Role-playing games and story games

Recently a friend mentioned that there’s an official RPG guide for some TV show. He was asking for suggestions for an alternative system to play in that world because he didn’t like the suggested system (Cypher). Mostly jokingly, I “strongly” suggested he created a custom GM-less story game for it.

Although I wasn’t really serious, that made me think about why that was genuinely my first reaction. It also made me think about what exactly I like about my idea of “story games”, and what I dislike about more traditional systems like Cypher. This post is a way to try to order my ideas, and give my friend a better response than Twitter could ever deliver.

My biases

First of all, you have to take into account that I care about the story part of role-playing games, and not very much at all about the game part. Second, I don’t really have a stable group, and I strongly prefer one-shots to any sort of campaign: I’m usually more interested in a focused story than in following what happens to a cast of characters over time.

System does matter

Ron Edwards, of (among others) Sorcerer fame, said that “System Does Matter”. Although Ron Edwards doesn’t get into that, the fact that the rules aren’t neutral implies that they make a difference in how the game feels, the kind of things you tend to do, the parts you tend to focus on, and which kinds of stories you tend to tell with it. For example: no matter how traditional it is, Call of Cthulhu would feel very different to play if it didn’t have a sanity rating. Fewer characters would run away from the monsters, and the stereotype of the game would be “fighting Lovecraftian monsters” instead of “going insane or dying”.

At a higher level, one could say that traditional systems that focus on skills and the minutae of simulating every small action encourage stories about challenges (eg. D&D, Call of Cthulhu, OSR games), whereas systems that think in terms of drama and scenes encourage stories following whichever flavour or genre the system is designed for (eg. Dread generates horror stories with mounting tension; Night Witches generates stories about constant stress, death, and the grind of war). And yes, I realise there are many games that are somewhere in between or have elements of both!

“But you can tell stories with any game!”

That is correct! However, if the system doesn’t help you at all, and in fact encourages you and your players to focus on other things, why use it to tell stories? Also, one could argue that if the rules don’t support the drama/storytelling, then that’s not a very good medium to tell stories. And note that I’m specifically not arguing that it makes it a bad game, just that it’s not very helpful for the storytelling part of it. For a (much) longer discussion about this point, read the excellent D&D: Chasing the Dragon (but make sure you read the whole thing, as the ending puts some things in context; I found myself agreeing with a lot more after reading the last part).

Another thing I like about many narrative games is that they don’t need a “scenario” decided beforehand to play: in many of these games, you generate the story collaboratively, as you play. So in many cases the system doesn’t only help you keep the drama in focus, but even generate the story itself!

“But I don’t need help telling a story”

It could very well be, but you’re doing more work than you could be doing if you had a system that supported the style of story you want to tell. Also, I have the impression that lots of people who think that, tend to tell stories about some kind of “adventure” a group of people have… and there are so many other exciting stories to tell!

“But they’re limited!”

This is a critique I have read several times: that narrative games, because they are focused in one genre/mood, are “limited” because you cannot tell any kind of story with a given game. I don’t understand why that would be a bad thing: if you care about the story, usually a narrative game for that specific mood or genre will work better than doing the narrative heavy-lifting yourself. So why wouldn’t you use a narrative game adapted to the kind of mood you want to play? It feels to me like complaining that you cannot tell an action story with the principles of horror films. Of course you can’t! The point is to use whichever principles work for the genre and mood you want for your story, instead of you trying to find some principles that work for every genre, or you doing all the heavy lifting. Besides, indie narrative games are usually very simple and easy to learn right before playing, so they don’t really need nearly as much investment as most traditional games.

The idea of using a single system for any story you want to tell seems a bit ridiculous to me. But if you insist, you can have something very close to that by playing PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games, ie. games based on the excellent Apocalypse World. It’s still a game for every mood or genre you want to play, but the games have very similar principles and mechanics, so they’re trivial to pick up if you know other PbtA games.