Grave Error Design - Backstory and Banishment

There is a huge distinction between a storytelling game and a game that tells a story. Storytelling games are about players developing the ups and downs of characters and worlds as the tale goes forward. Games presenting a story give you dramatic tension as the mechanics unfold and play off of your machinations of victory. The difference is upon whom the onus of challenge lays: the players or the game. Do the characters have problems because of the game or because players want them to have such problems? Grave Error, our in-development, spooky, hidden-movement game, tries to blend in the players’ storytelling creativity with concrete mechanics and traditional board game components. In this blog, we will explore the in-game systems straddling this line and discuss how we arrived at the current iterations.

The first thing players do in Grave Error is describe their tragic backstory. This is the event launching them into a life of tracking down ghosts on reality TV. Every player is dealt two cards with an evocative word, like “envy” or “faith”. They then tell a little story about their past using those cards as prompts. Afterwards, other players select “totem” items relating to that story and give them to the player. These totems are objects of significance to that player that will find their way into the spirit realm the group is about to enter.

This backstory establishment quickly sets the mood. These stories are what the game’s vengeful spirit uses to corrupt players during play, giving some justification to as to why these people would be less resistant to a being trying to harm their friends. It also highlights the totems, which serve as the main objective in the game. Players try to find the totems belonging to who they suspect is possessed. These are applied to a cleansing ritual, which removes the ghost from its target. The possessed player can hang on to their rivals’ totems in an attempt to counter the spell. All these totem items carry mechanical importance, as well as tie back to the player-created tales.

Earlier versions of Grave Error did not include totems. We thought we could foster clever storytelling by letting players use any items they find in the haunted area. The challenge would be to justify how the random stuff helps pacify the spirit using an improvised banishment ritual explanation. Everyone not telling the story then gives it a rating from 1-6, 1 being an amazing tale and 6 being completely irrelevant to the player’s backstory. The person casting the ritual needed to roll that or higher to succeed on a die. This sort of mechanic was inspired by Machine of Death. However, it had the same problem as Machine of Death: players were unwilling deliberately fail themselves.

Here (and in our similar combat mechanic), the narrative and gameplay collided. Players would fudge the numbers for an advantage. It became less about telling a compelling little story then it was justifying your story’s score after the ratings. Ultimately, players needed a solid pass/fail system to stay honest.

Currently, when players attempt to banish the spirit, they present totems and describe how using them in the ritual puts the person at ease. The totems give a clear goal to players in terms of what to search for (instead of trying to fabricate a ridiculous justification for whatever is in their inventory). They also allow for a consistent numerical result with the banishment’s roll. There is a fixed goal number, modified by the number of relevant totems held by each side. Players are still encouraged to monologue about the in-game action, but they can no longer talk their way out of failure.

The interwoven mechanics of backstory and banishment strike a balance between telling a story and experiencing the story the game tells. By starting players off as the creative force, they build the mood and characters. The game then wrests some agency from the players, but the trajectory has already been established. Every action is in the context of the first stories: the battle between a vengeful spirit and the traumas of years past. The climatic banishment is done through a fabricated story relating to player content and grounded in reliable mechanics.