Chocolate with Peanut Butter, or Peanut Butter with Chocolate?

So… after playing the Shab all-Hiri Roach tonight (which was fun and a really good time for all) and discussing Capes in broad terms over the last couple days on my blog with the players in my group, I’ve figured out a significant distinction between different types of games that I think avoids some misconceptions and frustration when introducing or even just discussing a new game with folks.
Of the games I’ve been playing in the last, say… two to three years (not counting d20), there are essentially two types:
1. Roleplaying games that have a ‘story, now’ focus in them (frex: Sorcerer, HeroQuest, The Shadow of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard). By that I mean, you have ‘your guy’, you play them, and story arises from the conflict and Crises of Choice with which they’re faced.
2. Storytelling games, perhaps somewhat descendants of, say, Once Upon a Time or the Baron Munchausen game, that focus on telling a Story, with roleplay as a secondary element, usually as a delivery method of said story. (My Life with Master, Shock:, Bacchanal, Shab al-Hiri Roach, Capes).
It’s not always clear-cut — InSpectres is *probably* in category 2, but it’s such a goofy romp thing — I dunno, it’s hard to say. Primetime Adventures I *think* is in category 1, but it explores the elements of Story so well, it’s again hard to say. I think that certainly there’s a WHOLE range of places a game can fall on a scale — maybe with… say… Capes on one end and super-crunchy Burning Wheel on the other.
And also, with more comfort with a game like the Roach, perhaps the system goes away and the game moves to more RP focus — that said, the Roach structure lends itself more to being aware of said structure… I mean, my perception of SaHR might change with familiarity, but… Capes? Capes isn’t going to. It’s *about* constructing a cool super-heroic story MUCH more than ‘playing your guy’, and I should add that it’s GOOD at that, I think, but it’s not the same thing as, say, Sorcerer.
At all.
Why does this matter?
Well… if I’m aware of that, and I analyze the game from that point of view when I’m first reading it and learning it, and then put that out there with people when I talk about it: “This is a story-telling game. We’ll be doing some roleplaying, but the focus is sort of narrator-level, Baron Munchauseny story-telling with some RP” — if that expectation is SET, you don’t get as much potential frustration from someone who was looking for the cathartic release that comes from killing something and taking its stuff.
I mean, when you’ve got a guy in your group (or you ARE the guy in your group) who wants to play a super-hero guy, beat up some bad guys, maybe make a couple tough moral choices, but essentially play his guy and let the story flow from that… Capes will piss him off. I’m not picking on Capes. Capes is a good game, but it will not be what he was in the mood for — what he wanted. It COULD be, on another day, or when expectations are clearly set ahead of time, but not if they aren’t.
It’s good to know what you’re gonna get, and it’s clear to me (now, finally) that it’s not enough to say it’s a ‘hippie indie/Forge rpg’. There are layers. Nuances. Out and out significant and important differences.

31 Replies to “Chocolate with Peanut Butter, or Peanut Butter with Chocolate?”

  1. For myself? I think I could enjoy anything from one end of the scale to the other, provided I know what I’m heading for, going in, and can get psyched for that kind of game.
    Which is a wuss-out answer. πŸ™‚
    When I look at all the different types of games I have, and consider which ones I’ve played and which ones I’ve haven’t; which ones I’ve ACTUALLY FINISHED READING versus which ones I’m still working through — those category 1 games are… I’m going to say ‘easier’ or a faster draw for me.
    Anyway. That’s why I called this category “Musing.”

  2. Hey, Doyce – I think your charactarisation is a pragmatically useful one, but the borderline between one camp and the other is sometimes a bit hard to distinguish. For example, I would place MLwM firmly in the roleplaying game category, rather than at the story game end of the spectrum.

  3. And I’m willing to concede that point entirely, Alexander; my off the cuff categorization is, in the case of MLwM, based only on reading, not playing, and pondering it at around midnight.
    Thinking about it, knowing that the ‘story-level’ stuff is just the calling for a scene… yeah, RPG. I remember the idea of framing scenes so blatantly really shocked me out of my rut when I first read it, and that’s why I tossed it into Category 2 off the cuff. Good thought.

  4. I have looked at Ron’s chart and… well, while I certainly can’t say I was forging ahead into undiscovered territory, it was really interesting to see pretty much exactly what I was talking about, just much better realized and articulated.
    Scary how many similarities there are, actually.

  5. I cross-posted this to Story-games as well, to see what folks had to say — there’s been some interesting comments there as well — and a more refined ‘spectrum chart’ on my part.
    Story-games version

  6. Haven’t looked at the chart yet — but I think you’ve nailed an important distinction, certainly one we’ve danced around a lot in discussions in the past few weeks.
    And, yes, it’s not a value judgment, but both a matter of taste and of expectations for a given evening or campaign.
    The whole role-playing vs. story-telling thing … still, it’s a little weird. I’m sitting here considering my tastes and desires, and it’s not like the distinction is that clear-cut. Maybe, instead, it’s character focus vs. story focus. Or maybe that’s splitting hairs.
    What falls out of the equation is that some RPG systems can allow either, depending on the group. Take D20 — well, now that I think of it, ironically, D20 is over on story focus side of things — elaborate scenarios to run the players through, rewards for group goal achievement (though also rewards for individual achievement). The system is build around mission success, not individual character growth. You can do anything from Shakespear to rote die-rolling and the results will be the same. (Maybe another axis is auctorial control …)

  7. So maybe there’s the two-axis approach showing up in the discussion board.
    I keep coming back to D20. The assumption on the board is that it’s a roleplaying game — but, the more I think of it, one of the problems with it is that so little roleplaying is actually necessary. It’s very much of its wargaming roots.
    Which is not to say you can’t have a lot of roleplaying in D20 and similar style systems. Just that the system doesn’t really encourage it. The question (as I come back to it) is how to make the system encourage/reward RP without making it feel like you’re being railroaded into it, or that you’re RPing for the sake of the system.

  8. Dave: many many good thoughts.
    The whole role-playing vs. story-telling thing … still, it’s a little weird. I’m sitting here considering my tastes and desires, and it’s not like the distinction is that clear-cut. Maybe, instead, it’s character focus vs. story focus. Or maybe that’s splitting hairs.
    I don’t think this is splitting hairs at all. Narrative-focus RPGs can be DEFINED as ‘strong person-to-character ownership, story driven by the adversity faced by said characte’, etc etc. “Story-games” are much more ‘top-down’approached, where roleplaying is either secondary to being a STORYTELLER — in some extreme cases, roleplay’s just added for color.
    So… no, I don’t think it’s splitting hairs at all, I think it’s the main crux of it.

  9. I keep coming back to d20.
    I’m… not sure that’s helpful. πŸ™‚
    Okay, I should have been clearer when I started talking about this, but in this whole musing, I am discussing games whose design focus is for producing a narrative story… more, for producing “story, RIGHT NOW,” to quote essays of the same name.
    D20 does not do that. Being able to tell me ‘what happened at the game last night’ is NOT a story. Stories have themes; “Sex vs. Violence” “Freedom vs. Safety” or whatever.
    Sorcerer (to use an example that most of us are familiar with) does do this.
    Example: when we defined the double axis of Humanity in the Grimm Therapy game as (1) “Being a good kid” and (2) “Holding onto your imagination,” we set up the Theme, and a good one: “Can you hold onto your imagination and still follow all the rules that you need to follow to grow up as a good kid? Will you fail in one to hold onto the other? WHICH ONE? Is it even possible to hold onto both?”
    More (no… MOST) importantly, Sorcerer supports that — by which I mean it PUSHES you to examine that question in as much of the game as possible, by automatically making the game ABOUT your Humanity and Holding Onto It (or not). If Humanity = X, when you play Sorcerer, I guaranTEE that game WILL BE ABOUT X. Period.
    D20: flat out DOES NOT do that. CAN you paint a theme in over top of the game? Sure. A good GM might do that, if it interested him/her and the rest of the players.
    What if the GM doesn’t feel like it one session? Then nothing happens that session relevant to the theme. Hell, the d20 system doesn’t notice, one way or the other. It’s just like you said regarding roleplay in a d20 game — you can do it, but it’s not like the game really CARES one way or the other.
    Is it a bad game for that reason? No, of course not — its goals are not narrative-based goals — at its core, which is a wargame core — it’s about tactical challenges, and it is fucking SPLENDID at that — damn near unmatched, in my opinion.
    But they (narr-game versus β€˜gamist’-game) aren’t the same thing. Trying to figure out where d20 falls on the chart is a non-starter — it’s like…
    Okay, it’s like your sorting some apples and oranges into a crate, with a different little compartment for each… sorting them by size and flavor and noting the apple/orange crossbreeds… and someone walks up an looks at the crate and says “Nice sorting system… where does my bowling ball fit in?”
    The question is how to make the system encourage/reward RP without making it feel like you’re being railroaded into it
    I don’t know exactly how to respond to this without sounding (or even feeling a little) snarky, so I won’t try:
    I have *no* response to someone who comes over for the evening to play a roleplaying game and, at the end of the evening, says “I feel like I was railroaded into roleplaying.”
    There is going to be roleplaying. If you’re playing this game, YOU are going to be roleplaying. Look, it says so on the tin.
    If you want to call it railroading (which, to me, is a more useful/relevant term when you talk about forcing players to follow Plot A, which isn’t this conversation at all), it’s a bit like saying you were railroaded into going to a movie after (a) getting an invite to go to a movie, (b) showing up to go to a movie, and (c) going to the movie.
    … or that you’re RPing for the sake of the system.
    Okay, the easy thing for me to say here is “you’re aware of it, becuase you don’t know the system, so it’s jarring.” Which boils down to ‘we need to friggin’ PLAY MORE’.
    I won’t go the easy way — I will be mean and attack this position.
    Let’s say all of us exist in two parallel dimensions.
    In both dimensions, I tell my players that I’m going to run a fantasy game in a lankhmar-esque city with lots of intrigue and the like.
    In Dimension One, everyone shows up, and we make up d20 characters.
    In Dimension Two, everyone shows up, and we make TSoY characters.
    In both dimensions, you make a thief with a little sister he wants to protect, because their parents are dead. I play the sister, and she’s around in alot of the scenes, for good or bad. We roleplay.
    In Dimension One, nothing happens as a result of that. You level as a result of the challenges overcome in the stuff I’ve set up for the night — the sister is not a factor.
    In Dimension Two, the system acknowledges that your sister is there right away… you get points for her presence in the scenes and, the more difficult that situation is made because of her presence, the more you’re rewarded. It doesn’t matter if you kill the boss-monster or get the jewel… all that matters (to your character and presumably to you, since you SET THIS UP) is whether or not your sister stays safe and cared for in this festering shithole of a city.
    And, for you, that’s the only thing the System really cares about. (For someone else, it’s busy caring about their quest for Power… or whatever.)
    now…
    In Dimension Two, are you roleplaying for the sake of the system?
    I would submit that ‘roleplaying for the sake of the system’ is “i’m only RPing x becuase that’s what it says on my sheet that I’ll get points for.”
    It is IMPOSSIBLE for someone in TSoY (to stay with it for this example, but pretty much true for any narr-rpg game) to be RPing ‘for the sake of the system’, because the SYSTEM is not forcing you to do anything. YOU picked the stuff that you want the game to reward you for. Presumably you picked stuff that INTERESTS you.
    I mean…
    You:
    I want to play someone who’s all about taking care of their little sister.
    TSoY:
    Okay, I’ll reward the hell out of you doing the thing that interests you, the player.
    I fail utterly to see the coercion there.
    —-
    The game DOES make the player themselves acknowledge that they just earned XP, and for what — what I feel like this is, to a point, is some kind of abashed hesistancy to … acknowledge it?
    HAMLET:
    The satirical rogue says here
    that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
    wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
    plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
    wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
    though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
    I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down
    .

    That’s what it reminds me of, a bit. πŸ™‚

  10. More than willing to admit that, to a large extent, this boils down to the old familiarity thing. So maybe the conversation is moot until that actually gets resolved.
    I think d20 is germane, if only because it’s the RPG benchmark, fairly or unfairly.
    I don’t disagree with a single thing you say about the system (esp. since you mostly restate my case πŸ™‚ ). I would argue, again, that in fact D20 — D&D in its classic sense, to limit systems that tweak this some — is in fact a strongly (group) story-telling system with singular authorial control (the GM, and/or the GM parroting the module writer). The players contribute a randomizing factor, but basically the GM is there telling the story and the players are there giving a reason to determine if they’ve been killed out of it or not. There’s very little role-playing that is essential (“I roll on my Diplomacy skill, which I get a bonus on because I’m a bard and have a high Charisma”), and very little player-based story-telling that’s essential(except, sometimes, for problemsolving or individual tactics — but the GM is still going to be driving toward getting you in the center of the final throne room so that the lights can go out and the Beholders can drop down from the ceiling, just like it says on page 47).
    So maybe the two-axis diagram is individual role-playing vs. collaborative story-telling — in which case, classic D&D, as a system, is down in the lower left corner.
    I follow what you say (and even agree with it) re railroading and the rewards for player-expressed interests. Again, the familiarity thing, and the D20-trained impulse to say, “Hmmm, I really need to nail that bad guy, what can I use? Ah — I get bonus points for my devotion to my sister, so I resolutely remember that I am all that stands between the Beholder King and my sister’s village getting enslaved, and add 3 Greater Motivation Chits into my D4 pool …” (i.e., the story-telling becomes the *tool* to “succeed,” vs. the *reward* when role-playing), it all makes a great deal of sense. I just need to retrain.
    (Cf. the conversation about changing motivators in TSOY that you had with Randy that first night.)

  11. The thing is…
    Okay… brainstorming an answer. This will get long.
    ——————————————-
    “I really need to nail that bad guy.”
    Why?
    Answering that question is (very likely) the story. In my opinion, it’s only a true story if the answer given is relevant within the Shared Imagined Space (IC, not OOC).
    Thus:
    “Because the GM threw it at us.” = not-a-story.
    “Because (insert personal character motivation here).” – That’s a story.
    And the game you’re playing is only a game that *helps you build* a story if it pays attention to that personal character stuff. DnD *allows* it by ignoring it… not the same thing.
    A school that lets you paint when you’re not doing anything else is not an Art School.
    ——————————————-
    There’s this funny story I read awhile back about a difficult game a couple people were playing in. Two guys really hated it and found it frustrating… bad bad bad railroading… like a console game translated to tabletop. One of the players liked it, cuz he had all this stuff going on with his character, in his head, and that internal stuff explained all the stupid crap the GM was doing in a cool way.
    Still didn’t make the Game a viable story-facilitator, though. πŸ™‚
    ——————————————-
    I would argue, again, that in fact D20 — D&D in its classic sense, to limit systems that tweak this some — is in fact a strongly (group) story-telling system with singular authorial control (the GM, and/or the GM parroting the module writer).
    To me, you can only call it a “story-telling system ” if it is, truly, a system designed to create a story.
    DnD is not that.
    I feel the need to state that, full out: DnD is not a game whose system is designed to create a story, thus, it is not a story-telling system.
    It has in fact not ever BEEN that, despite decades of Introduction texts about it being a game where you collectively tell a story. That’s PR — that’s not what it is. DnD is designed to Simulate a Setting and provide tactical challenges in imaginary situations. That is what it DOES (and does WELL).
    Expansion: There is not one rule or function anywhere in the game that directly or even indirectly addresses creating a coherent story.
    Yes. I will stand by that statement.
    ——————————————-
    Hmm. Okay: expanding some more.
    All role-playing games produce a sequence of imaginary events. Go ahead and role-play, and write down what happened to the characters, where they went, and what they did.
    That’s not a story any more than the information you get if your kid tells you every single thing that happened to them at school that day.
    Is it a game log? Sure. A transcript? Sure. It is not a story — not 9 times out of 10.
    That one time out of ten, there will be something there. A theme: a judgmental point, perceivable as a certain frission charge it generates for the listener or reader, not the original participant. If you get that… then yeah, it’s a story.
    Now… to your point… NO, you don’t need to be playing a narr-agenda RPG like Sorcerer or a “Story game” like Capes or whatever to have that happen. Of course you don’t.
    It’s just that those are the games for which it is the GOAL.
    ——————————————-
    Side note on “a game makes a story if the GM is telling one.”
    First of all: bullshit. If there are seven players, then there are seven authors. If only one of them is writing a story, and six of them are recording damage accrued you don’t get a story.
    And the GM is never the sole author, unless the players have been utterly relegated to nothing but dice-rolling meat-bots, becuase they control the protagonists*.
    Your average (and even above average, and even exceptional pre-prepared module is not a ‘story’.
    Even if it has a theme.
    Why? Because it doesn’t have protagonists, and once the players provide those* (nine times out of ten knowing nothing of the impending plotty themeness of said module), said theme is broken, becuase the STARS OF THE SHOW DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT. Most times? They’re probably just there to Kill It And Move On.
    * — they aren’t really protagnonists, actually, just characters, unless they tie into the theme, but that’s another thing.
    ——————————————-
    But yes, you can get Story out of any game, and the odds are even slightly better with some games/groups/GMs/plots.
    It just isn’t likely, because that’s not the point.
    Hell, it doesn’t HAVE to be the point. I *like* wargames. They’re FUN. I like tactical challenges and dice-rolling and fights and exploring a cool setting, I LIKE ALL THAT. But I don’t expect a coherent story out of it.
    Could it happen? Yes. I can hang a picture on my wall by driving a chunk of ten-guage wire into the drywall with a pair of pliers, but that’s not what either of those things is meant for.
    ——————————————-
    Story Now (Dirty Hippie Game Theory)
    Most (well, all, really) games of the type I’m trying to talk about are built so that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence is addressed in the process of role-playing. That’s Story, in the authored-story-writing sense.
    “Address” means one or more of these things are happening:
    *Issue Established prior/during campaign AND character design.
    *Issue Developed as a source of continued conflict.
    *Issue Resolved through the decisions of the players of the protagonists.
    Importantly, that creation of story is is the (meta) POINT of the game.
    CAN you do other stuff? Sure. In a game of TSoY or Sorcerer and Sword I can cut loose and kill me some goblins and get some frustration out. Yes. Absolutely.
    That is not the point of the game. The fact that it can do it does not mean that that is what the game is about, or even facilitates (repetitive goblin fights in TSoY, for example, present some fairly significant problems). They have the same limitations as DnD, but in another direction.
    Maybe you really like games were you get to deeply explore the setting — all the little fancy widgits and hoohas of the Shared Imagined Space. (Deadlands is a good example of a system that’s all about Similating the Setting and Exploring it — the one is just wrapped up in the other.) Now, you might get a story out of that campaign, but only for the purpose of bringing about all the appropriate genre elements of the Setting. It’s a by-product.
    In the games on my original list, the major source of themes are the ones that are brought to the table by the players/GM regardless of the genre or setting used, and pursuing them, overtly or covertly, is what the game DOES.
    (Sorcerer’s a covert example — you can play a whole campaign, focusing on who you’re screwing over or killing or beating or helping or whatever and never really have the fact that you’re addressing a Theme of “Power versus Love” smack you right in the face. Something like TSoY reminds you pretty regularly what your game is about.)
    Ugh. I’ve rambled enough.

  12. … except fot this one point:
    [DnD is] a strongly (group) story-telling system with singular authorial control.
    Re-reading this, the intensely bitter irony of this statement just leapt out at me.
    A group story-telling system with singular authorial control.

  13. Also, it occured to me. “Adventure Game.” That’s what DnD is — the goal is neither character growth (in the story-sense) or Big Story, but Adventure.
    I stand by the opinion that it doesn’t show up on the chart — it doesn’t directly address either the X or Y axis.

  14. And I should point out one more thing:
    1. “Because the GM threw it at us.” = not-a-story.
    2. “Because (insert personal character motivation here).” – That’s a story.

    There’s nothing WRONG with 1. If I’m playing DnD, I’m totally SATISFIED with answer #1, and I’d rather I didn’t even get asked the question, because it’s fucking distracting me from figuring out where to place my fireball.
    I’m not trying to assign “bad” anywhere. I’m not even trying to establish Tools for Telling Stories.
    I don’t HAVE to figure out how to explain a game GURPS or DnD or something like that to a group of gamers.
    I DO have to figure out how to explain what to expect out of game where “wargame-rules-born tactics” and “Setting immersion” are NOT what the mechanics of the game deal with.
    Games with two entirely different axis of priorities.

  15. Holy Moley — no wonder Kate’s eyes glazed over. Hell, my eyes glazed over, and I *want* to read it! Ha!
    Maybe after I get back to the hotel — doing it here at the conference table is probably bad form …

  16. Okay, so let me preface by saying — there’s very little you say I don’t agree with — in fact, and especially not as an ideal.
    I disagree that “DnD is not a game whose system is designed to create a story, thus, it is not a story-telling system,” because the story the system is designed to tell is the story the GM is creating (or reciting). Yes, the protagonists are usually nearly irrelevant. Yes, that doesn’t a cool story make. Yes, the system is not designed around creating a new story, only repeating a canned one (or juggling the blocks to make a recycled one).
    But the same could be said for most TV shows. That doesn’t mean they don’t tell stories, only that most of them don’t tell good stories, and most of them end up cancelled and discarded in a very short time. (Or, worse, the ones that do tell good stories get cancelled and discarded because that’s not what the folks playing watching are expecting.)
    The goal of a “story game” is to create a bit of creative magic. The goal of a wargame is to tell a bit of (possibly rejiggered) history.
    Actually, take that point and spin it a bit. D&D is, in essense, a wargame — squad-level, to be sure, but a wargame. The characters themselves are usually irrelevant — randomizing elements in the matrix, but usually (at its worst — “The stone wall slide down silently behind you, leaving you nowhere to go but forward …”) mere game pieces.
    Now, take a typical table-top wargame — something from Avalon-Hill, or SSI, or GDW. Can you flesh out those units, tell a story about them? Sure. Just watch any of a zillion WWII movies — from “Midway” to “Battle of the Bulge.” Lots of stories you can tell, but, as you note, irrelevant to the *overall* story, which is how the Allies Won and the Axis Lost. A story suitable only for the History Channel, but a narrative tale nonetheless.
    D&D is (again, at its worst and purest) much the same. The tale is about how a set of skills overcome canned obstacles to fulfill a fairy tale wargame scenario. Is that a story? Sure. Not necessarily a good one, which is why most players do a bit more than just roll dice, even if only those dice rolls make a difference.
    Your average (and even above average, and even exceptional pre-prepared module is not a ‘story’. Even if it has a theme. Why? Because it doesn’t have protagonists, and once the players provide those* (nine times out of ten knowing nothing of the impending plotty themeness of said module), said theme is broken, becuase the STARS OF THE SHOW DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT. Most times? They’re probably just there to Kill It And Move On.
    Since when are the protagonists’ awareness and participation necessary for a story to be told? The only stories told in Hollywood by committee are generally poor ones. While I understand (all too well) the idea of a storyteller’s creations “dictating what happens to them,” that’s different from writing a story based on everyone pitching in ideas around a campfire.
    Which isn’t to say that, in an RPG setting, you can’t actually create a kick-ass story collaboratively, or that systems that encourage such aren’t excellent. But just as improv is funny, so are comedy routines from a single actor. “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and Bob Newhart routines are both uproarious, and both are great comedy.
    Is a game more enjoyable if my actions actually affect the outcome — more, if they affect the nature of the challenge, or the challenge chosen, or even if a challenge is chosen? Damn straight. Does that mean that it’s not a story if my character is teleported from room to room, fighting escalating threats? No. It’s just not as good a story (nor as enjoyable a game).
    Put another way — I’ve played in D20 stuff that *was* a story. Things you did with Star Wars and OA. Dag and Shishiko did story stuff. Would the stories have been much the same if Dag and Shishiko were swapped? In terms of the outcome, probably pretty much so (the GM adjusting things to get the narrative to the climax so written). Does that mean it wasn’t a story? No, just that it wasn’t as good a story as it could have been.
    [DnD is] a strongly (group) story-telling system with singular authorial control.
    Re-reading this, the intensely bitter irony of this statement just leapt out at me.

    As well it should. It was intentional.
    Hmmm. Maybe part of my reaction in all of this is that I’m eyeball deep in the Niven/Barnes Dream Park series, which, at their core, are about D&D style meta-stories with individual players (and their IC and OOC stories) within them. All of it wrapped up in a meta-meta-story in each novel.
    Okay, belaboring the point here. I think you can fit D&D/GURPSish stuff into the single axis (or dual axes) previously discussed. You don’t.
    Ultimately, “whatever.” We need to Go and Play. πŸ™‚

  17. Regarding story, and making one.
    OA was a fun thread, yes. I grabbed 17 modules, written by other people (for, I will note, NOT-DnD), twisted them around so that they basically hung together in episodic fashion, added stuff where it was easy to so to make it more relevant to those characters, and tried to bring the whole thing around so that it ended where it started.
    Where exactly did the DnD system help with that? Where are the attributes that I could reference and set, using the system, to both pick a theme and emphasize it? It’s not there.
    A mechanic can make a boat out of a car — it does not mean that said car supports the effort in any way.
    Novel-selling logic goes that you can write up a one-line synopsis for any story. Hidden Things is: “Following the loss of a friend, Calliope explores who she is and what she will give up to ease her pain.”
    Try to write up a one line synopsis of the OA campaign — the theme that tied everything together. I don’t think I can do it.

  18. And as for the DnD game that i ran for four and a half years? Laughable exercise. There’s nothing there.

  19. Hrm. Forgetting some of the details, it’s basically (as you note) an adventure story. “A mixed bag of adventurers face beauty, magic, and intrigue in a haunting Oriental world of mystery.” Would make a great movie, and I’d probably be right there criticizing how little character growth or change there’d been in the process.
    But you are correct (and I think I said as much as well): All D&D did there was provide a framework for conflict resolution. It did nothing to create the story, per se, nor foster or encourage any role playing or intersintg story

  20. Okay… so… I’m going to keep this short.
    I think. πŸ™‚
    The games that I’m looking at are games where there are mechanics that (going to use your words to ensure that we’re on the same page) help create the story… that help foster and encourage [specific types of] roleplay and story-theme.
    I will call these, as a blanket term, ‘narrativist-agenda games’ — just cuz that’s the term that I’ve learned to use. πŸ˜›
    This is as opposed to ‘gamist-agenda’ games (wherein tactics and game-able challenges are the primary point of the SYSTEM), or ‘simulationist’ games (exploring the setting is the point).
    To whit: in Sorcerer, you build scenes based on ‘bangs’ – that’s just how you ‘prep’ – and those bangs are, by definition, meant to require choices, frequently ones that requires contact with the Humanity system. Humanity is defined in such a way as to evoke Theme whenever it is touched. Thus, even when the GM is basically on autopilot, assuming he’s using the system as laid out, theme-addressing scenes keep happening. In other words, The System Helps Him.
    [Insert similar-but-different example from TSoY here, in which the GM and player both aim scenes at the character’s Keys, and thus, yadda yadda. See also Galactic’s personality traits, PTA’s “Issues”, and pretty much everything that happens in DitV :).]
    I will go further and state:
    a) You can totally get thematic story out non-narr games. (No argument, I think.)
    b) You can SET OUT to get story out of non-narr games and succeed. (Again, no argument.)
    c) You can even, in fact, borrow Narr gaming techniques to do so (prepping sessions just by creating Bangs for everyone, asking for Kickers from everyone starting a new game, etc). (I do this all the time, in every game I run.)
    d) The difference between these Systems, then, is whether or not the System itself is helping you or just sort of ‘there’, doing it’s own thing.
    e) Narr games are games that set out to help.
    So… when I make up this x/y chart, I’m not trying to include every RPG. As delinated by a-through-e statements above, I’m looking at Narr games.
    1.) The system helps everyone involved focus play on thematic story, even when you’re killin’ things and takin’ their stuff.
    2.) (Arbitrarily) x-axis: Do they make use of strong character focus and character issues? (TSoY, DitV, Sorcerer)
    3.) (Arbitrarily) y-axis: Do they make use of top-down, narrator-level views and control of the story, accessible to ALL PLAYERS? (Capes, Shab al-Hiri Roach, etc.)
    Why am I trying to figure out those x- and y-axis ratings? Becuase, generally speaking, games with a strong x-axis (even if they also have a strong y-axis, like Mortal Coil or Primetime Adventures) are EASIER TO ‘GET’ for people who already play RPGs.
    The more a game tends toward ‘mostly y-axis’, the “weirder” they’re going to feel, and the more I’ll want to set expectations ahead of time.
    Finally:
    If I don’t include DnD on the chart, it’s not because I don’t think it’s an RPG. (Because I’m not CRAZY. πŸ™‚ It’s not because I don’t think you can get story out of it. It’s because criteria number 1, in that list up above, isn’t true.
    I can’t look for apple- or orange-like qualities in that bowling ball. πŸ™‚

  21. I think ***Dave said something very important here, and it’s relevant in regards to the goal:
    “Is a game more enjoyable if my actions actually affect the outcome — more, if they affect the nature of the challenge, or the challenge chosen, or even if a challenge is chosen?”
    That, to me, supports the essence of the question. And in all those pieces – because affecting the outcome is obvious; this is the whole reason we game. Even in AD&D where we often just have the illusion of effect. I think ramping up to the “if the challenge is chosen” issue gets even closer to the middle. Maybe that’s the level of axis we’re looking at: how are the challenges chosen? Is it a continuum from GM to player to group?

  22. And I keep seeing that question flit about: Doyce, you keep saying, “Story,” and I keep hearing, “Conflict,” or “challenge,” because plot is all about conflict, no matter if it’s internal, environmental, whatnot. So where the challenges come from seems important. Some Amber games I run are about me as GM taking the character background conflicts and making them happen for the players. Some are running characters through the conflicts of the environment. I prefer the former.

  23. MT: you’re right, and I missed the significance of what Dave said there.
    And I think every game answers that question — how, and how much, are the players affecting the game/story/whaever?
    D20: I can (maybe) decide whether or not to face a certain conflict, and (probably) have a hand in determining if I am successful. Honestly, the fun in that situation is often coming up with tactically neat ways to defeat a challenge.
    Now we get into other areas:
    Affecting the nature of the challenge: I see this alot in these dirty-hippie games — you-the-player set out your character’s ‘issues’ (or whatever the name for them is in that game), and those act as Flags for the GM to build conflicts around.
    Really ‘affecting the nature of the challenge’ is ‘having a say in what the story’s going to be about.
    Honestly, my x-y axis thing is mostly looking at the techniques used to create the story. With something like Sorcerer, it’s very much player-character investment, like a ‘traditional’ rpg. With something like Capes, it’s very Baron Munchauseny — you don’t have ‘your’ character — everyone can pretty much use and abuse any character for the purposes of creating/addressing a conflict.
    Quoting your last comment here:
    “Some Amber games I run are about me as GM taking the character background conflicts and making them happen for the players.”
    Right, absolutely. Personally, I like those kinds of games. I would call this ‘adding some character-driven story’ to that Amber game. I think of it as an add-on to the basic Amber game because, like DnD, there’s nothing in the system that particularly rewards the GM or Player (mechanically) for making that happen (non-mechanically, there’s plenty of rewards).
    I’ll go further and say that Amber ‘drifts’ that way really easily, just because of the nature of the setting and the map of NPCs, and because there is very little “System” to get in your way. Not much support, no, but not much resistance either.
    (I contrast this with, say, Mortal Coil (a new diceless game that I’ve mentioned more than once in terms of ‘potentiall awesome for running Amber), in which each character’s ‘Passions’ are specifically laid out. (1) The GM uses them as ‘flags’ for introducing conflicts, and (2) involving them in Conflicts is how the player gets mechanically rewards. That kind of mechanical system support is where I see the difference between one of these ‘narr’ games and, say, Amber: explicit system support for that thing you’re already doing.)
    Now… would I put Amber on the Chart?
    Two answers: No, and Yes. πŸ™‚
    The No answer; “the system wasn’t designed with these goals in mind — really, it predates the design philosophy that drives the games we’re talking about, so putting it on there just confuses things.”
    The Yes answer: “It does, to an extent, drive some of the Stuff that is driven much more strongly in games with this explicit design agenda. It’s weak, it’s muddled, but it’s there — probably a 1 or 2 on both the x and y axis, with the strong possibility that you could add new stuff to the system as it stands to really emphasize this kind of play.”
    (Could I drift DnD also? Sure, I already said that — the different there is that I think the system a 0,0 on this particular chart to begin with, and I’m not saying that in a snarky way — it’s “numbers” are all invested in a different chart. πŸ™‚

  24. Incidentally, the ‘yes’ answer I put in there, above, is why I think that there’s a lot of new games out there that long-time Amber players would really enjoy. Specifically HeroQuest, Mortal Coil, Primetime Adventures, and The Shadow of Yesterday leap to mind for me.
    I think that desire for more character-driven story, more director/narrator-level influence on the game, and being able to push the story (using the intrisic world-building abilities of Amberite characters) toward the kinds of things you-as-the-player find interesting — I think something that a lot of Amber players find/found attractive in the game (albeit subconsciously, maybe), and (good news!) something that is no long solely available in that game and/or setting.

  25. (I think I may be drifting from your point, but I’m thinking of that “building challenges” issue, still, and, well, I’m in “countdown to ACNW” mode, so my brain is floating near Amber scenario design.)
    I keep thinking that there are challenges that were made by players (character background, character choices in-game), challenges built by GMs (modules and scenarios, world events), and challenges agreed to by the group as a whole (well, more results-oriented “group agrees that that’s the evolution/eventuality). (And maybe system challenges: random encounters?)
    I think that’s a different (if related by marriage) issue. You talk about rewards. I see you looking at how human intervention (GM/PC) connects to game structure (rule-set, etc.) and the resulting rewards. Are you looking mostly at in-game rewards, or does story=reward? (Or both? Or neither?)
    {I keep finding “story” as a fluid term, and that’s probably because I don’t really see myself gaming for story. [In my N/S/G geek code, I’m strongly S.]}

  26. When I make up this x/y chart, I’m not trying to include every RPG. As delinated by a-through-e statements above, I’m looking at Narr games
    And, in so saying, the debate is ended. Clearly D&D doesn’t fit into the narr game category. I don’t feel guilty over muddying the waters, though. πŸ™‚
    Are you looking mostly at in-game rewards, or does story=reward?
    Some of the most memorable rewards I’ve gotten in a game were story-based, not in-game-mechanics-advancement based. Of course, most of the games I’ve played in (which Doyce is trying to change if only we’d stop distracting him from it with these lengthy debates) have been ones which had little or no melding of the two.

  27. I don’t feel guilty muddying the waters, though.
    Nor should you! It forced me to explain (and more importantly, structure) my reasons WHY DnD wasn’t germane to the topic.
    I mean, it’s great to talk about this over on Story-Games, where everyone just assumes that DnD’s not on the list, and more to the point they have a good idea (from a shared reference point for all those Forge Essays on the subject) why I’m not.
    … but I’m not PLAYING with those folks, am I?
    No; bringing it up, while it drifted the original conversation away from my first intent, was Important and Valuable, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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