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Mike Sugarbaker

Defining roleplaying, part 3: "impactfully" is too a word

7 min read

To recap:

  • A story game is a game which explicitly allows for players to make things up about fictional characters and events, allows whatever is made up to have a meaningful impact on the point of play, and isn’t generally intended to produce instances of play for an external audience.
  • A roleplaying game is a story game which hews more or less to the traditions that produced Dungeons and Dragons.

That story-game definition is a wordier restatement of where we left off, “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”; despite being longer I think the new one’s clearer. “Not for theatrical purposes” was read by some as meaning “no speaking in character,” which certainly doesn’t define story gaming; the addition “instances of play” means events of a group of people playing one game one time. (We have to distinguish that from game-as-product, as in “a game of Monopoly” versus “Monopoly is a game.” Story games as products are generally intended to be seen by someone other than their creators!)

So yeah. Miss those funny circle diagrams? Me too. Fortunately, they still have a use, not as much for defining role-playing games as for talking some more about the elephant in the room: “the point of play.”

inverted open loop50/50 open loopopen loop

There we have three roleplaying games, let’s say – that is, three different instances of play, at different tables with different groups. In the one on the right, the players spend most of their time engaging with the gamey bits – the rules – and a little bit of time inserting details that the explicit rules might suggest, but don’t codify. (The black parts of the loop represent explicit rules, and the green parts represent fictive stuff.) These diagrams are really just meant to represent that, the time spent – they aren’t meant to say that every rules interaction (every trip around a feedback loop, that is) contains some made-up stuff in it.

The game on the left is a very loose game by comparison, perhaps touching on no rules at all other than the traditional RPG structures of individual characters being controlled by individual players, and of a gamemaster who adjudicates things. The game in the middle is, well, somewhere in the middle.

As we talked about when this whole thing started, all three of these ways of playing were present at or near the inception of Dungeons and Dragons. They all remain popular today. And they remain almost entirely separate – independent cultures of play which, when their members are even aware of the other cultures at all, are often at war with one another.

For those of you whose interest in nerdfights such as these is casual at best, let me try to summarize. When your main interest in a game is to interact with its rules – you know, to play it, thinks the gamer in the rightmost loop somewhat crossly – the folks who spend time emoting and doing story stuff can be more than just annoying. For instance, when they don’t know the rules well due to lack of interest, they can become liabilities to the success of the whole party. (Also, their increasing reach for creative control over the world outside their characters can be attempts to game the system to gain unearned advantages over others.)

In the game on the left, someone who’s impatiently asking when the fight starts isn’t just being gauche (although maybe he’s that too); his interest in competition can find a home in socially corrosive story-blocking of other players. In the middle are stable hybrid cultures of play, with roughly equal but implicitly divided domains of story-stuff and gamey bits; but that may just mean there are two fronts on which a group has to defend against newcomers who “do it wrong” and spoil the fun. All three types of games are roleplaying games, clearly, but the presence of someone who expects one type at a table full of people who expect another is a ticking time bomb. You’ve got to defend your group against it somehow, when the [geek social fallacies] may mean you’re stuck with a problem player for good. Let all this brew for 40 years or so, aided by poor critical language and lots of hurt feelings on all sides, and you have a full-blown culture war.

Definitions are powerful weapons in a culture war. Small wonder that people have reached quite innocently for “That’s not roleplaying!” when a tactic at the table or a proposal in conversation went against their long-unexamined assumptions about what they’d invested so much of themselves in, or made them feel threatened socially. But when the work of definition has gotten more deliberate, there has sometimes been nothing innocent about it. Game designer John Wick, long a fan of controversy, once deliberately put forth a definition of the term “roleplaying game” that didn’t include D&D – which at least tells you how seriously he took his chances of success at propagating a definition.

This is why it’s so important to have that morass of vagueness, “a meaningful impact on the point of play,” in our definition of story gaming. I want all three of those tables to see what they do reflected in that sentence and respected there. Plus I don’t just want to respect the current field, I want respect for new ideas to be built into the foundation of this emerging medium. If that means that “story game” as a category becomes a kind of catch-all for wildly different kinds of play, united only by the act of making up some fiction, that is okay by me. (I even waffled a little on the “fiction” part – early drafts of my definition didn’t have it and got kicked around on Twitter as covering games like the abstracted legal system Nomic, the great abstract puzzle game Zendo, and the notorious hidden-information exercise Mao. They seemed clearly not story games… at first. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought they could be story games for telling very abstract non-fiction stories – in Mao’s case, stories about how much you hate your friends. Anyway I decided not to go there explicitly.)

The danger of having such vague bits in a definition, though, is that people start making assumptions about what the vague bits mean. Those assumptions, if culturally powerful enough, can essentially replace the real definition. This has happened more than once right in front of me as I’ve watched people try to put forth critical language for story gaming – people weaponize the wiggle room to score status points, just as surely as some do with the open loop in RPGs.

Why all this ambient rancor and vindictiveness in the hobby? I believe it all begins with how games shape our brains early in life, the ways RPGs don’t fit into those shapes, and a few other facts of neurology for which RPG players rarely account (plus some lines of research that RPGs are actually out in front of). But that’s a whole other series of posts, even more arduous to write and shakily founded than this one has been. As for definitions, though, we’re out in three. Whew!