Why I don't like your "story game"

Herr Doktor Katze

Retired User
I was just thinking about story games and why I don't like them.

Note, why *I* don't like them. A lot of people on these boards love them, and more power to you. They have a play style very different from conventional RPGs, and very innovative. But it's not for everyone, and this is my attempt to figure out why.

I'm referring to indie games that have rules for creating a specific kind of story, and the players have story-making power normally reserved for the GM. This ranges from pure Story Games (capital S, capital G) like Dogs in the Vineyard, to something like Fate which gives the players narrative editing power but leaves the overall story up to the GM.

Because the thing is, despite being a very "roleplay not roll-play" kind of guy, they make my skin crawl in a way an unproductive four hour combat in D&D 4e does not. It's like they're written by strange alien beings.

So I'm going to try and publicly channel h8red into a productive analysis of some of the difference. It's an analysis of the weak points of this kind of game which I've never seen from its proponents.


Shared GM powers

When you take story control normally reserved for the GM to the players, this is great if your players kind of wish to be GMs too. Sometimes these games sound as if they were designed for GMs tired of playing in someone else's game.

It runs into trouble if you have the kind of player who's relatively passive, and lacks either the desire or the ability to have GM-lite influence over the game. They're fine if they're being fed someone else's world, but they do not want to influence the story even in the ways that a conventional RPG allows. Even in Fate, you can get a big mechanical advantage by better use of the Fate point economy if you are a more creative and assertive player.

The other problem is that sometimes one person really is a much better GM. In my real world experience, large RPG groups are held together by the presence of one person, or a minority of people, who want to GM and are any good at it. These people make the effort to find players and keep them, especially these days when RPGs are less popular than they used to be. The Story Game style removes or reduces the power of the GM to really excel, and this will not always be matched by a storytelling improvement from the rest of the group.


No Immersion

A lot of people, myself included, really like immersion in roleplaying games. Threads on here have convinced me that many people either don't understand what immersion is, or have a very weak definition of it.

When I say immersion I mean the ability to think and act as if you are your character, except for the fact that you need to use game rules to resolve some conflicts. You've probably got a gamer who likes immersion if they brag about the session where barely any game rules or dice rolls were actually used.

The enemy of immersion is anything which requires you to think from a perspective other than your character's, to step out to "third person".

Merely complicated rules don't necessarily require you to think from the perspective of someone else. Rules that require you to control the actions of other characters/NPCs or the game world in general do force that third person view, even if they're quick and simple rules.

An extreme example is InSpectres, where a die roll determines whether you or the GM gets to narrate the results of an action - basically you completely take over the GM role if you win the action. You can't have immersion in that game - you're always being forced to take a global perspective and narrate a change in the state of the world, rather than simply what your character does.

Another example is the mechanic used in Dogs in the Vineyard and I believe in other games, where you roll the dice before describing your action. You go into a situation and say in very simple terms what you want to do, then you roll the dice, THEN you describe your actual actions after finding out whether you succeeded or failed. This is pure third person - you can respect your character's decision-making process but you have to jump way out of their perspective to describe all that results from their actions.

Even Fate's limited narrative editing with aspects requires you to to think about useful details which could be created in the world, stepping out of the first person view which is discovering things about the world and acting accordingly.

As far as I can tell the main reason story games creep me out is that their ideal is completely non-immersive gaming. It's like an inveterate D&D 4e tactician who loves reading rules and min-maxing being presented with RISUS.


No Asymmetric Knowledge

In a game where everyone is like a GM, and the rules enforce a mechanism of creating a shared story, there are no secrets. Story games actually aren't suited for telling the vast majority of stories. In most stories, the people experiencing them get hit with a lot of dramatic surprise. In a story game you can have tons of surprises, because someone else could pull the story in a direction you never expected. But it's really hard to have a plot where there is something going on that the players have to work to find out about.

You could simulate it, by having a mystery that the players all actually know about, and having their characters go through the motions of solving it. But that would be kind of boring and it would always be one inconvenient narrative edit away from destruction. So I think you'll come back to situations where any mystery or larger plot can't be maintained, and it's all about the players having full knowledge and getting surprised by each other.


Limited Character Freedom

RPGs aren't realistic, even if you are GURPS crazed. Most systems, however, allow the characters a great deal of leeway to do whatever is physically possible. Even "cinematic" systems such as supers games and Buffy and so on are character-centered, giving your character the ability to break the rules for their own benefit. You can sandbox D&D 4e and tell lots of different stories in it, it's just impractical if you can't come up with encounters on the fly.

Hardcore story games enforce a story, and prevent your character from doing anything. Their rules deal less with what is physically possible, and more with resolving conflicts using in-game mechanisms. If you want to get ahead with cool strategies it has to be done backwards. In Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, you're going to go into a given situation with very few knobs and dials to adjust to determine whether you win or lose. The results of the roll come before you start to put the detail into a situation, so any strategy you use has to be in choosing your results so the story goes in a better direction for your next conflict. This is probably made a lot harder by the fact that you actually get to narrate your failures, rather than your successes.

With setups like this that encourage any strategy to focus on your narrative control rather than your character's actions, the game system doesn't allow you to just revert to having individual characters do arbitrary things and building a story from there. The story is built using the story building rules, and they're often carefully balanced to produce a specific result (such as not being able to unambiguously save a town).


Lack of Central Vision

With any creative endeavor, the more people that get involved the more the result tends toward chaos or committee.

If you actually have a GM who is really good at building worlds and NPCs and stories (possibly with help from a really good premade setting), you can have a consistent creative vision with advantages that cannot be replicated by collective improv storytelling, period.

To avoid chaos, shared storytelling assumptions have to come from somewhere. The story games I've seen rely very heavily on genre. Fate is pretty adaptable but everything I've heard indicates that it works best in universes where the players start the game knowing how everything is going to work. People using Fate to run a TV show, another RPG, or a very typical type of setting report good results. The players' narrative editing allows them to add details to the setting, and they have to know what kind of details they can add. Using a setting everyone understands is an easy way to do this.

Games with even more focus on narrative control often come with a very specific setting which is the only place the game will work (or the only place it will work without major effort). Dogs in the Vineyard's rules are really strongly based on creating a town, filling it with people that have personal problems, and forcing the players to be, at best, unable to solve all the problems. That's not an intuitive rule system unless you describe a very focused setting, such as ill-equipped religious guys going out to fight sin in six shooter Utah.

Conventional RPGs give way more freedom. I'm going to use D&D 4e as an example again because it's a lot of peoples' least favorite combat-heavy game. The vast majority of its rules are an encyclopedia of ways to kill things.

At the same time, it's not tied to genre. Standard D&D is practically it's own genre, but the only real constraint is that you have a fantasy setting where combat plays an important role. It's actually better than previous editions for any-genre play because you can build a viable party without anyone who looks like a "magic user".

This allows even published D&D to have multiple settings that each basically define their own genre - Planescape, Dark Sun, and so on. They're odd enough that the players really should read up on them, but the players can start out ignorant if desired.


Problems with Custom Settings

When a game works if the players start out ignorant that's extremely useful - it allows the GM to create their own settings without worrying about the rules getting in their way. It lets them use Mutants and Masterminds 3, by default a forgiving superhero game, to run a game about a gritty guerrilla war between robot resistance fighters and aliens who have mind-controlled the human race.

You could do that game in Fate (ignoring that its power curve isn't ideal for supers) but you'd need to supply the players with a lot more up-front information about future technology that their characters would know about at the start, even if the GM had never showed it in action. Otherwise the GM is going to be doing too much talking when people use aspects wrong or don't use them as well as they could. And Fate is actually written to be generic. Non-generic story games don't seem like they would allow anything near that level of flexibility.

I'm currently in a 4e game which is full of GMs. We rotate, because everyone wants to be GM. But we don't want to GM at the same time and fight over the world. Most of us really like world building and spend significantly more time on it than actually running a game (two of the guys make topographic maps of the entire campaign area). We want to put our worlds through their paces and show them off. Decentralized narrative control, and the associated problems with trying to use a setting that isn't universally understood, would kill that dead.


In Conclusion

I think this is a decent list of downsides of story games, although I'm probably not expressing myself all that well late at night. At least it's something to consider when the fanboys don't acknowledge that their games are one play style which is fun for many when used as intended, but is unusually noteworthy for how incompatible it is with most other play styles.

I particularly see this in "what system should I use?" threads where people recommend Fate without explanation, as if it was the same sort of generic game as Savage Worlds or GURPS or whatever. People should know that this isn't a recommendation for yet another generic system, it's a recommendation of a very different play style which requires a paradigm shift for people used to conventional RPGs. It took me a while before I actually understood Fate, including asking a bunch of direct questions of people who know it very well.

At the very least, whenever recommending a story game I would mention that it works against immersion and makes the "session where we barely rolled dice" a very difficult thing to have.
 
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Tiran

Registered User
Validated User
Well said. I have to agree. Maybe not with every point (I skimmed the latter half of your post), but with the general idea at least.
 

StanTheMan

Registered User
Validated User
I'm thinking on it. It's interesting.

For me at least, as a GM, I sometimes want the players to be doing more in terms of controlling the narrative. That said, I often see very pronounced resistance towards doing so in a few players, and sometimes I catch myself re-narrating what someone already narrated to make it better "fit" what was going on, or the world, etc. This was with a recent Strands of Fate campaign.

So, overall, I'm personally positive with FATE at least (and I liked the DitV campaign I ran once), but, on balance, perhaps I'm more in your camp than I care to admit? There are some things about how FATE works that I don't like, and maybe their roots are on the traditional role of the GM (or at least, what my group seems to expect. Note - I'm the only GM in the group).
 

RosenMcStern

Rokari Wizard
Validated User
Applause.

You can't have immersion in that game - you're always being forced to take a global perspective and narrate a change in the state of the world, rather than simply what your character does.
Good definition. I know for sure what a Narrativist would reply: "Story Now! is not about the world, but about the story, so you do not need to tell details about the world.". But this is a feeble point: in order to feel immersed, you need to perceive the world as "other from you".

Another example is the mechanic used in Dogs in the Vineyard and I believe in other games, where you roll the dice before describing your action. You go into a situation and say in very simple terms what you want to do, then you roll the dice, THEN you describe your actual actions after finding out whether you succeeded or failed. This is pure third person - you can respect your character's decision-making process but you have to jump way out of their perspective to describe all that results from their actions.
No, here I do not agree. This is just a matter of game mechanics, not of immersion. If your control over what you can narrate is not complete, it does not matter if you choose what happened before or after the die roll. Deciding after is just a good way to reduce tactical overthinking before you roll a natural "1" on D20.

Please refer to RuneQuest II as an example. The new version of this game is absolutely no Story Game. Still, the combat system is totally and absolutely "Fortune in the Middle": First you roll and determine by how many Degrees of Success you win, and then you choose the tactical options you want to apply, according to your result. There is absolutely no loss of immersion, but a huge amount of tactical bonanza, without the usual loss of time due to minimaxers making calculations _before_ rolling.

So I think you'll come back to situations where any mystery or larger plot can't be maintained, and it's all about the players having full knowledge and getting surprised by each other.
Exactly what Sandy Petersen told me about the subject last summer: a horror game could not function this way, as no plot twist and surprise can be maintained. And frankly speaking, I cannot envision a table full of people who invent surprises to scare each other as a working alternative.


If you actually have a GM who is really good at building worlds and NPCs and stories (possibly with help from a really good premade setting), you can have a consistent creative vision with advantages that cannot be replicated by collective improv storytelling, period.
Yep. However, PTA goes a long way beyond DitV in this. The storyteller has actual authority over the backstory, so there _is_ a coherent vision behind it. But I agree with you that a story created by a good GM beforehand is better written than any collaboration. Just avoid railroading.

But we don't want to GM at the same time and fight over the world. Most of us really like world building and spend significantly more time on it than actually running a game (two of the guys make topographic maps of the entire campaign area). We want to put our worlds through their paces and show them off. Decentralized narrative control, and the associated problems with trying to use a setting that isn't universally understood, would kill that dead.
Amen. And this is definitely as creative as using a collaborative storytelling engine where all people build the story at the same time. You just have only one person telling the story per world. All in all, it is, as you stated, just a different approach to gaming.

At the very least, whenever recommending a story game I would mention that it works against immersion and makes the "session where we barely rolled dice" a very difficult thing to have.
Strangely enough, you are right in this: with story games, there are situations where you actually roll more than you would with classic games. But I am not so keen on having "social" scenes being played without rolling dice at all.
 

Stickman12

.NET Overload
Validated User
You've made a lot of really great points, but I feel that a lot of them are matters of perspective, not binary 'right/wrong' points. What were you looking for with this post? Discussions about the points raised? I'd also argue that the inclusion of FATE as a 'story game' is arguable at best - the degree of narrative control of the players is absolutely tiny in most cases, with declarative aspect use very rare (from my own experience)

To me the most important point raised is that using a 'story game' is a change of perspective and style from using a 'traditional' rpg, and isn't one that should be a default for every rpg'er. The recent splurge of 'I love me some FATE' is awesome, but I think people are a little too quick to suggest it as the panacea.
 

Requiem_17_23

Mrglglglgl
Validated User
Yeah, this is pretty close to my own experience.

Thing is, I love the concept of DitV, with the players making up the moral truth between them as they go, but I can't play the system without the red mist descending.
 

StrollofTurtle

New member
Banned
Well, I think there's one pretty major truth in all that..."story-game" RPGs only work with a group of GMs. No players allowed.

Which I imagine is just how the good Baron would have wanted it.
 

Kenny Bania

Imperial Sea Monkey
As far as immersion goes and not rolling dice.

I immerse more through scenes than the characters I play. Dramatic scenes where there's risk and/or something important at stake, usually conflict of some sort. What heightens this for me is the calculated unpredictability of rolling the dice. Game is as important to me as playing a role. So for me immersion and rolling dice are not mutually exclusive.
 
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