Sunday, June 12, 2022

What would a Materialist RPG be Like?

In previous posts, I have the habit of throwing in philosophical terms, some of which are overdue a better explanation. Materialism is a pretty common term in philosophy, but it comes in more than one variety. Here is what I mean by materialism in the context of an RPG.

Materialism in the Context of RPGs

Materialism in philosophy deals with the relationship between the material world and consciousness. Materialism tries to relate all consciousness to physical states, denying that there is any “realm of thought” separate to this.  Materialism in an RPG obviously differs from this. Firstly, we are dealing with a game world, not our real world of experience. Secondly, we are concerned not with the denial of consciousness, but a denial of the character, conceived of as something distinct from the game world.

Annihilation is a sci-fi novel, relatable to Old School Gaming through its similarity with Roadside Picnic (it was also made into a recent film starring Natalie Portman). Annihilation is not an easy book to decipher, but I take its main concern to be the annihilation of the character. This occurs as the protagonists in the novel are progressively assimilated into their physical environment, losing their sense of identity as they eventually become one with their material surroundings.

Annihilation’s take on materialism is the result of some quirky sci-fi premises. D&D players though, don’t have to look very far to find predecessors of the game that functioned without characters. I am referring to the historical war games from which D&D originated. The Secrets of Blackmoor documentary addresses how the character first emerged in such a context, a process which a materialist RPG would partly seek to reverse.

It is worth mentioning an opposite philosophical position, idealism, which also finds representation in RPGs. Here the tendency is towards the annihilation of the game world. Story games demonstrate this tendency, where the game world is altered to better suit the development of the character. If the objectivity of the game world were entirely sacrificed to this end, the game world becomes little more than a reflection of the character.


Freewill can be a problem for certain forms of materialism, where the universe is entirely conceived of in terms of mechanical laws. At its extreme, any action would be predetermined by a chain of events set in place at the Big Bang. There would be no genuine free will, because of all our decisions would be determined by material processes.

In RPGs, we’re not dealing with physicalist materialism of this sort. Even the most procedurally dense RPG is not going to map the game world down to the individual atom. Instead, we’re interested in the big forces that shape the world at a very high level. As RPGs are social games, often these will be social forces.

The approach here is scientific, in a similar way that biology is in its understanding of the natural world. A herd of wildebeest could be predicted to migrate as a result of drought, through our knowledge of the environment and their herding behaviour. We don’t require microscopic observation of every physical process understand such patterns. A form of materialism which applies a similar approach to the social realm is historical materialism.

RPGs emerged from the recreation of battlefield scenarios, where the social forces that lead to the battle have largely been abstracted away. But the circumstances leading to a battle are invariably the product of social forces such as economic crisis and social discontent. An RPG character is like a soldier who stumbles from the battlefield, for whom a moment previously, only physical factors had determined their survival. The challenge of a materialist RPG is to reflect social factors, which become applicable as soon as a soldier would enter a social context.

At the highest level, historical materialism offers a narrative of history, with an individual only having a role in this narrative in accordance with their wealth and status etc. The annihilation of the character in an RPG would amount to their purely acting in accordance with social forces.

Of course, the complete annihilation of the character wouldn’t work in an RPG, otherwise the players wouldn’t have much to do! Historical materialism is not deterministic in this way, because it mostly deals with social groups and the biggest forces affecting them. At the microlevel, the individual retains freewill, sometimes resisting social forces or even influencing them.


In a materialist RPG, the point would be for the players to feel the sway of social forces rather than be dictated by them. This is something Panic Pillow and I are trying to reflect in a collaborative project entitled The Second Age. Here, character advancement is influenced by the groups that players choose to align with. It is these institutions that are directed by social forces, not the characters themselves. There is always the option to “go rogue”, ignoring groups and institutions, but also a cost in terms of lost opportunities and increased danger levels.

Panic Pillow and I have been posting teasers for The Second Age over the last few months. We're hoping to have full draft of the setting available in the next few weeks.


  1. The most interesting post I've read this week! Personally I'd like to see more RPGs take a broader approach to character (troupe play, for example) rather than reframing the character advancement treadmill, but I think this is a worthy approach.

    Lotbieth's "Towards a leftist OSR" post sparked an interesting discussion about his alternatives to gold for xp and is worth a peek, if you're not already familiar. This was less concerned with... ontology? and more with a way of positively incentivising player/character behaviour (Zedeck Siew had some interesting comments about that).

    Very curious as to how these social forces are represented in-world and at a meta level, where can we find out more? Exciting project and unique approach, thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks Sofinho! I've been enjoying your blog a lot recently too.

    Coincidentally, someone linked me to another essay "Towards a Marxist Theatre" yesterday too. I have read Lotbieth's post before. To me it feels more applicable to communities like the Diggers in England. We're going for more of a capitalist equivalent setting, with inherent obstacles to players democratically influencing community governance. Not to say dissenting communities couldn't exist in this context too - but they'd run into conflict with the dominant powers as the real Diggers did.

    The current approach is probably more about incentivising negative behaviour than positive. You advance in rank by aligning with the goals of the institutions in-game, which often won't be the best. But incentivising obviously abhorrent actions creates a counter incentive to resist this pressure (I'm hoping so anyway)

    Institutionally linked character advancement is just one possible way to create a more materialist RPG. I think it will involve rethinking every aspect of an RPG from the ground up, which is what I've been trying to do in a lot of my posts. The idea of patronage plays a role in presenting social forces in-world (the teaser institutions we've put out all have patrons). We're looking at 2-3 types of patron, relating to different sections of the ruling class (e.g. proto-capitalists, landed gentry, Junkers). There's an assumption of mutual interest between these patrons, rather than the kind of factionalism you normally get in RPGs.

    We'll be posting updates about the game on our blogs. Should hopefully have an Itch page up and running soon