Some weeks ago I had a very good discussion stemming from a question I asked on the Mastodon instance tabletop.social: “Can anyone give examples of traditional RPGs that aren’t about adventure and/or investigation?”. I had that question in mind because I wanted to test a theory I had, which I will expand on in this post.
Traditional tabletop RPGs are, in general, about adventure and/or investigation, and thus severely limited as a storytelling medium. In contrast, GM-less games make it much, much easier to explore different kinds of stories.
Not to say other kinds of stories aren’t possible in traditional games, but these games make it explicitly harder to tell these other stories and in practice almost no one does.
What are “traditional games”?
For the sake of this discussion, “traditional games” means games that have a narrator and that focus on solving the “simulation” part of the game, as opposed to the story itself. The latter is typically done by defining characters in terms of a set of skills and/or characteristics.
Also note that many games don’t fit into either of these categories: FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Forged in the Dark games, Dread, etc. In those you get a mixed bag, even inside a given category, e.g. I’d argue that Blades in the Dark is very much about adventures, but Quietus (another Forged in the Dark game) is about melancholy horror, which focuses on the character backstories and feelings.
I can think of three arguments to support the thesis above:
- Statistics: most traditional games are about some kind of adventure and/or investigation. When I asked, there were very, very few games in the replies that I considered exceptions, and we were actively looking for them! Some of the suggestions were adventures, just not violent. This cannot be a coincidence.
- The focus on the simulation encourages framing the story as a set of challenges, mostly of a nature that can be seen from the outside (physical or knowledge), as opposed to internal character struggles.
- The strong biases against metagaming, for keeping secrets, and for having relatively large number of players nudge the game and the story towards discovery of some kind (adventure or investigation) because there’s this dynamic in which the narrator “knows” the world and the answers, and the players are trying to uncover that world.
I believe that the last two create a strong bias towards adventure and/or investigation in the same way that videogames have a bias towards violence).
What is “adventure”?
Intuitively, I mean any story that would belong into the “adventure” genre in a film or a novel. But specifically, I’d like to point out that stories that aren’t about adventures are not stories without adversity. They are not boring stories about trivial tasks we do everyday. Most novels, and probably most films, are not really about adventure, and they do have adversity, and they are not about trivial things!
Examples of GM-less games
Now, the argument might be difficult to understand without a list of games with non-adventure themes, so here is a list of GM-less games I find interesting thematically and that show a bit better the diversity of stories (1) we can tell with storytelling games, and (2) are typically not covered by traditional RPGs:
- Ribbon Drive: self-discovery and learning to live in the present.
- Dialect: how an isolated community breaks down and gets swallowed into another, bigger community; the isolated community is defined through the language they used.
- Fiasco: ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control; think the typical Coen Brothers comedy.
- Breaking the Ice: how two people get to know each other, start dating, and maybe stay a couple.
- The Skeletons: undead soldiers slowly discovering who they were, but forced to protect a tomb for centuries.
- The poison of suspicion (free! written by me): forgiveness and what makes life worth living, told through the eyes of a person dying, and the person who poisons them.
- The 5 whys (free! written by me): how disasters sometimes are a chain of coincidences and/or small mistakes.
It doesn’t have to be important for you, and that’s ok! I just think of story games as a medium to tell stories, and it saddens me that a medium with so much potential is used so little. There are so many stories that are worth telling, why limit ourselves to “group of people going on adventures” and “group of people unraveling a mystery”?
Now, I know that many people play these games to disconnect from reality and they only want them to be fun. That’s fine! I’m just talking from the point of view of considering these games a storytelling medium.
One of my pet peeves is the apparent insistence by some people to consider traditional RPGs as storytelling games, but then resisting the idea that we should expect these games to actively help you in shaping a story. If a game just solves some “world simulation”, and expects you to do all the storytelling work… how is that a “storytelling game”? The game itself (ie. the rules) is not helping you create a story!
Thanks for reading so far. If you’re interested in this topic you might want to read a series of articles called D&D: Chasing the Dragon exploring a very similar topic.