One of the best things about my job is that I get to see new games come in. While RPG’s aren’t a big seller in the market, I keep an ear and eye out for interesting ones. This week is the return of a staple in the D&D world, Ravenloft for 5th edition. I’ve got my copy reserved already and hoping that I can snag it to read over the weekend. There’s some hope it’ll live up to hype and the pedigree. We’ll find out soon enough. There’s a story or two contained within the adventure, but it’s someone else’s story. The characters are following a script of sorts and may not have total freedom to act. Fifteen odd years ago, this style of gaming was almost your only option, but something interesting happened to change that landscape. Story telling games began to make an appearance.
I should define what I mean by story-telling – the narrative, not the mechanics are what drives the game. Players get more input to what’s going on and even direct how events unfold. This goes beyond rolling dice and figuring out hit or miss, save or failure. The GM hands narrative control to someone else, letting them become both actor and director at the same time. Recent entries such as Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, and Fate are all good examples of this. In the case of the first two, the GM doesn’t even roll dice. His job is to make things interesting should things go pear shape. It becomes a collaborative effort between the people at the table, letting them craft their own slice of the world beyond what the GM might have set up. These games make the fiction the star of the show and that drives the action. Three cardinal rules which come from these style of games are: Make failure interesting, play to find out what happens, and begin/end with fiction.
A step beyond that are games that can be run as a single session to tell a short, very self-contained story. Often there’s no dice rolling or GM. The randomness comes from the players and the “rules” are more like guidelines. Examples include Once Upon A Time, Kingdoms, Microscope, and Fiasco. I own all of these, but have yet to play the first one yet. OUTA is a card game where everyone has a hand and tries to get rid of them by telling story that includes elements on the cards. These can be things such as water, large, small, castle, knights, etc… Many of the themes adhere closely to fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm. A few of the sessions that I’ve watched, the game’s pretty light-hearted and played for laughs. With the right [or wrong] set of people, it could get very dark quickly. Not that it’s a bad thing, but you do have to know your audience.
Kingdoms and Microscope fall into the world building category; either building a history between two major events or exploring a specific instance in time. Each presents a different way of telling a story and can be used in conjunction with one another to drill down or expand. They’re great for world building, to bring players into the world and give them greater investment in what’s going on. Sure they know the beginning and the end, but how you get there is the fun part. One of my ideas is to use Microscope to explore the fall of humanity due to the apocalypse and what emerges afterwards. It’s suggested that a timeline of 100-200 years between events be laid out, which in my mind is a good stretch for a PA scenario. Kingdom focuses on a community along with a cast of characters who act to show how the kingdom feels, how they will act, and what the consequences to the action. They confront issues [called Crossroads] which shape things to come. It’s not as strong of a game like Microscope, but that’s more of a preference on my part than it being a bad game.
As I wrote this, I remembered another game in the story telling genre. The Quiet Year can be played with a deck of playing cards and a pamphlet which explains what each card means. Better still, you can get a set of cards that are specifically made for the game and has the text on them. The premise is that you’re playing a village that’s has a year before Doom comes to visit. Players make a map on the 8.5x11 sheet of paper adding 2 features each. You start in the spring and play through the seasons. Sometime in Winter, the Doom will appear, signaling the end of the game. Each season has 13 cards which are shuffled, drawn randomly, and then you have two choices. One is picked and based on the village you created, adding villagers and places or destroying them as dictated by the card. There’s some discussion and interaction with everyone giving input. As the seasons progress, things get worse and the events get darker. By the time winter hits, the village is on the fast track to destruction and things are failing. When the Doom shows up, it’s almost a mercy killing.
Last game is best described as Fargo meets Pulp Fiction with a side of Reservoir Dogs thrown in. You know those movies and stories that just scream about going sideways and terrible things are going to happen due to the cluelessness and ineptitude of the characters? That’s the premise of Fiasco. You roll a number of dice to set up the scenario [like a bank robbery], the actors [thieves, hostages, cops], and relationships [hated rival, love interest, daughter]. Mix together and then start the role play. At the end of scenes, white or black markers are awarded, which tie into the ending. If you’re lucky, your character might walk away with the loot and the girl. Or wind up dead in the gutter, left to take the fall, or slumping away to try again tomorrow. As long as you get too attached to the character, there’s a lot of fun to had in seeing just hard they’ll fail. A full session can be run in an evening and the sheet amount of scenarios [called playsets] out there is astounding.
So if you’re looking for games that tell stories, check out the links below and head to your local game store to pick up a copy.