Reframing Roleplaying Games As Interactive Fiction

A primary goal I’ve had guiding this phase of my game design life is creating works that are accessible and appealing to a non-gamer audience. While this objective guided the creation of the goals for my rules system design, I want that accessibility to be expressed beyond only the mechanical parts of the finished work. As I’ve continued to consider how to best achieve this goal, I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest hurdles lies in the use of the name for the genre of gaming I’m working with: roleplaying games.

For someone who isn’t a gamer, it’s a term that must be explained to be understood. Many modern games still include a ‘What is an RPG?’ section in their core book to aid potential new players. This section, however, is located inside the book, in effect requiring the purchase of the product in order to learn what the product is. And yes, I know that in the era of Google anyone can search for the definition of a roleplaying game, but that means making assumptions about what a customer will do instead of providing them with all the info they need to make a decision in one place.

I work with a lot of non-gamers, and when they ask me about all these games I talk about on my blog, I’ve been explaining it to them in terms of fiction books. A novel, I tell them, is a work of fiction that is static: the author writes the story, and the reader reads it. These games I talk about, they’re like works of fiction that are interactive: the players all collaborate to both create and enjoy the story, a story which, unlike a novel which never changes, can and will be different every time it’s told. By reframing roleplaying games as interactive fiction, my non-gamer coworkers have all understood what these games that I like are without the need for elaborate explanations.

I also just like the term. It speaks directly to the collaborative storytelling nature of roleplaying games, brings it to the forefront. The gamemaster becomes the narrator while the players become the protagonists, and together they weave the tale of these characters through their combined adventures, a resolution system providing a mechanism to resolve conflicts and propel the story forward. Adventures become short stories, campaigns transform into anthologies or novels. The language has been there all along.

I’m not into renaming things just to be hip or pedantic. People already immersed in gaming will have no problem with the term roleplaying games, and will continue to use it regardless. But for non-gamers, describing the product as interactive fiction connects it to something everyone can understand and relate to. I may not necessarily use the term for all my gaming projects, but I very much like having it in my toolbox for those works I intend to promote to a wider, mostly non-gamer audience.

Photo: Book Travel Dream Fantasy from Max Pixel, CC0 1.0.

3 thoughts on “Reframing Roleplaying Games As Interactive Fiction

  1. My only concern with the term “interactive fiction” is that it’s already used for text adventures on computers. Granted, that market died in the 90s, but expect someone to chime in at some point with a “well, actually, your thing isn’t IF because…” shitpost.

    “Story games” is closer, but that has specific connotations. There are D&D players who would lose their minds if you referred to their precious as a story game, and story gamers who try very hard to distance themselves from D&D. What a world we live in!

    But we need a term for this specific style of play. I keep pushing “theater of the mind”, for things not absolutely requiring a board, a map, or any sorts of pieces or physical fiddly bits. It’s a term everyone across the board seems okay with, and the non-gamers seem to get it.

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    1. Yeah, agreed on the connotations. When you Google the term you get hits about the old text adventures and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type games, but I still feel those markets target people in the know. Story games, as you say, it’s a whole nother can of worms, unfortunately. I like theater of the mind, and I use it in my descriptions to good effect. We’ll see how it goes once I start using it more widely for products meant for non-hobby markets.

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