What Isn’t a Role-Playing Game?

It was just over nine years ago that I started blogging about role-playing games. My initial entry into this new domain? A six-post, seven-thousand word series in response to John Wick’s Chess is Not an RPG. His was ostensibly a post on GMing, but wrapped in a discussion about game design. Along the way it made a claim that was typical of a certain set of people in the gaming space at the time:

D&D is not a role-playing game.

This stirred a hornets nest, naturally. Trying to claim that D&D is not a role-playing game is about the same as trying to argue that the Kitty Hawk Flyer was not in fact an airplane but some proto-species of heavier-than-air power-glider, or that Neuromancer is not cyberpunk, but instead only speculative chrome-fiction. Trying to redefine something to exclude the earliest, most-common, or mold-making exemplar of that thing feels absurd on its face. Unfortunately, this was a common feature of a lot of post-forge, narrative-heavy game design thinking: your role-playing priorities aren’t my role-playing priorities, therefore you aren’t really role-playing. This wasn’t true of everyone, not all designs and not all designers, but it was certainly something floating in the water.

In a way, it was good for my own development that so many members of the RPG-as-art crowd came off as insufferably as they did. As much as I enjoy my player-driven character drama, a fundamental anti-elitism kept me from losing sight of the important bit: role-playing games are supposed to be fun. People are allowed to like different kinds of fun, even in the context of the same hobby.

Cut forward a decade or so. Wick’s site is now gone, forgotten but for the grace of the Wayback Machine. I’ve since moved on to entirely different blogging platforms and those original posts have long since been archived. This entire topic is one I would have thought to be a distant memory, long since past relevancy. Imagine my surprise to watch it all crop up again, now coming from another angle.

Storytelling games are not Role-Playing Games,or so goes the claim. I’ve seen various versions of this argument made but the unifying theme is the same one at which Wick was playing a decade ago: redefining “role-playing game” to support their preferred play style while revoking the title from games that have different creative agendas.

At some point I may well sit down and write a proper response, getting into specific points made — some of them are very interesting, even where I disagree — but I think my biggest question is why? For what purpose? To what end?

The most charitable interpretation was from a post I came across recently.

This is not gatekeeping. This is the opposite of gatekeeping: I am signposting. I am putting up linguistic road signs so people can find their way.

I’ve heard the sentiment before, but a certain recurring coincidence strains credulity. In each instance the new, objective, impartial, and altruistic definition of “role-playing game” precisely matches the author’s preferred creative agenda and style of play. Meanwhile, the other gains a new label that is totally respectable — just not a real role-playing game.

War. War never changes.

Even taken at face value, this approach will never lead to the desired outcome. There are only two ways for definition to stick to a term. The first is through uncontested consensus. This is almost always the result of historical usage, inherited over time. The second is introduction through a centralized authority. This typically requires that the term is both new and coined by the authority in question and that said authority carries enough weight for their term to be referenced by others and thus acquire accepted meaning through consensus and common usage.

The ship has long-since sailed for “role-playing game” to be changed by either category. Gygax died in 2008, so centralized authority is out the window. Even then, his design priorities often diverged from both other founding figures of the hobby and evolved significantly over the course of his life. That leaves us with common consensus.

Blades in the Dark describes itself as a role-playing game. Apocalypse World describes itself as a role-playing game. Fate describes itself as a role-playing game. Houses of the Blooded describes itself as a role-playing game. The Burning Wheel describes itself as a role-playing game. My Life With Master describes itself as a role-playing game. Lady Blackbird describes itself as a role-playing game. Sorcerer describes itself as a role-playing game. The fans of all of these things and the design communities that sprung up around them also describe these things as role-playing games.

Any proposed redefinition of “role-playing game” tailored to exclude any of the above will immediately fail to achieve anything like consensus. It will not further clarify the conversation. It will not better elucidate matters for the bewildered navigator of imagination-based dice games. It will, at best, further muddy already effluent waters. At worst, it will be a cudgel used by partisans to imply their preferred game or style of game is better than those other nerds who are having the wrong kind of fun.

The tragedy here is that these people are on to something.

There is a conversation to be had here around terminology. The word “role-playing game” is a hopelessly fuzzy, bloated, and useless term for describing desired experience. The key to this entire issue is realizing where our language fails.

Halo 3 and Starcraft 2 are not only both computer games, they are both computer games about space marines in a three-way cage match between humans, alien religious zealots, and endless swarms of vaguely insectoid monstrosities. And yet, if you were a die-hard fan of the former and someone handed you the latter, it would likely not scratch the same itch. In the medium of computer games, we have terms for why: the former is a first person shooter, the latter is a real-time strategy game. They have different goals, different modes of play, provide different kinds of experiences, and challenge players in different ways. What is a good design decision for the former would not necessarily be good for the latter, and vice versa. Yet at no point do we have people Call of Duty fanboys trying to argue that Rome: Total War is No True Computer Game. They have the language they need to describe the experiences they’re after without needing to cast the Other into the Outer Dark.

The original D&D “little brown books” were first published in January, 1974. The hobby has had fifty years now to grow, develop, and evolve. Different subcultures and design movements have come and gone, each prioritizing different aspects of the hobby and creating games to satisfy those ends. What is needed now is not a new definition of “role-playing game.” That ship has sailed. What we need are better terms to describe what we actually want out of our role-playing games.

If you want to post signs, you have to post new signs. You can’t just try to flip the old ones around to your benefit. Get more specific in defining what you’re after and why. Develop the language to explain why your particular breed of role-playing game is a Stealth Survival Sandbox, rather than a Visual Novel or a Roguelike. Short of that, we aren’t moving the conversation forward, we’re just shouting past each other.

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