Powerplay is a nice example of a game that toes a similar line between board game and improv narrative and does a better job emphasizing storytelling. The hardest part of getting it to work is setting the right tone of expectation, because it’s designed to be a sort of mechanized and functional version of the Which Super Hero Would Win sort of argument with a more narrative bent. Once you get a feel for it, it’s pretty easy to adjudicate things fairly, but it can be tricky to find the line between playing to win and keeping things interesting on a first attempt at the game if you’re not used to this sort of thing.
Fall of Magic is a gorgeous object and an equally gorgeous game. It’s not as improv heavy as something like Fiasco or Baron Von Munchhausen despite being similarly free-form. It’s light, simple, dripping with theme and certainly none of the mechanics encourage you to do something other than tell interesting stories but at the same time the game doesn’t feel less engaging if your stories are simple or your style of conveying them is quite abstracted. This is not a game where you need to act our your character’s scenes for the magic of the thing to come together.
Microscope, Kingdom and Follow are a trilogy of games that tell incredible stories with simple components and light rules. Again come the rules-light storygame caveats–they can get pretty freeform in places and you need to be comfortable making things up–but they provide an incredibly robust framework within which to make things up and like Monikers they let you build a consensus with each other as storytellers, actors, and parts of the fiction over time so that the pacing and intensity and magic of the game builds as you go. The more you play the game, the easier it becomes to put good material into the space and the more good material you put into the space the better the game’s systems function.
I love many RPG systems for many different reasons … and while I don’t always want to play Microscope, I haven’t found a game that feels so thoroughly complete. It is a beautiful thing. Even among less free-form games, very few RPGs have a learning curve this deceptively smooth and a feedback loop this intense. It asks a lot of you, but it does everything it can to prepare you for that ask gradually and BOY does it give back.
Those are my straightforward answers. Now we get to just straight up recommending RPGs. Because really, if you want a game about storytelling, you want to look at the design space that focuses most on storytelling. While these are mostly not GM-less games like the above, these are games that don’t require a lot of work from the GM that isn’t already required from the players. The GM might control more characters or be more in charge of setting the pace, but these are games that focus on getting you into telling stories together. Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard/Tocherbearer tell incredible stories, but they require a good amount of research and a defter hand from the GM. DnD tells incredible stories, but it focuses on establishing a systemic framework that you can tweak to your liking. Dread and Gumshoe can tell excellent stories, but BOY do they make the GM work for it. These are by no means the “best” RPGs, just ones that I’ve played that I think are the most focused Storytelling experiences.
is an interesting thing. It’s a chase game. You’re on the run. You don’t remember all the details, but They were transporting you somewhere and it went wrong. You can do things. Special things. And They’re coming back for you. What Psi-Run does really well here is capture this story. As you run away, you create an abstracted map along which They will chase you. When you do hard things, you roll some dice and you assign them to different things. A bad roll doesn’t necessarily mean you failed–maybe you got hurt, or They get closer or someone else gets Captured–you have all these categories to assign things to including remembering something about your past or your special powers. Every character is created with Questions–about themselves, their past, their world their circumstances, their powers–that are answered over the course of play either by the GM–in which case the answer might not be what you needed or expected–or by the player. When you’ve answered all of your questions the game is over. Maybe you’re still on the run. Maybe They’re still after you, maybe things are about to get even worse or even more conventionally exciting … but your character arc has resolved. I love Psi-Run for exactly this–you play to watch Act II. You play to watch Empire Strikes Back. Insert your favorite middle-act movie’s middle act here. You don’t see the setup except in flash backs and you don’t bother with the resolution. That focus on a character’s smaller arc gives the game a rather fascinating sense of scale and as questions get answered you can feel the game closing in on itself. You can feel the end coming. It’s another one of those masterclass games. Like it or not in play, it’ll teach you a LOT about designing story telling games.
is a really through system for approaching firmly narrative focused play in a more traditional RPG format. It feels almost like an alternate universe Fiasco where an OSR designer looked at Nordic Larp and asked “Could we make that level of character-driven, introspective intensity play out like a more standard session-based RPG?” I’m probably describing it terribly, but give it a look.[/details]
the little engine that could. It’s one of the lightest games I’ve played and it encourages you to get into mad trouble. If you want the bare-bones action thriller experience, Ghost/Echo gets you into that whirlwind of catastrophe with rules that fit on a single page but are decidedly on the Crunch side of rules-light as oppposed to the Improv side of rules-light. You do a thing, you make the roll. Harper calls it an “oracle” game in that the outcome of the role needs to be interpreted a bit to make it fit the fiction–you don’t always roll with a perfect understanding of what exactly the consequences will mean, just what shape they will take. But the payback for that is a really intense ride for such a tiny game.
I'm probably going to hit the character count if I keep going like this, so here's some other stuff I would love to talk more about:
Check out Unbound, Abnormal, Emily Care Boss’s work (great two player stuff), Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World (and friends), Polaris, Durance (still Hard Mode for people who aren’t into improv games like Fiasco and Baron Von Munchausen but more mechanical structure to rely on and get into interesting conflicts with), Mars Colony (also two player), Polaris, Ten Candles, Star Force/Thought Lords of Mars/Danger Patrol.