Controversy of the Day

Controversy of the Day
PSA

I have this incomplete, imperfect and totally arguable internal definition when I identify a game as a “storygame,” and am using that term to meaningfully describe it more specifically than “roleplaying game.” I am not advocating for this for anyone else. There are many definitions like it but this one is mine.

For me, my internal definition comes down to the self-awareness the rules have about scenes. Does the game require non-facilitator players to set a scene? Storygame. Is the game structured around acts or stages? Storygame.

That’s it.

Also? I use it as a subset within the larger category of “roleplaying game” rather than as a separate thing. All storygames are RPGs, not all RPGs are storygames.

So if you ever see me use that term in the Indie Game Reading Club, I’m almost certainly keyed into that one very small aspect of the game.

There’s also some probably-confusing overlap with terms like “freeform,” almost all of which require player-created scenes (therefore making them storygames).

There’s probably a Venn chart in all this somewhere.

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0 thoughts on “Controversy of the Day”

  1. Okay then yeah, I’d never refer to Fate as a “storygame” on IGRC or anywhere else. It has some novel ways to leverage fictional assets but that’s totally not part of my internal (incomplete, imperfect and totally arguable) definition.

  2. I’m pretty much with your definition, though I have heard people calling games with “player authorship” rather than or as well as “GM authorship” components storygames (eg: Fate, PbtA stuff, Cortex+). Still, I prefer your version. Things like Microscope, and Duty and Honour fit perfectly.

    Where I strongly agree is in seeing Storygame as a subset of RPG. There may be edge cases (is Microscope really an RPG?), but I don’t care. These things are descriptors rather than taxonomic classifications, right?

  3. Paul Mitchener exactly, yeah. It’s a useful phrase inside my head and when I’m talking to other people (if they share my definition) because it lends specificity. It’s not an either/or proposition. There is no turf to defend.

  4. Good old Microscope, always at the ready for that a-HA moment when everyone’s arguments fall apart.

    I don’t think Microscope is an RPG, ergo it can’t be a storygame. I think it’s its own thing. I would say that it has an RPG minigame within itself when you play out specific scenes, and in those moments it’s a storygame.

  5. Interesting! What if a game doesn’t explicitly concern “scenes” or mention them, but its play tends to create something like it anyway?

    For example: In a Wicked Age. (I’m not looking at the text, so I could be wrong, but if not, I’m sure another game like this exists… and if not, I can go write one!)

  6. Hmm, I think you have it a bit on it’s head. I think the whole “is it about scenes” point is a manifestation of a storygame, but isn’t the defining characteristic. But still, it’s good enough for me.

    But what happens if I take a trad game and start scene framing in it? Rulings-not-rules would allow me to do that and still follow the rules of the game.

  7. Ooh, what about Baron Munchausen?

    I guess it’s probably not a roleplaying game, and therefore can’t be a storygame by this definition, except that the game encourages (requires?) you to invent a fictional character who you portray by telling stories in-character about your adventures. There’s no real scene economy or structure, but the other players use their game resources to escalate the illusion of drama.

    Hm. No. I have failed to convince even myself.

  8. I guess I’d refer people back to my OP. I don’t find the original formulation (rpgs are a subset of storygames) at all useful because it promotes more vagueness, not less. It’s like calling Battlelore “a miniatures game” because minis are on the table, where it’s the rules of play that would help me understand if it’s something I’d be interested in.

    So I guess I’d ask: is formal fiction-making the most important distinction to you? Or would it be inhabiting a role? The role thing seems more specific to me, personally, so a subset of that is more useful to me. It would be much less useful for me to try and evaluate Baron Munchausen alongside Burning Empires just because they both have scenes.

  9. I also totally get that these conversations can feel incredibly frustrating to folks who think this shit was litigated and put away years ago. What can I say? I wasn’t privy to the cool kids circle and I find the conventional wisdom unsatisfactory.

    But again I’m just talking about me me meeee.

  10. Threads like this make me sad about the way linguistic practicality keeps pushing us to reuse common words for very different things. I would love to see games scored along all these criteria (uses explicit scenes, gives players non-character agency, etc) rather than fighting over which criterion or subset of criteria are the important ones.

  11. Michael Prescott oh yeah, it’s probably never gong to get well resolved.

    I thought long and hard about a practical taxonomy once and the effort and acrimony I imagined in trying to implement it scared me off. Even if it was entirely accurate and useful, you’d have very angry, defensive knots of folks who works outright reject it for not reason other than make believe turf.

  12. Still, there is one thing that I think perhaps deliberately defies easy classification, and that’s cultural affiliation. Like, the way World of Dungeons seems unlikely to be perceived as an old school game because of its provenance. Or other games because of font or art choices.

  13. I’m gonna rant. Please feel free to mute now.

    This absurd peace making “everything is a storygame” crap is worse than useless. It’s alienating to have outsiders tell you what your game is or isn’t. It’s non-useful because it’s the opposite of differentiation. The logical conclusion where you’ve got folks reverting all the way back to “they’re just games maaan” is the worst! Pointless feather-smoothing. Great, now choose between soccer, Imperial Assault and Meridian with nothing but “they’re just games” as your guiding light.

    You make this shit about turf and not about your audience, this is what you get. Games are not identity.

    Rant off.

  14. Paul Beakley I don’t disagree with you completely, but… I, personally, need some kind of word to refer to games which have characters and stories and take place in our shared imagination. I use “story game” for that, personally. Not because I want to smooth out differences, but because I need a way to communicate with other people that I’m talking about D&D but not Monopoly. Or even D&D but not World of Warcraft. How would you do that, if you think “story game” is “worse than useless”?

  15. Paul Beakley, you’re using “storygame” as a subset of roleplaying games. Ok, cool. But then what’s the larger umbrella term? That’s what I use “story game” for; I don’t care much for politics within gaming, but I find it very useful to have a word for “pen and paper games which use the imagination”. Is there a better one?

    For context, this usually comes up when I say:

    -“I design games in my spare time.”
    -“Oh! Cool! You must be a good programmer.”
    -“No, actually. Not computer games. I like __________ games.”

    What goes in that blank? That’s the context in which I find I need useful vocabulary. (I suppose it’s telling that I don’t get involved much in “is this a storygame or not?” online debates. But I like it that way! 🙂 )

  16. I find that much less apt than “story games”! For instance, the game I play the most uses playing cards and has no RPG elements. Is there any advantage in it for me to change my usage of the term?

  17. I have no idea and this isn’t my concern, like, at all. Please do read my OP again. You do you.

    If this leads folks to shake their heads sadly when I (mis)use the phrase, more power to them. My Collection, my rules.

  18. Ah, ok! You’re only interested in distinguishing “story games” from “real RPGs”. Gotcha. I’ll do me, as you suggest! I prefer to stay out of those arguments; they don’t do anything for me. Carry on, then! 🙂

  19. Paul Taliesin completely inaccurate conclusion based on this thread. Have you actually read what I said or did you come in here looking to win an argument?

  20. Uh, no. Maybe you’re reading a tone of voice into my messages that I didn’t intend? (And your last message there doesn’t make any sense to me.) My apologies if I said something to cause offense.

    For what it’s worth, I think you’ve got one of the best definitions/means to distinguish one from the other I’ve ever seen. I don’t plan on using it myself, but it’s better than other attempts I’ve seen before! Far better.

  21. Well to be super clear here, what I said a good ways up is that they’re all “real rpgs.” And within that whole big category, some are storygames. Which are (still) real rpgs.

    I mean, this is the only formulation in my mind where Cam Banks​​​’ assertion that his Cortex Plus games “are not storygames” makes any sense at all.

    I’ve got a larger thesis about play intention and whether the point of play is a structured narrative or not. Kind of an inversion of the whole “fortune in the beginning/middle/end” thing: “authorial intent (or narrative or stooory) in the beginning/middle/end.”

  22. Huh. I think Toon and VtM probably are important precursors to storygames in some ways, but I don’t think the explicit use of scenes in at least the VtM rules-sense is at all congruent with your terminology. I’d probably call it an exception rather than a precursor.

    IIRC some D&D-ish stuff uses “encounter” to mean pretty much exactly the same thing VtM/Exalted/etc do with their “scene:” This power is active for this fight scene, but not the next. They’re mechanically identical, so if the VtM use of per-scene power costs qualifies it as a proto-Beakley-storygame,* shouldn’t once-per-encounter feats do the same?

    I get the sense that your usage is more like “does this game know about scenes as a narrative unit,” rather than “does this game have a thing where I can spend a point to activate a power and have it last for an indefinite number of combat rounds but only one scene?”

    So, again, Venn Diagram time. I also think the narrative-scene-aware non-RPG category is interesting, so I’d definitely frame that diagram as, like, one big circle is narrative-scene-aware and one is RPGs and Beakley-storygames is the intersection of the two. Fire in the Lake, for instance, has some surprisingly narrative-awareness-ish mechanics for something that is definitely 100% not an RPG.

    *or pBsg.

  23. Paul: Once Upon A Time isn’t an RPG, so I’m sure you wouldn’t call it a Story Game by your criteria. It’s a game explicitly about, you know, making stories, though, so it prompts me to wonder if you have. Named or unnamed internal category for that… Type of thing.

  24. Paul: Yup, cards, winners and losers, all that.

    But “Game about making stories” is fair. My own internal category scheme is, like, all about stance, so yours is kind of fascinating.

    (Game that primarily provokes author stance equals game that’s most usefully discussed as story-game, kind of thing, is me.)

  25. I guess I’m thinking about how I’d explain OUAT to my dad.

    “Storygame” is entirely an invention by and for roleplayers in a very tiny sub-community of a sub-community, and I don’t even bother with it outside of roleplaying circles. I might say “storygame” to my dad and he’d have no idea at all how to contextualize that. But a card game? Check. Where you make a story? Got it.

  26. I like to use “storytelling game”. (It’s easy to say “card game” about OUAT, but if it’s 1,001 Nights or Polaris or Universalis, there isn’t always a clear category like that to point to.)

  27. Paul: That makes some sense, yeah. And it has utility, in terms of divvying up games by content.

    I think I’m usually chasing a different kind of utility… I think, like, in-character stance primary? Most usefully thought about as a roleplaying game. Authorial stance primary? Most usefully thought about as a story (or story-making; I wouldn’t blink there) game. Player stance primary? Subdivide by player activity as tactical game, management game, adventure game, etc.

    So D+D is sometimes best framed in my brainmeat as an adventure game, sometimes as a roleplaying game, rarely as a story-game, depending on what I want to think about IN it.

    That might be a whole other thread, though; seems related but tangential to this one.

  28. Paul, does this mean that by your definition that playing any RPG with Mythic GM Emulator converts it into a storygame since Mythic imposes scenes (and scene mechanics)?

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