I've been playing role-playing games like D&D and its ilk since I was a wee lad, often with pathetic heartbreak, as I'd invite friends over and they'd get bored by the complicated rules or subvert the activity into silliness . . . this was often the fault of these games, supposedly about creating epic stories, but which actually are about killing & looting, or which create stories that are not so much "epic" but ... "lame."
Or I'd spend enormous amounts of time creating worlds and scenarios and rules which would never get played at all. So after I turned 16 and learned to drive and to pursue women I all but gave up on role-playing, except for maybe the odd memorable one-shot of Paranoia or Cyberpunk or The Fantasy Trip. (Or a session of D&D where I played a Celt and tried to speak with an outrageous irish accent - and somehow didn't realize until later that I was the only one doing a funny voice.)
And this is despite the fact that I even had a job working on computer RPG's - the Magic Candle series! I came to hate computer RPG's - I hadn't enjoyed one since Ultima 4. I wanted to like them, but they never lived up to the promise - "Be in this world, tell an epic story."
I realized that games and storytelling just don't mix. I, at least once, said as much on this blog. So when we moved up to Washington, a mecca for role-playing, and a friend was playing a regular, ongoing D&D campaign - just like I wished I was in when I was a kid - I got in on it. And, of course, it wasn't about the storytelling, or the acting, it was about killing monsters. And that was usually fun, often the highlight of my week, but...
Just recently, a few months ago, I started hearing about some new games - and unable to restrain my curiosity (could this really work?) - I talked some friends into playing a few of them.
And they were *awesome*. They were everything I used to think role-playing was supposed to be. We "acted"; we created epic stories; we spent our time actually playing instead of looking up rules.
So what was it about these new games? Ever since Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu and Vampire there have been efforts to increase the amount of "story" in our games...and in 2002 there was Sorcerer and Universalis...the new new effort to get more story in games. I've never played Sorcerer but I've played games that subscribed to its creator's philosophy, and I've dabbled a few times with Universalis and although it's always been very memorable it didn't quite hit the *awesome* level that these recent games have hit, didn't put me in this frothing anticipation for another session. Somehow they missed the mark.
Here's one thing this latest crop of games have in common:
First, it's not just the GM telling the story - in fact, the GM has been neutered or is gone completely. The players not only get to say "I do such-and-such" but also invent other characters, setting elements, obstacles and complications. The result? It's better for the GM (if there is one) because they don't have to prepare much (or at all); and it's better for the players because they're invested. It's their story too.
But Universalis had that, and Sorcerer to a lesser extent. (Vampire did not - they even call the GM the "storyteller", for Christ's sake, how disenfranchising is that for the rest of the players?) So what else?
Flow. These games that have worked so well for me are exceedingly light on rules - sometimes the rules fit on just a page or two. So there's no flipping open the book to page 321 to figure out if you can cast Dispel Magic on a Purge Invisibility field. But 3rd edition D&D is an extreme case - most RPG's aren't that complicated. What I didn't realize is just how simple rules have to be before you're playing fluently. Universalis is a pretty simple game; I've taught it to several people, including my 5-year old daughter. But I've never gotten to the point with it where I don't have to think about the rules anymore.
A side effect to playing these games is that, for now, I've lost interest in video games. With the exception of Limbo there hasn't been a video game that's captured my interest since I discovered "story gaming". This is partly due to being completely jaded with video games after making them for a living for so long, but story games were the last nail in the coffin, seems like.
Raph Koster once said he became disillusioned with games because, after working to come up with a method to universally describe them, he realized that they're all basically math. And that's yet another reason why story games are so freaking cool - they aren't. (Well, technically they are, because the universe is math, but you know what I mean.) With D&D it's pretty easy to see through the story through to the underlying math. But with some of these story games, it's the story that matters - the math just pops up on occasion in service to the story, to resolve disagreements or escalate.
So, you're probably wondering, "What are these games that have Jamie in such a lather?"
I'll tell you:
Lady Blackbird (possibly the best RPG session I've ever run)
Geiger Counter (there was one moment in our GC play that didn't flow, btw, due to me missing a key rule, but other than that...)
In a Wicked Age (though this went terribly when I ran it, it was awesome when someone else who had played it before ran it for me...)
A couple of homebrew games created by old friend Mark Nau (who played in those aforementioned TFT & D&D games and has really been the one to turn me on to this kind of gaming)...one of which he hasn't even written up the rules for, so I guess you're not going to get to play those. Maybe he'll post a link to New Hope in the comments, though.
And just last night I playtested Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and while it's not exactly an RPG it is a neat way to collaboratively tell stories.
Despite my inexperience I've tried my hand at making them myself, and this one we've had some good fun with: Nowhere Road
There's also a good book on how to approach this kind of gaming: Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley.
And a community of people who are into it at story-games.com. I've been posting there a lot lately myself.
There, go play, share my joy.
I remember the magic candle series... I liked those a lot as i did the early Ultimas. Nothing to date beats the good times I had playing D&D with a great storyteller of a GM though.
I know how you feel about being dissapointed with the stories in many computer RPGs. Its hard to define adequetly but they are often seem hollow and unoriginal. Maybe we have seen to many RPGs and are hard to impress now.
Posted by: CephiSystems | September 20, 2010 at 07:04 PM
Totally opposite for me. I found Universalis and the other cooperative storytelling "games" to be a complete turn-off. It is the structure and game rules that I enjoyed. As storytelling and drama substitute became more and more the norm in RPGs, the more I lost interest. Role-playing as originally invented by Gygax wasn't about telling stories, it was about playing a role in a group, healer, fighter, etc. These were grognards, wargamers, miniature movers; not wanna-be actors. I recognize that you represent a large number of people and their desires; it's just not my cup of tea. If I want to sit down and tell stories, I can do that without a game context needed. I haven't found that desire rise up yet though.
Posted by: Chris Busse | October 11, 2010 at 01:52 PM
Really? "Games" in quotes? "Wanna-be actors"? Those are pretty inflammatory, pejorative comments for someone who says it just isn't their cup of tea. Admit it, you hate us.
Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. Gygax right here.
Gygax: I hear-I heard what you were saying. You-you know nothing of my work. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
Oh yeah, you've never seen that movie, you don't know what I'm talking about...
Posted by: Jamie Fristrom | October 11, 2010 at 02:34 PM
I use game in quote, because I don't believe they are, in fact, games. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game
As you say, it's cooperative storytelling. Which is a pastime, in and of itself, but it's not a game. I'd qualify both games and storytelling as "play", for sure.
Though I haven't seen Annie Hall, nor have plans to...
As for knowing Gygax's work, I'm confident that I'm significantly more informed on the subject than most people. I spent several years running in old gaming group circles and even exchanging emails with some of the original creators before they passed.
I've read Gygax's words on the subject on forums and the idea that RPGs were meant to have players acting out their parts is much more heavily scoffed at by Gygax than I have the skill to convey. He was a much more cocksure and curmudgeonly man than I ever will be.
I should have been more clear in my repudiation of your point of that this is what they were meant to be, as opposed to the people who play them. For you (and many others), sure. But not inherently no, and not by the people who invented the pastime. It's possible Arneson's group was more into this, but again, from everything I've read it wasn't that either.
As for "hate", no. While I might profess hate in my usual popping off style, I think hate takes prolonged passion/interest against something. So few things reach that level in my life.
I'll stick with not my cup of tea. Which I'll admit is fairly damning, because I'm fairly game to try most things and usually, as noted above, I'm indifferent to things. I actively don't enjoy the shared storytelling pastime; and wouldn't engage in it in the future given the chance. But hate, no; I generally save that for injustice in the world.
Posted by: Chris Busse | October 11, 2010 at 03:25 PM
Hey, I was just trying to be funny, I didn't mean to piss you off.
You're probably right about Gary.
Pretty sure that all of these games we've mentioned, from Universalis to Fiasco (the most rules-light of the bunch), count as games by that wikipedia definition though. They're structured activities with goals, rules, challenges, and interactions.
I hope so, anyway, because otherwise I shouldn't be talking about them on "Game"DevBlog.
Posted by: Jamie Fristrom | October 12, 2010 at 12:14 PM
(Or a session of D&D where I played a Celt and tried to speak with an outrageous irish accent - and somehow didn't realize until later that I was the only one doing a funny voice.)
Hmmm...I must have missed that session. Bummer.
Posted by: Gied | October 29, 2010 at 06:28 PM
I'm still somewhat stunned by the fact that people attribute how storytelling & roleplaying a game is, or how hack-and-slash & level-up it is, to which rules system you use. Back in the 70s, the various games I played in covered that whole spectrum even though they were all D&D games (well, one Empire of the Petal Throne campaign). The only determining factor was who the DM was, and what type of game they wanted to run. To think that a DM wouldn't make their campaign exist at the exact point on the spectrum of story/roleplay vs. fight fight fight, regardless of which game system he/she picked, is somewhat alien to me.
I will grant that, especially in the 70s but still now, many game groups would be at a particular place on that spectrum just based on "what they learned these games are like" from the few other gamers & campaigns they experienced before starting their own - sometimes as few as just one. I suppose if you'd run into one or even zero previous campaigns, the tendencies in your rules books you learned from would determine what style of campaign you'd assume you had to run. Our gaming group was fortunate I guess, it had various DMs who sensed the range of possibilities early on.
And yes, I know the generic term is GM now, but in the 1970s there were only DMs and the term GM hadn't been coined yet. :D
I will note various forms of free-form, non-combat-oriented roleplay have been thriving on some of the text MUDs since the early 90s. Not the DikuMUDs and the LPMUDs (hack and slash), but on the MUSHes, MOOs, MUCKs, MUSEs, TinyMUDs, etc. We still get a lot of it on Furcadia, too!
Posted by: Dr. Cat | November 03, 2010 at 12:41 AM
A couple of you have now said "It's all about the GM" - What a lot of the people on Story-Games or the Forge would say to that is something like, "Ok, but can we take what that GM does and make a system out of it, so those of us not already blessed with a friend who is an awesome GM can have that sort of fun too?"
And that's what they do with games like Lady Blackbird or the new hotness, Apocalypse World. Or they make everybody the GM with games like Geiger Counter and Fiasco.
To be fair, 4th edition D&D systematizes GMing too - it has got the strictest guidelines yet for GMs that I've seen in D&D, saying things like, "Monsters don't attack unconscious characters" and they've even pretty much stolen D. Vincent Baker's "Say yes or roll dice" and made that a page in the new DM's guide.
Posted by: Jamie Fristrom | November 03, 2010 at 09:40 AM
I just want to say - thank you for this post.
This has turned me on to story games in a major way, and I managed to connect with a guy here in the city to try out http://tckroleplaying.com/marscolony/ which was really fun.
Looking forward to digging into this more.
Thanks again for spreading the word about story games!
Posted by: ilia | November 09, 2010 at 08:37 PM