Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

Definition of Indie RPGs

Started by Arvidos, August 26, 2007, 04:57:05 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


I suppose this should have been in the RPG theory forum, but my question concerns the name and description of this site, after all, so here goes:

After some confusion on a swedish RPG forum, I'm trying to sort out our RPG terminology once and for all.
What I'm stumped on is what to call these small, focused games with rules built specifically to adress a theme or topic?

When speaking of these games represented on The Forge, I usually just say "Forge games" but of course, that wouldn't include local forum productions. And in the strict economic sense, every swedish roleplaying game is an indie role playing game, so the term "indie games" doesn't quite cut it. I'm considering "nischade spel" (niche games)

What I would like to ask you, is there a common quality among the RPGs represented on The Forge to consider when speaking of "indie games" or "Forge games", or inventing a term for the swedish counterparts. Would it make sense to say that all games on the forge are narrativist, seeing as they are so strongly themed compared to traditional games?

-Arvid Axbrink Cederholm
-Arvid Axbrink Cederholm

Ron Edwards

Hi Arvid,

The first thing to say is that "indie" or "independent" isn't a good term for the games you are talking about. As used at the Forge, that term is strictly economic; it means "self-published" and it also indicates that the creator, or small group of creators, maintains executive control over the money, publishing process, and content of the game.

It is quite conceivable that some publishing company like AEG or Green Ronin or whoever might produce a game that fully fits the procedural category of game that includes, say, Universalis or Polaris, written by someone who is not an officer of that company. That game wouldn't be independent, economically. A good example is The Dying Earth, from Pelgrane Press. It's as innovative and offbeat as one might want, but the creative and professional means of making the game doesn't match the Forge definition. That doesn't make it a boring or non-innovative game.

It is also conceivable and in fact historically accurate that games designed with the OGL and/or D20 rules are often independently published - in which case they are welcome in Forge forum discussion and in terms of publisher participation here. There is a vicious lie circulating around the internet that D20 publishers have been rejected here - that is not true. Publishers have had their forums closed here for other reasons, based on lack of independent publishing, but D20 has nothing to do with it.

Also, the Forge definition of independence has nothing to do with being produced at the Forge or through any kind of interaction at the Forge. There are hundreds of independent RPGs; many or even most aren't connected with the Forge in any way. The Forge resources are available to anyone publishing an independent game, if they want them, but not everyone wants them. A good example is S. John Ross, who publishes independent games like Risus - he doesn't post here, and he doesn't have to; his game is still independent.

As best as I can tell, the term "Forge game" is not well defined at all. I think "Forge game" probably means something like "created by using lots of the resources at the Forge," although clearly a lot of people use it to indicate some kind of innovative or off-beat content, and still others use it to mean some kind of social label indicating that the publisher is part of the Forge community of discourse. This is a bad definition. It cheats Justin Bow, for instance, whose game Fae Noir is 100% independent by the Forge definition, and who is definitely part of the Forge community, in terms of participating at the booth at GenCon. However, Justin is not particularly interested in the theory-talk here (or wasn't when writing the game, anyway) and didn't write the game in the context of Forge-based critique. So is Fae Noir a "Forge game?" There's no meaningful answer. It's a crappy term and I don't particularly like its clique-ish implications when used. (To be absolutely clear, if Justin wanted a publisher forum here at the Forge, he would get one - because the game's economic status makes it eligible. Its rules-design and any other features are irrelevant.)

"Story game" is even more vague. Beast Hunters is a Gamist, Gamist RPG. Playing it does tend produce stories, but as a by-product of highly sophisticated Challenge-based rules and processes, not thematic questions at all. But it gets discussed at the Story Games website and is a perfectly good example of a functional, focused RPG. As far as I can tell, "story game" is more socially defined than functionally defined, even if it can be said to be defined at all. (In some ways, this may be a virtue. Andy may not have wanted to over-define eligible games. Perhaps Story Game simply means a game with a strong play-reinforced SIS, regardless of any other goal, and is therefore wide open in terms of content.)

The term "narrativist" refers to a particular creative goal during play itself. There are dozens and dozens of games produced through interacting on the Forge, or being influenced by ideas here, or supported through the mechanisms here that do not meet that criterion at all. EABA is an excellent example. You can't get more independent than EABA, and Greg Porter is arguably one of the most Forge-ish publishers around (even setting an example for the invention of the Forge in the first place!) - but the game is Simulationist with a capital S, and more power to it. Also, conversely, a lot of games made via interacting here do support Narrativist goals of play, certainly, but so do many other games written without the Forge. And many people play in a Narrativist fashion without ever having heard of the place. So that would be the very worst possible label to use for games that originate here or are heavily supported here in publishing terms.

I think it is good to be precise and accurate with one's terms.

1. Independent = self-published, creator-owned

2. Forge game should mean that the site was useful to the creator, if it is to mean anything at all (and maybe it doesn't)

3. "Story game" is a term I don't feel any need to define; it seems to be a social issue

4. Narrativist = the rules strongly reinforce a specific creative goal/agenda, that of addressing Premise (see the Glossary for clarification if you need it; this does not mean "makes a story")

If you were to name a game with which I am familiar, I could tell you where it stands relative to any of these terms except maybe #3. My point is that whether it's independent or not doesn't automatically mean it's Forge or not, and whether it's Forge or not doesn't automatically mean it's Narrativist or not, and so on - the terms don't affect one another.

I know that's not a very helpful answer in terms of arriving at a single label. I suppose my best answer is that a single label is a bad thing to apply when you are talking about multiple variables.

Best, Ron
edited to fix my formatting stupidity

Moreno R.

I think that this thread would be a perfect choice to be made a "sticky".  It's clear and answer a lot of different questions posted around.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)

Eero Tuovinen

In case it's interesting, here's how I handle this in the Finnish language. Obviously the terms are somewhat similar to English, but as I've pretty much single-handedly introduced Forge games in Finland (says he), I feel that I can use whatever terms I want there.

If a game is about creating themeful stories via player interaction, then it's narrativistic. Simple enough.
If a game signs on the strong current of structural design here at the Forge, wherein games are built with clear procedures and an explicitly described player motivation, then it's structuralist. I just kidnapped the word for my purposes here.
If a game is not structuralist, I tend to call it traditionalistic, because I firmly believe that D&D and some of it's direct descendants are a defining feature of much of roleplaying culture. Then there are also freeform games that I consider neither traditionalistic or structuralist. They might not be a big deal internationally, but in Finland people really publish roleplaying games that draw from a tradition of freeform play.

To illustrate the usefulness of these terms, some generalizations:
"I mostly play structuralist games nowadays, and when I play a traditionalist game, I try to figure out or impose some structure to it." is true for many "Forge people".
"Burning Wheel, especially the first edition, is not very structuralist, so it's rather different from what you'd expect of a Forge game."
"Because Best Friends has some freeform techniques it might not satisfy a reader expecting structural strength."
"Dead of Night is delightfully structuralist in many places while simultaneously being clearly simulationistic. What a treat, it should be a Forge game!"

So yeah, to answer the original question: I think that, historically speaking (this is not a normative definition), games that are most strongly associated with the Forge all share the structural approach to designing and displaying the game. Obviously there are exceptions, but I think I've seen enough to say that people have a very real need to talk about and distinguish a specific "Forge style" when talking about games and gaming. In Finnish my preferred solution is to call that particular approach structuralist, although I do tend to slip and call them "Forge style games" now and then. Which is, of course, not nice towards all the perfectly fine (and a bit rare) Forge games that are not like that.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Filip Luszczyk

So, for the record, in Poland we use "indie" as a blanket term for everything non-traditional. There is no real recognition of the creator-owned thing.

The other term sometimes used in relation to non-traditional stuff is "new wave", but it basically connotes with "non-playable" and "pretentious".

In some circles "board game" is used for every game in which following the rules is expected and the GM is not God almighty. This includes Forge-ish stuff in general and often D&D (especially when it comes to the upcoming edition, whichever edition happens to be upcoming at the moment). Needless to say "board game" is a highly derogatory term, unless used in relation to an actual board game.

Now, the funny thing is that our Polish term for role-playing games in general is "gry fabularne" that literally translates to "story games". However, almost none of the games regularly discussed on SG would be qualified as an RPG by an average Polish gamer, and nothing resembling what you'd consider a "story game" was published here (as in: on dead wood).

All in all I think the meaning of all these terms diluted to the point that it's impossible to enforce a single definition. It's the same as with all those terms from the Big Model jargon that ventured out of their original context, acquiring new meanings on their way ("narrativism" being a notable example), or with gaming vocabulary in general (take "munchkin").

Filip Luszczyk

Er, correction. We had a small number of games that could fit SG label published in print, but that was long before even "indie" as a term was introduced in relation to games. Consequently they got labeled as "new wave", and being rather half-baked they added to the general sense that "new wave" games are strange, non-playable and often pretentious. In the end, they were a general publishing disaster, and got nearly forgotten by the gaming community at large.

Ron Edwards


That's a great summary of the outlooks held elsewhere.

Although I appreciate the various points of view, I'd like to emphasize that the Forge definition is what applies at the Forge. Here, "indie" is merely shorthand for independent. I don't see any reason to match that definition to any other meaning of the word, whether in someone's head or present in any other medium or center for discussion.

If anyone's interested, I'm directly influenced in this matter by Dave Sim's campaign to identify and promote fully independent comics publishing during the 1990s. His arguments were cogent, clear, and as it turned out, entirely correct.

When talking about the issue elsewhere, it makes more sense to identify the Forge vision as independent, self-published, and creator-owned. That's probably better than wrangling about the use of the term. Let people own "indie" for themselves, however they want to use it. The Forge definition is the one used here, but it's not like anyone can (or should) remove whatever psychological grip the term holds on someone else's mind. Nor, however, should whatever that personal or other-site usage of "indie" means, be slapped onto the Forge through casual use. For one thing, it's intellectually sloppy. For another, it promotes the false idea that a game is identified as independent, here, because of its content.

Best, Ron


For the sake of enlightenment, and posterity, I'd love to get a take on the term "traditional" as it relates to RPGs (and from the same folks would be stellar).

Regards, Brad

Eero Tuovinen

Well, as I understand it, the whole concept of "traditional" can be understood in one of three different ways:
- We're so fuckin' avant-garde that anything else is, by comparison, tame and derivative.
- Historically speaking there actually exists a succession of design and influence starting with the early versions of Dungeons & Dragons and stretching through the '90s, exemplified by a large number of games with different degrees of derivation from each other and Dungeons & Dragons. Insofar as a game can be called "traditional", it is that because it accepts, learns from and shares in this large pool of understanding about what it means to roleplay and how game design goes about faciliating that.
- If a game is owned, published and marketed in the bog-standard manner described in Forge horror stories, then it is traditional.

Of course, the first one of those definitions is rather poisonous and non-useful, for discussion at least. The second one is interesting, at least it helps me enormously in understanding the historical influence of different games. It also helps explain what a term like "traditional Forge game" or some such means: just like the traditional designers, people affiliated with the Forge take influence from those who came before. A game is a "traditional" or "typical" Forge game when the most obvious influences in it's solutions come from the budding indie movement here. It's quite young, but the derivation of influence is already in its, what, fifth generation in some cases.

The third definition is tricky, because I don't personally find it useful, but many people seem to use "traditional" as a simple opposite of "indie". I don't think they necessarily think about what that usage means in terms of definition (rather, it's just used because they need a word for non-indie), but there it is. This is much less useful than the definition based on historical derivation, because really, that model of "traditional" publishing? It's a caricature. There are many, many ways of publishing games in a non-indie manner, and as far as I know, lumping them all under one label would imply a degree of institutionalization that simply is not there. While people do definitely copy each other and advice each other, thus promulgating these publishing solutions, calling it a tradition is stretching the point unnecessarily. You can just specify what business practices you are, exactly, talking about when you talk about them, no need to lump "work-for-hire", "three-tier-distribution", "magazine advertising" and all other practices under one term.

As one can see from my preferred definition, a game can easily be both traditional and indie at the same time. For a great example, Dawning Star. A game might well be a "Forge game" and traditional both at the same time, although I don't think I've seen such a game yet. I've thought many times about writing one myself, though. The opposite of "traditional", if we were to seek such a thing, would be a game design that looks to break with the D&D tradition. Examples of such games are many Forge games (what I call structuralist games, above), as well as many of the freeform/immersionist games we get here in Finland. Both of those are examples of games that - whether consciously or not - break with the D&D tradition and solve a great number of the basic design conundrums of roleplaying in a different manner.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eero,

I think your second definition can be rounded out a little by adding Champions and RuneQuest (or BRC) as nearly-equally important nodes for origins of traditional design. I agree that this is probably the only really clear use of the term.

Regarding publishing and distribution, however, I disagree with some of your points. The role of distribution and its resulting power over production affected RPG culture and design profoundly, here in the States. From the middle-to-late 1980s until very recently, a "good game" was defined strictly by the features that made it attractive to distributors.

Therefore talking about traditional publishing is also, I think, a meaningful phrase. It would be most precise to say "distribution-centered," but that leaves out the powerful, uncritical loyalty and perception of quality that people bring to the associated game designs (both procedural and physical). When I, at least, talk about the traditional publishing model, it's not only about the economics, but the practices and values that arose from them and still persist. They persist across the whole subculture. I think those practices and values are poison, with the few triumphs of design within it having been brief and easily co-opted or squashed. The word "tradition," in its most negative sense of brainwashing, most accurately depicts such a situation.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

Both fine points of refinement! Actually, both are also things I'd like to learn more about, situation permitting: especially Champions is a game that's always been marginal here in Finland, so I have no "actual play" material in my scene to draw from, only the texts of the game. So my understanding of how it's affected the tradition as a creative node of design is vague at best. Thinking about it, my brother is just about the most avid Champions player I know in Finland... actually, he's the only one I know who even owns the books, and then he hasn't played it for fifteen years, as I understand it.

As for publishing: it's annoying, but it seems that the only real way to get real information about business practice is to talk face-to-face with people who have been deeply involved with the stuff. I'm just as bitten by the web-surfing habit as anybody else, but it seems that you only ever learn surface knowledge that way. People just do not write about business the way they write about play, say. So if you say that there is an actual transmitted tradition of publishing going on since the '80s, then I'll just believe it. Thinking about it, as far as I understand the distribution system it does make sense that the requirements of distribution would act as something of a filter for business practice... I wonder though, where is the transmittal of tradition? Who tells a new publisher how he's supposed to act to get to distribution? (The answer probably has something to do with GAMA or some other American game publishing guild, I've just never examined those in enough detail to answer the question myself.)
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Quote from: Ron Edwards on September 01, 2007, 03:07:15 PMWhen I, at least, talk about the traditional publishing model, it's not only about the economics, but the practices and values that arose from them and still persist. They persist across the whole subculture. I think those practices and values are poison, with the few triumphs of design within it having been brief and easily co-opted or squashed. The word "tradition," in its most negative sense of brainwashing, most accurately depicts such a situation.

Can you elaborate on the "traditional publishing model," and how it contrasts other models, particularly Indie publishing models?

Regards, Brad

Ron Edwards

Hi Brad,

This isn't a topic for Site Discussion. We can move it into the Publishing forum, but there is no way to post a general "how does publishing RPGs work" and get an encyclopedia's worth of quick response. I'll do my best to answer any focused questions, and I'm sure others who are active in the process, at all levels and ways, will chime in too.

I did work up an extensive essay in 2000-2001, which was never finished. A lot of the early Forge folks have read it. It was turning into a whole M.S. thesis and I had lots of other things to do for which I was being paid, so it ended there. Some of the points play a part in these important threads: Phase One, Successful RPG line and Channel conflict with distribution-retailers-manufacturers; Phase Two, Distributor questions, There *is* a problem: POD into retail, and The Truth is Out There.

As I said, let's take it to Publishing. This thread is about indie-ness at the Forge, and I'm pretty sure it's done. Not officially closed; it does seem to have run its course.

Best, Ron