How do story games work?

Last week’s post about story games was inspired by a common conversation. Getting it down in words is meant to help solidify ideas on what separates the two genres. After some thought, and discussion, there is definitely a lot to talk about when it comes to differences between story games. There are a lot of common elements that players just expect, but not all are required. Timeless doesn’t use all of these, and the variation on these mechanics tends to separate how games work. All this being said, this is going to be a long post. (I smell a two part post)

Shared Mechanics
Story games have already been described as focused on player narrative, and lacking rigid results that break up the player narrative. The most important element of this is the concept of sharing game mechanics. As a player in a traditional RPG, I expect my mage to play different than my fighter who plays differently than my druid. We follow different mechanics and even roll different dice when the time comes. Story games do not do this, at least it is avoided when possible. Players get much more freedom to bend the definition of a skill to apply to a situation, because their story driven description of that action allows them to do heroic things that solve the problem. Making every single skill, or stat, roll in the game follow the same mechanic is very empowering to this style. Sharing mechanics between magic, physical combat, and covert operations means that the narrative given doesn’t require rule changes, and can be used to solve a given problem in a way easily understood by the GM and players.

There is a big downside to this mechanic. Because physical and covert activities use the same mechanics, they tend to have the same results. Very often activities like picking a lock has the same result as busting it open. Although there are obvious subtle differences, it is traditionally a prohibitive activity. If the fighter can’t unlock the secret passage, then he goes looking for a key. But now the beastly wrestler is expected to be able to open any door with the same ease as the suave, British secret agent. So the downside is that the lines between character types that players come to expect in games get blurred. The story in turn suffers, because the characters who have the best story reasons to perform an action often let the character with the best bonus take over.

Games say YES! GMs say NO!
My first post in this series had some big contradictions due to bad word choice. The idea of a story game allowing anyone to play the character that they really want is an example of the game always saying yes. The group as a whole decides on a genre, and story. There are expectations. Traditional games use race and class combinations to enforce these expectations. So it’s understandable to expect players in a fantasy setting not to play space rangers or submarine captains. But it is a giant strength of the system to allow a fantasy character to be a group of kobolds dressed up like a human. They could be a troll with a conscience. Maybe a fire elemental that bought its freedom from the wizard that made it. The game should say yes. And perhaps the group DOES want one of the players to be a space ranger who was somehow sent back in time. In all of these cases, it is never the game that says “NO!”. It always said “YES!”.

However this is another concept employed in the first post that needs explained. A very basic understanding of game mechanics across all RPGs is that the “GM is god.” The last say in any confusion, whether it be about the rules or about something outside of the rules, falls onto the GM. So when the submarine sandwich artist tries to operate a nuclear submarine, the GM needs the right to say “NO!”. This has a lot of layers. Normally it is done in gaming when a player wants to do something way outside of their skill set. Debating whether or not the evil wizard can turn a cloak of warmth into a war-bird that spits napalm with his underwater basket weaving skill is not good for the story or the other players. Another use of this is to determine what failure really means. When a player tries to pick a lock, and fails, the GM tells the player “no.” But when the player explains that he’ll roll until he gets a success, the GM needs to tell the player “NO!”. And this is a big strength of a story system. My fondest memory is a game of Tristat in which the players thought that freezing an electric lock would allow them to break the locking mechanism. After the failure destroyed the electronic components that controlled the lock, the game continued trying to find someone who could fix it. The story became much more fun.

Timeless is built off of this idea. Some actions are beyond the player’s skills and attempting those actions is simply not going to work. Some rolls are elaborate plans that simply fail, but they do not normally carry with them other automatic negative effects. That is because the GM reactively rolls for NPCs and can also make the players roll reactively to danger that they’ve caused. This is also a simple no. But more importantly, the game includes situations in which a second try is either not allowed, or must be done in a timely way to escape danger.

Difficulty Ratings
Arguably the most important mechanic of story games are difficulty ratings. Traditional RPGs require players to roll a feat of <insert stat here>. The result is extremely binary, either they succeed at the task or not. It doesn’t matter what the task is, the roll is always the same. This is because the difficulty of the roll is established by the stat itself. It’s literally rolled against their own abilities. This does not leave room for the significance of the challenge. Forcing open a door that is being held shut by a single goblin is the same roll as lifting a 400lbs iron portcullis. Granted, there are modifiers, but they are single digits on a 20 sided die. A 5% change. Meaning that a -3, which represents high difficulties, carries only a 15% swing to the failure rate.

These self checks are not the same as difficulty ratings. Because the rating itself is based on the challenge of the activity. Most importantly, in many story systems the rating itself can class the activity outside of the range of the players. Risus is my favorite example of this. Players who do not have significant skills cannot win at certain tasks. The gas station attendant will not fly the harrier jet. But difficulty ratings do not only outclass players. Many tasks that are assumed trivial can become vital to a group’s survival. Picking a door lock while being chased by a 30 foot alligator is much different than doing so at midnight in a mysteriously deserted town. Choosing a rating required to succeed at this event sets the mood and really brings to life the challenge. Here is an example where a spy fumbling with a lock pick set can be pushed aside by the Lucha libre macho man to just kick it over, who is pumping with adrenaline and has a much easier chance to succeed.

Degrees of Success
A discussion of difficulty ratings always leads into the idea of degrees of success. This is not a foreign concept, because most RPGs have the concept of critical hit and critical failure on top of regular success and failure. However, the modern story game movement has expressed a need for a more granular approach. Especially one that is more tied to skill than luck of the die. Here we introduce degrees of success. The simplest example is fate. Rolls are calculated along a scale, with the skill or attribute bonus being the biggest driving force. Higher skill levels have access to the best rewards and shy away from the worst failure. Fate ties the success to meaningful words that can help determine the actual outcome. An average attack probably hurt someone. A fantastic attack disabled them.

Many games build upon these to help the GM narrate. Having more then success and failure can make room for embellishment. Many games use the margin between two numbers to mean even more. Mechanically, rolling 4 above a target number might translate to a number of damage dealt. It all depends on how the game runs, and how much it wants to be tied to randomness. Working with margins is great when the mechanics of a specific game requires rolls for both the attacker and defender. The spread between the dice results has a meaning that can be narrated.

However, I hold that this is not necessary. Although it is a very popular theme, Timeless does without Degrees of Success in favor of leaving the player narrative unabridged by the random results. My own personal preference as a GM is that results should be predictable to the player. I find it frustrating when a player narrates an incredible onslaught of kung fu grace that mechanically is met with taking damage because of a poor roll. And this leads to the next concept.

GM Never Rolls
A great many popular story games hold one truth more important than any other. The GM should never roll dice. We see this with the apocalypse world series mostly. What this gives to the game is that the narrative stays firmly within the control of the players, and the challenges around them are not reactive. Instead, the challenges are presented, the player narrates their wishes, and the dice present just how successful that plan was. This system is unique because failure is not simple failure, it is success with a cost. Generally you see the degrees of success being extreme success, simple success, success with a cost, and abject failure. The upper two tiers result in the plan presented going off well and possibly with bonus results. The next tier down executes the plan but the challenge ahead causes damage do the player. The last teeters between a simple failure in the plan’s execution and that same failure whilst taking damage.

I personally cannot get behind this methodology. For every bit of support it hands to narrative to try and force story telling, it inserts a chart that was rolled against. It subtracts from the story by handing predetermined results with some variation. What’s more important, is that the idea that there is no failure is simply wrong. There is normally something worse than failure, which is a decision that the player would have never made. Player control of narration breaks down, and the predictability of outcomes goes from solid to mud in about 6.4 seconds. I cannot express how often simple expectations of players get stomped on in these games. Did you climb a water tower with your sniper rile to avoid danger? Too bad. You rolled a 6 and you clearly didn’t notice the motorcycle gang hiding behind you that whole time. The story breaks in favor of mechanics with almost every single roll.

Now, this frustration is heavy, but it is not all encompassing. I absolutely love to play Dungeon World. It’s a fun mix of high fantasy and slapstick. And there is nothing wrong with that. My frustration only comes up when it is presented as the best way to handle story elements, when it clearly is nothing more than a collection of rules that force a certain type of story telling. Not one that frees GMs to tell the stories that they want. Because there will always be a pit trap in the pit trap that you already fell into.

I know that’s a contentious note to end on, but I’m going to save the remaining topics for next week. I want to give readers the chance to process and react appropriately. I especially expect disagreement with quite a few topics. This is great, because we are all different gamers with different expectations. Mine are not everybody’s.

Next week I’ll continue with more of the common aspects of story games. Expect topics like Hit Points versus Damage, why Initiative is wrong, and a rant on overly long combat.

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