2005-02-07 : Archive 170


Roleplaying game vs Storytelling game. Which one am I? How do I tell?

I call bogus!

There are movements sometimes to define certain RPGs into or out of "roleplaying games." I'm not impressed. Like, Mike Mearls' definition (must have a GM, must not have a predetermined end) excludes Universalis and My Life with Master, both of which are clearly the same kind of thing as D&D and GURPS. Fiddly historical accidents about what goes along with the roleplaying (a GM, open-endedness, 1 character per player, dice, what have you) seem like a stupid way to build a definition.

Remember my silly diagrams? What makes it roleplaying is the flow of information between the smiley faces and the thought bubble. If your game has that, its an RPG, as far as I'm concerned. Certainly any game you could call a "Storytelling game" would qualify.

There, I've contributed bogosity of my own! Excellent. Now Mike Mearls and whoever else can call me unimpressive, stupid and accidental right back. As it should be.

1. On 2005-02-07, Ninja Hunter J said:

I like that Mearls' definition is successfully refuted on his own LJ, just below his definition.

'Adamray' points out that this is a Role-Playing Game by Mearls' definition:

1. Appoint one of the players as the referee.2. The other players take turns rolling a 6-sided die.3. Whoever rolls the highest gets 1 experience point.4. The referee chooses the winner in case of a tie.

No one answers.


2. On 2005-02-07, Keith, Goat Master said:

Hmmm. I'm of the mind to simple call them Games and be done with it. Does it really matter if it has a label like RPG, storytelling game, board game or war game? When we get down to brass tacks isn't it all the same thing? Who cares what it is called?


3. On 2005-02-07, Chris said:

I don't know Vincent- your definition doesn't seem very bogus at all. Consider that your definition requires 3 elements:

1) People2) Shared Imagined space3) Systematic method of interpreting/altering what is happening in that imagined space(recognized or not by the group).

Compare this to:

Fiction1) 1 person2) Imagined space

Boardgames1) People2) Tokens3) System of manipulating Tokens

Conversations1) People2) Systems for interacting

Day Dreaming1) 1 Person2) Imagined space

Improv Acting1) People2) Systems for interacting

Guided Visualization1) People2) Unshared Imaginative Space3) System for one person to tell the others what to imagine

So far, of them all Guided visualization is what comes to the closest, but even the hardcore Illusionist gives some Color input to the players. I think your definition hits it better than any others I've seen.


4. On 2005-02-07, Matt said:

Actually improv can sometimes require a shared imagined space. The stage becomes someone's house; the actors hand each other imaginary props; etc.

I might be willing to argue that RPGs are a parent group that improv acting falls within, that they're "Improv X," where X is any combo of acting, directing and authoring.


5. On 2005-02-07, Charles said:

There are certainly storytelling games and they bear some resemblance to roleplaying games, but the dividing line is different than the one you are arguing against. For in stance, 'Five card Nancy' is a storytelling game, and not a roleplaying game. There are similar commercial games, but I can't remember what any of them are named.

Other storytelling games would include "Can-you" and possibly other forms round-robin storytelling.

The difference, as I see it, involves character ownership. In a roleplaying game, players have substatially greater degree of claim to some character(s). Other people do not have as free rein with those characters as the characters' owner, and very rarely (or never) determine those characters' actions. This is strongly tied to the existence of a particular type of in-character stance, and seems to me to be a defining characteristic of role-playing games.

At the moment, your definition of roleplaying games includes 5 card nancy withinthe category of roleplaying games, and I don't think that this is true.


6. On 2005-02-07, Charles said:

Very rarely' may be too strong a claim, there are certainly restrictions on what you can have my characters do in all RPGs I am aware of. A game in which we randomly redistribute ownership of the characters at the start of each scene might be interesting, but I think it would have some radical differences from existing roleplaying.


7. On 2005-02-08, Vincent said:


If we want to divvy games-with-communicated-imaginary-events into "roleplaying games" and "storytelling games," with the line between them being character ownership, Universalis stumps us. This time we play, we have character ownership; next time, we don't; that's how it goes sometimes.

Nope, I pretty much consider character ownership to be like having a GM or rolling dice - wicked common but not defining. Yes, this makes Once Upon a Time a roleplaying game.

5 Card Nancy, though, I don't think qualifies. Playing it, do you communicate and agree to wholly imaginary events? It seems to me that all the events in the in-game are visible on the cards, not imaginary.


8. On 2005-02-08, Charles said:

The images on the cards imply events in a story, and each new card must fit into that (wholly imaginary) story (even if they fit in by transforming the story). The cards do not actually depict events. Our shared understanding of the story is what determines whether your next card play is acceptible, not anything about the actual cards. If we all agree that the story is best served by a surrealist turn at this point, then an inexplicable card will be welcomed, but if we all want to see what happens next, then a surrealistic turn will be rejected.

Also, are you sure the events need to be wholly imaginary?

If we take on characters, and have a dinner party, in which no action occurs except that which we actually physically take, that looks at least as much like roleplaying to me as Once Upon a Time or "Can You." I don't see what events in that are wholly imaginary (except our backstories, but does it stop being a roleplaying game if we take on the characters of actual people?).

If you require that there be no things which straddle the boundaries between categories, then I think you end up with categories that don't mean much, so I am not convinced that the the fact that Universalis can produce games in which character ownership is non-existant demonstrates that character ownership is merely an historical artifact in roleplaying games.

So is collaborative script writing also roleplaying? In fact, doesn't most collaborative acting work involve your three components (We have a group of people, the shared imaginary world referenced by the script, a system for modifying the shared imaginary world (suggesting changes to the author/director/group))? Of course, collaborative acting does contain the component I was objecting to the lack of (character ownership), so there are other things as well that make a roleplaying game distinct in my mind.

Certainly, collaborative world-story creation activities comprise a category. If you want to call that whole category roleplaying, that is possible. I can see that there are benefits to doing so, in that it allows you to more easily draw on methods that have developed within one part of the taxonomy (round robin serials) for another part (those things which have been traditionally called roleplaying games), but I think that this creates as much confusion as it creates benefit. I think you are better off calling the uber category soething other than roleplaying games, and pointing out that round robins, collaborative acting projects, and roleplaying all do related things within this larger categoy.

This is muddled, but I really should be at work...

I think that for me one requirement of something being a roleplaying game is, well, the taking on of roles. This requires that people have some degree of ownership of characters, with multiple people having some degree of ownership of different characters at the same time (so I have ownership of this character, and you have ownership of that character, and we interact within the imaginary world as those people).

If we never do that, then I don't think it is roleplaying.

Of course, that still doesn't explain why collaborative acting projects aren't roleplaying. Then again, they may be...


9. On 2005-02-08, Vincent said:

Whatever definition we (or anybody) agree to, it'll exclude some things that are historically roleplaying games, or else it'll include some things that aren't historically roleplaying games. That's because the historical category isn't rigorous. It's based on history, not on principle.

So we have to choose: include or exclude? Remember that the purpose of the conversation is to select marginal cases out or in. Is Tony's game a roleplaying game?

Turns out that this is a political question! You'd think we could just settle on a workable definition and move on, but we can't. Instead we have to contend with a serious prob: 1) Universalis and My Life with Master are successful, money-making games - and wish luck to Tony's game Capes. 2) They're sufficiently dissimilar from conventional RPGs that you can make a case for defining them out of the field.

So that matters, beyond the question of definition and theory. Someone invested in the success of conventional RPGs at the expense of unconventional ones might use 2. to pitch the battle. I don't really have the liberty to choose the definition I think makes the most sense; I have to pick sides.

So that's me: Tony and I do the same work. We work together on the same problems and learn from each others' solutions. Me and Mike Holmes and Ralph Mazza too, Paul Czege too. I'm not going to define their work out of my field. Especially when money's on the line!

(Well, that, plus if there are no NPCs, does that mean the GM isn't roleplaying? You've been on the other side of this argument with regard to GMs, multiple PCs, world creation, story creation, dice, rules, character sheets - seriously, consider that "there must be character ownership" sounds just as random to me as "there must be experience points" does to you.)


10. On 2005-02-08, Charles said:

I understand your political position, and I understand that what you were declaring was that the games that don't look much like standard roleplaying games, but still share some characteristics and history with roleplaying games ARE roleplaying games. That I'm not disagreeing with you on that was what I meant by saying the dividing line for me is different than the one you are arguing about.

As I was writing that muddle, I began to doubt character ownership as what I really meant. I think something closer to taking on roles within the shared imaginary space is something closer to what I mean. If we simply take turns having total control over the world, then I think we begin to move away from the core of roleplaying. The longer the turns, the less roleplaying-like it becomes. At some point, we have reached the point where we are playing a round robin serial game. The line is very fuzzy (and not very close to the edges of traditional roleplaying), and we might spend months playing round robin serial, then drop into roleplaying for a scene, then go back to round robining, but I think it is theoretically useful to recognize the existance of a distinction, even if it is not politically useful.

I still think Once Upon a Time and round robin serials aren't roleplaying games. I admit I'm not quite clear what divides round robin serials from the written online roleplaying games, but I think it relates to role-taking in relation to other authors/players.

I think that the concept of taking on roles (within the shared imaginary space) in relation to other players remains central to role playing. Obviously, taking on roles in relation to other players is not the entirety of roleplaying. Obviously, it is possible for a GM to be purely an ajudicator, in which case, yes, I'd say that they are not role playing, they are running a role playing game. I would, however, take the category of character to be very broad. If someone else participates in the game purely by taking notes and writing up summaries after each session, I'd say they aren't roleplaying either (even though they are participating in a role playing game).

Of course, the other major distinction between roleplaying games and the other set of similar activities (e.g. collaborative acting projects) relates to the importance of audience experience versus in-character and authorial experience. Roleplaying games emphasize the in-character and authorial experience, while acting generally emphasizes the audience perspective. This boundary is obviously also extremely muddy, and also composed mostly of historical artifacts. While few things that are intended primarily to be presented to an audience are considered roleplaying, plenty of things that are primarily about authorial and in-character experience are considered collaborative acting.

Still a muddle, but I think there is something theoretically interesting rummaging around in there somewhere.

I can see that from your vantage point that the question of what is the boundary between roleplaying games and not-roleplaying games is not a useful one, both because it is a political weapon, and also because it places limits on where roleplaying can go, but I think it is useful to think not so much about the boundaries as about the end points of the continua. Where exactly the dividing line is between round robins and roleplaying isn't a useful or interesting question, and I'm probably taking the wrong tack to say that Once Upon a Time isn't a roleplaying game (as we played it, it didn't feel that much like one, but then we may not have been playing it well). The interesting question is what makes round robins feel different than D&D. Certainly, developing roleplaying games that feel like round robins (or that are round robins) may be an interesting way of exploring that difference.


11. On 2005-02-08, Charles said:

I suppose another way of describing your definition is that roleplaying games traverse the entire space defined by your three criteria. The fact that everything that exists within that space is not considered a roleplaying game doesn't mean that there is some portion of that space that is closed to roleplaying games.


12. On 2005-02-09, Emily Care said:

For me, what Vincent outlines can fit both storytelling games and role-playing, and the distinction between them is the presence of IC stance. That might mean that some games will be pure storytelling sometimes and role-playing at other times. Universalis can function this way.

That doesn't mean they are not role-playing games. What it means is that role-playing is a special case of collaborative storytelling, that involves taking on a role whether it be fixed or fleeting (to use John LaViolette's terminology), and that some games may be either depending on how they are played.

This may still be political, but it seems to fit the reality.


13. On 2005-02-09, Vincent said:

I'm pretty much happy. Tony, any thoughts?


14. On 2005-03-13, Tony said:

Yeah thanks, I enjoyed that.