22 June 2009

A storytelling game

I've played this game a few times now and have really enjoyed it. I've only tried it with two players. It might work with more.


Each player starts by jotting down a very brief story outline: just five lines. Each line should be seven words or less. It's OK to steal the outline of a familiar story, as in the example below.

  1. a girl in red
  2. a wolf with a plan
  3. the wolf eats grandma
  4. the wolf's disguise is unconvincing
  5. someone saves the day with an axe

Or of course you can make up your own. You do not have to stick to fairy tales.

Each player passes their story outline face-down to another player. (No peeking!) Then the game begins.

From here on out, it's very simple. All the players are going to cooperate to tell one big story including all the elements in all the story outlines. On your turn, look at the first line of the story outline that someone placed in front of you. Suppose it says ‘a lonely house on a hill’. Tell the first little bit of the story. Keep it brief, and be sure to work in a lonely house on a hill.

Then it will be someone else's turn. Perhaps they will read: ‘a girl in red’. They will pick up the story where you left off, adding a girl in red.

Take turns for five rounds.

The end.

A few game design notes

I haven't played many storytelling games. This game mostly tries to avoid the mistakes of Once Upon a Time, which I greatly enjoyed back in the day, but which has some flaws. It features actual competitive gameplay and a winner. But you don't win by telling the best story. You win by getting all the cards out of your hand.

The fixed deck of character, setting, and item cards in Once Upon a Time got boring after just a few games. At some point, the cards stopped helping. Instead I would find myself trying to scrape together yet another storyline involving a shepherdess, a ring, and a disguise. (I have not played Nanofictionary, but it seems like it might have the same problem.) It was usually fun anyway. But I think having the players instead supply fresh material for each game might help. And story outlines seem better than cards in other ways. They naturally provide characters and exposition early in the game, plot developments in the midgame, and endings at the end. They can revisit previously introduced elements instead of constantly adding more folderol to the story. And they're fun to make.

The endgame in Once Upon a Time was especially unsatisfying: as soon as a player could play all the cards from his hand, he would turn over his Happily Ever After card and crash-land the story into the overly specific, predetermined ending printed on it. This would be something like, ‘...and for all I know, they may be dancing still.’ Constraining the last words of the story just seems like a mistake. In this game, everyone gets to tell an ending, and when it's your last turn of the game, you know it. So every player gets their crowning moment, and loose ends tend to get tied off.