Story Creation Versus Story Discovery

The split between traditional and story gaming.

Murdering The Plot

A while ago I ran our whodunit adventure Mince Pies & Murder for the Indie+ team, gamers who are heavily into games such as Apocalypse World and Fate. These are games where the players are significantly involved in the creation of the narrative driving the game. A very different style from the adventure where the thrust of the narrative is pre-determined and the game play is about discovering that narrative. The crunch between these two styles was most apparent in the after-event TL;DW (To Long; Didn’t Watch) review by the players recorded afterwards. The phrase ‘old school’ was used and the heavy involvement of the Game Leader was highlighted. The players clearly did not like or were not at ease with the style of game.

Now, this post is not about a bad review. Any writer and publisher of games knows their products will not appeal to everyone and it would be a very boring world if we all liked the same games. What this post is about is how the driving forces behind story creation and how this effects the game.

A whodunit mystery is at one extreme of the discovery / creative gaming axis. The story of the game must be created in advance, e.g. the GM must know who did it, who the victim was, how was it was done and why. Mystery based adventures become almost impossible when the players have some control over the narrative, e.g. they can introduce a new location, a new secret or a new NPC, as they might accidentally contradict each other or pre-empt an important plot point.

Different Strokes

This divide between players discovering the story and creating the story is not a weakness of either type of game, simply a difference. Whereas as discovery games are better at having a clear plot, creative narrative games are much better at building complex inter-character interactions. Often, the difference between the games is not down to the rules but simply how they are played. The style of a DnD game where the GM is inventing everything ad-hoc based on their players actions will not be far removed from a game Powered by the Apocalypse or similar story game.

What story creation games do well is that the players make meaningful choices which shape the story. We have all faced the frustration and disappointment of adventures which railroad the characters. The danger of story creation games is that the end results of everyone having an input into the plot is an indistinct amalgam of different ideas. It is very much the case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

A Spectrum, Not A Divide

What is clear that all RPGs are “story games” in that they can be used to create stories (see Can An RPG Tell A Story?. What differentiate games and leads to many of the OSR / Story Game conflicts is where and how they allow player creativity to shape the story. All tabletop RPGs are on a nebulous spectrum with games focused on discovering the GM’s pre-made story at one end and GM-less, story creation games at the other. These difference can be obscured by the many different styles of gaming employed by different gaming groups.