The Story/Board Game Divide

So I’m bashing my brains out on a cute little deduction game called Tragedy Looper. Weird name but appropriately Engrish-y: it’s an import from Japan about looping through time trying to avert a series of tragedies. Each time you pass through the loop, you pick up more hints about who or what is behind the tragedy. Eventually you either succeed in maneuvering the situation out of the inevitable terrible situation (and no joke, they’re triggery as hell: violence, suicide, etc.), guess all the game-functional roles held by all the characters present, or you just can’t figure it all out in the loops allotted.

As a deduction game, it looks pretty tight. I haven’t played it yet. There are three economies that trigger three different things, and by observing what the Mastermind is doing and the results, you can piece together — hopefully! — what has to not happen, thereby foiling the Mastermind and ending the tragedy.

So the game has these specific rules the Mastermind has to adhere to when executing and discussing the game, right? “You died, start the loop over” is what you say, not “ha, the serial killer got you all!” or whatever. Information control is key! 

As you play through a loop, there will be a few Incidents that occur. An Incident might be a murder, or a sudden spike in paranoia, whatever. Every incident has a culprit, who is the personality responsible for the incident. If they’re alive and they’re paranoid (stressed) enough, the incident will take place.

Oho! But then there are things that might happen that make the incident get triggered but not take place. And that flag is important for the deduction game.

That is so fucking weird.

It’s weird because as I’m reading through this game, I’m evaluating it as if it were an RPG or storygame or whatever. Like…what does that look like in the fiction? It took place but nothing happened? What the fuck? And the Mastermind literally cannot say “a murder was attempted but the cop stopped it,” which is a chain of events that can take place in the game but saying so outright undermines the deduction game.

But, like, because it’s a boardgame, it doesn’t matter at all what it looks like in the fiction. It can look like nothing. It can be a logical construct, not a fictional one. The GM could just as easily hold up an “Incident Foiled” card and say nothing at all. The fact of the foiling is what matters in the boardgame, not the reasoning behind it.

And yet Tragedy Looper also flirts with the Mastermind role narrating events just the tiniest bit. But I gotta say, I have no idea what to make of “an incident takes place but nothing happens.” The game is messing with my head in the worst way.

I think about this stuff a lot as folks start adding more boardgame-y elements to their RPGs. The moment the fiction doesn’t matter is the moment I probably stop caring. And yet there’s so much in an RPG that doesn’t look like anything in the fiction: the player receiving a Persona in Burning Wheel did that because they authored their character into a qualifying situation, for example. Or like when my players built a Slave Market in their Mutant: Year Zero game — that has to matter more than just getting some food and warfare bonuses.

Might turn out that I’m making a big deal about nothing. We’re playing tomorrow night, so I’ll see firsthand how it looks/feels to play out this whole “the incident took place but nothing happened” business. Even typing it makes my eyelid twitch.

0 thoughts on “The Story/Board Game Divide

  1. Adam Day Not…really, no. Whatever the GM Mastermind says, he has to convey that the incident trigger was fulfilled, and that the incident consequences do not take place. 

    Like I said, it’s purely a boardgamey construct. It makes no fictional or narrative sense. In a time-travel RPG you might be like “wow, how did the cop know to stop that murder?” and go from there.

  2. “The incident took place and nothing happens” always feels like a Protagonist special power: you’re the type of people who feel disturbances in the timestream, and so that that murder doesn’t happen feels important to you, even if nobody else notices it.

    This is pretty supported in the fiction by that the Protagonist know before the game even starts what Incidents are in play. The Mastermind’s actions cause ripples in the timestream, and the Protagonists can see them coming days away.

  3. James Stuart Now that I can work with! Pure psychic whammy. Hell, I’ll take it. 

    Re the fiction: I thought that the characters had already lived through the events of the loop before the game started, which is why they know what Incidents take place on what days (i.e. a murder on day 2, a suicide on day 3, etc.).

  4. Yeah, I think you could take the thematic intro text in multiple ways. That makes sense, but I also feel like it makes sense to treat it like:

    “Hey, you’ve been through this before. There are Masterminds, you’ve beaten them before. And now, you can feel another disturbance coming on, but you don’t know what to do. Yet.”

    That the Protagonists don’t  know any ending conditions when they start hints that they haven’t been through this particular crisis before.

  5. Also a good point. Sigh.

    See this is why it’s dumb of me to even try to bring any kind of narrative to this game, no matter how bad I want to. I do like your rationale, though: you can bop through time and you can sense when things are out of whack (in one of two ways: the event was primed to go off but didn’t, or the event wasn’t primed at all).

  6. Yeah, a lot of board games need to constrain or warp the narrative space in some places to make the game work as a whole. I think that speaks to the presence of the players, who are metatextually involved in the story. While they make decisions for the characters, they also are aware of the mechanical framework surrounding the game, and can use that for decision-making. It’s a sort of simultaneous existence, you are both representing your character and not representing your character.

  7. Definitely also check out T.I.M.E Stories. It’s a looping-time-travel boardgame as well, except that it’s 100% co-op and there is no way to re-play the scenarios (but this also allows for a much, much deeper story aspect and such). Also, it’s hella fun to watch a new group play through a scenario you’ve been through.

  8. I mean, yeah, it has pictures and people and the protag characters are represented by character sketches and images of their time travel method (watch, diary, app)… but ultimately it’s a cold logic game, similar to “Randy is taller than Michelle. Michelle’s hat is Red. Mike does NOT have a Green hat…” puzzles.

    I hope for your success. I utterly, utterly love this game. I can’t say “it’s my favorite” because it takes a lot of time to sort out and start up, but way up there.

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