As a RPG lover, I’ve tried to brainstorm a bit on how Role Play is applied to Board Games. From BGG’s description:
Some board games incorporate elements of role playing. It can be that players control a character that improves over time. It can also be a game that encourages or inspires Storytelling.
I think this description doesn’t make justice to what Role Play may entail, especially for those who play RPGs. So I tried to understand what Role Playing means to me and isolate how Role Play is put into practice in some Board Games. I’ll keep it simple and straight ’cause I’d like to hear what you think about the subject. So, to me, Role Play may be implemented in terms of:
- Character Development. This entails playing a Character that improves over time, by levelling up, by gaining skills or more powerful abilities/enchantments, other than gears and equipment. Some examples are for sure Gloomhaven and Mage Knights. Here the Characters level up and improve by adding more and more powerful cards to their decks, also gaining more skills or pieces of equipment/artefacts.
- Storytelling. Such as reading a book’s pharagraph or a card that tells you what happens at a specific location: maybe you’ve met a merchant and may decide to purchase an item, or to rob him of his possessions. Here the players experience a Story written for them; such as RPG players experience a Story written by the Dungeon Master. A couple of examples are Scythe’s Encounter Cards that allow you to pick a reward right away from those available; or Eldritch Horror’s where you are required to pass a check (or to spend a Clue) to have this or that result. I can also think of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective that pushes it all to the limit, having the player extensively read a story with the sole purpose of making the player live that story.
- Legacy / Green Legacy. Destroying cards and opening new boxes after you made choices. This is something at which Gloomhaven excels, and that improves the feeling of character/story development. While lately the Green Legacy tries to accomplish the same feeling without forcing us to destroy things, in Arydia, the Paths we Dare Thread, which we await, salivating. In both cases, Legacy is the aphoteosis of following a path or story branch.
- Branching paths. Strictly linked to Storytelling, this expands the experience a bit further. Not only you’ll have to decide what to do at a specific time, but your decision may change the Story you are experiencing. Legacy of Dragonholt does so – such as game books; after reading some paragraphs you’ll have to decide what to do next and your decision will change the side of the Story you’ll experience.
- Behave according to your Character. You have a Character with a specific alignment or traits, and you have to behave (do actions) following the Character’s alignment. This is a strong element of RPGs, while I believe is still unripe with regards to Board Games. Again I can think of Mage knight. Here – by using the right cards – you may decide to burn villages, threaten people or avoid doing so and be a bit more valorous. Your decision will influence your Reputation, which may or may not have a real effect on your quest. Same for Gloomhaven, the choices you make during encounters may change for example the Prosperity of the Region. The impact of your actions seems anyway more relevant in the short term, rather than in the long run.
- Speak according to your Character. Again something strongly done in RPGs, still not so relevant in BGs. On the contrary, it looks like forcing players to embody their Characters by speaking as that Character, may be a deterrent for many people. I experienced that myself with a couple of Board Games; if you don’t have the
rightperfect group, the game won’t be fun. For example Aye, Dark Overlord (aka Si, Oscuro Signore), which despite providing funny and seemingly fun premises, fails short to provide an engaging experience; some players will just struggle in playing the role naturally.
- Negotiations. I don’t often see this mentioned a mean for Role Play, but I believe Negotiations really add up to the Role Play in general. Despite people may struggle to talk as their in-game Characters, they may forget that they have to do so, and start doing it a bit just by initiating negotiations with their neighbors. Here I’ve got lots of examples ranging from the SCI-FI Twilight Imperium and Dune/Rex, to the medieval Fief, Warrior Knights, a Game of Thrones or the Reinassance-themed Archipelago.
- Hidden Roles. Here The Resistance comes to mind, or any other game with hidden roles, such as Battlestar Galactica or Shadows Over Camelot. In these games you’ll probably have to lie concerning your role and sometimes you’d be pushed to roleplay a bit to defend your position.
These are the main variables I can think of. Some minor things that may also add to the experience may be Variable Player Powers, Hidden Objectives/Victory Conditions, Character’s background Story/Information, Flavour text. As a RPG lover I believe something more can be done to integrate Role Playing elements to the Board Game experience, even without a Dungeon Master that dictates what’s right and what’s wrong. Some of the elements I thought of, are in fact pillars of RPGs – such as behaving as the Character you embody – while still to be explored with regards to their implementation in Board Games.
At this point I’d love to know:
What does Role Play really mean to you? Is something still missing in Board Games with respect to Role Playing?
What’s the part of Role Play you think is most fun? Do you believe there’s something that can be done to integrate that fun into Board Games?