Joshua Buergel: On Storytelling in Games
Today we’re in for a special treat! Guest contributor Joshua Buergel, designer of The Fox in the Forest and Hocus, is here to talk about a difficult design topic — the limitations and possibilities of storytelling in board games. It’s something that’s been on my own mind for a while, so I’m eager to hear his take.
Joshua, you have the conn.
There’s a well-known failure mode for role-playing games, particularly common among newer game masters, which involves the game master trying to exert too much control. Intoxicated by the capacity of role-playing games to create stories of all kinds, an enthusiastic GM writes an epic campaign, full of intrigue, fascinating characters, plot twists, and a shocking ending. At least, in their mind. The resulting campaign will play out in a few ways, none of which are really very satisfying. The GM might lead their characters by the nose through the planned plot, letting the players observe goings-on, but not really having any impact on the direction of the campaign. Another path is that the players might rebel sufficiently to “ruin” the campaign, taking the whole thing off the rails enough for the plot to crash and burn, resulting in a premature end to the campaign. Or, most frequently, the campaign simply peters out, with the players insufficiently invested in being bit players in the GM’s grand vision.
All of these problems can occur irrespective of the quality of the story the GM has written. Usually, the story isn’t very good, but even a great story presented in this format can fail, because it’s not really taking advantage of the strengths of the medium. It is, in fact, working against the medium. A tabletop RPG can capture any kind of action, allowing players to perform any feat that they can imagine, if it fits into the shared understanding of the world everybody at the table envisions. A game predicated on the players following through a pre-planned track is removing the greatest thing about tabletop RPGs, the limitless possibilities, and is therefore likely doomed to fail.
Tabletop RPG designers and theorists have recognized this problem for a long time, and have tackled the problem in a variety of different ways: systems that enforce the ability of players to exercise control over the plot; no-prep systems that do not permit GMs to try and place the campaign on rails; GM-less systems that don’t even have the role that might morph into a puppet master; cultures within RPGs that encourage and reinforce more open styles of play; and other solutions. It’s an issue that the community has grappled with directly, because it’s a clear problem with some games and playing styles, and it’s something most people within tabletop RPGs have experienced. Because it’s rooted in player behavior, it’s an issue that is amenable to solutions from designers, by placing the right incentives and systems in front of the players.
But what if the problem was at the other end of production? What if it wasn’t the players who exhibited the problem, but the designers themselves? In tabletop RPGs, the community at this point is likely savvy enough to recognize and reject games that are this straightjacketed. So why are board gamers not doing the same for the equivalent error in their part of the tabletop hobby?
Storytelling in board games is a frequently lauded attribute, one that folks pine for and that companies push in their marketing campaigns. And yes, in the abstract, a story is a good thing to get from your games. But I think there are two types of stories that are tied up with board gaming.
The first is what I’ll call emergent stories. Things happen inside of the game that lead to narratives coming out of the unexpected interactions. The players at the table then enhance the story by adding their imagination, feeding it with their in-game actions, and otherwise taking the ball and running with it. The players are creating narratives using the raw materials of the game’s setting, the events of their specific game, and their interactions with each other. I can still remember the time a single heroic infantry unit managed to wipe out two bombers and a fighter in Axis & Allies, 30 years after the fact. These indelible sequences, enhanced by the drama of the moment and our own creativity, become stories in our heads that live larger with every passing year, and because they’re our own, they provide something that other media cannot. It’s using the strength of games to the advantage of storytelling, but relying on the players to be those storytellers.
The other type of story in board gaming is what I’ll call the pre-planned story. The designer of the game has a story they want to tell, and they depict that story within the game. Through pieces of prose presented to the players via books, cards, or whatever, the predetermined events that the designer has plotted unfurl. The players become observers to the events, revealing bits and pieces as they go, with their in-game actions becoming triggers for the next beat in the story. Doesn’t that sound familiar to something I described earlier?
This sort of game wears its story on its sleeves. It shouts it from the rooftops. It waves a giant banner reading “I ❤ STORIES” while playing an ode to stories on its storyphone (which is like a sousaphone, but it bleats out charming little vignettes). It’s making an explicit appeal to everybody who has asked for more stories in their games and saying hello, get your stories here! And superficially, the prospect of experiencing a narrative assembled by a professional, presumably with all the twists and turns that entails, sounds fantastic. And to have it married to a game, allowing us to make choices as well? Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Actually putting these games on the table answers that question: no, it wouldn’t be. There are a lot of problems with games that are telling pre-planned stories. I’m interested in where tabletop games can go, and as a result I’ve played a lot of these types of games, and they’ve mostly been a disappointment. I’m not going to name a ton of examples here, because the point isn’t to run down any particular game, but instead to explore some of the issues these games have as a group.
The first problem is just simply one of narrative quality. The skills required to design a compelling game are not the same skills as those required to write a compelling story. And the pre-planned story games I’ve experienced have demonstrated that very clearly. The stories might be lacking in compelling characters, have poor plots, might be missing entire sections that should be there, and otherwise are poor examples of the form. But these games rely almost entirely on their story for the positive experience, so if it’s lacking, you are destined for a poor game.
The second problem is that because the focus in these sorts of games is on the narrative, many of them opt for very simple game mechanisms. There aren’t any mechanisms in them that are going to be interesting on their own, divorced from the story, and your fun won’t be rescued by a compelling competitive environment. All of the eggs are in the story basket, and none are in the game basket.
But these problems relate to the quality of the games that are available. The last issue I want to talk about is more fundamental, and is far more difficult to solve. And that’s that these sort of games are working at cross-purposes to the things that make board games a compelling medium. A board game is an interesting activity because it is responsive to the decisions that the players make during the course of the game. The events that unfold will happen in different ways, as players explore the possibilities, and this unpredictability and the desire to see what can happen in a well-designed game gives players reason to come back again and again. A game, then, is a system; a model, with inputs, outputs, and mechanisms tying them together. Without mechanisms, a game isn’t a game at all. A game with a pre-planned story flies in the face of these strengths. We are, in other words, back to a bad GM trying to run the entire show.
In order to tell the story that the designer has already chosen, there are two paths that the designer can take. The first, and most common path, is to essentially remove the agency of the players. The story proceeds along the track laid out by the designer, with the choices that the players make fundamentally not altering the inevitable conclusion. There might be a few Magician’s Choices here and there, and there might be a few different endings to reflect if the players have “won” or “lost,” but mostly the story is going to chug forward in blind disregard for what the players might want. Legend of Dragonholt is an example from a prominent publisher, where the players are presented with what is superficially an open world, but the choices of the players do not change the direction of the plot at all. There are some different endings, depending on the game’s evaluation of your success at a few critical moments, but no real branches in the narrative to explore. This is especially jarring in any genre where the players would expect to be an agent of change. An adventure game where the heroes can do nothing to change the course of events is no adventure at all.
And so it goes with far too many of these types of games. They may have the trappings of responsiveness, they may be trying to set up an illusion that they’re a living world, but if you scratch the surface, you’ll quickly realize that everything is on rails, at least as far as the story goes. You might fail in a few different ways, some events might or might not happen, but everything is pretty much going to wind up in the same place. Think of the way Pandemic Legacy Season 1 has the same story events happen, no matter the success or failure of each of the individual plays of the game. These types of games can be fun, as long as the game portions are entertaining and not an afterthought. But then you’re judging these games as games, using the same criteria as you would any other game. The pre-planned story doesn’t fundamentally change the equation of evaluating them.
The other path that designers could take is to actually try and write branches of their story to accommodate all of the various player actions that might occur. Given the monumental work involved in writing a coherent story that can go in as many directions as the players take it, such an approach is going to lead to a shallow, limited experience. There are some games that have taken a stab at this direction, but they’ve all been dire, so I won’t be mentioning them here.
What all of this gets at is that a designer using a board game to tell you a story that’s they’ve written is a fundamental misuse of the medium. The story is not improved by being doled out in small pieces, and whether the game succeeds or not will be determined by its mechanisms, not its story. If a designer has a truly great story that they want to write, they should just write that story.
Is it hopeless for pre-planned stories melding with games? It’s not totally hopeless, no. If a game is good on its own, adding predefined plot elements can enhance the experience, if they’re at least reasonably well done. A scenario-based game is a good example where this approach can work, as each instance of play can take advantage of the things board games are good at, with the story coming between sessions.
A game that concentrates primarily on setting can also be a good example of where pre-planned plot elements can work great. The great war game Ambush! is an example of this. Each scenario does contain pre-plotted story elements, which the players will encounter gradually as they explore the map. But much of this is to make the setting feel realistic and responsive, in order to immerse the players in Normandy in 1944. The plots themselves are painted in very broad brushes, and don’t impede the players filling in their own narrative as they go.
A milieu that players would expect to largely be unresponsive to their actions can work well. This is why Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is excellent. Players know that they’re gathering data to learn what happened, not trying to change what happened, which is why the game world’s model being static is not disruptive to their immersion into the story world.
Thinking about why pre-plotted elements are being introduced, thinking about what player expectations can and should be, thinking about player agency, and thinking about what games are good and bad at would help designers make good choices around these things. And perhaps the board game side of tabletop can address our own version of the bad GM.
What’s your take? Which games are good examples of storytelling in board games? Let us know in the comments section below.