So You Want To Run A Story Game? – Part One – Are You Sure You Want To Run A Story Game?

There’s a debate in the OSR – an imbloglio, if you will – afoot regarding such unnerving concepts as quantum ogres, palette shifting*, the fudging of dice, the illusion of choice and the preservation of that most holy of holies, player agency.  I confess to having not followed the full thing from top to tail, but I recently bore witness to a discussion about players wanting stories at the expense of tactics and the perils of gamesmaster-as-frustrated-novelist that struck something of a chord with me and made me want to speak up in defence – and, admittedly, in critique – of ‘story gaming’.

I think the reason that some people don’t ‘get’ story gaming is that it deals with a different essential narrative conflict to the one they’re used to.  D&D, Call of Cthulhu, proper WFRP, all the old-school games are about the characters vs. the hostile environment.  Story games are about the characters vs. themselves, with that conflict sometimes being externalised in or provoked by their environment.**  Let’s have a look at Vampire (all excerpts from third edition rulebook), which can be legitimately blamed for all this, and you’ll see where I’m coming from:

I’ll tell you about a vampire, about her talents and her weaknesses, and you tell me what kind of challenges she faces, what rewards or perils come her way.  You plan the twists and turns the story will take, and I will tell you how the vampire navigates them.  Only you know how the story ultimately ends, but only I know how the vampire will arrive there.  Along the way, the work you put into the story gives my vampire the chance to grow and develop, and her actions breathe life into the world you have created.

Now, there’s a clause here that I disagree with, enormously, and it’s the one that acts as a licence to railroad.  ‘Only you know how the story ultimately ends’… suggesting that the almighty Storyteller sits down with a preconceived notion of what’s going to happen, and the players are essentially improvising the dialogue for an otherwise already-written novel.  That seems to be part of the developers’ plan for the game.

I can’t be having with that.  I prefer ‘gamesmaster’ to ‘Storyteller’ for the very good reason that the GM is not an author, not possessed of ‘authority’ over the textuality of the game; the GM is an adjudicator, a referee, a performer, a facilitator, a stimulator and a motivator, but never an author, never someone who knows how the story ends before it starts.

It may be safe, sane and consensual fun for all involved and it’s not doing anyone any harm, but I’ve run those frustrated-novelist games before and the trouble is that one person’s imagined ending is arraigned against three or four people’s agency and innate, laudable desire to explore.  When parties to an experience do not share desired outcomes, someone is going to walk away at least partly unsatisfied.

It is of course possible that this conflict of interest doesn’t exist, that players are interested in going ‘where the adventure is’ and don’t mind being railroaded in the cause of getting the game started.  I’ve seen it happen – run games where I’ve given the initiative to the players and they’ve sat there and looked at it like it’s crawled out of a piece of cheese.  There’s a certain kind of mindset that wants to be given a door to walk through and a game on the other side of it – but that’s not the mindset of your average story game player.

Your story gamer, in the White Wolf sense, is in essence concerned with character development; exploring how an ordinary person comes to terms with becoming and existing as an extraordinary thing.

Vampire is about the characters and how they develop — or wither — in the face of tragedy and temptation.  Can a mortal steeped in religious faith reconcile her deeply held beliefs with her lust for blood?  Can a vampire resist the temptation to Embrace her lover rather than face an eternity of loneliness?  The Beast awaits any Kindred who surrenders herself completely to her predatory urges. The Storyteller must draw on the characters’ backgrounds, hopes, and ambitions to create stories that challenge their — and their players’ — convictions and beliefs.

There’s a reason these games have rules for willpower and moral degradation, systems not only for supernatural power but for modelling its corruptive effects.  Exploring all that takes time.  It’s sort of hard to do the Hero’s Journey if the Hero carks it at stage two.

Does this mean that all WoD characters’ arcs have to be entirely pre-planned and follow the Campbellian format, or any other big narratological conceit?  Hell no.  Achilli and co. themselves seem to acknowledge this in a later, somewhat contradictory piece of advice concerning how to be a good ‘Storyteller’:

The secret to successful storytelling is, ironically, the work of the players. Fulfilling the expectations and interests of a chronicle’s players is the first trick to creating the game’s setting. Then — if the chronicle and its overall story have been carefully developed — the actions of the characters, both good and bad, will have consequences that in turn spawn further stories. Never forget: The more the players are involved with what happens in a chronicle, the less work you, the Storyteller, must take upon yourself. You aren’t supposed to do it all alone.

You tell me about a person, I’ll make them a vampire, and we’ll make up what happens next as we go along, the operative word being ‘we’. You need to know what you want, and you need to have put enough investment into your character to care about their innermost wossnames – and I need to know and care about what you want and be able to deliver it, with enough of a challenge and threat and resistance from the game itself to keep things interesting.  The important thing is that this fictional person we call ‘your character’ is coming to terms with what they are and what happens to them, that events have consequences and resonance and echoes, that they exist long enough and have enough happen to them to work out who they’re going to be.

Does this mean fudging dice rolls to keep the buggers alive?  Does it hell.  Characters don’t develop if they don’t get to face the peril now and then.  Going out there and taking risks is part of what forces characters to confront themselves and their failings – sitting in isolation, anguishing is just an endless closed circle, not development but wallowing.  It’s not a game if there isn’t some goal, some interactive component.

However, character development and character vs. self conflict at the heart of the game requires being selective about when dice are rolled in the first place.  There’s nothing especially wrong with a character dying pathetically, or suddenly, or with unfinished business, if that’s part of their story; but there is, I think, something wrong with a WoD character, whose growth and change and suffering and strife are what makes WoD WoD and not some other game where character growth isn’t the point of the experience… there’s something wrong with that character being killed by a fluke hit from a random encounter.

Unless, of course, what the character is learning is that being supernatural doesn’t make one invincible, that a lucky or resourceful mundane can still bring them down: but that’s a lesson that doesn’t make sense if the character hasn’t already come to consider themselves invincible, and they’re not going to do that if they drop like a dying wasp in the second session.  A sudden and arbitrary death, a character dying before they’ve begun to live… that works now and then, but story gaming is about completing the journey, arriving at some sort of resolution.

It’s not a lot like life, but accurate simulation of real life’s not what stories do. Story gaming does involve a little bit more character security than adventure/exploration gaming, but it’s masturbatory and dull if there’s too much security, if the characters aren’t threatened by themselves and by external conflict that brings out troubling aspects of themselves.  I had my best World of Darkness times with a group of artists and drama students who were responsible enough to make even their awesome alter egoes into fairly rounded, flawed characters***.

Not everyone is capable of that, not everyone wants to do that, not everyone enjoys doing that.  I don’t think story gaming works for everyone – that’s part of why I keep my WoD games invitation-only.  That may strike people as being elitist, and words ending in -ist are, by and large, words we do not want applied to ourselves.  Tough.  Some things are not for everyone.

Whatever kind of Vampire – or Mage or Werewolf or Wraith or whatever – we’re running, and there are kinds involved, it doesn’t all have to be angst and politics, but whatever kind of game we’re playing here, you’re going to have to make some sort of investment in your character, you’re going to have to give a damn about their hopes and dreams and fears and hates, about the story in the game rather than the story generated by playing the game – because that’s the point of playing these games in the first place.

If I didn’t want to focus on my character’s inner conflicts, and just wanted to overcome harsh circumstances and tell a different story, of strife and hardship and victories hard-won with a few funny voices on the side, where what my character does is more definitive than who they are, I’d play some old-school game or other and probably enjoy it.

The games that fail are the games that can’t decide what they’re about, that try to serve different purposes and focus on different conflicts and ultimately end up boring the pants off any player who’s not interested in whichever one it’s about at a given moment.  That’s the other reason I headhunt people for games, rather than running whatever for whoever.  I’ve tried asking what people want and they either haven’t thought about it (why? That just seems to be asking for things to go wrong…) or they have, and I’ve realised I’d be running a schizoid mess that’s going to bore and alienate someone at any given point.

That, incidentally, is why I’m quite glad that the Goblins! game has stalled – it gives me time to work out who wants what, and whether the people who want the same things can play together, and whether there’s something else that could deliver what people want without being forced into the wrong mould.

* – I think she’s doing perfectly well where she is.
** – I don’t know which games are about the characters vs. each other. You could do it with Vampire, but that’d be the same kind of fundamental warping as trying to turn D&D into a story game, with the same sort of results. I think something like Inquisitor, the ‘narrative wargame’ approach that looks and feels like an RPG but has players on opposite sides, competing rather than co-operating to achieve their goals as standard, is probably the sort of thing you’re looking at here. It occurs that Ars Magica may work for that sort of thing; three or four players each controlling a magician and their hierlings, minions, associates and so on, all in opposition.
*** – Well, after the first time, but we were all about seventeen at the time and frankly we didn’t know any better. Still fun anyway.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

10 thoughts on “So You Want To Run A Story Game? – Part One – Are You Sure You Want To Run A Story Game?”

  1. This is particularly fitting and more than a little serendipitous as I just re-evaluated my character idea for the WOD game and came to a final conclusion. Almost all of the things you discuss here were in the thought process and development stages of this new idea, and I bandied them about but without anywhere near as much clarity or understanding.

    Thanks for a very timely and insightful post!

  2. Out of curiosity, have you actually played Ars Magica? I bought the rulebook for the latest edition on a whim (at a con, on sale, book looked pretty) a while ago and it looks incredibly complex and intricate. I honestly can’t picture how a game might actually look like from start to finish, it’s such an unusually-designed system. Looking at it as player-vs-player as you suggested makes the most sense to me.

      1. Heck, I’d almost be willing to ship my copies to you. I can’t sell them on eBay cause no one’s buying, and I’d get junk for them at my local used book store. Least this way I’d know someone who might actually use them is getting them. Unfortunately, shipping from US to UK can be a bit expensive.

  3. I was sitting in a second-hand bookshop the other day and I had a good fifteen minute flip through an old Ars Magica. I was surprised, it seemed like it shared quite a bit with WoD. One of the wizard clans was the Tremere(?), and it told the story of how they became vampires from a botched immortality experiment. Is there some connection between the games?

    The other thing I found interesting was that it was up to the player whether to be a mage or a companion. The book freely admitted that magi were mythically powerful heroes, and that for the sake or realism there were no artificial limits to the skills they could learn, armour they wear, or whatever. I thought, no self-respecting dungeon-crawler would choose to play a companion – that would be like playing a Commoner in D&D terms. That’s a fundamental difference between story-telling games and dungeon-crawl games right there.

    As you mentioned, having flaws makes your character far more interesting in terms of story-telling, so I imagine a group of Ars Magica players with two magi and the rest companions would be dramatically pretty spot-on?

    1. Well, for what it’s worth, Wikipedia says the Tremere first appeared in Ars Magica (ooh, by the same authors, never knew that) and migrated over to Vampire when that game emerged.

      The vibe I’ve picked up from AM so far is that each player has both a mage and their companions to play, and so everyone has this one mythically potent entity off in a tower honing their metaphysical acuity and their hierlings, henchmen and associates off taking care of temporal affairs for them. That’s how I’d do it, anyway: nobody has to take the companion bullet (that’d be rather unsatisfactory), and everybody gets their turn as an entity of power. Seems to sit well with the rotating-GM aspect too. All roles are open to all players at some point or another.

      I also feel compelled to point out that flaws aren’t necessarily mechanical. The seven deadly sins count for a lot in a story game, and the psychological flaws of a character gradually eat away at them mechanically. Narratively, too: an active, famous mage will be bothered by people wanting the mage to wish all their problems away, while a particularly cruel mage would attract rivals, and possibly even adventurers seeking to overthrow them…

      (damn, I want to run this now…)

  4. Yeah it does sound pretty cool. I was actually thinking playing a companion would be fun, not exactly taking a bullet. Being a grizzled huntsman or haunted knight associating with magi would be interesting. Kind of like Giles or Xander in Buffy.

  5. I know that you also have “grogs”, who are torch-bearers, servants, Igors, etc, and they are created and played collectively by all the players. Companions are mundane people with heroically useful skills or knowledge.

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