Skip to main content

Mike Sugarbaker

Reconsidering the open loop: more on defining role-playing games

8 min read

I want to expand the definition of “story game” I settled on in our last episode. (For those just joining us, my definition of “story game” underpins a definition of “role-playing game,” one of which has been missing for 35 years and would be culturally advantageo– oh, just go read the post.) I’m rather pleased with the new one; it’s weaselly in all the right ways. Here goes:

  • A story game is a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes.

Why the change? Well: when Scott McCloud put forth his definition of the medium of comics in Understanding Comics, he went to considerable trouble to, as he put it, “not be so broad as to include anything which is clearly not comics.” It may be that we’re always going to have a lot of trouble doing this with story games, because they’re simply a lot more complex than comics are. In a medium made as much (or more) out of people’s minds and interpretations than out of the artifact that’s been put down on paper, maybe there’s no such thing as “clearly” or “clearly not.” On top of that, the various ways that RPG culture has built fractiousness right in from the beginning have made it even harder to choose where to draw the line. Everyone goes with their own gut, based on their own gaming experience, when choosing what needs to be included in the definition; gamer guts tend to diverge (write your own medieval-combat joke); and taking the sum of people’s guts is as unproductive as it is unfeasible.

That said, my own gut is giving me some trouble with so-called “parlor narration games.” I’ve never been happy with the term (is there any usage left of the word “parlor” that isn’t pejorative?), but it refers to games wherein rules can insert things into made-up stuff, but not so much the other way around. The common belief amongst role-playing theorists is that a game with too many parlor-narration mechanics is not a role-playing game (or a story game, by my definitions). I find myself wondering whether this distinction is productive. It feels a bit like including a piece of historical accident into what’s supposed to be a picture of the essence; like it’s a failure to fully separate form from content.

The argument for it: without it, we have the Monopoly problem back. Recall our game of Monopoly where we make up stories about our pawns, never letting those stories affect the rules, represented by the “spiky closed loop:”

closed loop with offshoot

When we play this way, are we playing a story game? If we, a lone group of players, are playing one, does that mean Monopoly is one, in the general case? If so, doesn’t our definition potentially include all games? If we’re playing a game that does have an open loop but we don’t happen to use that loop at all in our one instance of the game, is it still a story game? What if most groups who play the game don’t make any use of a provided open loop, but a few do? Requiring the open loop cleans up this mess.

The argument against the parlor-narration distinction, though, is that it creates a new category of game that isn’t useful for any purpose other than helping story gamers point at something they don’t like (and therefore becomes just another definition-as-rhetorical-stick, which roleplayers don’t need any help creating). There isn’t any significant group of people looking for new parlor-narration games to play, except possibly fans of long-form improv theater – and even then, you could say that the play of long improv games affects decisions made during the thin sliver of game time that interacts with explicit rules. (This gives our definition of story games a wee problem, which you can already see that we patched.) And very few people set out to create a parlor-narration game in particular; most are intended as story games but dismissed as such by a critic.

Over in the neighboring geek culture of science fiction literature, there still isn’t quite an agreed-upon definition of what’s necessary and sufficient in a piece of fiction for it to be called SF. Consensus amongst the serious thinkers, though, seems to be that the best move is to punt, mostly not defining it at all except as whatever we all say it is, but intriguingly sometimes making noises about defining the medium as “a way of reading.” (I apologize for not being able to find my reference here.) What if we did the latter for role-playing, calling the play of Monopoly with lots of in-character dialogue a story game? What if we let the spiky closed loops into the tent?

Well… why not? Why not make the tent as big as possible? Geek cultures too often try to tighten and restrict their definition of “the real thing” when they start declining as a culture, and that strictness just leads to further decline, in a particular mode known as grognard capture. (Mainstream comics arguably succumbed to this, but the clearest example in geek culture is in heavy metal – and yes, that is a geek culture). So, instead of tightening things up, why not get downright imperialist? “Those people writing to each other on forums as Harry Potter characters? That’s us. All those people playing Mass Effect and Skyrim and World of WarCraft? That’s us too.” (I’ve borrowed this latter idea from somewhere, which I again can’t find; sorry.)

Of course, if we do this, we cross the line from building a definition as a tool for thinking, into the realm of building a definition for political purposes… which is unavoidable, to a point. And it’s a point we’re already past: I talked in the prior post about my political goals for having a definition at all, so hey. Just to cover some more political bases, I don’t actually want to embrace console RPGs and MMOs all the way; it strikes me as important that computers don’t know how to care what human players think is the point of play. This new cut of the definition could be seen as halfway letting CRPGs in, possibly, maybe. But I’m not interested in that direction.

So to recap, the full set:

  • A story game is a game which sanctions players to make things up, impactfully with respect to the point of play, about fictional characters and events, usually not for theatrical purposes.
  • A role-playing game is a story game which hews more or less to the traditions that stem from American skirmish wargaming.

There’s a ton of information, and wiggle room, encoded in “the point of play” (to say nothing of the word “game,” but I’ll leave that one for the philosophers). We’ll talk some more about that. And yes, I do think it’s basically a rephrasing of the previous definition, one that allows for games that don’t incorporate player input the way we might like. They might be bad story games, but they are still story games – we don’t need another category. The separate definition of RPGs is still mostly a political gambit, and I have more to say about that too. (Note also that those are “the traditions” – plural – “that stem from American skirmish wargaming.”)

Fewer diagrams are necessary now, which is also a plus in my book. (Fans of diagrams would do well to check out the work of Vincent Baker, ace designer and about 90% of the vanguard of role-playing theory for the last three years, on “dice and clouds” as a more detailed way of looking at the interaction of rules with the imagined space in story games.)

What is a roleplaying game? | Understanding Roleplaying | Defining roleplaying, part 3: “impactfully” is *too* a word >