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Once Upon a Time (A Guide to Storytelling Games)

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Most games are a series of rules that interlock in a self-contained system, designed to provide precise ways to advance your goals, score points, and win the game. There are clear activities you can and cannot do, and you must work within that system.

There is a type of game, however, in which the rules are much less clear about what you can and cannot do; the restrictions are much more lax; and the experience is much more about creating a narrative than achieving a mechanical goal in order to win.  These games are generally referred to as “Storytelling” games, and they come in a wide variety of forms and in many fashions.It’s hard to pin down exactly what a Storytelling game is, because there aren’t any real rules that define this genre; that’s kind of the point.

The basic gist of a storytelling game is that the players are responsible for coming up with a story and relaying their actions with the game simply by telling them.  There usually aren’t specific rules about what you can and cannot do, although you are generally encouraged to keep the narrative in some sort of restraint.

Let me try to give an example to make this more clear.  In most games–let’s use Ticket to Ride as an example–there are clear instructions for what you can and cannot do. In Ticket to Ride, you can collect train cards; you build trains by laying down a set of matching colors; the number of cards must equal the number of segments in the train connection you are building. These are clear rules, and you can’t go outside of them. You can’t create a new connection that doesn’t exist, or decide to take a car instead.

In a storytelling game, you would simply invent the way you travel to any given destination. You would come up with interesting details about the ride, the people you travel with; you might even invent your own obstacles to overcome along the way. The point is to tell a story, and to make it interesting.

Storytelling has a wide scale of implementation, from simple clues to more detailed storylines. The most basic form is seen fairly commonly in party games. In games such as Catch Phrase or Taboo, players are tasked with giving clues–in a sense, weaving a simple story–to get their team to guess the answers. There are very few restrictions on which clues may be given or how they are presented; instead, it is up to the player to creatively come up with the necessary information within the framework given. Dixit is a small step up this ladder; players must give a simple clue to describe a small, somewhat abstract work of art depicted on one of their cards. There are essentially no restrictions on what a player may say about any given card; the challenge comes in giving a clue that some of the players will get and some will not. Again, there are no dice to roll or pawns to place or any sort of hard-set mechanisms to determine clues or advance the game; it’s all about being creative with your clues.

As the storytelling mechanism becomes more evolved and central to the gameplay, there tend to be fewer restrictions on what can be said and more goals of what you need to accomplish with your story.  Many storytelling games include simple prompts, such as a location, an item, or a character, and players have to fill in the rest of the story while implementing this item. A good example of this is the game “Once Upon a Time” in which players can play cards as they use them in their story–but if another player can play a card matching something the current player says, they can cut in to their turn. This game appeared on Tabletop, so you can see a clear example of the storytelling and goals involved.

In this sort of game, players have to be willing to accept that the winning conditions are fairly variable, and that the game is not about playing with the best skill, or even maximizing luck.  Even story-telling games with goals and winning conditions are extremely flexible in how they play out.  In the above example of Once Upon a Time, players are given an “ending” they must steer the story towards, and both reach that ending in the story while getting rid of all the cards in their hand.  Since the story is extremely subjective, there is no precise manner in which to play cards; no real way to plan a strategy or counter the other players, and you have no idea where their cards and ideas will take the story.  All you can do is try to be creative.

Storytelling in a board game is perhaps derived from RPGs (Role-Playing Games, such as Dungeons and Dragons) for players who are looking to tell stories and even role-play in a more self-contained session.  While many RPGs encourage campaign play and have detailed rules for Combat and Skills and all manner of interactions, storytelling in the boardgame format has fewer rules to deal with and a session generally begins and ends in one night.  Most RPGs require one player to take on the role of the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM), who is responsible for preparing the story and taking on the role of enemies, obstacles the players must face, and non-player characters that must be interacted with.

A game that bridges this transition is the RPG called Fiasco.  Fiasco is an RPG designed to play without a DM and in a single evening.  While dice are in fact involved, they are used to assign various “prompts” to begin the story, such as a location, a relationship between two characters, or a motive for a single character.  These prompts are found in various “playsets” that provide thematically coherent ideas to draw from.  Play of the game is entirely about coming up with a story, with no other guides than the initial prompts.  Players role-play their characters as they see fit and develop the plot through conversations and interactions with other players, which can develop as anyone chooses to act.  There is no “winner” or “loser” at the end; some characters might have positive endings, some might have terrible endings, but it’s all about the entertainment value of creating your own tale.  (This game has appeared on Tabletop, so you can see it in action.  Apparently Tabletop features a lot of story-heavy games).

Some games do not use storytelling as a driving force of the game, but simply as a way to enhance the gameplay experience.  Two such games are Gloom, and Last Night On Earth (Read our review of Last Night on Earth here).  Gloom is a simple card game about trying to give your own (fictional) family a miserably life and then kill them off at their worst moment, so that they’ll have a happy afterlife.  While there actually are  strict rules for how cards are played and clear guidelines on winning and losing and earning points, players are strongly encouraged to use the flavor text on cards they play to unravel a complete tale of doom and gloom as the game progresses.  (Tabletop has also played this game, complete with the telling of sad tales, which you can watch here).

Last Night On Earth is a complex game of strategy and luck in which pits teams – humans versus zombies – against each other in a battle for survival.  Again, LNoE is complete with rules, structure, and strict guidelines about what can and can’t be done, but the nature of the game encourages players to imagine – and share with the other players – how the see each action and each turn play out.  While this isn’t even in the rules, the storytelling aspect of it just naturally extends the game.  (Once again, you can see this game played on Tabletop, in which the storytelling part of the game definitely comes out.  Maybe a little too much).

Drawbacks

Storytelling as a mechanism does have some drawbacks.  As mentioned, there usually are not clear restrictions on how a story can be told, which means someone looking for a tight strategic experience will be very out of place.  It also means that a player who refuses to play within the spirit of the game can ruin the experience for everyone.

Some players do not feel creative enough to come up with good story elements off the cuff, and some may be too shy to really get into the story and act out their part.  It can be difficult for introverted players to play a Storytelling game in a new group of people.  The nature of inventing and telling stories also means that games can last for longer periods of time than other types of games of similar weight.

Benefits

The benefit of storytelling is that it allows players to create a memorable experience together.  It can be one thing to win a game by efficiently managing your resources or by luck, a victory that may be hard to recap later on.  But the story aspect can be re-lived.  It can be a very bonding experience between players as they work together (even if, in the game, they are opponents) to knit each aspect of the story together into an interesting, goofy, creative, and thoughtful whole.  You may not be writing quality literature in the course of the game, but you are creating something together.

Storytelling also allows all players to get into the game, whether they win or lose.  When you can invent anything in your mind, you can always get out of a tight spot, or at least make your demise as interesting as possible.  You still participate in the fun no matter your level of play.  Again, it creates a shared experience, much like a cooperative game, but even if players are technically in competition.

In Conclusion

Storytelling is a fluid, dynamic, and moldable mechanism, and the implementation of it is fluid.  It can show up in simple ways, like giving clues leading to a desired answer, or it can be central to the development of the gameplay. And it doesn’t have to be a required part of the game to be heavily involved! Even games that don’t inherently encourage the use of storytelling can have elements of storytelling applied by the players as they imagine the details of actions during the game as they might play out in a real-life scenario.

If you have any recommendations for great storytelling games, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. This is great coverage of one of my favorite aspects of gaming.

    When you mention storytelling games, Rory’s Story Cubes (www.storycubes.com) is the first that comes to mind. My own coverage of these can be found here:

    I’m also looking forward to my kickstarter reward for Storyteller Cards:
    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/239309591/storyteller-cards-a-playing-card-deck-to-inspire-c

    I think story is the secret sauce that makes an average game great.

    For instance, story is why I will pretty much always choose to play Sentinels of the Multiverse as opposed to other hero related card games such as the DC Comics Deck-Building Game.

    -Mike

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