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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!

Mike Sugarbaker

Comments must die

5 min read

I’ve been blogging more lately, and getting some response – not here on my own domain, but on the various social networks on which I’ve been posting notices. (That’s Twitter and, to my occasional chagrin, Google+.) Now, it’d be awesome if more people owned and relied upon their own web sites to host content, it’s true. And you can only trust the cloud so far, so I’m definitely going to strive to keep and host my own copies of any really awesome things that come out of discussions.

But I am not bothered by not having local comments on Gibberish. I don’t miss them at all.

Having comments on your domain means turning it into a nightclub that takes considerable management. Not helping matters is the inherent disembodiment of an anonymous, textual medium – imagine if the hecklers in your nightclub were ghosts. The natural inhibitors that come with being physically present aren’t there to moderate people, so the moderating tactics we’re left with are more blunt, therefore more damaging to the remaining human conversation. The worst of both worlds, fighting each other. (And again… lessons here for RPGs, where everyone’s acting in an ideaspace as a fictional self that isn’t limited by the things that happen to brains when people are physically present.)

As Neven Mrgan writes in the afore-linked, some of us just want to write. Others of us just want to pretend we live in a world without comments, and have access to the tools to make that possible by hiding them all. But is that enough? We can buy ourselves distance from each other with technical capital, just like how people with monetary capital can buy houses on far-off estates; but where’s our responsibility to each other in that picture?

Brian Eno said a while back that “a more connected world is a more vulnerable world,” and he predicted that soon our societies would start to shy away from the trend of more and more connection. I think we’re at a moment where we can and must choose – voluntarily, for a goddamn change – to pull back from a social extreme and therefore stay accessible to people who aren’t a certain flavor of social extremist (see also: grognard capture).

As web analyst Paul Ford writes, the central question of the web has become “Why wasn’t I consulted?” And sometimes that’s great. But I have come to believe that other times, this harms the larger culture. I’d like to see an online world that has a wider range of answers to that central question – not just always “oh, my bad, here’s your comments thread.” Would that online world have more elitism in it? Yes, it would. It would have more of all the things that are in the real social world. But it would also remain the online world: it would connect people who otherwise aren’t connected, and thus would retain more anti-elitism than the real world. Not every point on the web needs to be a customer-service desk for that to be true. Every domain should have a customer-service desk, probably, but not everything should be one.

For example, the web page for a New York Times article should not be conferring any kind of status on the comment of just anybody who wanders by. Whatever you think of the NYT’s ideas about its own status, it does need to have those ideas, and use them. That’s what being the Times is. Lots of newspapers, and other publishers per Ford’s piece, feel a bit put upon by web culture because they’ve reified comments rather than seeing them as an instrument that has a necessary but specific use. Someone convinced them it’s not a web site unless a thread of comments is trailing off everything, like drool; they need to snap out of the trance.

Another example is feminist and anti-racist blogs, where a measure of what might look like elitism – shutting out a voice that’s popular – would help protect voices that don’t have power in the world. (That said, I can understand someone whose blog gets them regular death threats via email wanting to provide comments as a kind of pressure valve for the hate.)

Must comments die everywhere? No – I was just trolling you (another often-harmful social fact of the world, just like elitism, that must be managed for the greater good, not abolished). But no matter where or how you put things on the web, I urge you to change your comment policy this year. You don’t have to block all comments (if your blog-host-or-whatever leaves you that as the only option, I encourage you to change hosts), nor even make your policy more restrictive – just try a new form.

Mike Sugarbaker

Hourly Comics Day, February 1, 2012

1 min read

I did them. Here goes:

I did some cheating (because that’s how you win) – you can see some Photoshop stitchery going on, and that all happened today rather than yesterday.

If you’re unfamiliar with hourly comics, here.

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.)

Mike Sugarbaker

How Twitter is like a wiki

2 min read

There are Facebook people, there are Twitter people, there are even some Google+ people. I’m a Twitter person. I use the others, mostly G+, but Twitter is where I go by default for social chattering and output. It’s home.

How can I possibly defend this choice? What about all the senseless noise, the limited interface, the awkward fumbling monetization attempts, the constant obsessions with retweets and status, Justin Bieber and Trending fucking Topics?

Here’s the thing: Twitter has one feature. Facebook has at least, like, nine or ten, just at a glance on the front page. I know this isn’t really true; Twitter has larded a bunch of features on to its famous basic 140-character core. But looking at the page, you can pretend that one core feature is the only one there is. You can’t do that with Facebook, or any of the others.

I used to say that the brilliance, and the fatal flaw, of wikis was that you could do anything with them. The fatal-flaw part is that, while you can indeed do anything with a wiki, you’ll be doing it your damn self: the software isn’t there to have your back. All it has for you is the capacity to edit the page easily. The rest is up to you. If a wiki does try to assist you in any specific way, it usually fucks it up, because that approach is at odds with a wiki’s raw, elemental core.

Twitter’s the same way: you can, with some effort, maybe some third-party tools, and some settling for less, build any social-software interactions you want, just out of tweets. The whole thing is comical and faulty, but it also has a kind of elegance that speaks to my soul.

There’s a lesson here for RPGs too, if you squint.

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.

Mike Sugarbaker

The undiscovered country club

3 min read

So there are these guys calling themselves the Verne & Wells Society who are setting up a “country club for geeks” in the Seattle area, as an alternative to mere hacker spaces or gamer pubs. They seem a little obsessed with their own story; they’ve been posting a lot on G+ about the evolution of their brand and their frankly very simple concept (I already told you the whole thing) instead of showing much of what they’re actually going to build, be, or do. It may be that I have them wrong, and they were never planning to actually build a physical club, although the occasional event seems like a lot to ask $300 a quarter for. But the whole deal is at least potentially interesting.

While I was reading about these guys, my girlfriend was over in the living room watching classic Trek on Netflix, specifically “Amok Time,” the first episode that was ever performed by Portland’s Atomic Arts “Trek in the Park” troupe. So I’m listening to Spock, Kirk and Bones while I read the Verne & Wells brand philosophy of “science, technology, escapism and play”… and then I think not just of Trek in the Park, but of the old Star Trek Experience in Vegas and how it dumped you into perfect Enterprise hallways that seemed to just keep going… and I think, is a swanky LEGO night the best we can do for escapism? Is the throwback to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the fakey steampunk aesthetic that will inevitably follow, the best way to honor science or encourage play?

The problem with the “geek country club” concept is “country.” If you want wealthy geeks to pay $1200 every year for someplace nice to eat and drink, build them the fucking Enterprise.

Think about it: you check in at the front desk, step into the “airlock” to get into uniform, then step into that corridor (or a near enough facsimile that avoids infringing copyrights) and head for Ten Forward, or perhaps you report to a mission on the bridge, or a shuttlecraft – one of several spaces devised for a relatively simple digital game along the lines of Artemis. After all, a country club needs something to do. We ought to be able to beat golf pretty easily.

You wouldn’t need the $70 million in starting capital that it took to build the Vegas attraction. It wouldn’t need to be substantially nicer than what LARPers have been known to build themselves, especially since members will feel more pride of ownership than a tourist would. You could start small – the above is fairly unambitious – and grow slowly. San Francisco would be the perfect location, not least for its fictional connections to Starfleet.

If I were a bigger Trekkie, I’d be on this already. As it is, I’m waiting on the upper-class marketers of the world to expand their vision.

Mike Sugarbaker

I spent a month elsewhere in the galaxy

1 min read

Another do-stuff-for-a-month project, this time in short fiction-y bursts. K and I made up some characters last year for a webcomic we may yet do, set on a space station; I decided to spend some time with them. They’re shitty first drafts, but they’re a bit fun. I put them over on Tumblr, just to test the platform out. You might enjoy them.

The Outer Belt Diaries

Mike Sugarbaker

Blogcaravan, a weird new thing for WordPress

3 min read

I’ve continued to think about web forums, the problems with them, and how to get them to support better, more human conversations. Lately I’ve been pleased to find that some folks in one of my enthusiast-communities are thinking about it too. (Historically, the clientele at the story gaming forums I frequent have taken the attitude that, despite Clay Shirky’s oft-linked and oft-repeated insistence that “software” and “social” can’t be taken separately, forum software can’t do anything at all, not even the littlest bit, to lessen social problems on forums. Seems like an odd stance for a bunch of people who generally reject gaming’s cherished notion that all you need is a great GM, and the game system you use doesn’t even get a vote as to how your game goes.)

Specifically, a group of some gamer friends of mine wanted to try an experimental structure they called Storycaravan. In Storycaravan, blog posts made by members of the group would be echoed onto a central, forum-like site which would give each post its own, separate comment thread. Commenters would have to formally register with the site, and when someone made a new comment, the post on which the comment was made would pop to the top of the page, like on most forums.

It dawned on me that WordPress could make just about all of those things happen already. The only piece I would have to supply was the sort: the means to bring a post to the top of the page when it got a comment. (WordPress already has a Recent Comments widget, but it turned out not to be very reusable for this purpose, for a lot of wacky reasons.) So here it is: Blogcaravan, my first WP plugin.

There’s a huge amount it doesn’t do, and it may be doing even less in the near future – I may be able to do a better job of filtering the functionality to leave pages alone when appropriate. But I love the notion that by keeping functionality narrow, I can support a lot of unexpected new combinations. (For Storycaravan we’re blending it with the FeedWordPress aggregation plugin.) I hope it will be of use to people who want to do forum/blog hybrids without starting from forum software.

Mike Sugarbaker

We made a comic and it's pretty good

1 min read

My girlfriend drew it, and I wrote it. (That means it’s a product of the Soft Sciences!) It’s called Dangerous Aromas and it’s about intrepid coffee buyers who will stop at nothing to win the Bean of Excellence competition. It’s rad. Check it out.