The Definition of Story Game

edited August 2018 in Story Games
I am just curious (because it came up, and has come up, elsewhere) how posters here would define "Story Game". Is it a broad and vague category or are there specific characteristics you expect to see in a story game?
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  • One of the more popular definitions (put forth by Ben Robbins, I believe) goes something like this:

    In a traditional roleplaying game, a (non-GM) player's ability to influence the game is strictly limited to things that your character is capable of doing. In a story game, that is not true: there are methods "external" to the character that let the players affect things (not unlike some of the powers traditionally granted to GMs).
  • edited August 2018
    I also like Ben Robbin’s definition of a Story Game if one is looking to define the term in a precise way.

    “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. 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.”

    I think another way to think about story games is this: in a Story Game the goal is to tell a good story, in a traditional RPG the goal is to play a character, interact with the world strategically, solve problems, and so forth.

    If you’re looking for a more loose definition that goes into the features typical of Story Games, this link does a good job of summing them up:
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/heterogenoustasks.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/what-is-a-storygame/amp/
  • It's a "story game" if it says "story game" somewhere on the cover or in the text.
  • I don't respect "story game" as an analytical term (it does not capture anything truly distinctive), but it is viable as a description of a specific subscene of roleplaying. In this sense "story games" are essentially games played by the Forge diaspora [grin].

    If one insists on listing typical features of story games, the foremost feature is generally getting stuck on the name: that is, unlike an ordinary roleplaying game, the story game has a focus on the story. This is, of couse, such a vague notion that almost anything at all fulfills the criterion.

    Story games don't generally celebrate their own traditionalism, so I guess that this would be what I'd go for as an analytical definition if I had to:

    Story games are non-traditional roleplaying games (of a particular historical subculture).
  • I agree with Eero:

    The term "story game" does not have any useful definition. (And there are lots of "major" story games which do not fit Ben Robbins' definition.

    Much like the term "roleplaying", it gets used in different ways by different people.

    However, that said, this link has a really strong and thorough treatment of the matter, including common techniques or features of games which many would recognize or consider as belonging to this "group":

    If you’re looking for a more loose definition that goes into the features typical of Story Games, this link does a good job of summing them up:
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/heterogenoustasks.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/what-is-a-storygame/amp/
  • Yes, the loose definition in the link above is more accurate (especially, because it takes many different interpretations of the term into account) but it is less specific and concise. Ben’s definition might be useful if one was to create a taxonomy of very specific RPG categories, for the purpose of dissecting of games in order to understand precise game elements and game design tech. Though even in this regard, given the muddleing of the term popularly and historically, “Story Game” would be a poor choice to use in a taxonomy at this point.

    That said, Ben came up with this definition in 2012 and you have to give him credit for attempting to come up with a specific, useful and concise definition that made an important, if not all encompassing, central distinction.
    I don't respect "story game" as an analytical term (it does not capture anything truly distinctive), but it is viable as a description of a specific subscene of roleplaying. In this sense "story games" are essentially games played by the Forge diaspora [grin].
    The term "story game" does not have any useful definition.
    Ia think both Eero and Paul make legitimate points to some degree, but they overstate their points; they aren’t taking into account the last etymological stage that has emerged and changed the meaning of “story game” in the wider indie gaming populous. The larger indie gaming populous is mostly made up of post-Forgites who don’t associate the term with the definition Clinton R. Nixon initially intended when he coined the term or that Andy named his site after. The term is considered more specific now then just RPGs + Forgite games, which was created simply because people got sick of arguing over whether My Life with Master was an RPG. It doesn’t mean the same thing to most of the “next generation” of gamers who are actually working in this sub genre of indie games currently. They aren’t part of the Forgite “diaspora” for the most part, and the term is rather more precise to them.

  • edited December 2018
    An example of this disconnect between the “generations” was illustrated when Ron Edwards started to work on four of these “story games” for his consulting work (one of which was my game, House of Spiders). When all four of us discribed our games as “story games,” Ron interpreted it in the older Forgite/Story Games Forums senses and hated it because of its association with making Forgite games distinct from other RPGs in the minds of some and how some looked upon the term as having elitist elements. Ron was not using the term as it is used now by post-Forgites who are the majority of indie RPG players and the majority of those playing and designing games that fit within this current definition of “story games.”

    I believe the definition that this “generation” is working with is very close to the following:

    The primary purpose of play is to create a good story in which players work from the perspective of an author or a director. The story rather than inhabiting the subjective viewpoint of a single primary character is the goal of the game, both in the gameplay and in the design. This is not in some watered down sense—in a way that any role playing game could be defined as trying to create a good story—the telling of a good story is what the game is about, everything is aimed at this goal, and the shift in perspective to the directorial, authorial role is central to this. Rather than inhabiting your character or advocating for them, they are to be sacrificed happy if necessary, they are a tool to help create what is good and dramatically compelling for the overall story.

    This current, narrower definition of Story Game is very similar to the Dramitist style of gameplay as defined in the Threefold model which values how well the in-game drama creates a satisfying storyline. It is the end result of the story which is important and these games are designed with that purpose in mind.

    I think that for the post-Forgite, who doesn’t carry all the historical baggage that others do, Story Game can be a useful and more precise term than it may seem. Of course, there could probably be a better term—I personally like drama game—which doesn’t have the historical baggage and the spectrum of interpretations, but for designers like myself and other post-Forge designers working in this space, this is how the term is being used and what is primarily meant by it. It is a term with a history whose definition has shifted and been repurposed for better or worse.
  • edited August 2018
    This sort of disagreement is not unique to table top game design. I think we will always have trouble defining something to a degree that everyone is happy with. Even terminology that everyone in the general public seems to agree on, breaks down when you begin to delve into the specific practitioners of some specific community.

    Genre definitions come to mind, where a lot of people can easily agree that an author is definitely sci-fi, literature, Gothic or whatever. But when you ask that author they say those terms don't fit. Sometimes they even resent being associated with the genre because their definition doesn't fit.

    I'm not really sure who gets to "own" how a term is used.
  • In a traditional roleplaying game, a (non-GM) player's ability to influence the game is strictly limited to things that your character is capable of doing.
    Speaking from playing and refereeing tabletop roleplaying campaign for 40 years, that is not much of a limitation. The point as a player is to interact with a setting as your character. Settings represent entire worlds with all their inherent possibilities. Like in life the choice are effectively unlimited. Sure you can as your character flap your arms and fly in a historical medieval setting. But there are still dozens if not hundreds of things to explore and do.

    The challenge is trying to accomplish whatever your goals within what your character is can do or capable of learning. A good tabletop referee will do what needed to make a player feels like they are inhabiting the setting as their character. Along with teaching the players about the possibilities and maybe some coaching if the players needs it.

  • The primary purpose of play is to create a good story in which players work from the perspective of an author or a director. The story rather than inhabiting the subjective viewpoint of a single primary character is the goal of the game, both in the gameplay and in the design. This is not in some watered down sense—in a way that any role playing game could be defined as trying to create a good story—the telling of a good story is what the game is about, everything is aimed at this goal, and the shift in perspective to the directorial, authorial role is central to this. Rather than inhabiting your character or advocating for them, they are to be sacrificed happy if necessary, they are a tool to help create what is good and dramatically compelling for the overall story.
    That seem a reasonable definition and observation. The use of game mechanics can be used to meld different creative visions in a way more structured than a freeform back and forth.
    That said, Ben came up with this definition in 2012 and you have to give him credit for attempting to come up with a specific, useful and concise definition that made an important, if not all encompassing, central distinction.
    There are several things I would add.

    The definitions of storygame, wargame, and tabletop roleplaying games are centers. There is a spectrum between all of these and more. Starting with and before Arneson's Blackmoor the default is for campaigns to be hybrids with a little bit of that and little bit of this. While my opinion is that a firm definition can be drawn, a specific game will always be a hybrid incorporating different elements that the author wants to focus on.

    It has been my observation for the past 4 decades that a tabletop roleplaying game focuses on players interacting with a setting as their character with their actions adjudicated by a human referee. While wargames focus on the achievement of victory (competitive) or victory conditions (cooperative). And finally storygames are focused on using the mechanics of a game to collaboratively build a story or narrative as a group.

    Because it focus, one can't just look at the mechanics. You have to look at the whole package to get a sense of what the author is trying to focus on. And it that focus that makes a given work useful for specific form of gaming.

    Even then because of their hybrid nature, elements of a work may be useful for the other types of games.
  • edited August 2018
    I agree with everything you wrote, robertsconley.
  • The primary purpose of play is to create a good story in which players work from the perspective of an author or a director. The story rather than inhabiting the subjective viewpoint of a single primary character is the goal of the game, both in the gameplay and in the design.
    If you have the balls to say that e.g. Apocalypse World is not one of these story games, then I have no particular complaint about using the term that way. By all means, and I think that it is useful to have a term for that category of games even if I am doubtful about the wisdom of using that particular one.

    (I pick this particular touch-stone specifically because I usually see the term used in a way that explicitly includes a certain range of mechanically modern rpgs as being "story games" just because they are narrativist - in the GNS sense - or simply generally story-focused, or just because they feature a conflict resolution system. These games definitely do not, however, fulfill your suggested condition of having the players work from an authorial perspective - whether AW or Fate or Heroquest or whatever, they are all about character players playing their characters.)
  • I'd definitely go with "broad and vague", Brendan.

    When I hear "story game", I don't know what the game is going to be; mostly, I know it probably won't be focused on combat or survival challenges.
  • Yeah, names come with a lot of baggage and debate. I think it's more productive to start from the other end: look at what is happening, rather than labels.

    For example, there are some games where your character's abilities define what you can do. There are other games where your ability to affect what happens in the game is not dependent on a character’s fictional ability to do those things.

    Regardless of what you call those two types of games, I think it's an important distinction because it fundamentally changes how you play. Like I said in the original article from back in 2012, if you misunderstand which kind of game you're in, you're going to have a bad time.
  • Eero beat me to it:

    The issue with that approach to defining "story game" is that you are forced to omit the entire tradition which brought it forth in the first place: character-centric Narrativist games which expect you to inhabit the character fully and follow your gut.* Those are powerful games and highly significant in the development of this kind of design in the first place; it seems weird to have a definition which omits them (like a definition of fast food burger restaurants which doesn't include McDonald's).

    Ben's definition is a bit looser, in a way which could be argued to include some of them, perhaps, but these more involved perspectives double down on that aspect, it seems to me.

    (*: In fact, David Berg and I recently had a chat about whether Narrativist play is even possible without spending a good deal of significant play in Actor Stance!)

    I like how the article Jeff linked points out that all such features are common in the category/genre, but none are mandatory or exclusive - for instance, character non-monogamy is definitely an identifiable trend in "story gaming", but it no ways defines it, and lots of games can have character monogamy and that doesn't invalidate them as story games.
    Yeah, names come with a lot of baggage and debate. I think it's more productive to start from the other end: look at what is happening, rather than labels.
    Indeed; I couldn't agree more.

  • edited August 2018
    By all means, and I think that it is useful to have a term for that category of games even if I am doubtful about the wisdom of using that particular one.

    (I pick this particular touch-stone specifically because I usually see the term used in a way that explicitly includes a certain range of mechanically modern rpgs as being "story games" just because they are narrativist - in the GNS sense - or simply generally story-focused, or just because they feature a conflict resolution system.

    Eero beat me to it:
    The issue with that approach to defining "story game" is that you are forced to omit the entire tradition which brought it forth in the first place: character-centric Narrativist games which expect you to inhabit the character...
    I think that the distinction of these type of games—ie games whose man goal and focus is the telling of a good story, and, in which, the story is told by the players from the directorial, authorial stance—from other RPGs is an important and useful distinction. These two types of games are fundamentally different.

    I also agree that the term “story games” carries historical baggage and vagueness. That’s why I usually use the term Collaborative GMless Story Games to discribe them if the narrative roles players play are similarly, like in Fiasco for example. Or Collaborative Asymmetrical Story Games to discribe them if the narrative roles players play are distinct from one another, like in Kingdom for example. This way both Forgites and Post-Fogites typically know what I’m getting at.

    The point that is most important to me is that a distinction needs to be made, if not merely for the reason Ben mentioned: it fundamentally changes how you play, and if you misunderstand which kind of game you're in, you're going to have a bad time.
  • edited August 2018
    I agree that games which share those design features belong to a certain "space" or "school of design". I like to use "collaborative/GMless" (or even "distributed narrative authority") versus "has a traditional GM role" to describe that; it covers the bases pretty well.

    It's a lot easier to say, "Does this game have a GM?" than to debate what "story games" means, in my experience.
  • edited August 2018
    To illustrate, here's a perfect example of something that is definitely a "story game" by just about anyone's standards, but has a traditional GM/player format, and thus doesn't fit most definitions for what a "story game" should be or looks like.

    Nicotine Girls



    (Someone who wants to nitpick could say that "calling for" Smoke scenes, choosing troubles to increase your Fear score, and the ending epilogue narration are forms of agency outside of the character. However, these can be reframed in more diegetic terms - e.g. instead of "calling for a Smoke scene", say "your character can choose to go to a friend or NPC for advice, and, if they do, these are the rules for that..." - or changed into more traditional language. For instance, sources of Fear can be chosen at character creation, and brought in by the GM in play. An ending epilogue could be written after the end of the game instead of narrated (traditional gamers aren't used to narrating things happening to their characters, but they often find *writing* such things entirely familiar, like character backstories, journals, and so forth.

    More importantly, there are many, many other games in this vein which do this to varying degrees but clearly belong to the same "species", including My Life with Master, which is one of the quintessential "story games" of all time and winner of the Diana Jones Award.)
  • I think that the distinction of these type of games—ie games whose man goal and focus is the telling of a good story, and, in which, the story is told by the players from the directorial, authorial stance—from other RPGs is an important and useful distinction. These two types of games are fundamentally different.
    I strongly disagree as long as this is supposed to apply to GMless rpgs in general, Fiasco in particular. If there is a subset of rpgs that is "fundamentally different" in this manner, I'd say it is very small. Even a game like Lovecraftesque that calls itself "storytelling game" still needs the witness to be played in an empathetic way and not to be "told."
  • edited August 2018

    I strongly disagree as long as this is supposed to apply to GMless rpgs in general, Fiasco in particular. If there is a subset of rpgs that is "fundamentally different" in this manner, I'd say it is very small. Even a game like Lovecraftesque that calls itself "storytelling game" still needs the witness to be played in an empathetic way and not to be "told."
    I’m not talking about all GMless games obviously. In the games I am talking about you’re playing them from an authorial perspective. You can be empathetic, and you should be to a point, it’s part of the fun...but, in Fiasco, for example, you should also be fine with your character’s head getting blown off, if it makes the story cool. That is, if your going to play it the way it’s written.

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with being into your character in these types of games, but if you trash the story because that’s your main concern that isn’t exactly the best way to play: Fiasco or Archipelago or Fall of Magic type games IMO. You have to build a story, and you have to build it with others.

  • edited August 2018
    Indeed.

    I seem to remember that, at some point in time (long ago), the definition of "story game" used here for this forum was something like, "a way of playing where 'my character' takes a backseat to 'our story'."

    (The only problem being that this omits a number of other games which are clearly 'story games', at least to their fans, which blur that line quite a bit.)
  • edited August 2018
    I really hate to bring it back to my point about comparing this to defining genre...

    No, wait. I don't really hate it (perhaps I love to be contrarian)

    A friend and I were talking recently about Literary writing, her because she had a few jobs writing lit magazine critiques, and me because I don't know when to bow out when I don't know enough about a subject. Anyway, our other friend was confused, she asked, "isn't literature anything written or published?"

    I said "when people say Literary they're just being pretentious, and attributing greater meaning to what their making" (give or take a word or two on my part). My other friend defined it as "Writing of a certain caliber."

    I asked another writer from my community I know and she defined it as "Literary is the focus on the craft of writing", in other words the artful use of language rather than the subject matter. (again I'm paraphrasing a bit).

    I contrast this a with the person I met doing NaNoWriMo who said her genre was "fat chick lit" (her words). I never got a thorough definition of it.

    I think we even had a post on story games a while back about gaming that blurred the line between gaming and Literary works.

    What IS literary writing? Wikipedia says "Literary fiction is a term used to distinguish certain fictional works that possess commonly held qualities to readers outside genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as any fiction that attempts to engage with one or more truths or questions, hence relevant to a broad scope of humanity as a form of expression." (Some of the definition of story games border on something similar I think)

    My point is, someone may argue until they are blue in the face that a term means "x," but only history is the judge, or maybe widely published historical authors are the judge?

    Who's writing the the next semi-best seller on 'story games' right now i wonder? Maybe the future is streaming documentaries on services like netflix. I can't wait to watch "Story Games, the movie." Maybe after watching that I'll form a impactful opinion on the term.
  • I’m not talking about all GMless games obviously. In the games I am talking about you’re playing them from an authorial perspective. You can be empathetic, and you should be to a point, it’s part of the fun...but, in Fiasco, for example, you should also be fine with your character’s head getting blown off, if it makes the story cool. That is, if your going to play it the way it’s written.

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with being into your character in these types of games, but if you trash the story because that’s your main concern that isn’t exactly the best way to play: Fiasco or Archipelago or Fall of Magic type games IMO. You have to build a story, and you have to build it with others.
    Seems arbitrary to me. There are many rpgs where you should be able to accept that bad things happen to your character. Also: Why would sb purposefully "trash[ing] the story" be part of a dividing line here?
  • edited August 2018
    .
  • edited August 2018
    If you want to get a further idea of the distinction I’m attempting to make, you could check out Ben Robbins’ article below. He says it in a different way, which might make it clearer, whether you agree with him or not.
    http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/460/defining-story-games/

    Ben designed Microscope, Kingdom and Follow and (along with Jason) is arguably the most accomplished designer in this space. He sees a distinction between these types of games and the way they are played and there’s good reason to trust his conclusion. He has played them hundreds of times, and played them exclusively for 8 years as the founder of Story Games Seattle. He has probably played these games more times than almost anyone. I’ve also played these games once or twice a week for about 2 1/2 years—usually a different game every session—and studied their designs. So the distinction is based on praxis rather than simply being theoretical.

    It doesn’t really matter if one calls these types of games “story games” or something else. The point I’m making is that there are certain things that make Collaborative GMless “Story Games” that are played from a directorial, authorial perspective different from other RPGs. In these games all of the players act as authors and actors all at once, and one is not playing a character strategically to overcome obstacles and referring to the character’s fictional abilities to do so; but, instead, playing them to contribute to a shared story in order to entertain the audience (the players) by making that story dramatic, compelling, and so forth.

    If you try to play these games the way you’d play a typical RPG it’s not going to work out well and you’re not going to enjoy yourself. There is a shift of perspective that’s necessary and a shift in what one is trying to accomplish and what is considered a “good time.” I think the distinction between these types of games and other RPGs is a useful one. That doesn’t mean that many games don’t have features of both or that there isn’t a spectrum.

    If you don’t think it’s a useful distinction, fair enough; you may have good reasons for believing so. I’m offering my perspective and I’m more than willing to change it.


  • edited August 2018
    Jeff,

    I think you're absolutely right that those kinds of games fit in a certain design space and are "birds of the same feather".

    People may quibble with details, though, because you can have "GMless Games" where the story is not the key thing (those are rare, in my experience, but perhaps something like Once Upon a Time fits the bill), and you can have "traditionally GMed" games where either the game's design or the play culture around it means that we "[play] them to contribute to a shared story in order to entertain the audience (the players) by making that story dramatic, compelling, and so forth".

    For example, many people play games like Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu this way. Some people play PbtA games this way, too, and many people play convention games in this way, regardless of the rules.

    In many circles, playing Call of Cthulhu as an "adventure game" a la D&D would be a serious faux pas, and ruin people's evening. Does that make it a story game?

    Speaking for myself, I find that, ultimately, debating the label takes more time and energy than just describing the games themselves. I have no problem with anyone using the term "story games" however they like, so long as they are willing to define the term and use it consistently, however. :)

    For me?

    I'd prefer to take the 5 seconds to type something like, "hey, let's play this game - it's GMless, collaborative, plays out in one session, and has very simple rules" than to attempt a controversial definition of "story game" and knock my head against the wall when people object because it seems to exclude their favourite game.

    It also allows me to use the term "story game" to label all forms of creative entertainment where we tell a story together. (So, for me, "roleplaying games" and "storytelling games" are subsets of "story games".) I like that, because it frees me up to think about games and design in a more open-minded way. I might end up designing something far more interesting than I would otherwise, try games I might not otherwise consider, and connect to more people.
  • edited August 2018
    Jeff,
    People may quibble with details, though, because you can have "GMless Games" where the story is not the key thing (those are rare, in my experience, but perhaps something like Once Upon a Time fits the bill), and you can have "traditionally GMed" games where either the game's design or the play culture around it means that we "[play] them to contribute to a shared story in order to entertain the audience (the players) by making that story dramatic, compelling, and so forth".
    Yes, like FateLess, which is GMless, wouldn’t fit because it has stats and players playing strategically to overcome obstacles, so it wouldn’t be in the category. I also think that even though people could play “traditional games” this way most would still have character attributes that would limit what there characters could do in the story, so those games wouldn’t qualify.

    I would be interesting to see whether or not there are GMed games where the primary, overarching goal is to tell a compelling story, where all players contribute to the narrative in a authorial way (although obviously less than the GM), and where what the characters can do in the story isn’t limited by their fictional attributes (like stats or the like). Coincidentally enough, one of the two designs for House of Spiders I’m working on fits this description. Do you know of any other games that would?

    Speaking for myself, I find that, ultimately, debating the label takes more time and energy than just describing the games themselves. I have no problem with anyone using the term "story games" however they like, so long as they are willing to define the term and use it consistently, however. :)
    Agreed! I’ve wasted way too much time on this thread as well as on the previous ten threads that asked this exact question. Everytime everyone just ends up having the same conversation, haha. One of the terms I thought of that would match the type of game I’m talking about is a “story weaving” game, but I’m doubtful it would catch on, and I’m not sure I would want it to.

    (So, for me, "roleplaying games" and "storytelling games" are subsets of "story games".) I like that, because it frees me up to think about games and design in a more open-minded way.
    The original intent of the word, how dare you? The grognards are going to be pissed at you :smile:

  • I wouldn't mind calling joint storytelling games "storytelling games" myself. I know that it's also the name of a historical rpg system, but I don't really mind that. Although I don't find the distinction very important myself, I can see how Jeff's favourite type of story game is defined in a pretty clear way, so why not give the thing a name. Like with Dogma movies or Jeepform games, it's useful if you have a label to put on some things to emphasize certain similarities between them.

    I'm less fond of taking the term "story game" and starting to parade around saying stuff about how everything from Fate to Apocalypse World "aren't real story games because they prioritize character fidelity over the concern of composing a story" and so on. That seems like a recipe for endless complaints from people who have adopted the term and are comfortable identifying as "story gamers" - seems like a jerk move to specifically take an established word and insist on defining that to only apply to your own pet projects. Kinda similar to how people sometimes like to insist on some game not being a real roleplaying game because it lacks X or Y feature that they think is central.

    It is probably better when inventing new labels to choose words that do not seem like a naked cultural power-grab. In that regard "storytelling game" is hardly ideal, as it is, as I remarked, already in use. Just like readapting "story game" to mean what you like is rude towards other people using the term, Whitewolf gamers would be rightfully annoyed by the overlapping terms.

    So I guess in the end Jeff is stuck inventing something else. "Story weaving" is passable, but I'd go further afield myself if I'd have to think up something that needs explaining anyway. There's more than enough story-this and story-that in the field already.

    (I'm tempted to suggest "conch-passing", but that's just mean. Bad snark, don't be so snarky.)

    "Tale-weaving game" would at least get rid of the literal word "story". "Role-less story game" sounds clumsy but would be very accurate...

    How about "roless game", abbreviated RLG? Sounds fun to me. A bit like a trademark, perhaps.

    It's essentially a question similar to that faced by larpers - what to call this emerging subcategory of roleplaying. "Live Action Roleplaying" isn't the cleverest name ever, but it's the one that stuck. Maybe "story game" ends up getting refined similarly over time until it really does get accepted as ruling out literal role-playing.
  • If you don’t think it’s a useful distinction, fair enough; you may have good reasons for believing so. I’m offering my perspective and I’m more than willing to change it.
    I read the article you're referring to a while ago and my takeaway was - and is - that the dividing line the author draws (authority that isn't based on character ability) unsurprisingly fits his own games and their rather marginalized characters best (Microscope says "vast creative authority"), others not so much. A GMless rpg like Dog Eat Dog encourages players to frame scenes based on what their characters would do, Hillfolk, which has shared scene-framing, works similarly. Even in Fiasco creative authority isn't really the point as opposed to operating in a dramatic framework set up before play. It becomes even more difficult when we assume that players in such a game "make something happen" because they want it as players, which to me, is always the case in the kind of conversation/negotiation of the fiction that makes up playing a rpg.

    I think the article is well thought out and consistent. I just don't agree with the emphasis there.

    More strongly I react to the simpler claim that these games are somehow about writing characters instead of playing them. Or that they are about making stuff happen just because players creatively want to.

    I've settled on not using the term "story games" at all and instead trying to be precise about how the rpg in question works.

  • I read the article you're referring to a while ago and my takeaway was - and is - that the dividing line the author draws (authority that isn't based on character ability) unsurprisingly fits his own games and their rather marginalized characters best (Microscope says "vast creative authority"), others not so much. A GMless rpg like Dog Eat Dog encourages players to frame scenes based on what their characters would do, Hillfolk, which has shared scene-framing, works similarly. Even in Fiasco creative authority isn't really the point as opposed to operating in a dramatic framework set up before play. It becomes even more difficult when we assume that players in such a game "make something happen" because they want it as players, which to me, is always the case in the kind of conversation/negotiation of the fiction that makes up playing a rpg.
    But you are still framing a scene. You decide who is there. What they're doing. Where you are. And you're not bound by "Well, it'll take me three days to get there on a horse, so the only people who can be there are..." You have power beyond what your character can do.

    If you think there's an overloading nuclear reactor in your fiasco scene, there is. People might go 'Huh?' if it's a total nonsequitur, but that decision is still yours to make.

  • I would be interesting to see whether or not there are GMed games where the primary, overarching goal is to tell a compelling story, where all players contribute to the narrative in a authorial way (although obviously less than the GM), and where what the characters can do in the story isn’t limited by their fictional attributes (like stats or the like). Coincidentally enough, one of the two designs for House of Spiders I’m working on fits this discrimination. Do you know of any other games that would?
    Jeff, I'm very surprised that you appear to be asking this question quite seriously and sincerely.

    Haven't we discussed this about a dozen times? :)

    I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of the creative output of the Forge, and certainly many/most of the games which inspired the creation of that term itself ("story games") fit that precise description.

    I'm talking about games like The Pool, Primetime Adventures, Polaris, etc.

    Consider that you and I played Dog Eat Dog, not too long ago, which definitely fits that description.

    Many, many, many games.

  • edited August 2018
    Paul,

    Yes, now that you mentioned it, I’m sure I’m forgetting about a bunch of games that came out of the Forge, etc. I can’t be responsible for my brain all the time, I’m pretty sure I’m getting dementia :)

    I think of Dog Eat Dog more like a GMless Asymmetrical Story Game rather than a GMed game, but I think the Colonizer player could easily be called a GM, so it works. Polaris definitely doesn’t have a GM though, and has other disqualifiing elements. Not sure if the Pool would count either, because you have to roll to overcome an obstacle, and you can attach a bonus to traits, so your character’s fictional abilities effect what they can do. I haven’t read Primetime Adventures in a while, and it slipped my mind, but I think it is the perfect example (unless I’m forgetting something about it) of a GMed game that fits this category.

    I think the main disqualifier for a lot of GMed games is that the character’s have fictional abilities in them that effect what the characters can do in the fiction. There’s probably a bunch of GMed games that qualify, but for some reason I’m not coming up with them right now. Anyway, thanks for the examples.
  • edited August 2018
    Jeff,

    I must be getting dementia, too, since I put Polaris in there. My bad! You're quite right that it's GMless.

    However, consider for a moment a version of Polaris with identical rules and a GM. Now it fits the bill, and would be quite playable - you just have that player always taking on the role of the Mistaken instead one of the others at the table, and there's no need to change any other rules. (For another example, Eero discusses the distinctions between Dust Devils - another game which might fit this bill - and Tales of Entropy and concludes that the GMed/GMless aspect of the games is a nearly cosmetic difference OVER HERE. And that reminds me that The Mountain Witch, also discussed there, is in the same category.)

    The Occupation in Dog Eat Dog is very intentionally written as a commentary on GMing in traditional games, for what it's worth. So that's a pretty strong argument to consider it a "GMed" game.

    I'm not sure why you think The Pool doesn't count. You don't roll to "overcome an obstacle", generally, but to settle conflicts of interest, and the rules could be read so as to include conflicts of interest between the players. (I don't favour that reading, but it's a very possible one.) Traits (or even the fictional considerations of your characters) don't limit what you can do in the game at all. Traits can be things like "The Taste of Wine" (from an actual game I played) or "The Deft Hand of Fate".

    (Our earlier discussion about it might be helpful to review here.)

    There were dozens, maybe hundreds of games being written at the Forge which included overt conflict resolution and "stake setting", similar to The Pool or Primetime Adventures, and if Primetime Adventures fits the bill, then pretty much all of them should, as well.
  • edited August 2018
    Paul,

    As long as characters in the game don’t have stats, or aspects, or keys, or other abilities or traits that can effect the game/narrative in some mechanical way, and the players play from an authorial perspective, the game would qualify.

    The basic point is that characters in these games shouldn’t have stats or anything like them. Players should be free to have their characters do whatever works best in the story and any rules limiting what characters can do should be there because they are designed to help to create the type of story the game is trying to tell, rather than to see whether or not a character can or can’t do something based on one of their fictional attributes.

    I’m sure most of the games you mentioned above would qualify. Tales of Entropy seems like the type of game that would fit in this space. I can’t remember Polaris completely—how Aspects, Fire and Ice, and rolling dice work—but I know the striped down Story Games Seattle hack qualifies. I’ll never read The Mountain Witch but it’s a game I’ve been wanting to crack open.

    The reason the Pool wouldn’t qualify is because characters have traits that can influence what happens in the narrative. Take the following for example:

    Damart is in an ancient library. I want him to find a piece of knowledge that will help him on his quest, so I ask for a roll based on the Trait “searching for the means to bring his love from the dead +1”. The GM hands me 1 GM die (for my +1 Trait) and decides to give me 2 more to roll as well (he can give me an extra 1-3, remember).

    Anyway, I better get to sleep. Have a good night :)







  • Ah. If characters aren't allowed to have mechanical differentiation, then that DOES disqualify the vast majority of those games.

    I have no idea why that's important to you, though. Isn't that just a detail of mechanical expression?

    For instance, we could play The Pool just as easily without Traits. (That +1 die makes practically no difference when you might typically be rolling 7-10 dice anyway. And I believe it's a valid character creation option not to buy any Traits when you make your character, as well.)

    Does that somehow change what it feels like to play sufficiently to place the game in an entirely different category, a meaningfully different experience?

    Having the trait "searching for the means to..." doesn't constrain the character in any way that simply establishing in the fiction that this is something the character is looking doesn't already do.

    Or what if we play The Pool, but agree to only write abstract Traits?

    I don't really understand why this is such an important distinction.

    The functional design feature I consider important is that we have mechanics which allow us to frame various conflicts or points of uncertainty as dice-worthy (as opposed to rules which simulate game world physics or causality) and that their odds are fundamentally negotiated by the players (as opposed to being based on a module, game world physics, a required level of challenge, or some other authority).
  • I wouldn't mind calling joint storytelling games "storytelling games" myself.
    That's what I do with non-gamers. Works great with them!
  • I've been toying with using "imagination game" ("mielikuvituspeli") as the main category term in Finnish, which helps sell the idea that "roleplaying game" ("roolipeli"), "story game" ("tarinapeli"), "adventure game" ("seikkailupeli") and "acting game" ("näytelmäpeli") are sub-types with certain fundamental similarities despite also featuring some deep-cutting differences.

    The main obstacle to my being really enthusiastic about a wholesale terminological revision is that the hobby is so small that I don't think we really need a heavy terminological uplift like this. Each individual person in Finland (and on Earth, probably) either doesn't need to know about the minutiae of the hobby, or are quite happy being ignorant of everything outside their own little corner, or are well aware of the different varieties even without them having a consistent taxonomical scheme. Because I don't personally advocate for a hobby split, it's not really in my best interest to try to narrow down the meaning of the best-known term, "roleplaying" - while it's not very transparently descriptive of the majority of the games meant by the word, it's still clearly the established name for the hobby as a whole.

    If there existed a storytelling game (the sort Jeff's specifically enthusiastic about) with success on the scale of Dungeons & Dragons, it would probably be more sustainable to insist on categorizing subtypes of roleplaying game. As it is, we seem to be getting along fine with just calling everything "roleplaying" and that's that.
  • edited August 2018
    Paul,

    It’s taking Ben’s definition into account, so that these types of games can be more easily differentiated. This is how Ben says it:

    “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.”

    The reason it’s important is that it changes the gameplay perspective from “what can my character do” to “what is the story about.”

    If that still doesn’t seem to make sense, you can read Ben’s article about why it’s an important distinction; he probably explains it better:
    http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/460/defining-story-games/
  • edited August 2018
    I've been toying with using "imagination game”...
    What about Drama Game? It’s a throwback to one of the Threefold Model categories. I don’t know if I like it, but it fits.

    I agree that these terms can be a bad thing and that we should stick to calling everything RPGs; that said, if we had a taxonomy of terms, which people actually agreed upon, it would help to make general and design discussion easier. But, yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

  • edited August 2018
    Jeff,

    I understand Ben's definition; I'm just not sure why it's useful to us here.

    As an example for my counter-argument, I also keep noting ways in which characters can be mechanically differentiated without making "the player's ability to affect things based on the character's fictional ability to do those things". I'm not sure why you don't think that's relevant here.

    For instance, in many Forgite story games, characters get ratings for their relationships with other characters. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you can create traits and relationships and assign them ratings which correspond to how important you, the player, want them to be in the story, entirely separate from the "character's fictional ability".

    In The Pool, we could do this, too.

    We create two characters who have these traits:

    Alpha is the world's greatest swordmaster. She has the Trait "Legendary Duelist - 1 die".

    Charlie, on the other hand, is a drunkard who has the Trait "When I'm drunk, I can barely stand on my own two feet - 4 dice."

    Now, in our story, Charlie challenges Alpha to a duel, but he's terrified, so he gets hopelessly drunk first.

    Hopefully you can see that Charlie is far more likely to win, and that's something we've deliberately set up, as players. It's deliberate story manipulation, not simulationist logic from the character's perspective.

    I think that to interpret Ben's definition in a fashion which disqualifies such games is missing the point. (And most traditional gamers would intuitively classify this kind of thing as a "story game" device, so we're working against popular conception, as well.)
  • edited August 2018
    .
  • Now, where does that leave us? If you read Ben's article, you'll see that what he's really talking about is a continuum, not a sharp dividing line. Furthermore, the true distinction he keeps talking about is really one of creative agenda; sure, the rules are a major player in that, but what we decide to do with them at the actual table is far more important.

    This is why it makes sense, to me, to talk about traditionally familiar "story game" techniques (what we do at the table) and design features, so we can say, for instance, "Hey, this game has some simulationist mechanics but also a way to indicate dramatic focus for characters (e.g. The Riddle of Steel), but we've decided to play it for maximum dramatic impact. My character was a badass swordsman, and I intentionally played him as a tragic anti-hero, sacrificing his life for a doomed cause. It made for a great story!"

    To draw strict lines which would reliably categorize that game into "story game" or not... seems like a fool's errand to me.

  • I think "role-playing game" is a solid name for the thing where you play via your character.

    I think "story-telling game" is a solid name for the thing where you play by narrating what happens in the fiction.

    I think it's only the class of games where you do a substantial amount of both that have any reason to fall into the pit of niche jargon/disagreement. I don't think a single blanket label for that large and varied bin is desirable, but "story games" might be as good as any (or not, cuz baggage?).
  • That's my use, as well:

    "Story games" are all games which create narrative collaboratively. As David suggests, this is great with non-gamers.

    "Roleplaying games" are usually a subset of those, where you get to play characters while the game is happening. (I say "usually" because there are some roleplaying games which aren't story games - some roleplaying exercises, some LARPs, some improv theatre, perhaps.)

    "Storytelling games" are also a subset - games where we make stuff up together to tell a story.

    There's some overlap, sometimes, but those terms feel pretty clear to me.

    With people who I feel confident use the term "story game" in a more limited but consistent way (like Jeff), I don't mind using it like that - in conversations with them - but I don't find it widely useful, because of a lack of clarity and a great deal of baggage. I would never confidently use the term on the internet, or in other public conversation, without explaining what I mean, first. For that reason, more specific terminology ("GMless collaborative roleplaying games which do X and Y...") is easier and clearer, in my experience.
  • edited August 2018
    Paul,

    We may be talking past each other, I’m not sure. I’m definitely not trying to define story games as part of this, I’m pointing to a specific distinction rather than trying to add a label at this point, so we should put that aside. I don’t think we will get a good idea about where we differ, if in fact we do, by talking on the forums. I think we should log on early and discuss it before our next session, in order to get to the bottom of it. It’s just going to take too much time and effort to try to do via writing.


  • edited August 2018
    I think "role-playing game" is a solid name for the thing where you play via your character.

    I think "story-telling game" is a solid name for the thing where you play by narrating what happens in the fiction.
    This is a good summary of the difference.


  • edited August 2018
    You got it, Jeff! Maybe we'll have takeaways we can bring back to this thread afterwards.
  • edited August 2018
    So we used at least 5-6 different meaning for the term 'story game'. Please correct me if I make a mistake.
    1. A term contrasting MLwM with trad rpgs on the Forge.
    2. This forum, a community, a virtual space.
    3. A style of play, focusing on creating a good 'story'.
    4. Ben Lehman's design space and familiar things (Tall Pines etc).
    5. Something wider than 4., including most of the 'indie' games (ie. PbtAs), which is like an anti cathegory, saying something like 'not trad, not osr'
    6. An umbrella term for activities using 'fictional positioning' in their feedback loop. RPGs, Microscope, Story Dice, maybe even improv theater? (Sidenote: Drama in Education/Process Drama uses the term 'dramatic play' which IMHO encompassess nearly the same cognitive space).

    Man, I had faith in the term but maybe we should really not use 'story game' any more if we want to avoid confusion and perpetual misunderstanding.
  • Man, I had faith in the term but maybe we should really not use 'story game' any more if we want to avoid confusion and perpetual misunderstanding.
    Who is having any actual confusion or stress about the term?


  • Who is having any actual confusion or stress about the term?

    Most recent I've seen was Patrick Stuart (of OSR fame) who commented here:
    "Honestly I increasingly have no idea what I mean when I say story game. Everyone seems to have a different definition and mine is getting even more fretted. I will have to think about it and maybe do a post or something."

    And he did.

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