03 November, 2016

What is a story game?

That’s a massive question, and in recent years there have been several responses to it.

Among others, here’s a few that I’ve seen regularly pop up.

  • A story game is a communal activity, where a number of players contribute to a single narrative that has not been defined at the start of play.
  • A story game is a narrow set of rules designed to consistently facilitate the telling specific types of stories.
  • The genre of story games encompasses all roleplaying games, parlour games, and any pastime where a narrative is constructed.
  • It's a bunch of people writing sad things on index cards
  • A story game is a set of rules designed for optimal protagonism among its active characters.
  • A story game is specifically designed as a three way dialogue (should that be trialogue) between the GM, the players and the rules. It must be open enough for all members to understand how play is unfolding (as opposed to “traditional” gaming where the GM is expected to conceal things behind a screen (or in their head).
  • A story game is the polar opposite to the OSR (whatever that means).
  • A story game is a minimalist game where a majority of the rules of play are actually defined by unwritten social contracts between the players, rather than text on a page.

I guess this means that numerous people have their own interpretations of the term, and if I say that I’m going to make a “Story Game” interpretation of Mage: the Ascension, then I just have to define my own interpretation of the terminology first.

Like a shotgun firing buckshot, each definition of story games ends up in a general vicinity that is similar, but each instance is slightly different to the others. It could be feasible to pick a single definition, it could be possible to average out all of the answers to develop an idea that they might all be aspiring toward, or you could take the whole range of results and try to please everyone. I have a vague idea of what I think a “story game” is, and it fits somewhere in amongst these responses. If I provide this as a specific intention then it shows where I’m aiming with the project. I’ll use some of those other definitions to triangulate the trajectory and make sure I’m generally on the same page as other people when they refer to “story games”.

I believe a few people started developing the concept of “story games” as a backlash against the railroaded games common in traditional tabletop roleplaying. They wanted games where the players had stronger agency, and where the story would unfold through deliberate decisions from everyone participating. As Ian Borchardt responded to an earlier post, a lot of these early attempts at story games did this by hamstringing the GM…it’s still a common tactic in those games that are “powered by the Apocalypse”. I think there’s something a bit counter-intuitive here, I’m not sure if you can open potential by adding restrictions. I’ve heard this idea of restriction used as a tool in creative writing exercises, to focus thoughts that might be prone to wandering…but a lot of the supposed aim of story games is to allow the wandering, to see where the journey might lead.

I like the idea of sandbox play. No specific stories, just a reactive world to be explored. Such a world has things happening, with fragmentary ideas that aren’t fleshed out but instead gain coherence as player characters interact with them. Sandbox play means that a developed world is provided in wide brushstrokes rather than fine details, if a specific element of the world doesn’t become a source of story interaction then the GM hasn’t wasted time detailing it. Parts of the world (locations, NPCs, mysterious events) only gain focus and clarity as long as the story lingers there.

I also like the idea of quickly developing characters as intersections of stereotypes. This is what FUBAR is all about. Pick four stereotypes, one for the character’s occupation, one for their cultural upbringing and connections, one for their reputation, and one for a quirky edge. The starting character exists somewhere near the point where these stereotypes converge, then through the course of play we learn more about the character, gradually pinpointing them somewhere along the course of their journey through the story, developing backstory as it becomes necessary. This is pretty similar to the sandbox theory, but it focuses on the individual rather than the world. It means a player can get into the action through their character fairly quickly without needing to spend an hour or more working out every last point to spend and how various elements of the character might share positive synergies or negative feedback loops. If it’s not important to the character, it doesn’t become a focus…simple as that.

As it stands, the magic system in Mage: the Ascension is one of the most dynamic I’ve seen in any game, while providing a level of structure the bounds the scope of what can actually be accomplished. Instead of specific discrete spells, it provides sweeping realms (spheres) of magic, allows them to overlap and allows a mage to identify specific effects within the context of the story which might be useful at a given time (and might be useful enough to repeat as rotes, or might never be used again). It fits my idea of a story game as one where the bits that don’t need focus are left vague, but when they do get some attention there is enough structure in the rules to handle it.

That basically leads me back to the things I’d change about Mage (and the whole Storyteller System) to make it a better vehicle for this style of play.
  • We need a rapid way to set up an environment for play that facilitates exploration and a variety of story types that might develop over the course of a campaign (action, combat, investigation, intrigue, politics, metaphysical horror)
  • We need a rapid way to set up characters that fit with the existing power levels and types seen through the Mage sourcebooks (or other games if this works).

(Where these two are developed with the intention of starting play as soon as possible)

  • We need a modified play system that puts more choices in the hands of the players, and removes a chunk of the arbitrary randomness. I was starting to work my way through that when I first attempted this project. I’m aiming for a system where a character can be heroic, succeeding in common tasks more often than not, but such success might come with unexpected collateral damage or new complications. It doesn’t need gritty realism, and should be easily interpreted back into any unfolding story.   
  • We don’t really need a brand new setting. The World of Darkness is basically our own world with a supernatural element lingering in the shadows. The setting is one of the things I enjoy about the game as well, it helps new players quickly get into the action because they can fall back on their real world knowledge, or popular culture references, to fill in the gaps. The various magic using factions (traditions, conventions, and crafts) will need to be presented, but the question here is whether to create analogues with the serial numbers filed off, or just flat out admit that this is a fan work designed to provide a new play experience.
  • Then we need to consider where the game was originally heading, like I mentioned in my previous posts, to ensure we're heading the same way.  

More work to come...
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