Telling The Tale

by Marcus L.Rowland

Copyright © Marcus L. Rowland 1998

"..the ghost returned to the haunted cabin and he said 'None of you really believed me, so now I'll have to prove my power'. And the next morning, when the campers woke up, all of their old noses had grown back..."

Addams Family Values

Role-playing games are a relatively new way of doing something very old; telling a story. I tend to think that they succeed best when their rules are in the background, and narrative and plot are in the foreground. There are other opinions, but since I'm running this column that's irrelevant. And that's the problem with RPGs as a story-telling medium; the person running the game is telling the story, has the final say on everything, and can override the plans of the other players. Most people learn to live with this, but sometimes you need a change.

The simplest and most open-ended way for a group of people to tell a story without anyone dominating is the round-robin, told without anything resembling a set of rules; each player takes it in turn to tell a story, which can continue indefinitely. It's fun if you can sustain inventiveness, but sooner or later these stories tend to run out of ideas, or get so complicated and incoherent that nobody can possibly keep track of the plot.

Story telling games are one answer to this problem; they impose a degree of discipline, and add an edge of competitiveness that can help to keep things on track. They can also be a useful introduction to role-playing. Surprisingly it's a very small genre, compared to board and role-playing games; I can only think of twelve games, and two are borderline, three aren't yet available, three are out of print, and seven use identical rules.

I'll start with the last of these, and the closest to the round robin genre. The Magellanica Company* publishes a series of games using a very simple structure. Each consists of 200 cards bearing a phrase; each player is dealt a hand of cards and takes turns telling the story, using the words on a card somewhere in the turn and picking up another, until cards run out or the players agree to start ending the game. Each player has one card put aside, which is their preferred ending to the story; as they run out of cards each in turn tries to warp the plot towards this ending. The first to finish wins the game, but the story continues until everyone has used the cards successfully. Currently five packs are available, sold as sets of card sheets that must be cut up by the purchaser. Into The Dark Continent is the first and probably the most successful, and to me succeeds best of all the games described here as a means of telling a story; the card phrases are the page heads of a genuine Victorian adventure novel, and have a very authentic feel; whether you're trying to rescue The Captured King, suffering from Unusual Modesty, or about to be Saved By An Elephant you really feel that you are in the genre. Sequels include Into The Deserted Chapel (horror), Into the Domain of Capella (SF), Into The Dragon's Cave (fantasy), Into The Dream Centre (surrealism), and Into The Dear Caress** (Romance). At least two more are forthcoming; Into The Devastated City (disaster novels) and Into The Detective's Casebook (pulp crime, written by me). I don't feel that any of them work quite as well as the first, but they're cheap and cheerful, at £5 plus £1 P&P per game; just be prepared to spend some time cutting the cards before you use them.
*Jo Walton, 5 Vivian Road, Sketty, Swansea, SA2 0UJ, UK
**I have to reluctantly admit that I suggested this one, never believing that the publishers would take it seriously. I was horribly wrong...

Dark Cults by Kenneth Rahmen is the oldest of the card-based games; it was published in 1983 but still turns up second hand occasionally. The genre is supernatural horror, and it's designed for two players (although rules for solo and 4-player games were later added). In the normal game one player represents Life, the other Death, and tries to gain points by playing cards to continue the story and advance the preferred force. The dark artwork of the cards is superbly atmospheric and perfect for the genre; even the cards that help Life are somehow threatening, with odd angles and perspectives. Unfortunately the rules and scoring are slightly complex, which tends to detract from story-telling, and games tend to end abruptly to maximise scores.

To my mind the best of these games as a game (as distinct from a story telling experience) is Once Upon A Time (Atlas Games) by Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, and James Wallis. Its second edition adds superb colour artwork. The genre is the fairy tale; each player gets a few cards which describe various plot elements such as characters, items, places, aspects (such as Happy or Disguised) and events, plus one "Happy Ever After" card which must be used to end the game. Some of the cards are "interrupts", allowing the user to take over the plot when a particular type of card is played; alternatively, players can take over if they hold a card for something the storyteller mentions. For example, if a player mentions a bird or a flying carpet, and someone else has the "this can fly" card, they can legitimately take over. Play is usually very fast, continuing until someone gets rid of all cards and plays their ending; the slow of thinking sometimes find that they never get a chance to say anything, but there are optional rules to help them. The only drawback is rather awkward placement of the card logos, underneath the pictures, which makes it difficult to see them while holding a hand. It's widely available at around £12.99; there's a French translation, and an Arabian Nights add-on (written without James Wallis) is in the pipeline.

The two marginal games I mentioned are Tales of The Arabian Nights (West End Games) and Prince Valiant (Chaosium Inc.); the first is long out of print, a board game with some story-telling elements. As players moved their "characters" ran into situations out of the Arabian Nights, which had to be described in the idiom of the original stories. The second was a simple RPG, based on an Arthurian comic strip, distinguished by the fact that the players take turns running the game using an agreed storyline. It's a very good starting point if you're not familiar with the hobby, but is also be out of print, although copies are still around in second-hand games shops.

Since story-telling games are fun to write and play, and relatively easy to explain, I persuaded Odyssey to let me include one below. I hope that you'll like it.

The Vampire - A Gothic Story-Telling Game

This is a simple game that you can easily make at home. You'll need an expendable deck of cards (optionally two or more decks), a pen, paper, and at least 2-3 players, maximum 6. Sticky backed plastic and Squeezy bottles are not required.

Each card should be marked with a quote from The Vampire by J. R. Planche*, a play of the 1820s that may have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker's "Dracula", and with a word such as "Fight", "Dream", "Suddenly".
*The play was in turn based on The Vampyre by John Polidori; Polidori was Byron's physician, and The Vampyre was based on a story told by Byron during an Italian holiday that also produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I've included quotes for 53 cards including a joker; if you want to add a second deck use any other book with an appropriate background and setting to find more quotes. Dracula and Frankenstein are especially recommended. Try to keep quotes short and widely usable, with about 25% specific to the genre.

Deal cards to each player; eight each for 2-3 players, seven each for 4-5, six each for 6 players. The remaining cards are left face down on the table. The starting player uses one or more cards to begin the story; the exact wording on the card needn't be used, but it should be close. Use as many words between cards as you like, but remember that this gives the other players more chances to lay their cards. Each card the storyteller plays after the first must be the same suite or number as the card preceding it, or the joker. Any card can be played after the joker.

Score 2 for each card laid if the quote is used, 1 if the alternative word is used. The Joker always scores 1. When cards are laid they are added to a discard pile; if there are no unused cards left the discard pile should be shuffled and placed down. If the Joker is played the discarded cards (including the Joker) should immediately be shuffled into the pile of unused cards.

Any other player can interrupt if the current storyteller has played at least two cards and:

Or by playing a card:

Players may NOT interrupt immediately after the Joker has been played. One other card must be played first.

The other players must agree that the interruption is a valid continuation of the story. If an interruption succeeds the player who was interrupted must pick up the next unused card. If an interruption fails the interrupting player must pick up two cards.

At any time the current storyteller can decide to stop and (if desired) discard 1-3 cards and pick up the same number. The player to the storyteller's left continues.

For example Player 1 might say "A holy (plays 8C for 1 point) friar (QC for 2 points) told me this story on his deathbed (3C for 2 points) in Transylvania. It was a dark and stormy night.."

At this point any other player could interrupt with 6C; if Player 1 mentions thunder 10D might be used. Instead player 2 interrupts by playing 3H: "as stormy as though some fiend incarnate had unleashed all the winds..."

Play continues until one of the players manages to use all the cards in their hand in a manner that brings the story to a satisfactory ending, which scores 3 points. A storyteller who plays all cards held but doesn't finish the story properly must pick up two cards; the next player to the left continues the story. The last card played may not be the Joker.

The winner is the player with the most points at the end of the story.

For a faster game don't bother about keeping score; the player who finishes the story is the winner.

Card Quote / alternative phrase
Ace H "He Drags You To The Tomb" / Fight
2 H "Beautiful Young Maidens" / Dream
3 H "Some Fiend Incarnate" / Escape
4 H "Covered With Blood" / Murder
5 H "His Dying Agonies" / Money
6 H "The Phantom Of Last Night!" / Evil
7 H "Sustained By Human Blood" / Hidden
8 H "His Disgusting Banquet" / Sleeping
9 H "Conceal My Death" / Playing
10 H "Thy Blood Must Feed A Vampire's Life" / Wary
J H "Fly The Demon's Grasp!" / Greedy
Q H "A Fiend In Human Shape!" / Satanic
K H "Twice Have I Seen Him Perish!" / Revenge
Ace C "Betrothed" / Dawn
2 C "A Virgin Bride" / Nightmare
3 C "Confessed On His Death-Bed" / Unmasked
4 C "An Enemy To Superstition" / Blackmail
5 C "A Bell Rings" / Secrets
6 C "The Storm Grew Violent" / Good
7 C "I Trembled" / Warning
8 C "Overcome With Fatigue" / Holy
9 C "A Shriek That Froze Me" / Meanwhile
10 C "I Shall Never Sleep In Peace Again" / Temptation
J C "Haunted" / Magic
Q C "A Friar" / Capture
K C "Henchmen" / Debts
Ace D "The Turrets" / Ceremony
2 D "A She-Devil" / Vision
3 D "I Feel Uneasy" / Detection
4 D "An Extraordinary Circumstance" / Rage
5 D "Ere The Sun Sets" / Letters
6 D "Infatuated" / Innocence
7 D "Come Nearer, Charming Maid..." / Lies
8 D "A Ring" / Profane
9 D "Into His Power" / Curse
10 D "A Peal Of Thunder" / Running
J D "The Altar" / Bandits
Q D "The Dagger" / Masked
K D "Servants" / Mystery
Ace S "The Castle" / Temptation
2 S "The Grotto" / Flashback
3 S "Rocky Tombs" / Disguised
4 S "Frightfully Distorted" / Repentance
5 S "Tremble" / Hide
6 S "The Approaching Night" / Debauched
7 S "Shouts Of Joy" / Truth
8 S "The Moon Was Rising" / Gushing
9 S "The Chapel" / Spell
10 S "A Boat" / Soldiers
J S "Evil Spirits" / Charming
Q S "The Tomb" / Suddenly
K S "Your Oath" / Singing
Joker "Vampire" / Vampire

Marcus L. Rowland