13th Age (and to an extent, Numenera) have left me feeling very strongly aware of the limitations of the term “Story Games”, especially in light of the question of whether these are Story Games. In the sense that all RPGs are story games, they are. In the sense of games which give players strong authorial power in play, they are not.
But what’s notable is that both games include rules and structures which do serve towards narrative ideals of focusing on the player’s characters as protagonists of the setting, not merely interesting occupants. There’s also a non-trivial element of player contribution before play begins.
These are things I like very much, and in fact they are things which I enjoy in play more than authorial power, which I find more of an intellectual exercise than compelling experience. This is not a criticism, just an expression of taste, but it highlights something on my mind. A lot of ideas that were revolutionary in RPGs a decade or more ago have pretty thoroughly permeated the soil, and the terminology of those new ideas makes poorly fitting clothing for the games I see today.
This is not a call for new terminology – I don’t think we actually need more jargon – but it is forcing me to rethink a lot of assumptions.
100% agreement. I ditched the term a long time ago as lacking utility. “Story” is the most loaded word ever, and has never helped the discussion of what small press RPG design has been doing since about 2002 or so, in my opinion.
These days, I tend to say “fiction forward” when I talk about games where a clear priority is given to establishing a shared narrative which then triggers mechanical cues, rather than the other way around, or to games that mechanize the establishment of both context and situation for a given piece of action. And except as an emergent phenomenon, I tend not to talk about story at all.
Not terribly precise, still, but at the very least, it’s easier to get a group of people on board with what “fiction” is than what “story” is.
I prefer just “role-playing games.” It’s an incredibly crude label, and an literally incorrect in some cases, but it’s the phrase that everyone recognizes. I see an academic value in distinguishing a larger field of “story games,” but for general use it’s just going to confuse the issue and fragment our already small community.
Leonard, how is your experience with using “fiction forward?” I would have expected people that understood it to have equally understood “story games,” while not helping anyone who already had problems with “story games.”
Yeah, I agree here too. There’s a point at which fussing over whether something is or isn’t a “roleplaying game” just becomes either pedantic or just not worth the effort. To which I say, JUST PLAY THE GORRAM GAME, OKAY? 😉
(No, really–it was eye-opening to go to the Forge Midwest convention and see that nobody was really going on and on about theory and jargon; they were all playing freaking games. It was great.)
I made this point somewhat briefly on Twitter yesterday, because a lot of people told me that they believe Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a story game, to which I was somewhat taken aback. Yes, it employs a lot of narrative-heavy or indie-style mechanics in it, as all Cortex Plus games kind of do (since that’s a fertile ground to dig into). But it’s hardly the sort of game that I’d slap “storygame” onto, were I to do that.
I don’t even think there’s any real sense in applying a specific sub-label to any RPG these days unless, like Fiasco, the game is so different in structure and design that it stands out as something else. MHR, 13th Age, Numenera, et al are still pretty obviously RPGs no matter how much empowerment is shifted around or how many cool indie tricks are included.
I have an internal struggle whenever I have to put terms on things when it comes to RPGs. I suppose it’s because I haven’t given it much thought, as the lexicon seems pretty fixed, for better or worse.
I’d love to hear more discussion about this, though. I definitely like the term “fiction forward” that Leonard (may I call you Lenny?) put forward.
Me, I’d like more terminology. Only I’d want to have definitions people agree on instead of everyone hearing the term and then deciding it means whater it first makes them think of.
Unfortunately, as long as RPG theory remains a field for amateurs (and I mean that as opposed to professionals, not in any derogatory sense), I don’t see that happening. Until someone studies the field from the outside and creates a lexicon that encompasses most of it, is useful for the players and also becomes well-known to them, I think we’re doomed to conflicting uses of what few terms we do manage to come up with which makes constructive dialogue about the actual issues as opposed to pointless debates about what the words “really” mean almost impossible.
I always intended “story games” to be a broader term than “role-playing games” when I started using it. All RPGs are story games; not all story games are RPGs.