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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 16: The Fallacy of Story Games
16: The Fallacy of Story Games
Published by Dragavan on 2007/11/6 (7380 reads)
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The Fallacy of Story Games

Just because you push the story doesn't make the story work

For the last several years there has been this growing popular trend in the gaming community that has been dubbed Story Gaming. Now some argue that all RPGs are actually story games, but we are not going to touch on this argument. What we are talking about are all the games that claim to be the new cutting edge in gaming, focusing everything on the story and not the game or combat or numbers. They say this makes for better stories and more freedom in story telling games. I disagree.

The first problem I have is with the idea of freedom in these games. Nearly all of this new string of games are not made for freedom or expansion or long term play. They set up very creative and interesting ideas, and give you lots of story freedom within the limited scope of this idea, but once the stories are told there isn't a lot more you can do with them. Now this isn't any different than many "old style" RPGs, so it shouldn't be used as an example of what makes these games better at anything.

Call of Cthulu is a very strong setting with a somewhat limited scope (if you don't count the spin-offs and expansions that allow you to play in other years). Within the setting of the 1920's Horrors of H.P. Lovecraft, this game does a good job of letting players play investigators and those caught up in mystical events. It is considered one of the stronger older style games, with its popular skill system and much loved "Sanity" attribute. Combat is not the answer in most cases, but it still has a strong and often used set of game mechanics for actions and skills. Of the older style games this is often considered one of the better ones for interesting storytelling.

Compare this with Dogs in the Vineyard, one of the more talked about of this new breed. It takes place in a fantasy inspired Utah of the 1800's, where the players are God's messengers sent to spread the word and fight sin. The system captures this feel and has numerous rules set in place to enhance the feelings of enforced faith and sin in the old west. The rules are relatively fast and loose and have a lot of more generic meanings, being used for everything from combat to social actions, but the setting and available roles for players keep everything strictly in line.

Both of these games have very limited scopes and systems that fully support the style and feel they are going for. What really makes them different is the rules. CoC has more rules, skills, and strict mechanics that are used to determine the outcomes of what the characters try. DitV is more freeform, but still uses its mechanics to determine the outcome of nearly everything. Even though one claims to be a story game, they both seem to have very similar methods on the base level.

Now let's take a look at the grand daddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons. Although it is basically a general fantasy settings that limit things to the worlds of monsters and magic, it actually has a very generic set up that leaves a lot of room for a variety of styles within that genre (as can be seen by the numerous different settings available for it using the exact same core books). The system is very thick on rules for everything physical, from combat to picking locks, so the players are still using mechanics to determine the outcomes of a lot of the things they try to do, but not for nearly any of the more social things. All in all, however, the game is still about outcomes being determined by the mechanics, just like the others.

None of these seem really better than one another in the area of opening themselves up better storytelling. Sure, I am sure you will be able to list certain games that are exceptions (in both camps) but I am talking about these styles of games in general. From what I have seen, most of the Story Games seem to actually limit creativity by creating games that are much more tightly written and designed for very specific scopes. There are a couple good exceptions (like Primetime Adventures), but for the most part the Story Games are tightly constricted down to a very specific set of story elements (like being God's Watchdogs in the old west or playing out a First Date).

When trying to push that Story Games are better for storytelling the main argument they use is that they include mechanics that actually encourage storytelling. These are usually some kind of socially driven rewards for certain types of "good storytelling" elements. Spirit of the Century is a good example of this, as I uses a system of special character traits than give them bonuses when they do something that taps into one of these story based elements. All of these are said to enhance and encourage storytelling. What they don't seem to think about is how many of these things help force unrealistic story elements into scenes where they don't fit.

When they rules say "do X to gain Y" there are a number of players who simply see this as the goal to accomplish, no different than "kill monster to get experience points". They will do all they can to make it happen, even if doing that doesn't fit with the story or plot that is developing. This can lead to outrageously unrealistic events in game, that can blow entire storylines for no reason other than to fulfill some mechanical need or want. Hell, even a horrible melodrama can break out if they think it will lead to some kudos or bonus points (which I have actually seen happen).

The other part of this is when there are rules that have some kind of game mechanic that helps decide the outcome of plot driven scenes. A good example of this is Burning Wheel, which has rules (called the Duel of Wits) that control how social conflicts are handled. I actually like these rules but I don't see it as something that encourages that much actual storytelling. In fact, it's rules like these that can actually limit storytelling options in any particular scene.

Any time you have rules that structure how something can go down, it limits what can actually happen. This is usually used to create controllable and often balanced situations within the game. Skill use, combat, and other more physical aspects of these games have used them for ages to control these situations and handle the "you didn't hit me" arguments before they happen. Adding these kinds of rules to the story element parts of the game works great for game related reasons but limits the actual options for storytelling. Only things that relate to the skills or options at hand can be used, just as with combat skills or options.

Contrary to what the Story Game evangelists seem love saying, I actually think there are more options for storytelling when there are no rules that force, reward, or restrict it. Players are free to tell the story as they see it and things happen without limitations. In fact, if you remove all the rules you can tell the most freeform story of all. You won't be playing anything I would call an RPG any more, but it would be one hell of a storytelling experience.

Let me take a moment here to make an aside. Let me lay my cards on the table and stop talking in generalities about the two extremes. Let me face you and tell you what I actually think is the best way for me and many people who like the game I do. I love stories. I love games. I like my RPG experience to have both and for them to work together, which is why I wrote The Land of Karn the way I did.

The answer is somewhere between the two extremes, which is actually possible with most of the existing "classic" style RPGs, but not with most Story Games (Primetime Adventures being one of the few exceptions here). All it takes is for the game to have some sort of social skills to handle social interactions included in he game. These can be things like "Fast Talk" or "Diplomacy", or even more specific skills to cover specific styles of reactions. It doesn't matter, as long as they exist.

Then it's a matter of using them the way we tend to use most combat systems. Make the skill rolls to determine the general outcome of the action, but then role-play out the scene to see how it all actually goes down. The mechanics don't really need to get in the way, nothing has to be wagered or earned by it, and the game allows for a lot of freedom in the storytelling, with just the outcome being determined by the rolls.

This requires a good group of players to actually want to tell a story and not just rely on rolls, but that's really true of any game. The quality of play depends more on the players and the GM than the system, but the actual mechanics can affect how well they are able to pull it off. Good groups can even make a mediocre game great, but a great game can't make mediocre players good.

Okay, my moment here is over and it's time to conclude this...

So in the end I think the Story Gamers are wrong in their thinking and preaching, but that doesn't mean what they are making are bad games. They just aren't the same games as the "classic" style RPGs. Neither one is better than the other; they are just made for different groups of gamers. I am just sick and tired of the Forge Thumpers trying to force their faith on the rest of us. It's great you love your games, the rest of us love ours too. It's all RPGs and they can all be used to tell great stories.
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