Category Archives: Because Twitter Said So

Once Upon A Wonder: A Story Game Guide

aka Because Twitter Said So, pt 1 of an occasional continuing series.

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I recently asked on Twitter if people could point me to story-creation games.  We spend a lot of time worrying about the quality of stories *in* games – authored narratives designed to intermingle with gameplay –  but I was more recently wondering about the ability of games to author stories of their own. I knew a little, but not nearly enough: Story Cubes is now something I regularly pack if ever we’re going away with small children. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a game I’ve known about for years but never played. I grew up on Consequences,  and the ‘he said…., she said…., and the consequence was…,’ rhythm of it still echoes in my head to this day, but that’s close to the full extent of my experience with the genre.

Twitter was very generous with its recommendations. I haven’t had a chance to play any of these yet (apologies therefore for any errors in the descriptions), but I thought it might be a fun resource for other people to refer to.  As such, I’ve dug some of my favourite recommendations out of Twitter, and assembled it here in no particular order.   Here we go…

Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism and identity, the first task of which is described by its author Liam Burke as “As a group, you work together to describe one of the hundreds of small islands in the Pacific Ocean”. One player takes on the role of *all* of an occupying force, representing “their capable military, their quisling government, and whatever jaded tourists and shrewd businessmen are interested in a not quite pacified territory,” and all other players become individual Natives, responding as best they can to the actions of the colonizing power. This little review gives the flavour of it very nicely, and its critical acclaim could hardly be higher.

Fiasco is much better known (and a game I should have remembered), very neatly described by its creators as “like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one.” It does need dice, but it doesn’t need a GM, and all kinds of different genre scenarios for it abound. It has a reputation for being accessible and ferociously funny, and you can read a good precis of its game systems here.

Monsterhearts I had never heard of, and is the first of multiple Buried Without Ceremony games in this list. What is it? Why, Monsterhearts “lets you and your friends create stories about sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles.” I have mentally filed it under ‘DIY–X-rated–Buffy’. Time will tell whether or not that’s a fair assumption, but it hopefully got your attention. Lauded also for its open-minded approach to sexuality.  I hope you’re taking notes, Tomodachi Life.

A Penny For My Thoughts immediately appeals to me, since its structure suggests a story-telling game where you don’t have to take on too much responsibility for forging your own narrative. The set-up is one of amnesiac patients and a guiding doctor. Each player posits a few fragmented sense memories, and then other players lead them to form a more complete picture of their lost pasts. Pennies act as memory tokens: you pay one to a player each time you accept their prompt about the story of yourself. Emily Short has an illuminating and enticing review here.   Side-note: there’s something about the penny economy that makes me think about the token-for-information economy in the excellent Hanabi, which (side-side-note), reminds me I ought to write a thing about cleverness of that next.

My Daughter The Queen Of France sounds like it’s going to be a clapping game, but turns out to be a story-telling game “directed by William Shakespeare”.  The ruleset is available here, written by Daniel Wood, and worth reading just for the pleasure of it. On first appraisal it seems like an insightful structure to break down what is otherwise a pretty tall order: a mutually improvised play (up to an including actual soliloquies) about the estrangement of a father and a daughter. It’s absolutely the kind of game I’m alway too chicken to play, because it seems like a huge amount of creative pressure. Would love to hear from people with more experience of it. Can it ever be a lightweight game? Is it terrifying for wallflowers?

Durance gives Jason Morningstar his second entry on the list, after Fiasco, and it sounds to be a very apt palette cleanser for My Daughter The Queen Of France. He describes it as “a fast-paced, low-prep, highly collaborative game designed for 3-5 players and one or more sessions of play and includes a detailed, engaging science fiction setting.” It’s set on a prison planet, where inmates and guards are fighting together (and each other) for survival.  From a quick read, I’d say that ‘low-prep’ maybe translates as ‘relatively low-prep’ – there’s only so much short-cutting you can do if you want to play in a story world as rich as the one Durance allows.  This review might give you your bearings more – love the idea of each player making a solemn vow, the breaking of which unleashes direful consequences.

Universalis is not to be confused with strat-mainstay Europa Universalis. The story-telling Universalis seems to be not just GM-free, but setting free. It positions itself as the ‘unlimited stories’ game, and (a little like Penny For My Thoughts’) uses a token system through which players agree on the tenets of the story they’re creating, and resolve disputes that arise when those tenets are broken. Wikipedia’s description of that dispute resolution process is a little dry, but it’s not going to stop me adopting it in all and any business meetings from here on in:

..a Complication results if the two players cannot come to an agreement. Established Facts can be drawn on in the Complication, and all players have the chance to weigh in with their coins. When everyone has spent the coins and called on the Facts that they wish to, a die roll is then used to resolve the issue (with the dice rolled depending on how many Facts and Coins each side has). The winner gains new Coins, and gets to narrate the result of the Complication.

In A Wicked Age looks to me to have more of a traditional RPG structure, but geared to a fast-start and newcomer friendly.  Here’s a flavour of it, in the very first instructions in the game: “Someone choose an oracle. Your choices are Blood & Sex, God-kings of War, the Unquiet Past, and a Nest of Vipers. It doesn’t matter who chooses.” Dispute resolution here isn’t about coins or even (surprisingly for the RPG-style set-up) dice; instead conflicts are resolved through agreement between the players involved.  Reviews like this one suggest that playing over multiple sessions is particularly fun.

Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North is a game name I can’t read without getting goosebumps recalling Reepicheap sailing off for the Utter East. It’s available on a pay-what-you-can basis, and from what I understand of it, Reepicheep’s epic, unknowable voyage is not a terrible touchstone. Set inside a fiction that tells of the Knights of the Order of the Stars, as they struggle through the dying days of the Northernmost People, Polaris can take 12-40 hours to play, recommended to be split over 3-8 nights. It sounds daunting, but also strangely seductive. Next time I wake up in an unexpected Narnia, it might be time to dig in for a long weekend and see where Polaris could take us.

A Quiet Year is, in turn, not to be confused with Ian Bogost’s game-poem A Slow Year. Or maybe it ought to be cross-referenced with it. A Quiet Year isn’t so much a story-telling game as a map-drawing game, and from the map comes the story.  It’s also a Buried Without Ceremony game, like Monsterhearts, which means that like many of their games, it can be purchased with real world Good Deeds instead of cold hard cash. Using a standard deck of cards as a set of prompts, it asks players to draw the map of what happens to a small community as it lives out a quiet year following a previous calamity and before the arrival of the unstoppable Frost Shepherds.  Quintin and Leigh have a very illuminating review here, so I’ll leave it to them to tell you more.

Pantheon (not to be confused with Bill Willingham’s mostly-forgotten Pantheon or the upcoming Rise Of The Fallen MMO or any of the other four hundred Pantheon things you’ll get if you try to google it) is an out-of-print story-game compendium by Robin D. Laws (another multiple entrant on this list). It introduced the ‘narrative cage match’ structure, where players outbid each other to use genre cliches to construct a story. I think there’s an in-print edition in French, if that’s of interest – there’s new content, and a new title: Hollywood Party.  Or, if some rule tweaks would help you get a feel for it, try these.

Gray Ranks takes us back to Bully Pulpit and Jason Morningstar again. Fascinatingly tied to real dates in 1944,  the game casts you as a teenage Polish partisan,  during the uprising against the occuping Nazi forces towards the end of the Second World War. Like Polaris, A Quiet Year, and even My Daughter The Queen Of France, this is a game that knows it ends in tragedy, with that tragedy sharpened here by the real events that inspired it. More alluring to me is this description of ‘the grid’ – a spatial representation of a character’s mental state which sounds like a thing I tried – and failed – to build for the Dreams Of Your Life project.

The Grid is a map of sorts, that tracks each characters emotional state. At the end of each chapter, players move their character on the Grid according to success or failure of the mission and personal scenes. The corners of the Grid are to be avoided, as they represents extremes such as Martydom, Nervous Breakdown, Suicidal Depression and Derangement. If you hit the same corner twice, then your character is written out of the story in the following chapter, if not sooner.

Microscope, another Lame Mage/Ben Robbins game, makes a big promise: “Want to explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon? That’s Microscope.” The introduction describes it as ‘fractal gaming’: you don’t play a character, things don’t happen in chronological order, the story emerges as you dig down from a single grand statement to more granular detail. From a quick skim it seems less ‘gamey’ than some of the other games above – no coins or bidding here – and it feels like another that puts a big premium on players’ innate ability to spin a yarn. But there’s no arguing with the scale of that promise..

Kingdom, which just happened to be next on my list, is yet another Lame Mage/Ben Robbins title. It’s a game not so much about kingdoms themselves, but about the dynamics of the people who run them, and as such can be set pretty much wherever you like. Robbins notes “Want to play a star-spanning empire? A warship in the Age of Sail? The PTA of your local elementary school? Those all work.” I’ve not had a chance to read the rules of this one, but my gut tells me that it would be a stellar match for some ‘The Wire’ storygaming. As a fun aside, Kingdom is partly conceived to let you double-down on Microscope’s fractal nature. Use Microscope to develop the broad beats of your civilization’s story, and then use Kingdom’s  roles – Power, Touchstone or Perspective character types – to figure out who were the players, and what were their purposes in each crossroads moment.

Gloom, aka That Game With The See-Through Cards, is another game I’m ashamed never to have played. Gloom is also a tragedy game, but on this occasion played for laughs. It gives each player a family, and then tasks them with destroying each family member’s self-worth, before killing as many of them as possible. Like I said, laughs. From the outside, its aesthetic gives me a slight scent of Lemony Snicket, and in my defense, it’s perhaps the fear of Jim Carrey flashbacks that has kept me away. My instinct would be Gloom is one of the least creatively intimidating games here – the cards supply your story components, and you simply choose where to inflict them (although there’s scope of embellishment if wanted), and it’s hard to imagine a more cathartic story structure .

Star Trek: The Adventure Game is co-designed by no less than Greg Costikyan, just in case you were inclined to be put-off by the brand. Very excitingly, it’s designed for one or two players: solitaire story-telling games are an especially pleasing prospect to me. It’s grounded in TOS Star Trek, which (in the  event it’s not as frequent a Netflix guilty pleasure for you as it is for me) you may have forgotten was empirically great TV – wildly charismatic ensemble cast, big ideas, a real sparkle in its eye.  There’s a video review of the game here, but from reading this overview I’ve formed the impression that it might combine some of my favourite things about the the factional subtleties in Reiner Knizia’s wonderful two-player Lord Or The Rings: The Confrontation with the lightweight but enormously satisfying emergent stories of FTL.

Dark Cults is another out-of-print classic, I fear, presaging Once Upon A Time, which we’ll get to further down this list. Considered by some the best horror story-telling game of all time, it’s another two-player story game. This review gives you the gist nicely: one player is Life, the other Death, and you’re both watching over a gentleman called Horace Phineas Lovejoy as he leaves his house for an evening stroll. Which force will win out as his evening unfolds? The game consists of a deck of cards – characters, places, atmospheres, dangers and escapes – and the players (or teams of players) take it in turns to draw and play a card that fits the story and the sequence. I didn’t manage to find any easy way to buy or download this, sadly – keep your eyes peeled in promising stores, or do what you can with resources like this fan revamp. 

Hillfolk is both another Robin D. Laws game and another Kickstartered project (like Dog Eat Dog, Durance and others), although Hillfolk romped home with nearly $100k. Hillfolk is an Iron Age setting for Laws’ DramaSystem rules engine, designed to create sessions where “the dice and rules fall away, and the entire group spontaneously enters a collective zone of pure story and character.” A precis of Laws’ precis of the system goes a bit like this:

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it….In play, a simple currency system rewards you for giving in (as a granter) or being rebuffed (as a petitioner.) This encourages you to act like a dramatic character, or real person, sometimes giving in and sometimes standing your ground. If you accumulate enough drama tokens, you can spend them to require a granter to make a significant emotional concession.

I read some varied reviews of the system – some finding it deeply flexible and making a whole new kind of in-game storytelling possible, and others finding it arbitrary and frustrating – would love to hear your experiences.

Tales of the Arabian Nights doesn’t come cheap, but nor does its reputation. Quintin Smith is on hand again to explain why,  but almost any reviewer or player will echo his positivity. There are lovely conceits at the heart of the game: it has a ‘fudge’ die; how far you can travel is determined by your wealth. The setting is also a gimme: it’s a story game about a story about stories about storytelling.  How could it fail? Although, what’s clear is that Arabian Nights is maybe exactly the kind of game Laws wasn’t talking about when he describes the dice and the rules falling away: instead, its story engine in pretty dependent on looking up tables and then cross-referencing the Book Of Tales. Worth it nonetheless, by all accounts. – and, I hear, also playable in solitaire mode.

One Upon A Time is where we should have started, if I was doing this thing in a sensible order. Now in its third edition, its gameplay revolves around ‘Ending Cards’ – each player has one, and is hoping to draw and play cards that guide the collaboratively developed story towards their ending. The setting is one of prodigiously traditional fairy tales (you can almost hear Pantheon sharpening its cliche-dealing blades..), but with the obvious benefit of giving anyone and everyone their bearings in a rich and familiar storyworld. Indeed, just skimming the original card list will give you a sense of the tone as well as a basic gloss of the gameplay. Definitely a strong contender on this list of something to try with non-roleplayers, non-gamers, and/or non-grownups.

Story War is another Kickstarter success story, and having pocketed $350k plus, developers Cantrip games have made the whole thing downloadable for free as a printable PDF. The game, as best as I currently understand it, is Apples To Apples-driven storytelling with pop-culture nerdolgy content. Which is to say that each round a different player takes the role of judge. Other players select warrior and item cards (familiar archetypes from numerous fandoms), reveal their hands, and improvise a story about how their warriors beat other players’ warriors. The judge decides who wins. I can’t say for sure if it’s appeared on Big Bang Theory yet or not, but I know where I’m putting my money.  My assumption is that if you thrive on the Apples-to-Apples/Cards Against Humanity structure of playing to please the judge, then this is a glorious extension of those games. If not, then perhaps not? Comment angrily below if my assumption is unfounded.

Machine Of Death is a game based on a book based on a comic based on some free clip art, which is a very dismissive way to describe Ryan North’s majestic Dinosaur Comics. The book is an anthology of stories explore the concept: what if there was a machine that could tell you how you were going to die?  The game of the book, which raised more than $500k on Kickstarter (I swear I’m not doing this on purpose). It shares with a number of the games above a significant narrative trope: you know when you start that things are going to End Badly.  The game tasks players to assassinate a target in the manner predicted by the Machine Of Death. To do so, they have only their knowledge of their target’s fear and desires, and three randomly-selected items. They must spin a story of how they can accomplish the necessary killing with the unrelated items, with a dice roll determining success each step of the way. Fail a dice roll and you have 90 seconds to extemporise an alternative approach. It sounds zany and chaotic, and I will leave you to determine your own emotional responses to those particular adjectives.

The Resistance is the only game on this list that I know for a fact you can buy from Target.  Often recommended to Werewolf/Mafia fans, it uses a similar sort of structure. A small group of resistance fighters are opposing a brutal regime. But some of their number are spies. Players take it in turn to launch missions, selecting the players to send to complete them. Spies can force a mission to fail, increasing their faction’s chance of winning, but risking suspicion and discovery. Its ruleset definitely offers some refinements to classic Werewolf (no players get eliminated, there is at least some definite information), but I’m curious if it deserves its reputation as a story-telling game. I wouldn’t classify Werewolf as such, even if I’m still dining out on some pretty entertaining Werewolf anecdotes. Resistance players – does this game push the narrative further? Would be interested too in how its mechanics compare to other hidden-agent board games like the much more rough-and-tumble Saboteur.

Aye Dark Overlord, I think, is a game about put-upon minions improvising excuses for why their Evil Genius boss’ plans have gone awry yet again. Make an inadequate excuse and you will receive a Withering Look from your boss. Receive three Withering Looks and you’re out. This seems like a deeply likeable premise  – this review gives a good sense of what it takes to do justice to it in practice, which I suspect to be a roomful of people with the gift of the gab and a history of terrible summer jobs. 

And that’s it for the list! Incomplete, ill-informed and imprecise, but hopefully helpful as a starting point if nothing more. Thank you to @JamesWallis,@greenghoulie@jurieongames@s_bura@pat_of_kemp@Sarn@Quinns108@scd@poppa_f @Devin_Wilson@LeighAlexander@gavininglis @tobybarnes @suegyford, @yoz, @tiedtiger and anyone else I missed. Really appreciate you clueing me in, and apologies if I’ve butchered or omitted anything you love.