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Defining Our Terms

by Steven Darlington

In which the author takes a look at the building blocks that make up our hobby


Are we telling a story, or playing a game?

That's probably one of the most asked questions in role-playing of late. Debates, flames and rants on this topic have raged loud and long in various magazines, forums and mailing lists. In the last issue we featured yet another look at this question.

The problem is, most of these discussions end with the conclusion (either admitted or not) that the answer to this question is purely personal, depending on your conception of the hobby. There is likely no universal answer to this question. However, this does not make the question any less interesting. In fact, I believe that like Douglas Adams' proverbial '42', this is a situation where we are so fixated on arriving at an answer, we haven't realised that it may not help unless we understand and examine the question.

Also, in examining the question, I believe we can actually get a better understanding of the many facets of roleplaying, and provide a better language for defining and analysing it. So let's take a look at the question. Are we telling a story, or playing a game?

The problem first of all with this question is that each side of that equation has fanatic supporters and detractors, which has led to each side attracting a stigma. 'Storytellers' are all stereotyped as anti-rule, anti-dice, pro-setting, angst-loving, pretentious Vampire fanboys who define roleplaying as a dramatic art which they use to psychoanalyse themselves. Whereas 'gamers' are those who are pro-rules, dice loving, anti-setting, powergaming, immature D&D fanboys who like nothing more than whacking kobolds and stealing their treasure in a pathetic attempt to feel macho. So from the beginning, let's remove all those stereotypes so they don't cloud the issue. A player's choice in this matter reflects little, if at all, on his other gaming tastes, nor is one choice any more valid or enjoyable than the alternative.

Throughout the following article, the term 'players' is used inclusively, to mean all those involved in the game, whether player or GM.

Moreover, despite the phrasing of the question, this is not a case of choosing one or the other. Rather what we have is more like two independent factors which can be added to an RPG, at varying levels. The question is which is the more dominant of the two. This is also not a life choice that determines how someone plays ever after. Players can change styles as easily as they change games. A typical style often emerges, but it does so gradually, and it arises and is adhered to through little, if any, conscious design.

So we'll refine the question: Is your usual gaming preference more focussed on telling a story, or playing a game?

The second problem we encounter is one of history. Ten years ago, before the 'storytelling movement', this question was different. In general, the question then was 'Are we roleplaying or are we roll-playing?'. This question points to the fact that 'story or game' does not encapsulate everything which defines your game, and that we perhaps need to expand our question to get a better picture. It also indicates we need to define our terms: is roleplaying the same as storytelling, or "playing a game" equivalent to "rollplaying"? We can't discuss the question at hand without clarifying the notation.

The first confusion we must clear up is that roleplaying is both the name of our hobby and a way of carrying it out. In general, the former is an inclusive term, embracing all styles, and does not imply that the roleplaying style of play - as defined below - is the "correct" method. To avoid further confusion between these terms, I refer to the hobby as "RPGs" from now on.

So, to define our terms. As everyone knows, defining the word 'game' is no easy task. Luckily, someone has done it for us. Greg Costikyan's article 'I have no words and I must design' is not the only work on the subject, but it is one of the best, and it is freely available on the web. I strongly suggest you read it if you have not already. Of particular interest is the critical vocabulary Greg develops for analysis and examination of games; for my purposes, however, I will just borrow his definition.

Those further interested in defining games should track down the work on this subject by German philosopher Wittgenstein

Greg primarily defines games by what they are not: they are not toys, because toys have no structure; they require the player to invent their own goals, directions and restrictions using the various aspects of the toy. A game is also not a puzzle, because a puzzle is not interactive; it has been set by another and can only be 'won' by arriving at their solution. A game lies between these two extremes: it has specified structures and goals, but requires interaction and control so that each game is effectively built on the action of the players. Thus a game is also not a work of fiction, nor any other traditional art form, because they are passive experiences, with a linear development controlled by the artist. Games must be participatory, with characters making decisions which dramatically effect the experience.

Under these definitions, however, a game is still a broad classification, and as such doesn't help us clarify our terms. So I'm going to introduce a classification of games which I shall call 'narrative games'.

The term 'narrative' here should not be confused with 'storytelling', which we shall come to later. What I'm describing here are games which have some sort of narrative structure to the events within them. Many games fall into this category: all wargames, for example, including chess. Chess is an abstraction, but it does tell a story: two opposing armies meet on the field, they exchange maneuvers and one side is victorious. What this definition does is allow us to exclude games which are purely and completely abstract, involving no concepts from the real world or any sort of flow of events which could resemble a story. Such games include most traditional card games like Bridge, gambling games like Craps and abstract board games like Tic Tac Toe.

Dr Rotwang uses this exact same terminology in discussing the nature of RPGs as an art form in his article

I use the term 'narrative' to describe these games because they share the same structure of a literary narrative. Namely, they involve a progression of events which occur to, through or around one or many central characters. Such a definition allows us to separate narratives from other types of stories: character studies, expository work, etc. Due to their focus on a flow of events, narratives lend themselves more than most stories to a separation into two key elements: the characters, and the events. Or rather, since the events are often determined by the characters, into the protagonists, the chief characters of the story, with whom the audience identifies most, and the environment, the world around them and the people in it, with which they interact but cannot entirely control.

These terms are important, because they have a direct relationship to narrative games. By defining the nature of these two elements and how they are activated by the players, we can describe a game quite well. Typically, the players are in control of the protagonists and the environment is controlled by the rules. By breaking this pattern, however, we can produce very different gaming experiences.

As an example, let's again look at chess, a story of two armies at war. Here, the protagonists are obviously the two opposing sides. Note that something as abstract as a military force can still be considered a 'character' for the purpose of this definition. Now, because the forces are the key protagonists, they are given over to the players to control. The players can be thought of as being the intelligence of their entire side, in complete control of their every move. However, there are some things the players cannot control. Primarily, the nature of the simulation. The two forces must fight until the victory conditions are met, must use the specified array of pieces, and must move those pieces in the prescripted manner. When a piece is captured, the player cannot stop it from dying. All of this can be thought of as the environment, the rules of the universe, which determine what happens to the protagonists, based on their choices.

To further clarify this, let's look at a game which is much closer to a narrative: Talisman. Talisman and games like it (Dungeon Quest, HeroQuest, Wizard's Cave, and many computer games) are closely related to RPGs for a few reasons. The main similarity is that each player controls one individual character; naturally, these are the protagonists in the game. Here, the focus is on individual choices and struggles, and competition is less direct. Instead, the characters race to acquire power, and interact with random events as determined by the board, by a dice roll or by cards, or some combination of these. The environment is defined by both these random elements, and the rules for interacting with them.

There are many games like this which share features common to RPGs. In some, the players work together, struggling to achieve a victory condition and focus on the best choice of manipulating resources. Others increase the strategy by putting control of some of the environment into the hands of another player, so the players can match wits. At an extreme, the rules may only specify how the player-controlled environment interacts with the player-controlled protagonists. This, then is very close to being a roleplaying game, and indeed strategy games of this ilk have many opportunities for roleplaying. Hence this also tends to be a common way of introducing people to RPGs. Examples which spring to mind here are Hero Quest and Warhammer Quest.

What separates these games from being fully considered RPGs are the elements of storytelling and roleplaying. To define these, however, we must first define rollplaying.

In games like Talisman, the character manipulated by the player has some specific rules and statistics associated with it. These play a part in determining how the protagonist interacts with the environment. The nature of standard, strategic game play is that the player chooses which is the best option for him to take, based on these character statistics and the game situation, so that he may reach a win condition. Even if the character is so designed as to make this choice tend towards a certain personality type (eg a beserker does better in close combat), as long as the sole or chief consideration is the most propitious game option, we have roll-playing.

Not that there is anything wrong with this. In fact, rollplaying is very much a part of the RPG hobby, and is often done hand in hand with actual roleplaying and storytelling. For the purposes of defining an RPG, however, something which relies entirely on rules is indistinguishable from a standard board or card game, and thus must be excluded from our definition. This exclusion is not set in stone in practice though, nor does it carry any implication of lower regard; for the purposes of creating a definition we simply have to draw some strict lines at some points.

So now, what are these two things we keep mentioning - roleplaying and storytelling? Well, as said above, if the player is choosing his move based on the best game option, he is rollplaying. What takes it further is when the player uses something else to make that decision. The things the player might consider allow us to specify the difference between roleplaying and storytelling.

Roleplaying can be defined as attempting to play out the role of a character. This means that the player makes some attempt to pretend to be someone else. This pretending, however, can be purely internalised, or represented only through narration of the character's actions. In other words, roleplaying need not involve acting or any sort of performance to an audience. Nor does roleplaying require playing a personality different from the player. Asking, 'what would I do in this situation' is simply roleplaying yourself, or what your personality would be if you were a teenage mutant ninja penguin. The roleplaying comes from reacting to the situation as if it were "real", and not simply reacting as if you were sitting around a dice-covered table.

The difference between roleplay and story is that roleplay focuses purely on the characters. In roleplaying, events happen to the characters, and are caused by them, and these in turn produce stories, but the purpose of these events and stories is only to provide a backdrop for the roleplaying experience. The storytelling movement shifted this focus to include another aspect: as well as roleplaying, the players and the GM should also work towards making the stories dramatic, interesting and well structured.

To many, this was and is implicit in the roleplaying focus, and indeed the difference is somewhat nebulous. A storytelling game will indeed feature roleplaying (and vice versa); the difference is that in some instances, when the requirements for telling a good, powerful, well-told story conflict with the requirements for accurate or intense character play, it is the story that wins out more often in a storytellng game. Whereas in a roleplaying game, it is character that tends to hold sway.

Note that these definitions apply equally to players and GMs. Both have to make decisions at various junctures on whether character - either player characters or NPCs - or story is the more important factor.

So now that we have defined these terms of narrative gaming, rollplaying, roleplaying and storytelling. We can now use these to define an RPG.

Let us then return to our game of Talisman. Is it an RPG? No, because the players choose based only on gaming strategy. But what if we say the players stop caring about winning and start making their decisions based on roleplaying and storytelling as well as the gaming considerations? Is that an RPG? No. Because there is no GM: the environment is still being controlled by the rules, not a person. So what if we then add a GM-type player, who controls what events the players encounter - is that an RPG? No, because the GM may be still be making his choices based solely on rules and strategy. Both players AND GM must be making decisions based on roleplaying and/or storytelling for it to be considered an RPG.

For much more on defining roleplaying, see Issue Two

This then provides a definition of an RPG. An RPG is a narrative game, wherein one or more players are in control primarily of individual protagonists who have limited control of the environment, and where another player (called the GM) is in control of the environment and has limited control of the protagonists. The rules specify the nature of these protagonists and the environment, but the actions and interactions of both are entirely up to the players. An RPG also requires that both players and GM are guided in their play not solely by the processes and opportunities of these rules, but also by the concerns of roleplaying and storytelling.

To permit these two concerns to have full opportunity to come to the fore, the rules must be free enough to allow the modelling of any action whatsoever (assuming it is possible within the environment) by either party. The rules should also be malleable enough to be removed or altered should they conflict with roleplaying and storytelling. Likewise, the concerns of roleplaying and storytelling should be flexible enough to be disregarded - or more usually, altered - based on the rules. For something to be considered an RPG, both these elements must be present, but neither completely dominant. If rules are completely dominant we have a standard strategy game, if roleplaying or storytelling is dominant we have something closer to improvisational drama or collaborative fiction than a game.

As a corollary of this definition, any concept of an RPG ruleset with any sort of rigidity, formality or universality is perhaps something of an impossibility: the very definition of an RPG demands flexibility here. This in turn suggests that there can perhaps be no 'official' rules for an RPG. This is a topic for another essay, however.

Most other games also have other considerations besides the letter of the rules. For example, the idea that things should be relatively fair, or that everyone should be included and having fun. These 'meta-rules' deal with the concerns of good play. RPGs are no different to other games in considering these; in fact, they are even more significant to RPGs and often need to be stated explicitly. As the needs of roleplaying and storytelling erode the rules, equality of player-character participation and effectiveness becomes harder to control.

So then, RPGs can be considered a sort of tug-of-war between four key concerns: rules, roleplaying, storytelling, and play. These considerations effect every aspect of roleplaying. Each player sets his own levels of importance on each of them, producing their own unique style of play. What's more, they also set their own interpretations on how to best promote them, so that two gamers who place exactly the same emphasis on each factor may still be playing different types of games.

Others have produced similar deconstructions of roleplaying, including John Kim, whose three fold model is also described here, and Glenn Blacow, whose four-way model is referenced here

For example, on the issue of the use of pregenerated characters: some GMs prefer to use pregens because they can then be directly wired into the story (storytelling), or given interesting, meshing personalities (roleplaying) or made free of rule mistakes or abuses (rules) or made to balance out the participation levels of all players (play). Whereas some GMs dislike pregens because they make the story too character-focussed (storytelling), or because they take away the player's freedom to develop a personality (roleplaying) or because they mean that the players won't fully understand the rules applying to their character and thus make mistakes in their execution (rules) or because they think that chargen is an important part of player enjoyment (play).

So now, we have defined the building blocks of RPGs. Do we now have a better understanding of our original question, can we now get a clearer idea on whether we are playing a game or telling story? Yes and no. No in the sense that despite now having a lot of nice, clear terminology with which to phrase the question, the answer is still up to the individual. What's more, even if a player can announce the amount of influence he places on each aspect, we've just shown that this may still not give a clear picture of how he plays the game.

However, the clear terminology provided here does give us a greater insight of the question. We've removed the opaqueness of words like 'gaming', so that a player's preferences can now be defined based on four simple, recognisable, non-ambiguous and fairly independent (though not orthogonal) factors. That can only help communicating our different tastes, and better communication is always good for the hobby.

The definitions of each of these terms also provide insight for further discussions of style and mode of play. Particularly the definition of protagonists and environment in narrative games - and narratives. We can now discuss how the GM and players define these elements. Generally, RPGs put the control of the environment into the hands of the GM, and the control of most of the chief protagonists into the hands of the players; however, it need not be so. Each player will have differing ideas about how much players (and GMs) should be able to control and effect each of these elements.

Issue 10 offered more on control of the plot

You'll also notice that the split was not between protagonists and plot. This is because, as any writer will tell you, in a narrative, plot and character are inseparable. Some RPG styles, however, separate these elements, with plot controlled almost exclusively by the GM. Some place plot entirely with the players. Most choose a middle ground. Again, each group will find it's own balance here on how and how much a player and a GM can and should manipulate protagonists and environment to bring about plot elements.

Whatever nature is found for the balance, one thing is clear: RPGs (and, indeed, all other narrative games) are NOT the same as a work of narrative fiction, be it book, film or play. In those things, the protagonists and the environment are entirely controlled by one mind. This level of total control gives a writer free reign in how they interact to bring about the plot, to which all other elements are generally subservient. RPGs are different. RPGs throw away this idea and give the control of these elements to a group of people, in many different ways. As such, there is always an element of chaos and the unknown in these interactions, and as a result, no-one controls the plot. Rather, it is free-formed by a group consciousness, into something more interesting and more multi-faceted than any one person could ever create.

It may be a stupid mess because of this, or it may be something very special, but nobody can ever predict what it will be like before it is played. This end product might be an art form, or an entertainment, or just some fun, but whatever it is, it will never be quite the same as a work of fiction.

And it's this difference, of course, that makes RPGs so special.


Steven Darlington is a caucasian male, six foot two inches tall, medium build, brown hair, brown eyes. Distinquishing marks: a small mole in his garden.

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