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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH8: So Which is Right?

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Oct 1, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


For the last few posts I’ve discussed the difference between objective games and story games. One uses its mechanical framework to create challenges, immersion, and a logical deterministic resolution for fiddly and hard-to-visualize things like combat and horse racing. The other uses the mechanics to guide, enhance, and empower the player’s creative expression. As a new GM, you’re naturally going to wonder which game is better for your group.

There are numerous simple considerations; story games are designed for self-contained sessions and objective games are designed for long-term campaign play, typically. Story games are the result of a modern renaissance, representing recent improvements and collaborations within the medium, while the most famous objective games are classic self-contained enterprises from the days before this hobby was big enough to support a renaissance. Story games seek to reward with drama, objective games seek to reward with drama and accomplishment. But beyond these simple considerations is a central question, one I haven’t addressed very much–a deceptively simple way to figure out what game is right for you.

What doesn’t your group want to worry about?

Baselines and Guidelines

Telling stories is hard. A single person left to their own devices can just about tell a good story with many hours of labor. A group working together can tell an acceptable one in an evening, but with so many cooks in the kitchen it’s bound to be missing some direction, some flavor, some resolution–something to make it memorable. As I’ve explored, mechanics exist to make games memorable.

But there’s another important function of mechanics: mechanics remove a barrier or obligation from the players. The difference between story and objective games lies in what is removed.

When a player sits down to create their character in an objective game, they’re not faced with a yawning void. They are faced with a list of races. A list of classes. Skills. Talents. Weapons. Spells. For a human to assemble a character from these lists is implicitly a creative act, but it doesn’t actually require creativity–a computer could do it. And once you’ve got everything from these lists, technically speaking, you’ve got everything you need. You’ve got your baseline for existing in the gameworld. It’d be a pretty mean campaign where every character remained at the baseline, but for individuals, the option exists.

It happens–genuinely quite often–that in recruiting your friends for RPGs you’ll get somebody who’s not very interested in roleplaying. Someone will want to show up and have a good time with friends, but isn’t interested in anything that happens on the board unless it’s an objective challenge defined by rules, like a board game or videogame. As long as the rest of the party’s willing to navigate overland and talk to NPCs and solve the riddle of the tiger and decide what kind of rations to buy, this player can do just fine with their strictly mechanical, picked-from-lists objective character. They can have a good time. Everyone else can have a good time. There’s nothing that character actually needs to do that can’t be resolved, to everyone’s satisfaction, with a glance at the character sheet and a roll of the dice.

More critically, if your group is of mixed levels of interest in creative storytelling, this baseline means objective games still work beautifully. Alma loves roleplaying her character and coming with creative solutions–and the rules never actually stop her from doing so, so she’s happy. Bob is new to roleplaying, so he’s a little anxious about putting himself out there with flamboyant roleplaying gestures, but the rules provide him a comfort zone he can always fall back on. Catherine doesn’t know anything about roleplaying, so she doesn’t know what her limits and capabilities are, but she’s played board games before and she knows she can handle her character as a statistical entity–whatever else she discovers she’s capable of is gravy. Dominic really just cares about mechanics, so he’s usually nose-deep in a rulebook during play, but occasionally–every so often–it tickles him to bust out with an offbeat roleplaying moment that catches everyone off guard. Elizabeth likes roleplaying, but she also works in a hospital and some nights she’s so fried she can just about move her mini on the grid. With their powers combined, they form a pretty standard Dungeons and Dragons group.

Creativity is great, and spread across a group you’ll need at least a little of it to make a campaign work, but objective games mean it’s not constantly demanded of everyone. Even for some very creative people, that’s a relaxing proposition.

Storytelling games demand more. Even a quasi-story quasi-objective game like FATE requires creativity to mechanically create a character–the stage where you name your character’s Aspects and come up with stunts, to some players, is an intimidating you-must-be-this-original-to-ride bar. Even for players perfectly capable of being creative, it can be intimidating when the rules actually require them to come up with stuff in front of their friends. Other players are creative and willing, but lack experience with telling narratives and will struggle with the game’s demands.

Hybrids like FATE exist when players don’t need the baseline of objective games, but still want the sense of challenge and accomplishment and structure they provide. So when it comes to the true story games, where objective rules are thin on the ground–who do I recommend those to?

People who don’t want to worry about those rules.

For some players, it falls between inconvenient and frustrating to see what should happen, given their personal understanding of a scene and characters, be overtaken by what does happen. Why should their dwarf die from a poison dart? Their dwarf is really tough. Why should Count Montrose escape? That’s a terrible ending–he should be caught, even if there’s consequences. Why should their own character survive when everything’s been leading up to a gruesome last stand? Why should the cross-country journey be played out with survival checks and checking of ration boxes when it makes more sense to just skip it and say it went fine? Why should the bomb go off when it’d be much, much, much funnier if it miraculously didn’t?

Why should thousands of years of good sense and storytelling take a backseat to rules designed two decades ago by people the group will never meet?

When considering your group, ask yourself what’s more likely to annoy them. Being told they can’t do something creative–or being told they have to?


Comments (27)

  1. Cybron says:

    That’s an interesting take on it.

    Preferences can go the other way, too. Some people really, really like rules and mechanical choices, for their own sake. The best example of this is D&D 3rd edition/Pathfinder. The designer explicitly realized this was a thing and set out design a system that mirrored the system mastery elements of their popular card game, Magic: The Gathering.

    3.PF has many design decisions that are questionable and some that are even arguably hostile to roleplaying, but one of the reason it maintains its popularity so well after mainstream roleplaying culture has moved on is that it is one of the games best at fulfilling the desire for intricate mechanical systems.

    • I’ve found over the years that I have rather limited patience for what passes for creativity with most people, because after long experience I’ve found that in many cases it boils down to “I want an excuse to abuse the other players”. I’m not here for the story, I’m here to find a theater where I can pretend it’s socially acceptable to flaunt my issues and seek applause for having them.

      When someone pulls out the “my character is a grim loner with a tragic backstory and amazing kung fu abilities that he got from a mystical sensei also his girlfriend is being held captive so he’s really broody and he wears a mask all the time because nobody can know his real identity and . . .”

      Stahp. Just stahp. It’s worse than Grizzled Brown Haired White Dude in video games.

  2. Nonesuch says:

    This is always a tricky problem. I like the rules because they provide a solid final arbiter when they work, and they’re usually easy to ignore or when they don’t. A friend of mine would love to get in on tabletop, but finds the numbers (often the very first thing that you see when you step in to character creation, even with a comparably rules-lite system like FATE) daunting and imposing.

    There’s a lot of people who like crunchy mechanical systems as well because you can take the rules and bend them like so much wiring until they make the shape you want. There’s a lot to be said for the satisfaction of mechnical mastery, that’s why games like bullet hells and Dark Souls continue to attract adherents when they can be hideously frustrating. 3.PF and a lot of d20 systems can be really satisfying to break that way, but they do pose some annoyances when you look at the way design choices can get restrictive.

  3. Akuma says:

    I like this perspective, not on what a group wants to do – but what they don’t want to do. I feel it’s a very valid question to ask.

    I also feel this question somewhat applies to the DM as well, mechanics can help you keep a hold on what’s going on and give you some expectations to work with. Then you can loosen the mechanics as you learn how to take on an even more creative role in your games.

    As a personal example I’ve had a very interesting experience with my currently running D&D game. For this game I’m actually play testing an adventure module I wrote myself, and it’s fascinating how relaxing it is to run. I don’t have to worry about what the next monster is, or what the villains next move is, or the next adventure option coming, it’s all in the book and I can just focus on what’s happening in the game and react to it. It helps that I wrote it and already know everything about it, but still very interesting to run a game like that.

  4. Matt Downie says:

    Alas, it’s rarely so easy as, “I have a group of players and they all know what they want and all want the same thing and will continue to want the same thing for the duration of a campaign”.

  5. General Karthos says:

    My game is a hybrid of these two styles. I have players with varying degrees of skill at roleplaying, but two of us are writers, one is a graduated student with a bachelor of arts degree in music and a bachelor of science in computer science, one got a degree in philosophy. I myself have a degree in Political Science, some grad work in Communications, and I am a math whiz.

    So obviously there’s a lot of creativity, but we’re also good with numbers and our preferred medium tends to be Dungeons and Dragons. But that doesn’t mean that every game comes down to a challenge of dice, or that every accomplishment is managed by the dice. In fact, I won’t even let my players make a roll to use a negotiation skill unless they roleplay it out. In some cases I will give advantage if their argument is particularly good. (I try never to give disadvantage unless they do something boneheaded like make a crack about a halfling’s height or call a half-orc ugly in a language they think the half-orc doesn’t understand, etc.)

    In some cases though, the argument is so self-evident, or the foe is so implacable that the roll isn’t even needed. For spectacularly persuasive arguments, I will sometimes decide there’s no need to roll, that they have overcome this particular challenge. In more than one combat situation, a tactic has been so unique or the situations so perfect that “rule of cool” applies and it works without the need of a roll.

    Other times there’s mechanical pounding that wins the day. The thief in our group will never forget the day he made a flying leap from the back of his horse to the dragon flying low at the group, climbed to the dragon’s head and slew it with a single blow. All of this was accomplished by some very impressive dice rolling and a well-timed critical. (The dragon ate his horse though before he could accomplish it, and they’d paid ten times market value for the horses, because they wound up negotiating with the only guy for leagues who had any horses at all.)

    In terms of length, my campaign doesn’t really apply to the “storytelling” definition given. My first campaign with this group ran 20 sessions of about six hours each. The first three or four sessions were “episodic” in style, giving them a chance to know their characters, to do a classic dungeon crawl or two, to teach the new players how to play, and to let them gain enough levels to face my long-term story. The next year’s campaign ran fewer sessions (I believe we managed 10 or 12, but longer sessions) but brought the same characters (and players) back together “five years later”, so there wasn’t a need for the episodic introduction.

    Gameplay structured by mechanics is nice to have, but mechanics should be a supplement, something to use when there’s a chance of success versus failure. Not the sole determining factor.

    • Redingold says:

      There was a character in my group who almost did that. He leapt onto a dragon, climbed up to its neck, raised his sword, and fell off. Very comical, but not very dramatic.

      • Echo Tango says:

        Could have stayed dramatic, if with the same dice-roll, the character had instead been shaken off by the dragon, maybe?

      • ehlijen says:

        I don’t know about others, but a heroic effort not always working sounds dramatic enough for me. A challenge must be defined by difficulty to be dramatic, and difficulty is most easily shown by the hero not automatically succeeding.

        To me, a chance for failure is required for an act in the game to be exciting. And that means the failure has to occasionally occur. So yes, falling of a dragon that’s presumably trying to shake you off is well within the parameters of a good story for me. (Unless it was sleeping? Or this was the last chance to heroically strike it down before it toasts the harmless innocent village?)

  6. NFK says:

    You’re still coming at this from the perspective of someone who was weaned on rules-heavy games and thus subconsciously treats them as the norm. Part of the whole storygaming process created by The Forge was that there were a number of assumptions about how people played that often didn’t actually apply to practice. Lengthy campaigns, detailed processing of rules and rules algorithms (as opposed to singular rolls, for instance), actually using all of the printed rules, or even reading the majority of a dense rulebook are basically exceptions so far as I’ve encountered. And I say that as someone whose first TRPG was D&D 3E (which is quite rules-heavy) and who is fine with these; the average newbie is going to be absolutely flummoxed by their character sheet and will be happy to follow whatever directions you give them. If they want to come into a game playing a hive mind of wizard crabs, or a devout frogperson whose shield is also a giant book recording of all the cults (in the inclusive polytheistic sense) they’ve encountered…do you really need to do the whole song and dance of modelling that business in a rules-heavy system that assumes such?*

    The other thing is that a number of rules-heavy games, such as D&D since perhaps 2E (after they removed gold -> XP), don’t really reward players for drama. If the players just get some consistent amount of XP after every session, or receive quantities of “roleplay XP” according to loose guidelines that in practice tend towards the first outcome anyway, I’m not certain that the game itself pushes them towards drama. The group is likely doing so, but that’s orthogonal to the ruleset itself. To their credit a number of games have figured out that things like XP or “bennies”, that are respectively permanent or temporary forms of character currency. And these are useful reward systems to encourage players to do things relevant to the game. But generally this is stuff that rules-heavy systems haven’t really seen fit to do, to pin down and tighten up their reward systems to encourage the players to do interesting things. (Exceptions I’ve seen on this front include Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness with its Beats system and Double Cross with its Final Encroachment Rate.)

    *Disclaimer: These are in fact two of the more gonzo concepts that I’ve used in play. I’m the rules junkie of my group but also the person who goes out of their way to make really weird ideas come to life.

    • Verecundus says:

      I do like meta-currencies in the right system. Paranoia’s perversity points play terrifically.
      But sometimes they feel cumbersome and just another thing to keep track of. I wonder, why do role-players need incentives to roleplay and do interesting things? Are those not their own rewards?

      On the other hand, experience points being tied to the numbery-side of things make sense to me. You do a lot of number-crunching and interacting with the rules and at the end of the day you get to see your numbers go up. That’s an extrinsic reward for something that some players may not enjoy, and that will appeal particularly to those who enjoy it already.

      But I think your comment ties really well into Rutskarn’s article. You bring up the point that a player with a creative idea for a character might find a very numerical game system unnecessary or unappealing. Rutskarn mentions how the process of creating a character in FATE, during which players are asked to come up with aspects describing their character’s personality and style would be similarly daunting or perplexing for someone who just wanted to hit orcs with an axe.

      As for “do you need” to model something with rules, well, you don’t need to do any of it. It’s a game, not a job. You do what’s fun for you and your group. Some people have fun coming up with stories, some people have fun simulating and optimising (https://xkcd.com/1566/).

      But I’ll make the case of why you’d want to use some heavier, simulationist rules: to figure out what happens next.
      Say your character is shot in the leg. What happens next? I’m no expert in gun shot wounds, especially in frog-people. We could decide what we think is most narrative appropriate, but we might not know what that is. We could decide the outcome that we desire most. We could use some system like Fiasco’s and say that, well, this scene has to have a positive outcome so it looks like it was just a flesh wound. But for some people the easiest, most sensible and most satisfying way to find out what happens next in their role-playing game, is to use some rules.

      • I find that in many systems players need an incentive to take risks and live with penalties, not “do interesting things”. I find the meta-currencies tiresome in games where they’re rewarded for “do a cool description” or something. You always get the one player who wastes everyone’s time trying to get them on EVERY SINGLE ROLL and then everybody else who get sick of the business and stops using them. That’s a non-starter.

        But in most games there’s no incentive whatsoever to do things sub-optimally ON PURPOSE, and if you penalize this kind of play in-game it usually comes across as a dick move on the GM’s part. Plus the penalty usually wastes time and distracts from more interesting stuff that could happen instead. “Great, you’re dead, now we have to hike back to town to get you raised.” “Great, we rested, so now we get a tedious random encounter.”

        Meta-currencies work great at incentivizing sub-optimal play while simultaneously enabling it to WORK sometimes. And when you have people intentionally playing sub-optimally, you have better drama, because there’s a bigger risk AND a bigger payoff, and that means better drama. Plus it takes a lot of work off the GM (and makes the whole relationship less adversarial/dickish) when the players are coming up with their OWN obstacles a lot of the time.

    • Matt Downie says:

      I’m not sure if extrinsic rewards for role-playing are a good thing. The reward for role-playing should be that you get a good story, not that you win points.

      But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a system where you get experience points for certain actions, it’s hard to care about anything that doesn’t give you experience points?

      • Decus says:

        Usually in those systems you get points for “doing something that everybody recognizes as very in-character”. In some systems points are only rewarded when it would be a disadvantage to do the in-character thing.

        The real flaw of those systems is that they can go very, very poorly with min-max players in the group if the GM isn’t aware of them and careful with character creation. A min-max player will design their character to create the most drama that will consistently harm the party to their own character’s benefit as they continuously gain the additional currency. This makes the rest of the table very unhappy very quickly AND breaks your encounters.

        Or they’ll do their best to start out with a blank-slate character–maybe they’ll try to pitch you amnesia–and then conveniently fill in the personality to be whatever gets them points the quickest. Or fill stuff in such that their character is a hypocrite with very, very specific positions for everything such that they can always get points. These sorts of systems just do not play nicely with min-maxers unless you really, really work to reign them in, preferably before play starts. I’ve seen a few modern rulebooks at least warn you about this and denigrate that sort of character design.

        • Echo Tango says:

          My response as a GM to the first type of non-character would be write down on their character sheet, “split-personalities (several)”. The second type would get ” total amnesia (continuing)”. If further explanation or disagreement occurred, I’d explain that they can either write a proper character, or have me fuck with their character just as hard as they’re trying to fuck with the game system. :)

          • ehlijen says:

            But will that result in a game anyone wants, either? It sounds like you’re suggesting that to stop one player from gaming the system, you must make sure they don’t enjoy the system?

            I’ve found a more effective way to encourage less minmaxing (though by no means foolproof or guaranteed) is to simply not engage in the minmaxing.
            Don’t raise the obstacle level to match their prowess/resources. When such players then roflstomp the opposition often enough, they may realise they don’t need to minmax (especially in systems where the return for investment decreases as you climb the skill ladder), and will hopefully settle for a less optimised build and look for more engaging ways to interact with the campaign.

            This has worked reasonably well in our current Exalted game (2.5ed). Paranoia combat has mostly been avoided due to a shared agreement that combat will not define the game, and that the GM doesn’t actually want any PC deaths (eg, there has yet to be a character with a Perfect Defence Charm). And ~80% of all our character interaction doesn’t even use any social system rules, it’s just people talking to people.
            This has meant that our dusk caste (basically the fighter class), has spent a good chunk of her XP not advancing any fighting skills and looking for ways to do other things; or building up redundant combat skills just to feel more well rounded and being able to switch things up for taste even in combat.

            • Shoeboxjeddy says:

              I’ve found when Min-maxers begin to crush systems, their response isn’t to scale back their play to reasonable levels. It’s often to call the system crap instead. This is because once you get past a certain point, min-maxing is just a way to try to cheat. Cheating in a cooperative story is pretty low behavior ultimately, hence the derogatory old school nickname Munchkin.

    • Joshua says:

      “You're still coming at this from the perspective of someone who was weaned on rules-heavy games and thus subconsciously treats them as the norm. ”

      Because for the mass majority of people, that is the norm. If you’re introducing someone to role-playing games, they’re going to be coming from pure rule-based games, whether it be Chess, Battleship, Magic: The Gathering, or even Candyland. Games like D&D are a step away from rules for these people, where they have the option to do things that are not hard-coded in a rule manual. Almost every time I’ve deal with newbies in a D&D session, asking them “What would you like to do?” results in “Uh….what can I do?”. Thus, story-telling games are a step even further, which makes rule-based games a natural introduction point.

      So, until there is a time when the majority of players have grown up as children playing story-telling games* and then progress towards rules-based games like any board or card game, games like D&D will be the “norm” and will require less explanation as a concept to new players.

      *That would be interesting, to introduce story-telling games to children as an extension to their “make believe” games by gradually introducing rules, and then later explain rules-only games that have no role-playing.

      • Echo Tango says:

        It wouldn’t be too hard to introduce children to role-playing stuff, if they had the interest in it. Growing up, my friends and I already sort of had games that as an adult seem close-ish to table-top games or to live-action games. Toy guns and swords, drawing out complicated maps of stick-men armies fighting, and other made-up stuff. The only thing missing was more structure (rules), and years of drama from movies, plays, operas, books, comics, etc. :)

        • Nimrandir says:

          There’s No Thank You Evil, which is built with children as young as four in mind. It still feels more objective-focused in the Rutskarn Taxonomy, but the fact that it allows me to run a game for a dragon, a ninja, and a pirate who shoots frogs at monsters says something.

  7. ehlijen says:

    ‘Why should thousands of years of good sense and storytelling take a backseat to rules designed two decades ago by people the group will never meet?’

    For me, personally, the answer is thus:
    Because it’s not about the rules or the people who wrote them, but about the verisimilitude of the world I’m trying to imagine I’m in. The real world doesn’t follow a narrative, so if the game world does so too visibly (ie baked into the mechanics), I can’t immerse myself as easily.

    I find that most story telling games I’ve tried would push me to think outside the fourth wall, as a teller of a story, when what I want to do is think inside the character’s mind. (And just for sheer irony, many of the supposed story driven system made me think too much in terms of rules to truly ever feel in character).

    As a gamemaster, sure, I sit outside the world and have all the fourth wall breaking duties of making the story flow properly. But as a player I don’t want that (and as A GM don’t ask that of my players either).

    This is exacerbated by what I’ve found in almost all of these more modern games I’ve played: they place decision points after dice rolls. In Fate, you consider spending Fate points and invoking aspects after the dice have spoken. In FFG Star wars, the player and the GM have to figure out what to do with all the advantage/disadvantage points that were rolled. The pick X advantages from a list of 5 options based on your dice roll treats dice as an unpredictable resource, rather than as an arbitrator.

    What this does besides usually involving out-of character metagame resources, is not let me use a skill I’ve been trying to hone in all my board and wargaming years: planning my moves ahead of time to hold the game up as little as possible in my turn, so it doubly irks me. I like ‘alea iacta est’. Rolling dice is fun for me, spending time interpreting and applying them isn’t. Once rolled, I want the game to move on.

    So yeah, I firmly fall into the pre-rennaissance ‘one cook is enough for the broth’ school of RPGs.

  8. Munkki says:

    So I’ve been reading through this and thinking that maybe there’s another way to look at the whole ‘simulation vs story’ thing you’ve got presented here? Maybe; I’m pretty tired right now but I’ll have a go at turning the thought into words.

    The big difference that I can see between the two ends of the spectrum presented is this – at the ‘simulationist’ end, the characters and world are more and more defined by abstract systems, rules and numbers, with the focus shifting more and more towards narration and words as you reach the other ‘story’ end. Case in point – as written, the words on your D&D character sheet serve more as easy ways to recall a set of mechanics and conditional values than descriptors of your character in their own right.
    However, I’d still definitely call these games role-playing games, and go so far as to say that role-playing is their main focus – since if you removed it the games would become unrecognisable when compared to their current forms (D&D 4 and mechwarrior being edge cases, as they’re designed to share a border with full-on tactical battle games.)

    As you move towards the other end of that spectrum, the words you choose to describe a character become more directly important to the actual game rules. FATE turns them into the catalysts for dice rolls, the others – well, Rutskarn’s already painted a far better picture than I could. However, as some other people have pointed out already, using words and language to describe a player’s role does carry its own set of limitations and expectations – to pick one easy example, a focus on narrative has a tendency to creep in, over and above characterisation (which can otherwise exist in almost an anti-narrative in some games).

    This also lets us put LARPs on a hastily-added third limb of our hypothetical continuum – with the big vehicle for roleplaying in those games being movement and physical expression. Which would put play-by-post versions of face-to-face games into a different category and probably six other upsetting things, but eh.

    Anyway, it’s a thought. Not a qualified thought, mind you, or one that’s been vetted at all rigorously, but a thought nonetheless.

    • Munkki says:

      Or to put it more succinctly –

      We use mathematics as a tool for measurement and comparison, and language as a tool for communication and negotiation. A game with systems built focussing on one or the other tends, in my experience, to inherit these qualities. And I wouldn’t say either is the real core of what makes a role-playing game a role-playing game; for that I’d point to things like cops and robbers, playing doll-houses or knocking plastic toys together to make them ‘battle’ (or if you want to go with something more highbrow and adult, maybe commedia dell’arte).

      I think that really grabs the core of what I was trying to get at.

  9. Anachronist says:

    I remember playing D&D games, first 3.0, then 3.5. Rules-heavy, yes. Fun, yes. I loved the optimization challenge inherent in character design, I loved coming up with interesting stories for my characters, and I loved role-playing as well as mastering the mechanics. Then life happened and I stopped having time for it. I miss it.

    In between D&D games, I played a couple games of Call of Cthulhu, and I was amazed at how well balanced it was between role playing and rather light rules… so light, that players didn’t even need to read a rule-book to play (the GM did). Success at any action was determined by a d% roll against an ability on your character sheet, and the rest was exploring the story and role playing. Players who liked mechanics would still enjoy it because the light mechanics don’t get in the way of progressing the story. Ever notice how in DND, when combat begins, time slows to a crawl, sometimes taking half an hour to resolve one in-universe six-second round? That doesn’t happen in CoC.

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