RPG taxonomy & the -ness-ness of categories


I don’t want to be a hero. I just want to stab your discourse with a spear.

This week in Twitter, people say that lyric games aren’t games. People say that one or another game is or isn’t OSR. People get mad about taxonomy. Luckily, with most of one semester of library & information sciences graduate school under my belt, I’m here to fix it all. (Not sure what OSR or lyric games are? Don’t worry; there’s more about them below.)

People have always tried to categorize books and knowledge. Roman stoics said the categories “are logic, physics, and ethics—the study of the principles and laws of human thought, the study of the principles and laws of nature, the study of the principles and rules of human conduct.” Callimachus, a librarian of Alexandria, divided works into six genres and five sections of prose: rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science, and miscellanies. (Free blog post idea: divide all roleplaying games into these categories.) A couple important takeaways from this:

  • Smart people have used categories that are absolutely useless to people in different times or places.
  • Systems of categorization tend to get more complicated the more books are involved.

So why do we need to categorize stuff anyway? If you’re a professor or scientist of a topic, commonly accepted categories can help you communicate with others in your field or teach people coming into the field. And if you’re a librarian or bookstore owner who needs to help someone find a physical book, you need to reliably be able to look up where the book is and find it there.

Another time to categorize things is if you’re trying to figure out the world in relation to yourself. If you’re a young person or person going through a big change, it can be helpful to feel like the world makes sense. It can bring peace to feel like you can say, “A thing is [x].” I don’t say this with any ill will; in fact, I say this as someone who obsessively categorized and organized things for years and who still keeps my books separated into categories and alphabetized within them.

But as we learned from the Roman stoics above, our experiences of genre and the world can be very different, even if they’re superficially similar. For instance, I’ve had a series of great history professors who taught me about labor movements, American genocides, and cultures outside of the old Mesopotamia -> Egypt -> Greece/Rome -> Europe -> America, so my definition of “history” includes conflicting accounts, bottom-up “people’s histories,” and primary sources from other cultures. Someone who had a very typical American public school experience of history might feel like those sources aren’t history since they go against their school experiences; they might call those memoir or propaganda or something else.

Another place I’ve seen this happen is in music genre. I might say, for instance, that “Country Leaver” by the Dandy Warhols is a country song because of its rhythm and guitar sounds, but someone else might say it’s alternative satire—that since it displays an awareness of country music but comes from an artist who mostly doesn’t make country music, it belongs outside of the genre. Or if someone likes Trent Reznor’s lyrics, they’ll like Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” whereas if they like Nine Inch Nails’s instrumentalization, they might not like Johnny Cash.

Those Are the Problems—Here’s the Solution

An alternative to saying “a thing belongs to [category]” is to say “a thing has [category]ness.” (I think I read this in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, but I think she attributed this idea to someone else, and I cannot find the quote.) In doing this, we’re also forced to acknowledge that each category we create has a number of qualifying factors. For instance, sci-fi often contains advanced technology, takes place in a future time, or involves speculation on the advancement of ideas we hold today. Magical realism involves impossible happenings that go unexplained, and it’s about people who have experienced colonialism. From this, we can say that Kindred by Octavia Butler has some sci-fi-ness (time travel) and some magical realism-ness (unexplained happenings, about people experiencing colonialism). And we can use those bits to recommend the book to others or write about its connections to other books.

Let’s bring this back to games. Lyric games often have a number of the following qualities:

  • made to be read first and foremost
  • made to be enjoyable to read
  • made to invoke emotion or self-examination in the reader
  • on the small side
  • respectful of the reader’s time

And OSR might involve…

  • favoring player knowledge over character skill
  • random tables
  • faction play
  • sandbox adventuring
  • verisimilitude
  • usability at the table

So now, when people are arguing about which editions of D&D are OSR, we can say things like, “I see some OSR-ness in 5E, like in the carousing tables, but it’s not enough for me.” And we can say, “I see the gameness* in lyric games, but there’s not enough table usability in the ones I’ve read.” And we can even say, “I see some lyricness in old D&D in how the rules contain long digressions into mechanical and philosophical discussions that make the player consider what ‘game’ means and that border on unusable at the table.”

And then if you want to stir the pot, you can say, “I see a Monster Manual-ness in Moby-Dick in Melville’s segmented chapters that discuss whale behavior, biology, and loot, and whether they’re fish or not.”


Moby-Dick felt like a lot of fluff with not much crunch, and I always have to flip back and forth between chapters when I’m running it. But I bet Moby-Dick Second Edition will be really cool.

* Define this for yourself. I’m not going there.