A storytelling epiphany.
As the legends tell it, over the past week the young Druids Ivy and Sprax have searched for a missing dwarf with a map, ran from an Owlbear, got pummeled by a wandering Ogre, and laid low a mysterious doppleganger that confused them by changing into figures from their past. They entreated with a malicious Nothic deep in a Redbrand hideout, who then returned to attack them as they attempted to leave. They have cleverly fooled Bugbears and Hobgoblins alike, they have rescued prisoners and befriended animals. They helped a little girl lost on the edges of Neverwinter Woods find her way home and offered her father parenting advice. They've steeled themselves for a battle with a young Green Dragon called Venomfang, and they are headed to reclaim the Forge of Spells deep in Wave Echo Cave.
I've also seen a 9 year old boy in tears because his sister went down into the crevasse and found the +1 longsword Talon, a 7 year old girl in tears because she took off one of the patches on a Robe of Useful Things she found to see what happened and I wouldn't let her "rewind" it to put the ladder back on the garment. I've witnessed a fight that resulted in a torn character sheet and another character sheet relegated to recycling after being doused in ginger ale. And every session kicks off with squabbling over who gets which set of dice. No doubt, playing D&D with kids presents a whole host of challenges not usually encountered by DMs runnin' thangs for adult parties. I'll dig into that topic next time, because this time I want to spend the blog space to write about how rediscovering D&D is causing me to rethink board games as a narrative medium.
Over the past decade and a half I've made something of a name for myself as a board games writer and critic. I've spent a lot of words championing narrative in games, and promoted the idea that board games can be an effective storytelling medium. I'm not talking about the nonsensical, scattershot stories that most adventure games break their backs to string together with junk miniatures, flavor text and illustrations doing most of the work. I'm talking a true sense of narrative cohesion, progression, and description. Board games that can achieve this are really rare, and I have to admit that I feel like I've been fooling myself for years pretending that a board game that strives to simulate playing a proper RPG can capture the sense of emergent narrative that I've seen every single session with my kids.
When we started with D&D, from the very first session I saw something that I had not seen in virtually any board game we had played together. A spark of imagination. A sense of wonder. The frisson of delight. A story coming to life that we were telling together.
I've never experienced anything in board games as impactful as the look in my daughter's eyes, the slight drop of her jaw, when the Nothic read her mind and telepathically described her village burning- something I pulled from her character's backstory. Or the wide-hided "oh shit" look I got when my son looked up in a ruined chapel and saw a Grick writhing in the torchlight among the rafters, just after he had made the suggestion to split the party and go it alone. My kids have never asked to draw characters and scenes from board games. I think the only specific story from any board game we've ever played that they remember is this time when Sgt. Drake was the last man standing in a Heroscape squad and he wound up beating every thing else remaining.
But more importantly, they have never felt the sense of ownership and authorship over a gaming story as they do with our D&D adventure. It's a daily place that they go, and the more we play the more actual roleplaying I'm seeing from them. They are thinking about the future of their characters and they are concerned about the DMPCs accompanying them. We went to play with some friends a few nights ago and they asked, "are Zola and Irinitis going to be there?"
This is all a lot more profound than picking a character, playing a two hour board game, and packing it up to play another one, even if you are playing one of the many games that offer a facile campaign in a ploy to fool you into thinking that playing the game over many sessions is worthwhile and fulfilling. Or that your $300 backer investment was worth it. Some board games do a whole lot, come to find out, to trick you into thinking you are playing something you are not.
Speaking honestly, I've long grown tired of the notion of "board games that tell stories", as Portal's motto goes, because I'd really rather play a design that leverages the specific qualities, limitations, and parameters of the board game format - like a great Knizia or Kramer - than a board game that strains itself to simulate playing an RPG, a miniatures game, or a CCG. It's ironic that so many designers waste so much energy and so many consumers waste so much money on games that are little more than imitative simulacra of Warhammer, Magic, and of course D&D. I have to admit that over time and in light of my recent rediscovery of D&D that I think I might have overstated the possibility of games to tell effective, meaningful stories. Which isn't to say that they can't bear themes (witness again Knizia's best), but the ability to create deep emotional attachment, engagement, and real progression through narrative development is something that board games might not be able to do as effectively as I once thought. A page of scenario setup is not a story.
In a way, when I look at the sessions we've played and the stories that have come out of them and compare them to the notion of board game stories, I'm reminded of how folks gush over the latest Kickstarter miniatures. Yet I'm looking at my fully painted Adeptus Titanicus models and just kind of shaking my head at the blobby, made-in-china bubblegum machine garbage that fuels so much FOMO. It's another area where board games have gone wrong, trying to emulate the best qualities of another format yet failing. And then I think about the best recent board games - Root springs to mind - and it conveys narrative, theme, and setting by using the board games format to its best advantage. Its greatness does not lie in trying to emulate another format.
It turns out that board games are easy because they don't require the emotions, the commitment, and the immersion that made D&D, Warhammer, and Magic the pillars of hobby gaming. These games ask a lot of you beyond the table. Board games do not, which may in fact explain why game buying is more of a hobby than game playing today. It takes much more emotional engagement and buy-in to tell a cogent story together than it does to have it parceled out piecemeal in a bunch of cards and empty scenarios strung together with "thematic" mechanics. I guess the stress of "which game should I buy next" is more appealing to many board gamers today than the stress of preparing a D&D adventure and signing off on the social contract to create a mutual story with friends and family.
Every day we sit down to play, I actually feel quite a lot of stress- and it is beyond the usual DM stress. I'm not only responsible at the table for telling a good story and making sure these kids have fun; I'm also responsible for creating memories and positive experiences that will last a lifetime. I think they'll remember Sprax and Ivy and a watermelon in a bloody bag forever. They've already told just about anyone that will listen the story of that escapade. But then I think about all the board games we've played together and I wonder if their memory of those games is going to be just a blur, abstracted to "we played a lot of games with our dad".
Next time: CENSORSHIP.