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Mike Sugarbaker

What is a role-playing game?

5 min read

A funny thing happened in 1974, and I’m not talking about me being conceived. (That was very, very serious.) What happened is a new category of entertainment product was created: interactive entertainment. A couple of guys from Wisconsin broke games – literally broke what they are – and changed history.

Nearly all games, up until Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published Dungeons and Dragons, are closed loops. You follow rules, and those rules produce new conditions and states of the game that feed back into the rules. They look like this:

closed loop

Now, somebody might make stuff up about conditions or states of the game, that’s fine. It might look like this:

closed loop with offshoot

It looks like that because there’s no room for what anyone makes up to actually come back in and change the game’s conditions or states – and certainly not its rules. Just try it: first, say that your Monopoly pawn is a retired vaudeville performer trying his luck in the real estate market because your pawn is the top hat. You might get a laugh. Then try landing on Boardwalk and saying you should get a discount because the seaside patrons remember and love this ex-vaudevillian. Unless the other players are about three years old, that bullshit ain’t gonna fly. The loop is closed:

closed loop, no reentry

What Gygax and Arneson did that made their game the hit it was, and the classic it remains, was to open the loop. They deliberately put a place in their rules for wandering out of the loop and making stuff up, and the stuff you made up could come back into the loop of the rules, and determine in part how the rules created new states and conditions. You might say it looked like this (I apologize for the increasing crudity of the diagrams):

open loop

Or at least, that was how Gygax and Arneson intended things to look. They were wargamers, or at least they produced D&D for an intended audience of wargamers. Their basic intention was to make a medieval-fantasy skirmish-combat simulator, but to juice up both the combat strategy (by having a human adjudicate tactics that the rules hadn’t accounted for), and the overarching game (by connecting combat encounters with an ongoing story). It wasn’t supposed to be anything more than that. (To his dying day, Gary Gygax referred to speaking in your character’s voice as “community-theater crap.”) But – and this was already happening according to some observers when D&D was published – many people took that opening in the loop as an invitation to do something quite different, like a pull handle on a door that swings both ways but has a sign that says “PUSH.” They wandered out of that opening in the loop, and didn’t find that they had much desire to come back in. (They were, according to designer Robin Laws in his book *Hamlet’s Hit Points*, perhaps nudged along by something as simple as the narrative implications of changes to a player-character that persist from game to game.) Their games started to look like this:

50/50 open loop

And then this:

inverted open loop

They could be heard saying things like, “we had a great game last night – we hardly even used the rules,” which might otherwise merit a DOES NOT COMPUTE from many people.

All this is basically a long-winded way of saying “a role-playing game is a game where the fiction is a part of the rules,” as player, designer and theorist Neel Krishnaswami">put it. I would actually say that a story game is a game where the point of play is to make fiction which can in turn affect the rules by which you play to make fiction, and a roleplaying game is a story game that hews to the traditions of gameplay that started in American skirmish wargaming and were crystallized by Arneson and Gygax. (I prefer to make that distinction because established players of RPGs associate those traditions so strongly with the popular term for what they do; given that the media generally does too, I’m happy to leave them their term, and assign the more general meaning to the term with less baggage.)

A lot of people hate it when you try to give a necessary-and-sufficient definition to things that they’ve only ever really defined as “this thing we do.” Heck, the word “game” doesn’t really have an iron-clad definition itself. And these definitions are bound technically to exclude something that, in practice, probably shouldn’t be excluded. It doesn’t matter. An imperfect definition really is better than none at all. I don’t think it’s coincidence that ten or so years after Scott McCloud defined “comics” – another culturally marginalized “this thing we do” – as not having anything inherent to do with the subject matter it had normally focused on up until then, we have so many dramatically better comics that we essentially have a new medium on our hands. I want the same for story games, and I’m tired of waiting.

Understanding Roleplaying | Reconsidering the open loop: more on defining role-playing games >