I love it when video games provide new storytelling methods. People might scoff, but it has happened quite a bit in recent years. Two recent examples are the continual story re-framing in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, and the non-linear presentation in the Dark Souls games. I’ve spoken at length about the story framing, but I haven’t delved too deep, or too greedily for that matter, into the Souls franchise, here I include Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne. Luckily for me, Bloodborne again offers something new, ready to be stolen and used in tabletop games.
The Souls games are known for not only providing a sadistic level of challenge, but also for not giving a shit if you understand the story of the game or not. The story progresses as you traverse the world, and it provides a bare bones tale if you engage in only the most straight forward of content, cut scenes, NPCs appearing in main areas, and obvious objects to inspect. You get a story, it’s just a no-frills type of affair. Bloodborne would be a story of a person going to investigate strange stories of a town that is in the grip of a diseased madness, the subsequent discovery that evil magic is afoot, and the dreamwalking adventure to end it all. Dark Souls would be the story of a hero that is chosen to end a cycle of cursed undeath and bring light back to the world.
There is little to no exposition beyond the story points if you are just following the main story, and the world is always presented in a matter of fact way that is only lightly expanded upon by NPCs. This isn’t too different than your most basic of tabletop adventure, when you think of it. The group embarks on a mission to fight an evil necromancer or slay a dragon, with the entirety of the backstory amounting to “there is an evil necromancer (or dragon) in a cave a few hours from here! She must be stopped”. There is nothing in the world wrong with this story, and the players will have a good time going on a cave/dungeon crawl and defeating the obvious evil. The history of the town, how the necromancer learned her trade, the history of the cave she occupies, and the story of the forest between the cave and town are not crucial to the adventure itself.
The Souls franchise takes that basic concept and runs with it, but also says “if you want all of that extra information, we put that in the game. Really, we put enough to not only flesh out the current village, but the history of the village, and three other cities close by.” However, it doesn’t do so through direct narration. Instead, the Souls games rely on you to read the optional descriptions attached to every item, compare those to game locations, carefully analyze every room and setting, and even think about the monsters, their appearance, and how they are attacking. Great examples of this are Priscilla in Dark Souls, the Knights of Blue in Dark Souls II, and the story of the Healing Church in Bloodborne.
However, Bloodborne does something interesting. They introduce the concept of this great underground labyrinth through the story of the game, and then you find these chalices that allow you to perform rituals to undo the seals of the labyrinth and explore it. This is completely optional play, and in no way is associated with the core game. This is purely meant as a way to keep experiencing the game once you have played through the story and are on subsequent playthroughs. The Souls franchise is known for dropping you right into the start of the game on a higher difficulty, often with new items and sometimes creatures, as soon as you beat the current difficulty of the game. The chalices allow you to explore these labyrinthine dungeons that contain multiple short levels, and more difficult game play. The chalices have two distinct variations, fixed or randomized design. The fixed design is fixed difficulty, allowing you to progress through the various chalice difficulties, and obtain more chalices to progress further or to create randomized versions of that chalice dungeon.
Endless dungeons with player dictated difficulty are far from a new invention, as it’s been a staple of many game genres for some time. That isn’t all of the chalices present, however. In Bloodborne, these chalices present a progressive look at the history of the game world, and the civilization that existed before the present area, and provides a look at the historical interaction between the antagonists in the current game world. That shit is mindblowing. It provides new context for existing game lore, and introduces entirely new enemies and lore figures, that shed light on existing lore based on the context clues. That’s kind of unreal for a game mode that is meant to be something that is a stopgap for exploration and advancement between content expansions. What’s more, the game takes the time to establish existing touchstones to provide a sense of previous exploration by your compatriots, which is central to the game’s lore.
To give some sense of scope, compare this to the rifts of Diablo 3, or the maps of Path of Exile, both of which exhibit player directed endless difficulty and content. The levels here have evocative names such as the Ethereal Prison or the Coward’s Trial, but neither have much more than a handwaving attempt at lore and narrative integration. The story is hardly the thrust of those games, and there doesn’t seem to be much desire to change that, if the people patting themselves on the back for Diablo 3’s story are any indication. This is sad, as with even minimal effort this could be corrected for the betterment of the genre, but not unexpected. Bloodborne doesn’t take that route, and it would be easy to do so, make no mistake. Instead, every enemy, level, item, and progression are tied to the lore and make it that more rewarding to delve into, if you want to do it, of course. It doesn’t matter to them if you don’t engage with it, but it’s there for those that want it.
This is a pretty great way to treat things in a table top game. Have the story written and connected as make sense, but leave it there, just under the surface. If the players want to delve into it, have them direct the exploration of the setting rather than have it be expository. The DMG for D&D 5e helps with this thanks to their minor magic item property table, and the PHB chart for trinkets. These are both great ways to populate your game with evocative items that don’t affect the intrinsic power of the game, but you can pick and choose and link together to easily create emergent lore and cultures. Another great thing to do is have every item tied to a specific culture, city, race, and so on. If only the flame dwarves produce blackened iron blades, having the players find a blackened iron blade being used as the murder weapon of a local chieftain suddenly becomes that much more meaningful. The murderer has some connection to the flame dwarves, or somehow happened across a blade. As the flame dwarves are known for their memory when it comes to smithing, having the blade suddenly be the lore item that tells you the history of the murderer, through simply mundane historical investigation, is pretty cool stuff.
With the right type of players, this style of game becomes not only rewarding and surprising to the players, but to the DM, as well. You are never sure when or how the players might want to delve into what the game’s lore is actually presenting, and them entering at one points is certainly different than them entering another point. That’s pretty cool stuff, and makes the re-use of information and encounters all the easier, which is something I think every game-runner can enjoy.