If you’re like me, you balk at the very idea of an “idea aide,” one of those little activity books used in undergraduate writing seminars to allow uncreative people to produce creative-looking content without putting too much thought or effort into it. Okay, I’m probably giving them too hard a time; there is the really cool, coincidental fact that the phrase “idea aide” is just the same word repeated with a single letter transposed. As writers, we all have our personal process, whether it involves meditation, booze, drugs, crosswords, sports equipment, music (or nonmusic). But that’s just the thing: as a writer, your process is personal. It’s, essentially, what defines you as a writer. What greater admission of weakness is there than to “stoop” to playing fill-in-the-blank games or silly parlor activities?
It probably is just me. I can be pretty stuck-up and stubborn, and will go to great lengths to avoid even the faintest whiff of intertextuality. At the same time, it’s hard for me to deny the appeal of certain works of conceptual writing, nor the importance of unusual triggers to shock us out of our usual ways of thinking and creating. It’s from that angle that I am going to review Storyteller Cards, a totally unique deck of playing cards (and more) designed by game designer Jason Tagmire (Pixel Lincoln) and illustrated by visual artist Campbell Whyte (8-Bit Dreams, Home Time).
This is an item I would never have expected to incorporate into my writing practice. Though I’m listing this review in the “Games” category, Storyteller Cards isn’t a game as you’d traditionally characterize it. Rather, it is a creative resource, in the same way that gold is a mineral resource. This pocket-sized deck of playing cards features, get this, 1080 unique triggers to jumpstart your creative juices. The face of each card is a surreal intersection of elements, including:
1) A CHARACTER or archetype, such as bride or postal worker;
2) An ACTION, such as listening, rolling or waving;
3) An OBJECT, such as a jack-in-the-box, a key or a phial of poison;
4) A LOCATION, such as a museum or parking lot;
5) A MOOD–happy, angry, sad, scared, surprised, crafty;
6) A LETTER in the Latin alphabet, which is also depicted in a primary or secondary color;
7) A SEASON, represented by an icon with its own unique sub-identifiers so that every card is different;
8) And a RANK and SUIT…these are playing cards, after all.
For example, the card pictured above features a PILOT LICKING HONEY in a CAR, with the ANGRY mood, a GREEN G, and a (uniquely shaped) snowflake representing WINTER. It is also the SEVEN of HEARTS. They get much stranger. How about a chef angrily poking a rock? A magician listening to an hourglass on the moon? A sailor tearing up a Dear John letter in a space shuttle? A robber riding on a toy truck in a cemetery?
The intended use is…well, anything you’d like it to be. The Storyteller Cards box says it’s for “Gamers, Role Players, Writers, Artists, Children, Parents, Teachers and You!” and I’d be inclined to agree–the utility of the deck encompasses all those audiences and then some. As I said, this is a resource. There isn’t any specific game that Storyteller Cards are designed to play, but Tagmire has provided a 66-page “Storyteller’s Manual” featuring over a dozen suggested activities contributed by writers, artists and game designers. Many of these are fairly basic writing exercises refocused around this magical deck. For instance, author and third grade teacher Gaetan Pappalardo (Louie Licks and the Wicked Snakes) contributed the ultra-simple “25 Word Stories,” which simply has players draw a card and write a piece of 25-word nanofiction about the scene depicted. For instance…
Tagmire himself contributes a few suggestions, one of which is little more than an unfunny Mad Libs for very small children. His “Director’s Cut” is much better. Players draw cards, one at a time, to inspire the setting, characters, relationship, goal, conflict, resolution and big twist of a movie pitch, wrapping it all up with a creative title. You might think that drawing the cards in order would make the player/storyteller lack a sense of ownership of the resulting story, but this is where the Storyteller Cards shine. You don’t have to use the background of the card to suggest the setting–you could just as easily draw inspiration from the character, the item, what they’re doing with it, or even the mood or season. The surreal mishmash of elements makes it unexpectedly easy to pick out a single element and divorce it from the scene as a whole. You might have expected to see the astronaut aboard the space shuttle or on the moon, but he’s kicking diamonds in a cave. Because of the lack of conventional logic tying the elements on the cards together, it makes them almost like Rorschach blots, individual elements subliminally rising to the surface as a reflection of where your inner mind. The illustrations are also lovely works of absurdist art all on their own, particularly as crafted by Whyte, whose isometric line drawings and clever use of muted colors accentuate the absurdity of the dream-like tableaux.
And (speaking specifically of “Director’s Cut”) because it’s your job to lash these absurd fragments onto the skeleton of a plot that, while inevitably silly, makes some measure of sense, it’s a great stretch for your creative muscles. Here’s an example story I put together while penning this review:
Many of the other games are variations on a similar concept, with a few that are nearly identical duplicates (e.g. “Director’s Cut” and Scott King’s “Pitch It!”). They are almost all some take on “turn over cards and tell a story,” but with interesting little wrinkles here and there. For instance, “To Be Continued” by Tim Rodriguez brings in a Crazy Eights-like cardplay system to limit your storytelling options. “Pyramid Scheme” by Marty Cobb and Jason Tagmire introduces an RPG-like, semi-strategic dice-rolling element that forces the players to use their characters’ “attributes” strategically, along with the additional storytelling challenge of having to justify failed or successful rolls off the cuff. “ChromaCards” by Charles Beauvais (ChromaCubes) is 10 flavors of crazy, a “strategic coloring game” that comes with its own paint-by-numbers sheet; it gets even weirder when he mixes in Cribbage in the 2-player variant, “ChromaCribs.” “Freudian Knot” by Jay Treat folds deduction into the storytelling game recipe, with each player choosing a secret word that they want to subliminally insert into the story without being too obvious about it (you win if most of the other players, but not all of them, guessed your secret word).
In all of these cases, the games themselves are good-naturedly derivative and quick enough to make an appearance at any social gathering. The idea is clearly to give you an idea of how the cards work and then let you use them as you see fit.
The best game of the batch, at least among the activities I tried, is “Tough Audience” by Scott Almes, designer of Martian Dice. It makes clever use of the cards’ modifiers (too often ignored in the Storyteller’s Manual). “Tough Audience” is a push-your-luck game where players take turns trying to drag a story out as long as they can by flipping over one card at a time without repeating the same emotion (the upper-right corner modifier) more than once. You can stop whenever you like, giving the microstory a happy ending and taking all the cards you flipped, or you can take a gamble and keep playing. As soon as a duplicate emotion is flipped, all the cards that made up your story are discarded, and you must end it with a sour ending. The ultimate goal is to assemble a winning poker hand with your won cards, adding another element of strategy to the push-your-luck element of the game. The appeal isn’t just mechanical, though: It’s always fun when you have to scramble for a sudden and unexpected sad ending using the elements on the card that killed you. Here’s an example of a single turn (read the cards from right to left):
In this example, I began the game with a strong hand: the king and queen of diamonds. I seriously considered stopping after drawing the skeleton/rope card, hoping to build toward a diamond flush, but (like my protagonist) greed got the better of me. Besides, I couldn’t think of a happy ending after only three cards!
You can also use them to play any old card game you could play with a normal deck of cards.
As a matter of fact, that ought to be Storyteller Cards’ sell, if you’re stuck-up and stubborn like me and don’t think a zany deck of non sequiturs will gel with your writing. Everybody needs a deck of playing cards to travel with or to throw into the closet for when the power goes out. This should be the deck you get. Whatever makes your current deck of cards special, it can’t possibly match the potential utility of these. Even if you never use them as a creative spark, even if you never touch the (surprisingly fun) games in the Storyteller Manual, the surreal artwork is way more interesting than any bicycle deck, and Storyteller Cards are priced competitively for a non-rubbish pack of plus cards, $10 plus shipping if you order direct. $10 for a pocket-sized item that is both a cure for boredom and a remedy for writer’s block? Now that’s what I call value.
NB: Tagmire and Whyte are currently raising funds via Kickstarter for Storyteller Cards: Fantasy, the genre-specific followup to the original deck. The original storyteller cards are so multi-purpose because they depict archetypes that could fit into any story in any genre or medium. Storyteller Cards: Fantasy lacks that wide appeal, but could be a very cool thing for its intended audience. Specifically, the new modifiers (a coin, a value on a 20-sided die and a sword, scroll or shield icon replace the moods, seasons and letters of the original deck) open the deck up to much more traditionally game-like activities, and the new activities revealed thus far are both mechanically tighter and more varied than those in the original manual. Heck, you’ve pretty much got what you need for a full-fledged roleplaying game system in a single 54-card deck! I don’t expect Storyteller Cards: Fantasy to resonate with the Entropy audience as much as the original deck, but for those of you working in the fantasy genre or the gaming medium, you might want to check it out. For more detail on Storyteller Cards: Fantasy, take a look at my preview on NerdSpan.