Note: this page hasn’t been updated in a couple years. While all the recommendations hold, there are tons of new games that are even better. I hope to update this in the future!
Story games are a diverse category and information about them is scattered across the web. This page covers some of the basics - types of story games and where you can engage more online. I’ve broken story games into three categories: card / board games, role-playing games (RPGs), and live action role-playing games (LARPs).
Bonus material: I gave talk Games, Narrative, and Story that covers some of the relevant themes. Not all of it is relevant to but it provides an overview to the intersection of games and storytelling.
Storytelling board and card games tend to have a good deal of narrative scaffolding, which makes it easier to tell a story. Often, these games present a limited set of options to the storyteller and that is safer than having complete creative freedom. The downside to this structure is that these games don’t always yield good stories. Here are a few storytelling games and their tradeoffs.
This is a competitive storytelling card game where players are trying to bring the story to their secret ending. Each player has a hand of story elements (dragons, castles, etc) that they play when they mention that element in the story; there are rules for stealing narrative control away from other players. The high degree of structure makes it very easy for novice storytellers to start narrating - it is fairly easy to take a few cards from your hand and imagine how they work together in a narrative. Unfortunately, having players working against each other to reach different endings means that the stories tend to be disjointed or inconsistent; the game is still fun, though.
This is beautifully designed game that has the players running around the world of Arabian Nights. Players go on adventures and then look up the results in a giant Book of Tales that contains a tremendous about of possible resolutions. Unfortunately, there is very little player agency in shaping the outcome and this can be frustrating for someone who enjoys the tactical side of games.
This game has players telling stories that match an array of whimsically illustrated cards. The nuance is that the stories are supposed to only roughly match the cards so that not all players are able to guess which card matches the story.
This is a competitive storytelling game where two players draw warrior cards and a battlefield card and then narrate how their respective warriors would use innate skills and the battlefield to triumph over their adversary. A third player judges and decides the winner. This game has beautiful, evocative cards but there isn’t much structure outside the initial setup.
Microscope is a worldbuilding game where players explore / create the epic history of a civilization (or other entity). It’s played with index cards and is a lot of fun, though the quality of narrative is completely dependent on the players. There are are even RPG-like elements involved where you might play out an important scene in the world’s history.
I created my first game, Plotypus, with the aim of making a collaborative storytelling game that yields classically epic plots. Players use cards to create a setting and protagonist. Then they advance the story through successive chapters in the hero’s adventure. You can download a version to play at home.
The lines between RPGs, boardgames, and LARPs can be blurry but most RPGs having the following characteristics:
There is a huge diversity of RPGs and something for every style of play and genre. Here are some common ways to look at RPGs:
System refers to the rules / mechanics that govern character creation, storytelling, and overcoming obstacles. Setting is about the fictional world in which the game takes place. Some games have no setting and can be used for any genre of story (e.g. Fate others have their rules deeply enmeshed in the setting (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu.
Some systems have few rules and trust the players to keep the game moving (e.g. Lasers and Feelings). Other systems have rule books that are hundreds of pages long - these types of rulesets are often called crunchy. Some games have few rules in some areas (e.g. diplomacy) and lots of rules in others (e.g. combat) - make sure to choose a game that has rules in the areas that you’re interested in.
RPGs traditionally have one player (the GM) dedicated to running the game, providing narration, and adjudicating results. Recently, designers have been building games that divide the GM responsibilities amongst the players (e.g. Fiasco, Archipelago). These are often called GM-less or GM-full.
A one-shot is a scenario meant to be played over the course of one session / evening. A campaign is many adventures linked together and played over months or years. One-shots and campaigns might be created on the fly by the players and GMs or informed by an published adventure; published campaigns can run in the hundreds of pages and include maps, handouts, and pre-made characters.
A sandbox campaign is where the players are dropped into a setting and have a lot of freedom about what directions to explore and stories to tell. A railroad campaign has much of the story pre-written so that players might be limited in how much they can influence the overarching story. Many campaigns can include elements of both sandbox and railroad and change overtime.
RPGs are a lot of fun and I recommend trying out many different systems. Start with something rules-lite and in a genre that you and your friends love. Lasers and Feelings is a campy sci-fi game that has system and setting contained on a single page of paper. If you want a little more structure around the initial plot, try Lady Blackbird by the same author, John Harper. For a GM-less game, try Fiasco, it creates the chaotic stories typical of a Coen Brother’s movie and is perfect for new players.
When you’re ready to explore a system with a little more rules, try games that are Powered by the Apocalypse. Apocalypse World is a narrative focused RPG that has medium-to-lite rules complexity that has been hacked / remixed into a ton of other settings. I recommend starting with Dungeon World for fantasy themed games. Online, there are free rules and character sheets; I highly recommend the one-shot adventure adventure Indigo Galleon.
The next step up in crunch includes games like Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (starter set) or Star Wars Edge of the Empire (beginner game). The starter set / beginner game contain all the rules and a great first adventure. The rules are more complex but not crazy.
You can find info on lots of RPGs at RPGGeek.com. I also recommend checking out the RPG subreddit which also has links to specific subreddits for all major games. I’ve also compiled a list of great RPG podcasts.
LARPs typically take place away from the table and have the players staying in-character for the duration of the game (often a few hours). Staying in-character creates interesting and intense experiences that are scarce in other types of games and it’s fun to act / improvise. Again, there is a huge diversity in types of LARPs, here area few:
This style of LARP involves only a handful of players and focuses on interesting character interaction. Usually drama is emergent from the character backgrounds and the initial setup. The first two I played were Juggernaut and Tribunal and both games yielded fascinating experiences - either would make for a good first LARP.
This style features fighting with foam swords and other physical items. This is probably the most visible / stereotypical LARP but I don’t know much about it.