Storyteller Cards and Storyteller Cards: Fantasy by Jason Tagmire and Campbell Whyte
Button Shy, 2013-’14
Back in April, I wrote about Storyteller Cards, a very special deck of cards designed by Jason Tagmire, with art by Campbell Whyte. Jason Tagmire sent me a copy of the original Storyteller Cards deck to review, and I ended up liking them so much that I backed the Kickstarter for his follow-up, Storyteller Cards: Fantasy, a more gamer- and RPG-oriented deck in much the same vein. Designed as a tool for storytellers of all stripes–educators, parents, children, musicians, writers, artists, roleplayers, et cetera–the Storyteller Cards deck functions as a regular 54-card poker deck, but it’s also so much more. In addition to a rank and suit, each card pictures an obvious type of character, like crook or princess, performing an action with an object in a location, often creating a surreal, dream-like juxtaposition. The corners of the cards feature even more randomizers: a season of the year, a letter (in a color), and a mood. Although the Storyteller Cards website features a free-to-download “Storyteller Manual” with suggested activities, this really is a flexible tool for you to use as you please. Its unstated primary purpose is to shift writing roadblocks: if you get stuck in your writing, simply flip over a card and quickly pick out one element (no need to incorporate the entire card) to move the story along.
Storyteller Cards: Fantasy works in much the same way, with the unsurprising exception that it depicts characters and setting more appropriated to a Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy setting. Instead of a recognizable real-world character, each card depicts a fantasy race/class combination, like dwarf cleric or human bard, performing an action with an item and a weapon in one of four broad categories of setting: town, wilderness, dungeon, and castle. In addition to the standard rank and suit, the card’s corners show a copper, silver or gold coin (depicting either heads or tails), a “combat resolution” icon (showing a sword, shield or scroll), and a value on a 20-sided die. The Kickstarter also shipped with some nice bonuses: an amazing GM screen by artist Campbell Whyte and a set of three storytelling coins (showing past/future, good/evil and truth/lies). With these more obviously “game-y” elements, I felt confident that Storyteller Cards: Fantasy could be more than just a creative tool for RPG-ers–it could be a self-contained roleplaying game in itself.
So I gave it a shot. Making up the rules as I went along, I played my first single-player roleplaying game slash writing exercise using a combination of Storyteller Cards: Fantasy and the original Storyteller Cards (I added the original deck in after discovering that certain elements of the fantasy deck, like action and location, were less immediately recognizable/distinctive).
Drawing Up the Premise
I decided early on that I would create the skeleton of my story first–the ultimate goal and the three-act set of heroic tasks necessary to accomplish it–before getting into the nitty-gritty of the game. Drawing a combination of random cards from both decks, I set up all the basic necessities:
Notable Action: Dancing
Name: (Ww) Wexel the Well-Equipped
The Quest Item: Mirror
Quest Required Action: Fall
Quest Item Name: (Xx) Mirror of Xerxes
The Villain Race: Dwarf
The Villain Class: Cleric
The Villain Weapon: Quarterstaff
The Villain Notable Action: Poking/Prodding
The Villain Name: (Zz) Dark Pope Zinfandel of the Rock
The Villain Location: Village
Villain Location Attribute: Well-Paved
Villain Location Name: (Mm) Metropolis
Act 1 Location: Volcano
Act 1 Location Attribute: Poison
Act 1 Location Name: (Dd) Mount Deathfog
Act 1 Goal: Skeleton
Act 1 Required Action: Fly
Act 1 Goal Name: (Mm) Skeleton of Monrovius Mudd
Act 2 Location: Ruins
Act 2 Location Attribute: Polluted
Act 2 Location Name: (Ff) Fallen Fen
Act 2 Goal: Harp
Act 2 Required Action: Throw
Act 2 Goal Name: (Ii) Ignoble Harp of the Fallen
Act 3 Location: Moon
Act 3 Location Attribute: Shadowy
Act 3 Location Name: (Ww) Orb of Wexlia
Act 3 Goal: Trident
Act 3 Required Action: Boil
Act 3 Goal Name: (Xx) Xerxes’ Trident
So, the dwarven rogue Wexel the Well-Equipped was on a quest to recover the Mirror of Xerxes from the malevolent Dark Pope Zinfandel of the Rock, a twisted dwarven cleric who dwelt atop the tallest skyscraper in well-paved Metropolis, the most modernized city of the land. However, getting to the mirror would not be an easy process. To enter Metropolis, Wexel would need to retrieve Xerxes’ Trident from the shadowy satellite known as the Orb of Wexlia (the largest and brightest orb in the night sky, and the sole audience to many a lover’s tryst, hence why Wexel had adopted it as his professional name). The Trident had been lodged there by Zinfandel’s magic decades earlier, after he had used its power to seal Metropolis within an impenetrable force-field. Since no creature could survive the airless void that separated the globe of Titundae from its nearest celestial relatives, Wexel would have to transport himself there by magical means. An archway stood outside the great forest of Logwood, erected there by the extinct race of creatures known as the Fallen–according to the carvings that decorated its arch, this archway could allow safe passage through the void, but only if activated by a lost (and cursed) musical instrument, the Ignoble Harp of the Fallen, sealed away in the long-buried Fallen Fen alongside all of the Fallen’s other most disgraceful creations. Nobody knew the exact location of the Fallen Fen, but it was said that the old sorcerer Monrovius Mudd, who had dwelt atop the toxin-choked heights of steaming Mount Deathfog, had divined its whereabouts. Mudd was centuries dead; however, his skeleton remained seated on its paper throne (made impervious to Mount Deathfog’s heat by Mudd’s powerful sorcery) at the peak of the mountain. If Wexel could retrieve the skeleton, he knew a dwarf in the village of Sunspire who could reanimate the old codger, just long enough to squeeze the Fen’s location out of him.
This, then, was Wexel’s quest: to scale Mount Deathfog armed only with his trusted morningstar Bulbcracker, his faithful chicken companion Abalonia, and his impeccable footwork, honed to mesmeric perfection after decades of wooing ladies (of all heights) with his prizewinning dancing moves…not to mention the less honest rewards a rogue might gain from cultivating a soft and nimble foot.
At the foothills of Mount Deathfog, Wexel faced his first challenge: (trap) (graveyard) … I’m thinking this is some kind of ancient cemetery that’s filled with graves that will collapse underfoot, and perhaps even some undead surprises. But first, I’ve realized that I have no idea how to use the d20 values in my game. I need to establish Wexel’s stats and how challenges work.
Scaling Mount Deathfog
Wexel’s stats (created by randomly drawing 5 cards and assigning the d20 values on them to Strength, Agility, Charm, Cunning and Endurance in a way that made sense for the character):
Strength: 8 (he is short)
Agility: 16 (he is a dancer and a rogue, so this should be his highest stat)
Charm: 15 (his backstory suggests he’s a bit of a ladies dwarf)
Cunning: 11 (not great, but that was the third-highest roll)
Endurance: 10 (as a dwarf, he should have a fair amount of endurance)
He also starts out with an HP of 20. I decided to keep stat tests simple, determining the stat needed for the challenge, drawing a card, and passing if the drawn card’s d20 value is equal or lower than Wexel’s stat; otherwise, he fails. I may add modifiers later on if I feel I need to, as a way of giving rewards for treasure or experience. I’ll calculate damage using the coins on the cards (copper=1, silver=2, gold=3), same with healing, drawing multiple cards if necessary.
So, back to the game!
Wexel had just stumbled upon some sort of trapped graveyard at the foothills of Mount Deathfog. Ignoring the ominous shifting of the soil under his feet, he tried to carefully navigate the landscape using his small, nimble feet. (check=6) “Well that was close!” sighed Wexel…just before he heard a crumbling sound and a groan behind him….
Although he’d avoided falling into the trap, a revenant had apparently sensed his lifeforce and risen from the loose soil covering its resting place! Wexel swung his morningstar without hesitation!
The revenant reacted dully to his swing, as though it couldn’t feel a thing. At the same time, it reached out and grasped blindly at Wexel with its dirty claws, but his leathery dwarven skin resisted its attacks. (No damage in either direction.) He swung again, this time smashing through the undead creature’s kneecaps. Another swing smooshed its skull like a damp loaf of bread.
Wexel searched the creature’s evacuated coffin for any treasure or trinkets it might have been carrying, but found nothing worth taking up the mountain–just a few rat-chewed scraps of leather.
Continuing up the mountain, Wexel reached another suspicious area. It was a large gate built directly into the mountainside in such a way that Wexel couldn’t go around it without a strenuous, dangerous climb. However, although the gate had a sturdy door, Wexel couldn’t see any apparent way of opening it. Of note were three human skulls inlaid into the door at regular spaces. Using his cunning, Wexel tried to figure out the trick to the door. “It’s obvious!” he chuckled after only a few moments of staring. Gathering up some thick, dry tree branches that had fallen by the side of the path, he inserted them one by one into the skulls’ eye sockets, setting off the hidden switches inside. Once the last socket had been filled, the door swung silently open.
“I thought this Monrovius Mudd was supposed to be some sort of genius!” Wexel laughed out loud. Just then, he heard a deep, monotonous chant echoing from within a nearby cave. A hooded monk emerged, dressed in bright-red, ruby-studded robes. “Blasphemer!” the monk exclaimed, producing a double-headed battle axe from the folds of his vestment. “Monrovius Mudd was the Chosen One of Klaxon Himself! That is why I make this yearly pilgrimage to his seat of power. You will suffer for your sinful words!”
With that, he swung his mighty axe, catching Wexel by surprise and scratching his face deeply (Wexel HP -3). Swinging Bulbcracker around, Wexel retaliated, but his weapon got tangled in the monk’s thick robes. “Ha!” the monk cried, attacking again. Unable to dodge out of the way, Wexel suffered another glancing blow. Cursing, he realized he didn’t have the strength to extract his weapon from the thick fabric. He nimbly dodged the monk’s next attack and hurried further up the mountain, weaponless.
Once he was a safe distance away from the laughing monk, Wexel tried to come up with some sort of plan to retrieve his morningstar and stop the monk’s vicious attacks. (Critical success.) Grinning, he realized that he could not only do that, but claim the monk’s weapon-stopping vestments for his own. However, it would require the utmost stealth. Sneaking silently back down the mountain, the dwarf slipped past the monk into the cave from which he’d emerged. As he had expected, it was decorated as a shrine to Klaxon, God of Sudden Noises, with gongs, bells and holy whistles scattered all around. Wexel took the most valuable-looking one of these, a large crystal bell, and snuck back out of the cave.
“Hey, catch!” he shouted, tossing the delicate bell into the air. When the monk saw the holy relic flying toward him, he dropped his weapon in a panic and sprinted forward to catch it. Taking this opportunity, Wexel dashed nimbly forward, retrieved the axe from the monk’s feet, and swung it into the man’s ankles. The monk yelped with pain, but the blow was less debilitating than Wexel had hoped. Before the monk could retaliate, he dashed back out of reach, abandoning his plans for the vestments. At least he now had an axe, a suitable weapon for a dwarf.
Finally, the dwarf reached the poison-shrouded peak of Mount Deathfog, the throne of Monrovius Mudd. Even his dwarven constitution was no match for these toxic vapors, and he sputtered and coughed, his lungs burning (Wexel HP=13). Worse, the throne of the great sorcerer was located atop a small boulder in the midst of a great lake of bubbling purple poison. One would have to fly to get across!
Again, Wexel tried to think up a plan. However, nothing was coming to him. The poison was stinging his eyes and making any thought difficult. (Critical failure, Wexel takes 2 more damage.) Desperately, he tried again. There had to be SOME way across…it came to him in a flash.
Dancing!? What good would dancing do in this situation? Then he realized: while Wexel couldn’t fly across the pit, his chicken, Abalonia, could. He could communicate the plan to the bird using interpretive dance. They only needed a single bone belonging to the sorcerer; even a fingerbone would do. Flapping his arms, strutting and clucking, Wexel did his best to plant the idea in the chicken’s head. It’s a good thing Abalonia was smarter than your average bird! She clucked her understanding, then flapped across the toxic lake, settling on the sorcerer’s crumbling corpse. Wexel mimed the next step, and Abalonia returned to him, clutching an ancient knucklebone in her talons. Patting her head appreciatively, Wexel bundled up the bird and hurried back down the mountain.
(Wexel ends this leg of the adventure with an upgraded inventory of: Abalonia the Chicken, a knucklebone of the sorcerer, the monk’s axe replacing his morningstar, and 11 HP. However, resting in the village allows him to regain 3 HP for a new total of 14.)
So, how did Storyteller Cards: Fantasy serve this purpose? Excellently. It wouldn’t fit everyone’s definition of an RPG, of course, but I’ve long been curious about incorporating the unknown of the die roll (especially the critical success and failure) into a creative writing exercise, and this delivers. As somebody who loves constrained writing and has struggled for inspiration lately, it’s also incredibly liberating to get the pieces of the story drip-fed to me and have to put them together cohesively, like a puzzle, on the fly. Wexel’s adventures will continue!