RPG Taxonomy? RPG Tax onna you!

Recent posts by folks like Paul Beakley and Cam Banks have me thinking about how I use various terms extant in this hobby, and since this is what we do here, I figured I’d write about them. Again, this is how I think about things. Me and only me. There’s probably nothing earth-shattering here or particularly insightful. Honestly, these are probably totally asinine and unhelpful.

Also, be forewarned that lots of this is Forge-induced thinking, so prepare yourself.

First off, to me an “RPG” or “roleplaying game” is any game that has a shared imagined space.

Super-broad, I know, and I’m sure someone could probably name a game that, once I thought about, fits this definition but that I would maybe not call a role-playing game. Once Upon A Time has come up in other discussions, and it may fit that bill; I’ve never played it, so I can’t really offer informed commentary.

That said, you’ll notice that “assuming a role” isn’t germane to my definition, e.g., I totally think Microscope is an RPG. So is Fiasco. If there’s a SIS populated with characters we care about, then it’s an RPG by my definition.

An “indie” game is one that is creator-owned.

Now, I realize that there is a lot of baggage here, and sure, in common parlance “indie” also refers to a body of design assumptions and embedded procedures. So I’m typically willing to add those aspects as well, the primary one being that game implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that System Matters, and thus has a clear agenda supported by its rules.

*A “trad” game is a game that doesn’t do this. *

Or, at least, doesn’t care whether it does it or not. It also mostly likely hews to one of the Fundamental Trad Design Models™, i.e., the game is essentially a reworking of: D&D, Champions, or BRP. This means that it likely has a GM role, and that role has more authority than any others, and game fundamentally runs “top-down” no matter how much authority is doled out to non-GMs.

Mind you, there can be overlap between these two. Self-awareness and creator-ownership will push it one way or the other for me.

So, what about “Story Games”?

A “story game” is a game that is basically an “indie” game, but either: a) its designer, publisher, or its fanbase doesn’t want to call it that because of political or social reasons; or b) it uses techniques typically associated with “indie” games but is not creator-owned.

Seriously. “A” seems to be the fundamental reason I can see for the term’s existence, and “B” is my own addendum.

These are probably uninteresting definitions because they don’t really have a lot to do with design or actual play. I guess that’s not important to me because I think all of these terms generally originate with consumers of games and not producers. And too often when producers try and use them they are, IMO, totally wrong. (I once heard one publisher try to claim that HERO was “indie”, back when that term had caché.)

40 thoughts on “RPG Taxonomy? RPG Tax onna you!

  1. One addendum to “indie” that just occurred to me is whether the game encourages players to play to their PCs’ weaknesses. As in, not just give me points at the outset because I took a disad, but support me in making a suboptimal choice during play because it either reflects the PC’s fundamental nature or supports a longer-term agenda, e.g., pursuing a Belief in Burning Wheel.

    I think this could be valid, as I feel like trad games pretty much never, ever do this.

    “But, Mark, D&D 5e does this.” Yes, it does. Not well, but it does. So maybe there are cases of “bleed”. I dunno.

  2. < ![CDATA[One addendum to "indie" that just occurred to me is whether the game encourages players to play to their PCs' weaknesses. As in, not just give me points at the outset because I took a disad, but support me in making a suboptimal choice during play because it either reflects the PC's fundamental nature or supports a longer-term agenda, e.g., pursuing a Belief in Burning Wheel.
    I think this could be valid, as I feel like trad games pretty much never, ever do this.
    “But, Mark, D&D 5e does this.” Yes, it does. Not well, but it does. So maybe there are cases of “bleed”. I dunno.]]>

  3. < ![CDATA[I see that you, too, favour naming your taxa (that's a word, right?) historically over the word-definitionally (or, if you are amused by things that amuse me, choose political over pedantic labels).]]>

  4. I tend to use “Story game” for what Paul Beakley calls Freeform/Talky-talky, “Trad” for anything pre-Vampire (GM, dice, basically D&D with different math), and “Indie” for everything that’s not either of the first two… These are HUGE broad categories, but it helps me a lot.

    If I see a game that I recognize as “Trad” I think: Been doing this for decades. Just learn the new ruleset and hit the ground running.

    If I see something that I recognize as “Freeform/Talky-talky” I think: There’s no safety net! I can’t walk this alone. I need someone to guide me through it. Find an experienced player!

    If I see an Indie game, I think: This is going to bend my mind to work in a different direction from Trad, but I can probably learn how to do this. It should be fine. The real issue is: can I get my Trad buddies to wrap their brains around this?

    The only possible use for any taxonomy would be to try to describe these games to people who are completely unfamiliar with them on, here in G+. That’s the hardest part for me to try to stumble through.

  5. < ![CDATA[I tend to use "Story game" for what Paul Beakley calls Freeform/Talky-talky, "Trad" for anything pre-Vampire (GM, dice, basically D&D with different math), and "Indie" for everything that's not either of the first two... These are HUGE broad categories, but it helps me a lot. If I see a game that I recognize as "Trad" I think: Been doing this for decades. Just learn the new ruleset and hit the ground running. If I see something that I recognize as "Freeform/Talky-talky" I think: There's no safety net! I can't walk this alone. I need someone to guide me through it. Find an experienced player! If I see an Indie game, I think: This is going to bend my mind to work in a different direction from Trad, but I can probably learn how to do this. It should be fine. The real issue is: can I get my Trad buddies to wrap their brains around this? The only possible use for any taxonomy would be to try to describe these games to people who are completely unfamiliar with them on, here in G+. That's the hardest part for me to try to stumble through.]]>

  6. Levi Kornelsen I feel like all of these labels usually arise out of identity politics, and so I kind of define them that way.

    I.e., when someone uses “story game”, it usually tells me a lot more about the person using it than the game in question.

  7. < ![CDATA[Levi Kornelsen I feel like all of these labels usually arise out of identity politics, and so I kind of define them that way. I.e., when someone uses "story game", it usually tells me a lot more about the person using it than the game in question.]]>

  8. Eloy Cintron I honestly believe that none of these terms are of any use in describing a given game to someone not already familiar with the terms.

    And half the time they even cause confusion with people who are familiar, because these terms all suck to one degree or another.

  9. < ![CDATA[Eloy Cintron I honestly believe that none of these terms are of any use in describing a given game to someone not already familiar with the terms. And half the time they even cause confusion with people who are familiar, because these terms all suck to one degree or another.]]>

  10. So your definition of story game in this case applies to Cortex Plus not because it’s creator-owned (because I don’t own it), but because it uses some indie techniques, in this case self-awareness or letting players play their character’s weaknesses? Maybe?

    And is that, as Rob Donoghue has suggested, mostly a factor of some GMs and not necessarily everyone who plays it? Because as I’ve noted, not everyone uses those tools or plays the games how I designed them to be played.

  11. < ![CDATA[So your definition of story game in this case applies to Cortex Plus not because it's creator-owned (because I don't own it), but because it uses some indie techniques, in this case self-awareness or letting players play their character's weaknesses? Maybe? And is that, as Rob Donoghue has suggested, mostly a factor of some GMs and not necessarily everyone who plays it? Because as I've noted, not everyone uses those tools or plays the games how I designed them to be played.]]>

  12. I tend to use a genre-esque definitions for these sorts of terms. A novel is a sci-fi novel if it could sit on a shelf next to other sci-fi novels without seeming crazily miscategorized. By that logic, a story game is a game seems like it would have been popular and well-regarded with the people who frequented story-games when it was at its height (obviously not story-games now, who cares about that? not snobs like me!). I don’t think it’s a great term, and it tends to invite arguments.

    I also tend to think “indie game” is a more useful term for games that seem to have Forge-esque ideas in them. While the “creator owned” thing may be technically correct it strikes me as minimally useful in categorizing things. The analogy I use is “Stoic philosophy” — technically you could say that any philosophical statement put forward on a stoa would be stoic philosophy, it’s probably more useful to talk about the actual philosophical ideas propounded by the people we call Stoics without focusing on the delivery mechanism even though it’s baked into the name.

    For roleplaying games, I tend to think there is something important about interacting with the world through the lens of your character’s POV. Games that do/don’t-do that seem like different games to me. (Not necessarily better or worse, just different, just like there are lots of perfectly good novels that aren’t sci-fi novels).

  13. < ![CDATA[I tend to use a genre-esque definitions for these sorts of terms. A novel is a sci-fi novel if it could sit on a shelf next to other sci-fi novels without seeming crazily miscategorized. By that logic, a story game is a game seems like it would have been popular and well-regarded with the people who frequented story-games when it was at its height (obviously not story-games now, who cares about that? not snobs like me!). I don’t think it’s a great term, and it tends to invite arguments.
    I also tend to think “indie game” is a more useful term for games that seem to have Forge-esque ideas in them. While the “creator owned” thing may be technically correct it strikes me as minimally useful in categorizing things. The analogy I use is “Stoic philosophy” — technically you could say that any philosophical statement put forward on a stoa would be stoic philosophy, it’s probably more useful to talk about the actual philosophical ideas propounded by the people we call Stoics without focusing on the delivery mechanism even though it’s baked into the name.
    For roleplaying games, I tend to think there is something important about interacting with the world through the lens of your character’s POV. Games that do/don’t-do that seem like different games to me. (Not necessarily better or worse, just different, just like there are lots of perfectly good novels that aren’t sci-fi novels).]]>

  14. Cam Banks Cortex Plus lets me roll a Distinction at d4 in exchange for a PP. (Heroic does, at least.) The nature of Traits also push the narrative authority around a bit more than in “trad” games. I’m sure there are other bits in Dramatic that I am not aware of that would feel “indie” to me. Plus, focus.

    Alas, it’s not creator-owned. So, yeah, “story game”.

    Personally, I just call it “Cortex Plus”.

  15. < ![CDATA[Cam Banks Cortex Plus lets me roll a Distinction at d4 in exchange for a PP. (Heroic does, at least.) The nature of Traits also push the narrative authority around a bit more than in "trad" games. I'm sure there are other bits in Dramatic that I am not aware of that would feel "indie" to me. Plus, focus. Alas, it's not creator-owned. So, yeah, "story game". Personally, I just call it "Cortex Plus".]]>

  16. Also, I tend to think that “like D&D” isn’t a very good sorting tool for game categories, since D&D contains multitudes. (Personally I think there’s some value in thinking of “trad”, “indie”, and “OSR” as three primary nodes. Both the OSR and Forge were reactions to a perception of how “trad” games worked, but manifested differently. I think the words “old” and “traditional” in these genre-names tends to confuse the issue by making things seem binary or existing on a single spectrum, rather than being clusters of common traits).

  17. < ![CDATA[Also, I tend to think that "like D&D" isn't a very good sorting tool for game categories, since D&D contains multitudes. (Personally I think there's some value in thinking of "trad", "indie", and "OSR" as three primary nodes. Both the OSR and Forge were reactions to a perception of how "trad" games worked, but manifested differently. I think the words "old" and "traditional" in these genre-names tends to confuse the issue by making things seem binary or existing on a single spectrum, rather than being clusters of common traits).]]>

  18. I’m probably the publisher in question in the OP claiming that Hero was “indie.” To be clear, my point at the time was that Hero was creator-owned, and had been through several owners who had created their own versions and editions, and the point which was frequently garbled (mostly my own fault, I’m sure) was that that definition was one not shared by perhaps the majority of the people using the term at the time. I was very happy when “story game” emerged as a useful term.

  19. < ![CDATA[I'm probably the publisher in question in the OP claiming that Hero was "indie." To be clear, my point at the time was that Hero was creator-owned, and had been through several owners who had created their own versions and editions, and the point which was frequently garbled (mostly my own fault, I’m sure) was that that definition was one not shared by perhaps the majority of the people using the term at the time. I was very happy when “story game” emerged as a useful term.]]>

  20. Oh, none taken! It was a valuable discussion at the time, I think. The use of “indie” in the punk, DIY, looking-for-alternate-means-of-distribution sense was causing confusion with people who used it to mean a specific style of narrativist game, a problem IPR frequently had in explaining what we thought it was for.

  21. < ![CDATA[Oh, none taken! It was a valuable discussion at the time, I think. The use of "indie" in the punk, DIY, looking-for-alternate-means-of-distribution sense was causing confusion with people who used it to mean a specific style of narrativist game, a problem IPR frequently had in explaining what we thought it was for.]]>