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.