BOOMbox at Home: Collaborative Storytelling

A pair of red dice, both landed on six.

This week, we’re exploring two types of collaborative storytelling games: tabletop role-playing games and interactive fiction.

Tabletop Role-playing Games

Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) are playing pretend, but with dice. These games come in a variety of themes and levels of complexity, so there’s something for everyone. All you need to get started is a paper and pencil (although dice or a computer can be a big help). Most TTRPGs follow a similar basic format. One player is the game master, and the game master describes the world and sets up a scenario. Then, other players say what they want to do. If there is an obvious outcome, the game master explains what happens. If the outcome is in question, dice are used to determine what happens. 

For example, opening a door is a pretty easy task for most people. If you just want to open a normal door, you probably won’t need to make a roll, and the game master will narrate what is behind the door. But, if the door is locked, extremely heavy, or broken, your success might depend on your ability to pick locks, your strength, or your ability to find another way to enter. If your character is an animal, you might need to find a way to persuade someone to open the door for you or try to sneak in behind someone. In those cases, you would describe your plan, roll, and potentially add modifiers to determine what happens. Maybe you succeed, maybe you fail, or maybe you have a mixed outcome, like opening the lock but breaking your tools, or leaving obvious signs of tampering in the process. If you don’t have dice, you can use a random number generator or draw a slip of paper.

Depending on the player’s preferences, games may use rules from dozens of books and last for hundreds of sessions, or they might use a single page of rules and be finished within an hour or two. These shorter games are a great way to try out TTRPGs and learn some basics. The rules are simple, characters can be created in a few minutes, and you can probably use the dice from a normal board game. One example of this sort of game is "What I Did on My Summer Holidays" by Grant Howitt (available for free online). Play a witch, goblin, cat, or monster in a silly, low-stakes adventure.

In fact, single page games are so simple, it’s easy to design your own! You can also see what others have designed as part of a 200-word challenge. Or, for a laugh, check out computer generated single-page role-playing games. Refresh the page to load a new game. Some are nonsense, but others seem like they’d be fun to play.

Adapting TTRPGs

If you aren’t ready to try making your own game, you can design your own versions of existing games to make them more fun for you. Want to try a game that looks too complex? You can simplify the rules. Finding a part of the game boring or want to incorporate an exciting new feature? Add or change the rules. Do you like the mechanics of a fantasy game but want to play as a robot or superhero instead? Change the skills or design your own by mixing and matching existing abilities. There are only two rules: 

  1. Make sure everyone playing is okay with any changes you want to make. It’s not very fun to play a game where one character is way more powerful than everyone else or to be surprised in the middle of the game with a sudden change in rules. Your least favorite part of the game may be someone else’s favorite. It’s okay if you don’t agree. You may need to find a compromise, like using a mixture of things you like and things they like, or playing your way this time and letting someone else choose the next game. That goes both ways: don’t be afraid to tell your friends if you aren’t having fun and would like to try something different.
  2. Make sure to give proper credit. Don’t claim someone else’s ideas as your own. If you made a modified version of a game someone else made, be upfront about which parts you created and which you didn’t.

Finally, although you don’t need any special gear or equipment to have fun playing TTRPGs, some players think things like fancy dice are part of the fun. You don’t need a lot of money to have cool accessories. Learn how to make your own dice bag and dice tray with inexpensive supplies. 

Interactive Fiction

If you prefer a solo adventure or want to try other types of collaborative storytelling, you might like interactive fiction. One form of interaction fiction you might be familiar with is choose your own adventure books. These stories give you lots of opportunities to choose among two or three options to move the story forward. 

Another option is text-based adventure games. The game begins with a general description of your situation. To play, you type what you’d like to do. This gives you more freedom than choosing from just a couple of options (like in a choose your own adventure book), but is still more restrictive than playing with a human game master. The game can only recognize some commands, so, depending on what you type, it may tell you that it doesn’t understand. These games often include puzzles you need to solve rather than straightforward choices or skill checks. Like TTRPGs, this type of game can vary in length and complexity. In a more complex game, you may download files to your computer and explore a world over weeks or months. Or, you could play a simpler game in your browser in just 30 minutes. These simple options are a good way of getting a taste for this style of game. Try out a game where you play a dog on a quest for a snack or a game where you play a girl hunting ghosts in her local church.

Person of the Week

Sara Thompson is a disability consultant and game designer, the creator of the combat wheelchair, a home-brew item for Dungeons & Dragons that makes it easier for players to play powerful characters who use wheelchairs. When designing the combat wheelchair, Thompson drew inspiration from the chairs used for Paralympic sports like wheelchair rugby, also known as murderball. The chair was tested and reviewed by several real life people who use wheelchairs to ensure that it was accurate. Thompson is also the founder of Heroes without Limits, a community for players with disabilities to connect with one another and promote accessibility in the tabletop gaming community. Members of the community stream multiple games featuring characters with disabilities played by people with disabilities.

Written by Eli.