Games having narratives feels as old as gaming itself, every game we play tells its own story. I first heard the term “Forging a Narrative” used by Games Workshop over a decade ago to describe their goals in creating gaming experiences. It makes sense, a game of Warhammer should have a narrative but there was a very deliberate message with the word “Forging”. There is a huge difference in games that “Present” you a narrative from its systems and games that empower its players to make, shape or create the narrative through their choices. There are many people that are happy with a game that relies on “Presenting” a narrative and it is a testament to our hobby that enough options exist to satisfy both camps. Forging a narrative is my preferred way to game and there are many factors that go into how a game satisfies that desire.
Monopoly is one a very early example of a game that “Presents” its narrative which most people will be familiar with. The main complaint people have on Monopoly is that it’s a game where you roll some dice for a few hours, at the end of which somebody wins. Each game will still have its own narrative, a story of which players cornered which sections of the board, epic tales of bankruptcy caused by landing on the wrong space, but those stories are mostly presented rather than chosen. People realize early in Monopoly that the best move is to buy any property you have enough money for and turns quickly become a scripted pattern of Roll Dice -> Buy property if available and I have enough money or pay another person if they control where I land. Players have very little opportunity to take the wheel and steer the game in a direction they want. I feel that it’s that lack of control over an experience that can last so long that put people off Monopoly.
The last paragraph may have you thinking “Aha! So dice and Ameritrash games are the problem!”, but I wouldn’t draw such neat lines. Dice are not inherently a problem; they are a useful tool when used to simply and effectively represent randomness.
A game like Warhammer, which has results almost entirely decided by dice rolls, still has enough preceding systems within the choice of the player that they can effectively control how a narrative is shaped. Yes random dice decided how that combat between Howling Banshees and Space Marines unfolded, but you had control of variables that affected those dice rolls, you decided if you walked across the board or if they had a transport, you decided that Space Marine unit was your target, even that fact that you had Howling Banshees in your army was a choice you made. That dice roll at the end of that sequence was one small aspect of how the narrative of your unit unfolded, allowing you to still feel like you were in a decent amount of control.
Conversely, I’ve seen a games of Apocalypse 40k devolve into nothing more than dice rolls that present a narrative. Players would take every model they have, line them up on a crowded table, and one after another have their units point at something across the table and roll dice to see if their shots were successful. The dice then had almost complete control over the narrative, with your agency as a player merely making only minor perfunctory decisions during the process. In that case the fact that the dice decided nearly everything is the problem, but it’s less the fault of the dice and more the systems that preceded it.
Game given the moniker of “Ameritrash” also tend to have highly developer theme and narrative, but those narratives can develop in many different ways. Some may create the illusion of choice but actually present a narrative for you to tell at the end of the game, while others allow the player to live the fantasy of being immersed in the theme by giving great degrees of freedom.
When playing Legendary Encounters, I felt an odd disconnect with the game’s narrative. It felt like a movie that I had to manually manipulate pieces to see. We would flip the encounter cards and resolve their effects. When playing cards, I was given choice but it never felt like much of decision. Each turn I would draw a number of cards and determine how to play as much as I could. Determining what to play always felt very self evident, even which cards to buy and put into my deck seemed to have really obvious choices. The whole experience felt very on rails and I never felt in control of my own narrative. There was no opportunity for an ingenious play cobbled together from a myriad of systems and variables. No heroic opportunity to go against the grain for that risky play. There was only what felt like opportunities to make suboptimal plays.
There were two aspects of that game the seemed to clearly embody what pulls an experience away from “Forging” to “Presenting”. In our tabletop example the randomness happened at the end of the chain. Picking an army, choosing upgrades, deploying units, moving models, selecting targets, are all things that lack randomness for the most part. Control is generally wrestled from the player at the end of a series of actions they felt in control of. With Flip & Resolve effects, control is removed too early in the process making everything that comes after feel Presented rather than Forged. Secondly, a clearly beneficial choice arrayed amongst clearly less beneficial choices does not feel like a choice as all. It feels more like a trap than a choice and in the end added little to my immersion. My friends enjoy the experience of that game, the often remark that they know it’s not a good game but they enjoy the narrative it presents. I think my feelings are best summarized by how they said the narrative “IT” presents. That might be what many people look for, but for me it served an experience that helped me understand what I really wanted in my gaming experiences.
The place I go the most to forge a narrative is with Economic Sims. They often have little in the way of randomness and provide a series of very deterministic rules. Some incorporate randomness but it’s usually done with a softer touch and provides enough systems to allow players to react in their own ways.
The greatest way in which economic games make me feel like we as players are forging our narrative is when their systems offer no right answer. Economics is a game of interactivity, of niche specialties and constantly changing states. A situation that seems clearly right on turn one may actually be right, or it may be upended through no fault of the player on turn two. A logical assessment of the board might conclude that one play to supply a good that should be most in demand is the optimal action to perform. However, players could subvert the entire calculation by making suboptimal plays themselves or adjusting in response to your play, or going down unforeseen paths. Entire economies can ebb and flow in unexpected ways as markets get flooded, scarcity arises, and the prisoner’s dilemma takes hold of players minds. A scarcity of goods generally arises from players not producing in that market, it’s rarely because a card is flipped and players are told “Discard all of good X”. It’s this open possibility, uncertainty, and player agency that lead me to come out of most economic games feeling like we told a story that was unique to our game session and, more importantly, was a result our choices.
Comparing how narratives unfold in different games was an exercise in understanding what I like and why. It was something that stayed in the back of my mind for nearly 10 years, ever since I first read an article in White Dwarf on Warhammer 8th Edition about “Forging a Narrative”. I didn’t realize then what a powerful choice of words those were. Others may want their narrative presented, but I understand my own preferences lies with forging my own. I’m glad to have a hobby that isn’t just filled with games that satisfy a need to be in control and create me own stories, but also games that are the exact opposite. It’s playing both that give the appropriate context and help us understand ourselves and the hobby better.