Posts Tagged “story games”
Nov 23, 2019
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.
Sep 14, 2019
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.
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.