs from philosophy’s quest for truth, technology’s quest for efficiency, and art’s quest for meaning. Games provide this because they incorporate rules, choice, and randomness.

Games in their Tabletop, RPG, and Video Game incarnations are fundamentally simulation engines, which you reference in your second post on Rule-Play:

“… But rule-players did – they craved more details, more tables for simulating very specific situations (even if they never actually used them), bigger treasure tables, more monsters, more equipment, more, more, more!”

It is this paragraph that led me to the insight (and thus this post) that Dungeons & Dragons was the world’s first paper based world simulator in addition to being the first Role Playing Game! I originally thought that D&D was the world’s first paper simulation, but in actuality it was Strat-O-Matic that was released in 1961.

Simulations do not have to be just rule based (or rule-played); there can also be dramatic simulations, mythical simulations, and munchkin simulations. I found my passion in the BECMI D&D mythic setting, yet you found passion in dramatic role playing. There are players who love having rules for everything while there are different players whose tonic is the grind of frequent combat and treasure collecting. Regardless of the want, the ability to simulate the experience that the player finds meaningful is why RPGs have had the amazing impact they did.

So thank you for your post. I have taken great liberty in the interpretation of your articles, but it has really helped me to think differently about Games.

Best regards,


Hi Doc,
Many thanks for this! Much appreciated. Tied up with the Tin Anniversary right now, so I won't get a chance to reply by blog letter, so just a quick comment.

Strat-o-matic wasn't the first paper simulation - consider Kriegspiel, full title "Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame", published in 1812 by the Prussian army. I reckon that's your puppy. ;)

All the best, and I look forward to catching up with you on Twitter the moment I get the courage to return to the hive mind.



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