Update: The finished glossary is available here: RPG Glossary.
This is a first pass at a glossary of GMing terms. This glossary attempts to cover every gaming term that is both related to GMing and common to most RPGs.
A lot of these terms originated with D&D, but they’re so widely used they’ve have effectively become the default terms (even though many other RPGs call them different things).
Because I want this glossary to be useful to GMs of all skill levels, it includes some very basic terms. (Even veteran GMs might find some surprises here, though.)
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, or bollixed up a definition (or several!), and I’d love your help improving this glossary. Once it’s been out there for a bit, I’ll probably make it a permanent TT page (linked in the sidebar).
I might also publish it in another form (like a PDF, or maybe even a book) sometime down the road, and I’d like to include your contributions in that publication.
For that reason, if you comment below, please be aware that I may use your comment in a published version of this glossary. By commenting on this post, you agree to let me do that.
Treasure Tables RPG Glossary
A series of linked encounters, often played out in one or two sessions, in which the PCs overcome a variety of obstacles. Adventures can be linked together to form a campaign. (Synonymous with scenario.)
Also called game balance, the idea that all PCs should start the game at the same power level and that enemies and challenges should be appropriate to that power level. Can also apply to other game elements, such as monsters and items. Elements that are not balanced are often referred to as being broken; nerfing broken elements is a way to make them balanced again.
Originally a video game term, bosses are powerful foes who require significant resources to defeat. In a given area, there is usually only one boss (though a boss will sometimes have sub-bosses).
A linked series of adventures, usually with a central theme or storyline that ties them together.
A record of what happens during your gaming sessions. Campaign journals can range from a simple list of events to prose-style accounts, generally used to keep track of what happens during your campaign.
Established elements of a published setting. Published supplements generally support the canon. Some gamers are quite passionate about sticking to canon, and prefer not to diverge from it.
Short for convention, a con is a gathering where gamers get together to play RPGs and buy gaming stuff.
Slang for the mechanical elements of any RPG.
Deus ex Machina
Latin for “God from the machine,” a deus ex machina is a plot device that dramatically alters the outcome of a situation without regard to suspension of disbelief or the actions of the PCs. Closely related to GM fiat, and generally frowned upon.
Taking an idea or rules element from one RPG and incorporating it into a different RPG. For example, importing the critical hit rules from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay into D&D.
A self-contained event or series of events in which the PCs do (or have the opportunity to do) something of significance. Attending a royal ball would be an encounter, picking a lock would not. Linking together several encounters is the most basic way to build an adventure.
Anything about a PC which can be used to drive the game. For example, a mercenary PC’s rivalry with an NPC merc from another unit would be considered a flag, as it provides the GM with a hook for involving that PC in adventures.
Descriptive text that doesn’t include any rules elements, most often found in published scenarios.
When the GM simply decides the outcome of an in-game event, without rolling dice or involving the rules in any way. Often has a negative connotation.
Hack and Slash
A play style that focuses on killing things and taking their stuff.
Skipping over something that would normally be played out. For example, if you normally describe each day of travel during a journey, you could handwave that time by saying, “After two weeks of riding, you all arrive safe and sound.” Similar to GM fiat, but generally used to get to the good stuff.
There are two kinds of hooks: background and plot. Background hooks are elements of a PC’s history that the GM can use to tie that PC into the game world, or as fuel for adventures. A plot hook is anything the GM describes to get the PCs involved in an adventure.
Speech and actions performed as if spoken or done by a character, much like an actor in a play.
Item management encompasses a variety of activities centered around the PCs’ gear, such as tranferring items from PC to PC, buying new stuff and identifying magic items. Most commonly undertaken during downtime.
Any game element that serves primarily to get the PCs involved in an adventure, most often a physical object (prototype robot, magical statue, etc.). For example, the idol in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a MacGuffin. (The classic example is the Maltese falcon in The Maltese Falcon.)
All of the rules elements of an RPG.
Someone who is new to RPGs.
The group formed by the PCs.
Play by Post (PbP)
An online RPG which is played on a messageboard or forum, with everyone posting their actions for the rest of the group to see.
A linear play style in which the players have very few options, so named because much like a train, adventures like this proceed as if on rails. Railroading gets a bad rap, but it can be a good thing in certain situations (at con games, for instance).
A game element intended to mislead the players, most often one of several possible clues.
From Star Trek, a friendly NPC whose only real function is to get killed in a dramatic fashion, thus giving the PCs something to fight for. (In the original Star Trek series, when the bridge crew beamed down to a planet, they almost always took a guy in a red shirt — and he was always killed right away.)
Short for retroactive continuity, when previously established game elements (often including the actions of the PCs) are changed after the fact. This can range from “taking back” actions during combat to adding background elements to a character after the game has begun.
“The GM is always right.” Often called the Golden Rule.
“Never give the GM ideas.”
A player who knows the rules extremely well, and prefers to stick to them very closesly. Often, rules lawyers use their extensive knowledge of the rules to exploit loopholes that favor their PC.
A series of linked encounters, often played out in one or two sessions, in which the PCs overcome a variety of obstacles. Scenarios can be linked together to form a campaign. (Synonymous with adventure.)
One day/afternoon/night of gaming, which often (but not always) involves playing through a single adventure.
The unwritten (often implict, sometimes explicit) rules under which your group operates, covering everything from when and how often you game to how much out-of-character discussion is allowed at the table.
An RPG supplement that further fleshes out an element of the game, most often focused on the PCs. A sourcebook just for warrior characters would be an example of a splatbook. Often shortened to just “splat.”
Splitting the Party
When the PCs split up to tackle two or more things at once.
What is at stake for each of the parties involved in a conflict. Stakes are implict in most RPGs (PC death is at stake in nearly every combat, for example), but some RPGs have rules for setting them.
A series of linked adventures within a campaign, connected by shared plot and/or thematic elements. Resolving a story arc does not resolve the entire campaign (unless it’s the final story arc).
Slang for “improvise.”
The act of creating a setting.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a few specific questions for you. Are these definitions long enough? Detailed enough? (I deliberately tried to keep them short and to the point.) And is the cross-linking between definitions useful?