The Living Card Game as formulaic epic, part 2: cooperation and scenario

(Click here for the first post of this series.)

I want to try to describe the living card game (LCG) as thickly as I possibly can, almost as an ethnographer might. Not only do the various narratives to be found in the games’ scenarios present crucial links to storyworlds outside the ambit of the rules’ so-called magic circle, but the robust communities of practice that have grown up around them provide some of the best evidence of their humanistic potential. I will return to those communities as this series continues, but the reader may find them very easily in their natural habitats: the Fantasy Flight Games forums, BoardGameGeek.com, and Reddit (see e.g. this one on BoardGameGeek.com, for LOTRLCG).

So for the moment I’m going to continue the series with a few more posts that define with as much precision as possible the field of study for the series as a whole. Broadly, I’m talking about a sub-genre of card game that currently falls within what the games’ publisher, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), calls Living Card Game. The games I discuss in these posts — The Lord of the Rings: the Card Game (LOTR), Arkham Horror: the Card Game (AH), and Marvel Champions: the Card Game (MC) — do not however comprise the entirety of the category as FFG themselves designate it. 

The important distinction that creates the difference between the games I am discussing and the other ones FFG calls by the term (notably A Game of Thrones: the Card Game and Legend of the Five Rings: the Card Game) serves as a very good place to begin my description of the sub-genre: the three games I take as the subject of this series are all cooperative. 

In this context the word cooperative refers, as you might expect, to the players of the game working together within (or, as the experience is often described, against) the game’s systems to achieve the game’s goals. In the practice of the cooperative LCG, the cooperation can take several different forms, each of which creates important and interesting narrative effects. Describing the most obvious mechanics of the cooperative systems in relation to the poetic system of homeric epic will serve to get this discussion started in earnest.

The most prominent feature of this cooperation seems to me the way the player or players of a cooperative LCG perform within the narrative framework of what I’ll call by the generic name of a scenario. In the LOTR the relevant cards are called quest cards; in AH they’re called act cards and agenda cards; in MC they’re called scheme cards.

From a ludic perspective, the scenario modifies the basic mechanics of the game to condition the possibility-space for that play-session. In this function, the scenario presents a compelling analogy to a bard’s modification of the themes of an oral recompositional system both for any given song and for any given occasion on which he sings that song. For example, when a homeric bard sang, “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son…,” he did exactly the same kind of thing a player does when putting a quest card like this one into play (both front and back are depicted):

Among other modifications, the scenario gives the victory conditions, almost always in the general form, “When the players have done [a generic task configured specifically for the scenario, like slaying a certain enemy] they have won the game.” The card depicted above is one of three quest cards in the Journey along the Anduin scenario, the third of which has on its back the following:

From a narrative point of view, the scenario presents the player-performer with a slice of the storyworld elaborated by the game as a whole. Journey along the Anduin represents a moment in the mythos of Tolkien’s fantasy writings — generally though inaccurately called “Middle-Earth”; Tolkien himself usually called it the Quenta, a word in his own artificial Elvish language Quenya that means mythos. As an infinitely recomposable possibility-space, LOTR provides player-performers the affordance of elaborating scenarios that immerse them in the storyworld Tolkien himself elaborated in his writing. AH does the same with Lovecraft’s fiction and MC with the Marvel superhero universe, officially known as the MU.

Here’s a matched pair of agenda and act (front and back from both cards) from the start of the AH scenario The Devourer Below:

And here are the front and back of the scheme card of the villain Ultron in MC:

The LCG’s unique way of doing epic — that is, of allowing its player to perform their own recomposed elaborations of the storyworlds’ narrative materials — stems from the nexus of the ludic and the narrative to be found in these scenario-making cards. There’s a deceptively simple comparison to be made with what we know as the books of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which almost certainly originate in individual songs that a bard might have sung on a given occasion. Despite our lack of evidence as to how those songs got woven into the fossilized texts we know as the homeric epics, we can deduce fairly simply that on a given evening or at a given festival, a bard would sing for example an early version of the first book of the Iliad, very probably calling it mēnis Akhilēos (“the Wrath of Achilles”). Later, as the whole story of Achilles’ withdrawal from battle developed, the first book might be called “the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon.”

Just as in the LCGs, the epic songs provided the bard and his audience with the opportunity to explore a slice of a storyworld: in this case, of the myths of the Trojan War. Nor should the ludic dimension of a bard’s choice of that slice be ignored, though our literary conditioning makes it difficult to see: when a bard chose to begin singing about the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, he constrained his performative choices from the beginning. To put it in the terms of one of the scenario cards above: “If Achilles is still in play, the bard cannot finish this song.”

As this series continues, I’ll try to tease out as many of the ramifications as possible of the fundamental mechanics of the scenario, both as game-constraint and as narrative invocation. In my next post I’ll continue this analysis of the basic function of the scenario by discussing how scenarios advance in each of the LCGs.

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