The differences between Traditional RPG's and Story Telling games

I may be explaining this poorly, and of course I don’t think it’s absolute since story games (or storygames - is there a preference? One fellow I know thinks the second has a derogatory bent?) are a broad category with increasing blending with other play styles, but my impression of PbtA type games is that there’s a universal mechanic that triggers when a move occurs. That roll is usually partial success/partial failure weighted and so generally generates more tension, action and complication. The player or ref only really knows (though I know there are wager mechanics as well in stuff like Trophy Gold) what happens after the roll and will base things on the result. I’d compare this to a classic referee controlled obstacle where while a good referee will lay out the risks of failure and the mechanics to determine the chance of failure beforehand, the players main goal is to determine a solution that is 100% safe and will cause no risk or roll. The tension is built into the high stakes of unpuzzling the obstacle or the high risk gambling of accepting a roll?

I suspect from your earlier post that we’d agree to the why of this (the goal of play in the story game is to create a narrative, usually within a specific genre while the goal of the classic game is to overcome the obstacles regardless of narrative or genre cohesion).

It sounds like you’re talking about a class of story games that use a sort procedural framework as an engine of play instead of partial success rolls. I am curious about this, it makes me think a little of what I know about BOB and Wanderhome with its token system, but I’ve only watched a game of that, never played so I’m not super familiar. Is this an emerging style of mechanic? Pretty curious about it.


I think using PbtA as an example of storygames in this is confusing matters. Their focus on the conversation and playing to find out instead of explicitly working towards a desired dramatic outcome means they have a lot in common with OSR. Even the way that moves are triggered - follow the conversation until the GM says you trigger a Move - is remarkably similar to the way OSR games play with play continuing through description and roleplay and doing whatever you (the player) wants until the GM says that a Save needs rolled or combat is triggered.

I wrote this as part of a blog post a few years ago, perhaps it is still relevent:

" DIY RPG, player lead… So OSR games are just like modern Indie Narrative Hippy games!?
– Well, no. Almost all OSR games still follow the strict delineation between GM duties and Player duties. The GM chooses the setting and populates it and runs all the NPCs. The Players have control of their PCs and that’s about it. There is no shared narrative control, no scene framing, no pre-game discussion of what tonight’s session is going to be about, and you won’t find any mechanics for building an entertaining story. OSR runs on the traditional social contract: The GM is in charge but he has to understand that the PCs are the stars."


I’m familiar with the Ron Edwards essay, but I think like the term “OSR” its one of those things that tends to cause more disagreements and confusion sometimes then it clarifies. The essay itself has some neat ideas, but feels its age a bit for me. Very much focused on defining how Story Games and the Forge are different and better then the trad games of the era that they are pushing back against, but also ignoring the history of design proceeding those games.

Still, yes the distinction between gamic and narrative mechanic, play styles and design principles does make a lot of sense to me, its useful as a design framework, though I never fully grasped the distinction between narrative and simulationist.

The distinctions I’m making are more historical and based on this essay “6 Cultures of Play” from last year by Retired Adventurer. You are unlikely to fully agree with it - I certainly don’t, but since most people who read it seem to disagree about some characterization it makes regarding their favored play style, and agree with it about most others, I think it gets the gist fairly correct.

The point I was largely trying to make is that when you look at play style or culture outside story games, a single definition of “trad” is insufficient. Even for D&D, where I know the most about it, there’s schisms about play style going make to the late 1970’s. I think its the same mistake that Edwards makes in the GNS essay to gloss over these. For example, what GNS might call simulationist impulses start very early in the D&D world - the “Dungeons and Beavers” scene out of Cal Tech begins playing and almost immediately adopts a style focused more on emulating pulp fantasy writing as a genre. Meanwhile Gygax and the Mid-Western types are hashing out how much D&D should look like a skirmish war game. From the inclusion of the “alternate combat system” in OD&D on there’s a core tension in RPGs about how much a game should be about the characters qua the characters - perhaps Edward’s “Narrativism”, how much it should be a war game and how much it should be about emulating the tropes of fantasy literature.

By looking at historical eras we can really tease out how the OSR of 2006 - 2019 or so is profoundly different then the 1970’s (and maybe 1980’s there’s debate) whose play style it often claimed to be reviving or rediscovering. Even within the OSR its useful to me as an adventure writer to look at the design principles (and with them player expectations) throughout the OSR period, and by doing so one can par the OSR into three overlapping historical eras. The early OSR focusing on mechanical, setting, and tonal fidelity to early D&D - challenge based play where player knowledge needed to solve its obstacles is largely expected to be specific to the game (e.g. that trolls don’t regenerate if you burn them. The mid OSR where mechanical fidelity largely remains (as an engine for shared online play), but setting and tone begin to shift as designers start realizing that challenge based play doesn’t need to be built around meta knowledge. Late OSR is of course the increased commercialization of the scene, and ever greater numbers of systems that are clones, but make greater or lesser mechanical changes, reject or ignore the implied setting of the cloned game, yet try to maintain tonal fidelity either to a more nebulous collection of maxims like “player skill” or to the emergent consensus that the default “OSR” tone is “grimdark”.

I ramble - but historical eras are useful fo rme to know exactly what sort of rules and design I’m thinking about.


I agree with this completely. I was going to answer this as well. PBTA is popular right now, but is by far not the only type of story game. It’s good at what it does, for sure, but there are a lot of other types of story games that follow completely different approaches. While the rules powered storytelling of PBTA encourages character driven play, there are other types of story games that I sometimes even question would fall into the roleplaying game category, because it’s less of a game and more of a find-joy-in-creating-story type activity.

Some examples: Microscope, where you don’t play a single role, or the exquisite corpse style writing game I loved in primary school.
Or My Daughter, The Queen Of France, Happy Birthday Robot, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple or The Extraordinary Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, to name a few.

They all play very differently from each other.


My story game experience is fairly limited as I’ve said: Torchbearer, A bit of Freebooters on the Frontier, Dungeon World, Trophy and Trophy Gold. Have watched a few games of other stuff like Wanderhome, and read more (though again largely PbtA). Loved Night Witches as an example of a game designed for mechanics and setting to mesh. Perhaps as I mention with the OSR, breaking story games down into sub categories is useful?

I tend to agree regarding that distinction between story and classic/OSR games - and the thing about trad games that I dislike is that they tend to dissolve the line between referee control of setting and absolute player autonomy regarding characters. To me it seems like a form of antagonistic GMing, but unlike the wargame style antagonism one finds in some early Gygax writing, it’s not competitive or about increasing challenge but about forcing narrative. My own take (not remotely unique) is that the story and OSR spaces were both reacting to this evolution 90’s and 2000’s game design and take slightly different approaches. OSR aims to reaffirm a commitment to player choice and rejects genre based narrative emulation to a degree, while story games build up mechanics for shared narrative and largely set aside challenge based play.

It’s a shame there wasn’t more early cross-pollination, but the I suspect some core disagreements about nostalgia made it easy for empire building personalities to set the OSR and story scenes up in conflict. There’s a lot for each to learn I think - even if I’m more a “Neo-Classical Procedural Exploration” guy. I don’t think the five or six of us scurrying around underfoot constitute a play style though.


Eh, not for me. I generally don’t actually refer to the games I like to play as either, but I understand it is how many folks categorize some of the games I play. If pressed I usually tell folks I play “Small Press TTRPGs”. But that term doesn’t really encapsulate the same meaning or connotations as story games or other similar categorizations.

Yup, I think we agree.

Eh, yeah, I think that’s mostly correct, even if I wouldn’t have worded it that way. I don’t think of it as an “emerging style” I think it’s been around for a long while and as others have pointed out, the conflation of story games with PbtA seems to be causing a little bit of the confusion.

Yup, yup, yup.

Yes, definitely.
Just as you use historical eras for differentiating between all sorts of OSR and classic play. Story games have a wide variety of games with in the broad category, and there are likely many ways to sub-categorize them. Just as you use historical for OSR and Classic Play, I’m sure historical is ONE way story games could be categorized. Personally it’s not how I would categorize it, but I would totally understand one using such a categorization.

Yeah, I could generally agree to this categorization. I do think there are a lot of similarities between OSR and story games. I do think there are some differences, even if it’s just in focus and priority.

I can totally understand that for OSR the focus and priority is on player choice and to have narrative emulation be either rejected wholly or at least a much lower priority.

I can totally see story games being categorized as having a focus and priority on narrative emulation (telling a specific style of story) and while it doesn’t reject player choice completely it does allow for limitations on character (and player) autonomy, as required by the style of story being told.

I’m less convinced this is a useful categorization. I generally think that “shared narrative” while present in many story games is not a great way to categorize them. I think that having all the participants contributing and consenting to how the story is unfolding is essential to all TTRPGs, whether it’s trad, OSR, story games, or another category. I think the details of how that is done will differ within different categories and different games. I fully acknowledge that for a lot of OSR stuff, the separation of roles and responsibilities is a harder line than in many story games where many more of those responsibilities might be shared across the whole group or at least multiple individuals.

yes totally agree that many story games have very little to no focus on challenge based play. Yes, there are plenty of story games that include challenge based play, so for me this again doesn’t exactly feel like a useful way to categorize story games as many do reject, yet many also include it.

For me, the thing that I focus on is that story games have rules, procedures, mechanisms to support players in telling a specific style of story.


I think so too, but I’m sure I can do it well enough to do it justice. It’s been on my mind though, so I’ll probably try to put something in a blogpost at one time or another.

I think one big difference in games is that there are two different kinds of story game, of which I remember people using to gate-keep story games. (I don’t intend to do that, but I do realize the distinction is there) It’s that some story games are character driven and some are story driven.

As such some people would say that many PBTA games (like Dungeon World) are not ‘real’ story games, because you aren’t really interested in the (overal) story, but rather in your own character and their story/advancement/… The same is true for games like FATE.

While other games would emphasize trying to tell a cohesive story, not all about your character, but about the greater story. The big example is Microscope of course, but I think some other stories would fall into that category as well.

The distinction is rather forced, since it only looks at mechanics, and not the play styles of certain groups. Mechanics have something to do with is, but without the intention of the group to think outside their character, this is unlikely to succeed. Though I do think that having your own character puts you in a certain mindset, where the game (if treated like a story) suddenly has as many protagonists as there are player characters. In a traditional game this is less of a problem since you’re not trying to emulate a story, but for others it will need some work or re-adjusting. I think the game called FIASCO does a pretty good job at this, since it’s build to be a tragedy where every player character has a character arc that tends to end in disaster. It’s like a movie where multiple protagonists are followed around and at times their stories intersect and at other times they don’t. I’m thinking it feels quite like a Christopher Nolan movie (I’m thinking of Dunkirk specifically) or, if I’m not mistaken — It’s been 20 years ago since I’ve seen it — Lola Rennt/Run Lola Run, or Mister Nobody, though those last two are more about alternate story lines rather than intersecting ones.

Anyway, I don’t have time to keep typing out my thoughts, but this is one possible distinction. Another is games with or without GM, but that’s for later, because, like Lola, I’ve got to run now.

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Historical note: FIASCO was basically designed to “play” Coen Brothers movies. :wink:


That is probably a better one yes.

Okay, as I mentioned before, there’s a distinction in GM’ed and GM-less games.

I like how in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple you switch roles between being the storyteller (aka playing your character, kind of) and being one of the troublemakers.

Likewise in Happy Birthday Robot you switch roles between writing the beginning of a sentence, or adding to the sentence.

In Fall of Magic there is also no GM but a predetermined railroad and prompts that has enough stuff for variation and replayability.

(I’m mostly listing games here that do GM-ing different or have no GM, since I’m going to assume that if you are on this forum, you know how ‘normal’ GM led games work.)

I have kind of grown to hate the term “story game.”

Like, to me Microscope is clearly a story game but PbtA, Fate, Burning Wheel etc are maybe not.

I see people kick around the term “narrative game” and that might fit better. If I understand GNS (and I’m sure that I don’t) Microscope isn’t really narrative despite being a story game.

I think a lot of the confusion I am reading in this thread is a product of bad hobby terminology.

To me a story game is a game in which players narrate a story as distinct from role playing games where you embody a role… Also SG/RPG is a spectrum not a binary.

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I think I get that. I’ve heard it said before. Microscope is clearly all about creating a stort, everyone is involved in the story and the game is mechanically driven to do that.

PbtA, Fate, Burning Wheel, etc. focus on your character. It are character driven games, but that sometimes gets in the way of story, since everyone’s a protagonist and that conflicts with making a coherent story, right? Basically every player tends to make a separate story in which their PC is the main character. Or at least, so it feels.

I’ve been wondering if actual story games might just be a completely different game from roleplaying games. But I’m not sure if that would be a bit too much a gatekeeping approach. I feel it might be. But on the other hand, as you say, clear terminology helps, and I’m not saying the one is better than the other.

Food for thought for real.

I think you are making the distinction between story games and Trad/OC games. The six cultures of play post (also linked by Gus) describes everything really well.

The former being more focused on creating a narrative, and the latter prioritizes playing a character. Also I would note that not every game might fit into a category neatly. People from different play cultures will approach the text differently.


I’m continually surprised that no one ever seems to mention, when discussing what makes story games unique, that they are almost all improvised and assume little to no GM prep.

Am I incorrect in this observation? I’m not big into the story game side of the hobby (yet), but “you don’t have to prep an adventure for these” feels to me like a fundamental dividing line.


It’s true, but there are exceptions to the rule.

Fall of Magic has all the prep already done in the map and prompts, but if you want to use the same game for a different type of story you’ve gotta prep a different map.

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple has the letters, which are prep. Easy prep, but still prep, and a bunch have been provided.

It is true that you don’t prep the details and instead let them emerge out of play, but for many character driven games there are things that still can be prepped, especially if the game has a type of GM. Fate and The Pool both benefit from lists of potential scenes, NPC’s etc, even though you’re not entirely sure when, if ever, you will use them. Dungeon World has the Fronts that are a behind the scene prep thing.

But again, yes, prep is less involved and not strictly needed I think, but it seems some people can run their standard OSR game like that as well. Especially with the focus on the FKR at the moment of using as little rules as possible.

Yes I think you are incorrect. Though, there might be strong correlation. But there are story games that require prep, as TheBeardedBelgaian above gave some examples. There are also games that are “improvised and assume little to no GM prep” that are NOT story games. So using that as a way to categorize games might be useful, but it doesn’t completely line up with story games, even if there is a strong correlation with a lot of story games.

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My impression is that most FKR stuff still assumes a prepared adventure, and I’ve never heard FATE described as a story game, but thanks to you and @Yoshi for the responses.

Perhaps it is more of a correlation than a fundamental dividing line, and yet I can’t shake the suspicion that it’s important.

@GusL, above, suggested that both the OSR and story games are a response to “antagonistic GMing” or the domination of the game by a GM with a particular narrative vision.

I have also heard Matt Colville argue that 3rd edition D&D and its rules density was a response to such “antagonistic” GM behavior — more rules = less ways for the GM to “cheat,” or so it was believed.

Colville suggested that the fear of antagonistic GMs was overblown and fed by the emergence of online forums where horror stories of terrible, domineering GMs began to circulate. Designers began to feel that this was a serious problem they had to address.

It seems to me that story games generally attempted to solve this by…

  1. removing the GM’s ability to prep
  2. distributing narrative authority to…
    1. the rules, which are designed to play more of a role in generating narrative than “trad” games
    2. the players, who have increased influence over the narrative by various collaborative mechanisms

The OSR emerged later in the '00s, when the “antagonistic GM” concern may have faded somewhat, but I think it still contains within it a response to the problem: the OSR GM is instructed to prepare sandboxes and “Jacquayed Jaquaysed” dungeons rather than linear adventures, and to avoid contradicting what has been established at all costs.

In my recent blog post (which is the subject of another recent thread here on the Cauldron), I argued that the driving force behind this “OSR non-contradiction clause” is the desire for authentic challenge.

But rejecting the conception of the game as a story also neatly resolves the issue of domination by a GM with a narrative vision.


Oh yeah, I can totally agree that it is often important.

So if you look at the Berlin Interpretation of Roguelike, they use multiple properties to describe the category. A game is more Roguelike if they have more of the properties, and less Roguelike if they have less of the properties. But a game does not need all of the properties. And plenty of those properties can be present in non Roguelike games.

If one were to take that style of categorization, I could totally see “low/no prep” as one of many properties that make a game more “story game” like.


To followup on this - levels of prep with GM’d “story games” tends to be incredibly personal, sometimes really coming down to comfort level of the GM with the implied genre and tropes. For me Lady Blackbird is a really good example of this. It hard frames a starting premise and situation and the motivation of the characters involved, very lightly sketches out some stuff about other locations and the “world” and that’s it. The GM has a CRYSTAL clear idea of the start and a pretty well signposted idea of the conclusion (though is also very clearly warned that one might change) - but beyond that is left entirely to their own devices.

Depending on a given GM’s penchant they could for sure do a bunch of prep and plan out possible encounters and such for the different locations the characters would likely go. They could also… not. And you could still end up with an incredible game and story. And the players would likely never know the difference one way or the other.


So I should clarify - Trad style forced narrative aka “The Hickman Style” is in my mind a form of antagonistic GMing, but I’m being a bit flip there because I dislike the style. I want games where the players can impact the story. Predefined narrative is not antagonistic in the traditional sense where the referee is attempting to “win” by thwarting the players at every sense. In early D&D this sort of antagonism becomes an issue I think because:

A) War gaming expectations expect two sides to compete for victory, there appear to be two sides in an RPG with a “Dungeon Master”. Incidentally this is why I use referee to describe the role. When RPGs are new and have more war gaming elements it’s natural to try to play this way.

B) TSR/Gygax in a search of a way to promote and monetize D&D (again because of the structure of the war gaming hobby) hit on tournaments. Competitive D&D. Competition will undoubtedly foster antagonism and this also produces both the model of play that’s about rules mastery as way to overcome impossible situations - because the tournaments have to be rules based to feel fair.

C) Gygax and many of the early designers have this weird macho “athlete of the mind” nonsense that they start spreading, and to some extent seem to believe. Writing about being a tough guy and killing his players characters for being snarky or not being smart enough. We still see this in some of the more awful and boring segments of the Post-OSR, such as the self identified “BROSR”. Oddly the Hickmans in particular also has this attitude, but it gets shifted slightly towards killing PCs who try to step off the narrative.

So antagonistic GMing usually means the misuse of the referee/player power imbalance over narrative. However, I think that aggressive railroading can fall into this category as well very easily. Especially when the system retains the power imbalance and culture antagonistic culture. This is also why “murder hobos” are an issue in Trad games, but rarely in Classic games – if you decide to become a murdering thug in a sandbox it can adapt to your character’s actions just as it could if you decided to become heroic. “Murder Hobo” is more a complaint about showing resistance to the predetermined story structure of play, and it predominates as a form of resistance because even in heavily railroaded games the player usually retains the ability to initiate combat.

To be fair though I should point out that the Trad style of play, even predetermined narrative need not be antagonistic and I as much as it’s not my thing I think constitute good design for some type of games. A skirmish game (say Battletech) where huge amounts of game time are spent in tactical combat doesn’t need robust non-combat player choice or an open world (especially is one uses a military campaign structure) and really having one would get in the way eating up play time, and likely making the tactical combat meat of play less interesting as the referee couldn’t trust that carefully designed scenarios got used. Player choice in this kind of game lodges in the tactical combat rules. Also noteworthy that in these sorts of games the classic antagonistic form is also somewhat preferred, because the referee is expected to put up a good fight.

So 1st there’s multiple types of antagonistic design and 2nd trad design/predetermined narrative need not be antagonistic - assuming player buy in and a system where narrative choice is fairly unimportant to player choice as a whole.

I think story and OSR design reacts to the prevalence of predetermined narrative in 90’s design (considered antagonistic or not) and its growth in the 2000’s (D&D has been using adventure paths of sorts since the early 80’s, and they have evolved to be increasingly strict – many in the OSR were hopeful that 5E would reverse this trend, but since its major mode of play seems to be performance, it’s struggled to).

I’d also note that “Jaquaysed” (her name has an ‘s’ and she’s said she prefers this spelling) map design* really only becomes an issue in the Mid-OSR period at the earliest. I’d also say that I don’t know that most OSR design “rejects” game as story so much as accepts limits on the kind of story it will be. Oh and also there’s a big chunk of POSR design space about improvisation and eliminating prep either through a sort of referee virtuosity or more practically through proc gen.

*The Alexandrian articles are map design only, though I’d argue that there’s far more foundational about Jaquays’ design then just the maps.