Slides from the talk I gave at the 2014 FDG Conference.
Much of the literature on role-playing games (RPGs) focuses on their social, performative, experiential, and/or narrative aspects. The emphasis is on the playing of the roles, as it were, and less so on the game mechanics. Curiously, the phrase ‘RPG elements’ tends not to refer to the role-playing aspects of the genre, but to the rules, systems, and mechanisms that have been co-opted by other game genres and ‘gamification’ practitioners. In this article we unpack the term ‘RPG elements’ by examining a single element: mechanisms and systems for character progression in paper and pencil RPGs. In these open ended games, player-controlled characters’ capabilities change. Characters usually get better; though sometimes they get worse. We describe different ways positive and negative character progression systems are implemented and the role they play. We also discuss some differences we observe between paper and pencil RPGs and those played electronically. We conclude with thoughts on the utility of breaking down ambiguous terms, such as ‘RPG elements’ into smaller, clearer units.