I'm completely new to the concept of role playing games, and have sadly always perceived them as very board-game-oriented with a great emphasis on memorization of rules and lore. In other words, confining, procedural and uncreative.

But yesterday I came across the "Acquisitions Incorporated - PAX Prime 2013 D&D Game" episode, and I was thoroughly enjoying watching the two hours of it and continued with the 2014 episode.

The 2013 episode had a board, but 99.99% of the story was storytelling and imaginative. The 2014 episode was entirely without board/dungeon-type restrictions, and ventured through an open landscape, but had a more controlled linear narrative.

I've tried to search and read online about the different genres, but there's so much information and I'm not sure where to start.

What is this genre called? I love improvisational theater (or games, rather?) when it is practiced off-stage (i.e. playful storytelling between the group members without regard for an audience).

Is it pure D&D? Or a branch of it?

Also, bonus question (which borderlines to a 'recommendation question' which I realize are not welcome here, so feel free to ignore it): Is there a similar type, but with a more sci-fi approach?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPGs! So, based on your question it sounds like you may be thinking of D&D and RPGs as synonymous. While Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular tabletop RPG in play, it is hardly 'typical'-- viz. D&D does not make a good 'normal' for what RPGing is like and describing systems in terms of what makes them different from 'pure D&D' is not really a good place to get started (but it is a common one!). I'd recommend you look at What is role playing and where do I start \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29, 2017 at 8:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! What I meant by that sentence was: They're obviously playing D&D. But is it pure D&D? Or is it "unpure"/branched out, mixed with another style? Especially due to the absence of a board entirely in the 2014 episode. (and the question was therefore: what is that style so I can learn more about that first, before learning about D&D) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29, 2017 at 10:19

2 Answers 2


One reason that roleplaying games are popularly associated with boards, grids and miniatures is that those provide something visually distinctive to show on TV. Unfortunately, TV simplifies and stereotypes almost everything, especially activities that its journalists think are "geeky."

"Theatre of the mind," playing mostly by verbal description, is a style of play, rather than a genre, and can be applied to almost any genre of RPG. It's extremely common in narrative-focussed games, such as Dungeon World (which covers the same kind of genre and tropes as D&D, while having wildly different mechanics). Simulation-focussed and "gamist" games have to be able to work with it, because every game will have elements of it:

Even in the most hardcore D&D, nobody sets up terrain for every stretch of a journey from town to a dungeon. Instead, the GM asks how you're travelling, and quite often you just get there, having fast-forwarded through a few hours of travel. If the party is likely to get attacked on the journey, the GM may ask the players to set up a travelling formation on a grid and then position opposition on it, where he thinks they'd be when spotted, relative to the party.

Grids and combat on a map are naturally important to dungeons, because they're quite small spaces, often with quite a lot of creatures involved in a fight. That makes positioning and lines of sight tactically important, so a detailed map and miniatures are a natural solution.

For games where the characters aren't spending most of the playing time in confined spaces, maps and miniatures are a lot less important. It's quite common to play without m&m most of the time, but set them up for large fights or other tricky situations.

Some GMs never use them at all; a sketch-map on paper can be used to show the players a situation that's confusing to describe verbally. I've been playing a WWII occult-secret-agents campaign for the last nine years that has never once used miniatures, in spite of using a fairly complicated game system that supports them thoroughly (GURPS 4e).

If a game can't be played without a grid and miniatures, it may be a wargame with RPG elements rather than an RPG, but the boundary between those is pretty fuzzy anyway,


The concept you're looking for is called "theater of the mind," though it's important to note that this is not a genre of roleplaying; it's a play style that can be applied to most (if not all) tabletop RPGs, regardless of genre.

D&D and its various offshoots are designed in such a way that they can be played with either a simulationist style, or a more abstract narrativist style. Many other systems are also equally compatible with both styles. When we say "simulationist" or "narrativist" we are using those terms as they are understood according to Ron Edwards' GNS Theory. It's important to note that while the simulationist style typically involves employing maps and miniatures (with or without grids) to orient players in the game world, the two styles are not intrinsically linked in anyway. Likewise, while games that employ the abstract narrativist style often employ theater of the mind, there is nothing preventing you from playing a narrativist style game using maps and miniatures. GMs can and should mix and match these styles of play as appropriate to maximize the enjoyment for their gaming group.

Back in the olden days, before D&D was D&D, it was called Chainmail. Chainmail was derived from the simulationist wargames of the period, that more closely resembled games like Warhammer 40k as opposed to the D&D of today. The key to running a game successfully with a particular style is the experience of the GM, not the system itself: the GM needs to have the experience to know which of the system's rules to use, and which ones not to use. Many simulationist systems' rules can be rather cumbersome when the game is played in an abstract narrativist manner. Likewise, in a game utilizing the narrativist style, often times the GM must adjudicate a situation in which there are no built-in rules that resolve a particular conflict and must make something up. This scenario also calls for experience.

There are also some games which are almost entirely abstract completely lacking traditional number crunching and dice rolling. One of my personal favorites is Dread, which is a survival-horror RPG that uses a mechanic which is nearly identical to but legally distinct from Jenga. You set up the tower of rectangular blocks, and when it comes time for you to make a significant decision, you pull a block. If you succeed in pulling the block without the tower falling, your character succeeds. Conversely, if you fail to pull the block, your character fails.

Also, bonus question (which borderlines to a 'recommendation question' which I realize are not welcome here, so feel free to ignore it): Is there a similar type, but with a more sci-fi approach?

I've had success running both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun via theater of the mind, though I certainly wouldn't categorize either game as being light on the rules. In fact, Shadowrun in particular is often criticized for being extremely obtuse with a rather steep learning curve. Again, the real crux of the matter is the GM's experience with the system and knowing which rules to use and which ones to throw out for the sake of pace. There is no substitute for good old fashioned experience. The reason that Chris Perkins, the GM for the Acquisitions Incorporated campaign, makes running the game look so easy is because he has been working for Wizards of the Coast since 1997, and has been designing tabletop RPG adventures since before that. He basically helped create the latest incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons, and is essentially the official "Dungeon-Master-in-Chief."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Although this is a good base for an answer, it focuses very narrowly on more traditional roleplay systems. For example, there is no mention of the Apocalypse World based games, including Dungeon World, which are extremely narrative heavy. In fact there is a whole class of narrative based games where theatre of the mind is the assumed default style of gaming that you haven't mentioned at all \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Jan 28, 2017 at 13:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs Feel free to make an edit, or write your own answer. While I have played Dungeon World, many of the systems to which you are referring I have little to no experience with. I based the answer on the systems I knew, and used the statless/diceless question that I linked to be the primary reference to more abstract/narrative-based systems in addition to a personal recommendation (Dread) which I have played extensively. Not everyone can be an expert on every system ;-) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28, 2017 at 14:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I made an edit attempting to address both of your concerns. Let me know what you think! After I've satisfactorily addressed your comment, I will attempt to address Wibb's comment. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29, 2017 at 5:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems more accurate, yes! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29, 2017 at 6:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Many thanks indeed. I was not aware that what I was doing had a name, just calling it "systemless". Great answer! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 30, 2017 at 8:14

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