A Problem With Story Games

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.

6 thoughts on “A Problem With Story Games

  1. The main problem I see with Story Now games (aside from the ones you've mentioned) is skill. Some people are good at telling stories, others simply aren't. This is a skill that can be developed, but even with effort and time some people are just sucky story tellers. With a Story Before/After game only one person REALLY has to be a good storyteller, or at least you can get by if there are people in your group who have less knack for story as long as a few of you are gifted weavers of fiction. With a StoryNow game, everyone had better be good at story or Kaplooie.

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  2. An apologist might say that Story Games could be the way that someone learns how to be better at storytelling. Though there's also something to be said for a game that demands less of players who aren't interested in offering more.

    It would be interesting to have a game that divvied up “story power” consciously to people who had the most interesting in using it, so others could enjoy the ride and be more reactive.

    Also, sometimes I play games because I want to think, and sometimes I play games because I *don't* want to thing.

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  3. As someone who enjoys both traditional and story games, as meaningful as those labels are, I don't feel particularly provoked.

    You are using a broad brush, though. Some story games (e.g. PTA and Universalis) are explicitly not tied to a genre or such. I'd go as far as to say that they are more generic than many so-called generic trad games, which function by modeling the setting, and hence are by default nongeneric (because they must make assumptions about the setting to model it).

    Also, many of the specific games are not actually that strongly tied to a genre and a world. The rules are largely formal and can be used regardless of setting, but they do determine what the overall story will look like.

    For example, Dogs in the Vineyard basically requires that there is a party of powerful characters that travels from one community to next and has the authority to solve any problems of those communities.

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  4. @ Tommi

    Thanks for the comment! I was actually thinking of an upcoming post about buying into a genre when you run certain games that I enjoy.

    It is a broad brush, you're right. “Story Game” is another bit of, I dunno, maybe 'gamer jargon' that doesn't have a precise definition. Maybe in the future I'll talk more about specific games – I didn't really want to get into that for this post.

    A good example of the versatility of a game like Dogs is a game called The Prince's Kingdom. It is basically Dogs in the Vineyard, but retooled by a Quaker and published to support the American Friends Service Committee. In it, you are children of the King sent from island to island to solve problems there and de-escalate violence. So the content of the story is both the same and distinct from Dogs – same kinds of stories, different idiom.

    I enjoy Story Games as well, though I haven't had the chance to run or play many of them yet. Partly this is just the frustration of unrequited desire – I want ten or fifteen twenty-dollar games. I also do think that Story Now requires more specific systems, which is limiting in order to achieve the end. That's basically it.

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  5. Mortal Coil is another story game that isn't overly tied to a specific genre/scenario. Even so I think the kind of play experience you're likely to get with these games is pretty darn specific, which is both their strength and their limitation. They do what they do well (I personally love them), but it seems generally true that the diversity of game styles and types is more limited with story games than other types.

    This is basically the observation I've heard many times lately that many of the games coming out of IPR seem like they're ideal for one-shots and that's about it. (Burning Wheel being the obvious exception).

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  6. I've been following the development of the “Story Game” movement from its humble beginnings many years ago on usenet as “Narrativist” games under the 3-fold model. While I think that, given an experienced GM, I'd enjoy playing most of them, I don't think any of them would be my preferred play style.

    For me the primary problem is of breaking the suspension of disbelief. As a player, I like to imagine I am looking into another (real) world and thinking and making decisions as if I were there. I find it very distracting to have to–at the same time–engage in meta-game strategizing (especially against other players) or deal with distributed GM techniques. It's much like the older style of novels where you have significant “authorial intrusions” which only serve to break the “fictive dream” and remind you that you are after all only reading a book.

    All that being said, that hasn't stopped me from stealing story game techniques whenever I find one that might be usable.

    I do agree with you about the limited nature of some of these games. If you play something like My Life With Master, there's really only one type of story to be had so replay-ability is necessarily limited. I understand these games can be quite intense but I don't see how you can develop the kind of attachment to these characters as you could with a more long-term traditional type game where you have the chance of developing a real play history.

    It's a natural trade-off that should be expected. By using rules to help you tell a certain type of story, those same rules become barricades preventing you from telling others. I like to think it is possible to tell the same sorts of stories without the coercion–but that approach does rely even more on GM ability.

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