Over the past two months, I've had the unique experience of being able to run some independent RPG systems for both of my RPG groups. It's not often that in either group is willing to play in an indie system, or that there is a slot available for one. After just recently running Princesses and Palaces, the third indie system I've had the chance to run, and I'm starting to notice a trend that comes from playing these indie games.
So far, all of the systems I've run have had very simple mechanics behind them, with two of them being "micro systems". The micro systems, Lasers & Feelings and All Outta Bubblegum, both had a roll under/over mechanic in which you have a single character stat and you're trying to roll under or over it depending on what you wanted to do (see the links for more exact rules). While the 13 pages of Princesses and Palaces isn't exactly a micro system, it does have more complex rules than the two systems mentioned before. While it does have more stats, rolling, and math than L&F and AOB, P&P's system designed to teach a father's very young daughter number relationships and basic math is still very simple.
Now in the board gaming world, it is possible to simplify and streamline a game to the point where you actually start losing the game. I was worried that some of the "game" aspect of "Roleplaying Game" would start to get lost. For some players, this is completely fine. But for others where roleplaying takes a backseat to the game, I was worried that they would get bored. But to my surprise, something happened.
The stories that we told for these RPG systems became so rich. Now, I partly attribute this to the simplicity of the rules, and that a super rich story was necessary to make the simple mechanics fun. I also attribute this to that these simple systems have a pretty focused theme. Super thematic storytelling was needed to keep these game enjoyable, and it was some of the hardest work I've had to put in as a GM. In other systems, you have more of a game you can fall back upon if the story got bumpy.
These simple systems have put my storytelling to the test. After running my first session of P&P, I was mentally exhausted. It took so much creative work to keep this fairy-talesque feeling whimsical and light. Super tropey storytelling and over dramatic characters were always needed. After the past two years of regular gaming, scene improv has become a developed skill. But when trying to tell such a rich story, improvisation was much more difficult. My L&F and AOB sessions (which can be found here) were still difficult, but for a different reason. These micro games also tended to run pretty short. Coming up with a cohesive story and wrap it up in an hour was the challenge.
Overall, I would like to think that these simple indie systems have drastically improved my storytelling. The level of rich story necessary to keep players engaged in such a simple system takes lots of work. I firmly believe that if you want to develop your storytelling skills, try out one or all of the indie systems above. These systems will take you out of your comfort zone, and by doing more of that, your future heavy system games will enjoy a richer bit of story.