What is a story game?

I call the kind of games I enjoy to play and create for story games. A story game is a game that creates stories. Using cues and instructions it helps a group of players create and tell stories around a common theme that come to a satisfying conclusion. When playing a story game is at its best, the intensity of the experience creates a strong bond between the players. Strangers before, close friends after.

They outcome of the activity is what the players take with them when they leave the room. There is no story before, there is no story after. You may retell the events and the stories you created during play, but the true meaning comes from participation, not by spectating. The stories created may not be as intricate, convoluted and elegantly resolved as Shakespeare, Spielberg or Tolstoy, but what you lose in grandeur, you gain from the investment you do to make the stories yours.

Roleplaying games invites you to explore the unknown with your friends.
Games let you explore what is on the other side together. Doorway in the Greek Agora, Athens. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2023.

Playing a story game has a lot in common with playing a traditional tabletop roleplaying game. There may be dice, maps, and cards involved, you may need to write notes to keep track of events. You have players speaking in funny voices and shouting commands that makes no sense to the casual spectator. You can have lengthy philosophical discussions on the meaning of life and nature of humanity, you can have shared laughs and jokes from what happens in imagined situations. 

Story games and traditional roleplaying games differ in the kind of stories we tell and how we create the stories.

Traditional roleplaying games

Traditional tabletop rpgs generate one kind of stories: heroic epics. A group of wanna-be heroes venture into the world, overcome challenges and return to be celebrated as heroes. Turn up the difficulty and repeat. Challenges can be mysteries to be solved and monsters to be defeated. Sometimes there are conflicts between protagonists and within protagonists but these conflicts and story arcs are always secondary to the main conflict of the group versus the monsters and mysteries of the world. 

Characters overcome challenges by working together and by using their special powers. Characters grow by gaining new and better special powers. Motivations and relations can change over time but these changes are not central to the activity of playing traditional rpgs. Characters are often interchangeable. Their contributions to the story are measured in their skills and powers. Characters are defined by what they do, not who they are.

In traditional roleplaying games, the game master has prepared a location full of adventure for you to explore.
The game master has prepared a city full of adventure for you to explore and overcome. Acropolis. Copyright Frederik Jensen.

One player, the game master, has a different role than the other participants. The game master owns and controls the world into which the heroes venture. Challenges and encounters exists independently from the heroes, usually prepared in advance, sometimes invented on the spot but always with the illusion that there is a fictional world to be explored and with challenges to overcome. The game master is often also responsible for making sure the game is fun and safe for everyone.

Traditional roleplaying games create heroic epics

Traditional roleplaying games have a game master

Traditional roleplaying games are open ended

Traditional roleplaying games separate rules from specific adventures or scenarios

Breaking the rules

When you venture outside the established norms of traditional roleplaying games, there is a lot of creative territory to explore. Some games deal away with the game master and distribute the ownership of the world building and the opposition to players and generators. Some games quantifies conflicts inside characters and have players lose control of their character at certain points. A vampire or a werewolf overcome by the need to feed. An occult investigator overcome by existential horror.

You have games where the player characters have competing agendas. The characters may not even appear in scenes together, their stories told in parallel threads. 

There are games where bonds between characters grow and decline in strength. Example: Your relationship with another character determines the power of your dream robot. 

You have games with a clear resolution, where the stories come to an end. 

Exploring the void

Fastaval scenarios have explored this territory since the 1990ies. A wave of American Indie Games appeared in the 2000s venturing into this space. Self-published and not subject to commercial interests that would discourage risking anything too different from what existing customers might expect. Even some for-profit games have explored shaking up the traditional formula. But let’s be honest: Commercial interests have long moved on from publishing tabletop roleplaying games and into more profitable venues like computer games, board games, trading card games, toys and merchandise.

Even 50 years after the publication of the first tabletop roleplaying games, there is a lot of fruitful void to discover. 

I enjoy creating games in this space. So much that I over the years have ended up with my own preferred choices for the games I create and play. This is the space I call 'story games'. 

Story games provide structure and ingredients for us to create great stories together.
The game provides structure and ingredients for us to create great stories together. The Parthenon. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2023.

Characteristics of a story game

These are the design choices I follow when I create games and this is what you can expect when you pick up one of my games:

Story games ask questions

Story games provide ingredients and structure

Story games have no game master

Story games have a clear ending

Story games ask questions to explore a theme. You answer these through stories you create and share during play. 

The game provides the ingredients and the structure you need to play. You get strong procedural guidance about what to do next. Minimalistic cues inspire and empower players to create vivid scenes and characters while staying on topic and not getting lost.

There is no game master. The players share responsibility for preparing and guiding the story. Players in a story game take turns setting scenes, can introduce and portray more than one characters, and the same character can during the game be played by more than one player. Finally, players share responsibility for fun and safe play.

The game ends. You play the game from start to conclusion in one or two play sessions. The stories you create come to satisfying conclusions. Playing the game is a short and intense experience. You can play the game more than once, each time generating different stories based on the choices you and your fellow players make. This is not open ended play. There is no endless grind.

Visit Thoughtful Games for examples of great story games.

One thought on “What is a story game?

Comments are closed.