Recommend a Story Game for non-storygamers

edited October 2012 in Play Advice
I concentrate for a round and summon the wisdom of the madding crowd.

I am a storygaming n00b and not by coincidence also the usual GM for when my local gaming group plays RPGs (rarely, we mostly boardgame). I absolutely love the idea of storygames, but my regular play group is made up of very traditional board and RPG players. They're not opposed to storygaming; we've tried Fate and Microscope, but the experience was a mixed bag.

Basically, the challenges are these:

1) These guys aren't used to being creative on the spot. We had a lot of trouble in Microscope where people wanted to pass their turns because they couldn't think of anything. Generally these guys work in non-creative fields and don't do creative/artistic things as hobbies, so I think a lot of this is just lack of exposure/practice. I think with more time at the table we'll be able to tell who's just not interested in this kind of gaming, and who's just unsure of how to go about it.

2) They seem to like being railroaded, inasmuch as they're content to follow where the GM is dragging them without complaint (some of them play a lot of Pathfinder adventure paths, for instance). Given an environment where they can do/define anything, they tend to scatter off and do their own thing rather than find common cause, or in a storygame sense a common theme/genre/premise. Alternately, they end up with analysis paralysis and don't do anything. Again, I think this is more a lack of exposure to the concept, but there's some paradox of choice in there too.

3) We can generally carve out four hours once a week or so, but attendance isn't always consistent. So something that can be taught and played in an episodic manner in a single session would be ideal.

4) They are fairly mainstream in their tastes in fiction as gamers go. I mean, Grey Ranks could be the greatest beginner storygame on the planet, but I'm not going to be able to convince them to play a game about child soldiers in the Polish Uprising.

5) That said, one of them said unequivocally that he does not want to play any more trad fantasy. By which I suspect he really means D&D style fantasy, as he's the heaviest Pathfinder player.

There seem to be (ahem) a lot of storygames out there, and I've no idea where to start. Is there a good storygame for complete beginners to the concept? Ideally something with a fair amount of structure and or handholding? Thanks for any and all recommendations.


  • edited October 2012
    I'm thinking Dogs in the Vineyard might work. I've only read it, not played it, but there's a clear structure to the scenario and the players aren't really expected to do more than react to the situation they find themselves in (and escalate, escalate, escalate!). It's a storygame you approach from a clear character point of view.
  • Apocalypse World. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

    The game will force the players to react if they're not pro-active, it can handle episodic, it's not fantasy, and it's a clear genre choice.
  • +1! The other great thing about AW is that it's basically just good, functional trad play formalized into rules.
  • I think you'll have good luck with AW or one of its hacks like Monsterhearts or tremulus (I haven't actually played AW or the hacks yet, but based on what I've read). I can tell you that my group's experience with storygames has been several games of Fiasco plus one game of Our Last Best Hope. Our Last Best Hope was the preferred game for our player who probably sounds most like your friends (likes the structure and doesn't consider himself creative -- though I disagree with that assesment!).
  • Another vote for AW. While it doesn't support railroading, if they DO scatter, the game is perfectly suited for people doing their own separate things. Also, characters not appearing in the spotlight when their player is absent, then them coming back in when the player is there again, seems to be entirely fine within the framework.
  • This place is like the AW fan club
  • Also! There's things you can do to make improvisational creativity easier.

    - Big lists of random elements to choose or roll from
    - Asking the players specific, flavorful questions instead of wide open generic ones
    - Let them open up questions to the group for suggestions (maybe with a key phrase like "can I get some help, guys?")
    - Start with a Roleplaying Poem or other short improv warmup to get everyone in a creative mood
    - Remind the players to "be obvious" rather than waiting for the perfect response

    These are things I have personally used as a GM, so I can testify.
  • The Mountain Witch is also good if your group doesn't mind a little PvP; you have a clear forward path since the party has a clear mission (go kill the Witch), and they have the option to take little bites of narrative control if they want to foreshadow their Dark Fates or if you use the Mountain Witch Trick.

    Dogs is also probably a good pick, again because the group has a clear mission (fix the town's heresy problem) but they have plenty of leeway in how they go about it, and in what they choose to establish as true about the Faith.
  • So that I don't end up as JUST an AW fan club member (though I totally am), I highly recommend Lady Blackbird. This was the main game I used to introduce storygames to my group, and it's always been a blast. It does require the players to do things, but they have guidance on what they can do, and there's a built-in plot for you to follow should they desire you railroad them. I haven't played with variable attendance, but I can't imagine why it wouldn't work (also it's fine if not every character slot is filled). It's fantasy, but it certainly isn't traditional D&D/LotR fantasy, more of a Final Fantasy + Firefly + Steampunk thing.
  • I'd recommend Dogs, Lady Blackbird, or The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System. (Using their Keys to prep your GM-stuff allows you to find a middle ground between railroading and player-guided story which will feel totally natural and comfortable to them. Give them some constraints on how to pick their Keys, and you'll be ready to go -- we can discuss how exactly if you don't know what I mean.)

    If YOU are comfortable and familiar with AW, it could go really well for you. But I find that game is a little easier to "screw up" than the three I mentioned, so if you've never played it before, do some research before you play.
  • I would go with a very different route here. If they play games that are somewhat familiar, they will keep doing what they always have. I "fixed" my gaming group with Prime Time Adventures. The game taught them to think in a way that supports story and drama rather than trying to get the best outcome for their characters.

    A couple of people have real problems with the improvisational aspect of storygaming and IMO, the only way to deal is to throw them in head first. YMMV.
  • Ah, yes!

    That method has a downside: more likely to fail outright; and an upside: you'll really know whether they're into playing differently (and can embrace it full-on) or not (in which case the game will fail spectacularly and you'll know not to try it again).

    My encouragement of the more gradual approach was mostly based on your comments that the players "like being railroaded" and froze up when playing Microscope (which requires relatively little creative pressure compared to something like a more open-ended story game like, say, Fiasco). That sounds fairly extreme to me! So I suppose it depends what you're looking for: with games like TSoY, Dogs, AW, etc, you can get more of the "story game" style of play for you as GM while still making it accessible to the players. But if you (as a group) really want to try a different style of gaming entirely, then go for it and embrace its challenges as well as its rewards.
  • Ah, yes!

    That method has a downside: more likely to fail outright; and an upside: you'll really know whether they're into playing differently (and can embrace it full-on) or not (in which case the game will fail spectacularly and you'll know not to try it again).

    Yep, totally. Spectacular failure could be the result. The reason I picked Primetime is in the hope that everyone is so invested in the show that they forget they are playing an RPG. I know PTA was like this for me my first time.

    To clarify, what I'm saying is "let them be frozen". Let them know that they can take their time with their ideas and that it is ok to ask for suggestions if they are stumped. I truly believe that for all but the most hopeless (stubborn?) cases, storygaming well is a matter of exposure for comfort and practice for skill. They only thing you can't control is interest/enjoyment.
  • Another interesting tool is a free RPG called "The Pool".

    It's interesting because it explicitly gives players the choice to "just roll the dice" or to "narrate something you find interesting". I've seen people play that game where they start out saying, "Oh, I'm scared to narrate, so I'll just roll the dice during the game." But later, in the heat of play, suddenly they're more and more tempted to break that rule (you can encourage this as the GM in various ways), and discover that it's not so bad after all.
  • Some good suggestions here so far but: Mouse Guard. What's great about it is how the first half of each session *is* a railroad, but by the second half of the session, the players will probably have some ideas about doing their own thing and guess what? Now you get to.

    Plus, it's an accessible premise, but not bog-standard Euro-fantasy.
  • Allow me to second the recommendation for Our Last Best Hope. It's built for play without a GM, but it's pretty easy to hack one in. It's not majorly railroady, but the real appeal is that you're playing a disaster movie, so everyone knows the formula. Play is pretty structured - character scene, threat, character scene, threat, and so on - but the players have room to move within that structure.

    The core book comes with skins for space, zombies, and snow, so you can adjust to the tastes of your group; it's also relatively easy to write up a new theme. (It's similar to Fiasco, in that a number of early elements are rolled from tables and then you play from there, with a new roll changing things half-way through.)

    Like I said, what I think the real beauty for your gamers might be is the familiarity of that sort of movie. It can be hard to get into the head of, say, a night elf assassin, but everyone knows how to play the grizzled old guy who's doing it for his daughter and isn't going to make it out alive.
  • edited October 2012
    Apocalypse World is a great pick for this; the only possible bug is also a feature: there is no plot for you to railroad them through, only a series of progressively worse crises that will continue to erupt, all the more so if they hesitate or ignore them. This could be great proactivity training, or maybe it won't and the whole in-fiction sitch will burn down spectacularly around them. Either way the game works and is fun, without you trying to "force" them to play a new way.

    AW ties in with Jon's advice for soliciting creative contributions: you ask the players questions, addressed to the character, that flesh out the world and community. The questions are loaded and meaningful, and never yes or no: don't ask "did things go sour in a deal with Rolfball recently?" Ask "So why did things go sour in a deal with Rolfball recently?"

    When you say they're quite happy to be railroaded, actually that makes me think of a few games that would in fact cater to that need.

    Misspent Youth is a game with an episodic formula that basically plays out a cycle of rising and falling action, culminating in a onfrontation with an evil plot, no matter what the players or GM do. The meat of the game's choies isn't in where the plot goes, per se, but in what the Youthful Offenders will give up of themselves ("Sell Out") for victory.

    Cthulhu Dark is an extremely rules-lite investigative horror game whose slight mechanics do some interesting things in supple and subtle ways. Grab the free rules and download some free Call of Cthulhu adventures from the Chaosium website, and run them through pre-planned mysteries to their heart's content!

    Lady B is also good for the reasons given by horn head. Also, you ask questions to flesh things out, similar to Apocalypse World.


    EDIT: Crossposted with a bunch of people! Shadow of Yesterday is a good rec, and DUH Mouse Guard is another one of those games where railroading is a feature, and the experiences along the journey matter more than the destination.
  • edited October 2012
    You totally want 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

    It has all the features you're mentioning; a mission-based structure that feels trad-game railroad-y but really isn't, loose grouping that doesn't require everyone to make it to every game, and a very gradual intro to Story gaming principles. It's also totally about shooty space marines and not elves and dwarves and crap. I totally love AW but think it might not be the best fit for the situation you're describing because of the heavy emphasis on players co-creating the world.

    I DO agree that Our Last Best Hope has a lot going for it that could help out here, too!
  • 3:16 rules and is easy as fuck to run.
  • I can back that one too. Requires quite a bit of initiative on the players's parts to add in more story-gaming flavor, but that one is also a very good intro piece. Also Deliverator is 100% right: running it is easy as hell.
  • The path our trad group took to SG was via Mythic GME, this solicits player input (it is GMless but you can act as a "facilitator" to move things along), enforces/teaches scene-framing and always has a random oracle option on standby if you get stuck. Because any story-arc is dynamically built at the table and any adversity is generated by the players themselves it taught us to appreciate the story as it unfolded in front of us ("play to find out what happens"). It also allows you to use a trad system for any fights, skills, characters or whatever. Obviously not for everyone.

    Nonetheless as a fully signed up AW fan club member I also agree with that recommendation, IMO it is very natural to play for people used to trad games and yet opens up all these new vistas of possibility. As someone who learnt how to MC without ever having played in a game I can attest that it can be daunting but the advice here on SG is excellent.

    I wouldn't be a 3:16 fan though. That fell flat for us. I think I can see what the rules are trying to do, but I think that it expects more from the players to go beyond the humdrum, and that could be problematic when you're starting out. It is also meant for campaign play and the 1st mission is unlikely to work well without specific tweaks.

    I do think this is a great question though because, IMO, many SG are at least one of: not fully polished, assume lots of prior knowledge or do one specific thing well and that may not be a thing your group is interested in.

    So, what are your players interested in? (Because that will help people recommend games)
  • edited October 2012
    Well, my first FOUR picks fall flat due to the creativity limitation, but I'll get back to those. Totally agree with 3:16 since you can kill aliens first and the role play evolves from the down time between missions. I strongly suggest Daniel Bayn's Wushu Open (a freebie.) At first blush it might look like it's too open ended/creative, but you just need to remember the cinematic nature of the resolution system and your players will have plenty to inspire them. Just choose a cool story based on a movie that they all like. It also has a GM and that helps with more traditional gamers.

    The four I was going to reccomend all have a fixed table order which is comfortable for board gamers. In no particular order (snerk), Panty Explosion Perfect, Fiasco, The Trouble with Rose (a freebie), and Ocean (another freebie.)

    [edit for typo]
  • Good God people, everybody is so quick to shout out their darlings. Take a breath.

    Daniel it sounds like you are talking to your friends about what they like and want. Just to be clear, they are all fired up to play these sorts of games, right? You aren't trying to convert them, right? "Not opposed to it" is sort of a red flag for me, set us straight.
  • Yeah, I was about to say, why not pick a game based on their interests rather than one based on ours?

    Like, do they like science fiction, horror, non-traditional fantasy (Dresden Files, etc.)?

    A Gumshoe game might be a good fit for the railroad/analysis paralysis combo you describe?
  • Yeah, I was about to say, why not pick a game based on their interests rather than one based on ours?
    In my experience Fiasco is a good way to broach non-traditional games, since they can choose a playset genre/setting that suits their interests.
  • Great point, Jason (and JD).

    I tried to get at this in my earlier post, but it was kind of buried.

    There is a big difference between:

    * I've been playing with this group, and *I* really want to experiment with some more story-game stuff. (A lot of story games fall which fall into more trad-game styles but give the GM different tools, like TSoY and/or AW, could fit here).


    * The whole group is psyched to try more of a story game approach.

    In either case, definitely include them in the conversation!

    (Although I've also seen groups who just go, "Meh, I'll play whatever the GM brings. It's always fun for me to roleplay with these guys, I don't care what we play." In that case, just bring something you're into, yeah.)
  • Given that they like boardgames and guided creativity, you might give The Quiet Year a try. It's a game where you tell the story of a post-collapse community by drawing the map of their area as you flip playing cards keyed to prompts.

    I described it to my wife, who has similar fears about being put on the spot with creativity. She agreed that it would be much more up her alley than regular story games are. It might be a similar good fit for some of the boardgamers in your group.

    But overall, the goal should be more about you and your group working together to find fun, rather than you pitching something that they grudgingly go along with.

    As a storygaming noob, as you call yourself, Apocalypse World and Prime Time Adventures are both excellent reading material, even if the games themselves may be less about structured play than you are asking for. I've also REALLY enjoyed reading the Dungeon World draft versions that have come out - the final edit is due shortly. The principles in AW and DW are super useful as GM structures, and you may find yourself using them regardless of what you play. And PTA is amazing at helping you think about how to structure a medium-length campaign in a way that is likely to prove satisfying.

    And Sorcerer is an older but also excellent example of learning how to drive play in the story games direction. Also excellent reading and guidance. And it has several supplements, which are WAY more about additional play guidance (for focusing on specific types of play) rather than "here's more badguy stats and player build options".

    The danger, of course, being that if you read up on all of those and get frothing excited about that sort of play, and then struggle to excite your playgroup. So take your time. Try to get that guy who's overplayed Pathfinder to read some of the above and see if he gets excited about it too. If not, don't try to force feed your friends. That rarely ends well.
  • edited October 2012
    With Jason's words in mind, I do still suggest Apocalypse World. "Playing to find out" can be done subtlety, and will feel very similar to the "railroad" plots your players seem to enjoy. You can seed a world with neat things, and based on what seizes their interest, you can all watch a plot develop around it.

    When I first ran AW for my old D&D group, if my players froze up at the story-now-ish-ness of the game, I would slowly introduce elements I thought were interesting until the players were also excited. Then we'd go from there.

    By the time of our sixth or seventh session, I stopped having to do anything special for that crew. When I left them, they were planning out their own AW game entirely without me. Two years later, they play more story games than I get to! :D

    ETA: Failing that, grab Burning Wheel Gold and craft the fantasy setting that appeals to all of you. If trad fantasy is truly out the window, grab Mouse Guard and play tiny mice with huge spirits! The Burning system is probably the best way to introduce trad gamers to the small press scene around, if the GM is fluent enough with the game. Or so I say!
  • edited October 2012
    Jason & Paul: Yes, I see where you could get that impression. An old GMing buddy of mine once coined the aphorism "There's a difference between having nothing you'd rather do and having nothing else to do." A lot of the people in my gaming group and in the larger local community will say they'll play just about anything, but won't be very excited about anything in particular once the play actually starts. There's also a strong element of "never criticize another person's game" in the community, so it's very hard to extract constructive criticism from people who didn't like something.

    So while some of this is me trying to get my players interested in some of the things I'm interested in, yes, a lot of it is me trying to find something they'll be excited about. I think they're all game to try this again, but as I said it's hard to get someone to admit they don't like a game. I'm taking them at their word when they say they're willing to try something for an evening, and if it doesn't go well I'm not going to push it.

    JDCorley, I've tried repeatedly to ask people what they want to play, but all I keep getting is "run whatever you want and we'll play it".

    To everyone else: thank you for your suggestions. I'm leaning towards Gumshoe and Dogs in the Vineyard because I think the setting will be most familiar. I really like the ideas in Apocalypse World but I'm not sure about the post-apocalypse theme. Can it be run with a Mad Max tone (gonzo action, more tongue in cheek)? I think I could get them on board with that.

    framweard: By trad fantasy I suspect that fellow really means D&D's kind of gonzo dungeon crawling kitchen sink take on fantasy. I suspect if I ran a faithful Tolkien-styled fantasy game he'd be good with that, so maybe BWG's worth a look. Been sitting on my shelf for far too long anyway.
  • If they are adults who say "run whatever you want", then just pick something you want to run and run that, and if they hate it, welp, it's their own fault.
  • I love Apocalypse World but it is not for every game group. When Dungeon World is out hard copy I think that would be a much better fit. For a group not used to story games I would suggest MouseGuard and use the pedagogy of play by Sean Nittner it helps set the feel for them. The whole GM's turn Players turn is a real eye opener for someone just getting into story games. But I have seen time and again the first session of MG the players don't earn checks because they are counter intuitive. Even if you explain it, it's hard to get them to see. But after that it starts sinking in and then they will start looking for interesting ways to have their "long tail" trait get them into trouble. I also love Lady Blackbird, it is such a fun game. However a group that likes grabbing a seat on the plot train will bring that game to a grinding halt. With Don't Rest Your Head, you can throw baddies at them at first until they start driving for their goals.
  • I know friendship is tricky, but man, is this the activity you want to be sharing with these people? Maybe you'd all be happier doing something else (like playing boardgames, as you already are).

    If you look around you can find people who are as excited about roleplaying games as you are, and playing with them will be really fun.
  • edited October 2012
    Lots of games work well for non-story-gamers *IF* the GM is an experienced story gamer themselves. I feel a lot of the suggestions made in this discussion fall under that category; so Daniel, whatever game you pick, make sure it's something you feel you can grok.
  • Lots of games work well for non-story-gamers *IF* the GM is an experienced story gamer themselves. I feel a lot of the suggestions made in this discussion fall under that category; so Daniel, whatever game you pick, make sure it's something you feel you can grok.
    Yeah, this. I am the biggest Mouse Guard and BW fan on the planet, but those games fail hard if the GM doesn't know the rules *cold*. And BW tends to be much more "open" than MG, *and* it requires them to buy into and invest in the whole idea of Beliefs mattering. I wouldn't recommend it for this group.

  • edited October 2012
    I know friendship is tricky, but man, is this the activity you want to be sharing with these people? Maybe you'd all be happier doing something else (like playing boardgames, as you already are).

    If you look around you can find people who are as excited about roleplaying games as you are, and playing with them will be really fun.
    Yup, dang, this is a great point! As are the points re: Burning Wheel.

    Something about horses and water, yadda yadda.
  • I agree with Jason (Morningstar). However:

    (Although I've also seen groups who just go, "Meh, I'll play whatever the GM brings. It's always fun for me to roleplay with these guys, I don't care what we play." In that case, just bring something you're into, yeah.)
    That can be positive, too, not always negative. Some people are just "ready to play whatever", and they *mean it*. They'll engage and have fun and jump into full on.

    We can't judge whether that's the case here or not (or at least I don't feel I can), but hopefully the OP can!

  • If you want a story game fix but you're worried your friends won't be into story games, maybe go for something with more structure and are a little more "game-y" - Once Upon a Time and Aye, Dark Overlord are improvisational storytelling card games that will go a long way towards seeing if story games fit with your group. If they have a hard time with those, they probably won't be into Apocalypse World / Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard / etc.
  • Is Once Upon a Time any good? I've been eyeing it for about a year.
  • ADO! is hilarious good fun. :)
  • Is Once Upon a Time any good? I've been eyeing it for about a year.
    I've only played it a couple of times, but I had fun with it. I think it can be a terrific warm-up before a gaming session.
  • Is Once Upon a Time any good? I've been eyeing it for about a year.
    I've had fun with it every time I play, but something about it seems to perversely draw out the competitive spirit in my groups-- instead of taking the game at face value and trying to produce an intelligible story, we usually play to "win" by either contorting things to toss out as many cards as we can, or deliberately subverting fairy tale tropes to deny people the ability to play obvious cards (like, beggars are always young and beautiful because otherwise you're just begging for someone to play "Old" on you).

    I mean, we always enjoy it greatly but I can never shake the feeling that we're not entirely in the spirit of the thing.
  • I had a really awkward experience introducing Dogs in the Vineyard to my group. Dunno if it was just the people involved, but the setting information is so scant (except for super-specific rules and regulations for the Dogs) that I think everyone had different expectations and it clashed. If you bring DitV to them, my advice is to make sure that they're all on board for it for real, and that you all lay down a framework for the tone first. The game can be intense.

    Everyone keeps saying Apocalypse World for a reason; I think it's pretty easily grasped and a good introduction game. Since the post-apocalyptic thing isn't doing it for you, totally go for Dungeon World. It's fantastic and most of the setting can be determined by your players, so if they don't want standard fantasy then they won't get it- everything is easily reflavored or changed. I think the *world games are a really good starting point in general; AW is the game that I used to get my group to expand their repertoire and it worked well.
  • Given that Borderlands 2 just came out and is occupying the attention of at least two of the group, I think I can probably sell AW without too much difficulty. I had a look through the downloadable playbooks and it seems close enough.
  • Tiny Tina would be amazing to port over into Apocalypse World.

    I lurves Tiny Tina so much.
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