In a recent thread, the question of whether tabletop gaming systems that “focus more on story” are friendlier to beginners. I’m going to spin off a separate post because - as always - I have Opinions on that.
My first reaction is that I don’t think the question makes sense. All tabletop RPGs “focus on story” - they just do it in different ways, because the word “story” can mean more than one thing.
There’s “story” as in “a planned narrative with scenes and acts and character arcs and Something To Say about life, the universe and everything”.
However, there’s also “story” as in “a retrospectively constructed explanatory narrative for a bunch of stuff that happened”.
Or, in plain English, there’s the kind of story where you decide what kind of story you want to tell, then invent the specific people and events that will allow you to tell it; and there’s the kind of story where you start with the people and events already defined for you, then invent a narrative to organise and explain what the heck just happened.
Even the most “gamified” tabletop systems are story-focused in the sense that they produce stories. Some of the most engaging anecdotes from the tabletop come from the dice deciding to do something bizarre, or from some subtle interaction between various layers of the rules kicking out an unexpected result, and rather than fudging or ignoring it, the players at the table ran with it and made a story where that was the only thing that could have happened.
Now, some systems may produce stories badly - i.e., the events they generate are too predictable, too repetitive, or too frustratingly paced to easily make into good stories, or they demand too much work from the players for the value of their output - but that’s a flaw of individual implementations. The idea that complex or rules-heavy systems are bad at story focus in principle is nonsense.
Of course, that’s a tangent, because that’s not what the question really means.
To the extent that “not being story focused” is erroneously equated with “having many or complex rules” - there’s that old role-playing versus roll-playing fallacy again - what it really means is “are systems that demand less engagement with the rules categorically friendlier to beginners?”.
I wouldn’t agree that they are.
To pose a simple example, if we assume for the sake of argument that less mechanical engagement = more beginner friendly, then freeform RP, which demands no mechanical engagement whatsoever, must obviously be the most beginner-friendly game of all - yet it’s my experience that freeform RP in a group setting can be extremely challenging for beginners, often to the extent that they’re unable to participate at all, in spite of their best efforts.
Detractors of rules-heavy games will often characterise game rules as serving to limit player creativity, but any student of improvisational storytelling can tell you that limitations are good for creativity, at least up to a point. Tell a person they can do anything and they’ll flounder - but give them a couple of specific options to pick from and off they go. “Rules impose creative restrictions” is merely the evil twin of “rules provide creative frameworks”.
Naturally there’s a balance to be struck; hand someone a two hundred page rulebook as their first introduction to the tabletop roleplaying hobby and more often than not you’ll just scare them off - and rightly so. I mean, what were you thinking? But it’s not as simple as less rules = more beginner-friendly; a game with too little structure can be just as intimidating to newcomers as a game with too much.
Where that line lies is going to vary from person to person; I’ve touched on this in the past, but in a nutshell, there’s no such thing as a body of rules that’s naturally easy to understand. For all that folks like to hold it forth as a virtue of their favourite games, “intuitiveness” is a phantom - it’s nothing more than the intersection of textual clarity and similarity to stuff you’re already familiar with. That’s something that trips a lot of folks up here: thinking that a particular game should easy for newcomers to master because it’s easy for me.
So I suppose the TL/DR version boils down to this:
- There’s no such thing as tabletop gaming system that isn’t story-focused; there are merely those that yield boring stories, or that demand more work than you feel is reasonable to produce them
- When it comes to beginner-friendliness, too little rules engagement can be just as bad as too much
- Where the tipping point between those two failure states is going to be varies from person to person, and finding it depends on understanding both your target audience and your own preconceptions