Characterization, Action, and Resolution

Phyllotaxis_computer_modelI’ve been thinking about the core, basic mechanics of roleplaying games recently. It seems everyone has their own unique theory on the basic particles that make up a roleplaying game universe, but I was taught that in order for a model to be worthwhile, it needs to offer some sort of insight. Hopefully I meet my own criteria.

To summarize, I believe there are three ‘core’ things a player does in a roleplaying game. Characterization, action, and resolution. Everything else; combat, story, adventure, is built from these three core aspects. Lets see if I can’t break this down a bit and show you what I mean.


By characterization, I mean all the ‘fluff’ of a character or an environment. Everything that provides insight, flavor, and color to the world without actually directly effecting the story. Two PC’s talking back and forth, that’s characterization. The filler information the GM provides on the town, city, or forest around the player is characterization.

Characterization is obviously necessary from a narrative standpoint. It applies context, flavor, and ‘realness’ to a setting. Many players love characterization, but it’s important to recognize that it doesn’t actually advance the game. At some point, you need to move forward to action.


Action takes place whenever a player does something with the intent of moving the story forward. Swinging a sword, sneaking into a castle, or negotiating with a king are all actions. 

Note that characterization can sometimes look a lot like action. If my barbarian warrior decides to go to the tavern to booze it up because that’s what in his character, that would actually probably be characterization rather than action. If, instead, my warrior hits up the tavern because he hears the barkeep might have some useful information for him, that is an action. The critical difference is that I, as the player, intend to move the story forward when I take an action. Some games parse and flag this difference better than others, which leads us to resolution.


Resolution is what we use to determine the outcome of an action. Whatever system you’re using, there has to be some mechanic to determine success from failure, or ‘intended result’ from ‘unintended result.’

While some games like Paranoia encourage or revolve around hiding intent, in a lot of RPG’s, disguising intent is a sign of distrust and dysfunction in a gaming group. If the player feels he has to hide the true intent or desired result behind an action for fear of the GM using meta knowledge to screw them over, something has gone terribly wrong.

For resolution to be accurate and helpful, trust and disclosure is absolutely necessary. This may sound like a rather narratavist thing to say, but even from a gamist perspective, disclosure is essential. Think of it this way; knowing the possibly outcomes of actions in any board game is essential, otherwise it is impossible to strategize or take calculated risks. If everyone is not on the same page about what’s at stake or what the action is supposed to do, meaningful play becomes impossible.

It devolves into “poking with sticks” gameplay. The players clam up, hide their intent, and figuratively move inch by inch, poking the ground for traps and “gotchas.” Players should feel comfortable saying “I’m going to do X in the hopes of accomplishing Y.”

…So that’s my theory, for what it’s worth. It’s not exactly an all-encompassing model, but hopefully it’s a useful one. Let me know what you think.

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