Narrative Equity: The Direct-To-DVD Sequel

Note: Regular articles are still on hiatus. Depending on what happens in the coming months, I may or may not be able to continue it. That said, enjoy this article!

Last week, Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater wrote about a generic game design tool he termed “narrative equity” in his weekly column. I found the topic immensely interesting, both because it aligns to a great degree with my thoughts on impact and because it codifies an aspect of design that people mostly attempted to add through instinct.

I wanted to use this article as a commentary on the methods Rosewater suggests to generate narrative equity–primarily through the lens of designing for standalone games–and discuss a few additional points that weren’t brought up in the article.

Note: You should probably read Rosewater’s article before mine.

  1. Create components with enough flexibility that players can use them in unintended ways

This is essentially “providing players with tools for lateral thinking,” which is a significant part of building impact at a mechanical level as well. The ability to take a component and reuse it in a way that’s uniquely yours makes for a positive, memorable experience.

Surprisingly, a game doesn’t need to be complex to be flexible. Hanabiis a very restrained game where the only method of communication is to indicate which cards in a player’s hand are a certain number or a certain color. However, you can use this to communicate a great number of things, like “you can safely discard these cards,” “play this next,” “wait on playing these but don’t discard them,” and “for the love of God, don’t do that thing I know you were thinking of doing”.

As you might be able to figure out from this, a “component” could just as easily be a game rule or mode of setup, and doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to physical objects.

  1. Create open-ended components that can be mixed and matched in unforeseen ways

This is a common feature of trading card games, of course, but they’re also present in the ever-popular “impress the judge” genre. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, party games are primarily tools for comedy, and comedy is built out of people doing the unexpected. When building Stand Back, Citizen!, I made sure that all of the nouns, powers, and crises generated funny results when used together so players would create new superpowers every time they played.

  1. Design unbounded challenges that allow the ability to create memorable moments

This is something that is much easier to achieve within the boundaries of Magic’s ruleset than in a standalone game. Magic is a fairly interactive game, and its mana system gates players from doing anything too ridiculous until their opponent is able to answer it. Thus, while ridiculous things like the Chameleon Colossus example Rosewater mentions in the article occur every so often, it doesn’t happen enough that a player who knows the trick could style on newer players every time.

The other benefit of Magic’s system is that when something absurd happens, the game usually ends quickly. Make a 5000/5000 creature? You win. Deal a trillion damage? You win. Draw your entire deck? Okay, you might lose that one. Even in a circumstance where meeting an unbounded challenge doesn’t result in your victory (like gaining an absurd amount of life), your opponent feels like they can concede. Under a different system, you might go off when the game’s half over, and everyone has to feel like you have an unreachable advantage.

Besides these issues, many systems are just too numerically fragile to justify the existence of cool unbounded challenges. But I’m not a math guy so I’ll leave it at that.

  1. Create near-impossible challenges that can become a badge of honor

This is easier to accomplish in some games than others. Many co-op games offer very challenging difficulty levels that provide these “bragging rights” challenges by themselves. While it has the problem that everyone on the table has to be on board to attempt the challenge, it also means that everyone is invested in it and will rejoice should they succeed.

  1. Create alternate ways to win

“Shooting the moon” is a tried-and-true design tool that can be incredibly fun if implemented correctly. Some players, when they see an opportunity to score big if they jump through enough hoops, will beeline in on it and won’t regret trying even if it fails. That said, the boundary of difficulty has to be balanced carefully: If it’s too near-impossible, players will mostly ignore it, but if it’s too easy, it won’t be narratively engaging.

One of my favorite uses of the high-risk, high-reward strategy is the map booty tile in Libertalia. One or two maps do nothing, but three together are worth a whopping 12 points. Collecting map tiles means you’ll often forgo goods and jewels, which are worth less but are far safer, and if in the chaos of the game you can’t get all three, it’ll cost you dearly. In a group of 5 players, three map tiles are acquired  about once or twice per game, but the effort required is so huge it’s still massively exciting if you can pull it off.

In the right game, effects that outright say “you win the game” (or lose, or tie) are a great method of generating narrative equity. Nothing quite makes one’s eyes bug out of their head as seeing those four beautiful words out of nowhere. Sentinels of the Multiverse uses this sparingly, but when it does, it uses it flavorfully (A self-destruct sequence, a helicopter rotor for a flying fortress that causes everyone to fall to their deaths, a Bat-Mite-esque imp villain) and sets up the possibility for great stories.

  1. Allow players opportunities to interact with other people where the outcome is based on the interaction

This is a great idea, and a keystone of some of the best psychology-based games like CodenamesDixit, and Chinatown. One of the keys that Rosewater doesn’t mention, however, is that the same opportunities should have different outcomes. One of the big selling points of Cosmic Encounter is that players can negotiate with each other in a relatively freeform structure, and penalties for not coming up with a deal require them to actually interact. However, among less experienced players, trades end up being the same thing almost every time: A colony for a colony or, when that doesn’t work, meaningless cards for meaningless cards.

If you have a player interaction component in your game, but it’s very obvious what the right and wrong decisions are, players aren’t going to feel like they have the ability to think laterally to exploit a situation that would otherwise be a good opportunity for narrative equity.

  1. Give players the ability to customize, allowing them opportunities for creativity

Obviously, a standalone game can’t hope to achieve the level of customizability Magic and other trading card games boast. But there are ways to make players feel like the choices they make and the experiences they go through are uniquely theirs.

In games with asymmetric player powers, my rule of thumb is that there should be at least one and a half times more powers than the maximum player count. (Thus, in a 4-player game there should be 6 powers.) This way, assuming players get to choose their roles and they aren’t assigned to them, you can feel like your abilities were what you wanted and not what was left to you.

Even in a game where the design doesn’t allow for asymmetric powers, simply having distinct player colors or factions can help. Epic Spell Wars has a fair number of different wizards in each of its three boxes; even though they have no gameplay effect, the wizard you choose helps cement the narrative and complement your individual style.

Narrative Equity And Theme

The theme of your game is also an important way of assuring that players have more opportunities to get stories out of it. Generally, the more mechanics you have to explain, the less interested your audience will be. (This is partially why it’s hard to tell a story about your RPG campaign in an interesting way, because a lot of what happens is couched behind dice rolls that interrupt the narrative.) So a game like chess, which nails the first four numbers on the list, has lower narrative equity because the meaning of what you’re doing is buried underneath layers of theory.

Thus, the games with the most narrative equity are ones where the theme is so seamlessly resonant with the gameplay that you barely have to mention what gameplay actions you took. If I told you a story about how I played a Betrayal at House on the Hill game where I played a jock that kicked an alien hypno-spaceship with his powerful legs until it exploded, I wouldn’t have to interject with what my dice pool was or how well I rolled for the story to make sense.

Conclusion: Narrative Equity And Impact

Reading Rosewater’s description of narrative equity made me realize how broad my definition of “impact” is. An impactful game doesn’t necessarily have to have the players come away from it with stories to tell; it just has to leave an impression in their minds. Thus, a game like Jenga, which proceeds in much the same way every game, is still impactful because of how much the idea of it remains with you when you leave the table.

Both impact and narrative equity have their uses, much like how a bread knife and a petit knife have their uses while cooking. Narrative equity has the benefit of being a significantly more focused term, which allows a designer to add it in a more concrete, methodical way. I hope that narrative equity makes its way into the general design vernacular – entwining the psychological and the mechanical is the best way for game design to move forward as a craft.