The Intrinsic Impossibility of RPGs

There is a deep and intrinsic problem at the core of all table top RPGs. The goal, the mission, the objective at the very heart of it all is to get a group of people to all imagine the same place/thing/events. 

But you can't do that. We're all alone inside our heads. We've all had different experiences and exposures. No matter what, no one else will ever truly imagine the liminal space of the game world, or its characters and events in the same way you will. And this fact captivates me because we try anyway, and sometimes it even feels like it's working. When you get into an imaganitive/creative groove with other people, it's a downright magical experience.

What this means, I think, is that the Dungeon Master/Referee/Game Master/Facilitator/Judge/Whatever must first and foremost be an Evoker. The DM must evoke the play world inside the minds of multiple, separate, isolated intelligences. And it's fucking hard.

Props help. Minis, and maps and physical objects that everyone can see and touch and experience can help. But I think they can also constrain and distort and have their own baggage. And you can have music and sound effects and smells. But it all gets complicated quickly, and I think special effects like that have to be done very carefully or they can work against the "suspension of disbelief" (but is that the right phrase for this?) and pull you too far out of the imaginary world.

The core of the evocation is with words. 

As Bryce Lynch over at tenfootpole always talks about the "interactive loop" and its critical importance to play (Taken from the first post I found searching "interactive" and "loop"): 

No, listening to the DM is not the core D&D mechanic/loop. EVERY RPG thrives on the interactivity between the players and the DM. Back and forth. The DM presents. The players respond. The DM follows up. Then the players. And so it goes. Short. Bursty. Interactive.

And when the DM presents, he's got to present the world evocatively. He's got to evoke images in the minds of the other players. But how the shit do you do that?


This really is the key. "The orc is hurt." No. Not specific. These are better:

    • "The pig faced orc's left arm has been cut deeply. You can see the white of his bone."
    • "The priestess of the moon holds up a dagger with a curved blade. Her eyes narrow."

To be fair, it can be really fucking hard to do that at the table, under fire as a DM. So how can you keep up the specificity? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Throw out that conlang. Some people know that Tolkien's "Barad-dûr" means "Dark Tower". But if you're playing with English speakers, everyone is going to know what "Dark Tower" is. No one is going to know what the "Buci pidaii" is. No one will be able to imagine a "Buci pidaii". It's just noise. Everyone can imagine a "Dark Tower". They'll imagine it differently from each other, but they can at least paw at each other's imaginations in the fog.

  2. Try and pick specific notable features for your NPCs. It doesn't have to be a lot, and I say, approach it like a painter. There are tons of paintings of Athena out there, and even though many of them are depictions of different naked ladies, we know it's her because she's got that helmet, and gray eyes, and maybe an owl, or the aegis. We know that naked dude is Heracles 'cause he's draped with a lion skin cape in some form or fashion. The inn keeper can be imagined in 50 different ways, but if everyone can include his "pot belly" and "scar over his left eye" they get closer to syncing up their imaginations.

  3. Chimeras and "known monsters" work best. Don't get me wrong, it's good to have "set piece" monsters that are strange and unknowable. But the more Lovecraftian lumps of alien flesh you have, the harder it is for players to be on the same page. Pictures can help, but even if it looks cool, I don't think it sticks in the brain well once the picture goes away, if the viewer cannot readily articulate what they just saw. Like the NPC point above, the creatures need something that can be fixed in the imagination. We know it's an angel because of the beautiful white, feathery wings. A beholder is an eye, and mouth, eyes on stalks, and beams of dangerous magical energy. Chimeras work great. It's got the head of a frog but it's covered in silver scales like a fish, and it has bright yellow raptor talons for it's hands and feet. Versus "It looks like it used to be a dwarf." 

 I feel like I have more, but it's late and I'm going to hit publish! #blogging


  1. Really interesting to see someone thinking about perspective in RPGs as I think it's often overlooked part of the experience. In my own GMing I've been leaning into the "impossibility" aspect, accepting different perspectives as not more or less true than others (including my own). So if I ask a player what they see when I say there is an orc in front of them, and they describe their own vision, that feels valuable to me.

    In your first example of seeing the orc, you use that very common phrase 'you see' - which is this interesting example of how often when we are running games we take on the ability to control the very perceptions of the characters (not saying you are doing this, just as an interesting feature of gaming).

    Look forward to seeing any other thoughts!

    1. In instances like that I think it's critical to do so. To clarify, I said "you can see". It's absolutely going to be "you" because "you" are the conduit between the character and this world.

      The very important distinction though I think is: This instance of "you can see" is occurring after the characters have interacted with the world. They have wounded the orc. Badly. The situation has changed. The white bone is now visible.

      The places that sort of control is bad is when it comes as a read-aloud, or the setup of a scene. Where the players enter a room and the DM starts telling them how they feel, or how their characters are responding, or how their characters perceive, judge and then react (in a single chain). That's where it's bad form.

      Player: "I bang on the door"
      DM: "You see it open. It makes a horrendously loud creak."

      That's a good situation/exchange imo. (Also, most of the people I play with use "I" when referring to their character, so I think it's only natural to use "you" in response, now that I think about it). They player did something in the world. The world responded. The DM describes the change.

      DM: "As you walk into the room you see bones on the floor. It looks like they've been etched with some sort of acid. The smell is over powering and you feel the icy hand of terror creep up your spine."

      No. That's bad. The DM should just describe the bones/acid/smell. The smell shouldn't be "overpowering" (unless there's some sort of failed roll). The DM shouldn't say the character is scared because that's up to the player. They may be playing a necromancer, who's actually excited to see useful resources lying around.

    2. That makes a lot of sense - it's almost like the 'you see...' is an indicator of something that has changed or shifted in the gameworld rather than specifically describing their physical perception.

      There's something interesting in this whole point as well about how much you lean into the individual players' perspectives. I ran a game where a medieval carpenter was trying to see if a house fire had been started from the outside or inside. Instead of making her roll and then telling her the correct or incorrect answer, I instead asked what she saw when she looked. She told me it had been started from the inside for certain and her and her group began to behave as such.

      In this way her character's perspective became the truth they were working with, my own as GM wasn't the only "correct" or "objective" perspective in the situation. I sometimes feel this is the default position in a lot of RPGs: there is an objective world somewhere that the players are interacting with; personally I am not sure this is true or at least not fully true.


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