Far to the east through the narrow pass and beyond the salt flats is where it was found. I didn’t know what it was at first. It was a book yes, but it was something peculiar. It read like books do but it also didn’t. Its cover worn and faceless. Its pages cryptic. Its words enveloping.
This passage caught my eye. I’m still not sure what it means, but perhaps you will understand. Someone must.
“Before I get to the purpose of today I’m going to talk about The Big Model. It’s a conceptual design that theorizes role-playing games can be broken down into three creative agendas. It was created by Ron Edwards and it formed the basis for shifting discussion and play of these games into new fertile ground. It was the genesis of the indie RPG movement of the early 2000s which birthed story games. These are games like Fiasco, Apocalypse World, and Dogs in the Vineyard.
Much of the design work in these days was focused around recognizing and catering to Narrativism. This style of play was not well-supported by Dungeons & Dragons and other mainstream titles from a systems perspective. The code phrase for Narrativism is Story Now.
Just get there you dunder.
Story Now requires an engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of roleplaying. I’m using Edwards own words here because they’re better than my own.
He wrote: ‘The Now refers to the people, during actual play, focusing their imagination to create those emotional moments of decision-making and action, and paying attention to one another as they do it. To do that, they relate to the story very much as authors do for novels, as playwrights do for plays, and screenwriters do for film at the creative moment or moments.’
So this is participating in play from the stance of narrative author, as opposed to one focused on immersion or competition. Instead of the dungeon master controlling the story and allowing the players to operate within a narrow band of scripted adventure, the players themselves have input into the fiction as the role of composer is shared between all participants. It feels like improvisational jazz where you’re all bouncing around the same rhythm while introducing personal flourishes and runs.
So now you understand what I mean by Story Now. Or you don’t. Digging into the complexities further is beyond the scope of this journal and my current faculties so let’s proceed with the matter at hand and perhaps you will catch up. This isn’t going well.
Philosophically, Oath has more in common with Apocalypse World than it does Risk. Oath is functionally the first Story Now board game.
OK, back up.
There are traditionally two types of narrative models in board game design. Prescribed narrative is becoming increasingly popular. Such games have a pre-written story for you to interact with and afford limited input. I’m certain you know of these – Mansions of Madness, Tainted Grail, Middara. Herein walls of text are as common as gobs of dice.
Emergent narrative is the second form. In this style, story is a byproduct of play. Games like Star Wars: Rebellion, Wiz-War, and Twilight Imperium all offer such spoils. Typically, emergent narrative is something you reflect upon afterwards. It’s about sitting around a fire and beating your chest. You make decisions for strategic considerations and the story unfolds of its own volition.
That’s not Oath.
Oath has conceived a third narrative model in board gaming, one paralleling the goals and philosophies of role-playing story games. Oath is the first board game to provide mechanisms and incentives for authored narrative.
It positions you to consider the narrative in the moment. It’s not so much about story emerging unpredictably as a fallout of action, it’s more about player authorship and prescribing narrative by design. Your decision space is irrevocably tied to the fiction because the incentives desire it so.
One day I spent a great deal of time off in the Hinterlands, meditating on the coast in search of a vision. Life was quiet in my little corner of the kingdom. After what felt like an eternity I found purpose, lifted the Banner of the Darkest Secret, and revealed my hidden coterie of advisors that would help peddle my promises of forbidden knowledge.
The rest of the empire was in motion. The chancellor was not sitting on his throne amid a time of peace. No, he was marching across the plains and campaigning through his provinces in search of buried relics, omens of prestige to his once and future lineage.
Word came of a fellow outcast, one on his own personal journey, slowly gathering troops in the foothills and preparing for war. He had a couple of small skirmishes with a citizen of the court, a fallen knight who sold his humanity in service to the empire. When they were intertwined, I initiated the uprising.
It was a moment of glory, but it was but a moment. The chancellor, after much deliberation and weighing of advice, hatched a devious plan to amass his own religious sect, offering a more vocal and alluring message to the lost souls sheltering in fear. At my finest hour they abandoned me, just before my time had come.
It was devastating. It marked my soul.
So shortly thereafter, on the heels of an Imperial offensive to reclaim lost territory in the borderlands war, I acted with the intent of authoring the narrative. I lived in this moment and the annals would reflect that.
My blade driven into the emperor’s eye / In the shadow of the previous regime another exile takes the throne / I don’t win / But I win
As part of the terms of supporting the rebellion I’m made citizen of the new chancellor. In the following days we bicker among our holdings but I ultimately control the story in the final moment and usurp his short-lived empire. Now I am king. Of both the words and the land.
We’re not used to this. This is different.
Oath is the chronicle. The area control game with multiple victory conditions and politicking are ligature and muscle fused to the bones of the ongoing epic underneath. The loop within the game is mirrored with greater significance on the grander scale. If you are not invested in this new type of campaign, then you are better off pursuing Root or Pax Pamir or any number of other games more focused on isolated play.
Oath is the chronicle and the chronicle is Oath.
But such a paradigm is confusing. How do you win? There is no victor crowned when the chronicle ends. The chronicle may never end.
Winning Oath is akin to winning a story-driven roleplaying game. You don’t win, at least not in a competitive sense. Instead you leave your mark. You advocate for your faction and its people yes, but in the absence of conclusive victory you are left with fighting for how you will be remembered.
And this is the brilliance of Oath.
Carefully consider how you can affect the chronicle and future play. Citizenship may be granted by a victorious exile. Does this offer an obvious mechanical advantage over retaining your existing status? I would argue, not really. Citizen play can be engaging and exciting, but it’s no more strategically viable than any other role. So why become a citizen?
Why, in the dying moments of play, attack the chancellor’s holdings and attempt to gut the imperial garrison so a particular site does not persist in the chronicle?
As a citizen to the crown, why choose to enact the conspiracy and steal the People’s Favor in a ruse that allows an exile to seize victory?
What is the purpose of controlling the Tinker’s Fair, proffering a deal with the chancellor that gifts him secrets now in exchange for a relic and citizenship later?
The line between mechanisms and narrative is blurred.
It’s the only board game I’ve played where the system and game loop incentivize me to act from a stance of authorship. The deed of writing in the journal, selecting the new suit to be added to the world deck, building an edifice, even determining what lands remain in the reformed empire – all of these bear narrative weight. They are your voice in the ongoing tale. They can be negotiated or manipulated, even from a position of weakness. While there may be moments where you feel victory is impossible, there is always opportunity to mark up a page in the ongoing poem.
Just as the people remember, the land remembers.
This is why writing in the journal and recording your play is so important. It’s an extension of the game itself, a codified mechanism that reflects what occurred and how it will be viewed years from now. It, along with the other post-game activities, is a formulated reward for players engaging the issue of dynastic upheaval. It’s the very basis for conceptualizing how Story Now and Oath intersect.
That concept is also at the very heart of this game’s most contentious issue: kingmaking. Oath does not shy away from this, rather, it embraces it. The whole basis of play is establishing who will rule and subsequently what fallout will occur. And while kingmaking is a terrible behavior to reward in traditional design, here Cole Wehrle redefines its very nature. Since the essence of Oath is the chronicle, kingmaking must be viewed entirely through that lens. Negotiation and deal-making, even ensuring someone else’s victory, are all valid and rewarded behaviors desired within the boundaries of play.
Oath takes this radical interpretation of kingmaking and internalizes those concepts into the chronicle and citizen mechanisms. The very notion of a victorious exile offering citizenship to another illustrates that collusion and influence are central aspects of play. None of this would work if Oath wasn’t the chronicle.
It is easy to dismiss this design’s central conceit, as players for generations have already been partaking in a communal experience of chiseled grudges and oral histories. An established meta-experience is not new. What is new is a game whose mechanisms squarely support and foster these stories, providing an added dimension to those qualities.
This is indeed different than even what we’ve seen in the Legacy game genre. Titles such as Pandemic Legacy and The King’s Dilemma do not explicitly provide a feedback loop intertwined with your meta-behavior. Instead, they take players through a prescribed narrative from an external author. There may be branching paths and a touch of personalization, but Oath is different. Oath is entirely framed around this new type of authored narrative, one concerned with history. There’s an explicit element of player authorship that the systems themselves conceive.
A significant factor in support of this authorship is the rich layered design. There is such creativity and texture here. How you utilize an evolving deck of cards to leverage your board and political position. How you spend your tight action pool to influence the developing lands. How you decide to pursue your own victory, and how you decide to spend your time when that is no longer possible.
Oath eschews tradition much like those roleplaying story games. You battle where your pieces are but also where they’re not, you play to a tableau you own but also to ones you don’t, and you make strategic narrative decisions for the game you’re in but also the ones that haven’t begun.