Card-Deck Narratives

In a previous post about narrative structuring, I promised a followup about stories based on card decks — not simply the card metaphor that Failbetter uses in StoryNexus, but actual physical decks, sometimes accompanied by rules.

I’ve covered a few narrative card games here before. Gloom is a popular card game about Gorey-esque horrible events, in which you accumulate misfortunes for your characters until at last they die; each event is named briefly on its card, like “attacked by ducks,” and it’s up to the player to describe how this fits into a larger sequence, if at all. Some players work harder on their narration than others.

Gloom has a number of expansions and spin-offs at this point, including a Cthulhu version and a fairytale recasting. There are also a few features in Gloom designed to encourage continuity, symbols on some event cards that determine whether later events can be played, but in general any chains of causality are invented by the players at game time, rather than baked into the rules or the behavior of the deck. And because Gloom is emulating a type of story in which one bad thing arbitrarily happens after another, there also is not much attempt to guarantee a well-paced story arc.

Once Upon a Time is light in both writing and mechanics: it’s a sort of trope toolkit that the players can use to stick together stories, so that your card might just say “Brave” and leave it up to you how the concept of bravery applied to a character in the story will enhance what is already going on. Or there are Story Cubes, which are dice with trope-y images on them. The line between game and brainstorming device is pretty thin here, though, and I wouldn’t accuse either Once Upon a Time or Story Cubes of actually being or having a story already in any meaningful sense.

Then there’s Dixit, which provides image prompts and it’s up to the player to find some way to describe what is happening in the image. The narrative content is pretty light here, though, and I’ve found that usually we become more engaged with the wordplay of it — what is an interesting, slightly misleading way of characterizing this picture? — than with anything of narrative merit. Perhaps a more successful and storyful version of the Dixit idea exists in Mysterium, which game reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down really liked, but I haven’t had a chance to play that yet. (It was available at Shut Up and Sit Down’s curated board game area at GDC, which was awesome, but I was there at the wrong time to get a try at it.)

Meanwhile, there are also aleatory traditions of literature to consider here: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book in a box with unbound pages, to be read in any order; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, with chapters the reader may reorder. Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová have written about shuffle literature in more depth, including those works and several others.

So it is in light of those various traditions that I’m going to have a deeper look at two particular card narrative games that recently came my way: Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, and the USC Game Innovation Lab’s Chrono Scouts.

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Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

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The 17 IF games of Spring Thing 2016 are now available! This is a huge crop: historically Spring Thing has tended to have entry numbers in the single digits. I’m delighted to see it, because I think it’s useful having other events that at least somewhat rival IF Comp in size and attention. The trend towards diversity continues as well: there are a mix of Twine and Inform games, but also Ren’Py, a homebrew HTML/javascript game, and a pen-and-paper RPG submission.

So far I’ve had time to look at Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff.

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Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

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Regency Love is an iOS game set in a pseudo-Austen town; it is in the same general territory as a dating sim or visual novel, but with a structure that also owes something to roleplaying games.

The core interaction loop is that the player can select a place from the map of Darlington, their town; the place may yield one or more possible activities. The activities can either be quizzes about Regency life (how long should you properly mourn a sister? how much did muslin cost?) or social interaction scenes that are primarily dialogue-driven. From time to time, there’s an opportunity to do another quiz-like activity, a game of hangman in which you’re trying to fill in a missing word from a famous quotation, mostly from Austen. Doing quizzes and hangman gains you motivation points which you can spend to raise your skill in one of six “accomplishments” — drawing, needlework, reading, dancing, riding, music (harp and pianoforte and singing are not distinguished). Some of the social activities depend on you having a certain accomplishment level in a certain area before they will unlock. Other social events depend on what has already happened.

Using a map to pick the next little story you want to participate in also reminded me a bit of StoryNexus, though whether the underlying engine relies on anything like quality-based narrative, I have no idea.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

I was never a great enthusiast for the quizzes and stats part of this game. The questions refer to information from Austen that is not provided internally, so you either already know the answers or you have to guess. There aren’t enough hangman sentences and quizzes to last the whole game, either, so you’ll see the same things repeat over and over again before you’re done. Meanwhile, your accomplishments are necessary enough that you can’t ignore this part of the system, but there’s not enough variety to what the stats do to make it an interesting choice which one you raise next. Somewhere between halfway and three quarters of the way through play I had maxed out all my accomplishments and could now afford to ignore the whole quiz-and-hangman ecosystem, which was a relief.

Based on your behavior, the game also tracks character traits, reflecting whether you’re witty, dutiful, etc. It displays what your traits are, but I never worked out exactly what was moving the dials. What I said in conversation must come into it, but I didn’t know which dialogue did what. Nor did I ever figure out how it mattered. Some events were plainly closed to people with less than 12 Needleworking, but I never saw an explicit flag that excluded people who weren’t witty. So the character trait system may have been doing important things, but it was opaque enough that eventually I started to ignore it.

What does that leave? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. I like talking games! This one made some slightly peculiar choices, though.

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A Wish for Something Better (Anna Anthropy)

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 1.28.40 PMThe rules begin thus: “A Wish for Something Better is a single-player roleplaying ritual.” This is a work with light rules, designed to be played alone. It is meant to create a place of imagination in a focused way that serves the player’s emotional needs, a way of imagining specifically rather than vaguely what escape or comfort would look and feel like. You name something that you’re not currently happy with, and then imagine what could be added to your imaginary sanctuary that would reverse that feeling.

Is it a roleplaying game? It’s certainly a world-building exercise, and to the extent that you’re projecting yourself into this other place, maybe that’s roleplaying. And some roleplaying games certainly edge across the border between game and ritual. Avery McDaldno’s Brave Sparrow and Teen Witch come to mind.

There are elements of “A Wish for Something Better” that suggest a spellbook, though these are primarily about setting a mood, lighting candles and making a thoughtful space. Contrast @LilSpellbook, a bot by Harry Giles that offers rituals like “A spell to iron clothes: crumble your yearning’s name and fenugreek while dancing, and touch it to your forehead.” or “A spell to bring laughter: pulverise a weighty bond, and rub into your chest.” Half the time these seem freighted with metaphor in a plausible way; the rest of the time, not so much.

Because this thing is so personal, it’s hard to describe too much what it is like to play. So I’ll simply say this: I found that part of its effectiveness lay in helping to distinguish the things I could reasonably hope to do something about, and those I cannot; for some of my concerns there is no fix I could possibly execute, and therefore the only way to furnish my imagined space was to place reminders of my own limits.

So You Want to Write IF: A Party Game for LudoLunch

LudoLunch was a game designers’ picnic lunch held in Christchurch Meadow yesterday by Simon Roth, Nia Wearn, and compatriots. (Edited to add Nia — apologies for leaving her out initially, as I hadn’t realized she was co-organizer here.)

Simon asked if I would talk about interactive fiction, and it only really hit me after I accepted that the parameters of a family picnic ruled out most of the kinds of intro IF talk I usually give. We wouldn’t have computers or projection screens or wifi, so I couldn’t teach Twine or inklewriter or Inform. I couldn’t run Lost Pig or Aisle, or do a slideshow overview of recent or canonical IF. Even some non-techy options were out too: it can be fun playing through good paper CYOA books in a small group, taking turns reading passages aloud, but that’s more a 2-6 person activity, and ideally done someplace quiet enough that no one has to shout. Besides, I wanted to communicate something about the diversity of current IF and the appeal of creating it. This was a dev crowd, after all.

Finally, this was a family event including small kids, which meant a) attention spans were likely to be shorter and b) it wasn’t the ideal place to do a presentation on, say, Horse Master, or queer sexualities in interactive fiction, or IF explorations of the problems with late-stage capitalism.

Below is what I came up with: a casual party game meant to give a partial taste of what IF writing involves, and hint at the diversity of IF games out there in the world, while being as flexible as possible about the audience size and composition.

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Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

I’ve written before about the storygame Microscope, in which players collaboratively generate the timeline for a fictional place or institution. Microscope Union is a spinoff of that, focusing on the development of a single family tree.

You start by naming a person who did something — it should probably be something extraordinary, but you can decide what extraordinary means to you — and some traits that allowed them to do this. Then you work backwards, filling in details about previous generations (back to the great-grandparents), and showing where those traits came from. Each phase of the game, you select one “union” to focus on. (You can also choose to have parents/grandparents not be biological parents per se, but be key influencers of the child’s life — we went this route a couple of times.)

The resulting play experience feels more coherent and directed than standard Microscope: because new people and events fit into a defined graph, it’s easier to remember who’s who, and easier to reason about causation. By the time we finished the game (two sessions of about 2-3 hours each), I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the driving forces in the final protagonist’s life.

I also liked that we wound up roleplaying the same characters in the context of their relationships with their parents, their spouses/romantic partners, and their children: this gave us a reason to explore some depths and idiosyncrasies that don’t always come out in RPGs.

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