In a word, Immersion, or to put it more bluntly, storytelling games suck because they kill immersion in the role of the character that most if not all RPG players enjoy. “Why” is a much bigger question that’s harder to answer but I will attempt to do so in a little bit…
Preface: before we get into the gritty bits, I want to mention I work as a Night Auditor at a hotel, I have roughly 5+ hrs a night to sit behind a computer and do whatever I want (like write massive wall of text crits like this).
After battling the forum lurkers over at D&D Next for a long time, critiquing the hell out of what I saw as absolutely terrible design decisions, I was often hit with “well if your so right and so damn sure of your position Mr. Know-it-all, why don’t you go and design your own game and we’ll put it through the same ultra critical analysis your hitting our new favorite game with!!!”
It took a long time but eventually I decided they were right, I hate pathfinder, hate D&D 3, 3.5, 4, and Next, and really haven’t found a fantasy RPG I prefer since 2.0 and that needed massive house rules and a semi-merger with HGS/fantasy hero to be acceptable to me. So for the last three months or so, I’ve been laboring to create the fantasy system I want to run/play.
Its been a LOT harder than I expected, but its coming along. I noticed early on I am taking about ¾ of my design influences from storytelling games with nifty and elegant mechanics. I am keeping similar mechanics in my game, but cutting out all the narrative “crap” I think detracts from a really good RPG.
Though I haven’t played a storytelling game or system since larping vamps with Goths in the 1990s, I have recently read Dogs in the Vinyard, Spellbound Kingdoms, Don’t Rest Your Head, and about five other indi storyteller games recently. Most of my critiques will have to do with one or generalities about all of them.
On with the show…
First I would recommend anyone interested in engaging in this thread reading this blog on the difference between RPGs and STGs so we do not get hung up on terminology or the actual noted differences between the two types of games.
To very quickly summarize the blog, a Role Playing Game simulates the actions of the characters and NPCs with mechanics that are associated with the abilities of the character or NPC, these are called “Associated Mechanics”.
Where as in a pure Story-Telling Game, the actual abilities of the characters and NPCs are rarely associated with direct actions and the mechanics instead focus on narrative control of the scene or event. These are called “Disassociated Mechanics”
For example, in an RPG a PC and a NPC sit down to play a game of chess, skills, talents, and attributes are considered and a role is made to determine which of the two won the chess game. Alternatively there may be many rolls or mechanics used at different stages of the chess game, but all will be directly influenced by the representative scores of the PCs and NPCs.
In a STG the player (or often the GM) may spend “destiny points” or trade dice from a control pool to take control over the scene and describe what happens and who wins the chess game regardless of the competing character’s abilities.. Often the player/GM will be forced to take some kind of fallout or inability to narrate future scenes because of the decision to control this scene.
And in short that’s why STGs suck. The mechanics of STDs make the scenes predictable, since disassociated mechanics have little to do with the characters themselves, it’s almost impossible to become immersed in the story or game play and conflicts come down to who has the most dice or most destiny points. Suspense is cut short, life and death conflicts have more to do with consensus than realistic physics or in-game risk, and the amount of “fun” available to the players who want to control the actions of their characters is drastically reduced.
I’ll go a step farther as well and throw some bigger insults…
STGs are essentially for lazy and stupid gamers and designers. Don’t get me wrong, even I in my supreme genius enjoy a night of lazy and stupid from time to time, but that’s the exception not the rule.
Take the award winning “Dogs in the Vineyard”. Around 100 pages, maybe 30 pages of fluff, a few pages on development, items, and magic, and the rest of the book is one singular mechanic and many many repetitive examples of how it would be used to resolve every scene or action. Does it work… mmm sort of, but only with the most general and grossly open to wild interpretation details.
Also, there’s essentially nothing to learn, characters have a minimal set of stats or abilities, character development is just as limited, the item list is pitifully short and most items are represented by identical mechanics (+1 die for anything, +2 dice if the anything is big etc)
If I take a well written big crunchy RPG and want to run it, I’m going to spend a month learning every nook and cranny of that system, if I’m playing maybe a day or two just to learn the rules being a beginning player requires. But once I got it down, it should run smooth, and be greatly descriptive purely by the rules as written.
But lets go on… STGs are notorious for the elimination of actual risk to the characters, usually with a PC death being something that the player must agree to. Take away risk, you also take away challenge, and take away suspense. Then essentially you’ve taken away most of the purpose and reward of playing. The only point in playing then becomes telling a whimsical story, if I want story time I can watch a movie or start writing a book, but there’s little point in playing a game without challenge, suspense, or risk to me, even board games have more of this than most STGs…
And STGs typically make any action the player wants the character to take acceptable regardless of how impossible it is… want your character to fall into the lake, swim to the bottom, and make an hour long phone call using nothing but a fast food wrapper in a world without magic? No problem, just be prepared not to be allowed to narrate any scenes in the rest of the night’s game… great… and again… whats the point of this? Wish fulfillment?
Now look at DitV’s polar opposite… Hero Game System’s 6th edition… three books, 600+ pages and 24 pounds of pure unapologetic crunch and very little fluff.
The easy start rules can get you playing or running in under two hours, at its base level HGS has extremely simple realistic or cinematic mechanics system wide, BUT want more detail, want examples of absolutely everything from detonation of nuclear bombs complete with radiation fallout, sickness, weather changes, mutations, emp disruption, etc. to fireball spells, pulp spaceships, and steelpunk zeppelins? There’s an example or pure simulationist/realistic rules for literally anything you can imagine. Learning absolutely every nook and cranny of that system is essentially impossible because anything is possible, but for really good system mastery… years at least.
It’s a system that’s easy to pick up but takes hard work and study to truly master. It’s a work of complex mathematical construction and creative thinking that has taken almost 30 years of constant improvement by guys with long lists of science and math degrees who play every weekend in a basement of Cal-Tech.
Is it worth it? Well if you and your players have all put in the time… hell yes. No other system has ever come close to comparison in providing rules for creating exactly what you want with such extremely detailed results.
Lastly in regards specifically to fate… haven’t read it, don’t plan to instead I’ll just assume this guy is right in his assumptions…
From the Fate website… “focuses on telling stories and balancing characters based on story significance, rather than points and cool powers. It's the system of choice for GMs who are looking for rules that get out of the way of the story, but still provide enough structure to get the job done."
I'd phrase that differently: FATE is a terrible game system, only useful to add a degree of randomness to whatever story you or your players happen to be railroading.
And as a side note, I think you could replace “FATE” with the name of just about any of the popular STGs right now.
And to finish off this three hour tirade… I am choosing to adopt that bloggers gamer manifesto, and hope the rest of the discerning RPG players out there choose to do the same…
A Gamer's Manifesto
I reject the fallacy that holding to a “One True Way” in gaming is an evil. Not all methods are equal, and we should strive not for the mediocrity that ‘everything is just taste’- but instead reach for and only accept the best.
I reject that assertion that all game designs are broken. They may not be a perfect one, but it's not difficult to get close enough for practical purposes
I reject the assertion that realism and simulation is impossible in game design. Again, it’s not difficult to get close enough to meet one’s needs.
I reject the assertion that the GM owes the players anything other than an impartial campaign that offers mysteries and excitement. Success and Failure is dependent entirely upon their skill in play, or its lack.
I reject the idea that GMs or RPG Design should seek to tell stories, they are games and should in themselves be fun and exciting enough that stories naturally result from play.
I reject rules that make decisions for the characters. Players should make decisions for their characters.
I reject the idea that RPGs cannot be played completely by the rules (or at worse the rules plus a reasonable amount of house rules) as written.
I reject the idea that playing by the Rules as Written is not role-playing. Rules are physics, Role-playing is decisions and expressions.
I reject the idea that GM judgment is the equal or superior of objective resolution in key areas such as combat and skill resolution.
The GM powers are restricted to creating the world, and ends both at the mind of the player character and the boundary of the physics engines presented by rules.
I reject the concept of play without the equal of a map and miniatures together with solid rules covering the elements of range, line of sight, and terrain. Any other style of play is lazy and nothing more than dependence upon GM handouts.
I reject the concept of 'rules getting out of the way'. RPGs are games, and the rules should engage and interest the players.
Story telling games…. Yup, they suck.
"what do I want? The usual — hundreds of grandchildren, complete dominion over the known worlds, and the pleasure of hearing that all my enemies have died in highly improbable accidents that cannot be connected to me."