The TTRPG-Storygame Intersection
An analysis of Here We Used to Fly and where it belongs in games
I backed the Kickstarter for Here We Used to Fly, a ttrpg by fellow Canadian Kurt Refling and Ian Howard. This morning they sent out the completed pdf. I've read it, but not played it, and I've ordered the POD version at-cost. This was not intended to be a review of the game, but I think it ends up being something of an analysis. More so, the game, which is more accurately a "storygame", provoked thoughts in me about what conceptual spaces exist between wargames, table-top roleplaying games, story-games, and board games, and how these "game mediums" interact, swap ideas, and build on each other. This will only scratch the surface.
Drawing Borders Around Games
There has been a lot written defining these game-types, so I won't get into it here, but for these purposes I want to talk about the amount of direction given for the player and the boarders we get to direct play. We can line up the direction sense roughly from most rigid: board games, down to loosest, which I think encompasses story games. When we fall off that scale I think we're leaving "game" territory (at least for these purposes) and entering into Victorian parlour games and ephemeral creative writing exercises. However lovely those might be, I see no play value in them. They have other value, sure, but I don't think you can call them a "game". Similarly something more heavily abstracted than a boardgame ceases to be a game. Those are the broad boarders.
Here We Used to Fly might be the purest storygame I've ever seen that I think still qualified as a game. It paints a lovely, evocative picture of its play goals, and provides a kind of cycle for achieving that, and provokes many interesting thoughts with its playbooks, and...provides zero guidance of how to actually play the damn thing. There are no mechanics for conflict resolution beyond mutual agreement. That might be fine and enjoyable unto itself, but it puts a kink into the prospect of me approaching my game table with it, because I know I'm going to be met with a few eye-rolls and, "that's not a game".
Storygames without stakes aren't exactly my cup of tea either, so why do I still think Here We Used to Fly is, for lack of better term, "viable for play"? It just makes me wonder, beyond just a matter of taste, where are the lines?
The Narrower Borders
Let's define our landscape a little better.
Dream Askew / Dream Apart by Avery Alder is, I think, the pinnacle storygame. I think Adler's game structure is brilliant and occupies the perfect conceptual apex of the storygame part of the games spectrum. But it still has play mechanics to guide table behaviour.
Henshin! A Sentai RPG by Cave Monster games took the Dream Askew/Apart underlying rules structure and tried to put more meat on the bones of it, to nudge play structures a little closer to ttrpgs proper. I'm not sure that Henshin succeeded, but it did make for a handsome book, so I appreciate it on that level.
To cross the border firmly into ttrpg, and still not use dice, I think the best example is a classic one: Amber Diceless by Erick Wujcik. (Don't wince, it's a great game, just not for everyone, and some of its writing and visuals are dated, but the game-as-text is not the same thing as its value at the table, especially when we're talking about conceptual mechanical analysis.)
My own Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart is diceless, but, I feel, substantial. And maybe it's a little telling on myself that its rules structure has so much more weight than something like Amber.
I believe a game can be without dice and still be a ttrpg, but can it still be a game at all without a base conflict resolution mechanic (beyond at-table agreement), or other resource to facilitate play? Some people can have a great time with no direction at all, sure, but relativism is unhelpful when trying to find the lines of the "games mediums".
In the Shadows of Role-playing
Here's an interesting example. I recently ran a game of Shinobigami: Modern Ninja Battle RPG, and my players felt like the rigid structure of play made it feel more like a board game, but also that the open-ended narrative control when being in charge of a scene made it feel more like a storygame, and that they struggled to fit their brains into the right conceptual space to make it a compelling game.
The problem wasn't that the game didn't have dice (it did) or whether there was enough direction (there was too much, in a way) but rather that players couldn't figure out what mindset they should be in. The struggled with how to play it in practice.
That's at the heart of this. Not, "are storygames good?" but rather, how can we form better methods for approaching a text, and actual play at the table, to help people with their favourite flavour of game? Here We Used to Fly, as much as I'm in favour of it, makes that tough.
I think the language we need is in a different, but related, medium.
The Game As Poem
Here We Used to Fly seems engineered to make the lightest possible touch in your brain. It's the perfect product of what it is; it's light, accessible, easy to understand. Here We Used to Fly is like a poem. Running with this:
We can think of your crunchy traditional ttrpgs like a novel.
Maybe pure wargames are non-fiction.
Board games are just spiced up technical schematics.
Some storygames are like prose-heavy novels. Nearly all novels contain merit in their prose, but sometimes the poetic aspect dominates or supersedes concerns about narrative.
Here We Used to Fly is a pure poem, or at least as pure as it can get until we delve into weird abstract word exercises. Ultimately, I think I find Here We Used to Fly "viable for play" because it asks the question: "do we really need mechanical conflict to drive the play experience?" For some folks the answer is certainly "yes!", but to my surprise I find myself saying, no, this makes sense. Conflict can come from other places. It makes me redraw my borders of the game experience. It makes me wonder.
Radio James Games