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Narrative Game Basics Help

A topic by Zeshio created 37 days ago Views: 276 Replies: 11
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Hello everyone!

I've been looking to branch out into a variety of different ttrpg formats, and I'd like to explore a bit more about how narrative games work. I've looked a bit at Takuma Okada's work, and I'm hoping to explore DC's mech narrative game soon. However, I was curious to see if people would like to share some of the mechanics to how narrative games work.

From my limited understanding, I've identified some of the following concepts: 

  • Giving the player creative freedom to describe a situation or scene using certain prompts (This is an animal, what animal do you see?
  • Branched narrative giving players different stories based on their choices (choose your own adventure)
  • Using blanks to help generate an interesting and unexpected story (ala MadLibs)
  • Using blanks or a question sheet to create re-occurring themes or people (insert name of best friend, which is then pulled into the narrative at a certain point)
  • Using dice or rollable tables to determine a specific random outcome the player reacts to
  • Structuring narrative using specific framing, such as through mission reports, a personal journal, as a news reporter, etc.
  • Narrative may be open ended in nature or have an ending. (Explore the themes as long as you want v. you finished the story)

Let me know if you have other thoughts or ideas on how narrative games work, I'd love to hear them!


there's one more that i am fixated on that you haven't touched; motivations, emotions, and the like having a mechanical component. not just to add bonuses to a roll that represents action, but also to shape the story itself.

Very interesting, thanks for sharing! 


CW: bullying, loneliness, powerlessness, misogyny, racism, colonialism, death

I'm unsure of what is meant by Narrative Game, so take the following with a grain of salt, please. It's some mechanics of games that I would call indie rpgs and that, I think, are sometimes called narrative or storygames, also:

A token economy
In Avery Alder's Dream Askew I gain tokens by playing towards other characters' strengths or by being vulnerable with my own character. I can then spend these tokens to bring my character's strengths to bear.  She writes that this is supposed to "create a narrative rhythm." Another interesting example of this is Technoir, a rpg by Jeremy Keller. There, certain dice double as tokens. Players spend them to make a lasting impact on GM characters giving them to the GM, who in turn spends them to have their characters go after the players'. Fitting for a rough, Noir-style game. Robin D. Laws' DramaSystem (Hillfolk) has a character be the petitioner and another the granter for most scenes. The petitioner seeks an emotional reward from the granter. If it is refused, the petitioner gains a token, if the granter willingly gives, they do. Laws writes that this "bend[s] events toward a satisfying literary rhythm, where characters sometimes prevail and are sometimes defeated in emotional confrontations." Another interesting use of tokens is as a timer, basically. Vivien Feasson's Perdus sous la pluie (Lost in the Rain) is a horror rpg where every player starts with ten tokens and once they're gone, their character is lost. Aside from the horror aspect, these tokens also model a sort of group dynamic, where I lose tokens for being pushed out and made to feel alone, but everyone can always give away one of their own tokens to another player, too, for comforting their character. Or lash out and hurt another character, losing a token, but making the other player lose one, too.    

In Danielle Lewon's Kagematsu, a rpg about a group of women trying to sway a wandering knight (who must be played by a woman) to promise to save their village, the knight's player has to secretly decide whether the attempts of a villager to win the knight's affection are met with love or pity. Without love, things become very desparate for the villagers fast, so this choice matters a lot. In Bluebeard's Bride, a horror rpg about the fairytale, the GM presents the Bride, the single main character of the game, with rooms in Bluebeard's mansions and objects therein that the players may ask questions about. To leave a room, a player must basically tell the story of what they think happened in there, gaining a token of faithfulness if they clear their husband's name or of disloyalty if they reveal him as a murderer. How hellish a choice that is, is a big part of the particular, feminine horror of the game. A combination of both a token economy and judgement can be found in Liam Liwanag Burke's unmatched Dog Eat Dog, a rpg about colonialism. After each scene, the player of the Occupation force that is colonizing the Natives must make a judgement as to which Native player adhered to the rules and who broke them, the first and foremost rule being "The (Native people) are inferior to the (Occupation people)." Natives gain a token for adhering to, and lose a token for breaking one. Then the Native players make up a new rule based on their interactions with the Occupation and what behaviour was modeled or punished. So as a Native player you keep making these choices for your character like where you go, how you talk to people, what rituals you keep up, who you get involved with. And apart from the fact that every one of those seemingly small actions can get your character killed if the Occupation feels like it, what you feel and maybe even fear most is how, slowly, interaction by interaction, day by day that you spend under this regime, your character begins to drift in a direction where you might not want them to go. As a consequence of how your actions are perceived by the Occupation. Because if you run out of tokens, your character runs Amok and has to die whereas tokens gained mean your assimilation. As one reviewer put it: "Dog Eat Dog isn't a game about how colonialism steals resources; it's a game about how colonialism steals identities."    

John Harper has a nice description of conditions in his game Lady Blackbird: "A condition constrains what the player should say about their character. It’s a cue to tell the GM and players to pay attention to that thing and use it as material for the developing fiction." So if your character has a Condition like Trapped or Angry that aspect is put into focus. In Avery Alder's Monsterhearts Conditions are always social perceptions, the labels other people put on your character. In Gregor Hutton's Remember Tomorrow there are Positive Conditions, too that can be gained and traded in for mechanical success. From a design perspective having a fixed set of Conditions (or in the case of Monsterhearts Conditions of a certain nature) is ensuring that certain situations will have weight in the game and pointing people at them. In Remember Tomorrow, where Positive and Negative Conditions come and go very quickly, they also keep characters moving.

Replaying a scene
A pretty unique mechanic can be found in My Daughter, The Queen of France by Daniel Wood. There, the same scene can be played over and over again. That means that the group can revisit a scene later, knowing more about a character's motivation, and see how that changes things. I feel it's a very interesting method to give depth to characters. Also, there are certain limitations that gradually get removed. For example, only when a scene is played for the third time is it allowed to play out or describe emotional states. So that is something that people really build towards.


Swords Without Master does some interesting things with how you interact directly with the fiction, that could be used in other narrative games. Three things leap out to me:

1. Tones. In SwoM, you have two dice that represent two different tones (Jovial and Glum). whenever you narrate anything, you roll the dice and your narration has to fit the tone of the die that rolled higher. Tones are very broad, so there's almost always a way to describe doing what you want. But it focuses your attention on what you're saying, how you're describing it and how you're describing it. It forces you to think about things differently, coming up with aspects of the story or your character you might not otherwise think about. For a different game, you could perhaps use very different tones to reinforce what that game is about.

2. Structured Phases. SwoM is divided up into distinct phases, with special rules for each. Each phase tells you who gets to say what at what time. Dividing a game into different phases is as old as roleplaying (early D&D had different rules depending on whether you were underground or not), but this formalizes the idea and conveys to ll participants what is happening at each time.

3. Structured conversation. Within a phase, you follow a certain protocol for who says what when. In the Discovery phase, a player describes something their character finds, then they ask the GM a question about it, and the GM answers. In the rogues phase, you ask a player to describe their rogue doing something specific, and they describe how they accomplish that. This creates a specific dynamic, where no one player can create the whole narrative. It's a back and forth between both sides, where everyone adds a little to the story. But I can't describe my rogue taking substantial action until someone asks me to describe that. I can't hog the spotlight unless someone gives it to me. The GM can't build the plot in advance of what the players choose to discover.

I don't like swords and sorcery as a genre, but I feel like there's some interesting tricks in the game that could be fruitfully applied to all sorts of other stories.


Thanks, there's definitely some cool ideas in this.


A mechanic that I see a lot in narrative games is what I refer to as an "oracle." Basically, the game proposes a question and then you perform an action (typically drawing a playing card or rolling a die and consulting a chart or just drawing a tarot card) and use the result of that action as the prompt to answer that question. It's a fairly low key of driving the conversation, providing thematic nudges without denying the power of interpretation and extemporization from the participants.


That's great, thanks! That seems really well suited for single player narrative in particular too! (Which is what I'm currently thinking about for one of next month's game jams)


One narrative mechanic I love in A Penny For My Thoughts is a bit where you pause at significant moments and ask two different players what might happen next. One player suggests a thing, then the other player suggest a different thing. Then the player we're focusing on chooses one of those two events to be the true one.

It's very simple, but it creates interesting narrative easily. It adds nicely to the game's dreamlike atmosphere (so might not be appropriate to all games/stories) as you have vague memories later of things that never happened. It also means that at least two players approve of and like the proposed story path (the one saying it and the one choosing it). Sometimes the options created are very different, sometimes they're nearly identical except for one small detail. But the questioner always has a choice to make. 

One thing I've been doing with a lot of games that I make is combining that mechanic with a random, ambiguous input. Things like Tarot cards or pulling random words out of a hat/off a list. You draw a Tarot card or whatever, then you ask two different players to interpret it, asking how it applies to the story you're currently telling. And each offers a different story path forward.  (I find that Tarot cards aren't perfectly suited for this purpose, but a similar deck specifically built for the job can be really effective.)

That's a really interesting idea, and I love how both suggestions are kind of a part of the story even though one is selected. Dreamlike, like you said, or the idea of seeing multiple paths in your future and choosing one. Really cool!


Hey Zeshio,

I think you have everything covered here. Some small suggestions that I would like to add to this discussion are:

  • Try nail down the emotions or the message you want to convey to your audiences  or anything that you wish to explore in the game. It should give you an insight on how to approach the story and narrative strategies to adopt. 
  • Work narrative based on that message.
  • Let the player get feed back from their actions. This does not has to be all the time but just some unique place where you think it might pull off.

I know this might be things you already know, am just a beginner. But i hope it helps :)


These are great, thanks for emphasizing those certain points. I think it's helpful information for everyone to keep in mind!