One board gaming session stands out as the greatest I ever had. Why? I’ve played board games countless time. I’ve forgotten most of my board game sessions. What made that time different—and what does it have to do with storytelling?
This session stands out for the same reasons some movies become blockbusters and some novels become bestsellers.
The board game was Shadowhunters. In the game, there’s a Hunter team, a Shadow team, and neutral characters who each have their own unique win condition. Three outcomes are possible: Hunters win, Shadows win, or a neutral win forces both Hunters and Shadows to lose. Sometimes neutrals can win with Hunters or Shadows, but Hunter victory and Shadow victory are mutually exclusive. Therefore, the Hunters mostly try to make the Shadows lose, and the Shadows mostly try to make the Hunters lose, and the neutrals do their own weird things which interfere with both Hunters and Shadows.
Can you tell that the neutral characters make this game re-playable? When it’s only Hunters vs. Shadows—which the rules permit—the strategies are simple and the game becomes repetitive after a few sessions. The neutrals make it so that a strategy which worked once might fail the next time.
It’s a hidden role game, so players known their own identities, but not other players’. A player may choose to reveal their identity, a player’s death reveals their identity, and some game mechanisms force partial reveals. Since forcing a full reveal is extremely difficult, players must guess each other’s identities based on behavior.
In this session, I was a Shadow. And the other two Shadows died within two rounds.
Having any player die within the first two rounds is unusual. Having two players die in the first two rounds is unprecedented (save for this one session). And for both players to belong to the same team, putting one team at a severe disadvantage because of rotten luck is so statistically improbable I don’t know how to express it.
This unusual event is the first thing which makes this such a good story. Even most experienced Shadowhunters players haven’t been in this scenario. Great stories start with an inciting incident outside the expectations of that context. Even armed robbers smashing into the game venue would have been less surprising (this was an urban neighborhood where armed robberies are a thing).
The Hunters hadn’t even planned to kill two Shadows so quickly. This had nothing to do with their skill level, and they were certain this was going to lead to an easy, empty win.
Let’s look at the storytelling craft. We have a protagonist (in this case, me) in a sympathetic position. A highly improbable combination of card draws and reactions eliminated my two teammates before they had a chance, leaving me in a 1-against-3 situation. Even the Hunters were talking about how sorry they felt for the surviving Shadow (they didn’t know that was me).
The sympathetic Hunter players promised we’d have a replay as soon as the game was over. They kept telling people, ‘yeah, this game is messed up, this’ll be over in five minutes.’
They underestimated me.
Even against such lopsided odds, I dragged the game out for 90 minutes. Two of the Hunter players got eliminated during those 90 minutes. I got within a dice roll of finishing off the last Hunter, which would have been the most unlikely Shadow victory conceivable. Many of the players watching the game were rooting for me just because my situation was so ridiculous. In the end, I lost, but I put up a damn good fight.
People love stories about underdogs who beat the odds. I didn’t win, but I gave the odds the best beating I could muster. And people love that too.
I decided I was not on the wrong end of a 3-against-1 fight, but a neutral with a weird win condition. This mindset made me behave as if victory were still possible.
Based on my actions, the Hunters assumed I was a neutral, not the final Shadow they needed to kill to win.
My first advantage was that the Hunters believed they were coasting to an easy victory. Despite their experience in this game, they were sloppy. This gave me an opening to undermine them.
The neutral players also helped. Few neutral characters benefit from a fast Hunter and/or Shadow victory. Those few neutrals weren’t in play during that session. Thus, it was also in the neutral players’ interests to drag out the game. One neutral even killed a Hunter to buy time for his strategy.
Also I was Unknown, the only character who may lie when other players force partial reveals. Thus, when other players used forced reveals on me, I told them I was neutral. (This went really well with my ‘behave like a neutral’ strategy).
Having my teammates die so quickly has a silver lining. In the early part of the game, when players are uncertain who their teammates are, players sometimes hurt or even kill their own allies by mistake. Because my teammates went out so soon, I didn’t have this uncertainty. At worst, I’d hurt a neutral instead of a Hunter. Meanwhile, the Hunters had to pull their punches until they confirmed who their teammates were.
While the Hunters had more firepower, I had more information.
This game pushed me to the limit of my skill. I had to milk every advantage I could grab. I had to exploit all my knowledge. It put me in full flow state, where I push the edges of my abilities. Watching them as they realized that, no, it was forty minutes later and the game still wasn’t over, and yes, one of them was eliminated, they needed to take this seriously after all… it was entertaining.
After the game was over, even the Hunters told me they wished I’d won because it would’ve been such a satisfying ending.
Read books, watch movies, watch TV shows, and read more books to learn how to write good stories, all the fiction-writing gurus say. This is sound advice. Until I learned how many aspiring authors aren’t avid readers, I thought it was too obvious to state.
But even better than reading books or imbibing stories through other media is going through your own most vivid memories, and ask yourself ‘why’? Why does that memory of all memories have such a hold on you? Chances are, that memory has the mechanics of a good story.