The real problem with story games isn’t that the game has a story. It’s not that a system has too much crunch or too little. Some people think that the solution to a story game is more crunch because they think that the problem is that the story game just doesn’t have the robust mechanics necessary for a gritty adventure. Except it’s almost never the mechanics that leave story games hamstrung but the attempt to use a game to tell a story rather than allow a story to emerge from game-play.
Games and gaming, and especially tabletop rpgs, are about player agency. It’s an interactive medium where the player’s actions and decisions have outcomes and affect the environment, setting, and conclusion. The problem with so many story games I’ve played is that players are denied agency, or at best given the illusion of agency, in the name of ensuring that the story is told.
So many story games I’ve played in, regardless of the system (yes, I’ve been in a B/X story game with next to no player agency), have failed at the “game” portion of story gaming. Instead, what players tend to get are story nodes with false challenges that amount to “roll high enough that you will be allowed to move to the next story node”. There’s not much actually determining what story node you’re going to next, nor is there any real penalty for failing to roll high enough other than delaying the inevitable progression towards the final story node.
No matter what, eventually, the rails are spotted, the lack of agency becomes apparent, and I can’t help but lose all interest in what’s happening.
In a recent game, there was a series of the aforementioned challenges. They were just window-dressing, though: cool things to ooh and aah at that had no real bearing on the outcome of the scenario. Yes, we might scrape a knee from failing a saving throw or two, but even failing every last challenge miserably would only ever result in insignificant damage to characters in such a way as to only delay, somewhat, the inevitable victorious conclusion of the story.
Imagine playing a racing video game: imagine blasting through an obstacle course at over 100 mph, narrowly avoiding all sorts of perils. You think you’re doing great, but then you slip – you run into a wall. Except you don’t. Your car bounces off and continues on, unaffected by your blunder. You begin to ask yourself, was I really doing well before? You begin to try to ram your car into walls, barrels, pylons, tank-traps, you name it, but so long as you’re holding the “go” button down, you keep on going, and the computer keeps the other racers just slow enough that none of them are able to overtake you despite your intentional mistakes. I can’t fathom anyone finding that to be a rewarding experience!
Now, I’ve also been in story games where the party did “lose”, but there, one had an incredibly drawn-out and ponderous route to reach the one point of the game where player action did matter, and it would all come down to one big fight, more or less regardless of how the players got there. And frankly, that’s not all that fun for me either.
Let players actually do things. Let them mess up and lose. Let them sequence break. Don’t make a game a series of rolls to see if you can tell your players the next detail you want to tell them. And if there’s an island that is obviously the important place everyone is supposed to go to and 5 minutes in a player says “Let’s find a canoe and go out to the island”, there’s no point in dithering around for two hours waiting for the “story” to reveal that you’re supposed to get a canoe and take it out to the island!