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.”

15 Responses to “Every Five Years, A New Term”

  1. On Saturday, some of us played In a Wicked Age before our regular D&D game. One of the people who didn’t play tried mocking me for bothering playing indie games; specifically, he got onto the subject of “oracles.” “Why not just call them tables like everyone else?” he asked. “Because it helps evoke the flavor of the game,” I said. “And you don’t think that’s just the least bit pretentious?” I managed to not punch him in the face, but I really, really wanted to. I find myself fighting back similar reactions after reading your words here, “the new terms really are more than a bit pretentious, aren’t they?”

    I picked up Willem’s “storyjamming” term early on because it helped describe what I wanted out of roleplaying. As I’ve already mentioned, I have a regular D&D game. I would certainly not call it “storyjamming.” I get something entirely different out of that. In fact, I find what I get from that kind of play more in common with video games than with the kind of games I refer to with the term “storyjamming.”

    I don’t consider the term pretentious at all, any more than some musicians jamming together would consider that terminology pretentious. Quite the opposite, it downplays the activity, makes it sound like a bunch of people just, well, “jamming” together.

    I don’t disagree with you on some of the ways that people have used terms like “narrativism” and “storytelling games”. The latter, especially, dripped with pretension. Narrativism, originally, presented itself as one of several equally valid ways of approaching the game, though fans of it have sometimes become a bit overwrought and forgotten that other ways of playing exist and have their validity, too.

    I play D&D because I get something out of it, something I don’t get from storyjamming. Obviously, I don’t consider storyjamming the only or the best way to play. But it does have a different goal, and different techniques to achieve that goal. When I tell my friends I want to roleplay, I will probably end up playing one of the endless dull permutations of “roll a die and add your skill,” roll high enough for the GM to tell you the next bit of story inanity that bores me until I start ripping my hair out. If, on the other hand, I tell them I want to storyjam, then we all come to the table with some different goals in mind.

    I consider storyjamming a valuable activity, and I’ve remarked on some of the valuable things I find in it. That doesn’t make other agendas in RPGs less worthy, and it doesn’t mean I’ve put storyjamming on a pedestal. If you take it that way, then you’ve read in something that I never said. I can understand why, given the history of the other terms you’ve lumped it in with, but I’ve yet to hear anyone actually use it that way. It seems like a bit of projection to me.

  2. Hey Jason, I appreciate your response and getting to know more of where you’re coming from. As a way of response, let me tell you a little anecdote, maybe to help you see where I’m coming from.

    Several years back, I coined what I thought was a new term, “structured freeform,” to talk about the area of design and play that I was interested in working in. I mentioned it in a few places, discussed it with Emily Care Boss and some other folks, but mostly it was a term that only I used, very much like Willem’s “storyjamming,” I think.

    About a year ago, I guess, Jason Morningstar and Emily and Remi and some other folks created Structured Freedom, a forum for talking about design and play in that same general area. However, the majority of folks there were interested in Nordic freeform tabletop / larp traditions (Jeep, the Danish scenario tradition, etc.), so the bulk of what gets discussed on SF is not something that interests me and I don’t find really great support for the kinds of games I’m interested in writing there.

    So, now, as things stand, there’s a forum named after a term that originated with me (though other folks called other things “structured freeform” before, independently) that doesn’t really include the kinds of things I’m interested in. The irony! And you can see the same thing happening with the multiple different usages of “story jamming” in the current SG thread.

    I think that experience has led me to believe that being invested in specific terms is dangerous, especially when they are not naturally occuring but new words that are subject to a lot of semantic drift. It is almost universally better, I think, to just clearly describe what it is that you are doing. This prevent people from labeling a bunch of different things as the same thing or think they’re talking about one thing when they’re really talking about something else.

    You see what I’m saying?

  3. Absolutely. With the SG thread in question, I started it the way I did for precisely that reason. I wondered, maybe it has already drifted? Maybe people have gotten it from other sources, and mean other things by it? I have no intention of playing word police, although I’ve tried to get people to use more precise language with much more well-established words before. “Sustainability” probably provides the best example; it has very well-defined meaning, but people abuse it habitually.

    So, I agree, but I think an acceptance of that exists in a tension with trying to use language precisely. I’ve expressed my discomfort, but I don’t expect everyone to conform to my discomfort. If people feel convinced by what I’ve said, then they can do likewise, and if not, then I can accept that this term has drifted on to mean something else, and I can’t play a game with anything less than five pages of explanatory text to hand out beforehand.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    This from the dude who coined “Structured freeform,” huh?

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    And now that I’ve read the comments (and it’s hilarious that your pretentious coined phrase got co-opted by a movement more pretentious than yours, hee hee):

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to better describe what you’re doing. More words are better. It becomes pretentious in a “Story now” kind of way when you say “Oh, we’re not ROLEPLAYING, we’re [insert masturbatory term-of-art here].” If you’re just trying to nail down the specifics of what you’re doing in an evocative way, what’s wrong with that? Some people call it pop, some people call it soda, but it’s still brown and fizzy and something that goes in your mouth.

    It just seems like bad form to call people out as pretentious and divisive when their separate play cultures have spawned different terms for things you’re doing in your game group. Like, “It’s divisive to come up with new terms! So just use the terms that I use!”

    Is the “Storyjamming” thing trying to become a brainwashing movement or something? Are people telling others to storyjam? I read that thread and it seemed to mostly be people going “I dunno, I don’t use that term, Willem does” and then people who use it explaining what it means to them, and what it means to other play cultures who spontaneously came up with the same term. It doesn’t seem like the Next Big Thing to me.

  6. misuba Says:


    A) why get salty when language behaves like language? Once it comes out of your mouth you don’t control it anymore; your responsibility, if you need a term to stay stable for some reason, is to craft your communication well enough that it will stand on its own two feet in other people’s heads. (Or spend your life fighting like hell over semantics.)

    and B) pretention (n):
    1 : an allegation of doubtful value : pretext
    2 : a claim or an effort to establish a claim
    3 : a claim or right to attention or honor because of merit
    4 : an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment

    It sounds like you tried to establish a claim on something with the term “structured freeform,” and it didn’t work out for you. Is that necessarily a reason to tell others to stop trying?

    The word “pretentious” isn’t a noble attempt to call status games out; it’s just another move in one.

  7. Eric Says:

    “Some people call it pop, some people call it soda, but it’s still brown and fizzy and something that goes in your mouth. ”

    You fail at reading comprehension. Those are cognates from two different dialects of English. Guess what’s in the original post?

    ‘I’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.”’

    Hey, look, he covered that. Now, here’s a puzzler: what’s the cognate for Storyjamming in any other language or dialect at all? It has to have specificity at least equal to ‘larp.’

    You actually copypasted the dictionary definition. Simply stunning.

    • misuba Says:

      I sho’ nuff did copy that dictionary definition – more to keep myself oriented, to be honest, but I think a lot of folks use the word “pretentious” as a club, without really knowing what it means. (I don’t think Jonathan is one of those people.)

      I like pretention. I think it’s generally harmless and sometimes really useful. It’s not so good when it takes over, but that’s a solvable problem, and it is way more common for someone to perceive it as taking over than for said takeover to actually be taking place. We don’t always need to bring the people’s elbow down on it; I think that when we let it play out it usually blows over.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      Dude, Eric, you fail at civility. And also at reading comprehension, because you missed my point as well. I wasn’t saying storyjamming was some universal thing that everyone does in every language. I’m saying that the vast majority of what goes on in roleplaying happens in individual play cultures and away from the internet, so sometimes some groups will come up with a term that, to them, means something that someone else on the internet has also been doing for a while. How would I know what an Italian cognate for Storyjamming would be? I’m not part of an Italian playgroup that would recognize what the Storyjammers do and say “Oh, I do the same thing.” My ENTIRE point was that it’s not a movement, that I don’t see anyone proselytizing and saying “YOU HAVE TO STORYJAM, IT IS THE WAY OF THE FUTURE.” I’m not saying it’s something global or universal, but I am saying that there are so many people in the world that it’s inevitable that there will be some amount of people who come up with the same thing that someone else is doing, and since the internet is not real life, what does it matter if people on the internet call that thing by different names?

      And for what it’s worth, the first time I “LARPed,” it was in college (2002) and neither I nor the 15 people I was doing it with had no idea what LARPing was or that other people did it. We’d just get together once a year and have an “in-character dinner” where we all dressed up and pretended to be the characters in the freeform online game we’d all participated in for five years. We didn’t try to get anyone else to do it, we didn’t care if anyone else did it, and if someone had come into our chat room yelling about our divisive language and how it was pretentious to call it “In-character dining” instead of “LARPing” we would have thought they were insane.

      I don’t know. Frankly I’m still baffled that you claim I have poor reading comprehension when you missed the fact that my example was in support of the fact that no one is claiming to be doing anything different or new– they’re just talking about the way they play games. So the forum-trollbait question where you’re asking me to come up with a cognate of storyjamming in another language is trying to get me to argue the point I was refuting. If you want to reread my posts more carefully and then come back and ask me an informed question about my views, let me know.

      • Eric Says:

        re: civility
        Fair enough. Before I came here, I was here: http://tgdmb.com/
        Suffice to say, there are differing cultures of discourse.

        re: the rest
        I am narrowly addressing the analogy you draw, that ‘pop’ is to ‘soda’ as ‘storyjamming’ is to ‘some unknown thing.’ The nature of that ‘some unknown thing’ should thus be as similar to ‘storyjamming’ as ‘soda’ is to ‘pop’ – identical. ‘Storyjamming’ is not being presented by others as being identical to ‘roleplaying,’ which you and JayWalt agree on. You state that this appears to be a subset, perhaps, or local variation of the term ‘roleplaying,’ with additional meaning above and beyond that connoted or denoted by ‘roleplaying.’

        But now we return to the bone of contention – if that additional meaning is to ‘some unknown thing’ as ‘pop’ is to ‘soda,’ then what is that ‘some unknown thing?’ Is this thing really big enough to spawn those cognates? You seem to argue no, that this is purely a local shorthand for a local group’s individual practices, with different groups developing ‘storyjamming’ as a false cognate – they happened on the same word to describe substantially distinct local practice. But that contradicts your analogy of ‘pop’ and ‘soda,’ which indicates that we ought to be able to find terms that describe highly equivalent practices in different local play groups.

        JayWalt contends that ‘storyjamming’ is not distinct from ‘roleplaying,’ so the ‘pop’ and ‘soda’ analogy would be appropriate – save for the fact that he views the term as being positioned as though it meant more in some substantial way above and beyond purely local procedure. The analogy in this case would probably be ‘expensive used car’ and ‘pre-owned luxury vehicle.’ While denoting the same thing, the latter tries to develop distinct connotation for the purposes of marketing.

        Thus, your analogy neither supports your own line of argument nor accurately summarizes JayWalt’s. As for the term ‘storyjamming’ itself, I have no opinion on the matter other than aesthetic.

  8. John Jenskot Says:

    Just got back from Gencon.

    There seems to be a strong divide between fiction matters and fiction doesn’t matter among the hobby. Regardless if we are talking about rules light, heavy, or even larp games. At least from my experiences at Gencon this year.

    My main focus was to run games where fiction matters for non indie gamers. I ended up running multiple events a day, from 12pm to sometimes 5am. Most of my players were fans, writers, and developers of Paizo and Wizard’s. I would say over 50% of the games, the players could care less about the fiction. I witnessed pacifist characters repeatedly murder and mutilate children because it made them feel powerful or they were in the way.

    It was bizarre.

    It felt like playing grand theft auto where the fun for many people was running bystanders over with your car. Except I don’t want that in my roleplaying games. It seemed like I was in the minority.

    Some dude carved up the body of a dead nun he knew that was just killed by a monster to make weapons out her bones.

    I talked to many people about it afterwards and the consensus seemed to be that many wanted to use RPGs as a way to vent and do things they wouldn’t be allowed to do in real life. Immersing and creating didn’t matter as much as exerting power in taboo ways.

    Terry played quite a bit of Call of Cthulhu. We both really, really dislike the system. But at Gencon, CoC seems to attract players who care about the fiction we are creating together. And none of them seem that interested in the CoC system either. But the culture around the game is that it attracts certain players. So it’s a safe bet if you want that specific type of play. Regardless of the fact that the rules better support hack and slashing than immersive horror gaming. The priority is finding people who share your interest. The system supporting your play seems secondary.

    Gencon was a very interesting experience this year for me. I felt sad I didn’t see most of my friends but I wanted to really play with as many different people as possible outside our circles.

    I can see the appeal behind White Wolf calling their games storytelling even if their system was still essentially D&D.

  9. misuba Says:

    John, do you think terms can ever serve the same purpose as Call of Cthulhu is serving in your example?

    • John Jenskot Says:

      Good question. I would say terms can serve the same purpose but won’t be effective on their own. The CoC culture involves years of play, recruitment, money, and product to reinforce their culture.

  10. Josh W Says:

    In the rustbelt game, arbitrary character creation is used as a “spoiler”; people who want a certain thing know they just won’t get it, so the playing field is restricted. In the same way, CoC says “your character will loose” and while that is not always true, in the same way it encourages a different perspective.

    A name by itself I think cannot provide the same thing, because although it is an attempt to block off an area through language alone, language is just too malleable to make walls out of.

    There’s a thing I’m searching for here, which is I think why these things can be called “pretentious”, and it goes something like this; we can create these fragile social divisions if we are more strict about certain things, like the definitions of words or appropriate practice. But there is a certain mindset required for this that in many people takes a non-negligible amount of effort. If you have to stop, go back and split hairs to make it work then it’s too much work to do it. Now very likely there is a scale going from relaxed and woolly to rigorous and tight, so you will always be pretentious to someone and ignorant to someone.

    Do you see what I’m saying? If we put in effort to preserve a distinction in our language, then we should be getting a certain amount of payback from it, and someone will never respect your distinction if it is there just to devalue them, but they just might if it is there to challenge them and show them a new way of doing things. Maybe everyone has their pet pretentions, but we can only get people to respect them if we make them mean something good from the other side too.

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