Premise of Heroes is the title of a creative storytelling game I am developing. A few years ago I started fooling around with an idea: a roleplaying card game (rpg) in which players create interesting characters and have an adventure. In rpg’s I always liked coming up with characters and the defining part that makes them unique and interesting. Could that be a game in itself?
Another intriguing part of rpg’s is how a group of characters become a party, a team, how unlikely it would be. Heck, unlikely parties are the standard. Rare are the player groups that create characters to form the most probable teams, say a bunch of dwarves going on expedition. Could coming up with the story how an unlikely group of characters became a party be fun to create as well? As the second act of a game?
After many playtests and iterations the answer to those questions is yes! For sure. And based om the recent plays it is fun as heck. I am amazed how much creativity and fun I see each and single time when players play the game. It did take many versions of the rules and card types to hone in on the sweet spot in which the game is now.
In the beginning the game did outstay it’s welcome, but now it is snappy and enjoyable. The game is inspired by traditional fantasy rpg’s, like Dungeons & Dragons. However, no experience in such games is needed. A bit of knowledge of fictional fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones is more than enough to be able to play. When a race or class is unfamiliar to a player, either the group solves that easily, or that concept will get a new temporary meaning.
Looking for story prompts emotions did not work and character traits were meh. The current use of icons that are black and white work very well. And the more ambiguous the picture and open to interpretation, the better. For example a beard that also seems like a mountain upside down. Mad props to game-icons.net, the icon are their creations!
Early in development it became clear that playing the unusual races makes this game really fun. Instead of ‘playing’ a regular Human or Half-Orc, it became clear that it is awesome to come up with a description of a Demon, Zombie or Cyclops for example. Especially if paired with classes (roles, professions) that are regular or seem at odds with the race. More and more the regular races were dropped and more unique ones were added.
Freedom versus Guidance
While considering optimal production value I made the cards double sides. This way with 40 cards the game offers 1600 unique race + class combinations to play out. A pleasant side effect of that is it added the possibility for choice in the character creation round. And that is liked a lot. Players can now choose which out of the 4 different combinations the player would like to describe. To ensure choice and variability another iteration was to combine races that are regarded as equally cool or extreme but still different together on the same card (e.g. Angel and Demon). The 2 classes on each card are now designed to be different enough: not two fighting or magic oriented classes on both sides. This is subjective, yet seems to hold up and every play session the feedback of players is they like the choices offered.
The other phases of the game took many more tries. How can the players get a sense of direction, be steered in their creative storytelling, yet still not force a particular type of story? A milestone in development was adding the rule that uses the technique of having a group look back on an adventure. It is used in regular rpg games, as a way to still play when only a few of the players that are essential for the campaign can meet up. The players that are present imagine themselves sitting in a tavern, chatting and collectively recollect how a certain adventure happened, making it up. The added benefit is that player could talk about what another player did, instead of only their own character.
Letting players decide freely how long the story can take and how many cards can be used never worked. Even though a group felt that it took too long, they had a hard time wrapping up the story and kept adding. Yet then the stories do become much more interesting with some sidesteps or plot twists added.
Game versus Play
At first the game played around 45 minutes to an hour, overstaying its welcome by a margin. However, doing just the character creation part felt like an incomplete game. There should be something happening with all the heroes (or villains) created. Finding the proper play length has been an adventure (badum tsss). Having a round that is about forming the party and then another round to describe an adventure was taking too long. Now the second round is looking back at and adventure, which optionally is about the party formation (and meanwhile there is a list of cool other scenario’s). Doing another adventure or using more cards is completely optional. Again it is about guaranteeing a good experience by the basic rules, while offering suggestions how to adapt the game to you own groups liking.
There is no real win or lose state, no competition offered by the game or by your fellow player. The rules do offer structure and direction and I have made more explicit what the challenge is. How well that challenge is met is not scored or defined in other ways by the game. The players do not seem to miss that. Leaning into a party game vibe seems to ensure that even more. Still it won’t be for everyone. Some will like it less for that or feel it is a very good activity but not a real game. Seeing game versus play as a scale instead of binary I do think it lies more towards play. However, my search was to find the minimum in rules and structure to create a consistent but very open experience. It seems the game is getting there 🙂
Some players see Premise of Heroes as a great tool for getting inspiration for regular storytelling or rpg’s as well. That is a great bonus! A few player fear that the experience of this game is too dependent on the player group even while they had a good time. While the play certainly is depending on the input of players, the consistency really seems there: so far I only saw 1 playtest be mediocre, the rest of the time groups enjoyed it a lot and there was surprising, enjoyable storytelling. Even people who feared they are not well versed or felt they are not creative or playful did well and reported feeling they were able to contribute in a good way. The gains of the high player agency in this game seems to outweigh the downsides.
While playtesting the game at a Narrative Design Meetup at the Game Bakery, a local game dev hub, there were multiple suggestions on potential different ways the game could be different. I added a bunch of suggested and new challenge modes as add-ons to the game. Testing these is the next step. As is continuing playtesting with diverse groups of players.
The game icons work well. One publisher was quite critical on these, players like them a lot. However, this way there is no unique selling point in distinct art, which usually is a great way to increase the perceived value of a game. It also means it can be created for a very friendly price, though. Still, I will test what other types of art does for the experience (art on cards like in Dixit, Mysterium or Muse). If the game icons stay, the selection of these is next: some spark more diverse stories than others, others are really iconic but straightforward (a sword). This needs further testing and selection to ‘balance’ well.
The races and classes in the game have been through multiple sorting selections with players and the current set seems to be in a really good spot. There have been good new suggestions, but probably these are expansion material (e.g. what might spark extra humor is adding mundane roles like tax collector or their modern day equivalent, accountant). The development continues, and I want to check with rpg publishers if they would be interested.
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Game on! -Arjan