Role Playing Games Aren’t Storytelling

While there are story-like elements in role-playing games, these two things are just not the same. Jasyn Jones, aka Daddy WarPig makes a great argument how the two are different, specifically to define what makes story games different from role-playing games. His definition is great, but I’ll go so far as to say that story games are not storytelling either. Story games have storytelling-like elements, and so do role-playing games. But those storytelling-like elements are different.

“Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and to instill moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters, and narrative point of view.” – Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s definition of Storytelling is serviceable, and more detailed that the quote above.  Integral to storytelling is the telling of a story – the conveyance – from the storyteller to the audience. The audience is passive. The storyteller active. But Wikipedia inserts much into its definition with the inclusion of image and sound – especially with image. Storytelling is an oral tradition. Oral traditions can include imitation. It isn’t so odd for a story telling to provide their own sound effects. But are sound effects or images required in order for something to be defined as storytelling?

And that’s where the relativist definitions go wrong. You define things by what they are, and also by what they are not. And what they are not trumps what they are in order to create the most accurate definition. Ask the right questions to arrive at a definition:

  1. Does telling a story require a means to convey events?
  2. Does telling a story require that there is an audience to receive the story?
  3. Does telling a story require a storyteller to make sound effects?
  4. Does telling a story require the use of images?
  5. Does telling a story require a storyteller to allow audience participation?

Only #1 is a certain requirement, and you can convey events without a spoken word – and images and sound effects can come into play. A great example is shadow puppetry. However even in cultures with traditions like shadow puppetry, there remains an oral tradition of a storytellers telling stories to audiences. Shadow puppetry conveys a story visually, so it shares qualities with traditional storytelling which helps to define what shadow puppetry is, especially to those who are not intimately familiar with shadow puppetry.

Role Playing Games incorporate story-like elements and storytelling-like processes and events. Defining RPGS as storytelling though is like referring to the Tanuki as a Racoon Dog.

The Tanuki has a physical resemblance to raccoons, and it also has some resemblance to dogs. But raccoons and dogs are entirely different animals. Tanuki is referred to as a raccoon dog because that describes the appearance of the animal to those who have no other frame of reference. It has racoon-like qualities (facial features like the mask), and dog like qualities (shape of the body, and being in the same genus as dogs, foxes, wolves – but of a distinctly different family – Nyctereutes).


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