What is a minimal roleplaying game?

I may as well note that Jesse Schell has a few definitions in The Art of Game Design

  1. Fun is pleasure with surprises.
  2. Play is manipulation that satisfies curiosity.
  3. A toy is an object you play with.
  4. A good toy is an object that is fun to play with.
  5. A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

There’s an entire chapter in the book devoted to reaching these definitions, but you can probably still find points to disagree with.

I’m also partial to Ben Esposito’s definition of game design: “Game design is about creating fake problems and funny constraints for people to solve them.”

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Also, I discussed some points similar to this in the “Some debate on the role of the designer” thread.

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The Esposito definition could be extrapolated to play to explain the Suits model using less jargon :stuck_out_tongue:

“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].”


I like this. It reminds me of something @bastionland once said (off the cuff): “A game is a series of interesting decisions.”

One of the reasons a game like Candyland doesn’t work for me is the absolute lack of agency on the part of the players, who don’t get to make a single meaningful decision throughout.


This is a really interesting topic that went into some interesting directions. When I started reading I thought I have a lot to say about it, but as I reached this point it looks like a lot of my thoughts were already discussed. But here’s my leftovers :wink:

This April Fools I made the Deluxe Kriegsspiel Roleplaying game, and while it was clearly a joke (a take on the free/premium dichotomy) it is also an actual set of “rules” I use for my games. I just add more procedures/toys as needed. Sure, It is nowhere as minimalist as @ozbrowning’s Ultimate, but it is an actual set of written rules I give new players to my games.

The rest is invisible rulebooks.

It’s those invisible rulebooks that really make the game. You can have a 500 page manual of super-crunchy-rules and roll as many dice as you want, but it will still be understood, that if you play a knight in medieval fantasy you can’t simply lift the attacking giant and throw him into space. It’s not a part of the genre/established world, so it’s not a part of the game.

Of course, there might be some loophole in that 500 page book that if you roll all your dice just right you will be able to do it. But, doing so is not in the “spirit” of the original game and I would expect that someone will veto you. If not, you are no longer playing the roleplaying game, you’re just playing the rules. Anyway, I am going on tangent now…

So yeah, that 1-bit-dungeon, Ultimate, my joke ruleset and the diceless example above work on the same invisible rulebook idea. There can be a be a lot left unsaid, because it is ‘understood’ by the players. This makes for a minimalist game text, but the game itself is really infinite.

Honestly, that 500 page book is probably using a smaller infinity than the minimalist ruleset.

I had some clever point here, but it’s getting late and it seems I lost my train of thought few paragraphs ago :sleepy:

I know I wanted to mention Parsley games and text adventure games (which Parsley emulates) as an example of minimalist approach without randomness that can give you a RPG-like game experience, especially if the “genre” fits. Just say what you do, receive yes or no answer with some flavor text. Then I was going to do some comparison between the limits of parser games and the infinite stuff mentioned before I think.

Anyway, RPG games work because we agree on bunch of stuff about the game subconsciously. Even more true for minimalist game texts. As long as there are interesting decisions to be made - we can have fun.

Feel free to ask follow up questions, I will try to remember all of this when I’m awake :wink:


So, here are some elements we’ve identified that games seem to have at a basic level:

  1. Problems to solve and/or goals to achieve
  2. Elements conducive to a “playful attitude”
  3. Prohibitive rules and/or “funny constraints”
  4. Interesting decisions

Now we can return to the question that started the thread and rephrase it a little: “What is the minimum you need to play a role-playing game?”

…Or can we? We still haven’t attempted to define what distinguishes role-playing games as a genre.

  1. Presumably, you “play a role,” but…
    1. Does it have to be a well-defined role? Does it count if you are “role-playing” as an unnamed leader of an organization, or as a troupe of barely-defined PCs?
    2. How many “out-of-character” decisions or “dissociated” mechanics are allowed before the game is something else entirely?
  2. Traditionally, it’s something you can play without any computers or other complex technology… But is that a hard-and-fast line?
  3. There’s often some kind of “Game Master” or “referee,” but some corners have pushed back against this.

I have to admit, I’m coming up with this as I’m writing it, but it seems to me that the distinguishing factor of RPGs is the use of those “invisible rulebooks” that @Von_Bednar describes—or, to put it differently, an RPG is a game that uses to human brain to simulate significant aspects of the game. (The advantages, for anyone familiar with the limitations of computers, are obvious.)

Okay, let’s try again. What’s the minimum you need for an RPG?

Well, you can establish a problem and some constraints in one fell swoop by establishing a player-character or player-organization with motivation and limited means. Then, you can simulate the world around that character/organization with your imagination.

It might take some light work on your part to keep the game feeling playful and to present interesting decisions, but not too much, I don’t think.

What do you know? It looks like the most minimal possible RPG might actually be a solo game that you make up as you go along.