The other day someone in the IGRC Slack talked about getting (back) into roleplaying recently and landing in OSR territory. But now he wanted to learn more about “storygaming.” Whatever that is! I’m deeply uninterested in staking a flag for anyone else. For my purposes, all storygaming means to me is post-trad play that is more concerned with story structure, procedures designed to evoke specific feelings, and interesting new takes on authorship and authority, and less interested in modeling the material shared reality of play. So that’s what I’ll be talking about.
I’m a trad guy from way back. Starting with the red box in 1980, I’ve been playing well before a lot of folks who read me were even born. In the early 2000s there was a stretch of game designs that completely broke my trad brain open, just as there had been a stretch of games in previous revolutionary design and publishing cycles that broke me of my D&Disms. It’s been a steady diet of challenging, difficult, occasionally uncomfortable experiences. They’ve all reshaped what “roleplaying” means and is capable of for me.
Maybe this is some version of old man yelling at clouds but I haven’t seen many games in the past several years that are breaking genuinely new ground. More evolution than revolution now. That’s fine, and I’m definitely benefitting from an evolution of the form! But my mind hasn’t been blown open for a very long time.
How To Open Your Third Eye
These are the standout games that broke my brain of old, limited trad ideas about roleplaying. They appear in the order in which I thought of them:
In brief: you play characters in a cinematic Wild West with dark pasts and a “devil” that both empowers and drives you.
Setting your own scenes, thinking about scenes in terms of what they’re about thematically, ie “conflict resolution.” Also my first exposure to feeling ethically invested in my character’s choices! Read more about what I’ve said about Dust Devils in the past.
The Burning Wheel
In brief: an opinionated fantasy that will challenge everything you think you know about roleplaying.
A must-include for completely reframing the traditional GM-player relationship. I’ve written extensively in the past about this monumentally important game. For some, The Burning Wheel fixes trad play. For others, it reveals trad play to be irredeemably broken. I’m more the latter camp. Absolutely essential to my journey out of the bad old days.
In brief: a framework for playing stories involving escalating nonsense driven by greedy people with poor impulse control. Very much Coen Brothers: the RPG.
GMless/ful, no stats, framing your own scenes and resolution, setting aside task resolution entirely, intentionally playing toward shared tropes/genre expectations. Genuinely funny emergent play from carefully curated touch points. Fiasco was the first game that got me thinking about how all games (roleplaying, board, card, casino, skill) boil down to pattern completion and intermittent rewards.
In brief: You play a TV show from the TV show creators’ point of view.
Shared cast of characters, workshopping shared world ideas, being very meta and intentional about fiction and structure, trope play. The mandatory collaboration was powerful, as was having to set aside feelings about character monogamy. But it’s also purely a framework for play (like Fiasco), and bringing everything to the table was itself its own interesting challenge as a player. I’ve talked about PTA indirectly before, worth reading up on.
In brief: you’re heretics hiding from the Inquisition in a castle whose occupants might not want you there, and someone’s gonna burn.
Setting your own scenes from creative prompts (like Fiasco), deeply emotional affective play, historical play without history panic, bleed. Oh the bleed. I cried in front of a bunch of strangers at a con! This was the first game where my emotional response to it was to seek out more of the same. That took me into larp country, which largely remains unexplored for me.
Available in PDF on DriveThru, but if you can somehow find a physical copy, it’s gorgeous.
3:16: Carnage Amongst The Stars
In brief: soldiers massacre planets full of aliens and figure out war is bad.
By the time I got to 3:16 I had mostly figured out what the design movement at the time was going for. A really interesting intersection of ultra-minimalist design (you have two stats and everything you do is either fighting or not-fighting, and you have to balance one total between the two), strongly suggestive emergent play buried in the advancement (via military ranks you earned in competition with other players), lots of trope signals that rely on knowing what military fiction is like.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. I’ve played literally thousands of games along these lines at this point and have forgotten the names of most of them. These are just the titles that stuck with me,. And, yes, they’re all “older” games. But they’re the ones that first delivered their payloads into my brain. Worth tracking down if you want to see what the on-ramp looked like 15-20 years ago.