Mike Sugarbaker Tackles the Definition of an RPG

Posted by on Jan 17, 2012 in Hamlet's Hit Points, Question, RPGs | 9 Comments

I love the question, “What is a roleplaying game?” I loathe the same question. We all contain multitudes.

Apparently, I’ve recently taken to talking about roleplaying games and story games with one of my weekly gaming groups in a particular way. What way? I don’t know, exactly. I was just blathering something about how I thought this or that was “more of a story game than an outright RPG” (sic) and one of my players—who has played a lot of RPGs and storytelling games but doesn’t participate in online debates about their territory and definitions and badges of honor—asked me to clarify. What did I mean by “story game,” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a good question.” Do I even know? If I did, I don’t know now. If I do know now, I probably won’t know tomorrow.

Fortunately, Mike Sugarbaker approaches the question with more poise and smarts than I have, lately. Thanks to a thread on Story-Games, I found this post by Sugarbaker: “What is a roleplaying game?”

An excerpt:

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.

(Sugarbaker’s post even cites our book, Hamlet’s Hit Points, by Robin D. Laws, which is a treat.)

Now, although I feel I do have a dog in the field, hunting for these elusive definitions, I have a lot of appreciation and sympathy for hunters in different fields. In that Story-Games thread, the terrific Jason Morningstar questions whether a label like story game informs a potential customer more than the word game alone. Good question. What does story game actually communicate—to the gamer, to the roleplayer, to the newcomer?

What do we gain by separating story game from roleplaying game? What do we get if we put one box inside the other? What do we gain by bottling the waters at all? Brace yourself: I don’t know. More to the point, I’m not sure anymore. The more I play, the more I want to relate to and talk about individual games and the less I want to imagine some kind of invisible armature on which they must hang.

I’m going to write more about this. I can hear it coming like a distant train. In the meantime, though: What do you think?


  1. Ryan Macklin
    January 17, 2012

    As I keep exploring the same thing — like the divide in my mind between story games and adventure games — I am starting to see it as a lexicon not at all useful for people buying or playing games, but for those who are trying to create & discuss the craft of making games.

    And even then, given the sorts of heated identity conversations that can happen around that, I further question it.

    But yeah, I don’t think we gain much by those terms when it comes to knowing what we want to play anymore than we do the term “indie.”

    – Ryan

  2. John Harper
    January 17, 2012

    The more I play, the more I want to relate to and talk about individual games and the less I want imagine some kind of invisible armature on which they must hang.

    This. I see no value in marking out boundaries and fighting the classification wars.

  3. Benjamin Hayward
    January 17, 2012

    The following definition errs on being too simple, too inflexible, and too niche, but I have used it successfully with people only familiar with Dungeons and Dragons when explaining “story games” to them:

    In a ‘roleplaying game’, there is one storyteller and one or more players who take on the role of a single character in the story.

    In a ‘story game’, everyone has some extent of narrative control that is at a level greater than that of manipulating a single character.

    Of course, this definition is really only useful when telling my D&D players that “this next game isn’t like the roleplaying games you’re used to, and here’s why…” but in truth, table-top roleplaying games are the most mainstream form of “story game” that exists, and no definition of story game should exclude them.

    I feel we should have a use for a term before inventing one, however, and just because a game has some kind of story connected to it doesn’t mean it belongs in the category of story games. I feel the term is most useful when defining the genre of a game, and genres are most useful in advertising. So my answer in the form of a question would be, “what kinds of games would you market as a ‘story game’?” And that’s how I thought about it when I was pitching my next game to my regular group.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    January 17, 2012

    The marketing factor is certainly an interesting one. More and more I tend to agree with Morningstar’s position that just calling, say, Fiasco a game and putting it in someone’s hands may be more effective than calling it a “story game” or otherwise qualifying it in a way that narrows the amount of light it puts out. The number of people who want to play a game is apparently large. We cut that number down when we say “story game” or “war game” or “massively multiplayer asynchronous word-deconstructing game.”

    It may be valuable to have terms to differentiate styles or manners of games within our community, so we can better describe things to each other, but there’s a point at which a descriptor becomes so broad or so diluted or threadbare or say laden with baggage that adding it helps less or accidentally includes or implies more. That’s not helpful.

    So, yeah, I wonder. Tomorrow, I think, I’m going to explore a whole other metaphor about this.

  5. Lou Prosperi
    January 18, 2012

    Hi Will,

    I’ve spent long and countless hours thinking about this over the years (moreso when I was more actively involved in the game industry), and the definition for RPGs that I’ve come up with is this:

    Cooperative Story Games

    This definition does two things:

    First, it encapsulates the primary reasons people play RPGS:

    1. RPGs are social (cooperative),
    2. RPGs result in the creation of a story, and
    3. RPGs are games.

    All three of these qualities have long been important to people across cultures.

    Second, this definition highlights the three types of activities that comprise the RPG play experience. RPGs involve:

    1. Cooperative Stories (where the story created is the result of a cooperative effort among the participants)

    2. Cooperative Games (RPGs do not have victory conditions, yet the rules of most RPGs support cooperative efforts towards a goal)

    3. Story Games (games in which the rules are used to define key aspects of the story, namely characters and the actions they take)

    I know that doesn’t really address the difference between “roleplaying games” and “story games”, but I consider the latter to be one aspect of the former.

    Some food for thought.

    Take Care,

    Lou Prosperi

  6. Will Hindmarch
    January 19, 2012

    That is thought provoking, Lou. To what extent do you think the label “cooperative story game” attracts players, especially new players? Does it entice or inform those who don’t already know what you’re talking about? (I found my attempts at definitions tended to get nods from people who already agree with me and shrugs from those who don’t.) If I play PvP style, am I not playing an RPG anymore?

  7. Benjamin Hayward
    January 19, 2012

    Looking at the definition of Story Game from a marketing perspective, labels like it sometimes hurt marketing, but they sometimes help it. It could be that the selection of games available is so great that adding “Story Game” to the cover of your book or box is more likely to sell it. It might reduce the pool of potential buyers, but it might increase the likelihood that your game stands out to the right customers. Even if it reduces the number of sales to shelf-browsers, it at least increases the chance that the people who do buy it will be genuinely interested in your game over others, and those are the people more likely to actually play the game and recommend it to friends.

    I think the marketing angle of the definition comes down to two questions: What will buyers think when they read “Story Game” on the front? And is there a market for games labelled as a story games?

  8. Lou Prosperi
    January 19, 2012

    Hi Will,

    To be honest, I’m not sure that my definition would attract more players than any other definition, but I haven’t really shared it with too many folks (though the other Developers at FASA back in the day probably heard more about it than they would have preferred).

    My goal with this was to arrive at a definition that explains what RPGs are how they work as a form of entertainment, as the basis for further examination of the form. As such, it was more for theoretical purposes than for marketing/sales purposes.

    I suspect that like your definitions, my definition would get nods from other designers and players and shrugs or puzzling faces from those not familiar with RPGs.

    Regarding your question about playing PvP style, is it really PvP, or CvC (character vs. character)? If CvC, the players are still cooperating in the creation of a story through use the game’s rules, so I think the definition still works. In a true PvP situation, I’m not sure…

    Take Care,


  9. lior
    January 21, 2012

    This may be simplicistic or just plain wrong. But to me, its a question of stance. in storygames, you often use director stance. In other roleplaying games you seldom do.


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