How Do Story Games Work (Part 2)

Continuing with the story game posts, last week started in on the topic of what mechanics that story games tend to use. There is so much to discuss, that I had to split up the post for the sake of readability. I already construct all of my word houses with elaborate walls of text. Perhaps stopping short of a skyscraper is wise in blog posts. (Insert obnoxious laugh)

A new kind of combat. (why we hate long combats)
Nothing drives design in a story game like reinventing the wheel for combat. Almost every RPG player has some gripe with the traditional way of doing combat. It can drag on. It can be unrealistic. It can be boring. It especially can limit what players are allowed to do in combat. There are a myriad of reasons for this discontent, and they often make the weary game designer want to try something new.

Tackling the small fish first, the big strength in story games described in the first post in this series is that players have better control of their narrative. D&D fights mostly involve saying “attack the orc” and waiting for the dice to resolve the result. The player very well could decide to swing on a chandelier  and kick the orc into a giant pot of boiling pea-green-soup, but in order to maintain gameplay balance, this is going to be much harder to do than simply attacking. It will also be much less efficient because in the several attempts it takes to finally be allowed to perform this action, the orc will be dead and more can be combated. But story games don’t have that balance to worry about because of the shared mechanics systems. Generally, swinging on the chandelier carries with it the exact same risks and rewards as engaging in regular combat. Even more so, some characters can only perform supportive actions because allowing these kinds of resolutions to danger means that characters do not have to focus in combat just to survive. Since the narrative for combat is looser, games can be as realistic, zany, and fun as the players want.

The elephant in the room, however, is how long that combat takes. There’s a lot of factors to this. Some games get bogged down researching rules as combat goes on. Some games involve giant dice pools or complex calculations. Other games require rolling many dice per player per turn. But I think that most story game designers have boiled this down to number of dice and how much a round can accomplish.

With the former in mind a large number of rolls would involve having everyone roll for initiative and then in each turn rolling for movement, rolling to see if an attack hits, rolling to dodge, rolling for damage, and then rolling for defense. This is not indicative of most games, or even the most popular games. It is just an example of how many dice can come into play on every single turn. One very common approach is to simply drop some of these rolls. Timeless, for example, dropped all but one roll in this list, which is to hit. Most story games take the same approach. However, they tend to leave in an initiative system. I personally hate initiative systems. If someone wants to be the Flash, they shouldn’t rely on a die roll to see if they can act faster than the slug monster.

Dropping the initiative system is not the only approach. Many games develop a completely different approach ranging from passing around narrative control based on story decisions to completely removing the concept of game rounds in favor of group combat. My favorite round replacement is a game called Killshot. Initiative is replaced with a concept of maintaining control of the edge, and keeping the edge is a significant part of the strategy.

The latter of the two culprits measures just how much can be accomplished in a single round. Most players are used to some sort of movement phase followed by declaring a single action. This tends to lead to single attacks per round as the combat goes on, with the most practical outcome always trumping the most fun or realistic. Many games relax this. Dreaming in Gears, for example, uses Action Points to allow multiple actions per round. Others provide unlimited actions that have stacking penalties. SFX combines limited action points with a list of skills that can only be used once per round. Many more ideas expand the way that players approach problems and help them feel less limited in their roles during combat.

Hit points
Another topic that can spawn endless discussions about RPG design is the concept of hit points. What it represents and just what it means to take damage is a very complicated topic. However, somewhere along the line many story games decided that the idea just doesn’t fit anymore. This is very true. It’s hard to think about a warrior taking 15 arrows to the gut and continuing on his conquest. It may make for a glorious battle, but it makes for a very confusing story. Perhaps for this reason, and maybe for many others, we are starting to see more and more games in which taking damage provides a disadvantage instead of defeat. SFX is rooted greatly in this idea. Other games include Apocalypse World and Fate. Perhaps the most elaborately eloquent is Risus in which every skill represents its own kind of damage threshold.

Reward systems
It’s become increasingly common for games to include an incentive to role playing. Most of the mechanics in these articles are in response to traditional RPG mechanics that hinder story telling. Yet with the advent of Fate and many similar games comes mechanics to reward certain types of role playing. (Not that Fate invented the concept) The idea here is different from simple rewards, like gold and xp. What is done is the GM will present a situation in which players choose to act according to their character, but outside of the group’s best interest, and gain a reward. Fate distributes Fate points. D&D 5 distributes inspiration.

Not all reward systems require GM enticement. Some are player enticement. Timeless: Creatures!, for example, allows the players to nominate others to regain their background points when performing particularly dangerous and selfless acts. This is used as a way to pass out experience points in some systems. Old School Hack allows players to pass out “Awesome points” whenever players simply do awesome things.

There is healthy debate on how valuable these kinds of reward systems are. In many ways they simply are fun activities outside of the game itself that players can interact with. Something that is fun simply because it is a little different. In other ways they are band aids aimed at correcting bad habits. I’ve played with many groups that have never needed the concept in order to role play well. Especially because great role players rarely act in the best interest of the group’s survival. As a GM, I rarely have to offer someone a reward for picking up the diabolical grenade that says “pick me up.” So I leave the necessity of this mechanic to the group itself. Most games with rewards play just fine with the mechanic stripped out or altered.

The story that makes the Quest
Something that story games highly avoid is a detailed description to every action. As mentioned when World of Darkness was analyzed, it essentially provides a different kind of table to roll against. A table with less results that are much more verbose in their description. But this does not describe all similar mechanics. There are many games in which the flavor of the setting is infused within the rules. These are games in which actions have reliable meanings and limitations that begin with an existing narrative.

So far this has been a very general description but it all makes sense when viewed in the lens of fan games. Typical D&D players might wear magical charms around their neck because they have been enchanted with a spirit of strength or intelligence. Yet a Harry Potter themed game would likely not want any “charms” even close to their necks. The differences between charms and spells become important. The limitations on what enchanted artifacts can do and where they may come from might all be spelled out in the rules. What this leads to are an arrangement of restrictive definitions that control the way that concept work within the story. Narration of that concept must follow the same way.

This all may seem restrictive, and it certainly removes the concept of “lite” from a story game, but it is not bad for the story at all. These rules do not only establish the shared expectations of the game but they direct the story. An example of this that is very close to me is an upcoming mechanic in Woods of Edir. Player deaths in the game will not be treated quick character re rolls or off the cuff quests to find the holy grail. Instead the unfortunate event leads into a set of narrative mechanics that hook into several possible plot directions. Most importantly, these mechanics provide choice as death is not the end of that character. This is through an established way of reviving characters that sets limitations and guidelines through a narrative. For all of the evidence that WoD does not belong in the Story Game category, this particular element of many story games is championed by the series. Using narrative directions and limitations ans inspiration and plot hooks is a great tool for story games.

Now there are more subtleties involved differentiating story games from one another. Yet I think these posts touches all of the major pillars that provide a foundation for the subtleties. Writing out these articles has definitely provided a bit of retrospective for Timeless. Many concepts in Timeless cling to traditional RPG interpretations, such as combat rounds, single action turns, and hit points. These were added to Timeless to establish a common ground for players moving from combat heavy RPGs to better jump into a story game without having to relearn combat. Each decision clearly has give and take, but that is what helps make the game so unique in such a colorful world of story gaming.


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