The Love/Hate for Storytelling Games

In my first post about the fresh dungeon-crawling-character-building game we are planning, I talked marginally about a story telling element which will be almost central to the game, both in terms of questing and character progression. But there are not that many games out there which use story choices as one of the main mechanisms and, in all honesty, not all of the existing ones are that good.

A first example is Gloom, a card game in which you are trying to punish and then kill off your “family members” while telling gruesome stories. Now, the important thing here, outlined clearly in the rules, is that without the story element, the game is far from immersive. Without the creepy tales, you’re left with a take-that kind of game which seems anchored in a  different age of board gaming. I must admit that I failed to find the storyteller in me and I was not capable of making up cool grim tales on the spot.

Every other player did better and one of them took it to the next level and built an incredible family tree and kept the rest of us fascinated. But the game play quality depends heavily on the group. Gloom can be a hit with talented, talky people and it can fall flat with a group of players in the wrong mood. The game itself does not embed story telling, it only encourages it. I must admit that I was intrigued at first, but I failed to see true value in such a gaming construction.

The second option is Above and Below, where the story telling element is an important part of play strategy and, in a way, the rest of the game revolves around it. Here the story is not as much told by players, but told to players, with them making relevant choices that affect their game. I hope that Near and Far will take it to the next level.

The above mode of a storytelling game is, in my opinion, the better use of the mechanism. I know that some friends of mine would immediately have a problem with the random factor in an otherwise predictable, euro-style game, but the positive opinion overall make me give this one a few more thumbs up and consider it as a valid contender for what I would like to use in our massive dungeon crawler (adapted to our own universe and reality, of course).

Then there is Descent (second edition) which alternates classic map driven monster killing quests with short story snippets that allow players to get in the mood before they place their hero miniatures on the board. Each of these story injections looks more like an intermezzo or closure for a story line, rather than the real deal – an actual story telling element that you have to effectively embed in your game play and strategy, and although the game would not be the same without the prologues and epilogues to each of the quests, they are certainly not integral to the game itself.

My secret desire is to find a golden middle between the last two options, with a central story telling element, just as immersive as it was in Mistfall and Heart of the Mists, embedded in the game play,  but non-disruptive. I would like it connected to the rest of the game play elements, yet loose enough so it does not interrupt a fight cycle.

I love story telling, but I am not good at it (at least using the mode which makes me tell the story, as I have no problem with choosing one of two or more options given by the game). Some hate it, but I want to believe that they are in a small minority and people still like to dream with their eyes open.

Fortunately, I have Błażej around, who is a story teller and a very good one for that matter and he will be in charge of piecing together all the game parts and also of creating the universe and the stories in it. He is also a fan of role-playing games and he can always tell a good story. So, I will leave this impossible task up to him and I hope that in several months from now the first pieces of the puzzle will come together to blend tactical movement and combat, robust character progression, and a choice-driven narration that will make the game not only a game, but also a grand story.

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One thought on “The Love/Hate for Storytelling Games

  1. Awesome read! I completely agree with you assessment of the current offerings, and look forward to see what you guys develop. Although I really like descent and gloomhaven, I’m still looking for that sense of exploration and adventure. The rtl app helps in this regard, but I dislike the timer. A good dungeon crawl should be more exploration and discovery, rather than action efficiency. There must be other ways to keep the challenge up I hope. Anyway, hope to hear more about your new game soon!

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