rpgs as toys


A friend sent me a link to this cool thing. It’s basically a canvas for playing with simulated physical objects. There’s no point to it, no explicit goal, but I spent ten fun minutes just moving stuff around in that box. I made up some little games in my head with simple goals like “fill up the canvas with bouncy objects,” “create a new shape using only the gravity controls.” I spent more time thinking of other games that could be played with it, then put it away.


It’s a toy. A toy provides a structure for play. Sometimes, that play happens in the context of a game (a set of procedures for furthering an externally imposed agenda), but sometimes it’s purely exploratory. A toy might constrain or suggest certain types of play, but it doesn’t tell you what to do with it, or what the goal of your play should be. A toy can be used to play games, but it is not itself a game.

Another example.

A basketball is a toy. There are lots of distinct games you can play that involve a basketball, and there are lots of ways to play with a basketball outside of any game. On the rare occasions on which I play basketball, that play is very similar to the type of play I engaged in with the cool thing: I bounce, throw it, kick it, maybe make up short, simple games like “make a basket with a granny throw,” but mostly I’m not playing a game at all, I’m just playing.

Anyway, maybe you see where I’m going with this, but when I was playing with the cool thing, I was thinking about what we call “role-playing games,” and began trying to understand them as toys rather than games. This shift in perspective resolved a tension I’ve been holding in my head for a long time.

If you evaluate traditional RPGs as games–and that’s how they present themselves–they fail miserably. They are defined by the absence of procedure, and they fail to assign a coherent agenda to the players. There is no measurable outcome, aimed for or achieved, as described by the text of the game. Traditional RPGs are terrible games. And so are basketballs.

Both are interesting and versatile toys, however. When you play with an RPG, or with a basketball, you might or might not be playing a game. Actually, the behavior of an RPG play group is often similar to a group of friends casually tossing a basketball while chatting. Neither is playing a game, per se–they’re just playing. 

Sometimes, RPGs and basketballs are used to play games, but using a toy to play a group game is a negotiated process. With a basketball, this negotiation is easy–everyone acknowledges that the basketball is a toy that can be used for many games, and so if a game is to be played, it must be defined. If it’s not negotiated clearly, there’s immediate discord.

RPG-based play happens in at least as much variety as basketball-based play, but the use of the RPG-toy is rarely explicitly negotiated. RPGs can be really fun toys to play with, but it’s hard when you want to play horse and everyone else is just tossing the ball around.

Story games and the toy-game conundrum

A characteristic I’ve noticed in “indie” RPG design is a focus on making better games, mostly by (1) prescribing procedures for play, (2) assigning a common agenda to the players. And that mostly works. They are much, much, much more successful games than traditional RPGs. But they’re frequently worse toys.

So, as a child, I played with stuffed animals and action figures a lot. I didn’t play games with them, I basically used them to act out little stories. My favorite toys were the most versatile ones, the ones that put the least restraint on my play. Lego figures? Yes! I can put different capes and hats and pants on them, I can make them move in all kinds of different ways. Karate chop action? Boxing nuns? Hungry hungry hippos? The worst! I vividly recall my childhood resentment towards these toys that would dare tell me how to play with them.

Anyway, in this context, I have a much easier time understanding the resistance entrenched traditional gamers feel toward story games. Lots of people, I think, don’t want to play games at all. They just want to play, and they want toys that are easy to play with.

Since writing this, I’m seeing the limitation of delineating between “traditional” and “indie.” Better to say “things that impose [procedural] rules and goals” and “things that don’t.” And to recognize a continuum between the two.

The point of drawing this delineation or continuum is that it provides multiple modes for evaluation. Something that seems poor when evaluated as a game may shine when evaluated as a toy, and vice versa. Awareness of these multiple modes of evaluation is another tool for designers, esp. with regard to presenting their design.

More discussion and clarification at http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/19980/rpgs-as-toys