As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said (allegedly), ‘change is constant.’ Theater makers track change through story arcs and character arcs. Video game designers focus on interest curves- tracking player engagement over time. Larps often contain scenarios that escalate in tension and stakes, while role-playing games follow a similar structure to theater, relying on character arcs and story arcs that play out over an extended period of time. Built into each of these instances is an emotional “peak” for the players/audience.
There is one more medium I love, but the arc is less clear to me: tabletop games. Do tabletop games have an arc? We track points and stuff but that’s different than tracking changes to our emotional experience. I’ve been playing a lot of tabletop games while hanging out with my family in Connecticut this week and unless I’m *sure* I’m going to lose, the tension of a game builds consistently to the point at which we are counting up our points, at which point the game is… over? My somatic experience of change while playing board games is less of an arc than it is an upward arrow ending in a steep incline. An upward incline is indicative of a win whereas a downward incline is indicative of a loss.
Arcs are great. We expect them in our narratives and they often deliver. But they’re not the only shape a narrative experience can take. For instance, Kishōtenketsu doesn’t bother with arcs yet still conveys an emotional journal for a player/participant/viewer/etc. Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. As diagramed in this article, very little can happen and we can still have big feelings. Moreover, we don’t need to overcome conflict to feel them. We can just be… surprised.
In parallel to the comic outlined in the article, tabletop games provide a “default” position at the beginning of the experience “with which to compare later events.” We give ourselves over to the possibility of being surprised. We allow “exposition and contrast to generate interest.” And to jump onboard the Derrida train that the articles release from the station, I wouldn’t want tabletop games to remind me exactly of theater. It is my own biases that send me looking for an arc without always considering what an arc would cost for the form to absorb a bias that is already so present in western art. It would come at a cost of the openness to interpretation and possibility that tabletop games provide so masterfully.
That said, tabletop games do introduce conflict. They do it a LOT. I think the key takeaway for me is not that tabletop games are conflict drivers or don’t have narrative arcs, it’s that I’m so excited and grateful to play (in my own work) with how form and function come together. Instead of thinking about adapting tabletop games to the structure I know (narrative arcs), I feel a renewed pleasure and appreciation for meeting the form where it is and seeing what can be with the affordances specific to tabletop games. This isn’t to say I don’t love a good cross-pollination, just that I can be too quick to judge sometimes and it was a helpful exercise for me to write this post to remember how much I can learn when I don’t assume there’s something missing in an art form, but rather that there is an interesting reason why it is the way it is. I don’t need to be in conflict about whether or not tabletop games should have narrative arcs, I just let them play and be… surprised.