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"What is belonging outside belonging?" Sticky

A topic by Nora Blake created 35 days ago Views: 304 Replies: 8
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It's come up once or twice that some people aren't familiar with the phrase belonging outside belonging, so I thought I would take the opportunity to give a brief rundown.

In the back of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, Avery Alder describes the belonging outside belonging framework as being the line that connects Dream Askew and Dream Apart, the common threads that bind them together. These threads are:

  • They are about marginalized groups establishing an independent community, just outside the boundaries of a dominant culture.
  • Those communities have a hopeful, precarious, vulnerable quality to them.
  • Both are for 3-6 players, each of whom has a unique character role.
  • They divide their settings into distinct elements which are shared around the table.
  • They employ a community worksheet.

Any game adhering to one or more of these design choices has the potential to be a belonging outside belonging game. Which leads us to... 

But can I use the label?

Much like Powered by the Apocalypse, the phrase belonging outside belonging has a certain context in which the label is appropriate. In Avery's words: 

It’s up to you to decide whether to use the label to describe your own work, but there are a few guidelines to consider. Most importantly, a game of belonging outside belonging is about a marginalized community attempting to live just outside the boundaries of a dominant culture. Beyond that, ask yourself: does this new game fit the established line? Did this chapter serve as a key reference in design? Does it feel right to adopt the label? Use it if it feels right.

I think part of the reason it doesn't get recognised as easily is that unlike other systems for grouping games (say d20 or PBTA) it has a much less mechanical through line, and much more of a thematic and ideological one.
I appreciate this write up, as I think it helps codify what people mean when they use it, and should help it become recognised as a thing by more people.

So, I haven't read Dream Askew, though I have read some other games that fit into the Belonging Outside Belonging framework. 

But, to clarify, does this mean that if someone were to make a game that used certain mechanics defined in Dream Askew (like the token economy with weak/neutral/strong moves, or the way the GM role is distributed among players) but didn't fit into those threads, it would not be a Belonging Outside Belonging game?

To me this makes sense, although I wanted to clarify, partially just to clarify, but also because I'm wondering if it would then be inappropriate to repurpose mechanics from Dream Askew without honouring its specific themes, intents and lineage.


There's a specific chapter to look at in Dream Askew/Dream Apart that talks about this. The threads are important and part of the design ethos as much as the concept of like principles are to a pbta game. It might be a Belonging game but it would stray much further from Avery's original concept. 
One example in the text is that without lures to encourage player interaction, that might result in more separation among the players and even a larp that had lures but made them more difficult to do might result in something moving towards the edge of the framework. 

I suspect a good way to look at it is less as a binary and more as a spectrum where the elements might gradually shift it further afield from what the system was originally designed to express. The book itself is also highly recommended and is, in my opinion, one of the clearest pieces from a technical writing/teaching perspective and does a great job getting at the essence of what the system is and what it brings to the table.

I think it wouldn't be inappropriate it just might be Belonging inspired instead of an actual belonging game. Avery actually talks about this in a chapter about designing your own belonging game int he core book. If you go over to the belonging jam, you there are some resources you might find helpful.  

Thanks for the thoughtful response! I think I might want to rephrase the first part of my question. I get that it's not so much a pass/fail set of criteria as it is a design intent. However, the threads that have been outlined here that tie Dream Askew and Dream Apart don't include certain mechanical things, such as being GMless, using tokens with weak/regular/strong moves, etc. Because of that, it would be very possible to make a "Belonging Outside Belonging" game that plays very differently from Dream Askew. 

Of course, this is true of PBTA as well —Dream Askew itself is a PBTA game that plays a lot differently than Apocalypse World.

But because Vincent Baker hasn't defined (afaik) "PBTA" as anything other than games which take inspiration from AW and decide to use the label for themselves, thematic content is not necessarily one of the uniting threads between all PBTA games, therefore Dungeon World, which is PBTA, and mechanically functions a lot more like AW than Dream Askew does, is much more different thematically to Apocalypse World. Whereas, with Belonging Outside Belonging, it would be possible to make a game that plays very similarly to Dream Askew, and feels very similar mechanically, but which doesn't touch on any of these points. So my question is not so much "what exactly counts as Belonging Outside Belonging," but rather, is this choice to exclude most of Dream Askew's mechanics from the framework of Belonging Outside Belonging, as it has been outlined here, deliberate? And therefore, does that mean that there is theoretically a second lineage of Dream Askew hacks, one that is much more a lineage of "reskinning," for lack of a better word?


like PbtA, belonging outside belonging is not a mechanical classification. The core element is that it be about a marginalized community on the edge of a larger society. Variations on mechanics only come into play if the person designing the game feels their game is too different or should not use the label.

I'm sorry; I don't know what you mean by your last sentence. I understand that Belonging Outside Belonging, like PBTA, is not a mechanical classification. I know that PBTA is not a mechanical classification. However, PBTA is also not a thematic classification either, and has only been defined, to my knowledge, as a policy regarding intellectual property, by Vincent and Meguey. As I understand, Belonging Outside Belonging has been defined as more than just an IP policy,  by outlining the common threads between Dream Askew and Dream Apart. However, those threads, at least the ones in this forum post, omit things like being GMless, etc., and I'm just curious what other people think about what that implies for games which do not fit into the framework that has been outlined here, but which do play mechanically a lot like Dream Askew, that's all! So far it seems that people generally don't split hairs, which is fine, but to me it raises the question —in that case, why define the framework at all?


"Why define the framework at all?"

because as with all active creative pursuits, the creation of games is a conversation - not just between creators as a literal conversation, but with the medium itself as a more metaphorical one. And when carrying on a conversation, defining your terms is helpful.

imho, the main hinge on which Belonging-games turn is that they center marginalised communities outside of a dominant culture - both thematically and in the playing itself. That matters, and is worth defining - whether you then want to get into the weeds of specific mechanics or not. And it matters because of the underlying history of marginalised communities being, well, marginalised. Making your general design philosophy something that cares about, and values, marginalised communities at the edges of society is important - for the same reason that caring about marginalised communities in other aspects of life is important.

As a general design philosophy, "this game cares about the marginalised" is a good thing to have expressed clearly in the foundation of the thing you're making. It's a statement of intent, and a guiding principle. Compare it, if you will, to the underlying philosophy of art movements: surrealist art was - and is - a broad range of different things in terms of modes of expression (painting, sculpture, writing, etc.), but it is all united in a core philosophy and intent.

Belonging-games - and indeed any other classification of games - works kind of the same way. It's less about the specific mode of expression, and more about your aim and intent as a creator.

And re: PBTA as a classification - aside from it being an IP policy, afaik it is also defined as any game made as a reaction to PBTA in general. Which means that following that logic, even if you make something that is an explicit and intentional rejection of things contained in another PBTA-game.... you're still making a game that fits into the messy family tree of PBTA-games. But it's also entirely up to you if you WANT to define it that way.

.... tabletop rpg cladistics sure are a messy thing to sort out, huh.


I would just add that the chapter in the book about what Belonging Outside Belonging is and is not is very helpful and has a lot of important things I'm working on a belonging game, I refer back to it heavily.