The differences between Traditional RPG's and Story Telling games

I just made another blogpost about what I’m calling “Grensland”, my deconstruction and reconstruction project of “B2 - Keep on the Borderlands”. This post tries to tackle the differences between Traditional RPG perspectives, expectations and mechanics on the one side, and the very different approaches of Story-Telling Games on the other, and what that means in adapting this module.

I’m mainly using The Pool as my reference since that’s what I’m thinking of converting things to, but there’s also some more radically different or more extreme versions of Story Telling Games that would be worth considering in this experiment. (I’m mainly thinking Microscope here)

I’m not sure how much this community is thinking about story games, but since it seems to have significant overlap with Free Kriegspiel in how to think about playing (I think), I thought I would cast out a line and see what people here think about the differences between the two styles of play.


I’ve had some luck combining Microscope with more traditional Fantasy Adventure Games. We’ll run a session or so of it to establish palettes and build out the Setting up to the point prior to where play begins (which always drives more engagement if the players have a hand in creating things I’ve found). It’s a great way to generate that sense of History and insure that everyone has some baseline knowledge and the same expectations for play.


I’m also not a big story game guy, but I have looked at, played and discussed a few of them with people in the know. I tend to think your post gets to the gist on two important issues A) The goal of the game type and B) the way that they treat space and tell the story of the game (aka location based v. scene based). Fundamentally both of these are about how the play style is supposed to function and where the players are meant to be spending time and energy.

The one that always strikes me, or at least currently feels interesting, is that in Classic and OSR games there is often a strong push to avoid interaction with the mechanics – you don’t want to roll the dice, because once they get involved there’s a high degree of risk. Optional play is to solve the problem in a way that the adjudicator determines will be successful (or at lest one that heavily stacks the odds). In my experience of story games there’s far more desirability to engaging with the mechanics because of a greater emphasis on the dice as oracular and their use as the main way to progress play.

Obviously there’s many other differences as well, but I think that some are becoming more blurred, or at least recognized as always having been. I’d also want to make distinction between Traditional RPG perspectives, because there’s a lot of ground to cover there. Are you using the term in a general context to mean systems/play styles with greater referee authority over setting, or more specifically to describe “Trad Gaming” - the dominant from say 1980 through the early 00’s?


I am really interested in what you come up with as the “story game” version of “B2 - Keep on the Boderlands”.

I’ve also noticed the lack of modules for lots of story games. To me, this is seems to be because by the time you make a module for something, it’s basically a whole new story game. You allude to this with The Questing Beast as being the first game made from The Pool by the same designer.

The Pool to me is interesting. I’ve not played it, only read it. But it’s also something that I don’t really have any desire to play. It’s too minimal there’s not enough there for me. Part of what I want from a game text is support, and well 4 pages of The Pool doesn’t have that for me.

I am definitely a story gamer first and foremost. I often enjoy playing games with folks who favor Classic or OSR play, but I don’t really like any OSR products. I am a much bigger fan of the people then the products that get produced.

Anyways, looking forward to “story games” version.

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The Questing Beast is free and has more to it than just the engine it seems. You can find it here: The Questing Beast - Random Order Creations |

Depending on the game this is true indeed, but I also think conflicts are usually only resolved by one single roll instead of a blow-by-blow simulation, so in that case there is less rolling. Some games don’t even have rolling (I’m thinking Fall of Magic, but I also think Microscope has no rolling? I have never got around to actually playing it.) But in general, yes, I think the principle is that in more traditional games you avoid danger more, while in story games you look for the drama. This is in part because of some things that are established before play. In traditional games your character can just die at any moment, especially in the brutal OSR type games from the start of the OSR. While games with a more narrative or storytelling bent don’t have that unsatisfactory death outcome in the game.

  • Lady Blackbird has a box that says “presumed dead”, which implies that you can make a big comeback if you want to.
  • Fate has a rule that character death is optional and that the one who decides that is the player of that character themselves. So you have to work together to decide how losing a battle gets decided and what it can mean.
  • It also has the rule that the winner of a conflict decides what happens. The loser are at their mercy. This makes it not immediately about death, but could be about getting imprisoned, waking up without anything but your underwear (if your opponent was charitable), etc. It gives both the GM and the player tools to make victory or defeat dramatically interesting. Also, it makes you lose control over your character’s narrative for that moment. That is the real loss in losing this conflict.

These things make getting into trouble fun, rather than punishing you for it.

While it seems to be a bit dated by now, my mind still thinks a lot in the mode of the Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist labels of games. Most games are a blend of two or more of these though. But I find these ways of thinking about games helps me frame things in a way that I can easily think about them. When I talk about traditional games in the blogpost and in general I usually am thinking about the Gamist and Simulationist type games. Or the games where they characteristics come out most.

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This I 100% agree with this view. I think it is absolutely true. It absolutely makes sense to me that

you don’t want to roll the dice, because once they get involved there’s a high degree of risk

and their is a desire to have as little as possible unnecessary risk. To me, many, necessarily all, OSR and classic play stuff (games, campaigns, modules, etc.) have at least to some degree a theme of survival. One of the key tenants of survival is to not make unnecessary risks. So intentionally avoiding the thing, rolling the dice, that causes unnecessary risks makes a a lot of sense.


I’m enjoying this chat but I would advise against thinking in GNS terms as it is really quite limiting. For a more nuanced take on the different reasons to play and the resultant games, have a look at Levi K’s Manyfold: Manyfold by LeviKornelsen


I sort of disagree, but not entirely.

I agree with the oracular nature of randomizer mechanisms in story games. Often a randomizer, dice or cards are common, is used to get external results which leads to new situations for folks to respond to.

I disagree that it is the “main way to progress play”. But I only disagree in that it doesn’t have to be “rolling dice” or randomizers. I think a lot of story game mechanisms, rules, and procedures don’t have a randomizer. They can conditional statements, “If X, then Y”, “Always Z”, etc. I agree that many story games want the players to engage with the mechanisms, procedures, and rules in order to help (and support you) moving the narrative (and play) forward. I just disagree that it is only “dice rolls”.

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Eh, I mostly agree about the story games part. I think we might agree in principal, but perhaps not in terms.

“for the drama” to me does not encapsulate why story games have dice rolls, it may be a reason why dice rolls occur, it is by no means the sole reason. Again, as stated above, I think the for story games mechanisms, rules, and procedures, encompass so much more than “dice rolls” and randomizers.

To me, the most common reason mechanisms, rules, and procedures, exist in story games is NOT “for the drama” but to help players tell a specific style of story. Sometimes those stories are full of drama and “for the drama” coincides with “tell a specific style of story” but sometimes those two goals differ.

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The biggest thing of a story game, at least to me, is that players have an almost equal, if not equal, role in the story as the GM. Generally this is figured out in the mechanics of the game. There’s a greater emphasis on rules as arbitrator between all players.

Interesting, that is not at all a criteria for me. Though it might have a descent correlation. So to you The Pool, which has a GM, wouldn’t be a story telling game?

So for you, all story games are GMFull/GMLess?

Is the reverse also true that If it is GMFull/GMLess, then it is a story game?

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I mean there can be a GM, but he’s not the power that most trad games have him as. PBTA, arguably the primary story game genre, is a GMed game with players having a lot of control of the setting and the story. The setting is the GM’s character, but the rules are much closer to a final authority than the GM.

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AHHH! Makes sense. I get you.

I’d agree. More distributed narrative responsability, it’s more equal, but the exact nature of the responsabilities (and authority/power) don’t have to be the same.

So what, if anything, makes a story game different than from an OSR game run with lots of consent and individual contribution from all players?

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From how I understand it OSR players are

  1. Trying not to roll.
  2. Characters are avatars,.

Story-game folks:

  1. Want to roll
  2. Characters are constructs the player isn’t inherently connected to.

Ymmv of course. And then there’s cranky folks like me deliberately making hybrids

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So all attitude and very much not in the game text. Play any game text like a story game or any game text like an OSR game. Granted some are easier to play in each respective style, but it’s not about the actual game texts themselves.

Now that depends on the text itself. I definitely can’t account for that.

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I’ve been thinking, I agree with your first points. But I disagree with the second points, well at least as how they are stated currently.

When you say “Characters are avatars”, I take that to mean that the player is invested in the character as a representation of themselves.

To me, this happens in both OSR and story games, and I actually find it more common in story games than OSR stuff. For me, most of my OSR/Classic play has been with relatively shallow disposable characters that are not really a representation of me. The character’s stats and skill usually have very little to do with problems are solved, which are mostly done by me, the player. For me, this actually feels more resonant with the story game point ,“Characters are constructs the player isn’t inherently connected to”.

For story games I tend to get way more invested and involved with the characters. For me, the characters in story games matter much more. The story is about these characters, with different characters it’s a completely different story. With OSR/Classic play stuff, the story is about the place/location/town/module/campaign etc. Change up the characters and it’s more or less the same narrative, sure some details are different, but the primary focus is on the fixed things in the world, not the individual characters.


We are two trains passing each other in the night, but I’ll be clear yet!

By avatar I mean something that just stands in for you. Exactly what you said,

Story gaming requires that the character be far enough away from you to suffer. Sure, you’re invested, but what let’s you invest is the knowledge that this character is artificial, letting you suspend disbelief.

At least, that’s how I think of it. Heh, we’ll figure this out.


Hmmm… I think we might have to agree to disagree.

Story gaming requires that the character be far enough away from you to suffer. Sure, you’re invested, but what let’s you invest is the knowledge that this character is artificial, letting you suspend disbelief.

I don’t agree. I don’t agree that there is a requirement for you to have distance from the character. I don’t agree that what let’s you suspend disbelief is the knowledge that your character is artificial.

Again, for me, I am way more invested in story game characters than OSR characters. I feel story game characters are WAY closer to me. I feel way more distance between myself and OSR characters.

I think we might just have different approaches to play, even within these categories. I don’t think my way is better than yours or your way is better than mine. They are just different.

As I mentioned way earlier I am much more in the story game camp than OSR camp. For me, this likely has a lot to do with being way more invested in characters that come out of story games than characters that come out of OSR games. I can totally understand that someone who gets way more investment out of OSR characters to prefer OSR games over story games. I can also understand folks who get way more enjoyment out of other aspects of other games, such as exploration and survival, that are more present in non story games. For me, I role play for the characters. For me, I get most invested in characters in story games. So for me, that’s where I prefer to stay. I totally understand and get other folks getting different things out of the same game text and folks preferring different stuff from what I prefer. That all makes sense to me, we’re all different.