Collaborative competitive storytelling game design examples and caveats

edited March 2018 in Game Design Help

My game is :
a game
lite (little prep, little reading, 90' session)
deterministic (total player control, 0 dice)
democratic (GMful, egalitarian time and benefit sharing)
competitive (strong negotiation)

a narrative game
permissive ("what you say happens" is the default)
generic (setting, genre and character creation during the first session)
story simulator (no stat vs difficulty)

goal formulation
with traits
and keys
fictional maneuvering

On their turn, each player says what happens and 'bids' on a goal to be achieved. The story flows under successive responsibility of every player. The rules are here to manage player interactions, giving them means to pursue their narrative goals and enforce narrative and aesthetic coherency.

This is voluntarily abstract so you can tell me :
- what game has already been done with the same utility (or "niche")
- what mechanisms or aspects you think are most perillous (unbalanced or boring) if not managed properly.

Thank you for your attention.


  • That sounds very interesting, and I don't know of any other game that fits those criteria. (Which are very well and concisely explained - nicely done!)

    Deterministic gmless resolution tends to be very procedural - how does that leave space for fictional positioning?

    That's the one thing that jumped out at me.

    Also, "Traits" could mean anything. You might want to clarify!
  • The best-known game in this niche is no doubt Once Upon a Time. Other well-known games in the neighbourhood are Universalis, Baron von Munchausen and Pantheon. Engle Matrix games are classics of the form as well. You might also be interested in Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, Blood & Bronze, Conquer the Horizon and Great Orc Gods, at least.

    Amber deserves special mention because while I think that your game is probably more in the one-shot range in length (feel free to correct me on this, that's just the impression I get from that combination of features), Amber's basically got every single one of the features on your list aside from being the opposite of GMless. It's also a genuinely interesting classic.

    That's off the top of my head. There's been a bunch of games in this general area over the years, but very few have attracted much attention; we're talking obscure shit here for the most part. Many have not gotten out of development hell, and are only known as drafts and playtest documents.

    If you want to see precisely how close to this design space I dare go myself, look at Zombie Cinema. It's not quite the same type of game, but it's at stumbling distance - you can misunderstand the game just a little bit and end up there.

    Regarding your second question, it is both interesting and insightful. My experience would indicate that the biggest issue with competitive narrative games (to focus on that part of your game) is that a dumb designer (or one with less refined tastes than mine, however one wants to phrase it) will make something like Once Upon a Time: a game where good competitive play does not cohere with good narrative style. This makes for a frustrating game when you're forced to choose between playing well (winning) and storytelling well. Odds are that you just won't be that interested in the game, unless you happen to be one of those rare groups that accidentally stumble upon just the right creative mix to make it work. I'd go as far as to say that making a game in this field is not worthwhile (or it's not worthwhile for me to play it, at least) unless you recognize and deal with this issue.

    A second, related problem such a game (still talking about the competitive storytelling thing, the other parts of your game aren't that difficult) has is that you'll basically end up with a story game that you'll play with your wargamer friends, right? I mean, that's how this stuff works for me: I procure or design a game that tries to be straightforward and competitive in a clear-cut boardgamey way, and I play it with the guys who I normally wouldn't play a drama game with, which means the people who are most comfortable with D&D and boardgames, and less so with some story game. I won't play it with the drama game storyteller cultural types, because those won't appreciate the competitive aspect.

    Nothing wrong with that, except then I find out that the choice of player base that the game has biased for us has basically gathered us a table full of boring technicians rather than poets. The vaunted narrative freedom of the game means that all these guys who don't really care for storytelling get to do their stock character cliches in a game where it being entertaining is actually really crucially dependent on them being passably good at it. The worst part is when the players quickly lose interest in the storytelling as they figure that there's no "external reality to it" - it's all just stuff we make up, invent on the spot, and you could go "smurf" the whole night and the rules would barely notice it.

    I don't really know what to do about this second problem, it's just an observation about how the cultural dynamics of the rpg scene tend to treat this sort of game in my experience. Of course this doesn't apply if you have a high-quality, multi-competent playgroup that wants to do the game.
  • edited December 2017
    My experience would indicate that the biggest issue with competitive narrative games (to focus on that part of your game) is that a dumb designer (or one with less refined tastes than mine, however one wants to phrase it) will make something like Once Upon a Time: a game where good competitive play does not cohere with good narrative style. This makes for a frustrating game when you're forced to choose between playing well (winning) and storytelling well.
    I agree wholeheartedly that this is obviously the most important thing to be aware of. I honestly kind of feel embarrassed bringing it up because I’m sure you’re aware of the issue and know that creating a game in which the competitive procedures don’t lend themselves to creating a good story is just making an absolute shit game. Anyway, I just had to vent after Eero reminded me of some design abominations.
  • edited December 2017
    Thank you this is all very clear. I'll work with these caveat in mind. I'll data mine Pantheon, the Committee, B&B, CtH and GoO and take a fresh look at Amber to look for "narrative bits".

    @Paul The traits are open character descriptors used as means of action like in LadyB. Their value is always 1 pip, the question becoming that of applicability. Like in a Engel MG, players have a strategic interest in setting up situations where their (multiple characters) traits are useful.

    @Eero_Tuovinen Thank you for this : "directing" is key, there is no "acting" in it. So audience : wargamers, writers.
  • edited December 2017
    - what game has already been done with the same utility (or "niche")
    Fiasco and Universalis, to mention a few. Archipelago with it's ritual words too.
    - what mechanisms or aspects you think are most perillous (unbalanced or boring) if not managed properly.
    You need to keep the stories together. Fiasco is great at doing that, while Universalis' stories spreads like branches on a tree. If there is no reincorporation and if people are constantly inventing new stuff, the stories starts to lack purpose and becomes boring. Universalis were great because it was the first if its kind, but it never created good stories (unless the group did it).

    Bidding mechanics should go smoothly (and not contain raise mechanisms). It runs smoothly in Fiasco because it's done between people not in the scene while the scene is played out. That rule, as well as the assisting mechanics in Zombie Cinema, is great because it supports active listening. It's one of the greatest rules in collaborative storytelling games. It's why I got the assistant role in The Murder of Mr. Crow.

    And don't say this is a roleplaying games, even if I think it is, because people will bring their own old conventions to how a roleplaying game should be played. So I think it's smart asking this question.
  • @DeReel , I assume you're aware that most games of mine fall in this field (at least, games that match that system configuration according to Levity requirements).
    Regarding the utility of the game you can refer to other asnwers.
    The most "dangerous" aspects for games with this configuration are that all players should have a medium to high skill of narration and imagination, that should be able to negotiate and must have an attitude to always negotiate and continuously reconcile their imagined fiction with what's happening at the table.
  • So! I'd suggest also looking at Burning Empires, as odd as that may sound. Because it solves the problem of competitive play in a fascinating manner. You see, play at the scene level only determines what happens to your *character*, but there is also a macro move every session which determines the ultimate fate of the planet. Your character can do quite poorly at the scene level but, as long as you are earning Artha, your faction can still win the game. So there are no incentives to play your character in anything other than the most faithful manner possible... and this is true for the GM's antagonist figures as well.
  • Lots of good suggestions here.

    The term I would use that would familiar to most designers, then, is something like "freeform, player-authored Traits".

    None of these games share EXACTLY your design details (especially Keys and fictional maneuvering), but many are in the same general design space.

    One more game you should check out is "Capes". It's not deterministic but it's got a nice way to create, escalate, and resolve complex fictional situations with a mechanic that doesnt require a GM. (Although I believe the game has one; still it would work just as well without.)

    "Capes" was one of the inspirations for my game "Musette". It's not published, but a more sophisticated version of that has just been released: it's called "Muse", by Jonathan Benn.

    "While the World Ends" is another game in this space.

    What's nice about Muse/Musette and WtWE is that they both feature collaborative storytelling while being competitive games, without those two features getting in each other's way. A fairly rare design feature (although I don't see why - you just have to design carefully, and those games show it's entirely possible).
  • edited December 2017
    These are the dangers I have noticed when playing Collabrative GMless Story Games. In many games these dangers have not been addressed; I believe the games in this space that are most successful address these dangers. Not everyone agrees with me about these dangers, or my solutions to them. For example, I believe that in some situations the group’s stake in experiencing a satisfying story should override an individual player’s contributions. A major designer, whom I respect, disagrees with this.

    Important caveat: these are the most important issues when one of the game’s design goals is to create Dramatist play and values (i.e. the quality of the story is a central concern).

    Anyway, these are the issues that I think are most likely to lead to an unsatisfactory game, after playing hundreds of sessions of Collaborative GMless Story Games; I believe that everyone of these issues (unless they are not related to the design goals of the game) should be addressed via procedures and mechanics within the game—advice should reinforce these procedures and mechanics but it is essential that they are addressed naturally by simply following the rules of the game. Here’s the list of issues:

    -Your game must have design goals and it must reliably produce an outcome that is successful in implementing those goals. If you don’t know why you are designing a game who the hell does?

    -Players not building on each other’s ideas, and not bringing story threads together; as Rickard mentioned, this can happen by player's introducing too many new ideas and trying to tell there own story at the cost of the collaborative story. This can create a branching effect rather than a weaving effect. You want the threads of the story to relate to one another, not become an incongruent and unmanageable mess. This is necessary to regularly creating a satisfying story.

    -Players having a different and non-compatible idea of what the tone(s) of the story should consist of—that is, an inconsistent story tone.It not satisfying when people aren’t telling the same story; for example, if most of the group is telling a serious, realistic, and dramatic story of courtly intrigue, and another player is telling a whimsical, gonzo story, that has no relationship to the other. When players are telling a story with dramaticly different tones they are not telling the same story.

    -The mechanics and procedures must reliably produce the design goals of the game. Yes, in a sense advice is part of the game’s rules, and it is also very important. But people don’t always follow advice and a well designed game needs to be as fail-proof as possible.

    -It’s okay to think about the group’s needs; the individual should not be the only consideration. And it’s okay to create rules that enforce this— I would even argue that it’s necessary in order to produce the best designs in the space. One of the main reasons Collaborative GMless games fail is that they don’t address this and place the individuals creative interests over that of the group. What do you have if one player enjoyed the game and the others are unsatisfied, and may even quitly resent that player’s role in it? Not all groups are made up of close friends, which are comfortable being candid with one another. A reasonable balance between the individual and the group must be struck. You never want to take away an individual’s creative input unless it is necessary, but sometimes it is necessary, and this reality shouldn’t be ignored because of an unyielding idealism. Remember, I’m talking about when one of the goals is to produce a Dramatist esthetic.

    -The game should have procedures/mechanics that will naturally produce the narrative, structural framework necessary to create a good story.

    -The best games in this design space make it inherently essential to listen to the other players in order take part in the game, and the listening is desired because it supports, and is relevant to, the listener’s individual gameplay interests.

    -The game procedures/mechanishould reward and encourage play habits that will result in satisfying the goals of the game and producing satisfying sessions, character-play, and storytelling.

    -Creating an a clear expectation of the type of story everyone is telling is a good thing—one of the strengths of Fiasco is that the player’s know the type of story they are telling. They are going to make a Cohen's Brothers’ movie—they know the tone of the story, the themes of the story; the type of characters they are playing, etc.

    Those are the issues that I think are most important. I may have forgotten something but that is the gist of it. Remember, these issues are specific to designing a game with Dramatist design goals in mind—they don’t apply to aims and style of all of these games, but I think successfully addressing these issues is most essential to the majority of these games.

    Anyway, I hope this is helpful. Good luck with your design, not that luck has anything to do with it—now getting people to play your game, that’s an entirely different matter.:smile:

  • Capes is a good call, yes. A solid, unique thing in this space.
  • edited December 2017
    Thank you for the variety of your approaches and your kind help. It gives me a security check. I am boiling with ideas now but I'll be wise enough not to interrupt your flow.

    Burning Empires, Zombie Cinema, WtWE, I'll look into. I think I'll have to buy these games, they are so close to what I want - except for the narrow genre EUREKÂ ! That is my game's niche ! Universality of genre with good story coherence.

    Capes, from which my game soars, has no GM, but antagonistic PCs, rewards opposition, and players are framed into creating antagonistic situations (superhero oblige).
  • edited December 2017
    I’ve never played these, but I know that Agon, Blood Red Sands, Power Play, Contenders, and Showdown are all very competitive, in a PvP sense; as is Shab Al-Hiri Roach, which I have played. I’m not sure if these are the type of games your looking for but they have some competitive aspects that may be worth checking out. In a Wicked Age is more of a character vs. character game but many have suggested it to me so it might be worth taking a look at.
  • I didn't list Agon and Blood Red Sands due to their mechanical complexity, and Contenders and Showdown because they're not really competitive (they're like Wicked Age or Zombie Cinema or such; the characters are in competition but the players aren't). All of these are good and educational game texts to read despite that, of course.
  • Eero's right, and In a Wicked Age... isn't quite in the right design space, I feel.

    That said, I disagree about Showdown: there's a definite competitive element (or at least it can be played that way). Certainly the author told me that he enjoys that aspect of the game, and, in my experience, playing to "get" your opponent is a fairly fruitful way to play. However, its design may be too limited to be of use here - depends on the details of DeReel's game, of course.
  • edited December 2017
    There are various viable combinations and degrees of competition in games, as long as there is a clear frame of laws and arbitration procedures. Contenders mediates player relations very precisely and locally. The Committee allows more dissonance between player/character and intent/action, which is more interesting in terms of storytelling. I found Jeff_Slater's thread about PvP and it is not what I am looking for.

    Thank you for pointing out the various issues.
    In the end, being abuse resistant doesn't mean being user resistant.

    I want to make clearer a warning that was issued earlier :
    you could go "smurf" the whole night and the rules would barely notice it.
    Sure, rules don't notice antisocial behaviour, people do.
    If you want to make a game with lots of player authored material and creative freedom, you have to have a position about what causes the "from here to MontyPython", "gonzo smurfer" effect. For me, this behaviour is part of the learning process, it is a form of experimentation with narrative freedom. Think "teenager trying the limits". In this perspective, many games treat the symptom, restricting narrative freedom, killing their best asset and losing promising players on the first session in the middle of the learning curve.

    I have read all the games here except Zombie Cinema and WtWE. Here's a synthesis limited to a few aspects.
    Resolution mechanics never seem important. There are a few choices regarding antagonism : who creates it, who plays it. Conquer the Horizon (which I knew in a pre-edition) has a nice touch about it.
    The "problem" with most games is the degree of rigidity of the narrative structure. "chase, exploration, OR dessert (and a supplement for Mystery)" is frustrating for a storytelling game. Good stories outgrow their genre.

    @Rickard But... wait... Low prep dynamic story mapping... this is... the Fishtank technique !I came to this forum for a grab and run. I now leave with the stolen artefact. Thank you for your help.

  • edited December 2017
    For me, this behaviour is part of the learning process, it is a form of experimentation with narrative freedom. Think "teenager trying the limits". In this perspective, many games treat the symptom, restricting narrative freedom, killing their best asset and losing promising players on the first session in the middle of the learning curve.
    You make a very important point, and I do think that if a game has a ritual word that opens up a individual’s narrative contribution to a group discussion, it should be used rarely and should have clear and specific limitations for when it can be used. For example, in my game it can only be used in two instances: If a player's narration either strongly violates the agreeed opon tone of the game or if it strongly breaks the verisimilitude have a game. Both of these things are very important my game—Mickey Mouse can’t just show up and blow up the moon. Also, if someone uses a ritual were to address the situations, it is just an invitation to have a conversation not some type of decree; there are a lot of caveats, and these caveats are very important. I was very black-and-white, and probably over stated my case, and definitely didn’t get into the caveats. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go until the caveats right now. Anyhow, I agree very much with what you wrote above and that it is very important consideration. Cheers :-)
  • We are in total agreement. A set of procedures is necessary in the case of contract violation. Let's call it arbitration.

    (btw, that's my set of procedures :
    0° the contract is made explicit for all
    1° prevention, little time out, check point "are we on the same page", green light
    2° inquisitive question, frowning, law reminder, yellow card
    3° eviction, cancelling the action, red card)

    But this is not specific to this kind of games. It is valid as soon as Gamism is seen near the table.
  • I think it's valid as soon as "coherent play" as a goal is seen near the table.
  • Hi all,
    Not sure if this has been mentioned yet but “conspire” fits the criteria of gmLess collaborative storytelling with a strong competitive element. It’s a sillyish party game from a Seattle designer. It involves hidden roles and social deduction.
    Fiat Lux,
  • So what happened to this game?
  • So what happened to this game?
    You can buy Conspire here (if that is what you are asking):
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