A few times recently, the concepts of nomothetic and idiographic have come up in use on the site — particularly from Brian Ballsun-Stanton, who wrote a paper in which those concepts are pivotal. Answers such as in How do I handle a group that does not understand the 'assumption rule'? explain the concepts as they apply to the situation.

However, I am uncertain of their meanings in the broader RPG context, and I am not confident using the terms myself where they have seemed relevant to what I'm writing — even after reading the explanation in Brian's academic paper. The wikipedia page on these terms is entirely impenetrable.

So what do these words mean in our context?

Are they behaviours or ideas (ideologies even?), or both? What is the noun form? (Is it nomotheticism and idiographicism?)

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    \$\begingroup\$ This might actually be one of the vanishingly rare meta posts that could be migrated to the main site. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 1:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Sure, that's possible. Mods, if it belongs there, migrate as necessary. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 1:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I... dunno. There's going to be a fairly large chunk of philosophy here, and it doesn't feel like it's "RPG expert" so much as "philosophy expert" material. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 1:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's better off in meta. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 1:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ While it's a broad philosophical question, it's still a question relating to RPGs, rather than to RPG.SE - they're not site-specific terms, but rather philosophical concepts that are applied to our hobby. I vote for migrating to Main. And also, I vote for learning what they mean. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – lisardggY
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 10:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've removed my essay-in-progress so far. @lisardggY let's mull over migration after we have a few answers and see if they would, in total, fit. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 0:40

3 Answers 3


Nomothetic - relates to rules systems/social contracts/play that believe written rules act as absolute boundaries in defining what is and isn't possible within a game. They are hard and fast, and anything that isn't defined by them isn't allowed.

Idiographic - relates to rules systems/social contracts/play that believe written rules are only guidelines, particularly when questions of what is and isn't possible in the 'game world' come up. In order to determine what is possible, an ideal/imagined scenario is often used. Examples might include 'it's how it would work if the world was real' or 'it's how it would work in the genre of the game being played'. If there is consensus at the table (however this is agreed) that something should be possible, then it doesn't matter whether that particular thing is defined/allowed within the system being used and its written rules. Agreement will then be reached at the table as to how to model what they have decided is allowed within the rules system being used.

In practical terms, rules systems aren't usually solely one or the other of these, and often contain aspects or sub-systems that tend to favour one or the other. A particular gaming group might also emphasise a particular approach.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is intended to be a concise summary of the two terms that avoids academic language at all costs. My metric for deciding what is and isn't academic is that if an 'average' RPG player would need to go and look up a word's definition then it should not be used. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's probably worth mentioning "copying an ideal/imagined scenario as ultimate arbiter" for the idiographic side of things. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 13:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton in what context? As a way of determining what is possible at the table? \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Phil Yeah. The term derives from "ideal", referring to an ideal that someone(s) holds as the yardstick against which they make decisions. Examples are "it's how it would work if the world were real" or "it's how it would work in [literary genre being emulated]". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 22:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nomothetic approaches don't inherently prohibit things 'outside' the rules, they just approach these things by either extending existing rules or creating new ones. They do prohibit things against the rules, though, even if the specific situation being adjudicated might better benefit from not having rules (to me an alien concept) or an exception. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 5:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess my point is Nomothesis is more about "This is how we will handle this" followed by "This is how we agreed we would handle this and we must be consistent. If we ought to do this differently we should get rid of the rule entirely and make a new one that really does work in general instead.". \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 5:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer But it's a spectrum, of course. I have witnessed "strict" nomothetic approaches that lead people to say that something cannot happen in-universe if there's no way to achieve that state via the RAW. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 17:50

First of all, you should read Dr. Ballsun-Staton's definition, from his paper, if you haven't already:

2.3 Nomothetic versus Ideographic

Guba and Lincoln (1994) articulate the nomothetic debate in social sciences where they note that general theories may not fit specific cases well: “This problem is sometimes described as the nomothetic/idiographic disjunction. Generalizations, although perhaps statistically meaningful, have no applicability in the individual case.” While their argumentation is in support of qualitative research, the theoretical basis of the nomothetic as “law-making” conflict with the ideographic study of the individual case maps quite strongly onto the axis of form and the ideas will be used throughout this document. Players seeking the support of rules are far more nomothetic than those seeking mimesis with specific, individual cases of reality or imagination.

and (from the Axis of Form section)

Rules, in a role-playing game, represent an encoded mimetic reflection of the fictional reality of the game filtered through the author's understanding and stylistic habits. They are an encoded social contract that players agree to insure that bad or otherwise undesirable things happen to their characters in ways that appear realistic or fun. A game where there is no chance of conflict or failure has no need of rules.

While rules are mimetic themselves, the act of encoding them and describing the statistical operations upon attempts at agency changes them from a purely mimetic representation of a world into a framework for understanding their own reality. Players at a table then build their own understanding of a world from these rules, instead of purely trying to mimic reality. However, answers to rules questions that are not well situated within the rule system can choose to derive their answer from other rules present in the system: showing how the edge case is indeed covered by the rules as written, or may try to describe a mimicable aspect of reality.

The act of using the rules as a reference to uncertain situations within the rules represents accepting the form of the rules: they have a structure and a meta-statistical pattern that can be used to adjudicate the situation in question. The acceptance of the form of the rules requires that the answers be from or suggested by the rules and internally consistent with the rules.

On the other side of the axis is the understanding that because the rules are designed to mimic reality, answers to rules questions should be drawn from reality as the primary form of the source. While the rules are a useful mediator, there is no need to draw upon them to cover edge cases or even to respect their authority when they imperfectly mimic something from the “real world.” Most people on the site, however, do not have a pure adherence to either rules or mimesis but fall between the two extremes. The articulation of archetypes within this design space is not meant to indicate that all who belong to a certain archetype always have answers that are at the extremes of the archetype, but that they are privileges of mimesis or vice versa.

You should also read the rest of the paper, which is quite good, if a bit sesquipedalian.

The terms are nascent, but are entering the lexicon without too much difficulty.

The terms introduction to English occurred as a result of the work of Wilhelm Windelband, and though their meanings have varied from field to field, Idiographic entities and Nomothetic entities are consistently held to form a dichotomy.

No 'official' noun form of the words currently exist but, like in RPGs, codified rules are typically drawn from some field of expert experience and development occurring outside the codified rules. Basically this means we get to make up our own noun form and see it in a dictionary in a few years if it gets adopted. I suggest Nomothesis and Idiography. In extant philosophical work the adjectival form is frequently just nouned, resulting in phrases like 'the idiographic' and 'the nomothetic'.

In the context of RPGs these mean that the esteemed Dr. Ballsun-Stanton, felt he needed a euphemism for hard-rules systems/players/ideologies/etc (nomothetic gaming social contracts) and soft-rules systems/players/etc (ideographic gaming social contracts). The nomothetic seek and use the general, hence applying the rules to the specific actions of players, while the idiographic seek the specific, hence modifying or ignoring the rules as convenient in achieving mimesis (sameness) with the 'reality' of the game world. Basically a primacy of nomothesis is what drives hard-rules RPGers like myself to seek and uphold 'general' rules (whether they be ones we make ourselves or those in published text) while a primacy of idiography (or, more likely, mimesis itself) is what drives soft-rules RPGers to ignore the rules when they proscribe something contrary to that RPGers conceptualization of the game world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ your use of 'sesquipedalian' as an implied criticism of Brian's paper is.....ironic :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Phil not sure if that's criticism so much as pointing out what may be an obstacle or fault from the perspective of one who does not frequently read academic papers \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 12:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be pedantic, I do have a doctorate. Feel free to just say "Brian" though. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 12:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Nah, it's a joke. Sorry to disappoint ;) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 5:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Phil I have no idea to what you may be referring, I am sure ;) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 5:32

I don't think they really mean anything much in the context of an RPG.

No role-play can be completely nomothetic and no game can be purely ideographic.

The essence—the genius, I would say—of the RPG lies exactly in the fact that it's NEITHER of these things. Why discuss something in relation to two things it isn't?

By defining the range using two points that are definitely not applicable, you end up implying all sorts of things about what supposedly exists in between them; a false dichotomy sets up an equally false spectrum in between.

It's a bit like saying that tennis falls somewhere on the range between contact sport and solo-games; it's sort of true, but it misses everything that's important about the actual game.

So, what is important about an RPG? The emergent nature of it; the iterative way in which a game develops, leaving a trail of story behind it (as distinct from story-telling games which try to find and follow the story ahead of them). So long as a RPG is producing a story that the players enjoy, it will continue and develop, and the modes in which it can do that are wider than a line between any two points can contain, no matter how many syllables they have.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the logic here is supportable. For a counterexample of something that no roleplay can be completely, yet is useful to discuss roleplaying in terms of: no roleplaying can be purely any of gamist, dramatist, or simulationist, yet these are useful terms. The statement that nomothetic and ideographic are useless terms for discussing roleplaying might yet be true, but it will require something more than an invalid argument form to demonstrate it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 22:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Some jargon can be useful or even necessary, but creating a single axis using two terms which may have some applicability is misleading and worse than useless. They're also very, very obscure and pretentious words to use and in that sense they are also worse than useless as they obscure communication rather than aid it (which is probably the reason they were picked). It's windbaggery of the lowest order. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nagora
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ That seems to be a completely unrelated (and partly contradictory) argument: that they have meaning but are useless for a lack of pragmatic communication effectiveness, instead of for lack of semantic content. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:59

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