Written by GeekGirlCon Copy Writer Jess Downs
Like a lot of kids, I loved the kind of unstructured make-believe games you’d play when all the toys got boring. Whether we were fairies with magical powers, or adventurers fighting minotaurs in the heart of a labyrinth, my friends and I loved telling impossible stories and being someone else for an afternoon.
Photo source: little girls R better at designing superheroes than you
I’ve tried many roleplaying games since, but nothing quite scratched that itch for collaborative creation–until I discovered Story Games, tabletop storytellng games with an emphasis on narrative and invention.
Whatever kind of story you want to tell, whatever scale you want to tell it on, however structured you want the game to be, there’s a story game for it.
If you like having the details of your setting defined, there are games like Durance, which explores power hierarchies on a prison planet, and guides the players through figuring out what particular shortages the prisoners suffer. If, on the other hand, you like a game that leaves the setting up to the players, pick something like Shooting the Moon, a game for three characters (one beloved, and two suitors vying for their favor). It has plenty of info on creating complicated relationships, but can take place on a pirate ship, in a law office, on an alien planet, in ancient Rome, or anywhere the players can imagine.
A few of these games need someone to step up and take the storyteller role, which is kind of like the Game Master in a traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, but it usually has far less control over the direction and outcomes of the story. Rather than waiting for the storyteller or MC to fill in what happens next or what’s behind the locked door, players chime in with suggestions, making it a much more collaborative experience. A good example would be Apocalypse World (and all the games that grew from it, like Dungeon World and Monsterhearts). If you want your character to find the diary of their rival, just narrate that you find it. Of course, that doesn’t stop the person playing your rival from interrupting you reading it, or from saying you find out something you were better off not knowing. The Apocalypse World games also use dice to resolve some conflict situations, which can lead to some interesting unintended consequences.
Shock and Shooting the Moon don’t have MCs or storytellers, but there are very clear rules about taking turns in framing scenes, driving the scenes toward a conflict, and resolving that conflict.
At the other end of the scale, there’s Ribbon Drive, a meandering road trip set to a soundtrack. (And yes, players get to make the soundtrack!) Scenes tend to be longer, quieter, and more conversational. Scenes don’t have to contain conflict or obstacles at all, and when they do, it’s more likely to involve interpersonal tension than violence. One of my favorite things about Ribbon Drive is that the whole group collaborates on creating the setting and the characters based on the first two songs of the soundtrack, which gives you an excuse to sit your friends down and make them listen to songs you like. Or maybe that’s just me.
Most games I’ve mentioned so far are roleplaying games in the usual sense, where each player takes one character (or sometimes more) and speaks their words, narrates their actions, and advocates for their interests. While other players and MCs may introduce new events, facts about the environment, and so on, players get the final say on their individual characters.
Some games, however, are on a completely different scale. Microscope, described as a fractal game of epic histories, has the players explore vast swaths of invented history, only occasionally zooming in to play out scenes with individual characters. Even then, the characters don’t “belong” to any one player, and if they show up again in the story they might be played by someone entirely different. The typical scale of a game of Microscope might be the rise and fall of a galactic empire. This is a great introductory game for someone who feels nervous about roleplaying as specific characters.
Map-drawing game The Quiet Year is smaller in scope, covering one year in the life of a small post-apocalyptic community teetering on the edge of destruction, but rather than playing characters, players represent subgroups and factions engaged in a tug-of-war about how the community should prepare itself for the trouble to come. They don’t collaborate or make suggestions, they just show their contempt in the form of a token whenever another player takes an action they don’t like.
The Quiet Year: amateur cartographers welcome.
Photo source: Buried Without Ceremony
Getting Involved (in the Pacific Northwest)
I hope this has given you some idea of the variety of different experiences you can have playing story games, and piqued your interest. If you want to try out the hobby among welcoming, experienced players, a group from Story Games Seattle camps out in the gaming area of most big local cons, including GeekGirlCon. They’ll help you figure out which game you might like, and then play a demo with you on the spot. There are also the annual gaming conventions Gamestorm (in Portland) and GoPlay Northwest (in Seattle), which both feature story games as well as more familiar roleplaying games.
If you can’t wait that long, get yourself to a meetup at Phoenix Comics and Games on Thursdays, or Wayward Coffeehouse every other Saturday. Phoenix’s next session is July 10 at 6:30 p.m., and Wayward’s next session is July 12 at 2 p.m.
Games to Gather (Portland)
Ready, Set, Game (Portland)
Terminal City Story Games (Vancouver, BC)