Roleplaying games, as a hobby and as a field of study, are young. We don’t, yet, have enough words to describe crucial concepts and events, which is a problem because having words is essential to be able to explain things, to other and to ourselves. Even worse, some of us use the same word and mean different things, buhhhhhhh
As an editor, I’ve repeatedly found myself in a situation in which the writer and I miscommunicate because when I say “X!” he hears “Y!”. Even with words such as “roleplaying”, which should, one think, be super-duper basic. They’re not, nothing really is, and so I’ve developed the following terms, to help differentiate between things that might seem too similar to each other.
These concepts and subsequent terms are based on my understanding and reading from too many sources to count, but I’d like to give a special mention to the Israeli-based Play in Theory blog and its writers, because that’s the one source you, dear reader, probably have the least chance of knowing about.
What not to use
I avoid “crunch” and “fluff“. These two are umbrella terms for too many different things, and so I prefer not to use them when I try to be specific.
I try to avoid the word “story“, it’s too muddled. See here for explanation.
About the rules
A piece of “Mechanics” is the instruction which, if followed, create a specific experience. “Rule” is the phrasing of that mechanic in the rulebook. Rules can also be phrased with graphics, which is why layout is also an important skill for an editor.
Granular is a description for an experience that has lots of little bits. In many systems, the combat experience tends to be more granular than the conversation experience, because the rules give many more options and/or require many more stages/variables during combat.
I say structured game but I should actually say “fully structured large-scale gameplay loop”. In a structured game, whenever you’re playing it, whatever you’re currently doing, it’s a stage in a circular well-defined loop. All games have gameplay loops (it’s a fundamental of game design); here, I’m talking about games that make their largest loop explicit. Blades in the Dark is a prime example.
Note that while D&D combat is also a structured, well-defined and explicit gameplay loop, it refers to only one possible game experience (as common as it might be); in contrast, when you’re talking to the prince, you’re not inside any explicit part of the loop.
“older” games tend not to have these. Newer games tend to have these. The reasons for this are varied and interesting, to be discussed another day.
Roleplaying elements: I avoid using the term “roleplaying games”. I find that identifying the elements a game uses is much more useful than trying to put the game into a specific category. We gain little from trying to put everything into boxes. Fiasco is a prime example – it obviously has roleplaying elements, and yet, many people would say it’s a storytelling game first and foremost, because it’s about creating a specific story – it just uses character portrayals as an improv tool to do so. (Of course, in a technical discussion I would rather not say “storytelling game” as well, and rather use “storytelling elements”).
RP elements are, basically, “when you’re like someone else”. So, portraying an imaginary person. It doesn’t have to be acted out; Most journaling games are just about thinking and writing as someone else.
Fiction, canon and narrative
Fiction: The fictional space. The place (which does not actually exist) where the imaginary “happens”. Each of the people in the group have their own personal version of it, and trying to keep these versions in sync is a Big Deal and the topic of much discussion in RPG theory circles. In practice, I use it to ask “okay, but how does this +2 manifest in the fiction?” when a writer shows me a purely mechanical bonus, or to show how a piece of written rulebook text help/hinders in creating a specific desired fiction (“dangerous” is not as good as giving a visual description that evokes danger).
Canon: Everything we’ve established as true about the fiction. Usually, the rules give the GM absolute power over what’s canon, and/or the power to maintain the canon consistent; that’s usually one of the GM’s main “hats”.
When I say “canon” I usually refer to the canon of a specific (theoretical) playing group. There’s also game canon, which is what the game offers as canonical. The group can (and probably does) use this as the basis for their canon, but they usually depart from it in various places (This deviation can be important, if it’s undesired; for example, perhaps the writer wants to foreshadow something for a coming book, and so they’ll like to keep a piece of canon in the minds of the player, without actually giving it too much importance so as not to spoil the surprise). The interaction between game canon and your group’s canon is a delicate one and an entire article will be required just to cover its basics.
Narrative: A sequence of events. Could be a specific adventure, or something that is noted to happen in the game canon. “Adventure” is also a bit muddled, as a term, and I usually explain that I mean “the basic unit of dramatically satisfying narrative – that is, series of events – in your game.” In D&D this could be a module, in Blades in the Dark it’s a heist (but it also sends tendrils into the freeplay, because the mechanics of Blades make the game feel more like an extended series of events and not seperated, stand-alone episodes).
The distinction between fiction, canon and narrative continually proves itself to be incredibly useful in my communications with writers. I highly recommend being pedantic about this, analyse what’s being said to you (and explain that analysis as you do it), and be careful with your own phrasing.
A booping example
The kingdom of Boop was written by the GM in her preparation for the game, but never even once brought up during the play (so far). It does not exist in the fiction nor the narrative. It also does not exist in the actual canon – because my definition of canon is based on what’s mutually accepted by the group, and therefore, must be known to all – but it exists in the possible canon.
I would claim that a GM’s “possible canon” is a position which grants special privileges. For example, the GM might plan on introducing Boop as the eventual source of all evil, and so she’s been foreshadowing Boopsian things in various ways. Or maybe if the original homeland of the elves becomes important in the fiction, the GM can pull out the ready-made Boop to fill that slot. In any case, until the Boop enters the game in a manner that is clear to the players, it’s not canon.
It’s very important to remember that all fiction is equally uneal, or in other words, anything that happened in the game is part of the canon. If some foreshadowing happens in the fiction (or otherwise), then even if Boop doesn’t eventually get introduced, the foreshadowing is still canon, and this creates expectations that probably need to be filled, or at the very least, addressed (“expectations” is an important term that still hasn’t made it to this list, but just because I don’t yet have an efficient definition of it). The question of whether Boop is “real” or not, or “true” canon or nor, is absolutely irrelevant to us as creators, and distracts us from what’s important – creating a rulebook that helps players establish fiction, canon and narrative through which they’ll have the experience we want them to have.