Pushing story games to normal people

edited October 2006 in Play Advice
Last year a couple of us tried to sell the idea of literary collaborative games, story games, fiction games, whatever we call them at the moment, to a local Book Festival. The organisers didn't buy it - we did mention the activity's roots in roleplaying, though, something we will not when we try again this year. Last yearwe offered playing workshops with demos and presentations of games, as well as presenting their designers.

So, the activity is Story Now. The audience are book readers at a month-long literary event featuring writers from all over the world. Last year's event featured Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Stiglitz. Iain M. Banks is always there. So is Ian Rankin and a flurry of other British authors. There are writing workshops, song-writing masterclasses, childrens' tents, bookshops, signings aso.

Any ideas how to approach these people to get them to buy into it, and eventually to get people who are already passionately interested in reading books to go play?



  • If I had to do it? Pitch it as Improv meets Group Writing, include something that produces some kind of transcript or notes at the end.
  • Whereas to a gamer community I would promote Cool Resolution!, to a literary community I promote interactive Fiction.

    Honestly, I explain my going to AmberCons as more of a literary outing (and I "run presentations" like a regular conference) to my coworkers than the wild weekend of wicked orgies and immersive insanity it could be. I stress the relationship of the books to the game (no matter how much of a fallacy it might be) and how the community works a hundred times more than the words, "Diceless," or even the seemingly innocuous word, "statistic."
  • edited October 2006
    My preferrred description is either "improvisational story-telling" or "improvisational fiction". (This, I believe, is the core of our activity.) I would title it something like "Story Now & the Art of Improvisational Fiction". (I have thought about this, and can give a more detailed explanation for the various elements of story-games, if you want.)

    I think the pitch "Improv theater meets group writing" is great, it combines some things they should be familiar with. Another one is "jazz meets group writing"--this one is a little more energetic, though slightly more vague.

    After this, though, you need to be *real* careful about what game you want to show them. You need something that "the average person" can relate to. I propose we have very few games that would be good for this. PTA seems like it might be good for this, though I'm not sure if the system structure is the best for non-gamers. System-wise, "1001 Nights" is nice and simple and collaborative, and subject isn't too arty/geeky as to turn people off. "Breaking the Ice" might seem like a good choice, but I have a feeling it wouldn't be great. Though the subject is non-geeky, it might make some people feel weird playing a "dating game" with strangers. (I'm not familiar with Emily's other game, "Shooting the Moon".)

    If I may say so, I believe my game "Mexican Standoff" is one of the best games *at the moment* for non-gamers. It does have the atmosphere of a "party game", though. But it's short so it might be something you could give as a demonstration.

    [edit] Another game I think is great for non-gamers is "City of Brass" because it's so much like a boardgame. But it may be too much like a boardgame. Narration, by and large, is just color. It really isn't about making a story. [/edit]
  • I've been of the mind lately that the break out area for RPGs, story games, what have you is the more mainstream game playing crowd. The people who get together for poker night, or regular monopoly and clue night. Family and party gamers. It's tougher with literary types because even collaboratively they like they gravitate to unstructored word-salad, brainstorming type activities. Throw something out there and see what happens.

    However, structured exercises are often very important and you might want to pitch the activities along those lines. There's a reason stuff like poetry and 100 word stories and stuff like that are popular among writers as challenges. The structure and rules lay down a set narrative of narrative constraints within to work. I suspect games like Universalis would fair well in this category of thinking.

  • Thx, guys, for the suggestions.

    Improv meets group writing is certainly excellent, Mark, I'll take that with to our next meeting.

    Tim, of course I am interested in your thoughts about story game elements - do you want to do it here or peremail? My email is per.fischer at gmail.com. I personally also like the jazz one, and the reference to music in general, but I used to be a musician/music teacher, so I might be biased in that respect.

    For what it's worth, the game we suggested the last time was indeed Prime Time Adventures, actually as a workshop event for 15-20 people. Our suggestion was to get groups to come up with the TV show concepts, protagonists, like this:
    • Introduction to Primetime Adventures – what it is, what you can do with it, and what other people have done with it.
    • Each group would come up with a pitch for a show.
    • A short presentation of pitches from each group.
    • Then the groups would finish their shows' protagonists and decide who takes
      the Producer role.
    • Primetime Adventures in action - pilot episode, season planning, scene creation and relationships and conflicts.
    • The groups would then play the first scenes of their series. The workshop leaders would move from group to group offering assistance and advice.
    • A round-up of the highlights from the groups' experiences, followed by questions.
    Breaking the Ice might be useful for group play as well, and your other suggestions are certainly worth considering, though I haven't read neither 1001 Nights nor Shooting the Moon. Mexican Standoff? I'll have to think about that. But other choices have surfaced since this time last year, say Contenders, Shock and particularly Spione - Story Now in Cold War Berlin. Spione is directed solely at non-gamers.

    Universalis strikes me as not a good choice - I would personally never play that with non-gamers, Jesse, but I agree with your thoughts about narrative constraints as the starting point for creativity.

  • Per, I'll send you an email with some thoughts.

    I played the Ronnies version of Contenders, but don't remember it well. I know its suppose to be really good. Shock might work, but again, it's kinda geeky. It might work depending on your audience. (I will say that I've had great success with non-gamers & The Mountain Witch, but I consider its subject too geeky for this type of introductory demonstration.) Spione, I don't believe that's for sale yet. I believe Mexican Standoff *in general* is great for non-gamers, but for your purposes it might not be the best.

    If you can, 1001 Nights is really worth looking at. The rules basically boil down to this---The game is about royal court members telling each other stories. Players/court members take turns narrating (aka GM'ing) the various short stories. The other players act out the roles of the characters within these stories. When the players want to see the story go in a certain direction, they propose a question ("does the princess find out who's writing her secret letters?"). If there's ever uncertainty (aka a conflict) you basically flip a coin.
  • Well, probably the most important thing to help you is to find out Exactly what the Book Faire people objected to last year. Can you share specific comments?

    RPGs come as books, so I'm curious as to why they weren't on board.

    If it was because they were too seperated from the book (you read some of the book, then set the book down to play), then there may be nothing that can be done.

    If it was because they were snotty, then they might have had objections to PTA ("You play out a - gasp- Television Show? How dreadful!")

    If it was because of other factors, we might be able to come up with specific solutions.

  • Thing is, we don't know why the Festival people didn't bite. They simply didn't get back to us, despite several polite emails asking for it. It has to be said that this Festival is huge - there are a bunch of people working full time for a year to put it together, it's big business and it's not easy to get their attention. But I had managed to get directly in touch with the Festival Director via email, and I was trying not to burn this direct contact by asking to many questions. I think we might simply have drowned inside the big event.

    This time we will try to get a face-to-face meeting together.

    Interesting note about games also being books, Andy. We did consider a side-line about POD and self-publishing as well. Good point.

  • Per, I don't know what to say. I think it would be great for this kind of thing to happen, as an experiment if nothing else. But I don't know how to appeal to someone at a book fair. I don't know what they're like as a crowd.

    You'll note that I don't call Shock: an RPG, and I don't usually pitch it as one. I go straight to its meaning: "What's something in the newspaper that makes you angry or scared or worried? ("Uh, the war in Iraq.") Great. So what part about the war makes you angry, scared, or worried? ("That it's a political tool.") OK, so what's some science fictiony stuff? ("How about... free energy?") OK, so now we've got a science fiction world about free energy and war as a political tool. To play, we come up with some characters who are opposed to each other about these elements. Maybe your protagonist is an anti-war activist, or maybe they're an oil baron who sees a free energy technology coming that will destroy his business. And they're opposed by someone else — the FBI or a brilliant inventor, say. They conflict about this stuff and in the end, you find that you've told a story about stuff that matters to you."

    I describe the activity itself, not associated activities. Verbs, not nouns. Does it work better than something else? I don't know.

  • I am one of the people that is going to be helping Per out with this. For starters, no terminology please! The use of Story Now in a title, I refer to Tim's first post here, would be confusing I think. I think just calling it 'Group writing' or 'Colloborative Storytelling' is the way forward for this. I am totally with you Per on doing it as some kind of workshop with participation to let people see how things go. PTA certainly seems like a good choice, I would also be tempted by contenders. Spione. absolutely not. I know what we and Ron are trying to achieve with our parallel ideas is pretty much the same, but Ron is very specifically targetting a part of the book reading public. Maye we should write something specifically for this? I am writing a game about film emulation that might work.

    I think something like Shock, and the other games that make you think a bit more about consequecnes, might be better for a second year event, presuming we get the first year one going. I think we need a gentle introduction about how rewarding, I hesitate to use the word fun for fear of getting bogged down in semantics, our hobby can be.

    More thoughts on this once I have drunk my coffee.

    All the best
  • Joshua, the book festival audience are "normal" people. Some are interested in spy fiction, some are wannabee writers, some like biographies or simply famous people, others prefer mainstream bestsellers - none of them probably engage i shared fiction like story games. Yet. They all presumably read books - some many, some only a few, but they read and like the book as a medium. It strikes me that the audience are generally at least late twenties or older, with many many past 50.

    The reason I mentioned Shock was exactly that: it doesn't say RPG. I think that's a good start, and the key to get what we do across is precisely what you describe: it's the activity itself that's the main focus. Plus it exploits a literary genre and tries to recreate that genre in shared fiction.

    I think Spione is one of the most important works in this respect, because it sets out to do EXACTLY what I am trying to achieve here: story now as an activity, deeply rooted in literature and storytelling. Targetting a specific part of the book reading public is what I am after - if you read Carre/Deighton you might like this activity-kind of argument. Maybe doing it by literary genre is actually the best way to approach this. Britain loves genres, much more than, say, my home country Denmark. In a Danish library you find M. Banks under B and Rankin under R, while in Britain they would be in Science Fiction and Crime Fiction respectively.

    PTA is good for getting across what a story game actually does - but it's not necessarily the connector between shared fiction and the book reading public.

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