Storytelling in Games: Following the Character and Engaging the World

Storytelling in Games: Following the Character and Engaging the World

It's difficult to find a place to start with this post, as it's been a meandering ride through thinking about the way I engage with games, learning how others engage with them, and digging more into the history of the hobby. You can consider this a part two of my previous post on the subject and I'll try to elaborate some more points in here.

I've been playing TTRPGs for several decades at this point, and have played a bunch of different games over the years: various editions of Dungeons & Dragons (starting with AD&D, probably right around the time the second printing in 1995), Shadowrun, World of Darkness (old and new - I played a lot of Vampire: The Masquerade), Apocalypse World and the subset of games it inspired, FATE, Cypher System (Well, Numinera, but also a little Cypher), Fantasy Flight's Star Wars/Genesys variants, Warhammer Fantasy / 40k, Ten Candles, and all kinds of stuff in between. I only rattle those off simply to convey that I've played a lot of different kinds of tabletop games that play very differently and I hope I've got a decent understanding of the kinds of games I like and what I like most about them.

Recently, as I interact with more of the OSR style of games, I've been thinking even more about how my group and other groups engage with games.

I'm going to touch on some things here so it's worth saying this up front - there's no wrong way to engage with a game, and any individual or group can engage with games differently at different times. This post is designed to give some suggestions from my experience running games and hopefully provide some insight into how the different styles of game can be used to enhance any game.

Relatedly, I'm not trying to create a "game theory" here - I'm trying to articulate some things that have made me feel a little like an alien and maybe explain them a little.

A Bit of Gaming History

As I was working on how to outline this post, I had some conversations with friends and revisited Shannon Appelcline's excellent Designers & Dragons series which chronicles the history of the TTRP industry. One of the themes that came up, first mentioned by a friend which sparked my memory that it's mentioned in Designers & Dragons is the GNS Theory of TTRPG Players by Ron Edwards. As a mental model.... it has a lot of flaws, chief among them that it tries to put humans into boxes and winds up being a bit reductionist. That said, to quote Marie Brennan:

I’m not going to get into the weeds of his framework, all the elaborations and add-ons that accreted over the years; as you can probably tell from my phrasing there, I found many of them less than useful. But the core concepts of GNS can be helpful for elucidating some aspects of this field, ranging from game design to the disputes that arise between players. - Dice Tales: Essays on Roleplaying Games and Storytelling

I tend to agree with this assessment (and indeed, I agree with the author's views almost entirely - there's a whole chapter on GNS). If you want to read the whole GNS theory essays, they're linked from the Wikipedia page above, but it's definitely lengthy and a little difficult to follow. It also apparently kicked off a bunch of flame-wars on the internet that I fortunately was not around to be a part of, complete with personal attacks and a lot of general nastiness.

The core premise is that GNS stands for: "Gamist", "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" and refers to the types of people who play games and what they tend to engage with in the game. I cannot summarize the system any more concisely than Shannon Appelcline does here:

It's also interesting to look at this all from the lens of Ron Edwards' GNS Theory in "System Does Matter" (1999), which suggested that gamers were either gamists (who enjoy challenges), simulationists (who enjoy the creation of secondary worlds), or narrativists (who enjoy stories).
Yeah, this is a thing - don't try to shove people into boxes. This is useful to talk about the kinds of play that are enjoyable and help folks understand where each other are coming from, but most people can engage with different games in different ways - and they can apply those concepts to the same game.

If I had to shove myself into this framework, I would say I tend to gravitate towards games with a narrativist bent, I (and my regular group) like to get together to tell stories, first and foremost, and those are usually character-driven stories. I can, and do, frequently engage with games in other ways.

Should we even classify games in the first place?

Look, this is one of those things where you can try to be an academian about how humans engage with games (and I majored in Anthropology, I love to think about stuff), and there are some fun things to explore in an attempt to maximize fun. When humans are involved, there are a bunch of different variables for how a given group interacts, so I think there are elements of game theory and design that can encourage a certain style of play - it's never going to encompass the whole. By necessity, a framework is a simplification.

But if you forced me to try to answer that question right now, let's quote Shannon Appelcline again (from that same post):

Today, as it happens, we also have three major categories of RPGs: OSR, mainstream, and indie. It's perhaps not a coincidence that there's a rough correspondence between the three gaming categories and Edwards' three categories of games. OSR games are largely gamist and indie games are largely narrativist. The mainstream games are the rougher correlation, but they do tend toward simulationist on average.

I think, that this is a bit reductive (which, it's a short paragraph in a much longer essay - I'm probably the one being overly critical here) to the state of the industry, but it is a generally useful reference point. There are a ton of indie games, and they do tend to focus on gameplay elements that encourage a certain style of play. FATE, for example, has Aspects - and in the game Aspects are truth. They represent the narrative reality. If something creates an aspect mechanically it's true in the fiction.

Likewise, Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) derivatives state that everything happens in the fiction first, and dice are only rolled if a move is triggered by the fiction. The moves themselves are never named, the players describe character action, and that's what triggers the resolution mechanic.

I'm a complete beginner when it comes to OSR games, so I'm making observations as an outsider who's always trying to learn more - I'll likely makes some incorrect assumptions here.

OSR games, by contrast, have a different emphasis - most of them seem to have a strong emphasis on what the players are doing and how they overcome challenge. They tend to be rules light - and there's very little focus on the characters as part of the story building (at least at first - perhaps you become more attached to the character as time goes on). Characters are disposable, they can die - frequently brutally and senselessly - and that enhances the game, not detracts from it. The risk of death (or maiming, etc) is one of the challenges to overcome - along with time pressure, and frequently the carting off of loot from a far-flung place.

Finally, "Mainstream" as Appelcline estimates are the modern D&D and Pathfinders of the world - several of them try to create a little simulated world, and their mechanics are there to support every aspect of it. For example, some editions of Shadowrun allow you to "Default to Swimming" when firing a gun, because your prowess as a swimming athlete should make it slightly easier to aim over someone who's a total novice. Some of them get extremely crunchy.

It's worth noting that I think it's a bit silly to try and say "there are only three styles" or "good games only focus on one style", people engage with games differently at different times depending on mood, preference, inclination, and what's fun.

All of that said, it's a broad generalization - there are plenty of elements of every game that don't fit neatly into a mental model. That's okay, we're not trying to constrain anything, simply to understand more about ourselves and the hobby here.

Character-Driven "Narrativist" Games

For a lot of the games I prefer to play, the aim of the game is to tell a shared story - and to do that we have interesting characters with their own skills and motivations. We're writing a collaborative book together, and that book revolves around the people that the players are taking on the roles of. The characters faults, abilities, desires, etc. are what drive the story forward. They can do some things that I cannot, and I can do things that they cannot. Likewise, my knowledge is not their knowledge.

In a sense, my group and I tend to play like we're an improv troupe, and we riff on each other to build out the world and the things that are in it. Characters tend to have a fair amount of plot armor - they only die if we agree that it's thematically appropriate that they die.

The overall focus on "challenge" is low, we may have some puzzles, we may have some weird time-looping plots, but generally we're not trying to "overcome" any given situation. I'll give you an example - in a recent Schema system game run by one of our members, we encountered (for lack of a better term) a necromancer. I made a choice to stick around and poke the bear, as it were. Said necromancer attempted a spell against my character, Vanth, and by some miracle the dice were very in my favor that day - the result is an impressed necromancer and a temporary alliance. The consequences of failing that role wouldn't have necessarily been death, they would have been something narratively complicated to push the story forward. If the character death would drive further narrative, so be it.

Two branching paths for how the story could go, but no "challenge to overcome", per se. It's also worth noting from the example, that the focus was not on "how can I, the player, get out of this situation" but more on "how can I, the player, put the character into an interesting situation and see how it plays out".

The Character is the Focus

[...] a Narrativist player will probably feel dissatisfied in the extreme if her PC dies just because the stupid dice rolled badly, because the story ends without closure. But she will cheerfully volunteer for fictional suicide if it makes a good story, even if the death isn't mechanically necessary. - Marie Brennan, Dice Tales.

I cannot do any better than that quote to sum up how I feel about running a game with a story-focus, and I think this is exemplified by why Ten Candles is probably my favorite TTRPG. We know the characters are all doomed, the game is about their deaths, but what's interesting is how they get to those deaths.

They're immune to the ultimate sacrifice until the end - unless the player decides it's narratively appropriate ahead of time, and that's awesome and the point. We've had some really good death scenes with 2-3 candles remaining. With a similar concept The Zone also causes player death at preset junctures, with the whole group judging the survivor at the end.... often to their detriment.

Game Design for Narrative Games

The games that do story-driven narrative well tend to focus on mechanics that involve the story as the primary element of gameplay. It's no surprise that I think PbtA and FATE are probably the best example of Indie games that encourage story narrative - everything in the mechanics drives the narrative and vice-versa.

PbtA handles this by saying "no moves are triggered until they occur in the fiction" and "never name the moves", the dice are then used to adjudicate the results of said move with the aim to move the fiction forward. It encourages you to make consequences of failure get progressively worse for the character to drive them into even more interesting and fun situations.

Characters do tend to have skills, attributes, and other qualities that they're modeled against to simulate what our protagonists in the story are capable of doing. In a world where you're building a story, this makes sense - plot driven characters have things they simply cannot do, or cannot do yet. Some of the games that emphasize this style of play do a better job of modeling out moves that essentially work from a "You can do anything, but some characters have skills that can make it much easier/better/faster/sparkling-with-magic" but generally there's some level of character differentiation.

The World as the Character - OSR Games

And remember, through play, a story emerges larger than any one character. You will make your mark on the world, be it an unknowingly misleading arrow scratched into the dungeon wall, or a crater where a city once stood. - Principia Apocrypha

As I mentioned in the prior post, in an OSR game - it seems to me that essentially the World is the character (and as evidenced by the above quote). By Edwards's reckoning, these kinds of games are "Gamist" - you're a player, engaging with a game, and the world building and play elements are emergent features of the style of game you're playing.

There are also worldbuilding games, like Microscope, that are really really fun. We're not talking about those here (but hey, this falls outside of the 3 supposed categories).

There's a wonderful introduction guide to "what is OSR" called Principia Apocrypha that outlines some of the key traits of an OSR game, and there are some great nuggets that can enhance any style of game but I'm going to focus on a couple of traits that I touched on last time to support the hypothesis that the game structure encourages an emergent style where the world the "story focus" for lack of a better term.

  • Divest yourself of their Fate
  • Let the Dice Kill Them...
  • Rulings over Rules
  • Embrace Chaos...

(All quotes that follow are from Principia Apocrypha unless otherwise noted).

The GM as the Impartial Arbiter of the Cold, Cruel World

To start, let's focus in on "Divest yourself of their Fate" and "Let the Dice Kill Them...". Both of those sections in Principia Apocrypha outline a couple of things which help illustrate the emphasis on the "World" as the primary driver of the fiction.

Nor are you an author writing their story. Portray the world and embody its denizens genuinely, as they would react to the characters' behavior. Don't set out to tell a story, let one emerge from the characters' interactions with the world.

I think that this is a super interesting point, because this is also a thing that good story games do, the difference being where the narrative investment is placed. In a character-story play style, all the same elements would be there - I, the GM, am not writing the characters' story. We're writing it together - and that includes the players telling me details about the world that I didn't know. It also involves me introducing interesting complications for the players - like that character from your backstory suddenly showing up and causing problems.

I have a hunch that there's an assumption that story games don't have emergent storytelling, that everything is "on rails" and the GM is dragging the players through a set narrative - and that's not the case (for me, at least).

But! It's worth noting here that in a world-story game the characters aren't the main focus - the Players are. How the players deal with and interact with the world is the story. It doesn't matter too much about the characters, their motivations, etc, because those things will "occur" during gameplay.

Don't worry much about "metagaming", or the dissonance between what the players know and what the characters know. Favor the ingenuity of the players over strict personification of their characters.

Thus, the primary element of this kind of gameplay seems to derive from a position of: The world has cool stuff in it, the players should interact with that cool stuff in interesting ways that challenge them.

There's also an emphasis on "Don't worry about balance" - because, balance doesn't matter nearly as much if you're trying to encourage creative solutions to challenging problems.

And if the players fail to play smartly, or they push on too hard - it's the dice that killed them, not the GM.

Embracing Chaos and Poking at Stuff

I've said it before, but I do not like random tables. The results stymie me more than they help build out the narrative. I think this is partly because I've cultivated a style over a few decades of both improv and the ability to encourage others to improv. "I don't know, tell me a fact about this person" is a staple at my home game (whether I'm running it or not).

OSR Games seem to love random tables, to create even more interesting things that no one could have predicted and then rolling from that:

Use random tables to keep the game fresh. The surprising twists that random tables add can bring an energy and mystery to the game that is hard to improvise.

I... really disagree with this statement, based on my lived experience. You still have to create those random tables or pull them from somewhere that's potentially completely incongruent with the world you're building. This may be true if you're the only one doing the improv as the GM - but if you also share the responsibility with the players, they'll surprise you - every time (but sometimes you just need to get them comfortable with rattling off whatever comes to mind).

One perhaps final point, is that any player can have their character do anything they want, and by-in-large the chances of success are equal - the GM will arbitrate if an action works or not, using logic. That ruling / arbitration then becomes part of the "history" of the game world. How much of that history is important probably varies from game-to-game, but regardless - the player has left a mark on the world.

As an aside, I still don't really understand the impulse to lick everything in the dungeon. Simply imagining that makes my tongue feel weird and I don't like it.

And yet much like real life, the world moves on. Are your names etched in the history books, or are you a nameless corpse at the bottom of a well?

Game Design for World-focused Games

One of the several reasons that I wanted to write this post was an interesting nugget for how Kelsey, the creator of Shadowdark RPG approaches game design, and how that's rooted in challenge:

It's why Pokemon got boring for me when I used the Missingno hack to get a million rare candies and level all my pokemon up to maximum.

Suddenly nothing was challenging, there was no uncertainty about whether I'd win, and I was all-powerful. It destroyed the game for me, hahahaha! I thought I wanted all my dang pokemon to be level 99, but I actually did NOT want that.

I wanted winning to feel challenging and rewarding. - Kelsey, Arcane Library Discord

I think this is an amazing distillation of the mindset of the OSR games I've observed - challenge is desirable and fun.

It's also not how I usually engage with TTRPGs. I'm there to tell a story with my friends, together, and challenge is auxiliary to that goal. We tend to create bad situations for our characters naturally, because getting them into trouble is what drives the story forward.

Much like for video games, sometimes "challenge" gets in the way of the enjoyment for me - especially for narratively heavy games. I want my choices to influence the world, I do not want bad RNG on the tactical combat simulator to get in the way of moving on with the story. (Related point, I tend to overlevel characters in RPGs so I can stomp through an area to get to the "good parts").

That said, I do love Bloodborne and other Soulsborne games for the challenge. No person is a monolith. Different experiences for different times.

And I think this illustrates for me extremely well what it is that I want out of a game - and knowing that can bring elements I like into games that other people like and create an excellent and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Wrapping Up

This piece turned out even longer than the one before it, and I think that's okay. I'm not sure all of the points I've made here are perfectly articulate - and that's okay too, I think the thing I want to re-emphasize is:

There's no incorrect way to enjoy a game, so long as the group is having fun.

There's a ton of other writing on this subject, some of which I'd not encountered until writing this post, so I'll keep reading more (in particular, I'm generally enjoying Dice Tales so far) and refining the thoughts as they come. Until then, though, I've got some other thoughts planned out in this series, so hopefully you all had a good time reading and thinking about this one and I'll see you on the other side.