Wednesday, 1 June 2022

HEART: Delving into the world of story games

Here's a shift in.. well, certainly not tone, but... game philosophy? Regular readers will know that my main frame of RPG reference is the OSR, meaning that the mechanical chassis to which I default is 1980s D&D. However...

Heart: the City Beneath is available to buy

...I am aware that other systems exist. 

This is a post about how and why I came to run a Heart: The City Beneath campaign, and all the people I had to kill along the way. 

(Content warning: this is quite a long post... more than 4500 words. Do you have a spare 25 minutes?. TL/DR: I love Spire and Heart, not in spite of being story games, but BECAUSE they are story games)

The City Must Fall

At some point in 2019 my friends at Garblag Games recorded an actual play of the game Spire by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor of Rowan, Rook and Decard. Regular viewers of Actual Plays, please don't be alarmed: the players are all in the same room, things were different then. The beautiful art, the core concept (drow revolutionaries in a steam punk hiveworld ruled by Aelfir artocrats- my own word, thank you for not attempting to correct me), the rich and seemingly inexhaustible worldbuilding... all conspired (ha!) to ensnare me.

(Worth noting that the trope inversion of dark elf as underdog, High elf as oppressor didn't seem quite as radical because BECMI D&D didn't have drow, it had shadow elves who weren't the pantomime "always chaotic evil" antagonists of AD&D. Is it worth noting? Probably not. Think I'm just attempting to establish my old school credentials in a manner unlikely to endear me to anyone).

Anyway, I watched the video of Ben, Pete, Sam, Leon and Simon playing Spire together... loved hearing the classes, especially the Inksmith and the Matron... but as the game got going, I started to realise something... something horrifying...

...they were playing a STORY GAME.

Not Just Narrativism: an aside concerning "story games"

I am of course exaggerating my reaction: horrified I was not, but (full disclosure) there was some mild disappointment. At that time I was snorting my way through every Goblin Punch (still the best RPG blog ever, sorry everyone else but we're all in Arnold K's shadow) post I could fund, chasing GLOG rails down with shots of False Machine and long draws on Cavegirl's crackpipe. I wasn't to know that Emmy Allen would end up writing PBTA games, Arnold had already written story game mechanics into his thief and assassin classes and Patrick was going to have in-game psychiatrists address players by name, not their characters.  So forgive my lack of worldliness in those short moments before the Man with a Gun appeared and something clicked (not just the safety catch)...

There is something more which I feel the need to clarify: the distinction between "story game" and (for want of a better word) "narrativist". The latter, though associated with the discredited (within the context of ttrpgs) GNS model, is nonetheless helpful in identifying a game in which character development, plot and tone are the primary motive for players participating in a game. I have experienced people using the term "story game" to mean something similar (in fact, the definition of story game in Heart follows this process), whereas I'm more comfortable with a tighter definition for this term.  For me, story games, players  (often including the GM, if any) use the game mechanics (including non-codified mechanics i.e. table conventions) to directly manipulate the plot and/or to reinforce genre conventions and tone.

To distinguish narrativism from story games is not to separate one from the other per se, rather it recognises that story games are a subset of narrative-focused games. Many players who enjoy old-school sandboxes do so as a consequence of the emergent narrative (the fun is the story that develops as a consequence of their characters 'shenanigans), and players may be still be heavily invested in their characters, the tone and feel of the world they occupy. Likewise, players of Dragonlance or many fifth edition modules will be along for the narrative twists and turns of the DM"s railroad, though they have no genuine influence on the train's final destination. I would define neither of these as story games.

(this particular strain of narrativism in Dragonlance/ neo-trad RPG railroad also correlates with narrativism in video games )

For further clarity, here's a some cherry-picked quotes the authors' definition of story games on page 106 of Heart:

  • Story games are vague in a way that trad games aren’t.
  • ...when you run a story game, you’ll be establishing the world as a broad consensus.
  • doesn’t matter what the... situation is like until one of the player characters considers it. It doesn’t exist until it needs to. It certainly doesn’t need rules: it’s just whatever you want it to be, and whatever it needs to be for the story’s sake.
  • You’re thinking in terms of how player characters interact with a space or situation and how it reacts to their actions, rather than establishing a simulation and letting the characters exist in it: it’s an active  process.
  • ...that lack of simulation gives you the power to mechanically improvise with ease. By reducing the amount of up-front decisions a GM needs to make and focusing on rationalisations and player-facing rules instead, you free up an infinite number of outcomes for every action.
The glaring omission, I think (and this is one I've gleamed from playing in story games as well as listening to the authors of Spire and Heart run games online) concerns the role of the player in shaping the world. In an OSR game players are presented with something concrete though partially occluded: it is revealed to them via questioning the GM, either literally or through the actions of their characters. As stated above, the world of the story game is vague, and while elements are revealed through players questioning the GM, it's just as likely for the GM to flip this back to the player (what do you think it smells like? Why do you think they're in such a hurry?) An amorphous world is shaped through dialogue.

If you're interested in the historical context of the development of these particular cultures of play, have a read through the Retired Adventurer's post

Another aside: one must have one's preference...

This is something important to note and I feel necessary to state explicitly because (in the word's of Trilemma's Michael Prescott) "we live in a fallen world and shared understanding is fleeting": while I might prefer one approach to games over another, that opinion is entirely subjective. Here's a quote from another designer from the NSR/rules-light OSR-adjacent sphere, Jason Tocci:  

"I am genuinely glad to see games designed for people who aren’t me, rather than trying to cater to the same audience as usual, or perpetuate faux-universal best practices for RPG design." 

This was a tweet in response to a thread explaining the story game principles behind recent kickstarter Brindlewood Bay, which you can read here  

Consider this hobby to be akin to the broad category of spectator sports. I know it's dangerous to employ analogies because a) people are so fucking literal minded ("there's no dice in field hockey!") and b) because it gives them an easy way to disagree with the argument without engaging with its content ("false equivalency! There's no dice in field hockey...") but I'm ploughing on ahead because my readers are intelligent and charitable (that's YOU! You are great x).

Okay... so... consider his hobby to be akin to spectator sports. Some people are just mad for sport and get it wherever they can (they fucking love the Olympics); others prefer one sport over another, but will probably watch other sports if there's nothing else to do (and probably would rather watch sport on TV than anything else). Finally, some people really fucking love football and if you invite them to a rugby match they'll spit in your face.

(These are the only 3 types of sports fan in the model I m presenting)

Clearly there are deep emotional reasons for such a violent reaction: they could be tied to class, childhood or the city in which they grew up and we shouldn't invalidate their experience (that's not to excuse them from responsibility for spitting in someone's face, that's not cool). But without all that information, it's hard to understand, especially from the outside. At the risk of sounding glib (and also at the risk of mixing metaphors) it might be all very inside baseball: if you have no frame of reference for team-based ball sports played on grass pitches the distinctions between them seem arbitrary and weird, and emotional responses even weirder. They might come away thinking all football fans are violent hooligans or something

Anyway, if you like football and don't like other sports that's fine, just don't spit on anyone, no one is going to force you to watch a rugby match if you don't want to... and don't tell people they have "brain damage" because they like rolling 3d6.

A Man Person with a Gun: Diegetic Plot Manipulation

Let's get this train back on track.

The Inksmith: if you're not in love, you're dead inside (taken from Spire)

As stated, in 2019 I was excited and thrilled to be back in the OSR: after a 4 year hiatus (a lot changed for me n 2015) it felt like there was a new energy and creativity that was pulling things in new and interesting directions, all seemingly built on the foundations of Matt Finch's Old School Primer and the The Principia Apocrypha. I had no time for story games, and I was initially disappointed to see Spire fall into that category.

With the benefit of hindsight I am able to forgive that moment of short-sighted small-mindedness, because it provides context for you, dear reader, and understanding of how I very quickly came to appreciate the game on its own terms. That moment was in the Garblag Games one-shot, during character creation. Pete was putting together (I nearly wrote "rolling  up") an Inksmith, a kind of film noir journalist investigator magician who is also a drow revolutionary on the side (all the PCs are drow revolutionaries in Spire). Aside from this delightful mash-up of archetypes and fantasy tropes, the character's special abilities catalysed something of a eureka moment in my brain. Let's have a look at two of them in particular:

DO IT FOR THE STORY. [Occult] You have a way of getting people to act on their baser impulses. Once per session, an NPC you’re talking to does precisely what they want to do at that moment in time, regardless of social mores, fear, obligations or politeness. 

-Strata (Spire supplement), page 3 

This ability takes a classic story game element (the ability of players to manipulate NPC actions for the benefit of the plot), frames it diegetically (it becomes something the character does in world rather than a meta-action of the player) while tying it thematically to the character concept (occult journalist).

But how does that differ from a mind-control spell such as Charm Person in an OSR game? I'll get to that, but let's have a look at another ability:

A MAN WITH A GUN. [Occult] When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. Roll Fight+Occult to cast this spell. If you succeed, a person with a gun (of any ancestry or gender – it doesn’t have to be a man, that’s just the name of the spell) enters the room you’re currently standing in. You don’t get to say who they are, whose side they’re on or what they want, but you can guarantee that someone with a loaded gun will walk into the room as long as there’s a reasonable entry point for them to walk through.

-Strata (Spire supplement), page 4 

This ability interests me for the same reason as above, and also illustrates the essential vagueness of the story game world. The eponymous "man with a gun" exists because the player wants them to (if they succeed on their roll), not because the internally consistent game world randomly spits them into the scene (a wandering monster). But then again, returning to the comparison between Do It for the Story and Charm Person, can we draw a similar parallel between the above and Create/Summon Monster

This raises a simple point: the OSR sphere (note: not the "trad" sphere) places a great deal of emphasis on player "skill" over character ability. The two exceptions to this are combat (though generally players who rely on their own cleverness are rewarded more than those who rely on their characters' fighting prowess) and magic. 

My conclusion? Spellcasters in OSR games can perform the kind of actions that all characters can in story games.      

(yes, this is bait... are you bitng?)

Why are we talking about GNS again?

OSR games, in attempting to create a internally consistent, "hard" world are appealing to simulationist tendencies: as players, our enjoyment of the game is improved by the notion that he GM isn't making it up as they go along. The fact that they made it up the night before is of no consequence, because there are no quantum ogres and no one is playing paper after seeing rock. The fact that they have spent three hours of real life time trying to work out how to get into the next room of the dungeon is part of the fun: they know their characters are running low on provisions and are over-laden with gold, but they worked so hard to get this far, would it be fair to the memory of their 17 dead retainers to give up now?

In story games, the "soft" quantum reality appeals to narrativist tendences: the players can shape that world to better fit their genre and character expectations as they go along. Being able to play paper after seeing rock enables their character to resemble the kind of protagonist they want to depict... playing scissor after seeing rock enables them to give their character the death they always dreamed of. The characters only spend hours trapped in a room together if they players want to recreate a "bottle episode" due to the demands of the genre/character development arc/other narrative element.

Which is better? Lawn tennis or clay court? Isn't tennis utterly ridiculous when you reduce it to its fundaments? 
  • In both examples the experience is rendered richer by the quality of story that emerges.
  • In both examples play experience is rendered richer by the quality of the simulation, whether that is the simulation of a fictional reality in the former or a particular genre/media experience in the latter.
  • In both examples the experience is rendered richer by reaching consensus regarding the structure and shape of the game: terms like "balance" and "fairness" or all relative, but exist implicitly or explicitly. Rules are established and followed, or otherwise are ignored in a consistent manner

Playing Spire

The cover of Spire
Make no mistake, despite performing these mental gymnastics my preference for old-school games remained, but the original fascination with the world of Spire remained. When I eventually bought my copy of Spire (from Orc's Nest in London's West End, about a week before being lockdown began), the intention was to mine it for a Maze Rats campaign.  However, speaking to various potential players on numerous discord servers persuaded me to run the game as written.

I've run 3 (and a half) mini-campaigns of Spire, all over Discord. I was also unlucky to miss out on a face-to-face, pre-lockdown game because the group "didn't have enough character sheets" (I will always remember your face, sonny-Jim...). I'm honestly surprised I've not posted about it before... here's my brief summary:

  • The biggest barrier to entry for some players is actually the setting: not because it's bad but because of its originality and richness. There is a LOT going on...
  • ..that said, the (relatively) crunchy player-facing mechanics provide characters with a lot of buy-in. They spend time working out what their class can do, and within those abilities are tonnes of world-building snippets that enable them to build a picture of their Spire
  • In common with the Inksmith described above, all character/class abilities contribute to development of the story to lesser or greater extents: the drama is intensified, situations become more complicated and at some point, something has to give...
  • ..this is complemented by the resistance/stress/fallout system: the philosophy of fail forward is integral to the game. It doesn't matter whether what happens is "good" or "bad", stuff keeps happening and things get more interesting!
  • There is an in-built escalation mechanic: as play moves forward, Spire changes and character abilities begin to scale up accordingly, engendering greater change and, in turn, inviting further character development
(this final point demonstrates a marrying of gamist and narrativist sensibilities, but if I really am sick off GNS, why do I keep referring back to it?) 

The points above focus largely on the player-character interface with the game. This leads me to my next point: their is very little by way of GM procedure to provide a framework for running the game. There is a lot of flavour and background and a good deal of quality GM advice, but I would argue very little guidance in how to execute it. This is not a problem unique to Spire (as Revenant's Quill can attest) and may in fact be a bug not a feature: the GM abdicates their traditional responsibilities to the players, providing the very crudest materials from which the players can assemble the story. Still, that in itself is a skill which requires experience and practice, and I would love to see more nuts-and-bolts advice on how to erect the scaffolding from which the players can build the edifice of their tale.


This brings me to Heart. Conscious that I have rambled for far longer than originally intended, I will state the following:
  • Heart: The City Beneath is an independent game set in the the same fictive reality as Spire...
  • fact, the Heart sits directly beneath the Spire (sort of?)
  • It employs related but different mechanics to Spire 
  • The gameplay loop is somewhat closer to the old school dungeon crawl, though it is still very much a story game...
  • ...broken people venture into a psychedelic labyrinth in search of... well, it depends: truth? Completion? Annihilation? 
Heart enticed me with (once again) it attractive art, world-building,  and powerful overtones of psychedelia (more on which below)... but it was the positive experiences I'd had running Spire that guaranteed my investment in the book. It's taken me nearly two years to get a game together, but I finally sat down with a group of players last month for our session 0.

Unlike Spire, Heart gives the GM a greater number of levers to pull in assembling their own Heart, though it's still very much a collective, consensus-base exercise. The book lists a number of havens, each connected by delves (a sort of abstraction of dungeon crawling... more examples of these or clearer instructions on how they are assembled would have been useful) and the desire to retrieve and trade resources create a closed gameplay loop that is at once simpler and restrictive while paradoxically feeling more open and complex.

Cunningly, the greatest tool at the GM's disposal is the player selecting a calling. Each calling possesses within it a number of minor, major and zenith [story] beats (I embarrassingly did not recognise the pun until a week ago) from which to choose, providing clear instructions to the GM of how they would like to see the story developing. Mix a handful of these together, throw in a few obstacles and let the players and their characters' bizarre abilities do the rest.

I can already feel the teeth of my OSR friends gritting at this, and the merest suggestion of "arcs"... but hold fire: a "beat" is not a guarantee that something will happen, and things have a habit of turning out in a way that's unintended. Something else to consider if things happening because the players want them to happen breaks your concept of immersion: The Heart wants to give you what you want. It is a feature of the fictive reality of the Heart, and therefore an accurate simulation of it. 

The great design master-stroke of Heart, like Spire, is in the manifestation of non-diegetic story game abilities as diegetically. If you are unclear on diegesis, read this post by Cavegirl. If you think I am an unclear on diegesis, comment below.

Storygames & Psychedelia

As stated, it was the strong psychedelic overtones that helped initially pull me towards Heart, a going concern of mine as regular readers of the blog can attest. In RPG contexts, I consider psychedelia to consist of two main elements:

  1. Through ritual, drugs, the altering of perception or some other magic, characters are drawn into a hitherto invisible world parallel to their own, where ordinary laws of time, space, cause and effect are either altered or absent.
  2. Upon their return to the world of ordinary sensory perception, the characters are in some way altered: this can be positive, negative, or neither.
Superficially I think it might seem that the first element is easier to effect than the second: we can all come up with weird twists on reality, drawing from our own experiences and those witnessed in media... but does it actually feel weird? 

In PARIAH I attempted to simulate the jarring effect of shifting realities by encouraging players and GM to actually switch systems. I believe I originally read this idea in Cavegirl's Stygian Library but can't find it anywhere in the text (is it possible it was edited out? Also, I've said Cavegirl's 3 times no, maybe she will appear in the comments and correct me?). 

A discord conversation with Luka Rejec of Ultraviolet Grasslands fame also opened my eyes to the possibility of employing entirely different systems for different game procedures, something actually suggested in the very first attested RPG (DMs were encouraged to use the Outdoor Survival game to build there campaign world.. this is also why old school games use hex maps). Indeed, this practice continues in the MOSAIC Strict manifesto drafted by Michael Prescott and outlined in my last post

However, apart from one very drawn out session of Dawn of Worlds that was mean to be an in-game trip to the Moon it was one of the few features of PARIAH that wasn't play tested in any way. It was sort of thrown in as a "cool" idea (and indeed tickled the fancy of Tom McGrenery) but remained undeveloped. Nevertheless, on my unending quest to recreate these parallel realms as game texts, I've explored altering how the players interact with the world.

...which brings me neatly to Heart: the psychedelic experience is reflected in the responsiveness of the game world to the whims of the characters and their players. Ultimately, though, it leads them down the same inevitable, path... annihilation!

It strikes me a story game type system might better simulate a psychedelic experience than an old school or trad one. The world does become less definite and more vague when our senses are altered, and the things we see and experience more closely correlate to our innermost fears and desires... in other words:

There is a definite appeal to me of a more flexible story game sitting within the framework of a more definite, harder game world. Maybe Idiomdrottning will feel her immersion disrupted by this change of approach but maybe that's the point.

Ultimately, what is the Heart but the GM? When the characters reach it, what does it look like?

Maybe its a group of adult humans in peculiar clothes sat around a table in an abandoned church in a sea-side town, surrounded by colourful polyhedrons.

Maybe its a computer screen with discord occupying the main window.

Bleep bloop.

So... is this about Idiomdrottning?

In short, no.


It would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge the ongoing conversation around two of Sandra's posts, the Blorb Principles and  li'l FKR caveat, especially given the latter is mostly concerned with the two-contrasting worldbuilding models that I describe above. The former surprised me as I think this post went up towards the end of 2020, but then I noticed Chris McDowall had referenced it on Bastionland  (Chris, I know you're not reading this, but I also know you downloaded Pariah... can you do me a solid and write a scathing review of all the maths I include in Volume 1?) and most likely revived interest, which then drew attention to Sandra's somewhat withering assessment of FKR and a subsequent response by Darkworm Colt and others.

I loved the Blorb principles and reference them in this post. I enjoy although the content about coding goes right over my sloping forehead. The FKR post I missed, and only became aware of because of people's responses to it. I have to say I found it most uncharitable to FKR, in that it presented a very narrow interpretation that might more correctly be applied to a certain tendency in story games. It also felt like an attack, referring to the FKR as "dorks", which feels pretty strange given that the scene is so tiny. 

Conversely, the responses I read come across as equally patronising and condescending. In fairness, she put a lot of dorks on the defensive and that's what happens, but I can't help feeling we should all just let each other paly the games we want the way we want to.

Can't we all just be friends?

More Heart

With my players' permission, I'm going to post write-ups of our session here on a weekly basis. This will be alongside your regular (hah!) PARIAH-based goodness and other stuff.

Additionally, in case it hasn't trickled down to you yet, I'm writing occasional posts over at the amusingly-named ICONOCLASTIC FLOW alongside some people I very much respect: please have a look, leave a comment, add us to your blogroll!

* * *


Garblag Games: SPIRE One-Shot:

Rowan, Rook and Decard (publishers of Spire and Heart)

Arnold Kemp (start with "popular posts" and take it from there... I'll see you in a few weeks)

Patrick Stuart


Silent Titans

Blorb Principles

Quantum Ogre Theory

Bottle Episode (Content warning: TV Tropes rabbit hole likely)

Draw the rest of the fucking owl

Ultraviolet Grasslands


Take that dorks...

Take this, idiomrottning...

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