Glossary of Terms

You may find yourself reading my stuff and wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Indiegames/storygames (see, jargon!) and the adjunct communities are rich in their own weird language. This jargon exists to either flag you as an “insider,” exclude you as an “outsider,” or ideally, provide shorthand so we can get on with our conversation.

I’m allowing comments! I may swing back through and update the glossary based on that feedback. Please think hard about whether you’re looking for clarity or if you just want me to defer to some different authority on meanings. Definition fights are the literal worst so let’s please not start.

So without further ado, this is a glossary specific to the Indie Game Reading Club. My usage may differ from others who use the same or similar language! I’ll be filling in definitions as I have time and inclination.

Affordance: an invitation to do something in the game. Mechanical affordances are things like skills and moves: if these exist, they’re an explicit invitation to use that skill or make that move. In freeform games, they might look like “try to answer these questions through play” elements on character sheets. Best practice affordances are things like directions on how to prep (categories of Fronts in PbtA games for example), or what to aim for as a player. Setting affordances set expectations of how the world works and give permission to the players to pursue certain things: characters go hunting for sinners in Dogs in the Vineyard, so that affordance is there to let the players know it’s okay to judge folks on their sinfulness. I feel like affordances can be connected conceptually to alibi, below.

Agency: the authority a player has, or feels they have, to assert their input on the shared fiction of the game. Conventional roleplaying games expect players to have agency over the feelings and actions of their characters. On the flip side, this expectation is commonly messed with in indiegames and, more broadly, unconventional games. I think agency is a really common place where modern game designers experiment: new or unexpected agency expectations, or taking conventional agency away to invoke certain genre tropes or emotional reactions.

Alibi: the permission a game, play community, or scene grants players to act outside mainstream conventions. D&D provide an alibi to straight up murder other intelligent creatures due to alignment differences or expedience. Apocalypse World provides an alibi to seek out transactional sex. I think one of the most powerful things about roleplaying games across the spectrum is that they all provide alibis to do (play-act) stuff we cannot do in our lives. See also magic circle, below.

Aspects: little explicit nuggets of fictional description used in games like Fate and Cortex Plus. I usually see Aspects deployed as index cards with a specific detail, either placed by a player via mechanical or procedural means, or mandated by fictional positioning. So like: “slippery floor” might be a tactical kind of aspect in a room or “your reputation precedes you” might be a social kind of aspect. Neat way to make elements of the fiction shared, explicit and important.

Author (Authorial, Authority): Lots of ideas wrapped up in the general concept that a player is acting to influence the shared fiction. Some of this is tied into stance (see below), where a player takes an active hand in shaping areas of the shared game fiction they have authority, alibi, and affordance to influence. I’m usually more concerned with authority than authorship if this word ever makes it into my essays. That is, who is and is not expected and allowed to touch certain details of any particular game.

Bang: An urgent crisis that demands a reaction from a character. That reaction is an expression of the character’s makeup and priorities. The important bit is that the GM goes into it without any intended outcome or mandated reaction. Ron Edwards went into tons of detail about Bangs in his Narrativism essay.

Big Model: Sprawling theory of how tabletop RPGs work. Interesting, flawed, produced a generation of interesting games that have evolved into, frankly, much better games. I don’t think I ever directly refer to it but it’s here because it comes up in discourse elsewhere. Here’s a decent breakdown that doesn’t take a year to read.

BITs: Beliefs, Instincts and Traits, three kinds of flags established in The Burning Wheel.


Broken Stair (see also Safety, etc.)

Character Monogamy


Conventional (see Trad)


Creative Agenda (see also Big Model)

Cult of the GM


Decision Space

Designer Not Included: a poorly written but well designed game will almost certainly work beautifully when the designer is running it. Take the designer away, though, and bad writing can kill an otherwise good game. I use this phrase when I find a good game that needs the designer to finish explaining how it works: best practices, workarounds, or examples usually.

Diegetic: Roughly, “inside the fiction” of the game. A decision made diegetically means the character is responding to in-fiction events (rather than outside-the-fiction stuff like leveraging a mechanism, spending a token, whatever).

Economic Cycle/Reward Cycle

Emergence/Emergent Behavior


Facilitate: Very broadly this overlaps with “GMing” or “MCing” but can really include anyone whose job is to explain rules and help the event go. That doesn’t have to be a player invested with a convention set of GM responsibilities! Freeform and GMless games frequently need a facilitator.

Fail forward: a procedural philosophy that says even failed rolls result in a change in the fiction. For example, in Apocalypse World, the MC makes a move when a player rolls a 6-. This is explicitly not a failure, but the player might not get what they want while the MC moves the fiction forward. Or in Burning Wheel (and later, games that borrow this idea, such as the Mutant: Year Zero engine), the GM always states the consequence of a failed roll before the roll is made. “Nothing happens” is the typical failure state of traditional games.

Feedbagging: when the players passively consume whatever a facilitator gives them. Marked with an indifference toward pursuing personal goals, embodying a role, or any kind of proactive effort.


Fiction, The: All the make-believe stuff the players invent together, as well as the context in which all that stuff exists. So: “there is a dark, abandoned ruin atop the mountain” is in the fiction, as is “orcs have taken over the ruins” and “the human villagers below the mountain live in fear of orc attacks.” See also: Diegetic.

Fiction First (follow the fiction)

Fictional Positioning

Flag (narrative advancement/Ron/Nick Hopkins)

Forge, The: An early 21st century forum where designers and players pushed hard on most of the conventional wisdom surrounding RPGs at the end of the 20th century. Lots of sacred cows slaughtered, and lots of great ideas entered mainstream thinking about play and design. Much of the current “indie gaming” work is a direct result of debates and discussions at The Forge. The forums are still available to read through, but are closed to new submissions.

Forged in the Dark (FitD)




Fruitful Void: A topic, theme, or question that can’t be directly answered via a procedure, but procedures can help answer it. There’s no “defeat dungeon” skill/move in D&D because defeating dungeons is that game’s core activity. But you defeat dungeons via the affordances that address the conflicts and obstacles en route to that outcome.

Fruitless Void: Actual rules gaps that don’t orbit or point toward an interesting topic. Sometimes rules are just missing, and a game would be improved with them.

Games on Demand

GM-driven (see also Player-driven)





Holding Environment (Magpie internal language, from Mark Diaz Truman: term taken from a discipline of group mechanics study called Adaptive Leadership.)


Immersion (oh lord)


Indiegame (ownership and distribution vs community vs play aesthetic)

Inside the fiction (see Diegetic)


Killer App

Larp (LARP)

Lines and Veils

Lonely fun (a Forge term)

Magic Circle

Mechanical (see also Procedural)

Narrative Authority (see Author(ity))

Player: Whenever I say “player” I always mean to include the player handling facilitation, refereeing, “game mastering” and so on.


Player-driven (as opposed to GM plot/GM driven)

Positioning, Fictional

Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA)


Railroading (as a pejorative)

R-Map (relationship map, see also situation map)

RAW (rules as written)

Roses & Thorns

Safety/Safety Tools (X Card, Flower, Script Change, etc.)


Say Yes (…or roll the dice/ Roll the Dice or Say Yes)

Scene Economy

Session 0 (where did that start? TBZ?)

Shadow Con: when you go to a gaming convention, I guarantee there’s at least one more (and usually several more) conventions happening in parallel. They’ve bought badges, they’re in the same hotel, but the participants barely participate in the actual banner event. Each shadow con usually revolves around a small group that fashion themselves something of a court: they’ve seen it all, they’ve gotten everything they can out of the mainstream event, and now they just want to set up private tables of games and private parties with their friends, and the convention is a convenient way to get them all into one place. If you get invited, do not turn down the opportunity! But also, definitely, do not remove your participation entirely from the main event. Gaming cons rely not only on your money but on your participation in events. If you’ve gotten the nod from shadow con royalty, it usually means you’re top-tier talent. The event needs your talents!

Shared Imaginary Space (SIS)

Situation (wrt Situation Map, see R-Map, Relationship Map)

Situation Map (smap)

Social Contract

Social Footprint

Sockets (Moyra)

Stance (Author, Actor, Audience, ??)


Structured scenario (see also freeform, larp etc?)

Talky-talky (freeform, games w/o external uncertainty)


Transaction, The


Trindie (first from Lowell Francis)

Unplayable: when I say this, I mean the game is unplayable without X, where X = a supportive play culture that can explain the missing bits. Without additional support or a willingness to make stuff up, an unplayable game remains unplayable. Typically there are central procedures that are simply unexplained, e.g. when to roll dice, what happens when you roll them, how the GM is supposed to run the game, what happens in a session, or any explanation of how players are intended to engage with the procedures as presented. Lots of RPG art projects are unplayable ,but have gamelike materials associated with them and can be useful and even playable with additional support (playable rules of your choice, a culture of ongoing rulings, etc.)

Workshop (as a verb)

X Card (see Safety)

12 thoughts on “Glossary of Terms”

  1. Oh boy, I just noticed WordPress didn’t actually post the contents of this post. I’m still learning my way around, sorry sorry.

    Anyway: I’m working my way through the glossary of terms. I just finished “A”. My goal is to do a letter a day, every day, until I get through it.

    Comments are open if you’re looking for clarification of how I use these terms. Let me also note that I’m not claiming to have invented any of these, I try to give credit when I can, and I am definitely not an authoritative source. On that note, if you want to argue with me that I’m using a term “wrong” because of some authoritative source, well. Please think about why you want to do that. This is just here so you can understand where I’m coming from, and it might help you through indiegame/storygame conversations you find elsewhere.

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