What is a minimal roleplaying game?

I’m into FK’d gaming, by which I mean the ultra-minimalist “how little rules do we need to make this a game?” movement. I am not super-impressed by some of the very intentionally arty approaches to answering that basic question. I think it’s possible to get too cute. For example, I do not think that “agree on what happens” makes a game but rather is more of a negotiation.

The two things I think a game needs are risk and randomness. Risk is a gain/loss proposition, and randomness can be supplied objectively (dice? cards? flipping a coin?) or subjectively (unpredictable behavior of a counterparty). Craps is a classic example of objective randomness + risk, while go is the ne plus ultra of subjective randomness + risk.

A roleplaying game needs at least one more thing and that is a character for each player to invigorate. Characters need definition.

What is the minimal set of rules that suffices to define a character and establish a random mechanism for adjudicating risk? What is a good operational definition of “minimal”?

Is 1-BIT-DUNGN more or less “minimal” than Messerspiel?


Ah the ultra-minimalist side of FKR, hm, a single bit of on/off does seem like its the absolute minimum randomness you could work with. I guess the question is more, what’s the minimum practicable set. Though minimal and the utility gotten out of it is very much dependent on the person using it, so it may be hard to objectively define.

Perhaps a single word tag, and a single d6 is a good baseline of practicable minimalism, since the tag defines but allows for interpretation, and a d6 has just enough granularity to be able to work with it when rolling. Could use more risk though, than just failure, tho arguably risk could be defined outside mechanics, in an fkr style, by negotiating and arranging it per the fiction.

I’ve been pretty happy using basically a stripped down Into the Odd as my “minimalist” chassis for anything else. Lasers & Feelings is also pretty minimalist, and I’ve always believed that even a slightly more complex version of it, like with three binary attributes instead of one, it could be an interesting way to build a fully functional game (L&F is maybe a little too minimal for anything at all substantive) that also operates in a unique way compared to many other games (minimalist or otherwise).

This is a really interesting question, and I think I agree on the minimal necessary rules to play an rpg: risk, randomness, character

I think with FKR there is a fuzziness between two notions of minimal: 1) The minimal amount of rules used in play at any time. 2) The minimal amount of rules considered a required part of the games’ rules system.

I’m very interested in minimal or even anti-systems approaches. I would define a ‘system’ as an interrelated, required, and shared set of rules established prior to play and assumed to be used throughout play. (I totally admit to making up this definition! Not saying this is the definition of system in rpgs, but how I’m using it here to nail down a particular concept.)

But I would argue that being in favor hyper-minimal systems, does not necessarily imply that one has to be committed to a hyper-minimal set of rules in play. Instead, you have cleared away most/all systematic limitations on when and how you might choose to use a rule or procedure. (This parallels the classic FKR player facing vs ref facing rules distinction.)

When I look at a lot of the hyper minimal rules sets that come out of the FKR scene, I often see them as statements regarding what is the minimal amount that needs to be agreed upon prior to play and exist as a shared ruleset at all times. In that case, I think you could see, ‘agree on what happens’ as a legitimate statement about the shared system established prior to play. I agree that’s not enough on its own to really play. But, with the assumption that that is not a limit on the rules used, but merely a limit on the required rules/system, it makes more sense.

Arguably, the most minimal shared system you can have prior to play, is a shared acknowledgment that everyone participating will agree on what happens.

Then to actually play the group/the ref will need to bring in rules to handle risk, randomness and character, but those could theoretically change from instance to instance.

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What is the minimal set of rules that suffices to define a character and establish a random mechanism for adjudicating risk?

“Decide what your character is like before playing. When you want to do something risky, flip a coin to decide what happens.”

There, I wrote the rules for you. Probably, a strict editor could shave off a few words, but it’s close enough.

The problem is that we’ve constructed a tautology here.

You’ve asserted that a game requires rules, risk, and randomness, and that an RPG requires character definition, without really establishing that any of those things are true.

I’ve written terse rules that fulfill those requirements, so if you’re correct, you could say I’ve just written the most minimalist RPG possible. I doubt that I have.

Remember, “big” and “small,” “minimal” and “complex” are always relative. What Gygax and co. called a “dungeon”—multiple floors with dozens of rooms—is now something we would recognize as a “megadungeon.”

I can tell you that one of my most treasured RPG experiences was played without randomness, and with very little risk or character definition. Crucially, it was played without rules.

I’ll quote from what I wrote about it on my blog:

My favorite memory from around this time is going on a long walk around my neighborhood with Max, during which we improvised an entire duet game without any rules or dice.

He simply asked me, “What is your character’s main goal?” I said the first random thing that came to mind: “To have the world’s best tomato garden.”

Max said, “A thunderstorm comes along and the flooding kills all your tomatoes. What do you do?”

From there, I resolved to seek out the highest mountain in the land, climb it, and kill the sky.

To get to the mountain, I had to enter a forest of bioengineered flesh trees, avoiding government security helicopters that seemed to want to defend the forest from entry. I encountered some sort of flesh-tree baby, who initially followed me around like a child before trying to kill me. Finally, I climbed the mountain, screamed at the sky, and got struck by lightning. I descended the mountain and returned home feeling that I had discovered, in some fashion or other, true wisdom and humility.

Pretty much my thought there, its a relative judgement.

I agree that I’ve basically laid out a definition of a game, and have asserted that it is my definition of a game. That’s certainly a tautology. (With examples).

Your counterpoints are interesting. I suggest, however, that your example does not lack randomness. Rather, it relied on the interplay of two people - you and your friend - to introduce for each of you a “subjective” randomness as I defined that above. You couldn’t read each others’ minds or predict each others’ ideas, so you had a game.

If only one of you had been speaking, you would have had a story, lacking any randomness, which possibly also would have lacked the engagement and interest of the game you actually played.

Circling back to my original post, the few comments so far have driven me to re-evaluate what I previously criticized as ‘too cute.’ Actually, “agree on what happens” does provide risk, subjective randomness, and a minimal rule. So … yeah, I guess that is a game, even by my own definition!


Fair enough, I had forgotten you said that, but I think double-blind games (that’s the term you’re looking for, by the way) have properties distinct from random games.

In any case, my main point is that one can demonstrably run a game without rules, so your initial question is fundamentally flawed insofar as it assumes rules are required.

It might be interesting to run a game without rules, if that’s possible, but your example clearly had rules - in that you and your friend still are friends after the game, that implies you followed normal rules of conversation and social mores during the game.

I think my hang-up was that I had a constrictive definition of ‘rules’, and your comment really helped me re-evaluate that. Thanks!

I would say you’re moving the goalposts here, but you’re right, you never established the goalposts. I had assumed you meant “rules” as in “rules text.”

I’m playing a “game without rules” right now on a private forum. It’s like an early mspaintadventures game where everybody plays the same character and takes turns chiming in and giving instruction. Then I interpret and move the story forward.

I’m not positive any of the players are having as much fun as I am writing it, but they keep coming back and it’s been going on for a couple months now.

So that ongoing experience questions even your basic assumption that every player needs a character. (Rather, that every player needs their own character.)

Although maybe what we’re exploring at this point is the distinction between a “game” and “storytelling.” It’s highly possible that what I’m doing is not a game, but just fiction.

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It does seem like this discussion is trending toward a “What is a game?” argument, which is notoriously thorny (especially among videogame developers).

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Fwiw, as author of ‘Agree what happens’ (I.e. Ultimate) I’d say this:

My definition of game, in the context of RPGs and general play, does not require risk, randomness, or rules.

To me a game is an instance of play.

Kids play games like house, pirates, Lego. I used to play a game called Star Trek where one of us would be data and the other would be worf and we’d go around pretending to shoot phasers at weird aliens. No rules, no randomness, no (real) risk.

If a game is an instance of play, then Ultimate isn’t a game, nor is any RPG text. Ultimate is a very small framework for how to play games. So small that it is meant to undermine our ideas of what RPGs need to provide in order for play to take part, or whether they are required at all.


This makes a lot of sense to me. And, in the way you describe, a text like Ultimate does a lot of work in a very short space. Just reading it as rules to a game, the reader almost cannot help but imagine themselves attempting to play a game based on the text, and, quite possibly, realizing that they require far fewer rules, far less of a system, than they would have thought to play a game.

And reading the above replies, I’d have to agree the a game, full stop, does not need to include randomness, rules or risk. I’d also revise my previous reply and say an RPG doesn’t always need those things either.

Beyond pure questions of definition, a very valuable aspect of texts like Ultimate, and similar FKR works, is to ‘rip it up and start again’, a la punk/conceptual art/dada/etc. By removing many of the assumed inherent elements of a song, artwork or game, they not only question the definition of such works, but open up the space for new designs that aren’t based on these preexisting assumptions. They clear away limits from the creative field that many might not have even noticed were there.


I like this approach to looking at games, framing mechanical things as toolsets to achieving said games makes the conversation far more clear.


The subject of imaging from mechanics as you read them is also a very good point, I wonder if posing rpg work, in writing or in actual play, as fundamentally a conversation between player and play or reader and author would be a useful way of looking at things? Certainly I think it would be a useful additional facet too look at things through beside plain analysis of mechanics. What conversation is the text holding?

Hoo, got a bit heady there. And also looks like we ended up where Tim said we would in what’s a game territory :stuck_out_tongue:


This is off topic really, but fwiw I’m not a fan of the ‘tools’ analogy for RPGs either. Tools implies problems and solutions to me, and working towards a goal.

I prefer to think of them as toys, or ‘playsets’ or something.


That totally makes sense! Widgets more than tools.

I agree re:considering an rpg text a kind of conversation between author and reader or written text and (imagined or ‘real’ (ha!)) play is a good way of looking at rpg texts.

I.e. instead of abstract mechanics, what does this text do in the context of the conversation of the game? how does it shape the interactions we have and the forms of play we imagine?

Thinking about it this way also helps to account for a lot of the ‘soft’ guidelines that are so important to many games - principles and agendas, but also intros, advice, and even the tone of the reading and the art - you can really look at a book or PDF as a whole through this lens and ask, ‘what does this thing want us to do?’

This also shifts the questions around what constitutes a ‘game’. I agree with Oz that a text is not a game, the game is what you do with the text. But a game-related-text could really in this case be anything that calls for and guides that act of gaming.

haha, yes, very heady :cyclone:

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