I Hate Story Tokens

By | March 1, 2014

I’ve mentioned before that Forthright Open Roleplay is not quite a traditional game and not quite a story game, but instead tries to straddle both worlds as a kind of hybrid between the two.  Traditional gaming brings with it the joy and wonder of tactical combat and the danger of a thrilling death.  Story gaming brings a sense of freedom and empowerment, allowing everyone to shape the story and enhance the drama of play.  As we have designed Forthright, our individual sensibilities came to the fore.  Ray stands very much in the world of the traditional game and is very comfortable with variations of classic d20 play.  Sarah, on the other hand, is very firmly rooted in freeform and story-based play.  As lead designer, it falls to me to find a balance between the two.

This can be sometimes-challenging, sometimes-easy, because I myself waffle back and forth between styles.  I prefer something more freeform than traditional gaming, but not too much so, and I love tactical combat and have always been most comfortable with a battle mat on the table.  It helps me visualize – and set – the scene when I am GMing.  But I don’t care overmuch for very crunchy rules or getting lost in minutiae; to my mind, that takes away from play because to me, play is about inhabiting the characters and getting swept up by the world and by the story.  At the same time, I don’t like things to be too “make it up as you go,” because then as a GM I can’t plan for what might occur when I introduce player characters to a gamescape, and players may feel like the world is fast and loose and incomprehensible around them.

So with this in mind, we set out to create Forthright.  And one of the first things we had to decide is how far we wanted to paint ourselves in the corner of narrativist games.

Narrativist games take that classic tack of “don’t look at your character sheet, just tell me what you want to do” and use it to develop a descriptive metagame.  Instead of presenting actions like “charge” and “grapple,” they instead tend to have actions like “overcome” and “defy danger.”  These latter actions, unlike the former, are not singular tools – they are collections of possibilities, Schroedinger’s actions, that only have meaning when they collapse into a result.  These actions are intended to encourage players to describe their activity in an exciting way, allowing them to exhibit the coolness of their character while not constraining the specifics of how they can do it.  On the face of it, I can enjoy this and, in fact, we’ve put a similar Cosmetic Rule into our own game to open the door for players who want to describe their actions and appearance in such a fashion.

However, narrativist games aren’t explicitly about inhabiting characters and getting swept up by world and story.  There is, instead, an element of metagaming always present in narrativist play, because you’re not “being a character,” you’re “collaboratively writing a story.”  And as such, the story takes precedence over your own character; when I play such games, I am as a result divorced from my character, playing him as a piece on a chessboard rather than as a character.

You might be thinking, “but Bryan, that’s because you suck!”  Maybe.  Maybe.  But I’m in good company, because I’ve encountered plenty of roleplayers who have the same problem with narrativist play as I do.  They don’t really like paying attention to the story as a story.  They want to be inside, not outside, acting to change events as characters within the story rather than as entities with one foot inside and one foot shaping.

“Collaborative storytelling” got co-opted while I wasn’t paying attention.  When we first set out to build our game, we used those words a lot to describe what we were doing, not realizing until a few months in that for many gamers, that meant a completely and totally different kind of game than what we are building.  We saw collaborative storytelling as an effort between a storyteller and the characters within the story to create a story in which the characters were not merely witnesses to the storyteller’s plot but actual participants capable of shaping events.  But for many gamers, “collaborative storytelling” means everyone at the table is, to some degree, a GM.  And that is not what we are building.

We are instead building a game around the principles of good classic-style GMing, in which there is one storyteller, and many players.  In a lot of ways this means that Forthright is as much a conceptual framework as it is an actual game.

It was working through this thought process that led me to the conclusion that we should not use any kind of plot, story or drama token.  I didn’t want to risk players trying to one-up each other to try and get more such tokens.  I didn’t feel that drama for its own sake makes for a very interesting adventure.  Yes, I was always the kid who got really annoyed at pointless cliffhangers.  Give me a show that’s good, and you don’t need to invent risk in order to get me to tune in next week.  Give me a show that’s crap, and invented risk is meaningless because I don’t care whether the character lives or dies.

I’d experimented with such tokens for years.  We used a Luster and Tarnish mechanic in Oryn, tried to mate it with a rough Reputation system, banged out Hero Points and Bennies in other campaigns, but it never really worked out in a way I liked.  Either they flowed freely, transforming the game into one of “how to turn these over as quickly as possible,” (Fate) or they flowed not-so-freely, resulting in players hording them or forgetting about them entirely (Savage Worlds).

And for what, good roleplaying?  To my mind, good roleplaying should be rewarded within the story by the results of the well-roleplayed action.  Providing a player with an abstract “get out of jail free(ish)” card for roleplaying well (which, granted, could be turned in immediately) or because the GM has decided to complicate the player character’s life (isn’t that the GM’s job, after all?) feels very meta-gamey.  It takes me right out of my character and transforms me from whatever-I-am to a fat guy sitting at a table with some dice in front of him.

I’ve run into other people interested in roleplaying, but who aren’t themselves storytellers and who don’t want to be storytellers, who find narrativist play very difficult to wrap their heads around.  Because on one hand we tell people, “be this other person!”  And yet on the other hand they’re getting yanked right back out of that by the mechanics of the game.

That’s ultimately why I don’t care for story tokens (hey. . .hate makes for a better title than cautious disapproval): story tokens strike me as a mechanic that is explicitly counter to the goal they are meant to encourage.  Maybe that’s just me and the people I’ve met – I’m being very clear here that these are my opinions for myself, not my opinions about how play oughtta be fer everybody.  But that opinion shapes Forthright, and that opinion leads to story tokens not being in the game.  Because we want to offer characters options to transform the game from within the gamescape, not from without.  It’s a different kind of collaborative storytelling, a bit more in the vein of traditional games.  It’s the kind of game I want to play.

I hope it’s the kind of game you want to play, too.

Please feel free to leave comments in the comment section below – we promise we won’t bite (much)!  Chapter 10: Arms and Equipment is still in the process of being edited, but it will be done and on the website by this time next week.  Thank you for reading!