Sunday, August 4, 2013

Which Comes First: Game or Story?

Yeah, it may be a weird question, but with some of the recently released high profile RPGs (Monsters & Magic, FATE Core, Numenera) there are many an OSR gamer that will be looking under the hood of other game systems with different assumptions than "classic" play.

What do I mean? Generally, in an OSR game, the two general assumptions are "let the dice roll what they will" and "Rule Zero" - the DM will make decisions for situations that aren't explicitly spelled out by the rules.

Basically, the dice rule and the DM rules and the game proceeds, often in unexpected directions, and randomness can be an awesome thing. The game leads to the story.

My general gut feeling (and it is very general) is that the recent releases listed above put the story before the game. Even Numenera has aspects that, upon a quick perusal, remind me of what is generally referred to as "storytelling games".

Eh, I'm getting crotchety in my old age. Change means new learning, and new learning aint as easy at 46 as it was at 16 or even 26.

Still, the new games are sure purty to look at ;)


  1. I think you are looking it the wrong way.
    Storytelling games and FATE are nothing new. I have always thought that part of the success of OSR was the disillusion with the second rate experience they give.
    Sorytelling games are based on identification with the characters, something every other story from movies, books,... does better.
    Roleplaying is based on immersion, something only RPGs can provide.
    And mostly, sorytelling games use dissociated mechanics, which destroys that immersion.
    So, I think that the hobby did go from roleplaying to storytelling and I hope that it is coming back to storytelling, after what has been the worst period in gaming history. Storytelling games are not the future, but, I hope the past of gaming.

  2. My impression of story-telling -- in this case -- is one of inflexibility. The "story" is written and you're simply taking the players from point A to point B.

    I've seen games like that and I don't care for them. My games have an objective, certainly, but I like them to allow for a lot of latitude in the execution.

    1. my perception (could very easily be wrong)

      classic RPGs - you have a goal, and many ways to get there, or find a new goal, or fail, or die trying

      storytelling RPGs - you go from point a to point b, with little chance of true failure or death. the story in between the two points is told by the players, with the GM guiding the rails and keeping them on the path

    2. Indeed, whilst there is no "classic" railroading, because the way the characters are going to succeed is left open, storytelling games use "storytelling railroading", meaning that the schema of the story is pre-ordained: no death (or only in pre-ordained specially meaningful situations), players must succeed, they must be on the verge of failure before that,....
      If you have read a few books about script writing or story theory (particularly the Hero's Journey), you can not be sure what exactly the GM is going to present you next, but you can be sure in what part of the story you are. Not much surprise.

    3. Erik, I love your blog, and I have had one foot in the OSR for a while now, but it seems like people really want to not like more story based games, on purpose.

      If they aren't your thing, I get it, but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with them, and some of the broad strokes I'm seeing painted are just off.

      Maybe it would help to look at Fate as filtered through the Dresden Files RPG, as an example. The GM may have an idea of the adventure he want's the PCs to go on, but part of the set up for the campaign is defining the big setting, various locations, and various NPCs.

      Often times when the PCs alter the story, by saying things like, "my cop friends show up," or "the White Council contact I have is looking into this," they are paying with a finite resource, in Fate points.

      You can argue disassociated mechanics all day long, but no human being has 98 hit points, and armor doesn't make you harder to hit. All things like Fate Points represent are all of those random variables that would be impossible to model in a simulationist situation and still have a viable game system. Boil them down to "Luck," and it's associated with something.

      Your players can still go off the rails. That why you detail the NPCs and locations that are important in the city.

      In Fate (since that's one of that started this discussion), if you lose a contest, the winner of the contest gets to determine how it resolves. So, for example, if the NPCs are trying to kill someone, and it makes sense that was their goal, if you lose the contest, that's what happens.

      The difference is, you can "concede" before you lose the fight, and you get to bargain with the GM about how your opponent doesn't quite get what they want. For example, if you concede, they might clock you a good one and think you are dead, but you aren't. But if you don't concede before they win, they still get to dictate terms.

      There isn't anything wrong or better about any one type of approach to roleplaying (well, there is if it doesn't play well at the table or do what it claims to do well, but that's a whole other issue). All it means is that everyone at the table needs to be on the same page. If you have players that want to be able to come up with stuff on the fly and invoke story elements, that's great, but if you don't, you should probably stick to more traditionally set up RPGs, and that's great too.

    4. I have many iterations of FATE. I really do want to grok it, never seem to.

      First was Spirit of the Century - loved the idea, couldn't grasp the system and wasn't actively gaming at the time.

      Dresden - there might be a great game within the pages of the two main books but I wouldn't know - the presentation was so cluttered and disorganized I gave up. Amazing to look at, horrible to actually read.

      Legends of Anglerre and Starblazer Adventures - just couldnt get through these.

      ICONS - almost became a supers game I would consider playing

      Now FATE Core - it's probably the old gamer in me, but aspects seem so alien to my gaming senses, that it truly feels like I'm trying to learn a new language. Then again, I have trouble grokking magic and powers in Savage Worlds...

    5. Jared, I don't think that you get what dissociated mechanics are really about. Whilst some are difficult to avoid, inserting them in a game as a base of the system only destroys the sense of immersion.
      But, in the end, it all comes down to a question of point of view. Roleplaying games are played from the character's point of view, hence the immersion. Storytelling games are played from the player (part spectator, part scenarist) point of view, hence the (at best) identification.
      But frankly, how many times can your character be left for dead or escape from his captors before you throw up your hands in disgust? Those are just scenarist cheap tricks. It makes you wince when you see them in use in a movie. Knowing that they shall happen in the game really cheapens the experience of gaming. Roleplaying games are alternate lives that you can experience (with the risks of death, maiming or failure associated with this kind of lives), storytelling games turns the experience into a badly scripted serial.

    6. I didn't understand the Dresden Files RPG until I read Fate Core, so I have to agree about the organization. I wanted to know how to play the game, and I get thrown into city building, which is great, but that section keeps referring to all of the other parts of the game before I know what they are or how they work.

      Marvel Heroic is another game that people lump into the story game category, and I love it now, and I think the system is brilliant, but as presented in the Basic Game . . . kind of hard to wrap your head around.

    7. Bhoritz, we are going to have to agree to disagree on this. I understand what disassociated mechanics are suppose to be, but I'd posit that Armor Class and Hit Points are, indeed, disassociated, yet fully accepted as OK in "real" RPGs.

      If the character in the game world understands armor to reduce physical harm from a blow, and mechanically armor reduces damage by, say, 4 points, then armor isn't a disassociative mechanic. However, that's not what the rules do with armor in D&D and it's children systems.

      When you attempt to explain what actually happened with a given attack, using the rules as written, you have the same kind of verbal tap dancing going on that you have with any other disassociative mechanic. In other words, you can't really say that the skillful dark elf assassin's blade missed the big plate armored fighter, even though it missed by game mechanics.

      You have to say that the elf just happened to hit at just the wrong time and the character turned a thickened armor plate towards the elf that absorbed the entire impact of the blow.

      Hit points are even worse. If you read Gygax's explanation of them, especially as it applies to player characters, when you have 60 hit points, and you take 40 points of damage from a fireball, you actually probably didn't take any damage at all. You just used up some of your natural combat prowess and the goodwill of the gods, at least until you get down to your last couple of hit dice worth of hit points.

      I'm not arguing against either of these mechanics, just pointing out that they are just as disassociated as any other mechanic in the game.

      Disassociated mechanics, as a term, hasn't existed very long. I think it's a useful term, if it could be divorced from being seen as good or bad. I'd argue that one of the reasons it was trotted out against 4th edition wasn't because of true disassociated mechanics, per se, but because of mechanics that were sort of half-associated/half-disassociated, which made it harder to wrap your brain around if your character was doing something, or if you were doing something as a player.

      For example, skill challenges, in and of themselves, are kind of an "in world" thing. Some tasks would require multiple skill checks from multiple people. But the rote manner in which they were often presented screamed that they had to be done in a precise mechanical fashion that often made them feel very much like an add on dice rolling game instead of something the players were doing.

    8. I don't think that you are understanding what I mean.

      Yes it is not possible to really live in an alternate world because that would mean wielding metal sword at peoples and hurling fireballs. Some of those activities are simply impossible, and there are generally laws against the others.

      So, we have to turn to simulation.

      The mechanics we use are not disassociated in themselves. As long as they are used from the character's point of view and as long as they have a sense in the game world, they are not disassociated. And finding some disassociated mechanics in a game does not exonerate Storytelling rules of using them by the truckload, as a base of their system.
      Finding a splinter in the roleplaying games eye does not make the log in the storytelling games eye disappear, though it is the usual reaction.

      Sure, it is not possible to completely eradicate disassociated mechanics (character creation being a good example), but they should be limited as much as possible, and kept to mechanisms that don't affect the point of view during the adventure (mostly character creation, experience,...). They should not be added by the dozen when avoidable..

      The real litmus test for a rule to be disassociated is not about mechanics, presentation, effects, realism, whatever. It is a very simple one: if I take a decision, is it a decision that my character could take, within the game world? If it is not, it is then a scenarist decision and I am not roleplaying, but metagaming.

      And by the way, hit points, armor values,... are not about decisions or roleplaying, they are just mechanisms to simulate the game world physics.
      The dark elve tried to wound or kill and did not register a meaningful blow because of the armor.
      And if he had registered a wounding blow, it would have been taken from the HPs representing the resistance of the character to blows. Which is fantasy, yes, but makes sense in a fantasy world (remember Conan who shrugged off blows that would have killed a lesser man?).
      No disassociation here. Just simulation mechanisms, making sense in the game world and don't giving the player powers outside of the character's. The players decided in character and their decisions made an effect that made sense in the gaming world.

      The system just adjudicated the results. It is not the same with the conceding mechanism you mentioned, where the guy on the ground decides that those mean killers beating him suddenly decide to stop. Uuuhh! It only makes sense if he is the Puss in the Boots makink big innocents eyes... I am sorry, but it seems too much Monty Pythonesque to me.

      The main point of my argument is "point of view". Because putting you in the point of view of a character is something that only Roleplaying can do. Everything else: story, storytelling, setting,.. can be done (and better) with other creative medias. But living an alternate life from the point of view of a character, that can only be done with roleplaying.

  3. In classical RPG the story follows play. The storyteller game presented as a rigid plot is getting it wrong, the goal of play in a storyteller game should be the collaborative telling and discovery of a story not everyone playing a script.

  4. The comparison I like to make involves the computer game, Baldur's Gate II. I prefer it to Never Winter Nights. Baldur's Gate II offers dozens of side treks, each of them different, depending on the Class of character you're playing.

    Never Winter Nights offers no such thing, it's straight "point A to point B," nothing in between.

    It may be that "point A to Point B" isn't what was meant by the game's designer, but that's how it comes across to me. That's how I interpret "story" in a gaming sense.

    I like it when the players get side tracked. They are on their way to "Dragon Mountain" on their mission for the King/Temple et al, but, along the way, they enter a village where two young girls were just taken by hobgoblins . . . now you're off and running!

  5. What Mr. Jarvis said. At my table, the stories come from the game.

    I never know any any particular session is going to end, and I'm always pleasantly surprised.

  6. That's the thing. In a "traditional" roleplaying game, the game consists of events and decisions: the game system and the Referee provide events, the players make decisions about those events, and those decisions result in more events, and so on. If there is any story, it can be told about those events and decisions in retrospect, but the story is not inherent to them.

    A "pure" storygame, on the other hand, is like a writers' workshop exercise. There are guidelines and loose rules intended to foster creative activity on the part of the authors. The rules exist mainly to indicate which of the player-authors is allowed to write the next event in the story. Obviously, there is a continuum between the two, so that games that fall more on the "story" end of the spectrum tend to include mechanics that reinforce the authorial stance of the players, as opposed to the immersive stance of "traditional" roleplaying games.

    Stepping in on a discussion above, this is why mechanics like "hit points" and "armor class", though they do not directly simulate aspects that we would consider to be part of the real world, are not dissociated. Even though they are abstracted, they still represent things in the actual game world. On the other hand, a rule that allows the player to specify elements of the game world that the character would not have control over (for instance, a "story point" that allows the player to dictate that, say, a horse trading business exists in the game city, so that the Referee's design of the city is subject to the expenditure of these story points) is a rule that is dissociated. The character has no control over whether or not there is a horse trader in the game city, but the player is given that control through the dissociated mechanic.


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