Archive for August 12th, 2009

Every Five Years, A New Term

2009 Aug 12

There’s this thing that happens where, every five years, someone coins a new term for roleplaying or “the good kind of roleplaying that I like, not that other bad stuff.” While people coin new terms all the time, it’s on this cycle of 5-or-so years that a new one actually gains some traction.

White Wolf had “storytelling” and “storytelling games.”

Some folks have appropriated Ron’s “narrativism” to use in this way, as a stick to beat other kinds of games with (and some folks have blamed Ron for doing this too, which I don’t think is quite fair).

Clinton’s “story games” has a certain following.

And now there’s Willem’s “storyjamming.”

In all of these cases, I get the sense that people are trying to broaden conceptions of what roleplaying is or could be by narrowing them. For example, if we call roleplaying “storytelling” and only talk about really story-centric philosophies of play, that excludes all the game / strategy components of traditional roleplaying which WW originally considered off-putting and less interesting to their target audience. In effect, you’re convincing folks that you’ve carved out a corner of roleplaying where everything is consistently enjoyable, or at least more so than the rest of the hobby. Or that you’ve invented a new hobby entirely that avoids all the problems associated with roleplaying.

And, inevitably, while these new terms may work wonders with new audiences and the target audience you’re trying to attract by jettisoning everything else, they’re mostly going to earn derision from most general roleplaying audiences because the new terms really are more than a bit pretentious, aren’t they? It’s like reading the back cover text of those games that say “completely revolutionary!” and then have you rolling stat + skill. We’re all wondering why you’re patting yourself on the back for doing essentially the same thing that we’re doing.

Ultimately, I think the lesson here is — language and terms are not universal and you can’t expect all audiences to appreciate them. Sure, use your new terms for your newcomers and target audiences but don’t expect them to appeal to everyone else who doesn’t necessarily want to buy into a separatist (“we’re doing something different!”) or elitist (“we’re doing something better!”) perspective on the roleplaying that they do or aspire to do. Certainly, roleplaying is really a bunch of rather different hobbies tied together by a family resemblance, but no new terminology has yet managed to draw lines in the sand and actually split it apart. Instead, the definition of roleplaying continues to get broader.

It’ll believe that folks are actually doing something different when we have a cognates in multiple unrelated languages. I think the closet we have to that is probably “larp.”