Metaphoric Rules in Role-Playing Games

2 minute read

It is very common for role-playing games to extend rules meant for one thing to cover other fields. The archetypical example of this is using combat rules for other conflicts.

This has been the standard way of building rules since Dungeons & Dragons started extending rolls beyond hitting things. First, it was resistance rolls, then skill rolls, when adventuring needed to include things beyond monsters in damp caves. But the overall structure of things remained: you roll a D20 and add some bonus (possibly negative) to see if you succeeded. This is extending the original combat rules beyond the scope they were originally designed for.

Dungeons & Dragons isnโ€™t of course the only one to do it. For example, White Wolfโ€™s Exalted also takes the rules designed for combat and extends them to include verbal conflict. Unlike D&D, they seem to do it consciously and fully aware of what they are doing.

What Exalted does, it uses combat as a metaphor for dialogue, with rules that superimpose the moves used in combat to dialogue. The book lists all the moves that are available in combat, and give a similar list for moves you can do during verbal conflict. Verbal conflict is seen as metaphorical combat, with swings, parries and dodges mapped on to arguments, counter-arguments and evasion.

Another game that does this consciously is The Mountain Witch. The Mountain Witch uses combat as metaphor for everything, and explicitly says that it does so. Everything in the game is a battle against something. The ronin (anti)heroes of the game are opposed by the rain beating down on them, rocks trying to make them fall down cliffs and, of course, by opponents with intentions themselves like bandits. The purpose of this metaphorical mapping is to emphasize that the journey up the mountain is constant struggle.

A metaphor is โ€œa process by which we understand and structure one domain of experience in terms of another domain of a different kindโ€ (Johnson 1987). Usually it is about understanding something more abstract through something more concrete. In Exalted verbal conflict is understood as physical combat, and in The Mountain Witch all conflict is understood as physical combat.

All of these examples are about mapping other things through physical combat. This makes sense, because physical combat is reasonably easy to imagine, even if most of us donโ€™t have personal experience of it. It is also concrete, because it is physical. We have an easier time understanding things through our bodily experience.

But not all metaphorical mappings need to be about physical combat. We could also imagine it working the other way around, with rules meant for something else mapped onto physical combat.

But as far as I know, there are no examples of this. If anyone manages to come up with any, I would be interested to know.