Take an evening joking around with friends, add a pinch of D&D and a dash of Who's Line Is It Anyway?, and you've got some idea of what a story game is. These collaborative storytelling games cover Shakespearean tragedies, the careers of metal bands, heists gone wrong and all that lies in between.
The exact definition of "story game" is slippery. Some story games fall within a subset of more traditional tabletop RPGs, except there's much less focus on gathering loot or experience and more on telling a story. Others are more like party games with loose rules that allow everyone to create stories and react to the stories of others. Storytelling is the common goal — some games might name a "winner," but a story game is a success if everyone creates an entertaining, hilarious or scary tale. But instead of worrying about cladistics, let's talk about the best story games you could be playing right now.
From a central deck of cards, players draw turn by turn trying to find the right ingredient for a story — a setting, some characters and complications, and a conclusion. Action cards let players mess with each other's stories by stealing or swapping plot elements. At the end, everyone composes a short tale using the ludicrous elements they've cobbled together. Why is the sentient broccoli in an ice cream parlor, and how did it fall in love with the deranged inventor? Players semi-secretly vote for their favorites and points are scored. We usually give the winner the chance to design a plot element using one of the blank cards, but the real joy is the creation of instant memes in your gaming group.
Umläut: Game of Metal
This is, naturally, one of my favorite story games. Each player creates a fictional metal band, and each turn they create "scenes" in which the bands interact off-stage, basically trying to make each o0ther's lives as screwed up and insane as possible. Scene outcomes are determined by drawing from a standard deck of playing cards — the winner gets to narrate how the scene turns out. The subject matter tends to lead to debauchery — one play through featured slutty moms, stints in rehab, the theft of band members and leather pants, and one band taking off all their clothes in Federal court. Making up ridiculous band names and song titles by itself can provide hours of fun.
This is the game most often mentioned when I asked other gamers what their favorite story game was. The players are planning a heist or caper, but like all movie capers, this one is going to go horribly wrong. Building a web of elements and relationships off of a setting, everyone proceeds to role-play scenes together. At some point the Tilt is introduced, which is when things go awry. It doesn't end well for anyone, so the final step is to narrate the sad ending that befell your character. Fiasco is flexible enough to offer the lighthearted fun of Ocean's 11, the tense socio-political suspense of Dog Day Afternoon, or the inevitable bloodbath of Reservoir Dogs.
Happy Birthday Robot
This story game is aimed at a younger audience and revolves around telling the tale of a robot's birthday. It uses a simple dice mechanic to allow players to write their own additions to the story, modified by dice played the other players. It creates a fun story and teaches the players about parts of speech and sentence construction in a creative way.
Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
Children in a magical world of floating islands form teams to help petitioners who are in trouble. They want to help, but they tend to cause mishaps and get into trouble of their own while they're at it. Players take turns narrating the story and creating a tale of helpful but accident-prone young heroes. It's a non-violent game perfect for younger players.
A Tragedy in Five Acts
Five players take on predetermined roles in the story (Daughter, Lover, Foil, Parent, and Authority), create a setting, then draw random secret Fatal Flaws. For each of the five acts, players suggest scenes and bid for narrative control. There's a point system, and the prize is getting to name the play and being the focus of the final scene. It's a tragedy, of course, so everyone is probably going to die at the end regardless.
Players in Psi*Run are being hunted by the government, but they don't necessarily know why. Full of super powers, amnesia, bizarre plot twists and double-crosses, you may find yourself breaking into a government facility searching for answers only to find that it's the exact facility you were trying to escape from when the amnesia struck. You've got weird mental powers, but they're a curse as often as they're a blessing.
Published in 1999, Nobilis is one of the earliest story games. Players portray godlike beings of immense power interacting with each other. There is no random element — rather, Miracle points are spent to succeed at actions (making combat between Nobilis expensive and rare). A Nobilis is so powerful it rarely fails at an action. However, successful actions tend to anger or offend the other Nobilis and the "familia" they belong to. The is largely focused on exploring these consequences as the Nobilis try to forward their own goals while obeying the laws of Lord Entropy.
In this card game, inspired by the works of Edward Gorey, players control a family of eccentrics. The goal is to off your own family by playing reducing their self-worth and afflicting them with negative events while trying to overcome the nice things your opponent does for your family. It can be played strictly as a competitive card game, but there are optional rules allowing players to weave darkly humorous tales around the unfortunate events that relentlessly trouble their families.
Let us know your favorite story games!