How to Find Balance in Tabletop Narrative & Theme Design (and storytelling in general)

Everybody loves a good theme. It is literally what stops some games from being complete and utter trash to be honest, and a great theme can really elevate a board game to the next level.

What’s great about tabletop is that there are so many non-traditional themes out there that break out of the mould of stale fantasy or sci-fi (or Cthulhu, just stop please!) I’m talking dental practice board games, games where you are a stroppy teenager who just listens to metal music in there room and plays computer games all day (ok maybe that one was just me…), games where everybody is a spec of dust and you have to beat the other specs to become the most… speccy? You get the point. Also none of those are actual games but part of me kinda wishes they were. Not least to relive my nerdy isolated youth involving lots of angry music.

With the theme being key to game design though, and more and more hobbyists expecting detailed and intricately balanced theme and gameplay nowadays, it has never been more important to the success of a game or ensure that the theme and narrative design is 100% on point. And that is why I have created this list. It’s all about balance really, because we all know a game that is all mechanic or all theme is usually just boring as hell…

1. Be familiar, without being cliche

Oh hey guys I can totally relate to being a spec of dust right now! Since we’re totally playing the dust spec game that inventions earlier (and definitely doesn’t exist). You know, due to feeling small and insignificant and prone to growing mold if left in a cold, damp place for extended periods of time… nobody? Ok just me.

Familiarity is your foot in the door with your players, but it shouldn’t shape your entire game.

It’s like a tool you use to get people to go ‘ooooh right I get it, that’s what you mean,’ or ‘ahhh no way, now you’ve explained this horrendously complicated mechanic to me in narrative terms within the context of this relatable story I totally get it!’

See, easy.

The trick is to making sure you have just enough of a level of familiarity to frame complex game mechanics and nuances in a way that people can get really easily.

2. Be accessible, without being dumbed down

Now this is a 2 parter because accessibility really comes in 2 forms.

The first is the kind of accessibility that lets visually or hearing impaired people participate in your game with minimal difficulty. You should 100% build this into your game from the get go. It’s very important.

The second level of accessibility comes in the form of players learning and adapting to your game quickly. This means getting your players to a point where they feel in control, and understand how to not only play the game, but succeed at it, as quickly as possible. Preferably without detracting from the quality of the game.

So how do you do this? Well a few ways really, firstly through simplicity and clarity of copy. Really refining your rules down to a point where they are suuuuuuper clear and straightforward, and for Pete’s sake get a copywriter to proof read it (hi Pete!)

Secondly, context. Phrase things in a way that reflects the familiarity and context of your theme. Posing complex problems in the context of human decisions and emotions make them far easier to understand.

Thirdly, don’t be afraid to use visual devices like colour or iconography to help people with recognising things they are going to be doing multiple times. The human brain is trained to recognise patterns, so use that to your advantage!

3. Be intriguing, without being overly complex or abstract

‘Ooo he’s so mysterious’ a random girl said to her archetypical teenage friend. ‘Yes, but also he’s a spec of dust’ said the friend.

Specs of dust are abstract ok. Probably too abstract to understand in the context of a relationship right? Maybe the girls were specs of dust too? Maybe she has a thing for specs… of dust (not just eyewear).

You were intrigued though right? Ooo the mystery.

The point is, it’s good to be mysterious, intriguing and have some surprises in your narrative and theme, just don’t make it too abstract. Abstract is ok with familiarity and context but without being able to recognise what is happening in a way that relates to the actual game, the meaning of that intrigue and mystery is lost.

4. Be evocative, without being purple

Ah man I’m gunna so decorate every room in my new house full purple. My girlfriend will love it, I know her least favourite colour is purple but just wait until you actually seee it in person.

Not convinced.

Yeah neither am I.

I’m not talking about paint colours or interior decorating though I’m taking about the literary definition of purple. That overly long wordy and flowery explanation that should have just been explained in a few simple sentences kind of purple. Bad purple! I also have a dog called purple.

Ok I don’t, but now I’m just sad because I don’t have a dog. SIGH.

There is a right and a wrong time for purple prose. Right time: an overly dramatic description of the scene that starts the game. Wrong time: explaining how your innovative turn mechanic works (and how basically any functional game mechanic works).

5. Be inclusive, without being vague

Here at BGLA we loooooove to be inclusive.

No seriously, that wasn’t even meant to sound sarcastic, I know it did.

We DO care though, and you should to when you’re designing your game! Being inclusive should be paramount to the design of your game, after al, you do want to get as many people as possible playing right?

There are a couple of exceptions and things to balance here though. If your game is designed to fill a specific niche. Go after those people first, and then work on inclusivity. Sometimes certain types of games only appeal to certain types of players, and your core demographic may be more important than watering something down to appeal to everyone.

As with everything, it’s all about the balance.

Yours balancingly,

Chris