A story can be as simple as one person recounting their day to another and it can be as involved as hundreds or thousands of people working for several years on a Hollywood production. Stories take the form of newspaper articles, YouTube videos, graphic novels, and podcasts. But there’s another medium that I would like to begin writing about in more detail that offers a fascinating new angle on what exactly storytelling can be. That medium is the world of tabletop games.
In 2011 I discovered a uniquely fun cooperative card game called Sentinels of the Multiverse. Over the past few years the game has spawned a passionate and devoted fanbase and become a larger vehicle for interactive storytelling. The gameplay is very simple. Each person chooses a deck of cards which represents their superhero and then proceed to plays cards from their hand working together as a team to defeat a self-playing villain deck. The heroes’ goal is to knock out the villain before they get knocked out. Every time you play it’s a different combination of heroes and villains, meanwhile an environment deck throws out hazards that affect both heroes and villains alike.
Although the gameplay itself is enjoyable enough, where Sentinels of the Multiverse really shines is in its ability to use its game mechanics as a backdrop for conveying more longform narrative. This slowly unfurling story contextualizes each of the different hero characters and villains with their own personalities, motives, and histories.
Importantly these larger story elements are not actually present in the game. While the general outline of each character is explained in their bio, the rest is largely inferred from the actual cards which feature tons of comic book-style artwork and flavor quotes. Essentially while you play the game you are temporarily borrowing these pre-established characters to create your own story. This is something which tabletop games already do naturally but the difference is that each character exists in the wider overarching narrative, the fictional comic book world of Sentinel Comics.
While many other board games have attempted to deepen their gameplay through the addition of backstories, a variety thematic elements, and scenario books full of text, none of them have quite managed to do it like Sentinels. Too many games focus on “telling a story” in a way that is almost impossible to follow and don’t really connect with on a deeper level. They ignore one of the most important tools of storytelling: creating and developing relatable characters. Sentinels does exactly that.
Instead of weighing down players with elaborate scenario rules and hours of setup, Sentinels presents simple but interesting characters that by virtue of their unique personalities and game mechanics can easily fit into any story that you happen to want to play that day. If you want to send in a team of female superheroes to fight a robot on an island filled with dinosaurs, you can. And you can do so with some fully fleshed out characters that also happen to grow over time as the game progresses and expands. Despite the subtle approach to storytelling present in the game, the various hero characters and villains do not remain static.
Like all good stories, the overarching story of Sentinels of the Multiverse pays close attention to character development, pacing, foreshadowing, and turning points. The primary way that the story advances is through the release of expansions and promos, all of which not only add new villains and heroes to the mix but also develop the individual stories of some of the main characters. Major events shake things up quite regularly. A formerly defeated nemesis may reappear in a new form. A mysterious character from the future may suddenly enter the fray. A hero may be change or grow in unexpected ways.
However as a game first and foremost, Sentinels does rely on some level of abstraction to stay useful. It is not a roleplaying game by any stretch of the imagination. There are no preset scenarios or mandatory battles that must take place when you play the game, but there are canonical events that do will occur and will ultimately affect the storyline. So while each game can play out with whatever combination of heroes, villains, or environment you like, the characters you are playing are never just generic superhero avatars.
The heroes of the Multiverse are storied individuals fleshed out through a dynamic mix of interpersonal relationships, unique mechanics, plentiful art illustrations, and quippy sayings. No two heroes play alike, each demonstrating a variety of strategies and powerful combinations at their disposal. Furthermore as a purely cooperative game, each hero must work together, help each other out, and come up with a plan for combating the current threat at hand. The superhero theme pervades the mechanics of the game and utilizes individual character abilities in a way that makes sense.
Let’s look at a specific example to see what I mean.
The entry point into understanding the world of Sentinel Comics is a hero team called the Freedom Five. Think of them as a mini-Justice League or mini-Avengers. They are top-level government-approved heroes in town dedicated to fighting evil and preserving justice. And standing at the head of the Freedom Five is their preeminent leader, a hero who also happens to be the single most important character in the entire game.
His name is Legacy.
At first glance Legacy appears to be a knockoff of Superman with perhaps a few kernels of Captain America thrown in for good measure. He’s super strong, nearly unkillable, able to fly, and spouts patriotic lessons in battle without a trace of irony. On the surface he seems like a harmless pastiche designed to pay homage to the better known heroes of pop culture. Yet Legacy is a much deeper character than he might seem. Our first clue is right there in his name.
Paul Parsons, aka Legacy, comes from a long line of super-powered individuals dating back to the American Revolution. Each of his ancestors fought for justice and went by the name of Legacy. As a character, Legacy is deeply rooted in his family history and this carries through to his daughter Pauline who will one day take his place as the next Legacy. (In fact one of the first promos cards for the game is his daughter, Young Legacy, who can replace Legacy’s character card and use his deck.)
In the actual game however Legacy is no Superman. He can’t punch people through walls with nigh invulnerability. Consistent with his character bio, Legacy’s combat abilities are primarily defined by how he interacts with those around him. As both leader and founder of the Freedom Five, he plays pretty much like a support character. That can be quite a shock to new players expecting to see their hero fight like somebody out of the latest Captain America or Man of Steel film. He boosts other heroes’ damage every turn, sacrifices himself for others, heals his teammates a bit, and only occasionally gives his enemies a beatdown. Legacy is no brawler, but he sure can help his teammates.
At his core Legacy believes in justice and liberty, puts himself in harms way to thwart evildoers, and works alongside other heroes with the same goals. But how he goes about doing that differentiates himself from his better known counterparts across other mediums. He is the ultimate team player and his gameplay reflects that to a tee.
His story doesn’t end there either.
Another way that Sentinels of the Multiverse furthers its narrative is by pairing each hero with a nemesis. Every villain that you will encounter in the game has a particular grudge toward one of the heroes who has wronged them in the past. Even if many of the specific details about these individual nemesis relationships are unknown, these pairings add texture to the game’s narrative. When a hero is up against their nemesis, it feels personal every time. We don’t necessarily need to know all the reasons that the mad scientist Baron Blade hates Legacy and exactly how they first met, but it does help to know that they have a bitter rivalry every time they face off.
In perhaps the game’s finest storytelling moment to date, the conflict between Legacy and Baron Blade escalates into something strange and unpredictable, a wonderful development for players and a pretty terrible situation for the Freedom Five. As indicated by the title of the game, Sentinels of the Multiverse takes place in a multiverse comprised of a myriad of parallel timelines and futures, each of which has a possibility of existing but none of which are guaranteed to actually happen. Although it sounds more complicated than it is, really what this boils down to is that there are occasional visitors from other timelines who wander into the main timeline from time to time as well as rare rifts in time that transport characters to distant points in the past or future. These visitors tend to disrupt things and provide some of the juiciest story moments in Sentinel Comics.
One of the most significant of these involves a future version of Legacy himself. In one possible timeline, the nefarious Baron Blade comes up with the ultimate plan to finish off Legacy by planning an elaborate trap on Wagner Mars Base. In the “normal” timeline Legacy and his daughter Young Legacy arrive there and Legacy is mortally wounded leaving his daughter to become the next Legacy. However in an alternate timeline it is Young Legacy who dies and her father that survives.
This event in the alternate timeline puts an end to the long line of Legacies that stretches back for centuries. With no descendants left to carry on his mantle, a hardened Legacy decides that it is up to him to establish a lasting and permanent justice during his lifetime. He outright kills Baron Blade and use his great power to become a world dictator in which anyone who stands in his way is harshly punished.
The surviving members of the Freedom Five and a few new members (now the Freedom Six) turn against the newly named Iron Legacy and become fugitives. However due a rift in time, this Legacy somehow ends up back in the normal timeline. Thus in the game Legacy and the Freedom Five must fight against this alternate despotic version now known as Iron Legacy.
During this battle with his future self, Legacy and his daughter are both wounded. While they are recovering, other heroes head to Wagner Mars Base to fight Baron Blade and a result, neither Legacy or his daughter die in the trap. The original timeline has now shifted, allowing both Legacy and his daughter to survive and preventing the rise of Iron Legacy in the first place.
In Sentinel Tactics (a new tactical game in the Sentinel Comics universe that continues after the main storyline of Sentinels of the Multiverse), Legacy’s daughter ultimately decides to become her own hero under the mantle of Beacon until the day that she is called upon to take up her father’s mantle.
Woosh. That’s a lot of story to get through just to explain the character of Legacy. And all this narrative unfolds in piecemeal fashion over the course of several promos and expansions released over several years. And there are many other interesting stories present in the world of Sentinel Comics with many more on the way. This marriage of thematic gameplay with a sustained storytelling effort is nothing less than a tremendous creative achievement.
To me this explains the success of Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s a character-driven narrative told through the guise of a fun cooperative game. Instead of trying to tell an abstract scenario-based tale, it’s always about the growth and development of relatable characters. This storytelling approach works across mediums as diverse as television, fiction, and comic books and it also can work in a tabletop game.
I’ll continue next time with a further look at the some of the other heroes and villains of Sentinel Comics.