Spectrum of Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying Games can be and have been sorted into many categories, placed onto many spectra or categorized based on very different aspects. And as I want to analyze some systems on this blog, I thought it would be useful to have a spectrum to use as a basic way of categorizing games.

Categories and Spectra

Many people have already defined categories or spectra for roleplaying games. There are definitions like  “Rules Light” vs “Rules Heavy”, “Fiction First” vs “Rules first”, “Storytelling Game” vs “Detailed War Simulation”, “Story focused” vs “Character Focused”, “Dice Based Conflict Resolution” vs “Alternative Conflict Resolution Mechanics”, “Fate Like”, “DnD-Like”….

So the amount of categories, that already exist, is enormous. Most of them mean similar things of course, but I still want to find something that I can use to differentiate different systems.

Let’s focus on what most these definitions want to differentiate. For me there are two extremes in roleplaying:

  1. Games, where the actual rules are only guidelines of the game, and the focus lies on the roleplaying aspect. Most of the play sessions are more reminiscent of improv theater, than of actual gaming. 
  2. Games, where the rules play the most important part, and the focus lies more on the gaming aspect. Most of these focus heavily on tactical decisions and analysis, rather than the playing of a character on a roleplaying level.
Extreme 1 would be the “Rules Light”/”Fiction First”/”Storytelling Games”, while extreme 2 could be described as “Rules Heavy”/”Rules first”/”Detailed War Simulation”.
And between these two extremes, we can generally find everything else the RPG-Hobby has to offer. Of course there can be alternative differentiations (see remaining definitions), but for now we will use this spectrum between the two extremes of improv theater and tactical simulation as our guideline.

Defining Extremes

So let’s try this out, by sorting some systems.

A good way to start, is to find games, that would be close to these extremes.

“Improv Theater”: The first games, that spring into my mind, are storytelling games, that have minimal or no rules for conflict resolution. Some examples are “Fall of Magic” and “Fiasco“. Interestingly enough, they are both cooperative, and a GM is not needed. But as you are still roleplaying as a character in these, they should definitely be part of the spectrum. If we wanted to be precise “Fall of Magic” would probably be more left on the spectrum, but as they are both rather similar, in their approach to roleplaying (in being cooperative storytelling games), they are probably good examples for the left extreme of the spectrum.

“Tactical Simulation”: This extreme is way harder to pinpoint, at least for myself. Which might be because I tend to play more on the other half of the spectrum, but I will try based on my reading. A good contender might be the first “Dungeons and Dragons” , or similar, where miniatures are, or can be, used to evoke a more tactical battlefield feeling. Especially considering, that the very first set release of D&D in 1974 used the rules from the wargame “Chainmail” for combat resolution. And therefore also the heavy set of rules coming with it.

Spectrum for Roleplaying Games

Moving on the spectrum

To allow placing games on the spectrum, we do not only have to know, which games are similar to the extremes but also define characteristics of these extremes. Which will allow us to move games further to one side or the other.

“Improv Theater”: We defined this one with “Fall of Magic” or “Fiasco”, cooperative storytelling games with a minimal set of rules. Therefore we can conclude some characteristics:

  • A light set of rules. If there are rules, they are not in the focus and not interrupting the natural flow of the roleplaying.
  • The focus lies on telling a story, be it about characters (“Fiasco”) or a world (~”Fall of Magic”), that may not be known to anyone previously (e.g. no GM, story develops while the game is played).
  • Less frequent conflict resolution. Conflict resolution focuses on important moments (e.g. outcome of a whole scene in Fiasco) and often abstracts over resolution of smaller problems (E.g. every swing of a sword)
  • Interesting Characters: There are ways to create unique characters or ways to find out about characters and their flaws, problems, and feeling
  • Rewarding Roleplaying: There are mechanics that reward roleplaying and explicitly ask for it (indirectly in Fiasco or Fall of Magic by the fact, that the good story is the reward and that there is nothing else to do besides roleplaying)
“Tactical Simulation”: We defined this one with “Original D&D”, heavily based upon wargames with a detailed set of rules.
  • A detailed set of rules. Allowing complex tactical and strategic conflict resolution.
  • Focus lies more on the conflicts of the world or a story, that is defined by obstacles and enemies, which primarily will be defeated by combat (e.g. the typical dungeon). 
  • Detailed Conflict Resolution: Conflict resolution is used for many details in a scene and is detailed in itself (e.g. called shots, maneuvers).
  • Fairness through Rules: Conflict resolution follows strict rules to allow for consistent tactical and strategic possibilities for the players to engage with.
  • Interesting Conflicts: There are ways to create interesting conflicts or obstacles, that the players have to triumph over using the game mechanics (e.g. traps, boss monster, etc.).
  • Rewarding Gaming: Mechanics that reward good game mechanics sense and the proper use of the complex tool set given (e.g. Experience for slaying monsters, avoiding traps with a ten foot pole)

Example: Shadowrun

Now that we have our extremes, we should try to place games on the spectrum.
Let’s try Shadowrun.
We suddenly encounter a few problems.


There are 5 different Shadowrun Editions, with differing setting and more importantly differing rules. First Edition Shadowrun was published in 1989 and 5th Edition more than 20 years later in 2013.  This is a massive difference not only in time, but also regarding the people, that worked on it. And this does not only include major changes in the setting, which got much more modernized, as the world around the writers got more modern (e.g. wireless aspects), but also changes in mechanics. Before 4th Edition dice were rolled against a target number, counting the dice above the number to determine if the action was successful or not. With 4th Edition, it changed to a threshold system, that counts how many dice are a success (5 or 6 on d6) and if this number is above the threshold would determine success.
In general the trend goes to a more streamlined experience, making hacking or altering the system easier, as rules are simplified.
Therefore we kind of have to treat versions of the game differently and separately place each of them on the spectrum.

5th Edition Shadowrun

So let’s try this with 5th Edition. In comparison to “Fiasco” or “Fall of Magic”, Shadowrun has a lot of rules. There are many rules for actions in combat, including different fire modes for guns, rules for hiding behind cover,  elemental damage, different armor types, called shots and the infamous scatter rule for grenades. Of course some of them are rather optional and can be house ruled over, but we will look at the game as rules are written. In total there are around 60 full pages of combat or combat related rules in the corebook of 5th Edition. But there are more in the many supplements of Shadowrun, that can be bought separately. These can truly be seen as optional and we will exclude them.
In total we have a very detailed combat rule set with complex rules, which tends to put Shadowrun more on the side of tactical simulation.

Additionally the main reward for the players in a game of Shadowrun is Karma, which basically are experience points, but with a fancier name. Karma is given to players if their characters complete a mission (or run). Therefore the main reward structure rewards gaming over roleplaying.

On the other hand though, Shadowrun offers a vast amount of detail in character creation. Positive and negative qualities, different races (or metatypes) and a very detailed list of skills and specializations for these skills allow the player to make his character quite unique. Additionally, the setting and the book itself always emphasize that combat should be avoided and is or should not be the focus of a game of Shadowrun, as it can be quite deadly.
These points move the game quite a bit to the left end of the spectrum.

So where do we end up?

A roleplaying game is more than a set of rules and a setting. And therefore, it is hard to specify objectively, where we end up with Shadowrun. Consider the following:

Variance within a system

How Shadowrun finally feels for the players is not necessarily the same for all groups. Some groups might focus more on the roleplaying aspect and actually avoid combat, therefore moving the game for them more to the left. Others might actually enjoy the detailed combat and avoid “deeper” roleplaying moments with their characters. 

Weighing the Facts

This is, where subjectivity starts to matter. Aspects of the game might overshadow others for some people. For example, the sheer amount of combat rules might be too much for anyone who likes the more roleplaying focused aspects of the game or the setting. Therefore he would probably place it farther to the right, as it objectively might be. While others, really enjoy the roleplaying focused elements and are only mildly bothered by the immense combat rule set.
Even if we placed Shadowrun on the spectrum using rules as written, someone else might place it somewhere else, because of their preferences. To be objective, we would have to place a whole range on the spectrum, for all experiences Shadowrun might be able to give, but this would be ridiculous.
Therefore we will do this based on my experiences and values. Hopefully a certain comparability between systems will still be given.

My Evaluation

For me, as I tend to play more on the left side of the spectrum, Shadowruns combat rule set is too heavy handed. Even if the setting, the mentality and the character creation are all very engaging, the thought of having a “small” fight and then using more than an hour of real time on the resolution of the fight, is more than upsetting.
And as detailed as the character creation may be, it mostly offers more rules (e.g. a quality just gives a higher dice pool in many situations).
Therefore I would place Shadowrun very far towards the right end of the spectrum.
Spectrum with Shadowrun placed

Future Posts

In the future, I want to analyze some systems in more detail and will use this spectrum to give them some context. So this post was a first of some setup posts for the more detailed posts. The next, that will probably follow, will be a general post about conflict resolution.
If you have any ideas, thoughts, criticism about the blog, the content of a post or other stuff that you think I might be interested in, leave a comment or write a mail at info@nightmaresundertrees.de.

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