An RPG Lexicon

This is a glossary to the RPG Lexicon series of blog posts, articles describing the terms I find useful for creating and evaluating works of RPG writing and design, and for describing play. Some of these terms originated elsewhere, in the wider industry and hobby; some I've coined myself; some are hybrids. They are, collectively, a design tool. A few notes going in:

  • Many important terms are still absent from this glossary, pending their appearance in the Lexicon series.
  • The glossary presumes familiarity with basic hobby terms (GM, campaign, the difference between the player and the PC etc).
  • Many of these terms come in pairs: "strong" vs "weak" characterization, "ephemeral" vs "reliable" resources, etc. In every case, paired terms represent the contrasting ends of a spectrum, even when I write about them as discrete entities to keep from drowning in qualifiers and asides.
  • Every term is hyperlinked to the most relevant article on Rolltop Indigo or the Blue Room. If a term seems unclear in this abbreviated form, refer to the relevant articles. If there's still more to explore, my inbox is open.



Characterization: The revelation of a fictional character's nature. In design context, this usually refers to the potential of scenario or setting material to be characterizing. In play-analysis context, it's about exploring events that were.

Cold: The metaphorical temperature of a lot of published RPG material. My own design ideals tend strongly toward the warm, though I regard cold as crucial for providing contrast and sweet, beloved asymmetry.

Creative Problem-Solving: When the Player Characters solve an in-game problem in ways outside the rules, systems and procedures defined in the Visible Rulebooks (frequently by employing ephemeral resources), that act of problem-solving is creative. Contrast to mechanistic problem-solving.

Ephemeral Resources: In-world assets without objective, defined functions in the Visible Rulebooks, assets which rely on the Game Master's discretion when the characters employ them. For example, a given NPC may have a known fondness for Yoo-Hoo brand artificially chocolate-inspired beverage, without any explicit Visible Rulebook definition for what "a fondness" mechanically entails, but which PCs might still leverage to entice that NPC. Contrast to reliable resources.

Invisible-Leaning: Can refer to both games and styles of play. Invisible-Leaning gaming assigns more importance to the Invisible Rulebooks than to the Visible Rulebooks. It's worthwhile to note that importance is critical to the definition while quantity and density are not. Some Visible-Leaning games are 'rules-light,' just as some Invisible-Leaning games are 'rules-heavy.' In an Invisible-Leaning game, mechanistic problem-solving (solving problems according to the game's rules, systems and procedures) is an exceptional form of play, while creative problem-solving (the use of Tactical Infinity) is the norm.

Invisible Rulebooks: A metaphor for the knowledge and experience available to each gamer, to illustrate that a Game Master's rulings, and a player's or player-character's tactics, can draw as much from the knowledge and experience of the gamers responsible as from the use of the Visible Rulebooks. The Game Master's use of the Invisible Rulebooks are what makes Tactical Infinity possible, and are thus crucial to the nature of the Traditional RPG and some neighboring forms.

Mechanistic Problem-Solving: When the players and/or Player Characters solve an in-game problem according to the rules, systems, and procedures defined in the Visible Rulebooks (frequently by employing reliable resources), that act of problem-solving is mechanistic. Contrast to creative problem-solving.

Reliable Resources: In-world assets with objective, defined functions in the Visible Rulebooks, which the player can rely on as accurate when the character employs them. For example, a given set of rules may specify that an old machine gun has a 1% chance of misfiring (which jumps to 15% when the gun is wet or dirty), statistics the player may reliably factor in to tactical decisions. Contrast to ephemeral resources.

Strong Characterization: In-game characterization (q.v.) which reveals more private, intimate truths about the PC.

Systemless RPG: An uncommon form of TTRPG, largely identical to Traditional but played without Visible Rulebooks.

Tactical Infinity: The freedom of the Player Characters to attempt any tactic to solve a problem, subject to the adjudication of the Game Master. Tactical Infinity is unique to games with a trad-style GM, and so is present in both Visible-Leaning and Invisible Leaning trad games, as well as D&D games, OSR games, and systemless games. It is not present in storygames (which replace it with directorial/authorial modes of play), and is typically irrelevant to theatrical forms.

Tactical Roleplaying: Roleplay fused with gameplay, so that in-character nature, in-character choice and in-character actions determine important game outcomes. Correlates strongly with Invisible-Leaning play.

Theatrical RPG: An uncommon form of TTRPG, where players roleplay, but PCs aren't faced with problems to solve. The roleplaying is thus non-tactical, similar to that in more Visible-Leaning forms of trad, D&D and OSR play.

Trad: Short for "Traditional [Roleplaying Game]."

Traditional Roleplaying Game: The once-standard form of tabletop RPG, where each player speaks and makes decisions largely in-character, and the Game Master shoulders the rest (including portraying and determining everything about the remainder of the gameworld, and providing the sensory input for the PCs). Structurally, stylistically, socially and/or modally distinct from other forms of TTRPG. Everything I write about RPGs is specific to the traditional RPG, and typically does not apply to neighboring forms. I also find it useful to consider the spectrum between Visible-Leaning and Invisible-Leaning Trad, and my work enjoys an enthusiastic bias toward the latter.

Visible-Leaning: Can refer to both games and styles of play. Visible-Leaning gaming assigns more importance to the Visible Rulebooks than to the Invisible Rulebooks. It's worthwhile to note that importance is critical to the definition while quantity and density are not. Some Visible-Leaning games are 'rules-light,' just as some Invisible-Leaning games are 'rules-heavy.' In a Visible-Leaning game, creative problem-solving (the use of Tactical Infinity) is an exceptional form of play, while mechanistic problem-solving (solving problems according to the game's rules, systems and procedures) is the norm.

Visible Rulebooks: The literal rulebooks used when playing RPGs. The Player's Handbook and Monster Manual, for example, are two of of the Visible Rulebooks used when playing the current edition of D&D. The four-page Risus: The Anything RPG PDF is a Visible Rulebook used when playing Risus.

Warmth: A thoroughly subjective concept which applies to every facet and layer of RPGs, from the organization of rules to the boxes on a character sheet to the beating heart of roleplaying and adventuring. As it's one of my core design ideals, I mention it a lot. It defies tidy definitions, partly because it's many things, none of them "tidy." Tidiness is cold.

Weak Characterization: In-game characterization (q.v.) which reveals only shallow, surface aspects of the character (their favorite abilities, for example, or whether they're "good guys" or "bad guys" in broad terms).


By and Copyright ©2018 S. John Ross.
Part of Rolltop Indigo.