What does it mean to be a Story Game?

This is a topic that comes up quite a bit when talking about role playing games. I think that it’s very well understood that it’s a subjective term. To a lot of Role Players, all rpgs are story games. To others, only diceless rpgs count. Some players have only ever played “forum RPs.” Others think that the story game title is superfluous, because combat simulation games shouldn’t be called RPGs. So as a collection of role player enthusiasts, we’ve learned to ask people what they consider a story game before talking about the topic.

My own definition is pretty clear. First, a traditional RPG is described as a game in which players declare individual actions and wait for the dice to narrate their outcomes. Story games are games in which the players have free narrative control of their action before rolling, and the dice reinforce this. Most story games, Fate for example, use degrees of success to modify this narrative. Others, Timeless for example, simply provide a yes or no answer. But the key element is the player’s freedom of description.

In the traditional RPG, there are many ways that the dice determine outcome. Games like Rolemaster predetermine outcomes on charts. Games like D&D establish what should happen after the dice are rolled based on core rules, feat descriptions, and spell listings. These are very fun games. I am not bashing them. The kind of calamity that is caused by a barbarian intending to sever the head of the orc king, but rolling a 1, leads to an incredible battle description that could have never been told without the rigid randomization of events. In my first game of Rolemaster, I very luckily killed a cave troll in 1 hit and gained about 5 levels instantly. That’s a memorable moment in gaming!

Story telling is simply different. And therein lies the beauty. RPG geeks and outsiders alike know D&D as the sacrament of gaming. It’s a measuring stick with which other games are compared, but more importantly, it’s what outsiders to the hobby expect the game to look like. It’s what I expect games to look like, because nothing is more fun than my dwarf berserker laying waste to a horde of unholy zombie trolls! But either way, it represents a collection of good and bad stigma that draws lines in people’s minds. Outsiders who don’t want to play D&D often give the entire hobby a pass. And this is why the distinction of story games is so grand.

Fiction is an intricate part of how our brains work. We all have fantastical ideas and strong held beliefs of what is “cool.” New players don’t really want a game to tell them what is cool, so they have different expectations of what to play. Kids want to be fairy princesses and red dragons! Adults want to be a modern day peter pan with a complex emotional background. Traditional RPGs have to tell these players “NO!”. There’s a lot to speak about why, but it’s the way the games work. But story games make a habit of simply saying yes. There is a level of shared story that has to be maintained, so compromises do happen, but they happen within a story. Perhaps the future space adventure has a race of aliens that look like red dragons. And this is the hook, and this is why different becomes better in a lot of cases.

I’m a long time role player. I’ve spent long times playing clerics and hunting down the undead because some player’s handbook told me to. But how else will I get to play “Irving and Edith” the asexual plant creature with a split personality that is having marriage counseling sessions to save his relationship with itself? This funny story element was an idea waiting for a game of Fate Accelerated.

I’ve mentioned a few games that are strictly story games. The games that top my list in the category, besides Timeless, are SFX, Risus, Fugue, Fate Accelerated, and to a lesser extent Apocalypse and Dungeon World. Honorable mentions include Window and Killshot. Even Fiasco fits into this definition, despite being way closer to that of a board game than a role playing game. But one system that I don’t include is World of Darkness.

I know that that’s a controversial statement, so I’ll explain. World of Darkness, in all of its forms, is just way too balanced. It’s a game in which combat can’t be the answer, so everything else had to be balanced and sterilized to become more important. The dice pool nature of the mechanics makes the game itself require minmaxing (the crunchiest of crunchy things to do in an rpg) to keep from having a failed or underpowered character. But ignoring these things, WOD simply doesn’t fit into the definition. Despite the fact that players have very broad guidelines to make story-centric characters, players do not get free narrative of their actions.

I’ll explain. All abilities in the game have very clear uses described in their basic description. In fact, an openly easy to adapt narrative is listed first for every skill and power. But immediately after is a rule heavy limitation. Do you want to see that spirit because it’s a magic power of yours? Roll your dice! Did you use your ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound through limitless strength? Roll your dice! You want to open a car door? Roll your dice! The only difference between WOD and other traditional RPGs with charts is that the charts in WOD are hidden within paragraphs. Every single skill and power has a success and failure listing. There are 4 degrees that are predetermined and constantly halt player narrative in its tracks in favor of randomly rolling results on charts. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. But it is an extreme misnomer to call WOD a story game. Despite the fact that the game system coined most of the terms used in today’s story game world.

Again, this is a pretty controversial subject, but I’ll defend it solidly in the next sentence. Good luck turning Risus into a video game.

I know that there are a lot of more subjects involved. I am saving the considerations of character creation for another entry. But I find that the expectations of players in narrative and freedom of ideas to be the deciding factors. Hopefully this can help players get an idea of what to expect from story games. Even more, I hope it fuels the mind for more discussion on the topic. But mostly, this should help readers understand the motivations behind Timeless’s design.

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