Maybe someone in the Story Games community (not necessarily just the one ‘Story Games’ forum, but overall) will read this at some point and want to address it. Who knows? And bear in mind that in taking on this topic :
1) I’m talking about something I know comparatively little about
2) I have a funny feeling I’ll provoke someone (but that’s Ok, just look at my theology blog)
What I mean when I talk about Story Games is actually exemplified by the forum of the same name, which I have a link to on this site but you can also find here. The way I understand it is that Story Games are about Story Now, which needs a little explaining.
There are three ways one might talk about the kind of story that results when we play a game with the goal of story in mind. The first is Story Before, which is one traditional stance where the GM or DM or whomever comes up with a story, works it out ahead of time, and then invites the players to participate in it. The story is already there, it is just being fleshed out, perhaps. At one extreme is something like a video game, where the story is literally laid out for you, and at the other is perhaps a GM or DM who is good at improvising, who has an idea of where things are going and who the major players are but is open to other directions in that framework.
The second is Story After. This also happens a lot, particularly in games that I run, because I tend to like “sandbox” style games where I set up a situation, or a bunch of interlocking situations, drop the players into it and see what happens. Story After essentially means that at the end of a game or session, we look back and say “look at the story that we made!” Maybe someone writes up the session as a story, or someone keeps a game journal. In two current games, one I ran and one I’m in, there is a shared blog that the players and GM have for just this purpose.
Story Now means that the story happens during the game, that the game itself might take on self-conscious story structure elements to it, and the game mechanics guide and develop the narrative, which wasn’t worked out before-hand and isn’t just something that becomes apparent after the fact.
As I said above, Story Games are concerned with creating Story Now. And I think this is very cool, but it also has a weakness in my limited experience that especially came up in a conversation with a friend recently.
When you are going to Story Now, that means that no one comes in with a plan of what is going to happen. This could mean that things devolve into a random assortment of events and scenes that don’t connect to each other. Kind of like the game where you tell a story where each person adds a sentence, and the story goes around and around. You might come up with a great story that way, but you also might come up with crap.
One way that I think a lot of Story Games try to get around this is to more carefully define what their game is about. For example, if I play D&D, I’ve bought into a genre, and I’ve bought into a lot of rules and conventions and so on, but the story might be anything. It might be about breaking out of a prison, or about defending a city, or about political intrigue. Granted, D&D is a combat game, but not everyone uses it for that. Or take While Wolf’s games – you buy into a genre but not into a specific kind of story.
In contrast, with a Story Game, the game is not only tools to create a story, but it also tells you a lot more of what that story will be, and includes mechanics for that kind of story and not others. Rather than pick on a particular game, I’ll given an example. One game might be called Prison Break. So when you play this game, you know that your Story Now will be about breaking out of a prison. If you want your game to be about Machiavellian politics, no dice. If you want a game about breaking out of prison, chances are this is a fantastic option. To me, Story Games are focused in this way.
The reason this is a problem, for me, is twofold.
1) I’m used to a completely different model of games. For example, the first game I ever bought and ran was Mythus by Gary Gygax. I used that rules-set to run games for about three years or so – using just the one book to run and play in all kinds of games. Granted, none were Story Now, but that’s a lot of mileage, and I’ve since used other systems, D&D/D20, GURPS, White Wolf’s games and so on, in a similar way.
2) I’m broke. So let’s say that now I want to run a game that’s about bronze-age competition between Greek heroes. Next I want to run a game that’s about competition in academia that involves an insect somehow. After that, a friend wants to run…whatever else. I can do all of this with one Story Before/Story After system, but if I want the Story Now experience, each of these games will need its own system.
Like I said, this isn’t a big problem, but its something that has come up – if nothing else, then because there are a lot of games that I want to buy, but can’t afford them, motivating me to focus on systems that can be used a lot of ways and developing house rules for them.
Or designing my own games, though I don’t really see any of them as Story Games.
So, in short, I get what is cool about them, and maybe what I really need is someone to run a Story Game for me and convert me so I can drink the Kool-Aid. For now, though, Story Now seems like it is interesting…and a barrier as well.