Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Storytelling "Games" Are Different

Storytelling games aren't games, per se. Not in the same sense as a board game like Trivial Pursuit, a video game like Marathon 2, or a quasi-sport like tenpin bowling. The closest term I can find that describes them is an "activity", but that word is so vague and broad that it adds additional time to most conversations, to the extent that one frequently resorts to the term "game" anyway just to get out of the conversational clover-loop.
Me: I'll be running an... activity next Today.
Any human: What kind of activity?
Me: Umm... a storytelling activity.
Any human: What?
Me: A... game, kind of.
I'm not the only one who can't find a more appropriate, generally-understood word than "game" to describe this sort of thing. On the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (one of the few shows I will stop and watch if it's on) the various portions of the show, such as "Dubbing" and "Scenes From A Hat", are referred to as games by the host. There are sometimes rules put in place; in "Questions", the performer is buzzed and has to swap out with their teammate if they can't think of a response, or answer in the form of a statement.

But the penalty for breaking the rules of the show itself - i.e., no content that makes the censor unhappy - is that the "game" temporarily halts, and things are reset to a prior point. (This isn't apparent when watching the broadcast, but watching the outtakes reels like this one can be very instructive - not to mention, frequently just as funny as the finished show.) The rules in an improvisational activity like WLIIA are more guidelines to ensure that "play" proceeds smoothly. This is purely format-oriented and censor-oriented in that show, but in a storytelling "game", tone and agency are also important.

Another example from television is helpful here; in an episode of The Office (again, the US version) where Michael is at an improv class, he frequently disrupts others' scenes by charging in with a handgun and shooting everyone. The other participants generally comply, acting as if they were shot, but are clearly not happy about it; their reactions suggest that this happens even more frequently than the viewers are shown. We've probably all encountered players like Michael, and even if they aren't bad people, they're bad players in the sense of being disruptive - having fun at their peers' expense.

I would suggest that this tends to happen more in storytelling "games" than in roleplaying games, due to the use of easily-bent guidelines rather than mutually agreed-upon and enforced rules, but I haven't had enough experience with the former to be sure; perhaps someone else can offer their two cents.

What's the difference?

But what separates a storytelling "game" from an RPG? An easy distinction is sometimes provided by the product itself; Prince Valiant, as well as most of the World of Darkness lines (Classic, New, and Chronicles), specifically refer to themselves as Storytelling Games. These games de-emphasize rules, suggesting that dice rolls be minimal and that rules be changed or ignored in the service of the "story"; in Prince Valiant, it is even explicitly stated that players have only limited agency.

In contrast, a roleplaying game - emphasis on game - has defined rules that are adhered to, and the emergence of a "story" can be something that is applied afterwards, rather than consciously created by the Referee and/or certain players. The game may not have the same limits as a board or card game, but it does still have some limits, demarcated by the rules.

If a game specifically identifies itself as an RPG, that doesn't mean that the presentation of the rules is geared toward providing rules for a game. It certainly doesn't mean that a particular group will treat it as such. I've been in multiple games referred to as "Dungeons & Dragons", and with a bright red D&D emblem on the covers of the rulebooks, that were clearly being run as storytelling games. I've also discovered that some games, such as Halberd, are too loosely written and full of gaps to function as actual RPGs - but as the framework for a storytelling game, they're adequate.

This does not mean that storytelling games are bad or wrong. A storytelling game can be a great deal of fun for those who enjoy improvisational thinking and character interaction, when the players and the Storyteller "click" and agree on what they will and will not do. (Boundaries are just as important in a storytelling game as in an RPG - possibly more so.) And I've participated in storytelling games that were almost completely free-form, with the only method of task resolution being a Magic 8-Ball (seriously). These were fun, but in a very different way than an RPG.

Neither a storytelling game nor a roleplaying game is the best kind of game, and it's definitely possible to enjoy both. But I think that having a clearer distinction between the two, and making it clear which is preferred and which is being offered, will lead to a lot less friction and disappointment about the game itself. There will always be overly-controlling "Dungeon Masters", narcissistic players, and potato-headed rulebook authors, but if a player knows that they're getting into a storytelling game and is prepared to participate in such, they will be less likely to balk at the lack of risk or the use of fuzzy rules (heh) than if they were told that they were joining a roleplaying game.

I'd replace the title with "Storytelling", but that would make it less clear to most.


  1. "This does not mean that storytelling games are bad or wrong." Is it just me, or is it really weird that we feel the need to include these little disclaimers?

    1. I think some might assume that explaining how their game of choice isn't really an RPG (by this definition) is equivalent to attacking them or their game. I realize that this might be similar to "No true Scotsman"-ing them... but just because someone isn't a Scot, that doesn't mean they aren't a person.