Roll For Insight: Storytelling Identity

June 28, 2019 by ludicryan

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There was a story, nay, a legend within our gaming group: of ‘Nature’s Vice’. A story prompt uttered by a unique friend within the game of Dixit. It’s a game about interpretation and how people can take things in wildly different directions. 

Roll For Insight: Storytelling Identity

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Nature’s Vice where our friend Sorley went through several levels of structural injustice and complex representational signs within his chosen card that it became entirely lost. The rest of us took surface-level interpretations of that story within our card choices completely masking the meaningful and in-depth story behind his card. Protestations arose but even more, jokes were made at his lovable folly. 

After years of fondly remembering this as a hilarious event within our gaming group, I have recently looked upon it in a much different light. Some of us gathered around the table to play Before There Were Stars: a game myself and Cass have not stopped talking about for months. 

We haven’t stopped talking about it because it has created a wonderful format to bring out the storytelling identity inherent in all that would play.

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There are many avenues for players to tell a story together. Tabletop RPGs are a prime example of this. This comes through a kind of imaginative embodiment which is great for those that want that immersive attachment to a story. But this can at times feel a little too personal when told through the first person.

As a board game, Before There Were Stars creates a detachment from that first-person style that many might be familiar with over the tabletop. Each player is creating the mythic story of a civilization across four chapters with each chapter containing a particular prompt. 

The rounds are separated into these four chapters with each player drawing two cards to centre the narrative of the chapter on. Players draw these cards from the night sky area of the table where constellations lie. These cards range from The Bear to the Rainbow to the Merchant and give a huge variety to each story being shaped.

After each person has drafted their cards for the round, they’ll take a minute to come up with the next branch of their mythic story and then present it to their friends. It’s at this point that the game creates this feeling of being around a campfire. But there’s also a feeling of vulnerability as players put their improvisational creativity to the test. 

It can be a daunting position to have others look at you as you bare your creative soul to the world. But Before there Were Stars does a great job of mitigating the imagined social consequences of this act that worried players may have. The appreciation phase gives each player a number of stars to give out equal to the number of other players there are. Everyone gets a star from everyone else (of varying values) and is encouraged to say what resonated with them about their story.

There’s such consideration in its design to creating a welcoming atmosphere for everyone’s stories around the table. I have played it a few times now with different people each time. At the end of one of these games fellow OnTableTop staffer Cass pointed out something about two of our number around the table that still resonates with me. 

She said to two of our friends that they are on opposite sides of a storytelling spectrum: one tells a story like a river that naturally flows from point to point, whilst the other has a sharpness to their narrative that will catch you off guard with a twist you don’t see coming. It was a fascinating observation about the previous hour. It was telling in what it highlights about their characters after years of friendship.

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For a number of years, I had the great fortune to research the relationship between games, play and narrative. A topic involving such mercurial areas does not lend itself to swift conclusions, but certain elements are reinforced often enough in pockets of research.

That play is an expressive phenomenon is important among them. From child psychology to animal behaviour to cultural anthropology, play is an activity that is fundamentally expressive: it shows us the identity of a person through their actions. 

There are also links drawn between play and the ritual act. Of that comfortable repetition of activities that become important within a culture. It’s a link further compounded when we consider the origins of ancient game boards as spaces used to conceptualise the world and cosmos for divining. 

There’s a complexity in play through all these connections but a simplicity in how it arises: it’s simple to jump into a joke or for friends to prod each other. Telling a fictional story from start to finish can be a little daunting though. Sure we’ve all dipped into telling stories whether they are regaling others of a funny event that happened or lying through your teeth as a child when you’re in trouble. 

Before There Were Stars bridges the gap between play and storytelling masterfully. It invites people to perform as they might on stage in front of an audience but within the comforting presence of friends.

The game brings out a part of a player’s identity through objectiveless storytelling. It’s different from the actions in other board games where the play is constrained in service of a particular objective. Catan asks us to accrue the most victory points and so our play is always in service of furthering that goal. We can express a certain amount of shrewdness in trade or ingenuity in claiming a route but our identity is funnelled through that pursuit of points. 

Likewise with Before there Were Stars, there are constraints in the storytelling which direct a player to tell stories in a mythic style. But there’s a great deal of creativity within that where a player’s inherent storytelling talents can flourish. It puts us all in the GM chair and creates a welcoming space for everyone to share the stories they’ve come up with. 

The tradition of oral storytelling isn’t as prominent as it once was. The written word is much more accessible and we have been spoiled by the audiovisual delights of cinema for a hundred years. But as we listen to the worldbuilding monologue of our GM or create stories in Before There Were Stars we revive that form of storytelling and we find a little of our own storytelling identity within.

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