Rules of Storytelling, Applied to Game Design

Recently, I happened to see a post about 22 Rules of Storytelling tweeted by Emma Coats, a Pixar story artist. I immediately started to think that games are really a form of storytelling, too. So I looked at the list, and started trying to figure out what the equivalent rule would be for designing a board game.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Players should get more benefit from good choices than good luck.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

Think about what will be interesting to players, don’t just do what’s fun or interesting as a designer.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Writing the rules is important, but you won’t see what is wrong until people try to learn from them. Then rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This game is about ___. Every turn you can ___. Sometimes, you can ___. That lets you ___. And that lets you ___. Finally, the game ends and ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Simplify. Focus. Combine components. Minimize mechanics. It makes it more simple and elegant, or you can more later.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

What can the player do cheaply, without planning? Give it a cost, make it more complicated. How do players deal with it?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Figure out balance before you finalize the rules. Balance is hard, so start considering it early.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Playtest it, even if it’s not finished. You’ll need to eventually. Get rid of what doesn’t work while it’s easy.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

If you’re stuck figure out ways to break the game. You might find something worth adding.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Pull ideas from games you enjoy. Understand why it’s fun to play, so you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Prototype so you can start testing it. If it stays on paper, it will never get played.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Try bad strategies. You might find something that doesn’t work.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Make your components and artwork clear. Cool artwork looks great, but if it’s unreadable, it’s unusable.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

Why should people play this game instead of an existing one with a similar theme or mechanic? Not just because it’s new.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

What actions would you want to do in this situation? If you want to do something, maybe it should be doable

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

What are the costs for each action? Cost should motivate players. Balance the risk and reward

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

If you have a mechanic that doesn’t quite work, write it down and come back later. Save it for an expansion

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Know when to stop changing rules. If it works, play it. Fun will come from playing, not reading the rules.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Randomness that makes planning important is great. Randomness that ignores planning is unfair.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Take mechanics from one game and theme from another, see if you can adapt one to the other

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Figure out what motivates players to explore every mechanic in the game. Why should the player play that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
What are the basic rules? The fewest needed to start playing? Start your rules there, and add more as needed

Obviously, some of these aren’t 100% equivalent, but it’s a fun exercise to think about your game as a story, and find the elements that make it work.

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