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Some Discussion of ‘Story Games’ and the axes of RPG design

Posted this in thread in very long RPG net thread, It codifies a lot of my thinking on my game design. Where do we draw the line for Story Games

Reposting here…

Quote Originally Posted by TheRoleplayer
I see many people claiming they’re not into story games and, while I believe I grasp its basic meaning, sometimes I feel there is some kind of code (or a set of) that clearly distinguishes a game as being story-oriented.

What are the typical characteristics of a story game? What should one hope to find (and not) in one?

I’m just curious, really, no controversy intended. Also, I’d like to know what to call what lies at the other side of that line…

Well, since this thread is TL:DR I will instead present my own lengthy TL:DR answer.

A lot of the problem with the story-game/traditional game divide is that they conflate what are essentially orthogonal elements of a game continuum. Also, there is a lot of divisive bad rong fun ‘haters gonna hate’ that grew up around their development (I know, I was there.!)


So The major divides are in the terms of the authorial power divide, imo, specifically the traditional GM/Player divide versus variations of player ‘authorial’ control over the game. These vary from simple ‘Hero point’ spends that let players mitigate how the rules mechanics affect their character in-game, to story-hooks ala disadvantages/complications all the way to the power to frame scenes, introduce characters, and narrate the actions of other characters, and of course, roll the dice and and suck it up. The subdivision and assumption of these roles is quite varied, as evidenced in the presence of GM-ful/Gmless games such as Mythic.

That’s another subset of the divide, how tightly coupled the individual players are to the character’s. Traditionally, the majority of the players engage in the game tightly coupled to a single character, and interact with the emerging story/game environment solely as that character, while everyone and everything else is relegated to a player acting in the ‘game master’ role. However, this tight coupling was changed up in a number of games, specifically way back to Ars Magica with it’s use of Troupe-play, and each player having multiple characters, i.e loosely coupled., a single mage, companions and shared characters such as grogs, etc. This is an element of meta-game stance and narrative control, but one that is fixed at the most fundamental assumptions.

In the instance of another fundamental assumption of RPGs is the way the players can interact with the world and ‘frame’ the story-arcs & grand narratives of play. Traditionally, there was an assumption of ‘sand-box’ play. The idea that the game world was an independent, persistent entity that the characters interacted with in a piecemeal way. This sandbox was traditionally curated, designed and controlled by the GM.

A lot of this curation/design and setting tinkering was traditionally reserved to the game master, he had the burden of preparation and curation of the game-world, but he also had access to the mini-games and setting exploration and creation of the design systems in the game, either explicit, such as world generation, vehicle design in traveller, animal/monster design, and of course NPC creation, or implicit such as GMIng advice in D&D.

Troupe style games such as ars-magic extended this tinkering and design to the entire gaming group, via covenant creation, as well as in Pendragon, with it’s season play, and house/dynasty play. With extreme expressions in games such as Aria, or more modern designs such as Other Worlds, Mystic Empyrean Burning Empires and at the extreme games such as Universalis.

On the other side, there was the idea that the setting only existed to beyond the boundaries of the story. Nobody was too-concerned what was off-stage, even if ‘an exit on one stage is an entrance on another’. This was explored through the application of various narrative devices and story-telling assumptions ala Egri, and sayings such as ‘If there is a gun shown above the mantle in Act I, it better be used in ACT III’ or whatever.

So this fundamental divide in role assumption and authorial control and interaction with the play environment is one of the major continuums of design exploration in RPG design.


This where a lot of the conflation and negative connotations come from on the ‘story games’ divide, imo. This was born more of tradition as well, older games featured fixed GM/player authorial divide, and rules-heavy naturalistic/simulationist mechanics, possibly with a ‘gamist’ goal, depending on the focus of play. There is a maxim that simply having rules for a thing automatically makes that a focus of play, e.g. the tradition of combat rules in RPGs.

So, back to history and acrimony. It occured that most games with traditional GM/Player authorial divide also featured rules-heavy naturalistic/simulationist mechanics. There was a lot of variation in terms of rules wieght continuum. How detailed and granular the rules system was. The more important continuum and the source of much division was in how characters were portrayed within the game system, there is the traditional simulationist focus, of characters as having attributes and skills, and finely detailed naturalistic abilities which interacted through detailed systems, of varying density and mechanical weight however. At the other end of the continuum character’s were described in terms of motivations or attitudes and relationships, and these were assigned mechanical weight, in a more free-form way.

Though they often both used a basic task resolution idea, the scope and detail of what was being resolved, what character ‘action’s’ where being resolved varied greatly. So on the one hand you had sharply focused action resolution based on simulationist criteria (how fast is your character, how heavy & accurate is his weapon, how skilled is his opponent) etc., while at the other end you had broad ‘conflict’ resolution that was resolved based on the strength of the character’s attitudes and motivations, and often what resources and consequences he was willing to suffer to see his intention resolved. This was often coupled with narratie concerns, although you character wanted to accomplish his ends without dying or suffering much, the player was willing to have the character suffer because it made a better story.


That’s what I see as a major divide between ‘story games’ and traditional Role Playing Games, however these two elements are actually somewhat independent, and only had their typical divide, GM/Player divide with tightly coupled play and sand-box exploration via detailed simulationist mechanics, and Semi-shared authorial divide with free-formish, rules light ‘story now’ mechanics.

So the truth is there is not a single line, but a 3 dimensional space with traditional pairings and lot of divisive historical development/championing of various bad rong fun proponents.

My game in development for instance, features high level shared authorial power, grand story-telling control, shared curation and design of the game space, tied to a rules heavy detailed simulations system. Bad rong fun from Bizarro world!

1 thought on “Some Discussion of ‘Story Games’ and the axes of RPG design”

  1. Pingback: Story and Game « The Rhetorical Gamer

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