Tabletop Games & Culture

A Crash Course in Story Games

From classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to subversive newcomers like Dear Leader (a card game about being Kim Jong-un), tabletop games have been used as a medium to tell awesome stories for decades.

Telling Stories at the Tabletop

In Dungeons & Dragons, players embody the role of an imagined character.

In Dungeons & Dragons, players embody the role of an imagined character.

In many ways, storytelling is a natural progression of mechanics already instilled in most classic games. Think about Chess, for instance. Mechanically, the game is pretty binary - each side always begins with the same pieces, and those pieces all move about a grid-like board in predetermined ways.

While it doesn't seem like there's much potential for storytelling in what is essentially a distilled grid-based strategy game, there are actually two types of stories that emerge.

The first is the game's fiction. Yes, Chess has a fiction. After all, the names of the various pieces all correspond with different medieval archetypes, from the King and Queen to the lowly Pawn. As you play a game of Chess, you are playing out the story of two rival political factions attempting to wipe one another out.

The second type of story is a little more abstract. This is the story that the players create through their actions during the game. If I manage to defeat my opponent's King without ever losing a piece, that is a remarkable story of a political battle handily won. Alternatively, if I sacrifice all of my Pawns to reach the enemy King, that is the story of a ruthless leader who used his/her own subjects to climb to power.

With a near infinite variation of player interactions possible, tabletop gaming is actually a very natural conduit for storytelling.

Types of Story Games

Games that are based primarily around storytelling have been called many things in the past - role-playing games, story games or storytelling games... The list goes on. The different sub-genres tend to have a few distinguishing features which separate them from the pack.

Role-Playing Games

Everyone has heard of Dungeons & Dragons, and for good reason - It was the first commercially available tabletop role-playing game.

A role-playing game, or RPG, is a tabletop game in which players give life to imagined characters and storylines through dialogue they share at the table. In other words, each participant is literally playing the role of their character. Neat!

Typically, RPGs are defined by their rule sets, large tomes dictating the rules for determining a shared reality for the players. Because players can literally attempt to do anything they can imagine in an RPG, the rule books tend to be quite large. During player actions, it is common to use dice as a way to approximate the randomness of the real world. Similarly, dice are often used during combat to calculate damage and other effects.

With many different variables, RPGs are often viewed as the most complex type of story game.

Storytelling Games

Like RPGs, storytelling games involve weaving together a communal narrative at the tabletop. Unlike RPGs, storytelling games often simplify the mechanics to focus more on telling the story itself, and less on occupying the roles of the characters within that story.

Storytelling games include Once Upon a Time and Dixit.

Social Games

Codenames is a popular storytelling game based on social puzzle-solving and deduction.

Codenames is a popular storytelling game based on social puzzle-solving and deduction.

Social story games are generally the least mechanical in terms of their rules, and rely more on that imagined type of storytelling in the second Chess example than on large rule sets. They are often scenario-based, and may cast players as specific roles within an imagined society. Sometimes each player will have a role to fulfill, while other times players will be asked to hide their true identities.

The stories that emerge from this type of game tend to be more communal, more abstract, and less concerned with narrative storytelling.

Examples of social storytelling games include the aforementioned Dear Leader, Codenames, and Werewolf.

How Firelight Fits In

By borrowing from both RPGs and Storytelling Games, Firelight attempts to bridge the often intimidating gap between these two play styles, offering a painless way to get into role-playing for new initiates, and an action-packed new option for fans well versed in the minutiae of RPGs.

Firelight is coming to Kickstarter on July 11, 2017.