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Mike Sugarbaker

Roll for emotional damage

4 min read

I should probably tell you lot, who out of all my self-selecting audiences most closely resemble The World, about story games.

What’s a story game? Here’s my rough working definition. Story games are what you get when you take tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, RIP OUT the cold, dead heart of wargaming that they were born with, and replace it (in whole or in part) with the tenets of improv theater. (Disclaimer: story gaming is still a geek culture, and like all geek cultures, it can get contentious. So let me say before going further that my definition is subjective and not authoritative. I am not the Lorax, I do not speak for the trees.*)

Now, I enjoy a good fighty romp through a wargamey role-playing game as much as any other geek. That sort of game has a long and healthy future ahead of it. But to go back to Chris Crawford, it’s awfully objecty, isn’t it? It’s about abstractions and numbers rather than being about human life and stories. Now, it’s possible to use those abstractions and numbers and get a story out of your play. The system just doesn’t help you much, if at all, and can even work against you.

Some folks try this for a while and then come to the conclusion that rules can’t help you get real roleplaying done, so they play freeform, and talk about how horrible it is to roll dice ever. I don’t want to disparage freeform too much – you can find lots of great freeform being done online in the fandom scene, for example – but in its way, it is just as bad about leaving story to chance. If you have great, fearless players, you can get great stories, but just as often, you’ll get stasis and frustration as people flounder without any creativity-fueling constraint. And some people, such as myself, just aren’t that great at making compelling story on the fly and could use some support, some structure.

This is where story games come in. Here’s an example: my current favorite game, Primetime Adventures, is designed to make your gaming group play the way Joss Whedon writes. The players create a fictional TV show together, and create characters who each have their Screen Presence (a number from 1 to 3) mapped out over the course of several episodes. You choose an episode to play, and then players take turns setting scenes in which the conflict, if any, is going to be centered on that player’s character’s personal issues. That’s right: you don’t have a sheet with your guy’s strength and charisma and armor and weapons. You have a sheet with his screen presence and his issues. And his relationships.

And yes, you roll dice. (Or in PTA’s case, you draw cards, but whatever.) You use rules, sometimes detailed ones, that were designed specifically to help you get story. And it works. When you play Primetime Adventures, you get a good story. Sometimes a great story. You don’t get it in the same form as you would on TV or in a book or on a stage; you get it with dialogue that might not be flawless, and a lot of chatter and some false starts. But you make a story together, about real human matters, and you make it yourselves, for yourselves.

There are dozens of these games now, but until very recently there have been few efforts by the story-games community to build an accessible starting place for people who don’t already play traditional RPGs to learn about story gaming. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that I’m curating the Story Games Codex over at, by kind permission of that site’s proprietor Andy Kitkowski. We’re not done yet by any means, but we’re building out a catalog of available story games and a whole lot of links to actual play reports and resources. Come on by and see some of the strange new forms folks have been building – and please start a conversation here or on the wiki if you’d like to know more.

* Really I only included this disclaimer so I could say that.