Story Games and resuscitating home grown Story!

So timeless has asked me to talk about some experimentation I’ve done lately with ‘story games’, also known as role playing games. Jason really inspired me to try this out and give ‘story gaming’ a chance. Also Urban Scout really pushed for it as he wanted something to do this winter indoors. :slight_smile: So thanks guys for pressing the experiment. Though it didn’t work the way I planned, it has definitely produced fruit.

These role-playing games, aka ‘rpgs’, have come a long way since the days of Dungeons and Dragons, and the ‘kill monsters and steal their stuff’ story repeated ad nauseum (now in an updated electronic venue near you, in countless variations).

I’ve noticed a lack of storytelling tradition in my social circle, and in my life, and yet I know everyone wants it! We want to stop consuming mass media entertainment, and yet many of us end up going back because we don’t know how to tell new stories that satisfy as much as what we see on the TV and in the movie theater.

Pretty pathetic really, but not our fault; we live on story. And we can’t just steal stories out of a “Tales of Indian Folklore” book, because not only do they not belong to vast majority of us, they mostly don’t speak to our own heritage, struggles, and situation. We need new stories to speak to the struggles of rewilding in this place, in this time.

SO! Story games, relying on each other’s support to create new stories together, to collaborate, to form story groups in the exact same way musicians form bands, and jam together. Then the issues become ones of trust, willingness to listen and respond, making each other sound good, and one-mindedness that comes from all of that. Rather than a rock band, we form a Story Band.

The story game ends up becoming the musical ‘rules’ (the scales, the rhythm, etc.) for our participation, and our own voices, and creativity our instrument.

Now this all sounds great, but trying to learn these collaborative ‘story games’ without coaching or support really exhausted and challenged me, along with most of the players.

And so my first several attempts at these games I would definitely say I did not have fun per se, but I kept going because I knew something lay at the end of the tunnel.

And then three of us got together, with just the right game, and cracked it! We really jammed and had a good time.

Now we get into nitty-gritty details, as timeless requested. So for those of you not familiar with the world of indie games, as timeless does, I might lose you a bit here. But timeless wants to know details! In the next post I’ll talk about specific conclusions.

EDIT: The paraphrase for all this yapping, as I posted on my blog, “So I’ve spent a long time trying to develop a culture of storytelling amongst friends, students, family, and so on. Recently I’ve stumbled across a whole little movement, the world of small press and independently published, owner-created role-playing games. I blame Jason Godesky.”

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Once again, I probably will go into too much detail for most readers here. I just thought I’d make them public rather than messaging timeless for posterity, in case someone else with some background knowledge will find it useful.

So, details:

I think I most wanted to try Polaris, Primetime Adventures, and In a Wicked Age.

I tried Polaris, and just found it too hard too learn soon enough. The folks coming to the story game nights just needed something more pick-up-and-play than that. If I already knew how to play it, it probably wouldn’t’ve mattered so much, but I had to learn it too and it just felt too hard.

So then Primetime Adventures, the tv-show creation game everyone seemed to recommend that one play to learn the basic skills of scene framing, creating characters with issues, and stake setting in conflict resolution. I tried it three or four times, and each time it just didn’t really satisfy me. I couldn’t participate or drive a conflict with characters in the story that felt juicy enough in the right way, although a few times I had fun ones (notably when Urban Scout, playing a man-hating ex-schoolteacher he described as a ‘black widow Xena’, fled an ancient burned-out school with a bunch of her teenaged wards, as post-apocalyptic riot cops stormed the building, triggering a blast that blew the school up a mile high. that singed our mental hairs, definitely. so to speak).

None of the conflicts seemed to have individual arcs, because the conflict resolution rules had one set the stakes, then win them (or not), then narrate how it happened, but I rarely could feel edge-of-my seat anticipation. Also, I still don’t quite jive with the stake setting. I mean I did it a bunch of times, I felt like I ‘got’ it, but it just didn’t produce the kind of story I wanted to tell. Hard to explain.

Also, the brainstorming section at the start, where you produce the premise and characters for the tv-show, never really felt fun. I didn’t see any reason why that shouldn’t feel fun, either, so I wanted to find some way to change that.

Well! Then along comes In A Wicked Age, a story game specifically designed to make sword-and-sorcery type anthology stories. It starts with a random drawing of cards that correspond to an ‘oracle’ - a list of one-sentence vignettes (‘a cask of honey-wine, offered in tribute to a fierce bandit queen’), from which you draw characters and possible plot elements to weave into the collaborative story. It totally makes it easy to brainstorm a premise for the story.

i changed the game to an ‘animist folklore’ theme, wrote my own oracle, and used a local watershed map.

yarrowdreamer and wood both played the story game with me and we had a really good time. everything just clicked, we told a really cool story about an old prophetic Crone Morrigu who needed an apprentice before she died, a girl Saahi who out of impatience left her second day of vision quest on a local mountain (and extinct volcano) here in the dreamtime version of Portland, Oregon (future, past, or the dream-version of now? who knows!), a haunted Lake Jahangir that wanted her soul as their own apprentice, two scouts intent on chaos, and other coolness.

for more on this check out this thread I started at the indie-story game site:

Anyway, that about sums it up. Any questions, timeless?

Wow, Willem thanks for giving me such an elaborate answer! Im going to need some time before i can really respond to such an informative post. Consider this a big-ass thank you! and a place-holder for my soon-to-be-posted-response!!


I’ll gladly take that blame! For a while now, I’ve alternated between two types of epiphanies. First, those that blow me away with how much we’ve lost, like the sheer amount of history and knowledge traditional people kept in their oral traditions. Look at the layers of knowledge aboriginal Australians kept in their song lines, for instance. Then, the epiphanies of how easily we can regain those things, like the epiphany that the games I’d amused myself with in my youth seem perfectly suited to become tools for generating a new storytelling tradition.

You’ve managed to do a good deal more than I have with that realization, Willem. Maybe now I can use your account to encourage some of my people to get some buy-in. To date, my biggest hurdle has come from finding people interested in joining such a project. Can’t really regenerate an oral tradition when only one person has an interest in doing so, eh?

But what you’ve got here amazes me. I love what you did with “In a Wicked Age,” it makes me want to try that out myself!

I have a friend who is an archeaologist. He’s been working on a dig at the Cypress Hills in S. Alberta for a number of years. This is the territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsítapi. He has interviewed quite a few of the Kainai and Pikaani elders. He has realized over the course of his archeaological studies and his interviews with the elders that even though many of their stories would seem to modern mainstream people to be “fantasy” or “mythology” They contain many of the important details of not only the human story but of the geological story as well. He believes that some of the Blackfoot stories have references to events as far back as the eruption of Mt. Mazama, which created Crater Lake in Oregon and totally reshaped the landscape of the NW.
He’s found references to things that he doesn’t have any idea how the Blackfoot could have even known these things.
There are some giant boulders sitting out in the middle of the prairie south of Calgary near the town of Okotoks (Blackfoot for rocks). These boulders broke off of a specific mountain in the Rockies and were carried out onto the prairie by the glaciers during the ice age. Geologists have figured out exactly which mountain they came from. The Blackfoot stories about them, while sounding fanciful actually do pinpoint the same point of origin for the Okotoks. This mountain is hundreds of miles from where the boulders are now and is only one peak in the whole Rocky mountain range.

Stories from the N. Coast of BC also have information in them that baffles modern scholars because they can’t figure out how these people could know this stuff at all let alone pass it down so accurately in story form for thousands of years.

I just love it!!!

Robert Wolff’s Original Wisdom has many other anecdotes in that vein.

willem–grieving rocks and all, but i think this thread has just as much life-saving potential, maybe even more for some of us. maybe it overlaps, with collaborative storytelling as a path towards grieving, a way to learn to grieve and praise at once. . .

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Jason: I feel glad (I keep wanting to say ‘it gladdens me’, e-primitive style, but that sounds too lord of the rings. hrnmh. maybe appropriate for this conversation) that you accept full responsibility for this luscious inconvenience. I really had no idea until I started this story-game track how I would push for the resurrection of communal storytelling. I wanted to do it, I just didn’t know how to get it done. If communal storytelling replaces the amount of time I spend watching Miyazaki movies and Battlestar Galactica, I will call it a success. :slight_smile: Thank you anyways. And thanks to Urban Scout. Hail Jesus! I believe!

heyvictor: Yes! In a lot of ways, as us rewilding folks begin to start our own (slowly individuating) culture(s), I see us as doing the same thing. The events of our place, today, we will encode in the stories we tell together. As cultures thousands of years younger than the Blackfoot, our stories will take a long time to age so that one day they will speak of truly ancient events to the grandchildren, as they speak of what we personally witnessed, as a culture. I feel proud to have older brother and sister cultures around us whose first-hand memories of this place, right here, go back far beyond our own. ‘The Earth’s Blanket’, by Nancy J. Turner (among many other books, too) speaks of ancient first-hand memories (such as surviving the Missoula flood), coded in story.

yarrowdreamer: :slight_smile: okay, you’ve twisted my arm. i agree! i agree! i too think, playing story games, the communal story will come along that will make me drop tears willy nilly, because we’ve finally hit that vein that talks about our hearts in this place, at this time. then our hearts will really sing. :slight_smile: lots of practice to get there, perhaps.

I also want to point out something I intentionally did above - mentioning the cultures of rewilding, plural.

As rewilding gathers speed, I want to always remind myself that ‘no one right story’ for any place or time exists. We need as many stories as bodies that walk the land. That, though we share rewilding, soon, like the Hopi and the Lakota, the Blackfoot and the Okanagan Salish, we will differ as much as cultures can differ, subculture or not.

We need to tell differing stories, we need to find our own unique relationships with our land and family.

By no means do I want to start the adventure of communal storytelling, by hunting for the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ story. That will stop me from telling any stories at all, as such thinking has done in other areas of my life.

:slight_smile: Just thought I’d tell some of my own story here.

Great thread!

Willem, can you explain how the stakes in “In The Wicked Age” differed from Prime Time Adventures? Did that help get the arch you were looking for?

I feel glad (I keep wanting to say 'it gladdens me', e-primitive style, but that sounds too lord of the rings. hrnmh. maybe appropriate for this conversation)

This might side-track us a bit too much, but what makes “it gladdens me” sound more e-primitive to you than “I feel glad”? Oh, because the keyword “glad” works as a verb there, rather than a noun? I keep trying to speak more e-primitively, but it still challenges me in practice. I generally fear that I end up sounding like an idiot, because I wind up worrying about things like “to be” more than what I actually say!

Anyway, getting back to the trail … I don’t know if the Blackfoot traditions remembered first-hand knowledge. Shamans have reported going back to witness the creation of the universe, swimming alongside whales in the oceans, and so on, and they’ve mentioned in their reports of such unbelievable adventures details they could not possibly know. In dreams, trance, etc. we don’t live inside our heads, we look at the world from a different angle. Perhaps an angle where time doesn’t divide us up in quite the same fashion? But it seems to me that the Blackfoot tradition shows signs of using orality to encode and remember knowledge and events they may not have personally witnessed with their eyeballs, at least, and I think that gives us a hint that encoding our knowledge into our emerging oral traditions has some value!

I like the plurality of “cultures,” but I don’t know if “culture” makes the right point at all. Do we have a culture, distinct from a nature? Or do we just have modes of dwelling, the ways in which we participate in the landscape? Oh, but I get ahead of myself here. I should finish Ingold’s book before I try to preach it. :slight_smile:

Scouty McScout:

Willem, can you explain how the stakes in "In The Wicked Age" differed from Prime Time Adventures? Did that help get the arch you were looking for?

Well. Now I’ve started doubting myself, that perhaps I didn’t understand how the Primetime Adventures game stakes-setting worked. I read somewhere on the indie forums a different way of looking at that then I was thinking.

Having said that, I do think In A Wicked Age offers up more the kind of story I want to collaboratively tell. IAWA doesn’t have stakes at all (‘stakes’ meaning - what do we see at a stake here, in the conflict? and if you win, you get your stakes, if you lose, you lose the stakes)! You have a three-act conflict, that has fun give and take, and sometimes it goes in directions you’d never guessed. At the end, the winner has the option to either exhaust or injure the loser (which just means erasing and changing numbers on a character sheet, making that character more and more likely to lose conflicts until they lose the ability to particpate at all), or negotiate an in-fiction result that the loser would prefer (no erasing or changing of numbers, just changing the course of the story).

I like exactly this, the unpredictability of where the story will go. Vincent Baker, the game designer, calls the resolution ‘negotiation with a stick’.

In PTA, you never face the possibility of getting kicked out of the game by the rules, because you didn’t play with enough verve. It creates a TV show model, characters don’t die unless the actors get fired or quit. But…but…I don’t know if I like that model. Rather than modeling folklore and really delicious story, it seems more to model the economic realities of Hollywood. I can think of a lot of novels and stories where the main characters never die, but I at least want to feel the risk of it. I guess IAWA may have changed the feel of what lay at stake.

In all truth I’ve probably speculated too much here and need to play a bit more to understand. I will probably play PTA again a few times with my new take on issues/stake-setting, in spite of my reservations, just to feel more sure about my conclusions.

One thing I DEFINITELY miss about PTA: fanmail!! I really wish IAWA had a rule for mechanically supporting excellent and juicy play by other players, rather than its ‘owe list’ thing (which I might explain later, but doesn’t really belong here right now).

I gotta say guys, I really like a lot of the concepts going around, as well as with 5th world. I find this all very interesting for a gamer like me because it’s a whole 'nother world of games I’ve hardly explored. RPG’s, RP and story-games, outside of a little D&D, Diablo, and Achaea, I have very little experience, but very interested!

@ willem: I think you have hit the nail on its head instead of “merely speculating” .In IaWA what lies at the bottom of the negotiation/conflict is ultimately the end of your character’s story. You could tell me this is ALWAYS at stake during a IaWA and i’d understand immediately. PTA on the other hand is more detached in that way. You’re not really investing in a certain change you’d really like to make, so that could lead to feeling more detached from the story

Yep, pretty much. But I don’t make a concrete claim about it - I just think I use ‘feel’ way too much in place of other ways of speaking, and ‘it gladdens me’ at the very least fits the e-primitive pov, if not actually phrasing it ‘more’ e-primitively. You know?

I keep trying to speak more e-primitively, but it still challenges me in practice. I generally fear that I end up sounding like an idiot, because I wind up worrying about things like "to be" more than what I actually say!

Speaking! Holy crap! I bet it challenges you. That really inspires me though. The issues of sounding like an idiot bedeviled me when I spoke e-prime for a summer. It really felt good when I would hit the zone though. Wow. Speaking e-primitive. Lead the way, brother!

Anyway, getting back to the trail ... I don't know if the Blackfoot traditions remembered first-hand knowledge.

You make a really good point, which requires me to articulate my meaning more precisely and less sloppily than I did. I don’t see ‘shamanic’ pov as a not-first-hand perception, so what you say still fits for me. Does that make sense? Shamanically, or with physical eyeballs and sensory organs, the witnessing itself defines their stories.

What worries me that all the abstract knowledge floating around about the ‘history’ of the world will make us want stories with as-ancient roots as the Native American and indigenous stories. My big point that I want to make only concerns that we don’t need to worry about that - let’s just tell stories about what we experience (‘shamanically’/in-dream or physically/wakingj), not about what we ‘know’ or read. Then we will tell the same kinds of stories as indigenous people. In my ever so humble opinion.

Shamans have reported going back to witness the creation of the universe, swimming alongside whales in the oceans

YES! Goddamn I love it. Witnessing. If that doesn’t count as a first-hand account, I turn in my animist badge and gun and retire. Beautiful.

I think that gives us a hint that encoding [i]our[/i] knowledge into our emerging oral traditions has some value!

Yeah…and maybe I’ve picked some nits here. I feel a difference with my fingers as I worry the beads of this chain of ideas between them, but I don’t feel certain one way or another. Mostly, I want to give permission (if anybody even wants to ask me for some, god help you :slight_smile: ) for us to have fun first, and encode knowledge second. I feel like we will encode the important things by second nature.

I like the plurality of "cultures," but I don't know if "culture" makes the right point at all. Do we have a culture, distinct from a nature? Or do we just have modes of dwelling, the ways in which we participate in the landscape? Oh, but I get ahead of myself here. I should [i]finish[/i] Ingold's book before I try to preach it. :)

I accept ‘modes-of-dwelling’ as a very fine alternative to the word ‘culture’. It fits in with what I intended to mean. Maybe even better, ‘modes-of-relating’ :slight_smile:

Okay timeLESS! whew! fast and thick it flies! :slight_smile:

I havent tried in A Wicked Age yet, but im reading lots of great things about it. I especially like how there's no clear "we are the protagonists vs antagonist" division. I understand the conflict resolution has similarities to Sorcerer and that one is quite impressive, if i may say so. I read your story-report on the forge and thought it was way cool. Can't wait to try this one out. What was it that made this work for you?

Glad you liked my story-report at that forum. Man, I don’t get it, but I get almost no responses from people there. It kinda sucks. I feel like I bring up all these big issues (new folks playing story games! getting non-gamers involved! neat! but struggles and problems! help!), but they don’t start conversations. Whatever. :slight_smile:

The group you are telling stories with, are they new to this in general? Do you think focusing one's creativeness as iAWA does (by oracle) is helping them to come up with great ideas? whereas PTA's pitch session leaves you with a scope that is too big?

Yes to the first, Yes to the second, YES to the third. Also, a well-written an inspring oracle INSPIRES PEOPLE. Plain and simple. The oracles that came with the game rock pretty well too. I might try a sword-and-sorcery story just because of that.

Im thinking on what would be the best way to guide new people into story-telling, and i think that leaving everything open like PTA does is maybe not the wisest thing to do, really.

I totally agree. Juicy, well-written Oracles in the tradition of IAWA work great. I love just reading them, without even playing. :slight_smile:

I do want a shared-narrative experience though. What would you think are good things to do when starting new players with storygames and what have been pitfalls?

I guess, play IAWA, first really reading the rules and getting to know it as well as possible. I do feel that with games like Polaris and PTA, I would have had a lot more fun if I simply just know the rules. In a couple weeks I will attend the first gaming convention of my life (did I just say that out loud?) so that I can play several indie games and learn them that way, rather than trying to decipher these damn game rule books! ack.

IAWA has its central issue of ‘free-form narrate until a player says ‘NO WAY!’, and then enter conflict, in rounds of challenge-and-answer, by rolling dice THEN narrating the action’. If you get that down, you’ve pretty much got the game.

Pitfalls, pitfalls. Let me think about this some more, but if you’ve read my play reports, you’ve pretty much seen it all. I do know I’ve learned one major lesson: if you don’t know a game, everyone playing must admit to the fact that the first session will totally exhaust them as they learn the rules. After that, things should go pretty well. Plan accordingly, and don’t judge a game by the first session.

Yes, awesome. EXCELLENT POINT. IAWA just feels so filled with risk.

Very good points. Let me illustrate with what we’ve done: our stories often talk about the world’s oldest mountains that Toby springs out of, or Lilith, the Black Moon beneath the earth that gave birth to the moon, and how her black blood filled the earth (Titusville sits not far from us, where Drake drilled the first oil well). We’ve got a lot of interesting geology to mythologize around here, so yeah, we play it to the hilt.

And that just sounds like a whole heap of fun, so there we go. :slight_smile:

What a cool name for the Black Moon too, ‘Lilith’!

You know, I bet a person could pretty easily fit geological stuff into an Oracle. Uh oh…I feel my perfectionist streak emerging…help!

“…let’s just tell stories about what we experience (‘shamanically’/in-dream or physically/wakingj), not about what we ‘know’ or read.”

Willem, thank you, thank you, thank you for saying that.