Thursday, September 10, 2009

Board Game Narratives, part three

And so, begins part 3 of Board Game Narrative Stuff. Once again, I lead with the following disclaimer:

It should be noted that I’m just collecting random thoughts on this subject. Various thoughts as described herein probably have many fallacies when viewed through the lens of different types of game, and I'm sure that anyone could find a particular game that refutes any thesis that I'm providing (heck, I can do that on my own).

Part 1 can be found by clicking on this link.

Part 2 can be found by clicking on this link.


As a subset of the theme, the player should be defined as a character within the world the game is being modeled on. This does not necessarily mean the player is given a character to play (even though that is often the case), but somehow, the player has tangible understanding of the world, and actions naturally make sense through the game rules and whatever results from those actions make tangible sense. The player becomes a living component within the game world, and is not simply an overlord over a game board shuffling pieces about.

Most board games put the player into the position of the overlord; here a player has complete control over his world; components always follow at his command, randomness is often derided as something that can ruin good strategy, and the players simply get more powerful over time. The character model suggest a different world, where the world doesn’t conform to the whim of the player, and can lash out in unexpected ways back at the player. It’s a world where the players try to gain control, but the world is a slippery beast, and the player can fall down just as often as he climbs up in power and control.

Trading card games are interesting to look at in this view. The basic structure of a single game can be considered to follow the overlord model, in that you are simply gaining the ability to play with stronger cards as the game goes on. But the meta-game of deck building follows the character model. As you are trying to gain some sort of control over the randomness of the shuffle, and whatever other player you might face off against.

Additionally in regards to TCGs, there’s a sense of having some skin in the game; it’s not just a set of components you are playing with, as these are components that you’ve personally chosen. You’ve created this character,as represented by your chosen cards, by yourself (within the restrictions of the game world). There’s going to be at least a little emotional relationship to those little slab of cardboard, due to the amount of control that you are trying to influence over the game world in which the rules preside.

A lot can be said for Magic: The Gathering with regards to TCGs, but Jyhad: The Eternal Struggle (of course it’s been renamed to Vampire for a while), is an even better game, I feel (even though it runs a bit too long for my short-attention-span life). Not only are you playing with the creatures and things that you’ve decided to have, it takes your life points to gain control of them; the more control over the game you want, the weaker you become; your ties to the game world and a component in that world is much stronger.

What other traits can be found that helps to define a character different than an overlord? Again, looking at Tales of the Arabian Nights for inspiration, we can find that game's system of statuses (stati?) worthwhile. You can further breakdown the difference based on how abilities and statuses are collected and affected to the player. Each of these abilities can be considered to be a different game status, which regards to how the player interprets, or follows certain rules. In overlord situations, the player is the controlling entity over various components in the world, buildings up “engines.” These engines eventually lead to some critical mass where the player collects enough victory points with which to win the game.

In the case of the engines, each component part is an individual status. But there’s a few important caveats with this. One, in the overlord situation, the player quite often almost has full control over the status components he is collecting or building, carefully piecing together a puzzle that he hopes will fit the best. Secondly, and more importantly, the statuses are pretty much NEVER bad. They are all finely tuned cogs in a smooth running machine. Each status is working in the favor of the player toward his defined goal.

In the case of the character, the statuses that are collected by the player can be random, and almost always include not only helpful bits, but also negatives as well. And statuses are lost and gained. A character evolves by battling to keep his good statuses and somehow removing, or attempting to downplay, the negatives; an overlord just keeps getting more powerful.

As a representation of life, the character model of status works well. You go through life, gaining new knowledge and abilities, often trying to keep the demons at bay. And of course, you pick up bad habits as well. The idea of overlording, where a constant stream of good advancements at a person’s call and bidding, while wished for, never happens. There are always roadblocks (even though most of them aren’t quite as drastic as being turned into an Ape-form).

There have been a lot of papers and discussions in the past relating to narrative in games in the recent past, mostly for video games, that talk about Game versus Narrative. In these cases, it is usually in the form of interactivity versus storytelling. Often, the discussion comes down to this: a good story is a good story because of the very linear nature of storytelling. The author has completely control over plot points, the pace of the characters, and the various dilemmas and results of actions that pertain to them.

Unfortunately, the second you make this kind of work interactive, the author loses control over the story, and therefore loses almost all of the aspect of what makes the story good. Additionally, the sheer amount of content that would be required to handle all of the multiple paths a truly interactive character can take and still keep a plot-like storyform going becomes unwieldly and impossible to control.

This is what makes a role-playing game with a good dungeon master so valuable; there’s a human brain in there somehow controlling the pace and reacting properly to the interactive desires of the players, as the story is unfolding in a natural state.

In the case of role playing games, there have been other theories bandied about that might be worth checking into. Such as GNS (Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist) theory and The Big Model.

The RPG Everway is interesting to look at if only because it is left up to the game master to decide how to resolve actions, which is by using one of the three categories of the GNS model. Basically, there is no dice, but a tarot deck, which is used to help determine the results of actions through interpretation of the cards. However, the game is designed in such as way that the game master is free to follow what he feels what would be the best outcome for the story that is being created (Narrativist), solely based on comparing stats (Simulationist) or by card interpretation (Gamist). Since there are no hard and fast charts and lookup tables for "hard" success numbers, the game become a winding road that builds upon itself, as opposed to simple mathy exercises. it's this self-creating road that is built as needed that makes the game feel more narrative that others, as the game REQUIRES the game master to be a good story teller, and just someone who can compare numbers on charts the fastest.

Of course, any good game master should be able to do this, regardless of the look up tables that he needs. But Everway really clears away all of the needs of the charts, and lets the GM focus solely on the story.

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