Defining Story Games
But first a caveat. Nailing down definitions can turn into a horrible quagmire, particularly when we’re tackling words that lots of people already use but define differently, or use without an actual definition just a case-by-case “I can’t explain it but I know it when I see it”.
But without definitions words can be treacherous. The worst case scenario isn’t that we disagree about a definition and argue about it for hours on end, it’s that we don’t even realize we disagree. We both use the same word and think we’re on the same page but really we mean entirely different things. That’s a communication nightmare that can sabotage the best of intentions in discussion or at the gaming table.
Language is organic, mutable and constantly evolving. I don’t harbor any illusions that I get to decide what words mean. But at least if you’re talking to me you’ll know what I mean when I say “story games.”
When I started playing story games here’s how they were described to me: A story game is a role-playing game where the participants focus on making a story together instead of just playing “their guy.” The alternative–which I played 100% of the time for more than two decades–would be adventure games like D&D, where your character is your turf.
Yep, I said adventure games. I’ve used the term “traditional games” a lot but in hindsight it’s a terrible term for the games we’ve loved for decades. Back in the 70s and 80s these same “traditional” games were frickin’ radical. I think “adventure game” is a better term. In an adventure game it’s the job of the players to beat the adventure the GM presents. Again, not my invention: “adventure game” was a common term for D&D etc. back in the day. Shippensburg was officially the Shippensburg Adventure Game Camp.
In adventure games your job is to play your character and make good decisions for them. If you mess up (or roll badly) your character can die and be removed from the game. In a story game any character you play is a facet of the shared story. You may even sabotage your own character or spin them into tragedy because it makes the story more interesting. It’s a shift from “what would my character try to do” to “what do I want to have happen to my character” and in the story at large.
That was several years ago. I’ve played a lot of different story games since then. Some good, some great and yes some terrible games too.
After playing all those games and explaining story games to lots and lots of people, I find that “a game that focuses on making a story” is a good description but not a very useful definition. It doesn’t identify specific differences. You could look at almost any role-playing game and say “hey, we were all about making a great story in our D&D game!” and you wouldn’t be wrong. If you’d only ever played games like D&D (like I had for decades) you might wonder what the big deal was.
Can we isolate a mechanical difference? An acid test that separates story games from adventure games? I think there’s one very quantifiable difference:
In a story game, a player’s ability to affect what happens in the game is not dependent on their character’s fictional ability to do those things.
I’d argue that’s the defining trait. The degree to which the rules give you authority that isn’t based on your character’s abilities is the degree to which it is a story game.
Think about that. In an adventure role-playing game you can only accomplish something because your character can do it. In a story role-playing game you can make something happen because as a player you want it, not just because your character can make it happen.
In an adventure game like D&D you decide what your character does, but your ability to succeed is a reflection of your character’s traits. If your character is stealthy you can sneak into the necromancer’s tower. If you’re clumsy you probably can’t. It doesn’t matter how much the player wants to sneak into the tower or thinks it would be interesting to sneak into the tower. The likelihood of success is only based on what the character can do in the fictional world.
In a story game (by my definition) the character isn’t the limit of your power in the game. The rules give the players authority over things that are outside their characters’ control. How, you ask? There are a lot of different ways. Take sneaking into the necromancer’s tower. In some story games players might have the power to frame scenes, letting them simply declare where the next action takes place: “this scene is inside the necromancer’s tower after my character snuck in…” In other story games disagreement might be resolved through conflict resolution: one player might say “I sneak into the tower!” and another player might think that shouldn’t work or should lead to trouble so it becomes a conflict they resolve with the rules (which might involve dice, voting, story points, etc. depending on the system). A player might oppose success because they don’t think it makes sense for the clumsy character to sneak into the tower, or they might be all for it because they think it would be awesome to have a big climactic scene in the tower: that’s up to them. Either way, the character’s fictional abilities are not the deciding factor. It’s the players that decide the result, as moderated by their authority in the rules.
Scene framing and conflict resolution are two common ways to give players say in what happens in the larger game, but there are a zillion other ways, large and small. The tiniest atomic particle of story game rules may be the humble action point or hero point: any case where a player has a pool of points they can spend to reroll dice. You don’t want your character to blow your riding check and lose the race (and look like an idiot in front of the king) so you spend a point to reroll. That’s the player influencing the fiction outside of the character (unless the reroll is something the character is doing to correct a mistake, not a replacement for the original outcome).
If you’ve played adventure role-playing games, you know that if something bad happens to your character it can take away your ability to play. A tactical mistake or a bad roll can take you out of the game.
We’ve all dealt with it. If your character falls in a pit and dies you are out of the game until you make a new character and the GM lets you bring them in. If your character is paralyzed by a necromancer in the middle of a fight (again with the necromancers!) you sit tight and wait while everyone else at the table plays without you. What did you do wrong? You rolled badly or you opened the wrong door or the GM decided the monster attacked you instead of someone else. Suck it up.
Story games don’t work that way. An outgrowth of the “your character is not the limit of your authority” bedrock is that in a story game what happens to your character does not reduce (or increase) your ability to participate in the game. Nothing that happens to the character can put the player in time-out. In a lot of story games character death is not even a possibility unless the player decides it’s a good idea, and if your character dies you can continue to play influencing what happens in the story of the characters that remain.
If what happens to your character can reduce your authority to contribute, you are probably not playing a story game. It’s critical because it gives you the freedom to make interesting, dramatic things happen. You don’t have to protect your character to stay in the game. You can focus on creativity instead of playing to survive. It’s a fundamental shift in the whole dynamic of play.
So now we’ve got a nice neat yard stick to tell where a system falls on the continuum between adventure game and story game. Done! But a big source of confusion is that even if the rules are 100% traditional adventure game you can still play it in a story games style if you want to. Sort of. Up to a point.
Take D&D, old school D&D even. The players control their characters and the GM controls everything else. The characters’ chance of success is based on their character’s fictional abilities (good fighters win fights, poor fighters lose fights, etc.). But the GM could say to a player “Hey, tell me about the monastery your character came from.” Suddenly the player has some story game-style input into the fiction: their character didn’t create the monastery they were trained in, that’s the player making up things they want in the game. Or the GM could ask the group whether they want the next adventure to be more wilderness or dungeon crawling or political intrigue. Again, now the players are making contributions outside their characters.
Those examples are not that uncommon in adventure games. So hey, that makes them story games, right?
Not really. The important difference is that those contributions are arbitrary and non-binding. The GM is deciding when to ask the players for world input (if ever) and if the GM doesn’t like what they propose she can decide not to use it. The GM holds the veto. In an adventure games rules system, story game-style participation is an ad hoc privilege, not a right, and it can be rescinded at any time or never extended at all. It’s not a system.
On the other hand, if you’re a player in an adventure game and you can always decide to make “bad but interesting” decisions for your character but the penalties can be pretty brutal. Yep, it was awesome and dramatically moving to have your paladin take off his armor before the big battle to show his unshakeable faith in his god’s prophecy, but in game terms it meant you had a terrible AC and got cut down in a few rounds. Oops. Now sit and wait while everyone else finishes the fight. The adventure game doesn’t have a method to reward your decision because that’s not what it’s built to do. It doesn’t expect you to play that way.
It goes the other way too. If you think you’re in an adventure game it can suck to discover you’re in a story game. You sit down ready to play your character and have the GM weave a believable and fantastic world full of challenges where you can get your suspension of disbelief on. Then the GM says he can’t decide whether there should elves or dwarves in the city you’re approaching and wants to know which you guys would prefer. Bubble, burst.
And that’s kind of the point of all this discussing and defining: if everyone at the table doesn’t agree about what kind of game they’re in then someone is likely to play the wrong way and have a very bad time. You may never understand why it all fell apart, just “that game sucked!” And without clear terminology and an understanding of the different kinds of role-playing games those conversations are a steep uphill slog. In the dark. With wolves.
(Here’s the part where I say something controversial that derails the whole discussion)
If you think about it, since the very dawn of RPGs players have been playing adventure games but GMs have been playing story games. GMs have always had the power to affect the game outside of any particular characters they control. It’s what GMs do.
next up: Part 2, How story games rules impact play. Spoiler: it’s awesome.