In board gaming, there are fairly clear "families" of game which are broken down by a combination of mechanics, play style and audience. We might talk about "party games" for instance, and there are groups that rejoice in names like "point salad", "waro", and "block games".

These won't mean anything to do you if you don't play board games, and that's fine. I'm just trying to get across the idea that people in that scene like to draw relationships between titles that are distinct from just "fantasy", "sci-fi", "superhero" or some other thematic label.

My question is: are there any similarly accepted labels for game groups when it comes to role-playing? It seems there is for particular kinds of indie game like "one-shot" or "world building". But within the vast bulk of moderately complex, campaign-focused games that are the cornerstone of the hobby, are there any widely understood "families" that gamers refer to?

I am particularly interested in how such "families" might be used to introduce new players to the world of role-playing, so have tagged this as such.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is something like GNS theory what you are looking for? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 12:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion Yes. That's very much the sort of thing although I was hoping for slightly narrower groupings. Are these labels commonly used in role-playing groups nowadays? \$\endgroup\$
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast No, I'm specifically looking for groups other than theme-related ones. I don't care who uses any given system, publishers or players, just interested into popular schemes that are widely understood. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that RPGs are a smaller market than board games, and RPG market share is concentrated on a much smaller number of games. Any classification is necessarily going to be rough due to the smaller sample size, and there won't be many commonly accepted terms for categories since most RPG players have probably only heard of D&D and maybe World of Darkness. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 20:55

5 Answers 5


You've said in comments to the question that the GNS theory groupings are rather broader than what you're looking for. From there, it pretty much goes directly to specific system families for the next level of granularity, such as the d20 system, BRP family, PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse), Fate, Savage Worlds, etc.

These designations clearly identify the core mechanic (e.g., d20 system games resolve tasks by attempting to roll over a DC on a d20+stat+skill+modifiers) and imply others (d20 games tend to have the same six base attributes, each with a normal human range of 3-18, though PCs may be able to get higher values), but each can be used in a range of genres/settings and game styles.


A couple of the core distinctions in "traditional" campaign-oriented RPGs are between point-buy and random character generation (usually called exactly that) and between skill-based and class-based (also, in my experience, usually called that). For instance, classic D&D (prior to 3.5, at least, possibly as late as 4th edition) was a class-based, random-generated RPG, while GURPS and Hero System are point-buy, skill-based systems. Modern (5th Ed.) D&D is a point-buy and random-generated hybrid, with both options available, but is still mainly class-based (skills are used, but advancement is by class level based on experience awarded for adventuring).

Some of the "modern" RPGs don't fit in either of those classes on either criterion -- for instance, Fate works through a completely different mechanic. I'm not sure if there's an "accepted" class name for games of that kind, but I think of them as "story telling" games.

There are also a limited number of "diceless" games -- Amber Diceless is probably the best known.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ A class-based game can skill have skills as a "core mechanic". The distinction between class-based and skill-based is the advancement method, not the presence of skills. In a class-based game, the characters improve in a class and their abilities are tied to that class. In a skill-based game, the skills improve individually. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ No argument, but my examples still fit. I haven't played most of the games newer than 1990, but there aren't many that blur the distinction between skill based and class base and still stay in the "traditional" category. Numenera/Cypher System is the only one I can think of. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ The part you edited is the phrasing I objected to. Have a +1. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ My first thought for an example is RoleMaster. The game is skill-based for all practical purposes, but advancement is level-based. The primary function of level in RoleMaster is to give you points to spend on your skills and, in most variants, to provide small bonuses (usually +1% or +2% per level) to class-related skills. Class is still important, though, because skill costs are based on your class. (e.g., A Fighter can buy weapon and armor skills at a lower cost than a Wizard.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 8:15

The GNS theory, despite being controversial, is wildly1 used. It breaks down games into Gamism (main goal to win), Narrativism (characters are central pieces), and Simulationism (recreating, or inspired by, a genre or source) sub categories. However, most games have a mix of all three and cannot be said to neatly fit into one category.

As Zachiel kindly pointed out, the GNS theory doesn't categorize rule sets, it categorizes specific game instances. Then, a rule set might help achieve one of those, or it might try to help several (technical term: incoherent game), which is a bad thing in the eyes of the GNS authors because it creates incompatible goals.

As a side note, you might look at the Bartle taxonomy of player types as well, which of course, is controversial as well.

Another categorisation is by system, or related systems. Taking a well known system, or set of systems, and making comparison to that. For example, it's a D&D-like world but with the Cypher system instead of D20.

1: Curse you dyslexia! Still, I find the "typo" funny so it's staying.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nitpicking: the GNS theory doesn't categorize rulesets, it categorizes specific game instances. Then, a ruleset might help achieve one of those, or it might try to help several (technical term: incoherent game), which is a bad thing in the eyes of the GNS authors because it creates incompatible goals. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd argue whether GNS theory is wildly used, but I think I'd agree with "widely" even less so. \$\endgroup\$
    – eimyr
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 15:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @eimyr I actually think that wildly is an apt term (: \$\endgroup\$
    – xDaizu
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 16:27

It might not be obvious for people who are unfamiliar with board gaming, but the types of categories the OP cites as examples are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, a given board game might be a "point salad" AND a "block game" if it includes the requisite aspects of both.

RPGGeek has a page that identifies a number of mechanics categories for RPGs, including "Skill Based," "Class Based," and "Diceless" which Zeiss already mentioned. This list is hardly conclusive, of course, but it's a good place to start, I think.

A few other categories of interest, mentioned there:

  • Exploding Dice: Dice rolled may "explode" into a second roll under given circumstances.

  • GMless: Game system does not require/include a "Game Master."

  • Cards: Game system uses cards as a randomizer (possibly in addition to dice, possibly instead of.)


Didn't spot these elsewhere, so a couple more categories of distinctions:

  • Rules-heavy to Rules light

    The distinction is mostly based on how much the game requires use of the system's conflict resolution and/or imposition of the setting limitations. Generally, a balance is desirable.

  • Collaborative vs. Narrated

    This axis describes how much of the setting is controlled by the players.

    Extremely collaborative games might not even have a distinction of a leader role like a Game Master/Dungeon Master/Storyteller/Whathaveyou, a bit like those round-robin collaborative writing exercises.

    Extremely narrated games would be like a CRPG where there is one set of choices, completely predetermined.

  • Themes

    The sort of topics covered in the game story. Same as in literature, really: Scifi, Fantasy, Heroic, et alis.

Then, of course, there's Fun: Boring, Tedious, Frustrating/constrained, Too easy, Epic, and other such descriptions can be meaningful descriptors as long as you use them consistently, subjectivity notwithstanding.


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