Blog-versation: Storytelling in Traditional Games

Behind the scenes, we (Joel and Tim) always talk about our various fandoms, our nerdy passions, and what we want to write about next.

Recently we have been discussing gaming in general, what it is that brings us to gaming and what side of gaming we stand by the most. Whilst Joel has been talking about his experiences with tabletop gaming, Tim discusses his passion for video games.

Our first blog-versation will focus on storytelling in gaming. Next, Joel gives his views on story telling in tabletop games.

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A Storytellers’ Medium

I have to say that I love video games. I’m firmly addicted, and some of my favourite stories are straight out of video games, from big blockbusters with a professional writing team and a cast of voice actors, to the indie games written with passion, often with the express intention of telling a beautiful story. They’ve come a long way in a short space of time, and the artistic effort behind them has never been more profound. However, no story will ever mean as much to you as your own. And no film, book, TV show or computer game can offer you the same unique, personalized experience as a tabletop RP.

Dungeons and Dragons was born in the early 1970’s from Gary Gygax’s desire to take a more personal approach to miniature war-gaming, in fact it’s beginnings were from a war-game system of his own creation Chainmail, designed by himself and Jeff Perren. His seminal creation with Dave Arneson was designed expressly to explore the experiences of a single soldier instead of a faceless platoon. From there, countless writers and game designers have explored his genre, and offered their own take. Indeed everyone who sits in the DM’s chair becomes a game designer in their own right for a little while.

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As a communal story, each person in the gaming group introduces something unique to the world, and to the narrative, and everyone will take away their own individual perspectives on what happened. The stories develop a life of their own, evolving from hearsay and arguments about “what really happened” into your own personal legends. Here, for example is a small excerpt from the infamous legend of Bob The Dybbuk, from a dear friends post on Quotesfromthetabletop.net. The story so far is one of sheer, repeated incompetence:

“Once, after yet another of his regular dungeon disasters, we were incredulous to discover that one of his party had actually survived the fateful confrontation. But his character was lost and alone in the dungeon. Luckily for him he bumped into a party belonging to one of our friends, who was less than keen to have this jinx in his team. But he agreed to take him on as long as he followed a long list of provisos. Chief among these were that Bob’s PC stayed at least ten foot in front of the party at all times. It took Bob a full hour to work out how to defy his saviour and get himself killed into the bargain.

“His PC had been sent scouting ahead down a zigzagging corridor and once he was out of sight of the party, and any form of illumination other than the lantern he held, that inspiration struck. With a look of triumph upon his face he pointed his finger at our friend and declared ‘you didn’t say I couldn’t put out the lantern’. Now gentle reader you or I would like to think that we would refrain from doing anything quite so foolhardy and that if we did we certainly would not compound such an act of heroic stupidity by proceeding further down a now pitch black zigzagging corridor. But Bob is no ordinary man, he laughs in the face of certain death, mainly due to the fact that he regularly fails to grasp the fact that death is about to bite him firmly on his derrière. So on brave Bob went only to discover a large warm feather adorned blockage around the next bend. Needless to say the Griffin gladly accepted it’s free meal.”

Please enjoy the full story (part 1 of 3 would you believe) here.

Other Traditional Games

In their own way, many board and tabletop games tell a unique story. Indeed, some are based entirely on the goal of telling a story such as in Braggart, or putting ones narrative capabilities to task, like Dixit. Even a simple game like chess has a story, a simple tale of two armies, but it’s a tale that players can retell a thousand different ways.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill combines role-playing elements with a board game to create one of the most beloved board games on the market. The “heroes” wander the halls of an ancient house uncovering clues of a dark and terrible past. Part way through, the game takes a twist, and one member of the party is revealed as an evil traitor, hell-bent on the others’ destruction. The traitors methods however, are determined randomly, and there are over 50 different ways the betrayal could go down, poltergeists, demons, psychopaths and serial killers, and all manor of B-Movie classics. Ignoring for a moment that this makes the replay value of the game simply staggering, it also means that every game, without fail, tells a different story.

Although at times it can feel a bit like this
Although at times it can feel a bit like this

As the world of gaming explodes, more and more developers are emerging with ingenious ways to get people telling new stories. Video games become ever more intricate, and offer new opportunities to change the narrative based on a player’s decisions, but they’re still many many years from offering the same diversity of gameplay as tabletop games.

Why I think traditional games are great for storytellers

When both the narrator and protagonists have absolute freedom of action, the best stories are told, and every one is unique and personal. Where a computer game can, at most, have a few stories to tell, tabletop games have thousands that we write ourselves, and retell over and over again. We don’t simply read, or play through a story, we live it.

Traditional gaming has it’s limits of course, having the mechanics of the game your playing laid bare in front of you does make for a less immersive experience that video gamers benefit from, and of course will never compare to the pure narrative experience of a book or film. What traditional gaming offers is a chance for everyone to tell a story of their own, and tell it with friends.


You’ve heard our take, join the conversation! Give us your views on storytelling, and what you think the best medium is in the comments below!