Master Mines

We’re digging RPGs

Traditional vs. Indie vs. Story Games

The question has come up what characteristics I assign to each of the categories of games.  I must stress these are my own definitions based on some practical experience.  I will state for the purposes of full disclosure that the bulk of my experience is with trad games, second most with indie, and least with story games.

For me, traditional games are the easiest to define.  The are the more easily purchaseable games typically put out by larger publishing companies for mainly commerical purposes.  The best known examples of these games are WoTC’s D20 games/supplements, White Wolf’s Storyteller games, Hero, GURPS, Palladium, etc.  In my experience these games tend to favor broad acceptance over unique mechanics and are centered around a single set of rules for which a number of supplements and further are released.  In my opinion, they tend to be rather vanilla and emphasize systems of combat over most other mechanics.  When playing trad games, I find that I take greater enjoyment from the systems that seek to balance combat with other elements (Storyteller and GURPS to a lesser degree) over the more combat oriented systems where I have to draft rules regarding social interaction, backstory, goals, etc.

Next, the major qualification of being an indie game is that it’s self-published.  According to its definition, that’s what it means.  In practice, I put indie games as the mean between two extremes (trad and story games.)  I definie indie games as more experimental in the form than traditional games, but still keeping many of the traditional mechanics.  In this group, I would put Burning Wheel, some of the more experimental D20 supplements like the one I wrote on social combat, TSOY, Riddle of Steel, and probably Dogs (I haven’t played TSOY and Dogs, but from what I hear they seem to fit my definition.)  Even something like Mountain Witch goes nicely here.  A*State (I think that’s what it is called) is here.  These games push the boundaries of roleplaying in exciting new directions, but do not leave hardcore trad games in the dust.  I feel like I could drop BW into a group that likes primarily dungeon crawls and they would be okay with it.

 Lastly, there are story games which tend to favor loose, narrative-based play and eschew many familiar bits of roleplaying like advancement, experience/advancement points, and dice (*gasp*) to build games which are so far removed from D&D that some would have trouble identifying the games as roleplaying.  (I am not one of them, but I can see the shock on a few of my buddy’s faces if I tried to show them Thread Dysfunction, my Game Chef entry which had no GM and was heavily narrative based.)  I am the least familiar with this category due in no small part to there being a shortage (hopefully a correctable one) of story gamers in these parts.  To correct my own deficiency, I plan to spend a lot of time at Gen Con trying to learn more about this style of gaming.

I tend to like the indie-level of gaming best.  I like the experimental nature of the mechanics and the attempts to wrap rules around real game situations (Beliefs and Instincts and Duels of Wits have both come up in games I have played without me having a good rule handle them.)  Indie is what I am seeking to do with NGHB.  I hope that makes sense and that those definitions are at least somewhat true to reality.

Ryan, in answer to your question about why I feel I should or should not make my game in a certain way…mainly its because I have been inundated with story games recently.  Most of the people I interview are very story game focused and a lot of the people who’s opinion I value are moving that way.  My ultimate goal is to create a game people are going to want to play so I don’t want to ignore the segment of people who are looking for the story game vibe.  Though I have thought about this question a lot and I feel like I have to be true to myself and write a game I want to play first. 


July 12, 2007 - Posted by | Mecha


  1. One of the challenges I’ll put forward is this: as you move toward understanding your game better, move away from this classification. Refer to specific elements that you do or do not want in your game by what they are or do, not what category you see them coming from.

    I say this because I was were you were a few months back, and one of the things that helped clear up some mental blocks was going away from “I want do to an indie game about support groups & horror” to “I want to do a support group horror game that has these sort of story game elements, etc.” to “I want to do a game with X, Y & Z, and without A, B & C.” (The same mentality has me going “Yeah, this game should have a GM” rather than my previous default of “Of course this game will have a GM.”)

    Of course, I’m still idly working on Damned Anonymous, so I don’t have more more to say on that — except that, like Paul & A Penny For My Thoughts, my game is very much a journeyman project so that I can do justice with D.A.

    For something more immediately response-able: Can you tell us what you want to emulate & avoid from each of the three categories you laid out?

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. Ryan, I accept the challenge, but I think the going will be easier post-Gen Con where I am going to try and immerse myself in SG goodness.

    As for what I want to avoid/emulate:
    From traditional games, I feel comfortable (which is not necessarily a good thing) in the traditional book format, trad game themes, and trad game rules. I want to avoid being a cookie cutter rules system, the lack of completeness (the focus on combat over all other conflict resolution) and the vanilla flavor I mentioned above.

    From indie games, I want to capture the experimental nature of the rules. I think I want to avoid some of the having experimental rules for the sake of experimental rules that I find so common in some games.

    From story games, I want to those aspects which make my game better. In Thread Dysfunction I used GMless gaming for Last Generation, I used playing the game in retrospect along with creating a storyline of scenes before the campaign starts. I want to avoid games which stress narration over drama and tension. There was one game Canon Puncture reviewed that was told all in retrospect where the players know they survived, they survived with all their limbs, and they know they met their mission objectives. The game becomes a recounting of their success. I do not find this type of game compelling.

    Comment by commondialog | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  3. So, what can we do help you achieve these goals?

    Comment by ptevis | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  4. From story games, I want to those aspects which make my game better.

    This is actually the only thing you want from any of these categories, of course.

    By which I mean – and forgive me but I’ve got the religion on this lately – that the only criteria by which to judge anything that goes into your game is, “does it contribute effectively to the experience that I want the players at the table to have?” This requires knowing who those people will tend to be, of course. If you want players to feel comfortable at the table – a very good thing to want – then traditional mechanics will contribute to that, if the people at the table are comfortable with traditional mechanics. If you want drama and tension, choose mechanics that create that experience, knowing that there are many ways to do so and that what you call “narration” might in fact contribute to that experience for the right combination of players and context.

    The players at the table, and how they experience your game. You get a vote, through your design, as to who picks up your game to begin with and as to what they experience. Who they happen to be also gets a vote as to what they experience. The categories you’ve outlined here, however, have fairly little to do with any of that.

    The players at the table, and how they experience your game. That’s the ball; keep your eyes on it.

    Comment by misuba | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  5. Mike speaks truth. Truth, I say!

    Comment by ptevis | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  6. That is good advice. The players + being true to myself is a good recipe.

    What I need from the Master Mines is mainly a group to bounce ideas of off, to run things against, and see what works and what doesn’t. Also, some gentle reminders to keep me on the theme would be nice.

    If NGHB is like the other games I’ve written, I’ll have a million ideas and I’ll be coming to the group with those ideas. Most will be crap, but some can really blossom with a little conversation.

    Comment by commondialog | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  7. Awesome. I think we can do that.

    Comment by ptevis | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hi guys, it’s Mick Bradley. Daniel said it would be okay if I read your posts and comment on occasion. Hope that’s cool with you guys. I love soaking up the wisdom and frustration of all this game-makin’ stuff, and this has already turned out to be a great place to do that.


    Comment by Mick Bradley | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  9. Chris, I like the way you define your trifecta. I would only make a change in nomenclature, from “indie” to something that reflects the middle-of-the-road nature of the games you describe there (SotC also falls there, I think), someting like “hybrid.” I just have a beef with the term indie and its misuse, but that’s a rant for another time.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | July 14, 2007 | Reply

  10. It’s a fair rant actually. I don’t much like the term since indie really means something else (and something pretty cool.)

    I just think that indie gets synonymous (sp?) with experimental in a number of mediums (music, comics, etc.) because not having to answer to The Man means more freedom. This is, of course, in no way a reflection on any publishers to whom I might have submitted manuscripts…

    Comment by commondialog | July 14, 2007 | Reply

  11. Folks, could we kill any debate on the terms? This should be about Chris getting ideas out of his head onto screen, not about correctness of terminology. Let’s stay on-task and not drift into a jargon discussion when that’s not what’s important.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | July 15, 2007 | Reply

  12. Oh, don’t worry, the debate/rant isn’t for this group but for my personal blog. I’m with you on staying on-course here.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | July 15, 2007 | Reply

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