Defining the concept
Storyboarding is a one of the many rpg theory concepts developed and named by Ron Edwards over the ’00s at the Forge. Here’s a quick capsule definition by yours truly:
And yes, “actually” is actually an important detail there: you could conceive of this play structure as “playing the scene twice”, and for many purposes you’d be right, but all the storyboarding I’ve ever seen has conceived of a distinction where the plotting stage is “not really play” despite all the important topic and plot choices happening there. The “actually play” portion of the process is the one where narrative detail and character acting happens.
And a narrative example of storyboarding to hopefully concretize the definition:
A group is playing some relatively traditional game, let’s say Exalted — the player characters are powerful kungfu wizards in a mythic China of sorts. The game differs from D&D in that it encourages player agency, which the group has seized on in a big way: the individual player characters have their own motivations and personalities and desires outside of any adventure game context; in fact, the play mostly doesn’t involve GM-prepped adventures so much as “what would you like to do next?”
The group frames scenes in their Exalted game by having a conversation between the GM and the players who would be involved in the scene: sometimes the GM has some strong initiative, like an old enemy of a PC coming back to haunt them, but often it’s more “what do you want to do”. In fact, what it turns into over time is the more powerful “what do you want to see?”
It is very possible for the group to develop a complete storyboarding play process that works like this: when it’s time to start a new scene, one of the players — GM or character player — suggests a scene idea, something like “my character wants to seduce your character to convince him to help us with the rebellion.” The other players involved by the idea then suggest their corrections and concerns about the scene: “Yeah, that would be cool — but I don’t want to commit my men, so how about only my PC comes without his retinue?”
The players can go back and forth on what they’d like to see the scene be about. Not only the subject matter (“I’ll try to seduce you!”) but also the plot (“My character could interrupt this midway!”) and even dramatic detailing (“Oh, I’ll be so angry I’ll break my cane at the end!”) can be discussed, depending on group preferences. The process is generally understood to be implicitly rules-free and egalitarian, existing outside the game proper.
The players are acting as a scripting team for the game, effectively pre-resolving the high points of the upcoming scene in advance. When they’re happy with the storyboarded scene, play continues into actually executing the plan; this is what defines storyboarding, the “playing it twice” — the abstract negotiation part in itself isn’t that unusual, you’d see some games where that kind of terseness is actually how the game is played.
The expectation is that when the scene is “actually played” after the storyboarding, the players play in the spirit of what was planned in advance. Everybody knows where the scene is going in general terms, so at this point they’re mainly filling in details: how my character is dressed, what the dialogue is like, and so on. Rules might get fudged so the situation doesn’t develop against the storyboard, of course. Rules are rarely entirely obviated if they exist in the first place, though; usually the ideal is that you still use the rules to provide innocuous detail and even emergent surprises.
It’s a simple concept, although many roleplayers will be flabbergasted by the idea when they first encounter it: it’s not super-duper common in the rpg scene, particularly in a fully expressed form, and it seems so weird and contrary to how many play their games that it would be easy to imagine that storyboarding doesn’t even exist. However, get to know some more gamers from various parts of the hobby, and you will encounter people for whom storyboarding is the most natural thing. I certainly have. It’s much more common outside the tabletop roleplaying scene, too; traditional freeform-style forum rpgs can involve a lot of storyboarding, for example.
I should clarify here that the storyboarding phenomenon is not a discrete binary condition. While it’s possible to play with no storyboarding at all, or with a very pure storyboarding procedure, I haven’t heard of the latter much. Most groups who storyboard seem to do it as the result of a natural, unexamined drift in local play procedure rather than out of conscious choice, and consequently the degree of storyboarding varies a lot. A group may consequently storyboard scene choreography without necessarily determining the scene’s ultimate outcome in advance, for example, and the game mechanics of a given game may inform the storyboarding process a lot. The actual length of the storyboarding committee session is apparently usually not massively long; most of the time you can get far with a single pronouncement, like “This will be the scene where I betray everybody!” or whatever.
Closely Linked Phenomena
My experience: the creative motivation for storyboarding arises out of concerns for structuring the game and granting the players creative agency. My discussions over the years with gamers who like storyboarding have painted a picture of a story-oriented, expressive and egalitarian playstyle shared by groups who storyboard. They are also groups that, compared to other gamers, tend to play a “softer” game: play is more patient, creative stakes are lower and players are more concerned about bruising each other’s feelings. These groups are also often ambitious in the sense that the players feel responsibility about playing well and improving their play, rather than the opposite (treating the game session as a time of relaxation), which is also common in the rpg culture.
Performative play is also extremely important to storyboarding, I’ll be coming back to that later. In my experience where there’s storyboarding, there’s also either much frustration or clear performative play. It’s my own rpg theory term, so a quick definition of what I mean:
My impression is that storyboarding groups arise out of play cultures that also favour strong auteur GMs: gamemasters who take responsibility for the creative outcomes of play and generally exert a high degree of control over the game in various ways. The ethos is similar, and I think that which way a given group swings depends mainly on how active the character players in the group are: if the group includes many active storytellers it’s more natural to lean towards storyboarding, while a group with a clear split between one auteur storyteller and a number of active listeners will naturally favour an auteur GM. Both kinds of groups generally share the notion that play should strive towards high-quality outcomes such as a “good story”. (If it seems like all groups want that, consider the alternatives: some gamers value process fidelity over quality of the results, for example.)
Storyboarding was originally conceptualized as a theory concept and doctrinal topic in the context of Forgite narrativist play culture: I remember first seeing it discussed in relation to Primetime Adventures: PTA is a GMed game about TV drama with play procedures that are superficially storyboarding-compatible, yet ultimately incoherent. Framing scenes in PTA involves the GM asking each player in turn to “order” a scene for their character, specifying certain basics that ultimately boil down to “what your character will do next”. It seems to be pretty natural for storyboarding-inclined play groups to interpret this step as “give me your scene idea, and we’ll hammer it out into a scene right here”.
PTA isn’t planned with storyboarding in mind, and its mechanical engagements are actively contradictory to planning scene outcomes, so a storyboarding group may discover that using e.g. the conflict resolution system is difficult, which in turn makes the vast majority of the game non-functional at the table. The difficulties are even worse for players who slipped into storyboarding procedures without firm intent, due to misunderstanding the scene framing rules, as they may very well find the “double play” to be cumbersome, slow and boring, with the scene pre-planning taking away the excitement from playing the scene.
The Primetime Adventures discussions at the Forge worked pretty well to pinpoint the main reasons why storyboarding is considered a non-functional technique for certain kinds of roleplaying games. Namely:
- Bold moves and individual player expression are discouraged by the committee process of storyboarding (in comparison to not doing it, I mean), as any ideas or desires the players may have are first expressed provisionally and moderated by the group as a whole.
- Surprising turns of events are, again, moderated by having them first appear on the storyboards and then get executed in play.
- Storyboarding may run afoul of the formal rules used by the game; very few formal game texts recognize storyboarding practice, and many are powerfully contradictory, insisting either that scenes should be spontaneous (as opposed to pre-planned), or that the GM should subtly guide play while the other players play spontaneously.
These traits are rather anathema to the sort of Narrativistic games favoured by the Forge culture in the ’00s, so storyboarding was largely treated as a dysfunction of play, something to diagnose and then excise to make games like Primetime Adventures flow better. It was another of a long list of rpg diagnostic syndromes that grew familiar to those frequenting the rpg clinic, and just like e.g. railroading, its close creative cousin, the story was usually considered over once you observed the scene framing process, spotted the storyboarding and could instruct the group to stop doing that.
The Creative Issue
A Forgite analyst will often, when faced with storyboarding, treat it as a problem to be excised. In many interactive situations this will mean questioning the storyboarder’s creative motivations: why do you do this thing? Do you think that your gaming might improve if you stopped doing it? Let’s try to play a game without storyboarding, just jump right into the scene and give it to us raw!
While questioning the “storyboarding is a disease” idea is a big theme for me here in this article, I’d like to say that in my experience there’s a kernel of truth to expecting that storyboarding has its roots in creative uncertainty: I have myself seen it occur that a group does storyboard because they’re afraid of some creative risks:
- What if my stuff is not good enough? Gamers may well feel intimidated by other people’s play, real or imagined, or they may have artistic ambitions, ideas about what roleplaying should look like. Storyboarding helps make the “actual play” more smooth and well-formed rather than being the kind of stumbling and bumbling that you might get if the players went into the scene blind. The same fears may well be involved in motivating GM railroading, too: you fear that what will happen in play won’t be good enough, so you stack the deck.
- What if I bruise another player’s feelings? Gamers may be hesitant to play “boldly” in whatever sense a given game might encourage due to interpersonal emotional and creative insecurity. Storyboarding helps you bring bold ideas into the game, as those ideas will first be introduced as mere suggestions rather than character actions: you never need to end up in a situation where your character does something that upsets another player.
- What if we don’t know how to communicate? I understand that storyboarding has actually often been a great leap forward for many groups simply because it’s a procedural hack that causes systematic space for the group to actually discuss their on-going play at a fiction-external level for the first time. (In plain language: before every scene there is a moment in play where the players are expected to voice their opinions about what they want.) If storyboarding is added to a player procedure where the character players were only allowed to speak in character voices before, then its introduction may have been massively empowering.
Although creative motivations are a deep topic that goes into the fundamentals of why you would even play these games, I will nevertheless hazard the opinion that the above reasons to storyboard are not good reasons: to put it simply, the root causes can be addressed by better techniques that help you grow as a person and artist. Storyboarding for these reasons is a crutch, which was ultimately the point at the Forgite rpg clinic, even if it often wasn’t expressed quite so blatantly.
(Those “better techniques” are probably known to the reader by the way, it’s fundamental artistic integrity stuff: stop fearing what others may think to discover your own art, learn to live with artistic disagreement like an adult, stuff like that. There’s more formalized gaming rules cruft you can use to get over the hump too, but the fundamental nature of these problems is about human development rather than game development. You don’t need storyboarding to fix these.)
Use in Performative Play
Taking all of the above into consideration, I think that there’s no particular reason why we couldn’t imagine a roleplaying game that has legitimate use for storyboarding — it’s just not Forgite Nar games. Much weirder things are done in rpgs, frankly, so why not pre-planning scenes. Game products that support the practice are rather rare (I can’t think of one off-hand), so it could even be a fruitful field of study for somebody.
I won’t claim that this is the only legit playstyle to feature storyboarding, but I’ll pitch you one: if your game were to be centered on performative play, storyboarding might make great sense, just as railroading does: having a “script” available when actually performing the scene makes the performance much easier in the sense of being able to focus on the descriptions and dialogue. In fact, you get a qualitatively different kind of roleplaying experience because now your play is teleological: you know where the scene is going, and therefore you’re now dancing to the same tune as your co-players. For example, if your scene was about roleplaying a seduction, wouldn’t it be immensely easier to play your role if you know what the end outcome is supposed to be?
This very same feature is a grave flaw for a player looking for spontaneous excitement, of course: knowing how the scene is going to go is boring if you’re excited about the plot and the stakes. It’s an example of a conflict in creative agenda: if what satisfies you is playing a cool scene, you might welcome the actual structure that storyboarding the scene first provides, but if your heart yearns for surprising, challenging on the spot decisions with unknown outcomes, then, well, anathema is the word I’ve been mulling over.
In case you might think that this performative play thing is entirely hypothetical, I’ll note that it’s sort of dominant in the way Nordic freeform construes of roleplaying: many jeepform and Fastaval games that I’ve seen are pretty clear about the creative goal of the game being to do some impressive intimate improvised theater (I3 theater in short, which sounds like a Nordic rpg manifesto — feel free to adopt!). What I’ve seen has mainly been in the railroading end of things (at least in the sense of working off a fixed script), but the idea of having the players select and plan the scene isn’t foreign at all either. Nordic stuff’s actually probably the most explicit that I’ve seen a game text get about storyboarding, now that I think of it.
I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if somebody told me that this is how they play, and that they recognize performative play as an interest in their roleplaying. I haven’t talked this stuff over in so many words with a performative storyboarder, but from descriptions of play I’ve seen such being certainly exist out there in the wilds.
I should try this out at some point. Performative play is not foreign to me, but I’ve only ever done it the auteur GM way: I’ve facilitated horror and grand fantasy games with myself in the storyteller’s seat this last decade that have certainly had a performative focus, and that performative focus has indeed carried the potentially boring railroading. If you’re familiar with railroading actual play narratives, then you probably also know that many GMs grow disillusioned with the practice because of how boring it is to GM a game where you’ve already decided in advance what’s going to happen. That’s what happened to me in the late ’90s (with the piquant addition of our gaming having been a complete mess systematically). When I got my “Simulationistic toolpack” in order, I found that I could actually enjoy railroad GMing, and performative play was the key there: if I had a story I actually wanted to tell, then I could have the patience for preparing and performing GM story hours, dozens of sessions in sequence.
But storyboarding, that I haven’t done. Would need a good topic, something that overcomes the fact that I am not necessarily a priori that interested in what you have to say, speaking to an abstract co-player. We would need a subject matter for the game where I’d be entertained by having you perform. (My own performance is easier; as I intimated above, give me a topic that I want to talk about, and I’ll be your storyteller/scriptwriter/actor.) It’s not entirely trivial, as I love my own voice and I don’t necessarily love yours. We could play a GM story hour game instead, yes?
I stopped for a minute to think about this, and it would deserve more thought, but I’m on the clock here, and this is actually a pretty good idea. We should try a storyboarded sitcom: developing and playing a sitcom roleplaying game is an evergreen development topic, I don’t expect to be alone in having considered it. Thinking about it, storyboarding could be a pretty definitive structural chassis for making it work; you’d be able to work out the scene topic, the theme of the verbal comedy and the pivotal events in the scene, even some punchlines maybe, before throwing the players to the stage and expecting them to perform. There’s also a high probability that I’d be entertained by the other players performing, as it’d be interesting to see how much they could project the simple characters and how funny they could be and whether they’d have performance chemistry against each other.
But that’s me and other gamers similarly saddled with a combination of neophilia and a design hobby. For the practical storyboarders out there I mainly have the suggestion of nosce te ipsum, know yourself: does your group storyboard because of the creative difficulties I suggested earlier, or do you storyboard because you like to set up theatrical scenes to be played through, or do you have some interesting other reasons for it? Either way, I believe that thinking explicitly about why you do what you do will be beneficial for improving your play. (If you do it for some reason I didn’t list here, please leave a comment. I have no doubt I missed some facet of the phenomenon here.)