Words are like eggs or stones or balls of wool: how (much) I like to talk about tabletop RPGs

If tabletop RPGs depended on large community discourse to survive, the hobby would have vanished  a long, long time ago. Local, often face-to-face conversations, are the main context where we exchange thoughts about our games. Online, often written posts, are a secondary context where people frequently shout into the void.  Therefore, it's relatively impossible to make any general statement about RPGs. Words struggle to find a common meaning that could be useful in preventing issues that maybe lots of people have. And although it's likely that we can't all be that much different, it's even more likely that the average role-player doesn't care about RPG discourse, but only about the unspoken dynamic happening inside his or her regular group.

And for the not-so-average role-player, the hegemony that one particular brand has over the RPG landscape, easily leads people into talking about the whole hobby as if there was only one way to go about it. RPG is about DMs and adventures and equipment and gaining levels, right? Because essentially we have just one game we can play and we have to make do with what we've got, right?  Or maybe it's a lot more murky than that, maybe it's simply DM-centric: RPGs are about whatever the DM says they are about. On one hand, this simplifies the discussion by a lot. But on the other hand, this creates its own discourse, its own share of problems that stem from putting a single person in each group responsible for so much. And unfortunately these problems become monetizable memes. They are things people keep making videos, jokes and articles about, issues that are not fixed by digging to the root of the problem, but only managed by the meme culture that actually thrives on them.


Therefore, talking about RPGs in all their plural potential is a conversation that walks a thin line between a wall of silence and a wall of noise. The silence calls to us because a lot of what we love in RPGs is unspoken, that's what makes those unique moments shared with our group so special. Kind of like, if you have to explain the joke, it stops being funny. Plus, it's so easy to be misunderstood and maybe spoil the fun for everyone. And the noise also calls to us, it's maybe what brought us to the hobby in the first place. We understand the memes and the characters that everyone loves from that livestream everyone watches. We like to follow the ocasional drama, perhaps it even makes us feel better about some problems we also have in our own group. There is a lot of comfort in that which is familiar to us, even if we feel something is not working or could be done much better.

So, as we do or don't talk about RPGs, we can use words like balls of wool to put forth little more than the stories we weave about our own personal experiences. These are essential threads that connect us on a very human level, but they're also personal recollections that aren't really about what happens but rather reveal how we remember moments of play. And we very much need these fluffy balls of warmth. But beyond the comfort they offer, their contribution to the RPG discourse is limited to phrases like "just have fun", "talk to your players" and "it depends on your group". Not that these statements are not true, but they surely are not new and don't build towards anything. Instead, they are reliable conversation-enders.

We also use words like stones to transfer the weight of the past into the future, to pave the way forward using the same pieces of broken road that got us here. Again, these are important ties. In particular, stone-like words in RPG discourse bind us to how roles were played long before role-playing games, to a time when wars were very much simulated by humans and not computers.

the hegemony that one particular brand has over the RPG landscape, easily leads people into talking about the whole hobby as if there was only one way to go about it

Verbs are important to these machinations and therefore things have to be "run", "allowed" and very much "handled". Working with clear authority, you survive and thrive given the resources that you have. Stones are a time-tested way to construct something relatively solid and safe. In fact, some stoneworks are very impressive, huge crowds gather to witness such marvels.

I also like to think that we can use words like eggs in RPG discourse to break out of our shells and give birth to new ideas. Living things are weird and fragile. Unlike a ball of wool or a stone, an eggs is unpredictable. Life can be disgusting but also surprisingly beautiful. It can end abruptly in a messy explosion or it can seed unexpected and everlasting consequences. This life doesn't thrive on its own, it presumes openness and companionship. And sometimes it fails or only succeeds for a moment, but it does try to reach for the sky. Indeed it's full of irony. Egg-like wordplay is unsafe and uncomfortable. Statements like "play to find out", "say yes or roll the dice" and words like "GM-full" or "host" are not ground-breaking, but they can be crossroads and bridges that lead us away from the home of our RPG parents.


However, we should not make the mistake of trying to shove words into categories. The point is rather that one word can have many possible meanings depending on how we see it as a ball of wool, a stone or an egg. Take the word "narrative", for example, a kind of popular term that has lost any precise meaning when talking about RPGs. And you can use it just like that, as a ball of wool casually thrown around without much care for where it falls. Maybe it's just something you've heard and repeat in a context where people can't question what you mean. You type the word, hit send and close the app. "It's too narrative for me", for example, is just another way of saying "I don't feel like playing it". Maybe you come back to the discussion hours later to find that some other people spent a lot of time debating whatever you meant, but you don't have time to read all of that. It's just a word, it doesn't have to mean anything too specific, right?  And you still have the option of coming back to the conversation to maybe share some experience you had in the past that kind of explain what you meant, since it's all very much subjective. In the end, you can string out your "narrative" until this word loses any recognisable shape.

These are essential threads that connect us on a very human level, but they're also personal recollections that aren't really about what happens but rather reveal how we remember moments of play. And we very much need these fluffy balls of warmth.

On the other hand, a stone-like "narrative" grabs the word as if it was an enemy weapon and repurposes it for the war effort. For that, we actually build towards defining what we mean, but we do so from already existing foundations. "Narrative", out of the hegemonic legacy that we carry forward, can have a few different meanings. It can simply be a response to how these so-called "narrative games" are perceived by the big war elephant in the small RPG room. They seem to have less pages, less rules, less stuff all together. If "narrative" is "lightweight" the elephant can do that as well, or some of its children can. But we can also actually take something from the dictionary definition and try to see how stories are handled in traditional RPGs. "Narrative" can be about narration then. Somebody tells a story and other people witness a tale that maybe they can color within the lines. So perhaps a narrative game is one where you almost roll no dice, because dice interrupt narration. But we also like rolling dice, so maybe there's a more specific meaning we can carve out of this word. We can always look to the other side of the same coin and have zero narration. It can be a kind of emerging "narrative" if we simply simulate a universe that responds to the actions of the players and any story that eventually appears is accidental. Either way, we always follow the time-honoured tradition of the gatekeeper that stands between the players and whatever shared imaginary space we have at the table. The gatekeeper can block any real input because that means rolling dice and that goes against "narrative". Or the gatekeeper can allow all input, respond as if running through a simulation and then any "narrative" is pointed out after the fact, perhaps in some blog post.

Working with clear authority, you survive and thrive given the resources that you have. Stones are a time-tested way to construct something relatively solid and safe.

What happens then if we remove the gatekeeper from between the players and the shared imaginary space? What if everyone can use the game to fulfil a role within the creation of whatever fiction we envision at the table? Sounds very fragile, right? Like walking on eggshells. But there is a lot of unique potential that RPGs can literally bring to the table if we embrace "narrative" together with authorship. And authors know that stories can have a life of their own. We can sit down to play and we can all be surprised by where the "narrative" takes us.

This life doesn't thrive on its own, it presumes openness and companionship. And sometimes it fails or only succeeds for a moment, but it does try to reach for the sky. Indeed it's full of irony. Egg-like wordplay is unsafe and uncomfortable.

The job of an RPG can be to make sure that no single person gets to tell the whole story. And therefore everyone has to pitch in, one way or another. Eggs don't hatch by themselves. But when they do, that moment is always rewarding in a deliberate and unexpected way. That drive towards purposeful story is what can classify a game as "narrative". It's not because somebody weaves a tale for everyone else. And also not because somebody can eventually find some interesting story inside a running simulation. A "narrative" game is a tool to create stories at the table by design and not by accident, as there is a remarkable difference between aiming at serendipity and relying on randomness. However, finding that difference is not guaranteed. Ironically, "narrative" games can fail at producing a good story just as much as other RPGs that don't drive towards it. In fact, they can fail in even more spectacular ways because there is no gatekeeper to save the day. But, in a way, that's also "narrative", to make a meaningful choice knowing all the risks and accepting that you will have to brave the consequences. It's also what "fun" can be if it happens to be used as an egg word. It's the potential for transcending ourselves.


A deeper reason why we should not keep words in boxes is because our language aligns with how we think about things and even how we feel about other people. However, categories can help us think about reality from a different perspective in our minds. Even categories are just words themselves. A shelve for our tools is also a tool and it can be something other than a shelve. But to say that everything is relative is also putting everything inside a category, a choice that can be questioned like any other. So, it's easy to squint at these little metaphors and say that there's not much difference between eggs, stones and balls of wool. Eggs are just badly repurposed stones. Stones are just self-important balls of wool. But even if they were pretty much the same, imagining how they differ can help us explore the edges of ideas like "running a game", "narrative" or "fun". And going on those adventures leads us to meeting other people on the road instead of shouting at them from afar.

Without our sprawling balls of wool, people may feel like they can't join the conversation. Without our stacks of stones, people could feel like they might be wasting their time. And without our mysterious eggs it's possible that people might feel bored? But this whole perspective is probably biased towards the questionable power of egg words. At the very least, it's leaning towards how I like to talk about RPGs, by using different words to maybe lead us into broader paths where the unique potential of these games can be discovered. In particular, it's not like presenting a story that people can interact with isn't already being done in theatre or videogames, for example. What no else is doing is having the kind of useless creative moments that role-players can bring about by coming up with a story together in a shared imaginary space propped up by a good RPG. Useless moments because they mostly have no value beyond what people there perceived in those instants. Was there a story? You'd have to be there to know.

A "narrative" game is a tool to create stories at the table by design and not by accident, as there is a remarkable difference between aiming at serendipity and relying on randomness.

So how can we put that into words? First, if indeed a good RPG is one that tries to make sure no single person gets to tell the whole story, how can we give it a chance? Since it probably does so by assigning different tasks or complementary roles around the table, it might help replacing words like "game-master" with "host". That way, we don't start reading an RPG with some already assumed baggage like "creating the world is what the GM does". Let the game make its case. Maybe there's different parts that come together to form "the world". Maybe everyone at the table is a player but wears different hats, maybe these are particular functions that fit the kind of story this particular RPG is offering. Furthermore, by focusing on who is "hosting" the game, we don't pretend like this all works without at least one person (preferably more) investing the time to learn it. It's not all sunshine and rainbows. Without a host, there is no game. Without two hosts, the inherent position that one person is placed in promotes the existence of a surprise gatekeeper. Without three hosts, possible disagreements on how person A or B feels like the game is supposed to work are harder to resolve. Point is, the more hosts the merrier, but inevitably someone always stands out. So, it's still a singular noun, the host. A word that precedes the game but doesn't also put itself in front of it.

Brief pause to address the voice in your head that goes "yeah, that's too confusing, you'd have to know a particular RPG to have some idea of how it works, that's elitist". I agree. That's why we still have stone words when we need to worry about target demographics, marketing, putting food on the table, a game's popularity, etc. But we also have egg words for when we're not trying to sell anything to anyone. You can treat it like a thought experiment. What would happen if tabletop RPGs really brought about something uniquely precious to the world? Something that has its difficulties but is always fascinating? The problem with "host" is that it creates a void that only this or that RPG can fill, if people actually want to pick them up. It doesn't help you sort out products in your local games shop and it won't make people buy your game. It's a terrible word for RPGs. And also perfect.

Here's another word that jogs together with "host". If a player has a character, that's a "protagonist". How messy is that? How can every player character be a protagonist? Well, first of all, y'all need to play in smaller tables. If a game is good, it should be manageable to host, we should have more hosts and therefore an 8-person table can be two 4-person tables. Second, we need to see the world and the characters that play in it together and not as two sides of the GM's screen. The reason we play a game is precisely because we can have these kinds of complicated interactions: the player characters are built out of their world and the world that gets played is the one that matters for these characters. Yes, this is another "lol! TL;DR" word. No, you can't have hosts because lol, players TL;DR the game. No, you can't have protagonists because lol, players TL;DR even what the game is about. I get it. Let's pretend we're living in an utopia then. You deserve to indulge in hosting games and having protagonists. Other people want this as well, believe me.

Ironically, "narrative" games can fail at producing a good story just as much as other RPGs that don't drive towards it. In fact, they can fail in even more spectacular ways because there is no gatekeeper to save the day.

Another rather unsurprising trinket in this bag of linguistic little tools is to exchange expressions like "my players" or "my GM" for just "we", that person's name or the label that this RPG gives to that specific role. So it's not "my players always derail my sessions", but "we're having trouble coming together on what we'd like to play". It's not "my GM", but either your friend Joanne or "the Producer" or "the MC" as offered by the game. In this way, you nudge yourself into never giving up your agency or other people's agency into what you're playing. And you also don't let whatever RPG you chose to play off the hook. No, the books says there's this role that is an important part of the game, so they don't get to wave their hands and just drop some nebulous concept on your lap. What's this "Keeper" thing, what do they do and what tools does the game provide for them?

Without a host, there is no game. Without two hosts, the inherent position that one person is placed in promotes the existence of a surprise gatekeeper. Without three hosts, possible disagreements on how person A or B feels like the game is supposed to work are harder to resolve.

And as a final example, there's a word that I like to assign a kind of double-duty, but only because it skips an unfruitful question: does system matter? It does, but the question itself can be enough to justify that "lol! TL;DR" perspective that is perhaps too cynical. So I often replace words like "rules" or "system" with "game". Rules are the stuff you don't read and system are things that get in the way, but there's no denying that you play games. Or you don't, that's fine too. But if you do, there's a way in which you do so with your group. And that's your system, but perhaps we can't call it that because you don't want it to be systematic. However, even if it's just "the DM ultimately decides", that is still a system. And in spite all the murkiness it can entail, the way in which you play does matter a lot. My suggestion here is that we can also be a bit murky and milk the word "game" for all it's worth. And focus on pushing for good games as tools that can work well for people. Let's demand better games before demanding more from the people that host them. In other words, we run the risk of focusing too much on the host or the group, to a point where not enough pressure is applied on games to get better. Not on books to get prettier, not on distribution to work faster, on the actual game itself as a design solution that we can use to really play what we'd like to play and get an amazing experience.


In conclusion, ignore everything I've said. And specially, don't try to force people or something they've shared  into any of these categories. Instead, maybe use stones, eggs and balls of wool to think about your own ideas on RPGs. And maybe make up your own metaphors for how your words best serve you when you think about how your session went or try to express how you feel about a particular book. Personally, I would say that every kind of word and how we use it has a place on RPG discourse. But among stones and balls of wool, I feel that eggs can most easily be lost if we don't spend some time on them once in a while. Even if it's just shouting those words into the void like I'm doing right now. So thank you for reading my words, maybe you can get back to me with some of your own. I wish you all the best. Take care and have fun.

Ricardo Tavares

Ricardo Tavares

I love tabletop RPGs, want to see them grow and therefore do a lot of work for the Portuguese role-playing community. And also publish my own games.
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