Episode 173: Preparing People for Playing Story Games

Hosts: Megan, Timo, Todd, Tom

At the sort of request of a listener, we answer a question we get a lot: how do you prepare people to play different types of games, particularly story games. He also was interested in how you prepare YOURSELF to run story games, something we touch on here and can discuss more fully later.

Show notes:
5:00- What are people playing.
19:00- topic
1:14:50- Rants
-Todd: It always rains.
-Tom: Corporate speak is silly.
-Timo: I’ve been busy.
-Megan: I have become my mother, the destroyer of worlds.

You have been listening to The Jank Cast, copyright under the creative commons license. You can find out more about us at jankcast.com. You can send comments and feedback to feedback@jankcast.com We are sponsored by Chicagoland Games, and encourage you to get in touch with us via our Facebook page, Spooky Outhouse Forum (it’s a little quiet, but we’d love to get it going again), Twitter or Google+. You can also listen to us via Stitcher Radio. Now go out and roll some dice!

10 thoughts on “Episode 173: Preparing People for Playing Story Games

  1. Lots of thoughts on this one…

    -The Burning Wheel reactions folks seem to be expressing so far are about what I would have expected. I’ve never been able to play a regular campaign of it that met every week though, so I’m very curious to hear how it goes. Timo’s right that the game’s built for long-term play, but after about 2 months or so I think they’ll have seen all the different facets of it.

    -It should be remembered that the early versions of D&D, at least as I remember reading them as a pre-teen in the early 80’s, were heavy with language suggesting the DM is all-powerful, and really layed it on thick with the “creater of worlds” talk and so on, the idea being to recruit more DM’s to the game, who would in turn recruit more players, and more books would be sold. If Jeff had only played D&D before when he first talked with Megan, he might have still been coming from that mindset and would find it hard to imagine things could be played any other way. A friend of mine, for example, never plays D&D unless it’s in “His World,” meaning he has to be GM. This can get pretty frustrating to folks that like to try new games and new ways of playing old ones, but in the end it comes back to “To Each His Own.”

    -Those early episodes (5-25) of the Jank Cast you were talking about were probably less insightful than the current ones, but (controversial statement coming!) were edgier and in some ways more entertaining, and I especially enjoyed hearing Lexx and Timo go at it. I like the way the show’s evolved over time, though. And I’m glad you never ditched the Rants, it helps the cast keep some of that edge.

    -Timo and Megan’s experiences gaming with their significant others seem to match those of my wife and I in many ways. She seems to enjoy herself when we’re gaming, but there are some parts of playing RPG’s that take her out of her comfort zone, and I’m guessing tabletop games wouldn’t be her first choice for entertainment if it wasn’t something we did together. Todd was dead on with the “I’m not good with coming up with stuff” sentiment, too. It’s hard to get past that sometimes.

    -With Megan mentioning the “Gibbering Mouther” and Tom ranting about Corporate Gibberish later on, I’m now left with the mental image of Gibbering Mouthers in business suits. Thanks for that.


  2. Being someone who has played in more than one game with Luke Crane. Yes, he must reference his own book when it comes to rules.

  3. There’s a post over on the Burning Wheel forums that I think perfectly captures BW’s relationship with both Indie and Trad gamings: http://www.burningwheel.org/forum/showthread.php?13882-How-is-the-GM-intended-to-interact-with-the-game&p=137980#post137980.

    The full post goes:
    To me, BW is:
    * A “trad” game where characters’ motivations are always in the spotlight, there’s no filler stuff during a session, and illusionism is considered downright obscene.
    * An “indie” game that puts *hard* constraints on fictional statements based on the characters’ actual talents and tools, so you can’t just wave a problem away through some kind of ambiguous narrative force.
    Like, both of those together, at once.

    That’s what informs how I GM and what I expect from a GM.

    See also the rest of that thread for some insightful discussion of how BW GMs should interact with the game.

  4. Lots of interesting comments here.

    Dr. D: I think that’s what I was trying to get at with the “cultural” stuff of gaming. We have different gaming “cultures” (for lack of a better word) that we’re socialized into and that becomes “gaming” for us. When people violate them, it’s like someone violating your beliefs, almost. You feel it very intensely, hence the commitment to “my world” sort of stuff.

    Thadrine: that makes me so happy.

    Taelor: I might go take a look at that because, at least from my vantage point, that doesn’t really describe illusionisms connection to “trad-gaming.” In general, for me, trad gaming is where you DO see illusionism, if illusionism is, as I understand it to be, the illusion of choice when you are actually being led through a pre-designed story (i.e. a module, etc.).

    Granted, I think that’s in part because I grew up in the 90s, so when I think “trad games” I think, like I just said, modules and source books and meta-plots that very much pushed illusionism. I have a feeling that if you were thinking more of the 70s or 80s, you don’t have that association as much. Thanks for the link!

  5. It’s true that there can be the illusion of choice in a traditional module when the players’ narrative options do not change the plot. However, there can also be the illusion of choice when stakes are removed. If success is a given, but you have unlimited freedom to narrate and describe your success, is that a choice? Is it a choice that MATTERS?

    Compare the two recent games that Jank has posted as actual play: Kagematsu vs. Swords Without Master. In certain ways, Kagematsu is very restrictive as to what the players are allowed to narrate. They certainly drive the story much more than in a traditional game, but they must abide by the dice rolls for their success or failure. Yet they have the power to choose what results to pursue. Those choices have feedback, consequences, and a risk/reward calculation.

    By contrast, Swords Without Master is a purely narrative game with no risk/reward calculation at all. There is a time for struggle, and there is a time for success. The only thing the dice determine is the mood, but that has no ultimate consequences in terms of success or failure. SWM is almost more of a group writing exercise than a game. If that’s what you want, more power to you. But it is an example of the illusion of choice in a narrative game.

    tl:dr version – Real choices must have real consequences. Real choices and illusory choices can both exist in all kinds of games.

  6. I’m you guys touched on this topic.

    I have been running into some resistance among some of the people with whom I normally game.

    Some of the folks are so detail oriented that I think a non-simulationist system isn’t their thing. They will complain endlessly about how problematic various systems are, but they really seem to want rules for everything.

    Beyond that, I think that there is just an issue of being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

    I have tried to take a lot of elements from story games that I have played and create a system that overlays them onto more traditional games. We played a game of Mutants and Masterminds in which it worked really well.

  7. Eric- that’s interesting. This may be a future cast topic. I think you raise a good point that tweaks how I tend to think of what “choice” means in a game.

    Austin- I tend to agree. I think a lot of people actually like lots of rules because it eliminates the feeling of being out on that tree branch by yourself, so to speak. Even when playing with very “story game” kind of folk, there’s often a lot of looking around the table going “do I have the authority to do this?”

    There’s actually a sociology concept that I think helps here: Emile Durkheim used the term “anomie” to mean a situation in which behavioral guides are weak or absent. He suggested that this was stressful for people. Put simply, when we don’t know what to do or how to proceed, we don’t feel free or unencumbered, we feel distressed and confused.

    I think there’s a similar thing in play in gaming. When you have the narrative authority to “make decisions” without a “mechanic” (or at least without a mechanic that has fortune elements to it, i.e. a die roll), it can be a bit stressful. I think that’s why you see the whole “I don’t like these rules, but I don’t want to play with something that doesn’t have them” mentality a lot, because playing with “less rules” (or with rules where fortune is used less to determine the outcome) can be scary. Some people, I don’t think, will ever get over that, and that’s totally fine. Not everyone needs to play every game, and I totally get why someone would say “I’d rather have a table that tells me where I hit than have someone just decide where I hit.” It’s not the kind of fun I always want to have, but I can totally imagine why someone would want to play like that.

  8. Todd – I won’t discount the likelihood of the stress motivation for some people, but I would suggest that it is not the only reason someone might find a given mechanic desirable. It’s certainly not my reason. I’ll go with a very common example:

    In most versions of D&D, it matters to certain monsters what kind of damage you are able to do. If you try to use a rapier against a skeleton, you are going to find yourself sorely disappointed. So if you are a rapier-wielding swashbuckler and suddenly find yourself surrounded by skeletons, you’re going to need to come up with a new tactical decision. The game gives you feedback based on your choices. That constraint – as is often the case with constraints – can actually inspire creativity.

    However, in a game without damage-type mechanics, I might be free to narrate the cinematic way that I manage to thrust the point of my blade into the skeleton’s eye socket and flick the skull up into the air, disconnecting it from the spinal column. That would be a great scene, no doubt, but the problem in that case is that I have not had to face any consequences or risk greater failure because of my strategic choice of weapon. There are no mechanics forcing a negative effect on me as a result of my character’s distaste for maces and clubs. It doesn’t actually matter what choice I’ve made, because the outcome will be the same even though may SOUND different.

    Sometimes, what people want out of a traditional game is tactical choice (that risk/reward calculation). Telling a great story is one type of roleplaying, but problem-solving and overcoming imaginary obstacles can be another. And for it to be a real obstacle, there has to be the possibility that I might not succeed. It’s not about wanting a table to tell you what happens because that’s socially safe. On the contrary, it’s actually BECAUSE IT’S DANGEROUS. Maybe not as much to me on a social level, but certainly to my character. And I do care because I am invested in my character (unless I’m playing Paranoia).

    That’s why I loved the point in the Kagematsu episode when you were talking about previous experiences with the game in which everyone failed and died a horrible death. That threat (for me) says that the choices matter.

  9. Eric- I don’t think I disagree with any of that. In fact, that’s part of my personal taste for quote-unquote playing by the rules. Part of why I introduced the AP of Swords Without Master by saying it’s the game that a lot of people want when they play D&D is because I feel like a lot of people (generalizing here, obviously) do the whole “we play D&D but we take the danger out to tell a story” because they know the DM will fudge rolls to create the most drama, etc. I actually think you’re right, that part of what is appealing about a, big quotes again, trad game is the danger (or a better way to say that is that games that are written around challenge overcoming are about the danger) and you’re right that by taking it away, I think it takes a lot out of games that are designed around that.

  10. Awesome. Sounds like we’ve come to a good resolution point. 🙂

    For the record, I had an absolute blast at Chicago Gameday playing Trouble For Hire by Kevin Allen Jr. It’s a heavily narrative system with just enough risk to make for some fun failures. On the other hand, the players really get to guide the level of challenge, so it feels like a very flexible system that can work with a wide variety of groups. We happened to like messing with each other, so we had rather a lot. But I could see other groups being more helpful than we were. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend poking the designer for a beta copy.

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