Select Page

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?