The Real Problem With Story Games

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!

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20 responses to “The Real Problem With Story Games

  1. The best “story” games I’ve played are the ones where the players come up with the stories and motivations for each of their characters, and the campaign plays out accordingly. The Game Master might have an idea for the “campaign arc” (obstacles, villains, etc.), but the Player-Characters drive the campaign forward.

    On the other hand, some of the terrible “story” games I’ve played are where the players have too much agency. Nobody can figure out what to do, nobody wants to take the lead, and the GM has trouble moving things a long.

    Yet the absolute WORST story games I’ve played are like what you described above: the GM is too heavy-handed with the story, and no matter what the PCs do, the outcome is decided. I’ve been guilty of this in my early days as a GM. Some of the D&D adventures from the late 1e and 2e eras are like this (Dragonlance being #1), as is most forms of organized play.

    • Even from people I’ve heard from online who adore Pathfinder pretty much feel this way about Pathfinder Society adventures to some extent, even if it’s that they don’t have the freedom to play as their preferred pandrogenous cat-dragon bard ranger class.

  2. In my opinion being a good GM is an improvisational artform. It’s like the kind of improv where the comedian takes suggestions from the audience and uses it as a springboard for a routine.

    I never plotted out adventures when I ran games. (Of course, I don’t plot when I write, either.) Instead I would come up with a setting and a number of “bits” that I wanted to use (NPCs, monsters, traps, what-have-you.) Then I would pull them out and toss them at the players when I saw an opportunity.

    A scripted adventure might say that the bartender at a particular inn has a map to a haunted ruin, and someone following that adventure would wait for the characters to wander all over the town until they got to that inn. I would throw the map in at the first place they went–if they talked to the blacksmith, the blacksmith would have the map.

    And if they decided that a haunted ruin didn’t sound like someplace they wanted to visit, then I’d have something else in mind for them to do. Or if they just felt like staying in town, I’d have something attack the town.

    The ideal situation–again, my opinion–is for the players to feel like no matter what they do, they are bound to run into something interesting, rather than trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing.

    I’ve played in far too many games where we spent hours trying to find the one person in the town who had the right bit of information–or worse yet, the four or five people who each had one bit of information that had to be collated in order to find out what to do next.

    • Yeah, I know what you mean, and my own GMing has moved in a similar direction.

      I always hate games where everything seems to hinge on figuring out what is the exact right question with the exact right phrasing that you need to as the GM to make his story advance.

  3. Rails are a good analogy. I also like to use the term Holodeck: if I’m playing the game and I can suddenly see what direction the DM obviously doesn’t want me to go, I imagine the hologram breaking down, revealing the grey walls and bright yellow grid.

    We just had a campaign prematurely end because the DM (we all take turns) couldn’t quit putting us on rails.

    We tried to cause an avalanche to take out an enemy company (but the DM wanted them to escape and survive: he didn’t make a single roll. Just said it didn’t work.

    We set a trap for an enemy and had it dead to rights but the DM needed it to escape, so it did. No rolls made or allowed.

    Just a couple of examples. It was soul sucking. The opposite of fun.

    • An example I like to use is a Superhero game (homebrewed system) that I played in many years ago. The GM had a villain that was the God of the Locusts–a kanji-sized insect monster with supernatural powers.

      The adventure took place in a small town in Kansas that had a plant that made Freon and the GM had it set up for us to blow up the Freon plant and freeze the Insect God.

      The only problem is that the players knew refrigeration technology better than the GM, and the “solution” that he wanted never occurred to us, because it wouldn’t have worked in the real world. Instead of leading the villain towards the plant, we led him away from it because we didn’t want to risk a toxic chemical spill in the middle of all that cropland.

      We ended up beating it, mostly by pinning it down with farm equipment and then sawing off its limbs one by one. But after the game the GM asks, “Why didn’t you do the obvious thing?”

      Because it wasn’t the obvious thing. It was a stupid idea that wouldn’t have worked. That’s why.

      • In the Doctor Who game I was just in, there was a crazy guy who was worshiping a piece of WW2 era heavy ordinance that was possessed by an alien intelligence that wanted us to bring it someplace for some malicious purpose. I wanted to just shoot the guy, but shooting the guy is literally against the rules in the game. He also had the canoe; I asked for the canoe and was told no; I stole the canoe, and when caught I pulled my gun on him – he was letting me take the canoe. Some 20 minutes of dicking around later, it was retconned that I had not stole the canoe, had not been 20 minutes into dragging it towards the lake, and had not pulled a gun on the guy, because, “oh, hey, you just had to ask for it” because “nobody rolled” to ask the guy if we could take his canoe.

        There was also a sea-plane some-ways down the coast, but even the Doctor couldn’t roll high enough to take it, so we were obviously supposed to take the canoe – the thing I said we needed to do the second our Tardis disappeared.

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  5. When you say “story-games” can you list some of the games you are talking about?

    People toss the term about in so many loose ways that without specifics I don’t know exactly which rules and mechanics and play style you are talking about. (Like many labels, the label is in fact useless. Some sort of specifics are required to know what the writer means.)

    Thanks!

    • Games in which driving the narrative forward takes precedent over actual gameplay, where gameplay only serves as a mechanism to impede or impel the advancement of the narrative, and where, when gameplay would in some way interfere catastrophically with the narrative, it is disregarded completely.

      It’s not so much a system as it is an approach, though certain systems encourage such an approach. I’ve played in very railsy Basic D&D story games, and I’ve played in open-ended hack & slash White Wolf games. The Doctor Who game I suffered through a couple weeks ago was a more egregious example (exacerbated by the fact it was an extra railsy published module someone was running).

      When I talk about Story-games, I refer to an approach where one person’s story (typically the GM’s) is the overriding factor in play; the “game” is merely an excuse to tell that story.

  6. I’d normally call story games the ones where you roll and strategise for control of plot points. FATE, for example. When it’s the GMs story and you all just live in it, isn’t that just…. bad GMing? It can work occasionally, but only when the holodeck doesn’t break down… as long as the illusion of choice remains.
    Vampire the Masquerade and related games are notorious for the kind of bad story game you describe.

    • I’ve not played FATE, but in another system I played you DID have nominal control of plot points by spending story points. Only for some of us, no amount of points spent was going to make the story better or different.

      • I don’t have enough experience to comment really, but I think the thing is people look at (what I call story games) and think “oh, they’re kinder and gentler”. But to make it work you need to be really brutal, otherwise there are no stakes. Part of that would need to be self-policing by the GM, coupled with actual improv skills, but emotionally, done right, done how it would need to be to be fun, a blood-soaked 1st ed crawl is actually easier.

        Drama has to hurt, wish fulfillment is boring, and everyone must be vulnerable.

        Just my theory.

      • Some of my thoughts on how story and game relate to one another just went live; you may find them of interest, at least to get an insight into my perspective on the matter.

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