Recently I’ve been thinking about the frontiers of design in storytelling games. What are the most interesting facets of play to engage with as a designer? Where can we push the medium the most?
Here is an initial pass at a list of the areas that I think are most fruitful to focus on:
Digital / Analog Hybrid
Games that are played in person, whether at a table or embodied, that are assisted by an app. I haven’t seen many apps involved in storytelling games, with the exception of character creation tools, dice rolling functions, and simple wikis.
Apps can provide the following benefits:
- Tracking a complicated state of the world or directory of locations and NPCs
- Maintaining a simulation of the world that enables interesting emergence in response to player actions
- Making complicated resolution systems easy through automation
- Sharing secrets with and among players
- Assisting with narrative generation / coming up with story options
Apps might be able to replace many of the traditional functions of a GM, the key question is when it is most interesting for that to happen.
It’s never been easier to code up simple web apps with real time data structures. I suspect we’ll start seeing game designers who have a little coding chops start experimenting with app driven in-person games.
Digital First & Audience Oriented
Over the past few years, there’s been a huge rise in online play. Whether streamed for an audience through Twitch or just with friends over Hangouts or Role 20 – many players are adapting analog games to digital tools.
I think we’ll start seeing more games designed from the start to played online. Two existing examples are ViewScream about spaceship crew communicating through video chat, Chariot is a digital only larp, and Event Horizon an in-person blockbuster larp that also has remote players communicating through text and video chat.
Beyond that, there’s plenty of room for games designed to be played with an online audience. A Doomed Pilgrim is played through forums / comment threads but has also been run live on Twitch. Some Twitch streams now have many thousands of viewers and there’s a huge opportunity to design games that directly engage the audience.
There’s lots of interesting opportunities at the intersection of different design cultures. Games here have an opportunity to serve as bridges between communities and ideally bring new players into adjacent types of play.
RPG / Larp: There’s already a lot of activity in the American Freeform space on the continuum between RPG and larp but there’s plenty of room for more experimentation.
Party Game / RPG / Larp: One of the biggest opportunities might be storytelling games for folks who like party games (Charades, Taboo, Cards Against Humanity) but who haven’t played storytelling games. Storytelling games that are designed with minimal rules, very short runtime, and scaffolding for novice improvisers could be crossover hits. Ghost Court and Noisy Person Cards are both interesting games in this space but neither achieved massive commercial success.
Serious games: Business schools have featured games and simulations for decades and militaries have used games going back to the 1800s. I think the time is right for a wave of ‘serious’ in-person games that help organizations explore the future and explain the present – I started a Leveraged Play to do just that!
Theater & VR: Immersive theater and VR are adjacent media that give audiences an opportunity to influence story. Both can learn a ton from storytelling games, especially when it comes to sharing narrative control with participants.
Scheduling is hard and it isn’t always realistic to get the same group together for a weekly campaign. One solution is an ‘open table’ style game where a larger pool of players (say 10-20) have characters but only a subset (4-6) show up to a given session. This style play has been around since at least the early 2000s with The West Marches being the earliest form I’ve heard about.
Some of the unique problems with open table are keeping all players updated on the state of the story, world, and characters. If you’re playing a game with character advancement (leveling up) then a session should work well even if it’s one player’s first session and another player’s 20th. Another tradeoff is that it’s hard for a GM (if there is one) to focus on any specific character’s arc and their relationships with NPCs; likewise the relationships between player characters might not have much room to evolve.
There’s room for a wave of games that are designed from the beginning to be open table. They’ll have built in solutions to the above problems and likely other interesting affordances. For example, there might be a way to have quick games with any subset of participants. If two players find themselves hanging out randomly after work they could run a quick session and have it naturally plug into the broader campaign.
This could also intersect with digital-first where there’s a setting shared online and different groups around the world are running adventures and updating the world as they go.
Building on some of the Open Table affordances, Story APIs is a philosophy of building storytelling games that allow for a wide variety of play types within an ongoing world or campaign.
API (Application Programing Interface) is a term from the software world that covers easy ways that different bits of code can talk to each other and share information. Good APIs allow critical information to pass back and forth between different apps without either app having to know much about how the other works.
A framework of Story APIs would allow players to play one campaign with multiple systems, with an option to change the system each session based on what type of play they want to engage in. The API part would make it easy to convert relevant stats from one system to another – and back. If a group is playing with experience points, harm, or other key stats, there should be a way of carrying that over across systems.
One way this might work in a fantasy campaign is using Dungeon World as a default but transitioning to D&D for boss battles and even a wargame for large army combat.
If there is a core building block of play, like a quest or a heist, then there could be a general set of probabilities around outcomes and then a way of translating that into any other system. For example, it could be that quests have a 20% chance of failing interestingly, 50% chance of succeeding at a cost and 30% chance of ending with a resounding success. There would be guidance in translating those odds to combat ratings in D&D, a number of hard moves in Dungeon World, and a clear way to enable designers to quickly make up their own resolution systems that play well with the core system.
Here’s a quick list of other trends I’ve been following that show continuing promise:
- Single player games, potentially using a journal or played while walking around the world
- Games using interesting props, potentially as resolution mechanics
- Games about topics and genres outside of fantasy and scifi
- Games about people whose experiences are vastly different than the straight white male default
- Games that are non-linear
- Games that limit or play with communication among players
- Games designed for a specific location
This was a quick pass but I’d love to hear your thoughts – where do you think the interesting frontiers are?
I’ll likely be shifting my game designs to focus on the frontiers. There are tons of talented designers creating non-frontier games and I’d rather be exploring the new and experimental.