On Story Games and Trad Games

I didn’t really want this to be my first post back on the blog after more than a year of not blogging, since I’ve mostly been consolidating my thoughts on RPG-related subjects into pithy twitter threads. But I guess people are right when they say that twitter isn’t actually a great place for long-form discussion, and uh, I’ve had this blog longer than I’ve had twitter. But here I am.

So recently, a certain big (the biggest) D&D livestream played a session of a notable Powered by the Apocalypse game for Valentine’s Day. I want to be clear, even though that event is what inspired this post, I really really really do not want to talk about them. For one thing, the fans (sorry). For another thing, I don’t actually watch the show, so I can’t speak about the show itself in a particularly knowledgeable way.

Do you know what I CAN talk about in a particularly knowledgeable way? Trying to play story games (whether as a GM or a player) when you’re only used to D&D and making an absolute hash of it. Because boy oh boy have I done that.

A couple years ago, I got super burned out on running D&D, so when my Tuesday night group finished up our campaign, I gave two options: either someone else can step up and GM something (anything!), or I can run something that isn’t D&D. As a whole, we opted for the latter. This is when I reached Peak Insufferability and I made a slideshow with five different games/systems I was interested in running with a summary of the game, and their pros and cons, and then I set up a ranked choice poll for my players for what they wanted to play after we reviewed the slideshow. Yeah, it’s okay, I hate me too.

We ended up playing Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, which is a game I adore and would dearly like to play or run again sometime. However… the Tuesday night campaign itself absolutely imploded. Part of that was changing schedules on my players’ part – one got switched to second shift at work, one has kids who started karate on Tuesday nights – that’s just a normal part of “trying to organize an ongoing event as adults with responsibilities”. It happens, I’m not mad about that part.

I am still – and this was like two years ago at this point – mad at myself, though, because I, as the GM and the one who was most familiar with the game, absolutely borked the explanation and setup of the game to my players. I don’t think I explained Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, itself, poorly. What I explained poorly, or maybe failed to explain at all? The difference between trad games and story games (or how I perceive the difference) (yes, I am just getting to The Point in the sixth paragraph, this is why I couldn’t tweet this).

I knew that a majority of my players were only or primarily familiar with D&D. I knew that trad play and story play were different, often very different. But at the time, I didn’t have the words to articulate why it was different and why different player expectations going in would make all the difference. I kind of figured, okay, if I know and can teach the rules of this thing, I can make it work. Spoiler alert: I could not make it work.

And it hasn’t just been that one home game. I usually make it a point to run exclusively story games at cons, in recent years. I feel that it’s one of the most effective things I can do to get more eyes on the story games I love, because even beyond the 3-6 players I end up running the game for, it’s also visible to everyone who looks at the con schedule, and they might end up looking it up and checking out more story games, even if they don’t come play mine. Sorry, tangent.

In reality, running a lot of story games at cons means having at least one player – and sometimes the whole group – who’ve never played a story game before. Maybe they’ve only played D&D, maybe they’ve also played some other trad games like Savage Worlds or Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu. So my game is often at least SOMEONE’s introduction to story games, which I’m really pleased by, like I’m glad that’s a thing I’m able to do (for assorted reasons, I know not everyone can go to cons, not everyone can run games at cons, not everyone can run games for strangers, etc.).

But like… that also means they’re sometimes not very good game sessions. I do my best to compensate, but sometimes you simply cannot break someone out of the trad game mindset in three hours. 

SO, with ALL of that context, I am here to finally GET TO THE POINT, which is that I consider myself very experienced with introducing trad players to story games, and I’ve learned by a lot of trial and error, and I’ve learned from the failures as much as the successes (if not more), so I am giving you my advice on “what you really need your players to know when they try a story game for the first time”. This is also going to overlap somewhat into “what actually IS the difference between the two”.

Okay, so, these points are in no particular order, this is from my own experiences thinking about That Stream, and a recent convention I attended. Some usual caveats: my RPG experiences are not universal. My perspective is limited as one person. And I am not really saying anything new in the below sections; I am trying to give context to things I have learned from others. There are many wonderful people who are much smarter than me and much more experienced with story games, but I’m going to do my best.

Part One: The Framing of Scenes

I would never refer to any single facet of RPGs as “universal” across all RPGs, but in a vast majority of RPGs, you have scenes. And where there’s scenes, there’s framing. I’m using framing here to mean when you say things like “okay, you enter the room, and you see that there’s a sleeping dragon laying on a pile of gold coins” or “oh, I’d really like to have a scene where my character and your character bump into each other at the party and it’s awkward”.

The key issue I see here is this: whose responsibility is it to frame scenes? In trad games, it’s (usually) the GM. In story games, it’s (usually) everyone, often especially the players. To me, that’s the biggest part of how I define the difference between the two. If I play the game, and the GM is doing all or almost all of the framing, that’s a trad game to me (and to be as clear as humanly possible, I do not intend to use trad game as a pejorative – it’s just helpful to have two different terms to ascribe to two different styles of play. This is not a value judgment).

More often than not in sessions with new story-game players, this is one of the biggest sticking points, and one of the biggest things to try and overcome to get into a “story-game mindset”. In my experience, the first time that an experienced D&D player is asked to frame a scene, there’s a moment where they freeze, because they’re not used to that narrative responsibility being theirs. Often they will recover, describe something, and then defer back to the GM like “if that’s okay” or “did I do that right?” 

Some players adapt to this very quickly; others don’t. But you can make it easier for everyone, as the person who’s introducing the game to others, by putting that expectation right up front. And don’t just say “in this game, we all share the responsibility of framing scenes”; give actual examples. The two examples I gave in that first paragraph? I picked those on purpose. One of them is very clearly a GM speaking and the other is very clearly a player.

The way you ask, as the GM, also helps make things clear. I learned this trick from other GMs who are much better and more experienced than I am, but I no longer say “okay, what happens next?” I say, “okay, what type of scene do you want to have next? What do you want to see happen?” I like to frame it as “what do you WANT?” because that’s ultimately what it is.

The old standby in PbtA’s is “what do you do?” but I’ve actually found that question only works with more experienced PbtA players as opposed to new ones. A lot of new players who are used to trad games take that to mean that they need to look at their moves and pick one to do, which isn’t really how PbtA’s are supposed to work. But saying “what do you want to happen next?” changes the thought process to be more like describing what happens in the story, then triggering a move where appropriate, which IS the foundation of the system. It also gives them the opportunity to not only control their character, but the world and the NPCs. “What do you do?” is about THEIR character only. “What do you want to happen next?” opens up for possibilities like “I think that NPC from two scenes ago bursts back in with a gun”.

Part Two: Reactive vs. Proactive Play

Another really common stumbling block I’ve found is that people only used to trad games are most often used to REACTING as opposed to just… DOING. When it’s the GM’s responsibility to frame all the scenes and frame the story overall, it becomes entirely the players’ role to react. In a typical trad game session, the GM poses a situation, including a problem, to the players, and the players react to that problem.

When the story game GM says something that doesn’t include an EXPLICIT hook to “you need to do something about this”, trad players can freeze up again. They might not understand their characters’ drives, they might not be used to the kind of freedom granted by driving the story themselves, they might just be afraid of messing something up for the other players (this is the most common, in my experience).

This is honestly the part where I struggle the most as the GM, to prompt players to do something, while giving them the openness to do what they want and not something SPECIFIC, without coming right out and saying “hey, I need one of you to DO something or this isn’t gonna work” (and hey, sometimes that’s what you gotta do). 

Here’s something that I learned from PbtA games that I’ve started to bring more into other games when I play them, including D&D. Every character needs to want something, and want it badly. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, but EVERY character needs to WANT a thing. And there needs to be a reason why they can’t have it, or why they don’t have it yet, or a consequence they’ll suffer for getting it, or all of the above. If you have that – and ESPECIALLY if you have two or more characters whose desires are at cross-purposes – then a session can flow very easily from there. These desires should be actionable, not abstract. 

Sometimes there isn’t an elegant way to handle this besides saying at the start of the game, “All of your characters want something. Tell me why they don’t have it yet.” This is, in general, the driver for most single-session play. If I run a prom-themed game, I ask every player at the start of the game “Why does your character want to be prom royalty?” And they all have to give me an answer, there is no “my character doesn’t want anything”, and right there, that fosters inter-character relationships that drive action.

In PbtA games especially, the player characters ACT and the GM REACTS, as opposed to the other way around. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to just spell that out, honestly. If you have players who you know are new to that style of play, you can just SAY, “I need you all to be proactive.” Because sometimes open and honest communication IS the answer.

Part Three: The Role of the GM

So, if everyone is sharing the responsibility of framing scenes, and everyone is sharing the responsibility of moving the story forward, what exactly IS the role of the GM? Like, what do you need a GM for anyway?

Haha, well. That’s a big loaded heavy question.

To start with, a decent subset of story games actually ARE GM-less games (also sometimes called GM-full games, where everyone shares the traditional responsibilities of the GM role). These are games that have decided that a GM simply is not necessary. I, personally, love that, but lots of others have very valid criticisms of it.

The main point that I see (and agree with!) is that whether or not there’s a GM, there still needs to be a facilitator. There still needs to be someone who can serve as rules arbitrator, who can say “hey pals, we’re off on a tangent, let’s get back on track”, who can keep the table dynamic pleasant and positive. In many story games, that doesn’t have to be a GM, it can just be another player.

But often, it is simplest for the game system to vest that power in one person, to make loudly clear who that person is, and to give them the rest of the responsibilities like playing NPCs, describing the world, etc. In PbtA games, the rules text usually tries to make clear that the GM is just another player, who happens to be playing the world. But I think to a lot of new players who are used to trad games, that doesn’t actually mean anything.

It definitely didn’t to me when I first got started, honestly. I think when it started to click for me was when I realized that this ties into the previous point about proactive vs reactive playing. Does the setting act, and the player characters react? Or do the player characters act, and the setting reacts (as a general whole, with some exceptions)? I think in most contexts, people prefer the latter – player characters DO THINGS. 

Player characters need to have agency, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot without much explanation, but it usually comes down to that previous point: is the character able to effect change on the story? On the world? Do their actions have an impact? Are they able to choose their actions? Are they able to drive the story forward in a direction they choose? Are they able to act independently, or only react to events that happen TO them?

I think… in my experience, player characters in trad games have much less agency than in story games. There’s a lot of wiggle room in that, but when your primary role is to react you have less agency than when your primary role is to be proactive. After I adjusted to story games, this is the hardest part of “going back” to trad games. Apologies to my friends who run trad games for me for all the times I’ve accidentally, by habit, stepped in to co-GM with you. Oops.

But for a new player who has only played trad games – and maybe not GMed a game ever – a GM who steps back and pokes them to act first can seem like a GM who isn’t doing their job. In my experience, this mental adjustment goes about as fast or as slow as the adjustment to framing scenes where they weren’t used to framing scenes. 

Usually I think the best thing you can do as the GM in this situation is to verbally affirm their choices and to frequently ask them for suggestions, because that positive feedback gets them used to making choices. One thing I like to do is ask the new players for multiple suggestions from the table, like “hey, I could use some help on what [NPC] does next, who has ideas?” and pick from the ideas presented, or merge some together into my response, paying attention to who I’m taking suggestions from and trying to take them from everyone roughly equally.

Part Four: “Drive Your Characters Like Stolen Cars”

The phrase “drive your character like a stolen car” is one that I hear repeated very often in story game spaces, and especially in PbtA spaces (I think the quote originated in Monsterhearts and it was originally about NPCs, but don’t quote me on that, I’m not actually sure). And I actually really hated it at first because no one seemed interested in explaining to me what that meant? In retrospect, to me, it feels intuitive, but when I first started hearing it, I could sort of guess at the meaning, but couldn’t figure out how to make it actually WORK in game.

In essence, “drive your character like a stolen car” means “Don’t get too attached, don’t get too protective, don’t be afraid to get reckless.” Gamers who are only used to the trad game experience, in my experience, tend to be much more protective of their characters than people who are more used to story games. They’re less likely to want to allow bad things to happen to their characters, they’re less likely to steer the story in a direction that doesn’t necessarily include them getting their way, etc.

This, I think, comes from the adversarial nature of D&D as compared to a truly collaborative game, and the fact that the game’s focus is rooted in combat. And yes, I do think even the least adversarial games of D&D are still… pretty adversarial.

I’m trying to think of a way to say this without taking sides, because I’ve been trying not to take sides about this whole thing, but ultimately I do have a strong preference as to how my games go and how I participate in them: I don’t care if bad things happen to my character as long as it makes for a better story for the whole group (and my next points are going to build on this). I have very little patience for trying to keep characters from experiencing consequences or suffering or “bad stuff” in general when the narrative demands, AS THE PLAYER.

Obviously my character doesn’t want bad things to happen to her. But I, as the player, recognize that they will. It’s like how people don’t make the differentiation between “oh, but this is what my character would do” and the acknowledgement that they are the one who MADE that character and have the ability to change that (and this goes for prose fiction writing, as well as RPGs – it’s a huge pet peeve of mine, sorry).

So yeah, a very common piece of advice thrown around in PbtA games is “drive your character like a stolen car” and this is, I believe, good and correct advice… but you will likely need to stop and take a minute to explain what this means to your players who are new to story games. And for what it’s worth, I’ve begun to feel the same way in any games I play, ESPECIALLY if they’re one-shots. Why try so hard to protect a one-shot character? No, push them to their limits, drive them to the brink, and then abandon them at the end of the game and watch the glorious explosion.

Part Five: “Winning”

I was originally going to roll this up into the previous point, but I felt it was worth separating into its own thing. So, at the convention I attended recently, I facilitated a game of Dialect, a game I simply adore, for a group of players who had never played it, and largely never played any story games before. Which uh, oof. That’s not a super easy game to jump into from a trad game background. But hey, we made the most of it.

But there was a moment where I actually paused a scene taking place to say to one player, “Hey, it feels like you’re trying to win this scene. Please stop trying to win this unwinnable game.” I’ve actually never done that before; I’ve never felt empowered to be like “hey, you’re off target a little here, bud,” no matter how off target they are.

It’s a really common adage that RPGs aren’t a thing you win. These are collaborative games, where the “winning outcome” is that you all tell a satisfying story together (or, as my father once put it, “sounds like some communist nonsense.” And like, if you take the general idea of RPGs, I think that’s true, that there is no winning… however.

I think there IS a kind of winning that we run into a lot of times which is “I want my character to get what they want and get the best possible outcome and I am willing to derail everything else in the game to make that happen”. But here’s the thing – you’re playing with a table of 2-6 other people who might also want that. My experience with these players is that they tend to be spotlight hogs, which you can run into in ANY kind of game.

There’s been some discussion around “player types”, you can google it and find all kinds of dichotomies like “the ten kinds of RPG players” and “five types of gamers you’ll see at every table” or other similar clickbaity titles. You will often get a good mix of players, but what you want, and what I tend to think most players should aim for, is to be rainmakers and spotlight-creators. In short, rainmakers make shit happen in the game. They move things forward. Spotlight-creators are distinct from spotlight hogs, in the sense that they create moments explicitly for other players to shine.

Sorry, that’s technically a digression, I’m not here to talk about player types. I wanted to talk about how to gently take away the concept of “winning” like taking away a security blanket.

Honestly, I think I did the right thing when I said “Hey, I feel like you’re trying to win this. Please stop.” You know why? Because that player changed their behavior and the rest of the game went much more smoothly after I stepped in. I think the best way to deal with this is to have the facilitator step in, and this is one of those situations that I think is really hard to deal with without a specific facilitator.

At a con game, it’s somewhat simpler because people will usually defer to the person who put the game on the schedule as the facilitator, just inherently. At home games, it can be harder. In the situation I described, I think it would’ve been harder for any of the other players to step in. I know if I had been actually playing and not just teaching and facilitating, I would’ve hesitated to step in. I would’ve felt like I was asking a player to have less fun so that I could have more fun. I would’ve felt like a buzzkill. This is why I think every game needs an explicitly stated facilitator, whether or not they’re the GM.

As for helping players not want to “win”, or to accept not “winning” (and I keep putting quotes around that because I do mean it in the sense of “getting exactly what they want”), I find it helpful to suggest the dramatic stakes for if they DON’T get what they want. I think people have a kind of innate understanding of what a good story is vs. a bad and boring story, because in the year of our lord 2020, everyone watches movies or TV or plays video games or reads books, and we do it from a very young age, so we’re steeped in narrative. 

So sometimes all it takes is to offer a better alternative, and people will often see “oh, yeah, that’s a better story”. They may not always understand why, and I don’t expect them to – not everyone is a literature student, nor should they need or want to be in order to play satisfying games. But it’s important to phrase it as a suggestion, or to riff back and forth on an idea with them. Because then you’re not taking away their security blanket, you’re replacing it with something else.

Part Six: What is “the Narrative”?

I’ve been talking a lot about “the narrative” and “the story” which is a thing like I feel needs explanation, both here on the blog, and at the table with people who aren’t well acquainted with story gaming, because it’s, well, it’s in the name. 

This is where we get all English major-y, and I think where we find the divide between people who really PREFER trad games or PREFER story games, rather than merely their level of experience with one or the other. Most story games put a heavier emphasis on “story” over “game”. There are fewer direct game-y elements (less randomization – maybe no randomization at all, we’ll get there; less simulationist rules; etc) and a bigger focus on emulating story elements – conflict, characterization, world-building, dynamic character development, dialogue, THEMES.

This is part of why I think a lot of story games are intended to emulate specific genres and subgenres, and why they’re VERY GOOD at doing so. Rather than trying to do a bunch of stuff sort of well, they’ll do one thing very very well. Anyway.

In contrast, a trad game is more likely to put a heavier emphasis on the “game” part of “roleplaying game”. Decisions of character interaction and development, for example, are more likely to be secondary to dice rolls, grid-based combat, etc. This largely comes from D&D being “the” core pillar of trad gaming, and the fact that D&D evolved out of wargaming. 

Again, I don’t like to make a value judgment; like there’s obviously nothing wrong with preferring “game” over “roleplay” when ranking the elements of “what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game”. Buuuuut, knowing what players prefer can be really important for making sure everyone is on the same page.

If a player really really wants to roll lots of dice, have lots of little fiddly rules to play with, have big long equipment lists, etc., the number of story games they’re going to be happy playing shrinks dramatically. I know of some that can do that, but a lot are played with minimal dice rolling, maybe none at all, maybe a deck of cards, very simple rules.

And if someone comes in with the expectation of “I’m going to be playing a game and therefore I am expecting and excited to roll lots of dice and play with lots of small fiddly situational rules”… and then they don’t do that at all, there is a level of disappointment there, which I don’t think is unfair. This is just about level-setting at the start of the game, to the point that I put if a game is diceless, if it’s a 2d6 system, if it’s move-based, right in the event description at cons.

Part Seven: Mechanical Complexity, Combat, Randomization, and Personal Preference

Tying into the above point, there are some things that are just a matter of personal preference that you are simply not going to be able to overcome. Not everyone is going to like or enjoy or be good at every game, and it would be foolish to try to make them like it.

For example, some people like lots of combat in their games. They’re here to fight stuff. That’s what they want. Or, many people have very different levels of preferred mechanical complexity, to the point that even within the same game, D&D, some people want lots of mechanical complexity (which means they usually play spellcasters) and other people want very little (which means they usually play martial fighters), because that’s the way that D&D divides up mechanical complexity (a whole separate rant).

This also applies to randomization. Some games have a lot of it, and some games have very little, and some games have none (no dice, no masters). And some people like a lot of randomization and some people like very little of it! This ties into preferring more game-y elements, I think – if you view what you’re doing as JUST playing a game, randomization makes more sense in most respects. If you view what you’re doing as JUST telling a story, then it makes sense to have little to no randomization (do novelists randomize things as they write novels? I don’t think so? I don’t). The act of playing a roleplaying game is somewhere between the two, and everyone is going to have different ideas as to how much is “right”.

The answer to this problem is not to bash games into a level of mechanical complexity or subject matter that they weren’t built to support. The answer is just for there to be lots of games, all of which are very different from each other. Taking a PbtA game and treating it like it’s going to have the mechanical complexity of something like D&D does no one any favors, nor does trying to force the game to do something it wasn’t built to do. You just end up with everyone being dissatisfied or doing a lot more mental work than they really need to do.

The answer is to play lots and lots of different games so you can knowledgeably find what works best for you, thank you, the end (of this part).

Part Eight: Jen, What the Fuck Do I Do With All This?

Listen, y’all. I can give a lot of advice, and I can talk about my experiences, and I can make suggestions about what to do and not do. The fact is, I still have games that are unsatisfying to me, due to a fundamental difference in expectations and preferences between me and other players. It may be pessimistic, but I think everyone is always going to have that; the goal is to minimize the amount of times that happens.

If you are a GM who is currently running a trad game for your group and you want to make a change to a story game, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you get the game of your dreams! And I hope you are able to utilize this advice – I know it’s a lot to frontload some of these conversations before you’ve even decided what to play, but you’ll save yourself a lot of heartbreak in the end.

And here’s the other thing: I do think it’s okay to fuck up when playing games. To make rules mistakes, to make assumptions about what a game is meant to do, whatever. Everyone fucks up.

Not everyone is a multimillion dollar game-streaming platform with incredible resources that most of us couldn’t dream of. Not all of us have an audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Not all of us frame ourselves as “professional gamers” (I mean, I do in the sense of a game designer, but I’m not a professional GM or a professional player). Not all of us make our living doing this. Not all of us have the ability to misrepresent a game to thousands of people.

Like I said earlier, I make a point of running story games at cons to provide more exposure to these games, to get more eyes on them. That means I also have a responsibility to run them correctly, to understand the intent of the designer, to know what “makes it tic” and to communicate that to potential players. I have that responsibility at a game con with an attendance of 100, and they have that responsibility as streamers with a colossal audience. It’s okay not to be good at a given game. It’s not okay not to do the work.

My advice here is presented for a home-game GM, or a GM running games for their friendly local game con. But I think it applies to big-name streamers too, perhaps even moreso. Not every game is D&D, nor should it be. But if you’re going to TREAT every game like it’s D&D, then why bother playing anything else to begin with?

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