My Storygame Bucket List

I got to scratch a big title off my storygame bucket list last weekend.

I came to the storygame/indiegame thing late-ish. The first game I’d call “nonconventional” (because I think terms like “storygame” and “indiegame” are invitations to pointless arguments, and “narrativist” drives me into a fury) was Burning Empires in 2006. Loved it, hated it, it confused me, it broke my brain, I wrote many words about it. Half my players quit on me and I can’t even blame them. Made new friends, rebuilt my brain’s needs and expectations, and here we are, 13 years later.

By the time BE came out, The Forge had been doing its thing since around 2001. Quite a few “nonconventional” games came out of the early scene and I sprinted to catch up, five years in. Of the eight listed at Wikipedia, I’ve played all but My Life With Master and Donjon. Sorcerer is sort of on that list as well, in that I’ve only played it via a Barsoom-flavored sci-fantasy variation called Dictionary of Mu at a convention several years back; straight Sorcerer remains a mystery. Those games are the beginning of my storygame bucket list.

The big one is Phoenix, the little one is our local storygames community.

I attended the Arizona Game Fair last weekend because I had heard they’re trying to build out their roleplaying offerings. And they are, but in very conventional ways: more Savage Worlds and Shadowrun and D6 and World of Darkness. So, you know, fine. It’s not (just) ballrooms of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. But it’s still pretty conventional, because cons have bills to pay and for whatever reason, metro Phoenix continues to be a black hole when it comes to anything approaching a storygaming community. The con had nothing to offer me roleplaying-wise beyond tables and air conditioning, but my buddy Aaron Feild was attending. He has an amazing talent for finding and rolling out what he calls “microgames.” That is, complete RPGs, storygame-style, that usually take up just a page or two and run great in a one-shot format.

My face when all the con offers is all the same stuff I can get at the FLGS.

The game I got to scratch off was Swords Without Master by Epidiah Rachavol , which bills itself as a swords-and-sorcery game. It’s literally a couple pages of player-facing material. As of right now, it’s available only as a 30ish page magazine article for $4, are you kidding me with this. It’s just barely “a game” at all, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t count as one for that ballroom full of conventional convention players. But it does what it does very well.

Eidolons! Literally any inspirational art one might hope to inspire works.

The basic structure goes like this: everyone looks at inspirational art, called “eidolons,” to come up with a little seed of a character concept. Everyone is supposed to default to a Conan-esque setting filled with characters who have no master (hence the title): peasants serve the nobles, nobles serve a monarch, the monarch serves the peasants and nobles, but the characters are masterless rogues, free to do whatever they feel like. Then you write a name on an index card, doodle down a couple distinctive nouns that are hands-off for everyone else at the table (say, a distinctive sword, or an implacable foe, or a secret palace), as well as a couple other descriptors. That’s it. That’s your character.

Honestly, that first bit is the only thing about the game that structurally says “swords and sorcery” to me, the rootless wanderers at liberty to find trouble. Once you get past that bit? SWM is a set of tone management and pacing facilitation tools. It’s a storyboarding metagame. And hooboy is it a treat to play.

Mechanically, there are very few ideas but they’re very nifty. The basic game offers three kinds of phases: discovery (add to the world), rogue’s (show off your character being awesome), and perilous (show how your rogue gets out of trouble). Each phase plays out in a different-but-similar way, with players rolling to see if their contribution will be “jovial” or “glum.” And those terms are ultra-loose, there only to nudge the players toward divergent tones for their rogues.

There is a GM-ish role, called the Overplayer, who’s responsible mostly for tone management and starting phases. The phases play out until someone hands the dice back to the Overplayer, who is then responsible for moving folks to another phase.

In play, the game feels a lot like you’re scripting out a show in terms of where you feel the investment: as an author, I thought, more than as the rogue. There’s no success or failure, not really. The characters move through their stories, occasionally facing setbacks but never really failing as one might in a conventional RPG. That said, it’s also a system (or methodology or whatever else you want to call it) that you can get better at. I’d love to take a second shot at the game with players who are comfortable with their options and have a firm grasp of the game’s patterns.

I’ve only experienced SWM as a con one-shot, but there’s a robust campaign mode as well as several options for advanced play. Would it be enough to bring together players for weeks on end? Certainly. Months? Depends on the players.

The Rest of the Bucket List

My storygaming education is pretty complete, but I’m always on the lookout at conventions for well-run tables of (in no particular order):

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all storygames I haven’t played, but they’re the ones I want to play the most.

What’s on your bucket list?

6 thoughts on “My Storygame Bucket List

  1. I strongly advise you to bump The Shadow of Yesterday up your bucket list. It’s perhaps my most favoritest game evah, due to the interlocking facets of

    * a fixed non-overlapping skill list with the idea that everything you might do pertains to a skill
    * pools players can dip into to bump up their rolls, with thematically appropriate refresh mechanisms (eg. spend a night in hedonistic pleasure to refresh your Instinct pool)
    * “chained successes” from Sorcerer allowing you to build up a better dicepool by carrying forward successes from set-up actions
    * organic movement from one-roll conflict resolution to extended contests, driven by players deciding they want to succeed a failed contest OR they want to permanently eliminate a named NPC
    * player-authored character powers called Secrets which provide a powers layer on top of the above, and
    * Keys, the killer app of TSoY, player-authored character traits which pay out XP when they cause story-interesting things to happen for the character. PCs are never compelled as to how to act by their Keys but are rewarded when they make fun choices and every Key has an explicit buy-off behavior built in that the player can take to permanently end the Key, cross it off their character sheet and earn enough XP to buy a replacement

    Hope it’s not inappropriate to pitch the merits of this game here. It’s got some rough edges/corners mechanically but it gets so much right and still remains a high water mark for me in gaming.

    My own Indie bucket list includes Nine Worlds, Lady Blackbird, Apocalypse World (as opposed to many derivatives I’ve played) and maybe a second run at the Burning Wheel.

    1. Oh no, I love these kinds of replies! Honestly I’ve been worried that engagement on the blog has seemed low because there’s so very much on the Slack. But that’s bad for SEO etc barf.

      TSOY feels like it needs to be campaign-y, yeah? Like, it doesn’t come with a premise or a quickstart type thing does it? All I know is that Solar System is out there as a generic iteration, but that’s not really where storygames are any more.

  2. I’m surprised not to see The Mountain Witch on the Wikipedia Forge page; I thought it was considered pretty influential.

    My Indie bucket list in the previous post should also have included Carry: A Game About War.

    1. Oh yeah, also surprised. I got to play The Mountain Witch at Dreamation last month and I eagerly backed the reprint Kickstarter last year.

  3. I’ve actually played quite a few of these games on your list, which is interesting, because I always feel like my group is so conservative and hard to sell on new games, but I guess they have given me a lot of leeway over the years. I really need to get _Swords Without Master_ to the table someday.

    I have run _Lady Blackbird_ at many a con and it is always a delight. I also love _In a Wicked Age_, though I feel like it’s harder to sell for reasons I can’t quite explain. Probably because LBB is “it’s Steampunk Star Wars” and everybody is on the same page. You also get a lot of the killer features of _Shadow of Yesterday_, distilled down to what is essentially a quickstart.

    I have played a fair bit of _Polaris_, and I utterly cannot imagine it working as a one-shot. There’s just so much there, in terms of setting and worldbuilding and ritual and character development. I guess you could get a little _amuse-bouche_ of it in a 3- or 4-hour slot, but I think 4-6 sessions of 3 hours apiece would make it into a completely other (and way better) experience. Of course getting exactly 4 players who can each come to every session has never been my crowd’s strong suit…

  4. I have always wanted to try Don’t Rest your Head, and Kagematsu sounded like an amazing game when i first heard about it. I would really like a change to crack open MASKS and Epyllion, games I kickstarted on a whim and have really enjoyed reading, but the one game I’ve wanted to play more than anything is Luke Crane’s Free Market. I have had this sitting on my shelf for the longest time and I’ve never had an opportunity to play it, no one I know has ever been interested in it.

    Game Fair has tried to include a lot more non-traditional RPGs, and has increased its non-D&D / non-Pathfinder stuff a lot over the last 2 years, but they can’t offer what people don’t want to run. and right now, none of the GM’s want to run indy style story games. I think the closest would be Shadowrun Anarchy, and honestly that’s really stretching it.

    I hate to agree, but AZ really is a hole that story games go into and never come out of. There have been some interesting games created here, World of Dew or Houses of the Blooded, but people just seem to put them on their shelves to look pretty and then go on playing D&D. its beyond frustrating for someone like me who did cut his teeth on those kind of games but is desperate to move beyond them.

    Finally, i wanted to thank you for taking the time @ Game Fair on Sunday to talk to me while i was waiting for my players to show up for Warhammer Underworlds. I don’t know if i stuck out, but i really enjoyed our conversation and have spent the last couple days reading through your blog. I’m sorry i missed it before now, but I will be following it in the future.

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