The difference: D&D vs story games

The following is from a Google+ discussion.

“Let me throw out here an old article from Psychology Today that addresses a commonly understood principle: that constraints encourage creativity. It’s a good read, I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Take this line: ‘Responses that are applied in an almost algorithmic fashion (e.g., rote memorization of ideas in school, copying correctly, etc.) promote conformity. Constraints that preclude low-variability, tried-and-true responses, while at the same time promoting high variability, novel responses lead to creative breakthroughs.’

The difference I have experienced with what people call story games and with the category of games D&D defines is that narrowing the field of possibility encourages greater variation within those bounds.

Anything is possible within D&D, yet certain classes of experience are most likely. It’s why when some people play a story game, it opens their eyes to a different sort of experience than they thought possible. They almost certainly could have had that experience with a well-hacked D&D game run by a GM who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish.

Those sorts of GMs are in short supply.

By redefining and generally limiting what GMs can do, story games encourage you to explore different boundaries of experience. They shift the baseline and often impose severe restraints on reverting to a traditional D&D GM approach. It forces everyone – including the GM – into a certain set of choices, a certain kind of experience.

That certain kind of experience can be achieved by D&D, if you hack hard enough or interact with your players in a very systematic manner. But it usually isn’t.

If you want stories without limitations, take the Old School game closest to your choice of genre and run with it.

But I disagree that story games are packaged dinners while D&D games are ingredients. D&D is an infinite grocery store. If you wander far enough, you’ll find you can make anything. But most people won’t wander that far.

Story games drag you to a particular area in the store – one you may have never visited – and build walls around it and sometimes mazes through it. You have to try what what’s there rather than your old standbys. You have to make new choices.

You might even like it. Then again, you might not. Some people will never like Ethiopian food – and some people will always prefer cooking at home. “

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Posted in Musings

Why call them Story Games, anyway?

Lest someone think I’m putting on airs: I stole this definition wholesale because I liked the explanation so much.

While all role-playing games are kosher to talk about here at Story Games, you’ll probably see a lot of discussion focused towards smaller press games, or “dirty hippie games”, like roleplaying games that focus more on relationships, or story-building, or on “our story” over “my character”. That’s cause there’s not a lot of other places to discuss those sorts of things, so folks interested in that tended to gravitate here: Beyond that, exploring cool new ways to play any sort of game is a welcome topic here. The lesser-known games we discuss here often are no more important or “better” than other games or game styles (adventure games, etc). Nor by definition must the games we discuss here contain certain rules or playstyles, emphasis or de-emphasis on a central game-master, light/crunchy rules, etc.

Story Gamers are not better. We are not the Chosen Ones. We simply do things a little differently.

From The Rules and Purpose of Story Games at

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Musings: Is the Burning Wheel my ideal game system?

Adapted from an email I sent to my group:

Burning Wheel GoldAlways the elephant in the the room that is my brain is my mixed experience with Burning Wheel. The things I enjoy the most about games – wounds that feel real; potentially mortal combat; supporting non-combat encounters (i.e. Duels of Wits) as much as combat; lack of roll-based initiative systems; mechanical incentives for good roleplaying; ways for players to add to the fiction of the game; abstract measures of resources rather than meticulous tracking of every gold coin; mechanisms for resolving disagreements between players in-character; evocative, non-class-based (though admittedly detailed) character creation – it does all of that. It was the first game I read that made me realize that those things were possible, and I still think it’s one of the best at encouraging the behaviors it does in an implied setting that is beautifully Tolkien-esque.

The downside of all this is that if you engage the numerous optional subsystems in the game instead of just relying on the core mechanic, the game is complex. It’s at the opposite end of a spectrum from Apocalypse World. If Apocalypse World reveals the fiction through simple rules and strong GM guidance, Burning Wheel constructs the fiction through mechanics. You cannot hide from it. Neither Apocalypse World nor Burning Wheel permit “casual” players. You can’t sit back and wait for the combat, because almost everything you do uses a skill. Each time you use a skill, you’re making progress towards it improving, even (sometimes, especially!) if you fail. You use artha to succeed where it would otherwise be impossible, but to gain artha, you’ve got to put yourself at risk and pursue your Beliefs.

With engaged players, it’s a very tight system. With less engaged players… it’s not pretty.

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For The Love Of The Game

A week ago I outlined the seven elements of the gamer social contract. They are the Story to tell, the Game to play, who is the Game Master, the group’s Schedule,  the Venue, the Style of Play, and how much and what kind of Banter is acceptable. I’ve solicited input from online gamers about times they switched gaming systems while continuing the same adventure. I will share the results of these conversations eventually.

But a post by The Angry DM on Google+ has given me a different perspective. Go on, read it. I’ll wait.

If this is a case of tl;dr for you, Scott goes in depth into how working harder for the game than any other player makes the GM special. He goes further, though: he says that this means the GM has the right and obligation to ensure the game stays fun for her, the one running the game, even if that means sticking to your guns over player objections. The attitude Scott says he is fighting is that the GM ought to put everyone else’s fun above their own. The 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 do, as I recall, carry that presumption. They say little to nothing about the really hard work of running a game: when you have a player that wants one thing and another player or you yourself want something else, do you always yield?

Nothing is always in running a game. Sometimes you compromise and adapt; sometimes they compromise and adapt. And sometimes, someone isn’t willing to compromise, and they walk away.

Obligations to the Players, Yourself, and the Game

I’ve never before read anyone address the question of whether a GM has failed when a player walks away from the game. I long treated it as such myself. I knew it was a two-way street: the GM has fun helping the players have fun, and the players enjoy helping the GM have fun. What I realized after reading Scott’s post is that this is really a three-way relationship.

What I had been leaving out was the Game Itself.

No matter where you stand on the issue of player agency, every game is a combination of the players’ choices and the GM’s setting (and often her plot, too). A good GM tries to make the game fun for everyone at her table. But there is one player who needs to be 100% on board with the game and story and enjoying it enough for work on it to be a labor of love.

That’s you, the GM!

So the question of whether a GM should stand her ground has a new dimension: above all else, the GM must not make her game into something she doesn’t want to run anymore. Without the GM, there’s no game at all. Is it selfishness to insist on running a game that you enjoy? Perhaps. Consider this, though: if you lose your love for the game, the game will suffer and likely die. Is it not a greater disservice to you and every other player to let that happen rather than standing firm? It’s not a matter of whether the players come first or the GM comes first. If the group is to last, the Game must come first.

Many commenters on that post failed to see the distinction between putting the Game first and the GM putting herself first. They thought they were one and the same. In their defense, Scott wasn’t trying to explain that distinction: he was telling everyone who runs a game why they should be proud and defending their right to enjoy their game, too. I hope the difference is clearer now: the GM must put the Game first, before any individual player. And the baseline for a healthy game is a GM who loves to prepare for and run it. Without it, you have nothing but folks sitting at a table with small polyhedral shapes.

Does this mean players don’t matter? No. It does mean that one player is putting in far more effort than the others and is more crucial to the Game. This doesn’t mean the GM should never compromise. It does mean she must always balance the needs of the players against her need to love her game.

This is more important than any social contract. If everyone loves the game they’re playing enough, you can change just about every element and not break up the group. If the GM no longer loves the Game or the system she’s using to run it, though, there are only two words.

Game over.

Coming soon: how I fell out of love with 4E and undermined my campaign; how casual players are the greatest source of inertia in a game’s social contract; and what lessons the tabletop GM can learn from Mass Effect.

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Posted in Group Dynamics

The power of names, and tools to make them work for you

Two principles from D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (with a few props and preparation) can improve every game you will ever run under any system.

They aren’t rocket science. You probably already try to follow these rules. I always have. When you use memory aids to practice them consistently, though, their power to immerse players in the fiction are unmatched.

D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World

What’s in a name?

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie wrote, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When you remember someone’s name, especially after a long separation, they feel that you value them. You have dedicated some of your most precious resource to them: your memory.

In making characters, your players have created alter egos. They are creating something, identifying themselves with it, and then handing you control over its fate. The implied trust is enormous. For the duration of the game, they are becoming someone else. Address them appropriately!

Call them their character’s name!

When you call them by their character name every time, a switch flips: when you talk to them, they are the character. They may joke with other players out of character, but the player fades away when you tell them about what’s happening in the game.

Many players think about their character in the third person. “Well, Joan is a paladin, so I think she’ll try to help the peasants, even if it delays killing the lich.” Even if the wonderful pronoun enters into that sentence instead of the name of the character or the she, the syntax reveals that the character is an Other, an entity outside the player to be directed and manipulated like a game piece. Using the character’s name as often as possible while addressing the player shifts their perspective. In your game, the player steps out of the director’s chair and onto the stage, where they belong.

I have always tried to do this. You probably have, too. I frequently made it through half a session, got tired, and started slipping up. If you’re like me, you need tangible reminders. You need that name staring you in the face.

You need tent cards.

Name tags have plenty of downsides. They are too small, players feel ridiculous wearing them, they are either one time use or poke holes in your clothes, and staring at another player’s chest is a clear indicator you’ve forgotten their name yet again. Also, it’s creepy. Don’t be creepy.

Tent cards require minimal buy-in, spare players’ clothes and pride, and are visible while looking at the table. When you look from your notes to the player, your eyes will pass over the tent card, and remind you to use their character’s name. I recommend the 3 1/2 by 11 inch Large Tent Cards from Office Depot. They’re not cheap, but they are quite sturdy and retain their shape. You won’t need many cards per campaign. If you know other GMs, you can split the 50 cards among you and still be set for many a game. Any folded heavyweight paper of sufficient size will do in a pinch.

I originally bought tent cards to prepare for a convention, but now, I use them for every game. Even once you know your PCs’ names by heart, the card is a reminder to use it.

NPCs have names, too!

When a non-player character becomes important, you give them a name. That’s standard practice.

It’s also not enough.

Mr. Baker’s advice is worth quoting: “Leap forward with named, human NPCs.” (emphasis added)

Don’t wait for players to ask the character’s name. Don’t wait for them to try to find the same person a second time. Give them a name and use it as soon as the fiction can possibly justify it! Whenever you have an opportunity, pounce.

  • There are people the characters have learned about through rumors. Tell the players those characters’ names when the players meet them.
  • Make up an off-screen moment that revealed it: “Lerris, when you were looking around yesterday for clues about where the lich’s agents might be hiding, one of the guys you bought drinks for was a halfling named Johann. That’s the same halfling you see now talking to Grom the bartender between subtle glances in your direction.”
  • Hang it on a player’s history: “Lo, you knew Tarris during the war. He dispatched you on one of your most dangerous missions. At Vries’ ball, though, he’s doing his best to pretend he can’t even see you.”
  • Let the players overhear someone else addressing the character by name.

Of course, if your game takes place in a setting the characters have been to or lived in, tell them everybody’s name: “Talia, you lived in Altara before setting off on this adventure. You recognize that half-orc as Gurk. He’s acting a lot smarter than you remember. Something’s happened to him, or he’s following orders.”

Having a list of names at the ready is vital. Use one and mark it off, and write it down in your notes as soon as you have the opportunity. Depending on your setting, you may need multiple lists. I have had random names divided by species and culture. These halflings live among the humans, who have Germanic names? Scratch Johann off the list and throw him at the players. Note that they met Johann the shady halfling. Give him a quick motivation and you’re ready to go.

Using names constantly means more bookkeeping. Trust me; it’s worth it.

To players, names signal importance. Name everyone, and the world comes alive. Try it, and tell me how it goes!

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Posted in Best Practices

Your Gaming Group’s Social Contract, Part 1: How We Get Along – Or Don’t

We as role-playing gamers tend to overlook the importance of group dynamics when creating or joining a group. These dynamics then lead to the group’s breakdown. What are the elements of a group’s social contract? How can we make groups that last as long as we want to play?

My first game didn’t have a charter, but it had plenty of implicit social norms and expectations. Read more ›

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