This is a subject that has taken up much of my brain space in the last few months: is it possible to create a roleplaying game that plays like a board game but does not involve miniatures or complicated rules?
Let me unpack that a bit.
I’ve always seen board games as being a medium of gaming that appeals to just about everyone (genre and play style depending). Roleplaying games, however, have often only appealed to a small sub-culture of board gamers – often overlapping with card and board games that could be described as “nerd games” (you know the ones I’m talking about). But many board games are already adopting roleplaying concepts to make their game feel more immersive, or have more of a cohesive story. What if roleplaying games made similar strides by playing more “board game like” and appealing to a wider audience? Or, what if there was a board game that taught players how to role play?
That last part is what really catches my interest. A board game that teaches you how to role play, that shows a board gamer how fun our sub-section of the hobby can be, but without saying that taboo word “roleplaying”. A board game that helps players create their own story, one that’s based on characters and that is led by character actions, but that is not a traditional roleplaying game.
What I’m really talking about is a roleplaying game that plays like a board game to surreptitiously get board gamers to try roleplaying games and not know it.
How Would a Game Do That?
I believe the first step would be to define what board games and roleplaying games are. For clarity, I believe that card games and board games are similar in regards to the following definitions, so I don’t differentiate between the two.
Board Game: Players take turns making moves that follow specific and consistent rules that cause the character to move towards a goal or overcome a setback.
Roleplaying Game: Players make decisions based on the personalities and abilities of their characters to influence the narrative of the story.
Note that these definitions are my working definitions only. I don’t presume to set the definition of game terms all by myself. Since definitions of terms can often be what differentiates one game from another, I don’t see the culture having different definitions for the same terms as a bad thing – it’s what sets apart different gaming styles.
My theory is this: if you design rules that work within both of those definitions, you will create a game that follows specific and consistent rules for everything you do, but that serves to create a narrative that is unique, based on decisions the players make that are made available as options because of their character’s personality and abilities.
That’s a lot. Here’s a shorter version, in plain terms: roleplaying games tend to have ‘fudgey’ rules (y’know, the golden rule of roleplaying: if the mechanics get in the way, ignore them), while board games have specific and consistent rules that are rarely (if ever) broken during play (the idea is to follow the rules to determine a “winner”). If a designer were to take the methods of determining how a narrative were described (but not what was actually described), and made them play consistently by detailing specifically how to do everything, without the need for a rules arbiter at the table (aka “Gamemaster”, aka “Table Bully”), then you would have a roleplaying game that plays like a board game that fills the narrative purpose of a roleplaying game. A create your own story board game, if you will.
Who Would This Be Appealing To?
Certainly not died-in-the-wool role-players – we’ve already been enlightened to the wondrous world of the RPG. I believe it would be most appealing to board gamers who have the potential to be role-players, if roleplaying didn’t have the “geek-nerd” reputation in common social circles (thankfully that reputation is dying off, to a degree – I credit Vin Diesel coming out as a gamer).
Such a game could help grow the hobby by being a bridge between board games and roleplaying games (though admittedly working more on the side of the “story game” sub-culture of roleplaying games [so many sub-cultures of sub-cultures…I don’t even want to get into that]).