Categorizing tabletop RPGs can be kind of difficult. There is such a variety of them, and they play in such different ways, that coming up with meaningful methods of comparison is…difficult.
I’m not talking about genre or setting here, either. It’s, in fact, relatively easy to categorize RPGs into fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, or what have you. What is quite a bit harder, in my experience, is to categorize them by mechanics.
This is something those in the video game space take for granted, as that field began as solely mechanics, and had the stories come in over time. Thus, at the start of the medium, the only way there was to categorize games meaningfully was mechanics. That’s how we got “platformers”, “adventure games”, and later, things like “RPGs”, “strategy games”, and “first-person shooters”. All of these genres, while admittedly pretty vague and muddled, offer an idea for how a game plays.
The setting-based labels we provide for tabletop RPGs are less useful in that regards. Fantasy is a genre which includes Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeon World, and Burning Wheel, but those games play nothing alike. The same could be said of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, Eclipse Phase, and Numenera, despite the fact that they are all “science fiction”.
In fact, the only meaningful gameplay-based distinctions I can think of in my mind are “OSR”, which describes a minimalist, rulings-over-rules mentality usually accompanied with punishing combat, an emphasis on logical problem solving, and random tables, and “story game”, which tends to describe games with minimized rules which are focused on telling a very specific type of story. These two categories cover only a subset of tabletop RPGs, however, leaving us with a massive third category of “The Rest”, which is basically useless.
With that in mind, I’ve started to think about the way I end up describing role-playing games to my friends, and tried to make that congeal into an actual system with which one can try and describe, broadly, the actual mechanics of the way a game works. This system, then, is tentatively called the Tabletop RPG Triangle.
The idea is relatively simple: the mechanics of tabletop RPGs can be described as some mixture of the three above attributes: Comprehensive, Universal, and Simple.
Simple means that the written rules are computation light and fairly intuitive. There aren’t a lot of modifiers to be accounted for, not a lot of dice rolls required for single actions, and multiple types of action are resolved using the same game mechanics.
Universal means that the written rules are not bound to any given setting, and instead set out to just provide a general framework for any sort of character doing any sort of thing. The rules don’t emphasize the creation of characters towards any particular archetype.
Comprehensive is perhaps the most unintuitive of the three descriptors, and describes having rules which aim to cover every situation which characters could expect to find themselves in (even if those rules end up similar to other situations). Basically, the book sets out to describe what should happen in any likely gameplay scenario.
The idea is that you can specialize in one of these descriptors, have a strong emphasis in two of them, or be a kind of muddled mixture of all three, but you can’t go whole hog into all three. If a game is simple and comprehensive, it probably isn’t universal: a game that aims to be easy to understand and cover a lot of ground within it’s theme probably has a very narrow theme, lest it overwhelm the reader with options and lose its simple status (I might think of something like Fiasco, which pretty exclusively deals with Coen Brother-esqe comedic tragedies). Meanwhile, a game that is universal and comprehensive is probably going to be a massive mound of rules (gestures towards the D20 system).
For an example, here are a few of the systems I run and play in, plotted on the Triangle, according to my experience with the systems and thoughts on them:
Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons aims for a pretty solid mix of comprehensiveness and simplicity, mostly as a reaction to 3.5 Edition’s rules gluttony. The skill check comprises most every situation in the game, with a relatively minor number of modifiers, and while the game does try to set out rules for all manner of adventuring situations, it doesn’t really like you playing outside of the bounds of D&D style, big damn heroes adventuring, especially when it comes to pidgeonholing you into class roles, so it’s pretty far from universal.
3.5 and Pathfinder, however, are basically a mirror image, focusing on universality and comprehensiveness. Wanna play a pirate with guns in space? Yeah, sure, there’s a supplement for that. How about some dark fantasy with Cthulhu monsters, except everyone’s a ninja. Yeah, sure! Wanna fight Shrek at the bottom of the ocean? Sure, whatever, I think he’s in Bestiary 5. Just, you know, get ready to cross-reference feat descriptions, combat modifiers, and the contents of about four different supplemental books.
Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rules, however, are maybe one of the closest-to-the-middle rulesets I play with regularly. It’s certainly not universal (you’re gonna be playing Star Wars no matter what), but it lets you play a lot of different kinds of stories within that universe. The rules aren’t necessarily super easy, but the complexity is mostly front-loaded when you learn the system. Finally, the game sets out to try and provide mechanics for basically anything ever done in a Star Wars movie, from dogfighting to the Force to building lightsabers to hacking droids, making it kind of a blend of all three.
The third edition of Shadowrun, however, is closest to a point of the triangle compared to any other game I play with. The game is not very universal at all: you’re going to be playing criminals doing crime in a fantasy cyberpunk world, or at least someone interacting regularly with the criminal underworld. The rules are not simple in the least (gestures angrily to two damn pages of rules for throwing explosives), but no matter what you want to to in the world of Shadowrun‘s criminals-for-hire, there are rules for doing it, and for really digging into the nitty-gritty of it. I mean, there are rules for racism, for god’s sake.
Finally, Cypher System is literally the definition of simple and universal. It is, by definition, settingless, trying to provide a framework to let anyone do anything, and literally all the rules boil down into basically the same single die roll. However, even when you begin to introduce slightly unusual situations into the game, it just sorta shrugs and goes “Fuck it, man, house rule it”.
This system is by no means perfect, and even as I write this I find myself having umbridge with it and thinking of counterexamples, but the fact of the matter is that we as tabletop RPG players, and as liasons for the hobby, need a better way to describe the way these games play, at least in shorthand.
When new players get in to the hobby, especially after they play their first game (which, let’s be honest here, is going to be Dungeons and Dragons), we need a way to help them navigate these games and jump off to other games they might enjoy, and using setting as that navigational aid isn’t going to work. These are games, and ultimately the mechanics define a player’s experience with the game much more than the setting, so we need some sort of language with which to communicate those differences. The Triangle is not meant to be the solution, but it is meant to at least inspire someone to come up with their own ideas.