Avid Storygamer, Ask Me Anything

I’ve learned lots and had great discussions with the folks in this community and others in the space so I thought it might be cool to have people who aren’t that familiar with my USUAL favorites pick my brain about them: Storygames.

I do of course mean games commonly labeled “Storygames” rather than rpgs in which you tell a story (which would be all of them). Games that experiment with the format of rpgs, aiming to “structure the narrative instead of simulate the world”, especially GMless games or games with no numbers on the character sheet etc.

As head of a local Game Tasting club and lucky GM of multiple very open-minded groups, I’ve managed to play over 60 individual storygames, many of them multiple times, including a lot of Ennie, Diana and Game Chef award winners. I’ve steeped myself in Storygame-adjacent design theory for decades via forums and chats and ancient blogs and livejournal comment threads… I may not be an expert, because almost nobody is, but I do love to yammer on about it!

I know some creators in the NSR have been starting to incorporate ideas from the “narrative first” side of the ttrpg gradient, so I figure exposing more folks to games in that space might be fun.

Whether you’re curious about a specific game you’ve heard of, have questions about what makes those kinds of games different or interesting, want recommendations for a storygame that fits a particular purpose… whatever, Ask Me Anything!


I’ll start with something basic: What would you say distinguishes a storygame from other styles in the RPG domain?

Edit: I ended up writing a huge wall of text. Apologies…but INCOMING!

“I’ll start with something basic: What would you say distinguishes a storygame from other styles in the RPG domain?” - SymbolicCity

There are gray areas, obviously, but there are some things that shout pretty loudly that a game is a “storygame”. One important note to make is that the distinctions are not about what can happen at the table, they’re about what the rules of a game encourage and facilitate.

These are the dead give-aways in my opinion. A “storygame” might have one or many of them:

1. What They Want - Not What They Can Do

In a lot of these games, characters are defined by prose descriptions of what they want and how they get it rather than by stats that represent their aptitudes.

For example in Follow, your character sheet records an elevator pitch for your character concept, what you want from the quest at hand, your relationship to the character to your left, what you want from them, and why it’s complicated for them to give it to you.

In Fiasco you assign turbulent relationships, desperate needs, problematic prop objects, and important set locations to pairs of players around the table, and again in this game there are no statistics.

This is different from having a table of people who like to detail relationships and character motivations, or from FKR or free play where nobody has a character sheet, because there is a sheet (or index cards) and the game wants you to answer specific questions the rules will come back to.

2. Writer’s Room / Scene Framing

A lot of “storygames”, especially GMless ones, will have players taking turns setting scenes for their character or someone else’s character around the table. There are rules for who sets the scene, for deciding on which characters are there, and often for deciding on a question the scene will answer or a conflict it will explore. Scenes don’t have to be in chronological order, the rules direct players without a character in the scene to act for NPCs etc.

This is notably distinct from the use of film language (setting the scene, smash cut, fade to black) to spice up the game’s pacing.

For example, in The Final GIrl, players share a pool of common characters and take turn playing as The Killer, who will set the scene, assign characters to players, and then let the players enter freeplay. At a dramatic moment, The Killer will narrate the slasher or monster taking someone’s life. The scene will end, and a new player will take up the mantle of The Killer.

Side note: they have plot armour based on relationships with other characters - less connected PCs are easier to kill, more connected PCs will essentially “hot potato” their death to a new PC character of The Killer’s choice.

3. Genre Conventions

The rules in these games typically try to facilitate genre expectations.

For example, in Technoir, a cyberpunk noir detective game which does indeed have a lot of more traditional RPG elements in it, can be labeled a “storygame” because the central system the GM engages with - and a large portion of the book - is a set of procedures they will use to generate leads based on where you’ve been and who you’ve talked to.

Each time you visit a contact on your sheet (detailed there at character generation), that NPC is added to a Mind Map / Story Web and the GM ties them into the conspiracy in ways the players are not privy to. Each time you visit a suspect or an important location they’re added to the web, and as they give you more information, those leads are added to the web somewhere.

This emulates the convention in noir film that the detective is surrounded in people they can’t trust, people who are already involved or got too close. As a Writer in the “writer’s room” you know that everyone you meet is important and connected, you just don’t know if they’re one of the good guys or the bad guys and you don’t know how they fit into the puzzle.

4. Story Beats

The rules in these games typically try to trigger story beats.

For example, in Lovecraftesque the players take turns steering The Witness, the person whose life and mind are being ruined by exposure to unspeakable weirdness, while the other players share the role of GM.

The game is split into three phases - Part 1 is made of exactly five scenes where The Witness will investigate and NOT encounter overt supernatural elements - only clues that point to a strange mystery.

Part 2 is still investigative, and there are between 1 and 3 scenes depending on when it makes sense for the next Part to begin - in these scenes, there are clues that point to overt supernatural influences.

Part 3 is the “Journey Into Darkness” at the end of the story where there is a horrifying revelation, possibly an encounter with a monster. There are exactly four scenes: one about the incident that incites the journey into darkness, one about the journey itself (be it dream or reality), the confrontation with the final horror, and finally an epilogue where we discover the Witness’s final end, whatever it may be.

This kind of game lays out a very specific narrative structure that will be followed - and at first glance, it seems silly. How do you play to find out if you KNOW this is how it will end? The key here is that the nature of the evil or unnatural thing is not known to anyone at the table. As scenes progress, you record the conclusions you’ve leapt to so far - what you think the clues mean and what the horror might be. Each scene, you add to or change your conclusions to match the evidence at hand.

When the Final Horror scene comes up, the folks with shared GM power will embellish the horror and the Witness will act out the part of the broken person who has seen too much.


Another major distinction is that most “storygames” are generally intended to be run as written. The GM (if there is one) is not expected to (nor granted explicit permission to) remix the game at the table - no rulings, borrowed mechanics, etc.

There are also very few storygames that have or encourage supplements the GM can borrow material from - no predefined adventures, because the adventure is a collaborative writing exercise and the game is considered complete in just one book.

Storygames do have a very strong culture of hacking and remixing games, but the emphasis is on making an entirely new game, doing all of your hacking before the game hits the table, giving it its own name. Then when played, you play the game as presented.

The reason this isn’t considered boring or problematic in this crowd is that these games are usually small and the rules care about specific things - outside of those specifics, anything you want in the game can go in there. You just don’t change or add rules - but add whatever you and your friends like to the fiction.


What do you consider to be fundamental reading for storygames?
Articles, blogs, GM advice, even full games. Any material that is essential to better understand the style and better play/run it.


I’m going to start with games and books in this post, then follow up with blogs and articles in another post later.

Great Introductory Games

There has been a boom of storygames in the last few years that matches the boom of OSR content on itch.io - but a lot of it is very light and assumes some familiarity with these games, so they often aren’t ideal if you’re trying to figure this kind of game out.

Honey Heist is some of the best fun you can find in one page, but good luck if you’ve never run an rpg before.

There are some that I’m familiar with that really do a great job of providing enough guidance for play that you can learn the game without being taught or having prior experience, and also familiarize you with some concepts that are widely used.

An important part of that is having a great setup full of stuff you can riff off of rather than expecting you to bring your own themes and character elements.

  • Follow - written by Ben Robbins (after years of running Storygames Seattle and teaching games to hundreds of new players) to be easy for beginners to pick up and teach other beginners at public play with no prep; you pick a “seed” from the book that provides you with a situation, a goal, suggested character archetypes and a list of possible challenges you might face

  • Fiasco - it’s the most popular storygame for good reason and an excellent intro; during setup you get relationships (a gambler and his bookie, a journalist and her source, friends with benefits, retired police partners… whatever) and needs (to get rich, to get even, to get laid, to get away) etc.

  • Wanderhome - possibly the most popular and cutest game using the “No Dice, No Masters” system (also confusingly given a second name, Belonging outside Belonging) which uses a simple and clever poker chip economy instead of dice. It’s adorable and has great production value if you get the physical game. In Wanderhome you get a lovely package that’s more complete than most of its sister games.

  • Apocalypse World - “Powered By The Apocalypse” has become somewhat of a meaningless buzzword for a lot of folks, but the text of Apocalypse World is worth a read. It turned the scene upside down with its deconstruction and description of what the best GMs (in any game) actually do at the table.

Games to Break Your Brain

There were some early games in this space that were highly experimental and highly influential on the games that came later. They took up a lot of the oxygen in forums in the early days and on G+ when that was booming.

They can be a challenge to facilitate and play well, but reading them might change how you think about rpgs entirely.

  • Polaris (2005) by Ben Lehman (not the newer sci-fi game by Black Book Editions), a game that uses a complex tree of ritual phrases as conflict resolution mechanics. This game isn’t that big - it’s a rather small booklet - but requires a lot from the people playing it. You use ritual phrases like “but only if…”, “and furthermore…”, “you ask far too much” etc to negotiate the legend as you tell it together.

Story-Games Seattle commonly used a hack of Polaris by Ben Robbins that simplified the setup and allowed the game to be learned and taught more easily with less investment. I cannot find a link online, but I could share the rules tweaks in another post if anyone wants them.

  • In A Wicked Age: I’m not even going to try to describe it - here’s a review: Review of In a Wicked Age - RPGnet RPG Game Index

  • Kingdom (the 2nd edition is easier to figure out but still a wild read) by Ben Robbins: You are the movers and shakers in a “kingdom” - it might be a literal Kingdom or a wizard’s school or a discount electronics store - and you each have a specific kind of power you can exert over the story. Some of you have real authority (Power) to make decisions, some of you have an acute awareness of the kingdom (Perspective) and can predict consequences of Power’s decisions, and some of you are plugged into the population (Touchstone) and determine how the people react to the things that happen. There are rules for switching between roles and throwing your narrative muscle around.

Books about Improv

In this space, there’s not a lot of the kind of prep before the game or special practices at the table that a GM needs that are different from regular rpgs - but as any player or GM, Improv theatre techniques are super helpful.

They can make you a better role player in any kind of rpg, but they are especially useful to practice if you play games that do not have traditional conflict resolution mechanics - when you and your friends just have to tell a story without arguing over whether it’s likely it would happen that way.

  • Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves: a book by a gamer and improv theatre veteran, it’s a curated collection of improv exercises that are ideal for small groups who don’t perform on a stage with an external audience to cater to.

  • Improvise by Mick Napier: if you have already read books on improv or have taken a class, Mick will dispel you of some common myths (such as “never say No”) and tell you which improv rules are truly important and when to break them

  • Behind the Scenes by Mick Napier: sequel to the above, with specific advice for longer form improv


Do you have any advice on introducing players who are used to more traditional RPGs? I’ve run a few story games, and I actually find it easier doing it with RPG newbies than with experienced D&Ders (who tend to say things like “am I allowed to…” or “what’s the mechanic for…”)

BTW I’d never heard the term “story game” until I wrote my first game, and a friend blogged about it, calling it a story game :joy:

This was the game BTW:

Oh, another question: you’ve already posted some great links to games, but do you have any personal favourites, or any obscure-but-wonderful games you’d like to recommend? (I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of story games I’ve played, but I keep coming back to I’m Sorry Did You Say Street Magic)


I knew about Kingdom, but never really knew what it was. Your description makes it sound like it’s my kind of game!

A good list. Let me add a bit, though most people on here probably have already heard me blab on and on about them.

• Fall of Magic: A game where you follow a mage on his last journey in a time when magic is fading from the world. You travel to loosely described scenes with prompts and just narrate. I think it’s a bit hard to create the conflict a good story needs unless you have a group that is already good at that. There are some Youtube video’s out there where people play it. From adults to kids. No GM and no mechanics.

• Lady Blackbird: A John Harper (Of Blades in the Dark fame nowadays) game that is just pick up and play. Suitable to one-shots and extended play. Very cinematic. Has a GM, pre-gen characters and some mechanics. (Mainly Keys and secrets and a modified ‘The Pool’ engine). Again, multiple video’s are floating around online of people playing it. It’s also free. Has follow up games as well (I think there are two more official ones and many hacks)

• Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple: A game targeted at young teens but suitable for older players as well I think. A mix of Le Petit Prince and Avatar: The Last Airbender. No GM, Mechanics based around writing and using keywords before a certain point. No deaths, but consequences for failing.

• Happy Birthday Robot: A writing game for children, starting from a point where they can write well. Depending on your kids that could be from age 5-7 to start. More fun around age 8-9 in my experience. No GM, Dice, tokens and writing mechanic. Very easy to hack.

• FATE and FAE: Divisive game in my opinion, but it definitely tries to be a story game, and if well understood and played by the right kind of people (good at improv, no fear of failing forward) definitely succeeds at it. Takes some getting used to though. If you’re having trouble with it, or want more tips, there’s a pdf floating around collecting all the advice written by a master of the game during the Google+ days. It’s called the Book of Hanz. Many, many examples of play, even by that guy, are available on YouTube. A good example series — if you aren’t repelled by the now cancelled Adam Koebel — is Nebula Jazz. They really got it.


I going to add a few games I would recommend. Not that the ones that @jeffszusz recommends are bad, but those are not the ones I would recommend.

  1. For the Queen - Very simple game that is a short one shot, with instructions built into play, and safety tools built into those instructions and play. Play is very straightforward and primarily revolves around answering loaded questions provided by prompt cards. I do think it benefits from someone who has played before and is good at modeling being curious and asking follow up questions.
  2. Masks - A PbtA game that is about teenagers (or young adults) who happen to have super powers and are a newly formed team trying to figure out their place in a world full of supers. It is NOT a generic supers game, it is definitely teens (or young adults) first, trying to ignore or subvert that will lead to a poor experience.
  3. Dialect - A game about learning about an isolated community and the Dialect that is created in that isolation. You each play characters, but the focus is on the language and the characters are the way we see the language in use and color the language we see.

I’ve got other things I would recommend, but those are the first three that came to my mind.


A little more on Kingdom: this was the first story game I played, and was run (in several sessions, each a few decades after the previous one) as the conclusion to a D&D campaign (first one of those I’d played in 30 years too!) to determine what happened to the country our D&D characters had just founded. The idea was that we would then resume playing D&D in the same world a few hundred years on. Sadly that never happened, but even so it’s a great way of world-building for more traditional RPGs (as is I’m Sorry Did You Say Street Magic)

It was also during that game of Kingdom that I first encountered the difficultly some old-school RPGers have with story games: one of the players decided she would play an omnipotent beholder who had taken control of the kingdom (which led to some brilliant plot twists), while another player spent half of the game saying “can she do that? How is she allowed to do that? Surely a beholder is too powerful a thing to play”, missing out on the fact that the whole game is a collaborative story, and the more insane the elements the more insane the story.


Yes please! :heart:
I would be very interested in them.

That’s normal.
Most veteran roleplayers have ingrained habits that are often invisible, but that very strongly define “how to play rpgs” for them. When they then stumble on any rpg that works differently, they have problems adjusting because their instincts are suddenly “wrong”. Being Trad games the overwhelming mainstream majority, this problem is quite common. It often affects OSR and FKR veterans too, as the underlying play-structure is fundamentally identical in all three cultures.

Newbies have no such baggage, so it’s much easier for them to accept whatever the game throws at them at face value.

First rule of the fight club, don’t talk about the fight club :stuck_out_tongue:
Unless someone is already interested and specifically asks you to chat about game theory and design… avoid such topics at all costs.
Veteran roleplayers have all kinds of twisted brand-loyalty issues, plus crazy misinformation about what some technical (buzz)words mean, plus any amount of unpleasant contant with this or that fanboy.
Avoid all of this by simply avoiding the topic.
Just play.
Pick a game and try to play it.

That said… in order to get people to the point of playing a new game, it really depends on your specific friends.

Some react badly to “gateway” games that do the same usual thing but in a different way; the comparison is too close, and it just feels wrong. Others love the ability to do the same usual thing they already enjoy, but in a different and fresh way.

Some react badly to “shock” games that do something completely different than what they are used to. Many might even argue that you are not playing a “real” rpg at all.
Others love the idea of experimenting with something new and unfamiliar, free from the instinctive need to draw uncomfortable comparisons.

There is no magic bullet :sweat_smile:

A good approach is to focus on something your friends might want or like.
Are they tired of fantasy adventuring?
Would they like some sci-fi? or horror? or hospital romance?
Are they fans of a specific novel series or TV show or movie?
Chances are, there is a specific rpg for that… and this is your way in :wink:

Or… do they have some specific problem with your usual rpg?
Maybe the fights are too long drawn.
Maybe the focus is on numbers rather than narrative.
Maybe the narrative is cool, but requires a lot of effort and creative energy, instead of coming easily and effortlessly.
Maybe they might want more focus on personal drama? Or on world exploration? Or on party dynamics? Or on awesome powers without the problem of balancing?
Maybe their GM already delivers all of this, but at a high cost of time and effort and personal sanity?
Chances are, there is some specific RPG to address some specific gripe a Player or GM might have with the Classic/Trad/OSR way of doing things… and this is your way in :slight_smile:

Sometimes it’s enough to say
Guys, I am the person running the game and I need a break from it, let’s try this new weird thing that caught my attention, it could be fun! Are you with me?

Honesty is often a very good bet (and tends to show the true colors of some “friends”, for good or for worse)