Story Gaming as Easy Mode

By | March 8, 2014

Hello once again!

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that Chapter Ten: Arms and Equipment has made it to the website!  So you can head over to the Forthright product page or click on it right there to download the PDF.

Last week I spoke a little bit about narrative games and story tokens, and went into some detail as to why Forthright Open Roleplay is not purely a narrative game and why it doesn’t use any kind of story tokens.  This tends to buck a couple of the more recent trends in gaming, which include a divestiture of absolute narrative control from GM to Players and an increase in tokens to allow narrative control.  While I’m certainly in favor of the former, the latter just never struck me as a great way to go about it.  This week, I’m going to continue by talking about one of the major arguments against story gaming: specifically, that it is “easy mode.”

We hear a lot about how story gaming is “easy mode,” and how the people who play them aren’t happy unless they’re playing some kind of infallible super-god.  I’ve never had such an experience myself when I’ve played story games, but I tend to agree that when I’m playing one, I feel much less “in danger.”  I was never able to put my finger quite on why and what it means until this week.

Last weekend, we introduced a friend of ours to Star Wars: Edge of Empire with the Beginner Game.  A fantastic game and if you don’t mind having to use custom dice, I highly recommend it.  This friend, who we thought would actually quite enjoy the game, found himself aggravated by it and we asked him why.  He told us he felt like he was “cheating” because he was able to not only build up favorable conditions prior to the dice rolling, adding to his chances for success, but he was also able to dictate (to a degree) the positive and negative outcomes of the dice roll.

There was, to his mind, no true danger involved to his character, no risk even in the face of failure.  Because the negative outcomes were going to be either “he doesn’t accomplish what he wants to accomplish” or “any setback is only temporary and easily overcome,” he lost that threatened feeling.  What it meant was, ultimately, he could not get so screwed over by what he was attempting to do that he had to really work to recover.

And I thought that was a very interesting sentiment.  For a game like Star Wars, that mechanic makes a lot of sense – it’s a heroic serial-style fantasy where the main characters are never in any “real” danger.  It is a universe where Good Ultimately Wins, and are the cameras following you?  That makes you the Good Guy.

But what about other games?  Games that give characters tokens for “GM Intrusion” or “Accepting a Compel.”  These are games that, in effect, are asking a player’s permission to have something negative happen.  And while a lot of gamers with the appropriate mindset go ahead and accept the token to make a more interesting story, there are many gamers out there who will raise an eyebrow and scoff at such a thing.  Why, they think, would I ever allow myself to fail?

I’m one such gamer.  I was not raised on a steady diet of soap operas, reality TV and sitcoms, so for me “drama” does not make a story more engaging.  I like stories where people work together to solve problems.  I’m not so big on stories where the characters’ tormented psyches actually cause them to work at cross-purposes.  If there’s a TV show or movie where the problem could be solved in 5 minutes if the characters would just talk to each other, it’s pretty much a sure bet that I’m not going to be entertained.

And I think a lot of people feel similarly to that, and I think that’s where some of the pro-storygames and anti-storygames sentiment comes from: literally, two different expectations as to what the entertainment of a game should derive from.  Story games work great when all the players at the table have the appropriate buy-in and operate under the same assumptions.  But when you inject someone who doesn’t share those assumptions, story games tend to break down pretty quickly because that player is attempting to bend everything toward success instead of drama.  And that player will likely be very successful, and then will probably think that the game is “too easy” as a result.

But story games, to my mind, were explicitly built as a reaction against adversarial-style GMing.  Specifically, traditional games tend / have tended to focus a lot on the GM finding the worst possible ways to torture, torment, challenge and destroy the adventuring parties they’re GMing.  It is the running gag of GMing.  And that really grates on a lot of people.  It can feel arbitrary, it can feel obnoxious, and it can feel like a total waste of time.  Very good GMs know how to find a balancing-point wherein they are challenging their players without destroying them, though the Sword of Damocles remains very close over their heads.  Very poor GMs turn the blacksmith into a dragon who eats you.  And a lot of players got so frustrated with running into very poor GMs that they wanted to find some way to reduce the power of GM Fiat.

I’m one such gamer.  I feel the enticing pull of the GM. . .but I also feel the aggravating frustration of poorly-wielded fiat.  Forthright Open Roleplay is an attempt to balance those competing interests against each other and find a comfortable middle ground.

It is no surprise to me that our Player Advocate, Sarah, is also our big Story Gamer.  Nor is it a surprise to me that our GM’s Advocate, Ray, fully mastered 3.5 in its heyday.

So ultimately, I think there’s a lot of vitriol that gets thrown about that doesn’t need to be.  There’s a lot of games on the market because there are a lot of tastes in the market.  Story Games aren’t “easy mode,” they’re “drama mode.”  And if a player plays such a game without focusing on the drama, but instead focusing entirely on “accomplishing the mission,” then the game is going to be a completely different and somewhat unsatisfying experience.  And yet, more traditional-style games will be very rewarding to such players because thinking ahead and plotting and planning tend to ensure a greater degree of success in such games.

These are just some interesting thoughts I’ve had over the past week or so that I thought I’d share.  Don’t forget to check out the Arms and Equipment chapter, and please drop us a line in the comments 🙂

Have a great week, and see you next Saturday!