Role playing games vs. board games

I've been thinking deeply about the difference between board games and role playing games. There are some games that have been blending the lines between board games and role playing games (and vice versa) that I've been exploring what the distinctions between the two are.

(Note: this isn't about saying one is better than the other. This is more about observations in game design.)

Games like Gloom of Kilforth (et al) and HEXplore It are games that provide a "dungeon crawl" experience. There are monsters that need to be dispatched, quests to be completed, and characters that you are directing (whether one or multiple characters). They're the closest I've found that have synthesized the experience of a dungeon crawl. There's no game moderator involved with the game, and many of the events are random, but they synthesize these elements together to make a compelling game.

Micro Chapbook RPG is a solo / cooperative role playing game that pulls together random events into a dungeon crawl experience. There are several versions (book only, a card game, and a board game). Most of them use the same mechanics (random tables) and strings together these events to forge a solo and cooperative RPG experience.

In many ways these games share a common DNA: random events and character sheets (HEXplore It even has dry-erase character sheet). What I find fascinating is how these games blur the distinctions between RPGs and board games.

So what is the difference between these games?

The first difference between board games and role playing games is modularity. With board games if you tweak the rules the gaming experience can change dramatically. If you remove the quests from Micro Chapbook RPG you only remove one of the over-arching focuses of the game. You can still have a dungeon crawl with the game. If you remove quests from Gloom of Killforth or HEXplore It then the game are drastically altered. RPGs tend to be more forgiving with modifying rules. Some rules may be optional, or may be removed outright.

The second difference between board games and role playing games is a win / lose condition. In Gloom of Killforth there is a time-limited end condition (once the Night deck is exhausted the game ends). HEXplore It also has an end condition where the game can be lost. In Micro Chapbook RPG there is a win condition (you beat the boss) but you can then take that character into more and different situations. I don't think that's true of the other games (please correct me if I'm wrong).

The third and most major difference is about interactions with other characters. The board games have limited rules for interacting with in-world characters. The one major interaction you have with them is killing them and taking their stuff. Gloom of Kilforth does allow you to overcome characters with other attributes like Influence, but the interactions are limited. You couldn't try to reason with an automaton using the rules as presented (though some might argue that one can't reason with a machine). Micro Chapbook RPG doesn't have explicit rules for interacting with characters, but it wouldn't be hard to add those rules to deepen the experience. If you add those sorts of rules to Gloom of Kilforth they don't really add anything to the experience of the game; it just delays the win / lose condition of the game.

What makes this interesting is that there are well-known RPGs that have win / lose conditions. Call of Cthulhu has a very clear win / lose condition. One can argue that in most Dungeons and Dragons games that there is a win condition. But one thing that RPGs have is interesting losing conditions. If you lose at Call of Cthulhu you can still feel like you had a meaningful gaming experience. I'm not sure if that's true of some of these board games. If you lose at Gloom of Kilforth then you just reset the game and try again.

I know this is a little scattershot with a bunch of different thoughts. I have other thoughts about these games. I've also been exploring Mythic, which offers a deeper roleplaying experience than Micro Chapbook RPG. I'm also playing with Ironsworn and Utopia. I'm sure I'll have more to say on this topic, but I wanted to start the conversation about this.