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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH6: Storytelling Games, Part 1

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Aug 20, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


So much of learning to run games is about building confidence in your own abilities. My primary goal is to make you assertive, relaxed, and comfortable when sitting behind the screen and your players feel the same way sitting in front of it. Nine times out of ten, a game like Dungeons and Dragons is a good place to start building that feeling. This article is to help you figure out if you’re one of those nine or if there might be greener pastures.

There’s something unusual, risky, even a little perverse in skipping traditional games and going straight to storytelling-heavy games; almost nobody starts out that way. You’re supposed to join a D&D group, play for a year or two, then somebody doesn’t show up–the GM brings out some crusty old paperback joke game he picked up at a convention in 1998 because it had an anime babe on the cover, and with a shared look of dread and suspicion you all agree to play–a lot of six-sided dice are rolled and “wacky” charts are consulted–you have a decent time and everyone agrees, in spite of themselves, that this was a good change of pace–later you hear somebody’s running another one-shot game, and remembering the decent time you had with the last one you show up to find they’re running something Google-translated from a Norwegian subreddit whose title translates to “Hope is Not Always Lost in the Valley of the Giants” that uses “Hope” and “Hopelessness” as its only two stats and is designed to be played for exactly forty-eight minutes at a stretch, ending according to the rules with the death of every single player character–you play it, you have another surprisingly good time, and you think to yourself that if you can enjoy this you should probably be playing more of these things.

I think part of the reason people follow this trajectory is that storytelling games, which are usually abstract and experimental and meant to be self-contained sessions, are forbidding–neither intrinsically appealing nor easy to get into. Like foreign art films or hoppy beers, they’re poor ambassadors because they’re usually directed toward acquired palates and have to be experienced very actively. But for the right kind of person, they might inspire a lot more interest and eagerness as a first exposure than The Avengers or a St. Pauli Girl would.

So instead of offering a blanket recommendation or non-recommendation, let me break down what story games are and why they’re difficult.

Intro to Story and Mechanics

At some very early point in RPG history, designers with a little introspection twigged that designing their games to be more realistic simulations of reality was not only a dead-end street, but sort of pointless. Even if the developers understood every physical principle perfectly, even if they made rules that spelled out every action and its consequences, they couldn’t ensure their games were realistic because they weren’t the ones telling the story. That responsibility fell to the GM and the players.

For designers obsessed with realism, it was a rude shock to learn that you can flawlessly reproduce medieval martial arts over a dozen painstaking design sessions, only to hand it to a bombastic group where the DM narrates exploding goblins and Elvis-impersonating orcs and chainmail loincloths and wild overhanded swings. The only difference you made as a designer is that whenever the players’ crew of wisecracking, 80s-movie-referencing, named-after-Sailor Scouts rowdy punks run into a combat, they’ll suddenly turn into Seal Team Six. Because when they don’t fight soberly and carefully they end up with a pile of dead characters and that stopped being funny after the sixth or seventh session.

In other words, you can only affect how the story is told by affecting what play is effective, allowed, or most fun. In an ideal system, one should make the desired storytelling the most effective and most fun option at all times. Games like FATE Core and 4th Edition D&D get a lot of flak for obsessively balancing all available options, but for all that they sacrifice they achieve their intended effect; you don’t have to choose between what you want to play and what’s going to be useful in the mechanics. Constantly having to choose between good and appealing is probably the biggest indication a game’s design is flawed.*

So what’s the difference between a traditional game and a “story game,” as I’ve sort of lazily generalized it? Loosely, it’s this: a traditional game mechanically outlines actions and effects, while a storytelling game mechanically suggests actions and effects. This explains absolutely nothing, so let me skip to the concrete examples.

*Within reason. This is a whole essay’s worth of material and probably not germane to this series.

Traditional Systems

Let’s say I’m playing Bastard Swords and Scanty Mail. It’s the latest traditional RPG from Dead Kobold Press, and every player here has a glossy hardback Playa’s Handbook.

My knight, Sir Hillock, is presented with a mob of peasants angry that my thong is scaring their cattle. “What do you do?” asks the GM, as a formality. The miniatures are already on the board. She’s already calculating initiative to figure out definitively who goes first.

Well–the rules of BS&SM are pretty simple. I can declare an attack. I have a longsword, which I chose from a list of weapons because it has the highest defense die. I’m a knight, which I chose from a list of jobs because my martial discipline gives me +1 on all attacks. It’s my turn, so I attack first.

“I swing at the first peasant?” That was easy. I rolled high, so I hit; I rolled a lot of damage, so I hit very well; the first peasant has a low amount of hit points, so he dies.

As a player, this was all pretty easy for me to figure out. The rules spell out very clearly what I can do and what the effect is, and so the storytelling naturally fills in the cracks–I swung my sword real good, I hit real good, and the peasant died real hard. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations very far to narrate my sword swing or the peasant’s spraying neck wound, and if we don’t feel up to it at all for some reason, that’s fine–the rolls told a story all by themselves, and the drama of each to-hit and damage roll was fun for everyone to watch. By far the trickiest part was keeping track of all of the numbers, but I have a sheet where I can fill in all of the boxes and I can always ask for help if I need it.

Now, there’s also large sections of BS&SM where I’m not cleaving poor oppressed farmers in twain–where I’m buying drinks, or riding across the countryside, or trying to score a new codpiece–but even in these situations, I can relax. While the game allows a lot of improvisation on my part–it doesn’t stop me from doing something the designers never predicted, like jumping up on a table and farting a lullaby–it doesn’t require it. More importantly, if I do decide to do something crazy, I have some reasonable assurance that the rules will help me figure out how well I did it and what happens afterward. This actually emboldens me to take unusual or original action because it takes some of the pressure off me, a slightly shy nerd who doesn’t have any RPG experience, to resolve it.

For a lot of new players, systems like BS&SM are extremely helpful. It guides them over the hump of having to improvise stories, something very few people are naturally good at and even fewer people have occasion to practice. Almost every old-school mainstream game is more or less BS&SM.

Storytelling Systems

Now we’re playing a different fantasy game called Grind Their Bones. From its cryptic and not hugely catchy title, we can confirm this is a Class B Indie RPG. It’s got a lot of inside-referencey buttons on the front cover. Winner of the 2007 Milwaukee Rusty Ork. Created at the Bloody Fingers Gamestravaganza! Powered by the Rapture(tm).

I port Sir Hillock into the game, that his noble prow might point the way across these foreign waters. Well, I say I’ve ported him, but this character sheet, while sort of familiar, is a bit…abbreviated. The old Sir Hillock took up six pages of character sheet plus a stapled piece of notepaper for all the Swordspells I couldn’t fit in the official sheet’s tiny box. My sheet for this game is only one page…actually, it’s more like half a page, because every single stat has a line fully explaining how it works in the game. Holy crap. Each of these lines would be a chapter of a game like BS&SM. This is going to be way, way easier to play.

“Sir Hillock is being attacked by peasants again.”

Okay, so…according to this, when I want to attack, I roll my Aggress dice and compare to the peasants’ dice rolls.

The GM checks my roll, checks the chart. “You win with a Total Success. The peasants are all going to die and you’re not going to get hurt.”

Going to die? What does that mean, going to die? I just killed all of them.

“Well, yeah, I’m just giving you your guidelines. Sir Hillock, describe how you win this combat.”

Oh. Oh, that’s the catch. By removing all the fiddly tedious sword swings and armor checks and grapple rolls, the game also removes the exciting tactical drama and definite actions and leaves me to…come up with a whole fight on my own. Ouch.

Although…I’m not totally starting from scratch. When I created this character, I had to pick a couple positive and negative adjectives to go next to my Aggress skill. (I chose Bravely, Clumsily, Rashly from a list and came up with Sexily on my own). Now that I’m reading these rules more carefully, I see that whenever I get a Total Success I’m supposed to reference both of my positive adjectives in describing how I win. Hm…

“I charge forward…boldly, like I’m not even worried. And I guess…that’s scares them so much they don’t even think about counter-attacking?” The GM’s nodding at me. “And then I guess I just start hacking, and yelling, and they don’t stand a chance. Oh, and it rips my tank top so my muscles are showing.”

“Do they hit you back at all?” asks another player. I didn’t take any damage, so normally the answer would be no, but even though there’s no rule suggesting I did or didn’t get hurt I glance down at my adjectives list. Rashly. Hm…

“Yeah…yeah, a little bit. I’m all cut and scratched because if an attack wasn’t going to seriously hurt me I didn’t even bother parrying.”

For some players, games like these are challenging or boring. They force the player to come up with a lot of material, they don’t provide tactical depth, and they deliver the unspoken pressure of needing to be entertaining. I’d argue the average person won’t enjoy a game like this until they’ve been weaned on a more guided, objective system–but for people who just want to tell stories, and are already somewhat confident doing so, this can be a way to skip all the BS and just get to the fun part.

Full-Blown Story Games

The game is called The Last Year of the Gods. From its cryptic and seriously uncatchy title, you can conclude this is a Class A Indie RPG. It has no cover because it’s a Word document downloaded from a database of games like this that were at some point posted for free on a forum that no longer exists.

I decide to play Sir Hillock again. My character sheet is an index card on which I’ve written, “Sir Hillock.”

The player who is currently GM (it will change in exactly ten minutes) looks at me and says, “Tell me what happened when Sir Hillock lost his duel with his rival.”

I write down “lost a duel with rival” on my character card. Across the table, another player says, “I’ll be the rival.”

“As in you’ll play my rival for this scene, or as in your character is my rival?”

“Uh. Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that. Sure, my character will be your rival.”

We narrate a scene that ends, naturally, in a swordfight. We don’t have to roll to see who wins–we know who wins. The whole point of this scene is that my rival beats my character in a duel. We’ll probably have another duel in a later scene, and according to the rules if we’re not sure how that fight will go–because we can’t figure it out or because we can’t agree–we’ll decide by flipping a coin.

These games are simultaneously very trusting, very freeing, and very intimidating for newbies. You almost need drama or improv experience to start with a game like this and not feel totally lost. Very few of them are built for telling long-term stories, either–games like this can be boring to play if there’s not a full buildup and release of drama every time, which can be tricky to pull off with the same characters and setting every week.


Comments (64)

  1. KingJosh says:

    Eek!! Not the “full blown story games!” Anything but that!!

    I totally need Basterd Swords & Scanty Mail, though. IN A DELUXE, LEATHER BOUND EDITION.

    • Christopher says:

      The “Full-blown story games ” segment is seriously the most intimidating paragraph I’ve read on this blog, especially after the tense build-up of “storytelling systems”.

      • MichaelGC says:

        Yes, ‘mounting terror’ would be a good way to describe my feelings as I read. But then, I’m very much a D&D … is there a word for: “not got even as far as ‘newbie’?” Because if so, I’m that.

        • ThaneofFife says:

          I think Rutskarn plays up the difficulty of story-telling games too much. I describe a session of what he called a “Class A indie RPG” lower down in this thread. It was super-simple to learn, and was accessible enough that non-tabletop and non-RPG players should have no problem with it, provided that they’re willing to sit down and make up stories with their friends.

          • MichaelGC says:

            Yep – it’s the ‘make up stories’ part I’d baulk at! XD

            I shouldn’t be putting anyone off by saying that – certainly hope I’m not, anyway! – as it’s purely a mindset thing. I’d be perfectly happy learning complex rules and even demonstrating my knowledge of those rules in front of others. The difficult bit for me would be the creative part: I’d actually find it difficult to do that even if no one else were involved (if I were practicing alone, for example).

            This isn’t a problem – we all have our strengths & weaknesses! – it just means I’m very definitely one of the nine. No, not The Nine! Strider, wait! Don’t! Aieeeeeee….

      • Benjamin Hilton says:

        See to me it sounds less intimidating and more getting in touch with my younger self. I specifically remember being like ten and doing this exact thing with my friends, with the exception that we had X-Men action figures to act it out with. We would just sit there saying “Magneto throws Wolverine off the cliff” “Okay well storm uses winds to blow him to safety” “Well Then Juggernaut throws a rock at Storm” …………….

        • Munkki says:

          Yeah, but it can be quite intimidating opening yourself up like that around other people. I think that’s the thing – I’m sure most people have some idea of places they’d like to take the session if it were, er, a spherical solo session in a vacuum (for want of a better phrase). Bringing those ideas out in front of the whole group to be judged and then either incorporated with other people’s ideas or thrown out like so much scummy dishwater – that people do find intimidating, and fair enough.
          If you’ve got a decent group of people who are in the mood to make it work well you might end up with singing laser potatoes and evil neanderthal empires and drug-addled geriatric crime-lord ladies and french sailors blowing up the moon and no-one caring if not all the parts agree perfectly because overall it’s an awesome collaboration, and that is fantastic. But if you’ve got a so-so session going on and most of your suggestions are being ‘eh’d into oblivion, it does take some of the fun out of it.
          Also, things can go badly – you can get people grouping up to describe in elaborate detail the torture and ignominous demise of other people’s characters, or orchestrating a ten-minute detour into an ill-humoured skewering of someone’s politics, religion, culture or even personal history. Which is an evening-ruiner as far as I’m concerned, even if it’s happening to someone I’m not super fond of, and even if the rest of the group step in and manage to stop it.

    • Gilfareth says:

      Leather thong-bound, you mean.

  2. Josh says:

    I’ve been involved with RPGs for *cough* years (the last few as a “professional”), and have sampled quite a bit from the buffet of options available. The material I publish is pretty traditional (as you define it here), but my own home campaigns using that material veer a bit more story-wise on the scale.

    This summary is a really good beginning, and I look forward to Part 2.

  3. MichaelGC says:

    So effectively across the spectrum the ‘rules’ become less about affecting the effective, and if you’ll forgive the affectation, more about effecting the affective?

  4. King Marth says:

    If this series of posts ever actually reaches its intended audience: Yes, the other side of the spectrum exists, where you end up with weird games (usually made by amateur designers in the sense that there’s no way to publish these things) which have stat sheets that detail the circuitry layout of your giant robot, complete with the thermal dynamics equations necessary to calculate the heat buildup and dissipation from your engines, weaponry, and environment. There are nine different bundles of hit points for different situations, which are very rarely directly depleted when there’s a particular body part or segment of personality that would be better impacted with situational effects.

    There are also fan-made games which are really cool and fun.

    I also would like to point any obnoxious “we don’t touch the dice” people towards this post, as it’s a good way of explaining where the intimidating aspects of these rules-light systems come from. In a well-made game, the rules provide a sense of how the world is expected to work, and that consistency is important to make informed decisions rather than randomly guessing what the other players (including the DM) think is possible.

    • I like to play more down-to-earth quasi-realistic games and I’ve found that the “you can do anything you like!” type of games basically make this IMPOSSIBLE. I like lightheartedness as much as the next person, but there is a wide gap between people who THINK they are all cool and creative and people who actually ARE. Once you’ve heard just about every possible permutation of crass joke you start looking around for something with a little more meat to it. So I want to play a game with some system to it.

      I’ve been WORKING (cough, translate that as I SHOULD BE WORKING MORE) on a system that has “realistic rules” crunch but without the “roll poorly and die instantly” bit that seems to go along with it. People keep telling me they “want games that have real consequences” but there are “real consequences” that don’t add up to “you die and have to make a new character”. Mutants and Masterminds is actually a pretty good system for this, but it is just TOO MUCH WORK to make characters in that system and it’s pretty well wedded to the “heroes vs. other heroes” ethos. There’s no real way to run a mass combat, for instance. You can make one up, but it’ll be a graft.

      I also tend to like systems that have attrition of resources built into them, which M&M decidedly does NOT.

      • Actually I just had an idea that is rather relevant. Instead of phrasing player activities as what they attempt to do (and then rolling dice to see whether they succeed or not), have them phrase it as a twofold option:

        1. What do they want to ACCOMPLISH
        2. What are they trying to AVOID

        Basically setting up a gain/cost tradeoff. For basic rolls, these should be as close to each other as possible. So a pair like:

        1. I want to jump over this gap vs.
        2. I don’t want to fall into a pit of spikes and die

        Is OBVIOUSLY wildly disproportionate. All they’re accomplishing if they succeed is moving forward a few feet, but they have to risk death to gain this simple advancement? Pfaugh. Nobody wants to die in such a wastefully silly way. Making this roll is a very poor deal for the player, and the fact that they have to state the two options makes this REALLY clear. However, on the other side something like:

        1. I want to behead this guy, killing him instantly vs.
        2. We have a full combat sequence

        That’s CLEARLY a pretty good trade. They get to make one roll and potentially end the combat instead of having to go through the whole thing and risk injury/use up items/maybe the hostage gets killed/etc.

        This sort of thing would have interesting ramifications for a game. On the one hand, it’d hold off a lot of times when players make “dumb” decisions because they don’t really grasp what they’re risking (or think the risk is a lot more minimal than it is). It’d give the GM a clear language to demand very high difficulty rolls at times when the gain/loss is weighted very heavily in the player’s favor. It puts something on the table that GM and players can negotiate about instead of each fumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what the expectations of the other are.

        • The negotiation could even be part of the game *system*, like:

          Player: “Okay, I want to sneak in there, grab the keys, unlock this door, and return them without anyone noticing.”
          GM: “Grabbing the keys without them seeing you is one thing. Unlocking the door is another. Returning them without anyone noticing is another. So that’s a pretty big effect for just one roll. That’ll be +3 difficulty then.” (rolling fewer times is generally more favorable to the player when a failed roll means “attempt over”–fewer chances to fail. When a failure just means “try again” rolling more times is favorable).
          Player: “I want to spend some points to lower the difficulty down to normal.”
          GM: “Okay, roll it.”
          GM: “You manage to unlock the door and replace the keys without anyone being the wiser.”

          Okay, maybe that’s not the best example, but it’s an interesting thought.

          • ThaneofFife says:

            Interesting. This sounds a fair bit like Burning Wheel, which I described a bit lower down in this thread. If you’ve tried that, I’d be very curious what your thoughts on it were.

          • DrMcCoy says:

            (Yeah, I know, I’m super-late here…)

            Numenera does exactly this. Your three attributes, Might, Speed and Intellect, act as a pool you can use to spend to decrease the difficulty of rolls. They call it applying effort.

            Additionally, being trained or even specialized in a skill decreases the difficulty of related rolls, as do certain one-use items and getting help from your team mates (if possible).

            As a third way, you can spend XP to, for example, say “these mountains are very similar to the mountains I climbed as a child”, thus getting a level of difficulty decrease while climbing in these (and only these) mountains. It combines spending a game resource with a storytelling aspect, so to speak.

      • That reminds me of the mods for New Vegas that claim to make the Hardcore needs more “realistic” by turning them up several times the base rate…

        …when realism would be turning them down to where thirst kills you after three days of nothing, food kills you after 3 weeks-a month based on past diet choices, and lack of sleep drives you insane after about a week.

        • Matt Downie says:

          Although to be truly realistic, the radioactive desert shouldn’t be quite so full of unclaimed food and drink resources, and you shouldn’t be able to carry hundreds of bottles of water everywhere.

        • Those numbers are kind of a best-case scenario, though. You can actually get dehydrated to the point of collapse VERY quickly if it’s hot and you’re doing anything strenuous–and your body can only take in water so fast so it’s possible to get to a stage where you literally can’t drink enough to hydrate any more.

          This is the kind of thing that interests me about game systems and “realism”. You don’t really want to try and mathematically model some kind of realistic system, exactly–that’s a lot of number crunching for little game improvement. What you want to do is to create an abstraction that is very simple to run mathematically but that is structured in such a way that it causes people to *act in a semi-realistic manner*.

          In the case of need for food/water/sleep you’re not trying to accurately model starving to death, and, in fact, doing this can make the game a lot less fun. What you’re trying to do is:

          1. get people to respect resource limitations and plan around them
          2. get people to limit their exposure to resource-absorbing negatives (viz taking damage in combat)

          Survival mode in Fallout 4 has some decent ideas but I think they could have implemented them a lot better. Instead of halving your carry weight AND making ammo have weight they should have increased the weight of all *consumables*–food, water, chems, and ammo. Possibly also weapons and armor. Frankly, I think it would have been an improvement if they’d made junk items weightless. They’re not worth anything until you drag them back to a crafting station, and even then not much unless you invest in crafting. So from an “adventuring resources” standpoint they’re basically null. So, they shouldn’t take up your main bloc of resources, which is the amount of weight you can carry.

          The effect of that would be to prioritize management of your adventuring gear–keep the game all about the adventuring. THEN they can add the “you need to eat/sleep/drink and can get sick” on top.

          • Also, instead of calling it “thirst” and “hunger” and “tiredness” they could have just called it “fatigue”–but you can only sleep, eat, and drink so much within a 24 hour period. To keep your fatigue low you have to do all of those pretty much every time they become available. Then you can put a collapse/death independent meter that makes some kind of sense on each. So you’re not eating and drinking constantly because you’ll starve to death in a couple of days, you’re doing it to keep the fatigue low.

          • That would require Bethesda to expend effort to make logical systems, though. I’d say more that modding weapons should increase the weight further, since that’s about the only real cost for those, but making food/water weigh more only makes sense for things like steaks and such, since a bottle of water can’t really weigh much more than half a pound or something, since a two-pound bottle of water would be about the size of one of those bottles of carbonated flavor-water you find at Wal-Mart, and that would need to remove quite a lot of thirst-related number to fit the size.

            My own thought would be something like Wastelander’s Cookbook does, which is make a lot of the food have rads to sort of fit the “almost all wildlife was affected by radiation” idea, even though that gets really annoying when you’re just trying to play F4 without needing to worry about what you’re going to need so you don’t have to rely entirely on Stimpaks to heal without taking rads. :P

    • krellen says:

      This is the least generous description of Battletech I have ever heard.

  5. Decus says:

    I always look at it as a spectrum of “I trust the system” and “I trust the GM”. If I’m going to be playing a full-story game I’ve really got to trust the GM and I’m very unlikely to want to play–or at least fully invest myself in playing–with strangers. On the other hand I’ll happily join some traditional games with strangers since the system itself can be fun regardless of my trust in their storytelling ability. This applies to some of the storytelling games too.

    On the GM side of things it’s similar. If you’re GMing a system-heavy game you can rely on it a lot to guide you. Skills with very specific uses exist to guide your calls for rolls and you have a detailed rulebook to fall back on if questions come up in play. Your players have characters capable of very specific actions. Sometimes they will want to do things outside of those actions or that stretch the rules, but it’s easy enough to just read the mood and let that make the decision for you. Or occasionally just take a hard-stance of your own. On the other hand, the closer you get to full-story the less likely you are to have skill lists or more than like a paragraph of rules total so all you have is your own mind. As well, for resolving conflicts all you have is your player’s trust in you since there is no book to tell them objectively whether they are wrong or right. Rather than having to read the mood some of the time you have to read the mood all of the time and it’s very, very likely you’ll end up with very mixed moods. You have to trust your players to be accepting of your decisions which can actually become harder the more you’ve invested them into the story. You also have to trust that your own decisions are in fact thematically correct in the face of any complaints. Basically, you don’t want to be the fictional ME2 and ME3 GM without realizing it and, while that’s a risk with traditional systems too, at least with traditional systems the story is not literally all you’ve got going. Your players might still be able to have fun with a traditional system for its system even if your story is a mess.

    Sometimes even for system-heavy games where you don’t trust the system things will be fun so long as you trust the GM–you’re essentially playing a full-story game then in that for full-story games there is no system to trust to begin with. Other times, you’ll trust both and get a really good system-heavy game that also let you capture some of the magic of a full-story game. But either way, you definitely need to trust something to have anything approaching a good game–games in which you trust neither don’t even exist on such a spectrum because you shouldn’t be playing them.

  6. Ilseroth says:

    Honestly for me, I would find the 2nd/3rd more… I guess tedious? I have always been a systems oriented person and while I like a good story I prefer concise writing that gets to the point. The latter systems are far more likely to go off on overly embellished tangents. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are plenty of players that can make those story driven options more entertaining. But my guess is that those players that can not only improvise, but do so in a succinct manner, are far more rare.

    • Echo Tango says:

      The tediousness will be subjective, and affected by how much fun everyone’s having. I’ve been in traditional dice-rolling games that felt tedious, because I’m the only person trying to help the GM with the narrative, and we just spent two hours rolling dice in combat. I’ve also been in games where we spent twice as long rolling dice, but I had fun because I was in the mood for combat that game. :)

  7. MikhailBorg says:

    At this point in my GMing career, I like to do a hybrid game. I’ll use a fairly traditional system, but I make the players aware that a little storytelling, if they are feeling up to it, will earn them points they can use for combat and skill checks in the future.

    It seems to work well. No one *has* to do it if they aren’t comfortable with it, but eventually everyone seems to catch the spirit. And it helps to make it darn clear I’m not expecting award-winning writing and acting. Being unsubtle and trope-y is fine as long as it livens up the table a bit.

  8. NFK says:

    My experience is that rules-heavy games (in the first example) aren’t inherently more or less difficult to learn than rules-light games (in the third example). Rather, one’s first experience teaches them certain habits around which they base their perceptions of subsequent TRPGs for better or worse. But as a lot of gamers first learned on the flagship games of the hobby like some edition of D&D or White Wolf’s Storyteller system (which had historically been rules-heavy even if newer versions are skewing less so), those people have expected to play and then create games in a similar style.

    Add to this that, by and large, the standard for teaching TRPGs has been to task someone who already knows the game with that job. I fully respect anyone who ends up doing so (as I’ve done it myself), but there end up being a lot of intricacies that a game wants you to consider as-written that must then be filtered. Not terribly many games will actually teach you how to do so, even if they’ll usually tell you their overall assumptions about the sorts of plots characters are expected to get into. So when a character sheet runs over four pages (two of which are just abilities), a newbie’s eyes might glaze over when they’re trying to keep the whole thing straight. It’s honestly some of a tradeoff on this end, whether you’re more comfortable handling complications with the rules or with improv.

    • Cybron says:

      It depends what you mean by learn. I would argue that rules heavy games are much harder to learn all the rules to. But at the same time, while rules light games are very simple to learn in concept, learning the behavior that drives them is another matter.

      If you learn a rules-heavy game, you’ll need to learn the rules that make that game tick; if you’re learning a rules-light game, you’ll need to learn the basics of improv and most importantly what behavior makes for effective group improv. I have a player who can scan a bigass rulebook and know the rules like he’s been playing it all his life, but put him in a more improv-like environment and he has tons of trouble with setting other people up and not hogging the spotlight. Meanwhile I have another player who, when we play D&D, will only play a single class because he knows the rules for that one and doesn’t want to learn another one. But put him an improv scenario and he’s very good at setting up fun things for other players to pick up on.

      • Merlin says:

        But at the same time, while rules light games are very simple to learn in concept, learning the behavior that drives them is another matter.

        In my experience, rules-light games tend to do a much better job of outlining and supporting the behavior that drive them, which is part of why I 100% push them as a better intro to the hobby than D&D-likes.

        Like, this entire series exists in part because every official Dungeon Master’s Guide I’m familiar with has been terrible. Heavy systems spend a ton of time laying out what the rules are, but not how to apply them. You read through 300 pages of poison effects and guidelines for how hard fights should be and how many fights you should have per level, then realize that you have no idea what to actually do. How do you structure a quest? What prep work do you need to do aside from bookmarking enemies in the Monster Manual? How do you keep players engaged, and engaged in what they “should” be doing?

        Rules light systems tend to be excellent at that piece, because the flow of interaction between players (including the GM) is front and center to the games’ reason for existence. They don’t make you responsible for divining the dynamic from beneath a gigantic toolkit. It can be intimidating to hear about the games and think “Oh no, I just need to make everything up the fly,” but they generally do a good job of helping to establish that kind of environment.

  9. ehlijen says:

    The described line, or blurry smudge, of separation certainly exists. But for me, there is another aspect that’s important that I find puts me at odds with either side of the divide:


    I like mystery in my games. I like uncovering secrets along with my character. I like being surprised by revelations, I like poking the game and seeing how it reacts, and I like offering that to my players when I GM as well.

    Mystery is not impossible in either traditional or narrative games, but the former seem more commonly inclined to facilitate it. A DnD DM is encouraged to put hidden doors and traps in a dungeon. Several monsters exist purely to appear to the PCs as something else, and many spells exist to protect PCs from such deviousness. And there is the simple matter that the players are navigating a maze. It’s all about discovery.
    Meanwhile, Fate, to my understanding operates, under the assumption that there are no secrets, and that the players are encouraged to have their characters act with deliberately limited knowledge.

    I believe the more power a player has over the story, the harder it will be to keep meaningful things secret for the GM, as any single fact might be overridden by a player contribution at any point.

    Example: player succeeds at an intimidation check and declares that he fires his gun into the air in the middle of a city, meaning the mobsters will have to run before the police gets here, summoned by the noise.
    But if the GM had decided in secret for the mob to have paid off the police to never show up, he now needs to write that fact out (removing a secret that could have been discovered and possibly used later by the players) or rob the player of the successful check.

    This is not impossible to resolve, and such games aren’t bad. They are just not my preference, for playing or running the game.

    It also ties into when the dice are rolled. Narration after a dice roll (such as in Fate) gives the players more narrative power, as they don’t need to leave their story contribution vague anymore, but it also reduces the ability to plan your move during the other players’ turn.
    It’s a habit I picked up in board and wargaming, and is generally considered nice to have in those areas: the more you plan your move while it’s not your turn, the less time you spend on your turn, the faster the game moves. (Obviously, there is always an element of incompleteness as other players might surprise you, but the principle is a good speed boost).
    Narrative games usually don’t let me do that. For one, improp story telling isn’t my strongest suit (I’ve seen worse, but I’m put to shame but the true masters I’ve met), but between not knowing what I narrate until I roll the dice and being expected (and wanting!) to pay full attention to the other players, I do slow any narrative game down, and that hinders my enjoying, even if nothing else (I hate getting in the way in any form). And if the other players have similar problems, that makes paying attention slower because they narrate slower, as well.

    So where I fall on this matter is somewhere in between:
    I want the rules to govern discrete actions, but not straightjacket anything the way complex simulationist systems tend to do.
    I want to the GM to be able to keep secrets and not have the players accidentally overturn them.
    I want turns to be simple enough to plan ahead while paying sufficient attention to someone else’s turn. (I also want the actual dice mechanics to be quick enough not to hold anything up; I’m glaring at you, Exalted!)
    I want cool story ideas to be able to trump the rules, or be easily integrated enough.

    New World of Darkness (1st edition) fit that bill for me. It’s expansions and splats were filled with bloat to greater or lesser extent (and the new edition breaks many of the aspects I liked), but the core idea was simple. The GM could combine any stat with any skill to check for character competence in a lot of unexpected situations. The system was openly built around characters being in over their heads, and easily allowed for the players to be mystified as well. Almost every possible action could be resolved quickly, and the system had simple mechanics for both discrete, short actions, and abstracted longer ones.

    It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did most of what I wanted.
    I’d say it combined aspects of traditional games and narrative games, and it do so in ways I don’t usually see in other games (even Onyx Path games these days). Savage Worlds comes close, though it uses metagame resources which I’m also not a fan of.

    • Flock Of Panthers says:

      Can I ask what parts of NWOD 2 you didn’t like?

      Both Old-New and New-New ha Style Merits. I hate style merits with a passion, feeling that they mess up the entire elegent simplicity of the system and make the system confusing for newbies.
      I can’t criticise them moving away from “lets have mental health issues be a result of being an unethical person” but I don’t feel the new morality system has any teeth.

      I’m running a couple of Fate Core games currently.
      I think you coul do mystery in Fate and have it be fine. The players don’t need to know what the ultimate mystery is, but the complication is that they are always very powerful characters.
      Through Create Advantage and spending fate points, they have the approval of the system to add their own spin in to the game.

      I’m about to start using it for Shadowrun. Where in SR5 I would have statted out the building they are going to hit and worked out what the security weaknesses are, in Fate I can offload some of that on to them.
      If the hacker wants to spend time looking through schematics, I can ask him to roll for an Advantage and tell me what he can come up with. Maybe the windows to the third floor are highly armoured glass, but the sub contractors skimped on the installation; the glass is held in by sillicon glue. We might debate back and forth until we find a compromise that the group accepts. We might even make note of the dodgy sub contractors and start looking at where else they’ve worked.

      In a mystery, if you are happy half improvising things, this could be the investigators looking through a crimescene and coming up with their own suggestions for clues. Ash from some dudes pipe. Lets say distinctive ash. The writing on the wall tells us that the killer was very tall? Yeah, cool. A dropped monacle? Nah, but I’ll let you have a boot print.
      It’s not an old school approach, nowhere near Cthulhu, but it’s the first way I’ve seen that could make you feel like you were playing a fictional detective.

      • ehlijen says:

        I agree on the fighting style merits, they feel like a very odd duck out in this beautifully simple system otherwise.

        As to what I don’t like in Godmachine Chronicles (never bothered to check out Chronicles of Darkness itself after seeing the test version):
        Beats – I don’t want to track out of game resources while inside the game, and beats are the worst. Useless until they turn into XP at the end of the session, but still require counting in the session. It breaks my immersion (for no real gain in story or gameplay) and it throws up issues of some players earning more than others (though optional rules are provided to work around that).
        I’m a big fan of the GM simply deciding to give an arbitrary and equal amount of XP to everyone at the end based purely on gut feeling of how fun it was.

        The Doors system for social interaction imposed a complex mechanism on something I always preferred to run rules light and said mechanism fails to ever feel like a true conversation.
        Similarly the ghost rules (which also impose a certain cosmology, reducing mystery).

        The myriad of conditions that can be thrown on characters, and the encouragement for characters to seek out and resolve conditions (because beats turn into xp), overcomplicated the game in my opinion as well.

        The morality/insanity system…meh. It’s not actually integral to the core rules. If I want to run a game where I don’t want it to matter, I can just tell the players not to worry about it.

        Fate I don’t like. For all its claimed rules-lightness, I always felt constrained by its limited mechanics that offload everything into record keeping via scene/environment aspects. It turns in game events/effects into abstractly tracked resources and then, on top of that, activating aspects is usually done via an out of game resource with Fate points. I had a really hard time staying immersed whenever the rules entered the equation.

        It’s not so bad I won’t play it (had fun in the game we did do, good friends), but I think NWoD and Savage World do what I want better.

        • Gnoll Queen says:

          I’d argue about Beats because you still can by core give beets arbitrarily at the end of the session. And most of my players did play up their conditions/Take Critical on failures so there was rarely an xp gap between players. But the other problems seem to be mostly personal taste. (Also how are Beats any worse than just a normal xp system? like you can just rename Beats to xp and multiply all of the xp costs by five and there will be no difference.)

          But well i need to agree with you on one thing: Unless you are playing a game inspired by “Green Eggs and Ham” The Doors System Sucks. It built around basically annoying people into giving up and saying yes. Also would it kill the world of darkness people to add domain play rules? Like every single WOD game i have ever played ends up needing some.

          • ehlijen says:

            My apologies, I was of course talking about opinion. I am well aware that CofD and Fate et al all have their fans, and rightfully so. I’m just not one of them.

            The problem with beats is that I, as the player, am expected to pay some attention to collecting them during the game, as they are awarded directly for events in the game. I don’t like that, it makes it harder for me to stay immersed in the character (which is what I love to do in RPGs).
            I’d liken it to how in some video games you get 100XP icons floating above the heads of enemies as you kill them (or whatever number). To me, that always carries an implied ‘DON’T FORGET YOU ARE IN A GAME!’. It works for same types of game, it doesn’t work for others.
            In a tabletop RPG, I don’t want that. I don’t want to even think about XP until the very end of the session when I step out of the character again so to speak.

            Great, now I’m making it sound like method acting…No, it’s not quite that extreme, but I hope I somehow got my gist across?

            Basically, the further removed I, as the player, am from my character, the less the odds I’ll enjoy the system (whether I enjoy the game usually depends more on the players, GM and story; we’ve had amazing games of Exalted 2nd (no errata) if you can believe that). The more information I have to track or decisions I have to make that my character wouldn’t be aware of, the worse the system will feel for me.
            I don’t like Savage World’s bennies for example, because using them is an out of game decision (they are regenerated by real world time only), while I don’t mind WoD’s willpower, even though it serves essentially the same purpose, because it is an in character resource (replenished by ingame means).

            Domain play rules aren’t too much of a matter to me. I’ve always preferred playing a grunt to a ruler. I hear the new werewolf is supposed to have some, though?

        • Flock Of Panthers says:

          That’s fair. I really liked a lot of the changes to Vampire Requiem, and I just never quite wrappe my hea around Doors.

          I like beats and conditions in theory, but haven’t been able to use them smoothly.

          Fate Core isn’t really rules light, I’ll agree with you there. I’d maintain that it is rules streamline. You don’t need to reference the book during play. No tables, charts, special rules, edge cases.
          I keep a stack of index cards to put aspects on, and that does it. NPCs are simple enough I can do them in my head, and I’ll jot down their concept aspect if I need to. We’ve hacked magic systems in on the fly.

          Fate doesn’t inspire me to run a game like NWOD, Requiem or Cthulhu does; but Fate seems to do Shadowrun/40krpg better than Shadowrun/40krpg do.

  10. Trygon says:

    Huh. That Paranoia rulebook I read years ago suddenly makes sense. Thanks!

  11. Zaxares says:

    I think which game players will enjoy largely depends on their personality. For instance, I know that my players would absolutely detest full-blown storytelling games because they are intensely competitive with each other. They would never be able to agree on who would win in a contest between their two characters, making every description and encounter a constant battle of oneupsmanship until it just becomes tedious. For them, they need solid, uncontestable rules that are fair and impartial, or we’d never make any progress otherwise.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      No matter their veterancy different groups and players will enjoy different types of games. I lean more towards narrative systems nowadays* but I have an itch to level up my skills and watch my character’s numbers go up that also needs to be scratched. I did run a game of Greater Orc Gods (which I think falls into the 2nd category?) to great effect but I know there are definitely people in our gaming group that would not necessarily enjoy it or who could cause the game to devolve into an OOC conflict.

      *After something close to 20 years of roleplaying, mostly with the same people I’m slowly overcoming my discomfort over actually playing the character rather than declaring the actions.

  12. Thomas says:

    The new version of Paranoia blurs these lines quite well. You can play cards that affect your initiative. (It turns out shooting first is the most important thing in exciting laser fights). The card will have a prompt on it that briefly turns the game into a sharp burst of much more story focused experience. The card “suddenly knives” allows you to produce an improvised or otherwise sharp weapon, and your creativity in working with the card prompt determines its effectiveness. Some of the prompts can be pretty weird, and some are low initiative but can be played as interrupts. “Total Balls Up” can be deadly as long as it’s deadly in a funny way.

    Likewise dodging is not allowed. Dodging is considered a lazy player’s way of avoiding joining in with the story. Do you leap behind a teammate or off the staircase into the sinister bubbling pool of Red Dessert Topping below? Those would be more valid actions.

  13. MichaelGC says:

    So I don’t think Rutskarn has t’internet just at the moment, but coincidentally I happened across a link to his RPG Hobospy whilst re-watching the Spoiler Warning Walking Dead season, and was curious to know where it would fall on the spectrum.

    Has anyone tried it? I could hazard a wild guess which end it’s closest to, of course! ;D

  14. Jsor says:

    I love games like Fiasco and Dread, but they’re so goddamn hard to convince people to play. I don’t have a group to play RPGs with, even D&D, but I’ve successfully coerced several people into one or two D&D sessions they have fun with until life gets busy for all of us. Fiasco? It only takes 2-3 hours, but for some reason you just can’t sell people on playing a “tabletop” game that’s basically Structured Introduction to Improvisational Acting 101.

    • Matt Downie says:

      You find that surprising? I find “Structured Introduction to Improvisational Acting 101” a far more intimidating concept than, say, learning D&D 5E rules.

      I have actually tried Indie narrative RPGs. When improvising without a safety net, I’ve often surprised myself with my ability to get into a creative flow and (usually) not choke up and bring everything to a halt.

      That doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying, every single time.

  15. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Out of sheer curiosity, did anyone else google “Hope is Not Always Lost in the Valley of the Giants” just in case it was actually a real thing?

  16. Perceptiveman says:

    This article is…interesting. But it feels like it is defining the stereotypes instead of questioning the assumptions. I definitely disagree with the assertion that it takes some sort of special snowflake to enter the hobby by a non-D&D game. The reason 9 out of 10 people enter by way of D&D is not because D&D is a good entry vector (frankly, it is ass) but because D&D is played by the majority of game groups out there…and that in turn is due in equal parts to age, marketing, and inertia.

    The problem is that people who came to the hobby by way of D&D want and expect certain things out of RPGs, so when they describe RPGs to other people, those are the things they talk about, and therefore, they attract the people for whom those things are interesting, which keeps the whole thing going in a sort of weird feedback loop. There are just as many or possibly more people who would enjoy storygame type RPGs, but there are many fewer people ‘selling’ them because of the aforementioned loop.

    • MichaelGC says:

      No right – I mean, I think the author would completely agree that you don’t need to be a special snowflake. I do see where you’re getting that, what with references to ‘the right kind of person’, but I think it’s just a turn of phrase to say, e.g., “You’re supposed to…,” for example. It’s more descriptive of the fact that it often is the way that you describe it, than prescriptive of the fact that it should be that way.

      So, I think the point is that we might all be such special snowflakes, if we had the right info and suchlike, and I think the rest of the article is an attempt to provide some of that info, and as you say, potentially sell the notion to others.* And of course, if we might all be special snowflakes, then the whole idea of special snowflakery is undercut! :D

      *Without disrespecting those – like me! – for whom the more-usual route-in would be much easier. (Wouldn’t have to be D&D itself, necessarily, but I’d definitely need to at least start off like Grandma, playing the numbers.)

  17. Cuthalion says:

    The “Full-Blown Story Games” section is giving me flashbacks to watching you stream Durance(?) on Aunty Paladin (?), set in Unrest. I may be getting those names wrong, but I do remember some players having difficulty with the pre-determined outcome stuff, especially when they didn’t control it. This post sort of clarifies part of why that may be. (Though perhaps more importantly, being tired makes story games tougher, I suspect.) Nevertheless, I thought Aunty Paladin was neat, that session was still interesting to watch, and that type of game was interesting to contemplate.

    Your examples help me understand the tradeoffs in how creativity works between BS&SM and The Last Year of the Gods. That’s something I hadn’t really considered much. I think I’ve been operating under the assumption that rules are a weakness for creativity. As an amateur tabletop designer (closer to the BS end of things), essays like this are really helpful to get me to think about things in more ways.

    This one builds on a concession I’d already made when I put in dice for “charm, wits, and learning” to do social stuff, notice stuff, and know in-universe stuff. Players had felt like they couldn’t do those things (social stuff in particular) because the game’s rules ignored them, even though my intent was to free them from feeling like they had to leave things to a die instead of being able to come up with what to say on their own. Player feedback and a line in the Master Plan (?) podcast, “Your game will be about what its rules cover,” made the use of adding (loose) rules for that apparent for me. Now, those three abstract skills are near the top of the character sheet, and, sure enough, players use them all the time! Sometimes they even elaborate beyond rolling the dice. More than before, I think.

    This isn’t to say story games are bad for players or creativity — I don’t think that, and I didn’t get that impression from your article, either. Rather, as someone who saw rules as a compromise that traded away creativity, this article helped something click for me about the relationship between rules, improvisation, experience, personality, comfort level, and storytelling. Thanks. :)

  18. General Karthos says:

    Hm. I always thought I ran a story game, but evidently my definition is a bit different. I ran entire sessions of my (Dungeons and Dragons) game where no dice were rolled. Literally, not a single one in a six or seven hour session. (This happened more than once.) The game had an overarching story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. To my mind, that defined a “story” game. But there were also sessions with lots of dice rolling, and while I was fairly casual about what could be done and couldn’t be done, I did make rulings and I did decide what happened as a result of the dice.

    And let’s be honest, D&D is a “traditional RPG”, even if the group I ran this game with was incredible, and I was doing everything I could to focus on the story over the combat. We did have rulebooks, we did reference them, and there was no question that the dice were the kings of the universe. When you rolled a die, it made a difference.

  19. ThaneofFife says:

    I’ve played the Class B indie RPG that Rutskarn is describing, and have done something similar to the Class A too.

    I’ll talk about the Class A first, because it was more fun & shorter. I forget what this game was called, but it’s super-simple. Take 40-50 index cards and write a story over the course of 2-4 hours. The GM introduces the theme for the story–ours did “The History of Humans on Mars”–and can either participate in the story or just advise and assist. All parties then agree on a beginning and an end for a story–the scope is entirely up to them.

    Our group did the History of Colonization of Mars from the first humans to land there until the invention of faster-than-light travel. So, the first card was “Humans land on Mars,” and the last card was, “Faster than light travel invented.” After that, each player got to make one Yes/No rule for the story–this could be something the story had to include, or something that it wasn’t allowed to include. Mine was “Yes, to ancient astronauts,” while another player’s was “No aliens.” Then each player takes a turn coming up with an event and writing it on a card that can then be placed anywhere between the beginning and end of the story.

    The only rule for what to write is that it can’t directly contradict what another player has written. For example, I spend several cards describing how the ancient Egyptians built a pyramid on Mars, and the other players couldn’t undo that. But, they could declare that the Egyptian Martian colony died out in 500 B.C. Then I could still write more about the Egyptians, if I wanted, but that wouldn’t change that they died out in 500 B.C. The danger in this is that you start to run out of cards, and have to skip to the end of the story fairly abruptly–which is something for the GM to watch out for.

    Our group accidentally ended up with the Doc Brown approach to inventing faster-than-light travel. Martian separatist scientists were trying to build a better antimatter bomb when they stumbled across the secret. It was a fun game, and really held everyone’s interest.

    The Class B indie RPG was Burning Wheel, which is extremely free-form, while also being extremely rules-bound, gritty, and detailed. Our group had been playing D&D 4th Edition for about two years when we tried. In short, Burning Wheel is extremely polarizing. Combat, verbal duels, and even multi-level skill-checks are fought/attempted almost identically from a mechanical standpoint (fairly similar to what Rutskarn describes–with lots of D6 rolling). We played through a couple of pre-made scenarios and absolutely hated them, as it turned out that the one thing our group couldn’t stand was intra-party conflict (which Burning Wheel’s demo module tends to encourage).

    Later, some of us ended up doing a mini-campaign using a third-party Burning Wheel Module called Burning Sands–which is basically the Dune universe without licensing fees. We were all familiar with Dune, so it was easy to convert the terminology back to what Frank Herbert had created (e.g., “the Salt” back to “the Spice”). It was relatively fun, but I’m not sure I would do it again. The setting is so oppressive that role-playing it feels a bit like drowning, if that makes any sense. We also got the downer ending–we agreed to let an AI use mind-control on our enemies, but failed to consider that it might have used mind-control on us to get us to agree to do this.

    If anyone else has stories with these kinds of games, I’d love to hear them!

    • Nightstaff says:

      The first one is called Microscope and it’s great! I’ve also played the shorter, comedic hack of it, Kaleidoscope, where you “remember” an incomprehensible foreign art film you all just watched.

      You might also like The Quiet Year. It’s a making-stuff-up, map-drawing game about a post-apocalyptic settlement. Every turn you get a prompt for something that happens that month, and then can choose to add to the map in some way or have a discussion.

    • Arctem says:

      I’m curious which scenarios you played for Burning Wheel. I’m assuming one was The Sword, which is considered the worst of them because it’s entirely based on player conflict. I generally find Trouble in Hochen to be the best demo scenario, since the players are (mostly) on the same side. Unfortunately it still recommends that players use Duel of Wits, Range and Cover, and Fight! (the 3 systems for resolving verbal conflict, ranged combat, and melee duels) which are too complicated and clunky to use while learning the game. I’ve had far more success just sticking to the core rules and not branching out to the more advanced parts of the system until a few sessions into the campaign. Definitely not during the demo!

  20. Epopisces says:

    Milwaukee Rusty Orks represent!

    Always a treat when the oft-overlooked sub-species of ork local to southeastern Wisconsin is mentioned in an article. Although technically they hail from Oconomowoc & Mukwonago: Milwaukee is easier just to pronounce and pinpoint on a map.

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