The tabletop gaming hobby is full of technical jargon and abbreviations that may not always make sense to the casual observer. In other cases, there can be differing interpretations on what exactly a given term means. In the interest of clarity, I’m offering up my take on some of the more common or confusing terms I plan on using. I will end up adding additional terms as they crop up in future articles.
RPG: Short for “role-playing game,” and the primary focus of this blog. In traditional RPGs, a number of people gather to collectively engage in a fictional world, guided by a Gamesmaster, and with each other participant taking up the role of a single character. Some games vary from this formula, and lead to difficulties in establishing a completely universal definition. The best definition I’ve ever found goes along the lines of “Cops and Robbers for people to old to play Cops and Robbers.”
Tabletop RPG: This is a variant form on the basic form of “RPG,” and serves as a reminder that the discussion is focused on a the genre of game originating out of Dungeons and Dragons and similar activities, as opposed to, say, video games of the RPG genre. Tables need not be involved.
GM: There are a lot of terms for this role, from Dungeon Master to Storyteller, but many carry specific baggage or assumptions with them, so I use the generic Gamesmaster (sometimes written Games Master, Gamemaster, or Game Master, it doesn’t really matter). The GM is arguably in charge of the shared world that the events of an RPG, but ultimately takes a cooperative role with the other participants to ensure the game continues and everyone has fun (some GMs see themselves placed in a more adversarial role, but that is a discussion best saved for an article unto itself). As part of this role, the GM is often considered to be a different kind of participant than a “player.” The “PC” and “NPC” entries go into this a little more.
PC: Not related to personal computers. In the context of tabletop RPGs, the term PC means “player character.” In most cases, each player other than the Gamesmaster has a single character under their control, as their personal avatar. This character is their PC. All other characters are NPCs (below).
NPC: An NPC is a “Non-player character.” Pretty simple, honestly. Any character controlled by the GM (who, again, is not considered to be a “player” in the normal sense) is an NPC. By necessity, this is an extremely broad category, and can include extremely minor bit players as well as major figures who figure prominently in the game’s events.
System: This term is primarily used in two ways. In the first, it refers to the rules by which aa given game operates, that regulate or restrict the fictional world in which the game occurs. Alternately, it can refer to any complete framework used to play a game, such as Dungeons and Dragons, Rogue Trader, or Exalted. In this context, a system contains rules like those in the first definition, and may also contain a specific setting in which those rules are intended for use.
Setting: The setting is the backdrop for the events occurring in an RPG. It can be detailed or vague, but always enables a degree of grounding for what can or cannot occur and still provide for a coherent sequence of events. For examples, ray guns tend not to show up often in settings focused on the swords-and-sorcery genre, even if most details are left open ended. Settings are often attached to specific systems, but many groups mix such elements independently of the developer’s assumptions (such as using a system intended for Star Wars to depict some other science fiction series), and “homebrew” settings are also common among those with the time and inclination to develop them.