In our hobby and industry, there are quite a few terms of jargon tossed about. Not all of them are specific or unique to tabletop gaming, but for enough of them we gamers have our own definitions. SomeoneStor new to RPGs might need a little guidance on understanding what we’re saying when we drop some of these terms.
About ten years ago, Walt put together an RPG glossary here on Gnome Stew. This list is by no means a replacement, but, rather, an appendix to his wonderful and in-depth article. I’m not going to cover the basics like GM, PC, NPC, etc… Walt’s glossary does a wonderful job of this already.
This post will be a little long in the tooth because of the number of terms I’m going to lay down on you, so I’m just going to jump in the list. Also, I tried to group the definitions together in a way that made sense instead of alphabetically.
Grognard – French for “grumbler.” An old soldier. I suppose grumbler and old soldier can be synonymous. In the RPG world, we use it to describe folks who enjoy older RPGs as opposed to the newer selections.
Newb/Newbie/N00b – A newcomer to the hobby. Can be applied to pretty much any hobby or profession. Usually used in derogatory terms, so be careful with this one.
RAW – Acronym: Rules As Written; Some groups will run a game RAW. This especially applies to organized play, so that all players and the GM are on the same page as far as rules go.
RAI – Acronym: Rules As Intended; This occurs when different people or groups interpret the written rules in different ways. This can come from ambiguous wording in a rule, or a shift from RAW due to personal preference.
House Rules – House rules are used to alter the RAW language to adapt the game to personal play styles, personal preferences, to adjust for shortcomings in the rules, or to overcome serious flaws in an otherwise playable game system.
Homebrew – A homebrew RPG can apply to both worlds and rules. With worlds, the GM will run in a setting they have come up with themselves (or within a group effort). With rules, the GM is running a set of rules that they (or a group) have come up with. In many cases, homebrew worlds and systems never see the light of day outside the immediate gaming group immersed in the worlds/rules.
Organized Play – This is where a character is not part of an ongoing campaign, but the player controlling the character moves from adventure to adventure and levels up according to proscribed meta-rules. Some examples of organized play are Pathfinder Society, D&D’s Adventurers’ League, and RPGA’s “living campaigns.”
THAC0 – Acronym: To Hit Armor Class Zero; This method of determining if someone hits a target with an attack has fallen out of favor because of the difficulty of the math involved. THAC0 has its roots in the wargaming systems Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson played and used as a basis for the original D&D system in the 1970s and continued to be found in mainstream gaming until D&D 3.0 was released. It can still be found, sometimes with variations, in some modern games.
Metagame – The information outside the game that involves the game. This is generally player knowledge that is outside what their character knows. An example of this would be the player knows that trolls (in D&D) can’t regenerate fire or acid damage, so they throw oil on the troll and light it up, even if their character has no way of knowing this tactic at the time.
Monty Haul – A style of gaming or campaigning where the GM loads up the PCs with treasure, magic, experience points, and other loot even if it’s not fully earned. This is named after “Monty Hall” from the “Let’s Make A Deal” TV show.
Hack ‘n’ Slash – A style of gaming where the players are basically playing a tactical simulation against the monsters the GM throws at them. The whole point of the game is to Munchkin a character to become the most effective killing machine possible to slay as many monsters as possible.
Min/Maxing – This concept is where a player will completely cripple (or minimize or min) one or more aspects of his or her character in order to trade off for additional powers in areas where they want to be supreme (or maximize or max).
Munchkin – A player who must “win” the game at all costs. This can be a power gamer, a min/maxer, a cheater, or someone who will memorize every bestiary, every spell, and every rule in order to Metagame the process of playing to gain an advantage.
Power Gaming – A player that, within the rules provided, will find a way to create the strongest and most capable character possible. This is a slight difference from Min/Maxing in that most power gamers will do everything they can to avoid having any weaknesses that are exploitable by the GM during the course of the game.
On The Fly GM – A GM that changes the direction of the campaign or storyline because players’ ideas are better than the GM’s.
Anonymous NPC – These are NPCs who have no names. They typically are the barkeeps, shop owners, messengers, etc. who the PCs interact with in a transactional manner, but not in a way that changes the direction of the story.
Named NPC – Named NPCs are people in the world under control of the GM who have a name. These tend to be folks who alter the course of the story, plant new story seeds, are targets of quests, or obstacles to overcome.
Mook/Minion – These are synonymous with Anonymous NPCs in that they aren’t important to the storyline. However, they do pose an obstacle the PCs must work together in order to overcome. Mooks typically work for a Boss or BBEG.
Boss/BBEG – BBEGs are the Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal of a campaign or story arc. They control mooks, set their own plots into action, have goals and motivations, typically have a back story, and consider themselves to be the hero of their own story. Generally, when the BBEG is taken down, the world changes, the story arc concludes, and, unless a fresh BBEG is presented, the campaign might roll to a close.
GMPC – Acronym: Game Master Player Character; A GMPC is a fully-fledged character controlled by the GM, is an equal member of the party, collects loot and experience points, and travels with the rest of the party. The GMPC is generally protected by Plot Armor, and tends to be more of an annoyance to the players than any benefit. Temporary GMPCs (such as an experienced guide or bodyguard) can work well in games, but generally not for the long term.
Plot Armor – This occurs when a single character has become so vital to the continuation of the storyline or campaign arc that the GM cannot afford to kill the character off. The plot itself has become “armor” or immunity from death for the character.
Railroading – A style of running the game in which the players’ decisions have limited impact on the story arc that is being told. This can work well in one-shots or convention games due to the limited scope and time involved, but long-term railroading can lead to player dissatisfaction.
Sandbox – A style of running the game in which no predefined story arc exists. The GM may prepare encounters, locations, treasure, and other vital items to the game beforehand, but when the GM sits down at the table he or she may not have a true idea of what will happen next because the world (or local area) is laid out in front of the players for them to pick a direction.
Fail Forward – This is a style of running the game in which failure to overcome an obstacle will not stall or stop the progress of the story being told. It will certainly alter the story and will generally produce some sort of interesting consequence while allowing the obstacle to be overcome, avoided, destroyed, or somehow mitigated.
Dungeon Crawl – A style of game in which the PCs make their way through a dungeon (usually one of large scope or a “megadungeon”) during the course of the campaign. They might retreat to the entrance (if possible), return to the handy village that is nearby, and resupply at the Anonymous NPCs’ shops. However, the bulk of the gaming is done within the confines of a dungeon.
The Three Pillars – A concept in which RPGs are described as being part exploration, part social interaction, and part combat. These three parts make up the three pillars holding up RPGs.
Session Zero – A session in which the GM and players get together to define a social contract, pick a game, generate characters (and potentially a world/setting), agree upon a theme and style of play, and generally kick off the start of a campaign.
Rule Zero – An understood concept in which the GM has final say on any ruling, despite what a rulebook may say. This is where many house rules are generated when a GM is consistent in implementing rule zero.
Crunch – The hard and fast rules, numbers, tables, charts, and other artifacts of the game that can be rigidly defined or understood.
Fluff – The descriptive text of a rulebook or setting book in which the ambiance, style, themes, genres, and feelings of the game are encoded, but not rigidly defined.
PvP – Acronym: Player vs. Player; This occurs when a player decides to use their character to attack another player’s character. This can be part of a story arc, caused by a BBEG, or can be a sign that the gaming group has come to a violent and ugly end and should disband (or alter membership).
Buff – The act of boosting another PC’s ability or abilities. This can be done via assistance, spells, magic items, or innate character abilities that alter other abilities or other characters.
Nerf – The act of lowering another PC’s (or mook’s or BBEG’s) ability or abilities. Has the same sources as buffs.
Tank – A character designed to absorb as much damage as possible while allowing the rest of the group to take down the opponents.
DPS – Acronym: Damage Per Second; This phrase has come to describe a character who has the main job of doing as much damage as possible in order to take down opponents before they get taken out of the fight.
Controller – A character designed to control the battlefield, area of play, or other locale in order to gain an advantage for his or her group.
Healer – A character who is mainly focused on keeping the rest of the group alive and in as good of shape as possible. Often combined with buffs to offset Nerfs.
Leeroy Jenkins – When a player gets bored or tired of planning, they will kick down the door, charge into the lair, and attack whatever is on the other side. The phrase comes from a moment in the World of Warcraft online game where a player tired of the excessive planning of one of the players, screamed his name, and charged into the BBEG’s lair. The event resulted, as you would expect, in a TPK. You can see the video on YouTube.
Murder Hobo – A person or group of people who have no base of operations and they respond to every encounter as a physical fight in which they kill everyone around them. Very little social interaction occurs with murder hobos, and very little story telling occurs during games involving murder hobos. This can be fun if, during session zero, the group agrees to go with a hack ‘n’ slash style game.
Rules Lawyer – A player who knows every rule, every nuance, every errata, and every combination of how these things work. They typically will correct and attempt to override GMs who are attempting to invoke rule zero.
Bennie – Abbreviation for “benefit.” These are in-game bonuses given to players by the GM for exceptional play or to help shore up a weaker character during random character generation. Bennies can also be a Metagame currency allowing players to adjust rolls or influence the storytelling aspect of the game.
Boxed Text – The text in adventures or modules that the GM is supposed to read out loud (or paraphrase) to the players when an event occurs or locale is discovered.
FLGS – Acronym: Friendly Local Game Store. This is where gamers can get together to acquire supplies for gaming, play in a back room, post notices on cork boards about games, and build their community.
LARP – Acronym: Live Action Role Playing; A style of gaming in which the players can be in costume, use props, and physically move around an area to marked off locations in order to meet with each other, NPCs, the GM, etc.
OOC – Acronym: Out of Character; Generally this is limited to comments and questions about food, bathroom locations in the house, or rules questions. Most conversation around the table should be IC, not OOC.
IC – Acronym: In Character; These are the words spoken by the player to represent the actual things his or her character is saying.
PBeM – Acronym: Play by Mail; This is a method of gaming in which the players and GM communicate via physical mail. However, email has mostly supplanted these types of communication due to the near-immediate delivery of email.
PbP – Acronym: Play by Post; This is a method of gaming in which the players and GM communicate via some form of posting or message board on the Internet. There are many variations of this approach to gamine because of the various technologies available today.
Social Contract – An agreement between everyone within an RPG group on style of play, themes, trigger areas, genre, and other choices made at the table to guide how the players will interact with the GM and each other.
TPK – Acronym: Total Party Kill; This usually occurs through a series of poor decisions by the players, bad dice rolls, new GMs making judgement mistakes, or experienced GMs deciding to end the campaign via “in rule” fiat that kills every last member of the party.
Now that this list is done, I have some people to thank who helped out on this article:
- Angela Murray — For starting the conversation that led to this article.
- John Arcadian — For jumping on the ideas and requesting I write this article.
For suggested phrases:
- The Gelatinous Rube (@TempestLOB)
- Guy Milner (@milnarmaths)
- Duke Aaron McGregor
- David Dolph
- Rob Abrazado
- Darren Wade
- Travis Casey
- thom_raindog (@thom_raindog)
- Buddy Fazzio
- LoneWorg (@LoneWorg)
- Craig Barnes
So, did I miss any esoteric or weird phrases used in RPGs? If so, drop a comment with the phrase and your definition. If you’ve heard a word or phrase and aren’t sure what it means, feel free to drop that in a comment and request a definition. I’ll see what I can come up with.