Does a TTRPG need physical mechanics (dice, cards, etc) to be considered a TTRPG?

When creating games that are accessible to wider audiences, like making them more accessible to young kids, or trying out ideas that we haven’t seen released before, we sometimes push on the definition of what a tabletop RPG actually is.  This post looks at how TTRPGs and games are defined in a technical sense, how they can be defined from a public viewpoint, and what’s important about our creative endeavors.

Lots of questions

Does a tabletop role-playing game need dice, cards, etc to be considered a tabletop role-playing game?  Or, absent those physical mechanics, should it be called a storytelling game?  Or is it not a game at all?

This series of questions, or questions like this, come my way often from players, story guides, and creators.

I’ve been asked this at convention booths by families questioning how far they can adjust games for their kid and still keep it a game.

I’ve been asked after talks by teachers if what they’re doing in the classroom for story-based learning falls under the definition of a TTRPG.

I’ve been asked by creators wondering how to release and define their mechanics-lite or mechanics-free idea.

I’ve heard people during playtest sessions tell other creators that their game shouldn’t be called a TTRPG unless it had more mechanics.

I, myself, have been told by other creators that some of my games, like StoryGuider, shouldn’t be called a TTRPG because my mechanic is based on player choice and activities.

And beyond all this, I’ve seen discourse on the subject in various forums, comment sections, and media.

These are the questions, doubts, and issues that sometimes arise surrounding mechanics-lite or mechanics-free storytelling adventures.  So, how do we define this a bit better in relation to TTRPGs? 

Definitions of “TTRPG” and “game”

Community and public perceptions

When we look at what people typically view as a TTRPG, games like Dungeons & Dragons come to mind, and these games have dice mechanics to facilitate randomization in the story by determining the success and failure of the players’ actions.  

When people argue that something isn’t a TTRPG due to mechanics, from my experience, this has always been what they’ve brought up.  There’s concern that it’s too dissimilar from what’s become a common reference point or impression of what a TTRPG is.

I personally really like the crunch level of D&D or Pathfinder for many of the games where I’m a player because I like that strategy element, however, just because I tend to like playing in games with stats and dice doesn’t mean that’s the definition of the genre.

Dictionary definitions

Branching out from a historical perception of what a TTRPG is, the Cambridge Dictionary defines a TTRPG as, “a game played around a table or online in which a group of people create and play the part of characters in a story that develops as the game is played” [retrieved from online Cambridge Dictionary]

And then defines “game” as, “an entertaining activity or sport, especially one played by children, or the equipment needed for such an activity” [retrieved from online Cambridge Dictionary]

Other sources, like the Merriam-Webster dictionary, define a game as having rules, or, quite often, in the context of competition with other players who are part of the game.

Game to Grow also has a great, short discussion on the definition of the word “game” within the context of TTRPGs (since we often aren’t competing against other players).  In this definition, they emphasize that there’s rules, structure, and goals for players.

What does this say (or not say) about game mechanics?

With all of this, these definitions don’t mention dice, cards, or mechanics beyond basic rules or structure.  

When sports are included in the definition of a game, the outcome is based on the skill of those involved and is within a certain ruleset.  The results are from the skills and actions of all the players on the field, decisions from judges or referees, and strategization of the team and coaches.

Looking at board games, something like Monopoly has dice rolls to introduce randomization for players as they move around the board and land on different squares, but then games like chess or checkers are classic game examples that are entirely up to the skills of the players. 

Taking that to the definition of a TTRPG, if chess or checkers don’t need a randomization mechanic to still have unknown outcomes or be called a game, why do role-playing games, whether they are competitive or not, need them?

A choice between two paths or options introduces non-determinism just based on the players themselves, similar to what you’d see in checkers as two opponents match and rematch to different results.  However, in a TTRPG, this is going to come more from interpretation of story context, piecing together information, foreseeing in-world consequences, and the player’s personal decisions instead of reacting to an opponent and anticipating their next move.

While dice, cards, stats, and more can be really fun (like I said, I do personally like this in a lot of games I play), there are other games out there, that are technically and commonly defined as games, that don’t have these specific rules or structure.

And that is OK.

They are still games.

If it includes role-playing elements, then it can also be a TTRPG. 

On top of that, with all of this discussion aside, does the definition really matter if this creation is fun and brings joy to others?

So, for those of you wondering…

How far can you adjust or reduce game mechanics for your kids to play a TTRPG?  

As far as you can and want to so you can meet their needs.

Is your in-class story-based learning a TTRPG?  

Maybe!  And even if you don’t think it’s a TTRPG but like how some of the elements compare to a TTRPG, I whole-heartedly welcome you and your work to the TTRPG community.

Can you call your mechanics-lite or mechanics-less role-playing creation a TTRPG? 

YES!

Keep creating and have confidence in what you’re making.  Whether you have mechanics or not in your game, build something wonderful, play an awesome game with your family and friends, and know that you’ve got people out there to back you up if you ever question the definition of your amazing creations.

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