Something was missing from the digital CCGs I’ve been playing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until just now.
Collectable card games are ripe for procedural narrative because they are rich with characters and events that can be combined in an almost infinite variety of ways. My Dire Wolf Alpha arrives into my hand at just the right time in by Hearthstone duel. I place him smack in the middle of my rank of minions. His ferocious growl inspires my minions to +1 Attack and they charge forth to win me the game. This is an example of emergent narrative, the story that I will tell other players about my game. Procedural narrative is when all the pieces are designed to work together to produce some form of narrative. Like the narrative designers have planned for just this scene and have something special on offer when it occurs.
Hearthstone does this in its choreographed solo adventures. Those adventures have Heroes who banter with each other in short dialogues.
Kael'thas: Outland... a wild and dangerous world.
Orc: Where you must scavenge what you need to survive!
Maiev: You will find no justice here.
Vashj: Only despair and darkness!
Illidan: But, if you dare enter my realm... YOU ARE NOT-
Illidan: No that's... not what I was going to say. ...I should've never taught you to demon hunt.
But these are choreographed events. They remove your agency and play out as cut scenes. They are linear narratives, not procedural narratives.
By the way, I’m going to use Hearthstone as my sole example here, though I’ve played many other CCGs in my time. The reason being that it has the most potential to encourage satisfying emergent narratives but grandly fails to do so.
And the reason for that failure is brutally simple now that I see it staring me in the face.
Hearthstone cards seldom respond to each other.
Yes, Hearthstone is a masterpiece of mechanical synergy between cards. Like the simple example of the Dire Wolf Alpha above, the cards are designed to offer a myriad of powerful combinations. Buffs upon buffs, Pirates automatically summoning other Pirates, Demons destroyed to empower other Demons. It’s a glittering web of gameplay possibility.
Yet where’s the narrative possibility? Each card has been lovingly illustrated. Many cards have their own voiced battle cries and special effects. But outside of the Solo Adventures, it’s usually done in narrative isolation. The cards seldom talk to each other. Yes, there are times when minions will invoke C’thun or Galakrond, but those incidences are few and far between.
It could be as simple as this. The Dire Wolf Alpha growls as it lands in the playing field. I have a Timber Wolf and an Ironfur Grizzly in play. They both sound their battle cry growls as they receive +1 Attack from the Dire Wolf. Suddenly, these three Beasts feel like a pack. They’re aware of each other. And the formula for activation is simple.
IF Beast receives +1 Attack buff from Dire Wolf Alpha, activate that Beast’s battle cry sound.
And to establish the order of sounds so they don’t all go off at once, have the Beasts with the highest cost sound first. If that’s a draw, you could decide by Rarity or Attack strength.
With speaking characters, the possibilities become even more nuanced and interesting. Pirates could welcome each other with a simple, “All aboard, me heartie!”, or specific characters could play out their alliances and animosities with unique voiced comments.
How does Fel Lord Betrug (Demon) feel about fighting alongside Justicar Trueheart? How does the Stormwind Champion feel about teaming up with an orcish Raid Leader? Is there some sordid affair we could hint at between High Priestess Jeklik and Lord Jaraxxus?
This isn’t a new technique by any means. Procedurally-driven character banter is core to games like Chrono Trigger, Darkest Dungeon and Dragon Age 3, and I recently constructed a player-character-banter system for the upcoming cyberpunk squad tactics game, Project Haven.
Why isn’t it a common feature of digital CCGs where characters and their backstories are a major part of the experience?
If you know of a digital CCG that does have procedurally-driven character banter then please message me through the Contacts Form on this website. I’d like to see how that game does it. Or if you want to implement inter-card narrative into your CCG, drop me a line. I’d love to help!