OSR? Story games? Some other category? I don’t buy into the idea of categorization of games. I do buy the categorization of people since most efforts at categorizing games only manage to categorize people, to create an inside and an outside. I consider this destructive. And honestly only the people in a group invested in there being an outside even care.

Not to scale.

Let’s say there’s a good definition of OSR games. Somewhere there is a list of criteria and any game that meets them all (or some fixed percentage, or maybe all of some mandatory features and some or none of the rest) is OSR. And similarly for story games. We will find several things to be true:

  • the criteria are muddy and can be argued (this is at least true because part of the purpose is to argue and so clarity would undermine the effort)
  • many games that are certainly in a category in spirit are nonetheless now out of the category
  • many games that are in the category in letter are nonethless roundly despised by the proponents of the category
  • many shitty games are well categorized
  • many excellent games are well categorized
  • most games fall into either “both” or “neither”

Yeah, you could write these definitions so that they are exclusive (OSR has feature A and story games never have feature A) but you won’t find that unless A is so vague that there remains room for argument.

This is because there are two purposes to these categories that are actually true. The usual claimed purpose is that it is essential so that a buyer can carefully decide what to buy but the preponderance of crap games makes a hash of this. The category does little to inform as to quality and absent the category a gamer who thinks they prefer one may nonetheless adore a game that belongs to another. So that’s not one of the purposes. It’s a ruse.

One purpose is to create community. By defining ourselves carefully we also define those who are not us, and that boundary between us and them is a cheap way to make a community. It’s a flag to stand under. This may even be valuable. I think it’s bullshit.

Another purpose, related, is to act as a guideline for designers eager to make a game for a particular standard. Or, for the perverse among us, to design games that meet both sets of criteria. This seems to me to have some value, though again the necessary vagueness bites us in the collective ass. And worse is the risk that you’ll wind up celebrated by one and consequently unthinkingly derided by the other as Outside. Still, maybe a net gain.

But really this kind of categorization is just not useful. Even the hard-line inside any “movement” rallying under the same blackletter banner will argue about what is in and what is out. And consequently also who. Because that’s really the fight.

I’ll suggest that if anyone really wants to inform buyers, categorization is a dead end. What you want is a system of tags, where the tags represent concrete, objective, even measurable features. Then a buyer would know up front whether a game has bits they love or hate and whether or not these bits exist would not be up for debate. I know someone working on this. And I expect it’s been done before.

I also expect it will not be popular because it fails to create a banner to rally under and it fails to create an opposition to deride. So despite its utility and progressive nature, it doesn’t give us enough to yell about or at.