Designing Tabletop Games #3: It's All Storytelling

We're experiencing stories differently now. In fact, many of us want to participate in stories. This is happening across many forms of media – mobile games, console games, VR experiences, RPGs, tabletop games, podcasts, and yes, sometimes still books too!

If you're like me, you enjoy elements of story in the tabletop games you play. You like being immersed in a setting and escaping the mundanity of reality for a while. Sure, not every game needs to be story-driven to be enjoyable. But I think my favorite games have a backstory to them, even if its not too deep or critical to understand when playing the game.

Games like Charterstone, Scythe, and Root are examples of games with varying degrees of rich story elements. In Charterstone, you're actually telling the story of your experience as you play. In Scythe, knowing the story helps but it's not critical to understanding the gameplay. And in Root, the backstory is there to help contrast the game's whimsical art with undertones of factional conflict.

Some classic games that have more surface level story elements are Clue, Scotland Yard, and Risk. Most of us know the plot of Clue, find the murderer. In Scotland Yard, the city of London is the backdrop for a cat and mouse game between Mr X and the police. And in Risk, depending on the version, the story is about world conflict in an alternate Earth setting.

So, here are some things I try to consider in all the games I create – no matter if the goal is deep story OR surface level.

Character – This could be a person or a creature. Characterization can be something more abstract too, like a tree, a building, or a machine.

Plot – Defeating a monster. Conquering a mountain climb. Finding a missing person. Thinking about who the characters are and what their motivations are, reveals plotlines to explore.

Setting – Where does the story take place? This is always a subject I get distracted on. So many possibilities!

Conflict – What are the challenges and problems your characters are faced with? 

Resolution – How will your characters resolve those conflicts?

In the end, designing tabletop games means writing. The writing you do will inform your creative process and ultimately lead to more immersion for players.

What do you think? Do you prefer tabletop games with rich story elements or more surface level ones?


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