Tabletop Storygaming: The Shab-al-hiri Roach

Thursday night’s storygame was The Shab-al-hiri Roach, which I’ve wanted to try for ages. The premise is that the player characters are all academics striving for power and status in a small but prestigious college somewhere in New England in 1919. Introduced into their midst is an uncanny archaeological discovery, the eponymous roach, which represents a Sumerian cockroach deity of deep and sinister powers.

At any point during the game, the players can choose (or be forced) to “swallow the roach,” thereby gaining power, but also making themselves subject to the roach’s commands. These commands come from a deck of cards: during each of six acts, the players draw to discover a task they have to complete this act, with different tasks depending on whether they currently have the roach. The deck of cards can also make players possessed, or give them the opportunity to be freed from possession. No one can win while roach-possessed, so there’s a trick of allowing yourself to be possessed and then get rid of the roach again — which may or may not work.

Our play session was pretty successful from moment to moment. Having the goal from the card provided some goals for players trying to frame scenes; and there’s nothing like speaking some guttural faux-Sumerian to unlock one’s hammier acting. I had a really good time playing.

But I didn’t feel that the mechanics produced a very coherent arc story. In particular, when a player’s attempt failed (the theft of some pygmy bones from a museum, for instance), the failure was pretty final and didn’t really allow for interesting ramifications afterward; so there were a fair few storylines that were developed and then dropped again immediately, forcing players to come up with new schemes instead. Another difficulty was that the setting and situation tended to encourage a lot of the same kind of action: Player character A saying nasty things about player character B to university authority C. (Or maybe it was just us?)

Also, it was definitely the most fiddly with dice of the storygames I’ve tried so far, with each resolution requiring a certain amount of discussion between players about which dice to roll (“is this a power/status roll or not? do we think my enthusiasm for gossip counts here?” etc.).

Still. I had fun with it and want to play more, as I really liked the setting and core concept.

IF Comp 2011: Cana According to Micah

Cana According to Micah” tells the story of the wedding at which Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine. After the jump, there’s some general discussion of the design, then spoiler space, then a couple more particulars. As always, those who want to encounter the game in total innocence should avoid reading.

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Escape from Colditz as Procedurally Paced Narrative

Escape from Colditz is a board game about the German castle that during World War II became a prisoner of war camp for prisoners who had already escaped at least once from some other camp. The idea of putting all the most clever and resourceful prisoners together in an old building riddled with hiding places and odd physical quirks was, arguably, not the brightest; those imprisoned found an astounding number of escape possibilities, and the whole story became the basis of a surprisingly strong British TV show. The board game doesn’t touch on the more complex issues here, but what it does accomplish is in its own way remarkable: a skillful pacing of events that creates a sense of growing narrative urgency.

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Complicity: Building Interactive Narratives

London, August 24: Alexis Kennedy (of Echo Bazaar and Varytale; Failbetter Games) and I are running a day-long seminar on writing interactive stories.

We’ll be looking at concepts like complicity, exploration, and exposition in an interactive context; structures for choice-based narrative; types of choices and varieties of player roles; types of feedback for the player; ways of pacing interactive narrative.

These are all things that we’ve written or talked about before, separately and together, but this will present them in a more unified format and with space for back-and-forth discussion. The seminar will not be geared explicitly to either IF or EBZ-style games, so if your interests lie more with choices and interactivity in some other presentation format, you’re very welcome.

The Failbetter blog is one of the best places on the web to read about narrative structures in interactive contexts, and I’m very excited to be presenting with Alexis.

Event details, including a longer description of the content, can be found here.

Plotting for Interactivity: The Set-Piece or Crisis

This is the first post of a sequence on plotting and interactivity, each taking on a traditional fiction-writing task and then talking about how that task is altered by the presence of player choice. The series is agnostic about whether interaction is through challenging gameplay (solving puzzles, shooting, etc., as in old-style text adventures and modern video games), is expressed through multiple-choice options (as in choose-your-own-adventure books), or is communicated in some other

A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to a while, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached… seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama, and suspense in a story. — Ansen Dibell, Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot

A set-piece needs, more than any other scene, to be tightly paced and move forward quickly. It needs to meet player expectations — deliver information we were expecting to find out, bring in conflicts or connections we anticipated — and yet it needs to provide a spin on the narrative that sends us off looking for something new. Those are the story requirements.

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