I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Wargames, storygames and RPGs

We have been through this before, but I might as well make try to make it clearer.

Role-playing games are neither wargames nor storygames.

The main difference is probably how you play the PCs (and the setting; see below).

In RPGs, you play them in as if they were real people, with their own needs and interests. This stance is very unique to RPGs.

In wargames, you play them as pawns in a "board" or table: they are easily discarded for the benefit of the faction/army or whatever, and player choice is determined by meta-analysis of the game or the grand scheme of things (e.g., I can lose this PC to save the unit, and then quickly create a new PC with 10% of his XP, maybe I can beat this trap with ONE of my PCs if the other dies, etc.).

In storygames, PCs are protagonists in a story. Player choice is determined  meta-analysis of the plot. A player could choose the death/defeat of the PC because it is appropriate to the plot or story.

Let me repeat this: in RPG, you RP characters as if they were REAL within the bounds of the fictional setting.

In other words, RPG characters have value in themselves, regardless or side or plot. This is so unique to RPGs that it often generates anecdotes about players creating dozens of characters for fun, which, while a bit absurd in itself, would be almost unthinkable in a wargame or storygame.

One important thing to remember is that saying wargames and storygames are not RPGs is not an offense to ANY of these games!

They are just different. 

Sometimes the boundaries are so fuzzy that they allow some intermingling. Old school role-players sometimes fall back to wargame rules and methods, while modern D&D often contains lots of storygaming in actual play.

The chronological order for D&D is wargame - RPG - storygame. But that does not mean any of them is more genuine or obsolete. Checkers is not a better or worse game than chess or poker.

The role of the GM

The GM, in RPs, plays the world as if the setting was REAL. Fluff is crunch. Likewise for NPCs, with their own interest and needs, often regardless of "faction"/side or plot.

In wargames, the GM is a neutral arbiter, but his impartiality usually comes from the need to be fair to both SIDES of a quarrel.

In RPGs he should also be impartial, but in favor of the reality of the setting.

In storygames, there is not always a GM, but if present he is foten responsible to move the "plot" forward, create climaxes, antagonists, etc.

Wargames and storygames can easily be played without a GM.

RPGs, on the other hand, need the GM role; in a "solo RPG", the player takes this role, sometimes even more often than the role of player (e.g., in Mythic GM Emulator). Another possibility is having a game so full of detailed random tables that the book provides the GM role.


In RPGs, the precedence of the fiction over the mechanics (remember, this is a "real" world, or at least treated as such) makes too much metagaming (i.e., thinking as a player SEPARATED from the PC) an undesirable occurrence.

In wargaming and storygaming, metagaming is the norm, because the PCs are viewed from a "third person" perspective.

This is one reason I avoid miniatures; on the other hand, I see how they can be useful to ensure the player see the whole picture the PCs are seeing.

Another example: "describe how you killed the troll". While this could look like a third-person perspective (if you describe the troll's reaction to the killing blow, for example), you're encouraging the player to see through the eyes of the PC.

Again, the "play like you were the character", "play like the setting was real", part is very unique to RPGs. 

A wargame or first-person shooter can align the player with the PCs motivations if they are very simple (i.e., just survive the battle), but the "the PC can do anything like a real person" and "a world with no invisible walls" of RPGs is hard to replicate in any other media.

Unclear boundaries

The definitions above are clear enough, but in practice things get fuzzy.

The original D&D was partly a wargame (Chainmail). Alignments were "sides" of a battle (later, they became intrinsic to characters and creatures; HOW they see the world since you're going to see the world from their eyes).

Things like 1:1 time (in all its forms) and the idea that "you must end the session in town" are typical meta-game concerns. The players are asking themselves if they can play next week or if they have to finish in a couple of hours, instead of how many torches the PCs have.

[What about "how many HPs the PCs have"? This is not exactly a meta-game concern as it has a translation WITHIN the fiction: how wounded the heroes are. But that is a looong discussion.]

And modern RPGs (often called "narrativist RPGs") get deep into storygame territory. But even in regular D&D, story concepts are popular. For example, "fudging" dice because the "plot" demands it, or because the "main antagonist" got defeated too soon, etc.

Now, I think "fudging" in D&D is the result of a misconception, since the role of the GM is not to protect the plot or the pacing of the story. Likewise for changing a monster's HP mid-fight; this is not the role of the GM in RPGs.

On the other hand, metagame challenges are often fun to include in RPGs (for example, using a stopwatch for random encounters), especially when they help the players to get into the PC's mind.

The reason is that it is not always easy to stay "within" the mind of PCs for a long time, especially when the PC is hurried and scared and the players are seating cozily and taking minutes to decide what the PCs are doing in the next second.

Here is an hypothesis: RPGs must balance two different urges: playing your PC as a pawn or playing him as a protagonist. A real person is neither, but since pawns and protagonists are opposed, so one perspective/urge can sometimes balance the other.

In other words, while I think these non-RPG perspectives should be avoided as a general rule, they can sometimes be useful if they enhance the alignment between players and PCs.

Everyone is the hero of their own story...

Another problem to consider is that the players, as the PCs, can rightly think of them as the heroes of their own story - this is how most real people see themselves anyway.

On the other hand, the GM, with a wider view of the setting and keeping it true and coherent, while ,controlling lots of NPCs, must sometimes see the PCs as mere pawns in the grand scheme of things.

So, maybe, there will always be a tension between these two sides, and we will never find RPG in its "pure" form. But searching for this balance is of the essence of our hobby.

UPDATE/ADDENDUM (17/02/2024)

It has been brought to my attention that the term "wargame" is much broader and can includes all types of games and many RPG-like elements - even before the creation of D&D. The history of wargames and RPGs is much more nuanced - to elarn more about this, the books by Jon Peterson have been recommended to me.

For this post, I'm using "wargame" and "RPG" basically as defined by wikipedia. Same for "storygame":

A wargame is a strategy game in which two or more players command opposing armed forces in a simulation of some military operation.

A role-playing game [...] (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting

A storytelling game is a game where multiple players collaborate on telling a spontaneous story. Usually, each player takes care of one or more characters in the developing story.

As mentioned above, the lines are sometimes blurry - is Braunstein wargame or proto-RPG? Is Dragon quest a quasi-RPG or simply a boardgame like Heroquest? Are boardgames scuh as Risk or Battleship also wargames? Etc.

However, these definitions are good enough because they come from a famous source (Wikipedia) and include three descriptions that are essential to define each kind of game: opposing armed forces, characters in a fictional setting, and telling a story

These three perspectives are useful to differentiate these three games.


  1. I believe reconciling various tensions makes RPGs compelling; that and other things, like immersion.

    These days, I'm somewhere between RPG and story-game... which is a type of RPG, even though it's non-traditional.

    1. Yes, this makes sense. Immersion is incredibly important, and closely related to play your PC as a real person.

      I think wargame-RPG-storygame are in a continuum (or triangle)... they can work together occasionaly. I use some wargame and storygame techniques too, but never fudging, etc.