There is a huge distinction between a storytelling game and a game that tells a story. Storytelling games are about players developing the ups and downs of characters and worlds as the tale goes forward. Games presenting a story give you dramatic tension as the mechanics unfold and play off of your machinations of victory. The difference is upon whom the onus of challenge lays: the players or the game. Do the characters have problems because of the game or because players want them to have such problems? Grave Error, our in-development, spooky, hidden-movement game, tries to blend in the players’ storytelling creativity with concrete mechanics and traditional board game components. In this blog, we will explore the in-game systems straddling this line and discuss how we arrived at the current iterations.
I’ve been running a lot of one-off Catalyst sessions as part of the Cascadia Militia. A once-a-week game means lots of different little plots and ideas need to spawn. With a strong possibility of the same people playing each week, I can’t reuse something unless it’s a deliberate callback. Crafting unique adventures isn’t the only challenge: without having much knowledge of my players, I can’t go into the session knowing what they like or dislike. Rather than making a ton of content beforehand and planning for every contingency, I wing it. I make up the entire three-hour session with barely an ounce of preparation. I strongly believe every game master should not only be able to do that, but regularly practice such a style. Being in the game master’s authoritative position, but yielding the direction to players, lets players explore the parts of a story they care about.
First, I should make one concession: not preparing the story is different from not knowing the system. New GMs should structure their campaigns, which forces them to learn the game mechanics as they build their story framework. The ability to design sessions on the fly requires enough game knowledge to keep play flowing. Be able to create enemies, balance checks, and provide interesting equipment, loot, or other rewards without significantly delaying the game. Once this stuff is second nature, you’re ready to let the players drive the story’s details.
When you start winging it, ask questions. If you’re in the middle of a plot line or overarching story, ask the group what they, as characters, are concerned about. Make that concern real (or, at least, a possible threat). A group that is worried about demon retaliation for last session’s raids is in the perfect mindset for that thread. Keep asking questions and listen intently. Don’t let anything fun slip away. In that example, if the players mentioned they left evidence of their personal involvement behind, send demon assassins after them. If they are worried about large armies, focus on building defenses or getting reinforcements. The players’ actions take on real meaning when their fears are voiced and acted upon. If, instead, you told them what to fear, the players’ investment drops: there’s a disconnect between your perception of the world and theirs.
Starting down the path the players make can be daunting. Again, your best option is to follow their lead. Utilize Socratic questioning to figure out what they expect. You can either play into their expectations or subvert them. Try to find a good pacing and balance in doing so. Encourage them to ask questions as well. Answer them with emotional honesty towards the world and characters. Everything should fit together in a logical fashion, but that doesn’t mean you have to understand the whole world at the beginning. If every question you have answered works with what’s already established, the next answer will also work. Answering off the cuff also creates unexpected tangents which would have never been explored otherwise. Eventually, the story tells itself. Everyone still discovers fun things about the world, but nothing is jarring.
So far, the players have led us to the interesting parts of the story through broad discussions and questions. Take their input one step further by having them describe details in the world. The sillier, but still fun, way to do this is asking for character names, places, or other small details. If the players say their pilot’s name is Lucky Ted, great. That character can now become relevant in the story because the player who suggested that remembers their contribution. They’ll be inclined to work Lucky Ted back into the plot when assistance is needed or to make a callback next session. Best of all, you as the GM can see the minutiae players attach themselves to and expand it. Lucky Ted clearly has a strong personality, aesthetic style, and reputation, even if the player who suggested that name doesn’t know it. When the players see Ted’s sombrero peaking over the horizon providing the deus ex machina they needed, they’ll go nuts. That moment would be lost if you had glazed over that trivial detail or had lost the impact if you had created your personal insert character.
Taking this player design one step further, let the group describe whole scenes or situations. Your job is still to design the enemies and mechanical details, but let them explore the world. Have the group describe the state of small towns between military outposts. Have them expand on how a disease affects people. “Yes, and” whatever they say. “Yes, there are no cars in town and that’s because the first demon sightings were nearby.” “Yes, and because the plague had a long incubation period, quarantine zones were ineffective.” With these details unearthed, players can really get into the world and speak as their characters.
This same methodology works for setting up areas to explore or battle in. Have them, as a group, draw aerial photos or explain what they expect to see in a demon base. They’ll play off each other and create a fleshed-out scene. Try to minimize the ideas you veto, instead working to have the opposition use them too. A mounted machine gun turret is great, until the enemy sentiency mage brings it to life and directs it against the players. Details you add in narration are likely to get ignored; details players add will be remembered.
I spend a lot of this blog describing role-playing games as “cooperative storytelling”. Too many GMs treat their role as requiring absolute control over the world. With a new group and a great idea, that might be a decent game. But you’ll have to plan accordingly. If you want to relax, trust your players. Ask them about their characters, their fears, their ideas, and the conceptions about the world. Use your invisible hand to guide them through their own plot lines. Let the story develop between everyone and be amazed at the depth you create.
At Emerald City Comicon, I was running games of Catalyst next to some story games. I typically use the terms “role-playing game” and “story game” interchangeably, but the Games on Demand crew see distinctions. To them, story games are single-session games with few rules and have the narrative constructed equally by each player (meaning game masters are either passive or non-existent). The implication here being role-playing games are GM-controlled, sprawling storylines with massive, archaic tomes defining every minute detail of play. To me, there are not two genres here, but rather a spectrum on which games focused on storytelling fall. Games tend towards particular points on this spectrum, but I will posit the group playing defines this placement more than the game itself. Moreover, in understanding the relationship between player, story, and mechanic, any player can tell a better story.
Mechanics drive gameplay which creates the story, but the players’ understanding of the mechanics from their story’s perspective dictates their application and overall effect. This is a cyclic relationship, but one ultimately driven by the players and the experience they want to have. The ubiquity of house rules is evidence of players’ impact on game systems. If mechanics controlled players, house rules would be rare and met with disdain. More to the point, house rules are a clearer manifestation of an inherent process in tabletop games: a game cannot concretely define its intent or actual play; players read rules and play based on their personal understanding of those rules. Like any media, a tabletop game is not complete without an audience. Uniquely though, a tabletop game can be interacted with differently between groups. A video game constricts your mechanical interpretation through code limitations. A book has to be read with the words in a particular order to be understood. A tabletop game does not stop you for playing it in a way the author did not intend. This rule flexibility is the most powerful aspect of a role-playing game. This is what groups latch onto to create their gaming experiences.
This flexibility in rule interpretation and enforcement directs games to a particular point on the number-driven-RPG-versus-purist-storytelling spectrum. Games with fewer mechanics defining play fill those gaps with player freedom and story-driven decisions. Games with more rules establish the outcomes of more scenarios, giving everyone less input into what immediately happens. In both Monsterhearts and Catalyst, turning invisible is a concept. Monsterhearts would define that as a condition that could be exploited given a verbal justification. Catalyst defines the effects on combat and stealth with established numbers. Both of these inform gameplay: the former leaves us with what we understand about invisibility, while the latter points out advantages in particular scenarios.
What does this information do to the story? An ambiguous mechanic presents an opportunity for creativity, but does not provide a verdict for disagreements. In the Monsterhearts example, two players may argue about being able to hear the invisible creature’s approach. There’s no mechanic in the game for such perception, so the group must resolve the outcome through discussion. This process can either be extremely rewarding and fun or tedious and annoying. Either way, play is primarily informed by the players.
A defined mechanic, like the numerical changes for invisibility in Catalyst, confines the interpretations of the concept. Hearing the invisible enemy attack is determined by that creature’s stealth check versus the modified perception of the detector. There is flexibility in the narrative to make this less absolute, but, with complete knowledge, the outcome is set (or pending a dice roll). Player discussion for an alternate resolution differs from the previous example: it’s no longer about inventing reality, but clarifying it. Player arguments shift from questions about the universe to specifics about the scene (e.g. “Werewolves have super smell” versus “Shouldn’t I have heard the demon come through the window?”) While players’ individual freedom to determine the scene’s outcome is limited, so is the ambiguity. Questioning the rules becomes an adversarial action instead of a necessary one. It would then seem play becomes more informed by the mechanics instead of the players.
With this invisibility example, it appears rules limit freedom. They certainly curtail what you’d call positive liberty: the freedom to take actions. However, they provide players negative liberty: the freedom from interference. No amount of discussion in Catalyst makes the bonuses and penalties for invisibility go away. Those effects are guaranteed to exist regardless of another player’s input. Damage mechanics in Catalyst protect players (and NPCs) from instant death in all but the most extreme circumstances. These restrictions inform play by establishing boundaries and checkpoints in the universe. Players can act more intelligently with emotional honesty to themselves, each other, and the world.
As a corollary to rules informing play, players often rely on defined mechanics to explore the game. Experienced story gamers may come up with clever character traits or unique solutions in the absence of mechanical systems, but new players will be lost in a purely free system. Giving them powers, spells, abilities, backgrounds, or other in-game tools with clear effects lets new players understand their place in the world and the impact they can have upon it. Mechanics let players branch out from their baseline behavior in unintuitive, but fun ways.
For one more example, let’s look at the Fabricate spell of Catalyst. This spell lets a character change a target’s memory, but only one memory and only a specified duration of the thought’s action (e.g.: rewriting five seconds of a guard’s memory so they didn’t see you). Endowing a character with the broad power of mental control may have been better for more creative players; they could think of powers the Catalyst manual does not include. However, most players would probably default to a standard mind-control pattern, a la Star Wars. That might get stale after a while. Worse though, without concrete limitations, players (and maybe GMs) tend towards excess. Boxing yourself in with limitations is a difficult exercise in willpower: your instinct is to be the strongest, most powerful character. By limiting the spell’s effects to a few seconds, we get some wonderful moments of people fitting absurdist memories into their enemies. The rule forces people to tell better stories.
Of course, an excess of rules restrict play. The blend of openness and mechanical limitations that’s right for your group is a hard balance to find. Luckily, any game can be tweaked to your group. Despite the name, rules are really suggestions in an RPG. It’s all self-enforced, so if you find a rule ruining the story, ignore it. The more seasoned your group becomes, the more flexible you can be with rules. Does using strict movement rules create tension and let players strategize or is it better for the experience to be ambiguous, letting the story determine what should happen. Do you need to clearly define what getting hit by a car does to a vampire before the game can progress or can that be dealt with quickly and in the moment? There’s no right answer, which is why games are spread across this story-driven versus mechanics-driven spectrum.
Next session, keep in mind what mechanics and rules do. Pay attention to the changes to the story done by players making something up from scratch or by using their predefined skillsets. Note how many times there are ambiguities in the world unsolved by the game and what effect that has on play. Analyze the GM’s hand-waving over mechanics or their precise application of numbers. With practice, you should understand when a rule helps or hinders everyone’s experience and navigate the game’s system accordingly. It’s your story to tell: be inspired by the game and driven by your desires.