Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Story Time!

by Becky Topol, 7/2/13

My name is Becky, but for two years I was also Elja, a Dwarf princess who abandoned her mountain home. She rejected all the Dwarf ways, favored a spiked club over a traditional war hammer, and became a Barbarian. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was an important and joyful part of my life, but I also found it a little frustrating. D&D is, at its core, a battle system. The dice-rolling battle part of the game is fun, tense, and exciting, but took up more time than I’d like. What I REALLY wanted to focus on was the story, like my cleric companion’s past in a traveling circus, or the rogue’s bizarre obsession with Owlbears. Games can vary immensely in the quality and quantity of storytelling depending on the Game Master and players, and quests can be designed to focus more on story than combat. However, I have recently discovered games that focus almost completely on storytelling, and I am addicted.

There is huge variety in storytelling games; some use a more traditional board game format. In Mice and Mystics, for example, you lay out tiles to build a castle, and play intrepid mice facing down horrors like cats and roaches. Using your characters’ special skills you attempt to work together to save the realm from an evil sorceress, creating an epic tale as you go. The board game Tales of the Arabian Nights sends you on a mystical quest through the world of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Scheherezade. During your travels, your character may find wealth and magic, be cursed (or get married, which is just as bad for many characters), or get
transformed into an ape. The story unfolds as players choose from a variety of possible reactions to each scenario encountered: Do you pray? Hide? Stand and fight? Once you pick, you flip to the appropriate page, just like a choose-your-own-adventure book, and find out what happens next.

Some storytelling games are incredibly simple. In Tell Tale, you flip a card to reveal a picture, which you must then incorporate as the next part of an ongoing story. Its simple, free-form nature makes it an ideal way to spark creativity in children and adults alike. Similar but more advanced is Once Upon a Time, where each player is dealt cards with different story elements and an ending. The players then play cards to tell a story together, with each trying to incorporate their own elements, like “Knight” or “Village”, and eventually reach their assigned ending. This game is a fun combination of collaboration and competition, since the players all work together to tell a fun story, while also looking for opportunities to interrupt and steer the tale in their preferred direction.

My absolute favorites are storytelling games that follow the more traditional role-playing game (RPG) format -
pens, paper, some dice, and plenty of imagination. The very popular Fiasco starts with a handful of dice being rolled to determine the various relationships, objects, and needs that drive the characters. After building this web of relationships, players take turns to frame and resolve scenes. Different-colored dice determine positive and negative outcomes, and their distribution affects the storyline for each character. The result is often something like a Coen Brothers movie, in that things go crazily, darkly, hilariously wrong. Numerous free playsets are available, so you can play in settings ranging from mundane suburbia to the Wild West to a Mars colony.

Finally, there’s Forsooth! Yes, the title actually includes an exclamation point, and I think it deserves it. Essentially, it’s a role-playing game in which you improvise your own Shakespearean play. You pick a setting, such as “a haunted castle near an enchanted glen in France,” and two themes to drive the tale. Everyone plays at least two characters, one of whom is their Protagonist. All Protagonists have to be either “wed or dead” for the play to end, because that’s the way things work in the Bard’s world. At the end of each scene, the players award points to whichever character they think did the best, either by furthering the plot, developing their character or just being funniest. It is possible to play this game without using Shakespearean language, but as it stands, it’s the perfect game for Shakespeare fans. I can’t think of any other game where I’ve been encouraged to throw bonus points at my friends for making clever puns.

If you're interested in Shakespeare-themed storytelling games, RSVP for Labyrinth’s Taste of Shakespeare, being held on August 24 in cooperation with the Shakespeare Theatre Company! We will be playing RPGs including Forsooth! and the Shakespearean playset of Fiasco.

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