Adventure Games & Story Games

(Normally, I only allow myself one blog post per day at max. But seeing as the last one was just an announcement, I can bend the rules today.)

As a story game designer, I often wonder what the difference is for me between story games and adventure games[1]. Oddly, the difference hit me while watching Crank 2: High Voltage last year. In short:

  • Adventure Games test competence
  • Story Games manage page

See, here’s the thing. Crank and Crank 2 are classes in action beats. There’s little more to the film than that, by design, so you get an eye-full over and over again of what makes an action scene work. It’s all about beats — action, reaction, follow-up. And what we do with adventure games models only a piece of that, the initiative system and flow of turn order. But by testing competence and allowing for the sort of failure that blocks or fucks with the flow of the beat, we make games that look less like action movies and look more like, well, like a fight in real life.

Which brings me to another difference:

  • Adventure Games model a fair, consensual reality (and often strongly)
  • Story Games model a desire for an arc (and often weakly)

Not that I want to get into GNS theory here. Fuck no. (GNS is about play dynamics, I’m talking about design modeling.)  But it’s the qualifiers that I want to get into. Adventure Games have a strong modeling, intentionally. Fairness, and thus the feeling of success or safety net against abuse, requires a strong modeling. Sometimes that modeling is rules-heavy, and in other cases rules-light, and they often fall back onto an arbiter of sorts (the GM), to manage the modeling, fairness, and people. But because of this focus, creating tools for an arc are a secondary thought, if that.

(Often, the tools are in the form of GM advice, which is a fine, fine tool for such a job. And I think we Story Gamers forget this from time to time.)

Now, Story Games often model weakly, also by design. Yes, we have games that have strict sense of timing, with our love of pacing mechanics, but they don’t strongly model arcs the way that adventure game strongly model fairness. Again, by design. These games are tapping into the shared sense of media, of story, as a way to fill in gaps and allow us flexibility in how we interpret that pacing.

If you look at a lot of freshmen indie games, they try to too strongly model an arc. The very complaint you get in a lot of poorly-designed adventure games — of rule loopholes and soft points and weakness — are what you need in order to make a story game work. Make a story game too tight, and you risk making a game that’s about parlor narration, one that you feel you’re along the ride for rather than an architect of.

Which brings me to…

  • In an Adventure Game, strongly-modeled rulesets allow for the players to contact the world
  • In a Story Game, strongly-modeled rulesets disengage players from the world

So, when we’re testing for competence, we need strongly-modeled tools. Otherwise, we’re not really being competent if we’re not in the face of fairness. (Even dramatic fairness, like using a Hero Point to reroll or the like. There is room for some movie logic here, just not overly.)

But when we’re modeling for narrative arcs, we need weakly-modeled tools. We need to be able to project our own ideas in the game.[2] That’s how we come into contact with a story game, not by attempting to do something by by attempting to express something.

And that’s why, as I’m writing up a bit on a little game I’m tinkering with, Gun ‘n Fuck, I find I’m making a story game about action beats and not an adventure game about a dude on a rampage. I don’t want to challenge the main character’s competence constantly. For this specific purpose, that would be boring as fuck. (As one playtest proved.) That means I have to figure out what I am doing, and that’s where pacing and timing are the key.

Nothing more for now, just a few thoughts on keyboard. Oh, I should leave with this:

  • At no point am I saying this is what makes an Adventure or Story Game good or bad. Just observing games I’ve played over the past few years.

– Ryan

[1] I do not condone the use of “traditional” or “trad” to describe these games. That’s a useless term, sometimes used derogatorily, and makes use folks in the story game scene look like pretentious hipster fucks. Just sayin’.

[2] Why, yes, this post was partly inspired by Inception.


8 Responses to Adventure Games & Story Games

  1. Judd says:

    “At no point am I saying this is what makes an Adventure or Story Game good or bad. Just observing games I’ve played over the past few years.”

    Could you give more examples of this theory that are based in play?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally, though I’ll have to be brief at the moment, as it’s a busy day.

      This thought is something I’ve grown into over the last couple years, but it was playing games like Fiasco (and, really, every BPG game I’ve played) or Primetime Adventures that finally brought this home.

      Now, stories are (partially) about successes and failures, so I’m not saying there’s a void of them in a story game. But they are not the primary drivers of play. The pacing of the story is.

      PTA is my go-to for this. When I run PTA, we know how long the game’s going to be and the end result: a show (or when I run it at cons, a movie). When I do a three-act movie, which is three times around the table with everyone contributing a scene, we have a sense of what’s too soon or too late — we’re pacing ourselves (weakly-modeled pacing) and using the structure of the game to guide that.

      And given scene-based resolution, it’s not strictly about competence but about an interesting question or fork in the road.

      Fiasco is similar, only due to the black & white dice economy the number of times people get their way in the first half of the game define how the second half is going to fall out. I’ve seen that in a number of games I’ve played, which has made me think about pacing systems that rely on economy in addition to our general sense of a narrative. (In Fiasco’s case, the advice to remember you’re playing a Coen Brothers’ flick.)

      Furthermore, I have seen games of those fall apart because we did not fill in the weak modeling with strong senses of idea. My first attempt at running PTA was like this — we made an awesome pitch for a cross between Starship Troopers and Band of Brothers called FALL, a pseudo-historical miniseries about an elite group of spaceborne soldiers landing on a planet and aiding in the war to reclaim…well, you know, it’s D-Day but in space.

      But we didn’t put a stronger sense of pacing and narrative sensibilities in, so the game became a string of conflict encounters. It was actually a pretty shitty way to introduce some friends to PTA.

      I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, Judd. Let me know if it’s not.

      – Ryan

    • Judd says:

      I am having trouble seeing the connection between your AP examples and what you wrote above, having trouble finding that bridge.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I’m not sure how to help. Could you unpack the disconnect some?

      – Ryan

  2. Doug Daulton says:

    I could say more, but “Brilliant” will suffice.

  3. EZ says:

    I like the distinction here, very nice. The game that I thought handled the arc the best was With Great Power (although when I tried to run it, the complexity of the game bogged me down – as a player and an experienced GM it was smooth). But the arc might be too apparent for many players who prefer less meta logic. FATE can drive that, but you still end up at least waist deep in competence testing much of the time.

    (odd, I guess this really didn’t post the first time)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, in my mind Fate is totally an adventure game with this neat story toy to play with.

      – Ryan