First Scene of Storytelling Game is Too Hard

Howdy, I'm working on a collaborative storytelling game that is inspired by the super spy genre such as James Bond and Mission Impossible. I'm having trouble with how the game starts and I'm looking for help.

During the game, the players take turns telling scenes. In each scene they draw one random Item card, one random Function card and one random Scene card. The Item and Function cards are put together to make a super spy gadget such as "A Pen that Repels Alligators" or "Glasses that Detect Lies". The Scene card has a story prompt like "Someone important must be saved." The player then tells a scene where that gadget is the perfect gadget to get the superspy out of trouble and fulfil the scene prompt.

The body of the game works pretty well. Players are enjoying playing once the game gets going, but it's very difficult to start. Currently at the start of the game I have the group draw one Villain card that will say something like "Dr. Villainous is using a collection of [item] to take over the world." The players draw an Item card to fill in the [item] to add flavor and replayability. The villain is the main antagonist for the whole game and is defeated at the end.

But even with a specific prompt like the villain and a starting scene card, players struggle to start the game. The first scene requires a lot of creative work to do since it can establish a lot about the setting, characters and style.

I'm looking for advice on how to make starting the game easier.

Are there any resources about designing the start of a story games? Something like a talk or blog post or podcast maybe?

Are there general principles that can be followed to make the storytelling easier? Or am I basically stuck playtesting until I stumble into a eureka moment of game design?

Anyone have any clever ideas to make the first scene easier?

To answer any rules clarifications questions, you can see the current draft of the rules here, the items here, the functions here, the scenes here and the villains here.

I already have a lot of cards so I'd prefer any solutions that avoid adding more cards.

Thanks!

Comments

  • edited June 2018
    There's this technique but you will have to sew it yourself by hand : one player asks a question, another answers it. It divides the burden.
  • There are answers, but I'm unaware of a worthwhile theoretical treatment of this issue specifically. I recommend picking the brains of experienced designers well-versed in analytical thinking - they can verbalize you various approaches and modeling on something like this until something they say clicks for you and resolves your problem. A consultation, in other words.

    For what it's worth, I think that you understand and verbalize your problem well; it's a common one, and various games get over the hump in different ways. Some games even take advantage of the "hump", as it is precisely as you say: the first scene has an inordinate amount of influence on the overall story, as so much gets established in it. This may be perceived as a difficulty, but in certain types of story gaming it can also be seen as a privilege to get to establish stuff so much.

    Speaking of which, an interesting approach in lowering the hump is to have explicit rules that prevent the players from establishing too much at first. This helps with the difficulty of starting out in a counter-psychological way: a player paying attention to a bunch of limitations on what they are not allowed to establish will find it perversely easier to establish the things they are allowed to. Essentially, the focus of the scene is narrowed by not being allowed to say certain things. Food for thought, could work for your game.

    (A practical application in a game similar to yours might e.g. involve having a check-list of core story elements, out of which every player is allowed to establish at most one on their turn. Things like "introduce the super agent" or "establish mood, comic or serious" or whatever. This enforced agnosis and delayed reveal of many central issues of the story will also ensure that the first turns are short and light, only deepening as the players fill the checklist and move from establishing scenes into "real play" over however many scenes you deem necessary to include in your checklist. Might require establishing some form of truncated turn in your particular case, of course, as you have those card draws and such - you might not want to have those mixed in with this type of establishing procedure.)

    But that's just one technical observation on this matter - it's a wide field with lots of scope, you'll just need to find the right tools and concepts for your particular situation.
  • The brute force is to just put the first scene in the book.

    Just like how Fiasco puts its aftermath in its book.
  • I think it might be worthwhile to simply acknowledge that framing the first scene is still part of the pre-play / brainstorming / setup phase of the game. Once there is an idea everyone is happy with, for a cool first scene, then you play it.
  • edited June 2018
    Since you are explicitly drawing on James Bond movies as an inspiration, how about a mechanic for a "pre-title sequence" showing off the characters that is explicitly separate from the main game going forward? Have the characters start in media res, about to deploy their paragliders over the freeway convoy of unmarked identical white vans. Then let everybody show off what they can do for 10-20 minutes, end with an enigmatic clue which then drives the story forwards. Something like a bracelet in the most recent Bond movie with an octopus symbol on it, so you can link it to literally anything the cards might create.

    Then start with the main game. A really good action sequence out of nowhere will keep the punters in the seats long enough to get the mechanics engaged. I know whenever I run a PBTA game, I like to provide something really strong and hooky in the first scene to give everyone something to react to, then I switch to the "day in the life" mode for the rest of the first session.

    EDIT: Re-reading the original post, I think you may be overloading the creative faculties of the players up front. It's pretty hard to create something cool when the parameters are so wide open... I find strictures make me much more creative.
  • My particular answer to reducing the amount of game props would be to reuse the props as much as needed, like this (but less cluttered of course)

    For me the problem is the scene cards: they put a constraint but fail to provide a starting point. They may be nice for creating a bit of a challenge but if what you want is to get the game going perhaps you need something simpler, like "a chase", or locations as "a mediterranean beach in the summer", "a casino at night" and so on.

    I understand that the game is about telling each other an amusing spy like scene, but as players usually are better at solving problems than at coming up with amusing stories on the spot, you may want to try a bit of a different order of things. Like having the player draw an object on their turn and show it, then make the rest of the players set a challenge using a location and a scene card and then have the spy chose a function from a limited set of 5 cards to create a twist to pass the challenge. Then comes the next player who has to choose from the remaining cards to solve the challenge and so on until the final scene where only one function is left, which will usually be the hardest one to apply.

    Hope any of this helps!
  • Looking over the replies so far, adding more constraints sounds like a common solution. That makes sense. I'm disappointed that there aren't any obvious resources about problems like this. I might end up trying to write something myself to fill that void.

    So far I'm considering:

    1. Give a constrained first scene prompt in the main rules that's used for every game. Something like, "The superspy is chased on foot by a henchperson and then defeats them."

    2. Give a constrained first scene prompt on each Villain card. Something like, "The superspy goes to see a public display of Dr. Villainous's [item] collection but is recognized and must escape."

    3. Limiting the scope of what the scenes establish along the lines of what Eero_Tuovinen suggested.

    I'm inclined against adding another setup step where the group decides on the setting and starting situation because I think it's too much work for the target audience. My target audience is my friends drinking at house parties. They're interested in playing story games but they don't play role playing games or story games regularly. So I want to get them into the game as quickly and with as little buy in as possible.

    I'm also not that interested in changing the main mechanic of the body of the game at this point. It has worked well in playtests. At this point I just want to polish up the start and end of the game and get the game finished. I've been working on this for long enough.
  • Replying to this specifically because it was a design problem that I hit but I think I've solved:
    For me the problem is the scene cards: they put a constraint but fail to provide a starting point. They may be nice for creating a bit of a challenge but if what you want is to get the game going perhaps you need something simpler, like "a chase", or locations as "a mediterranean beach in the summer", "a casino at night" and so on.
    I found that adding more specific setting details to the Scene cards did not work out. For example I had a Scene card for "A fight in a bathroom" which is a trope of the spy movie. But it didn't work with the Item cards. For example, if you drew the Item card that was "Diamond Necklace" it would be hard to make that relevant to a bathroom fight without also establishing something like a fancy party. It caused a couple of split scenes where have the scene was at a fancy party and half was in a bathroom. Conversely, there are Item cards that connote a bathroom setting like "Rubber Duck", "Makeup", "Underwear" so if you pulled a Scene that was "A Casino at Night" you'd have the opposite problem and another split scene.

    It's going to take a lot of playtesting and design iteration but I figured out that what I want is the Scene cards are plot points that are basically setting agnostic. They give a prompt for what the action is and what the general adversity is. The Item card prompts the setting because the player wants a scene where the Item would be inconspicuous. The Function card gives a prompt for the specific adversity.
  • Tying first scenes to specific villains is a neat trick. Let's you concretely establish a theme for different villains. Nice.
  • Why not lean into the absurdity of unusual card combinations, though? There's your creative constraint right there. No one will be creatively stuck if you tell them they have to frame a scene involving both a fight in a bathroom and a diamond necklace.
  • That would have been my aim, as my group is able to deal with that sort of nonsense and keep it logical, entertaining and not break immersion. I'll have to admit though that it makes most players everywhere get into a zany atmosphere unless they get very, very creative. ZacAGross has a point there.

    That's why I suggested letting players pick the use from a batch of 5 choices after the scene is framed, because there's no way objects/uses will often match a more open scene. But I'm more sure about where exactly is the fun in the game. It isn't problem solving at all, but the joy of creating a narration, so the challenge isn't in finding the "right answer" but in telling it right given the constrainings proposed by the cards.

    Given the need of your game, a bit more constrictions definitely seem to be the way to go, but to keep things coherent, wouldn't be better to add examples of possible Locations on the objects cards? I mean, the objects are already telling the players where they are supposed to be and what's going on before the Scene starts, but for some objects/players that case may be not so clear.

    Like, the baseball cap suggests a baseball game, so if the scene cards is that someone important must be saved it must be (I presume) a baseball player or someone important attending that game. If we know that Lady Moneybags is exploiting the market of Gum to make a fortune.... wow, this is a stretch but I suposse it can either be a player who is the competition's face of their product who has refused to fall for Lady Moneybags, a gum mogul opposed to Lady Moneybags, an agent of the secret service with more info on her plans...

    No, definitely there's something else amiss, it took a bit of effort to come up with this. The locations examples in the objects cards may help a bit, but if all players have to come up with explanations like this even before proceeding with the actions, I get how the game can get a slow start. Is this really the case or am I reading too much into the cards?
  • Given the need of your game, a bit more constrictions definitely seem to be the way to go, but to keep things coherent, wouldn't be better to add examples of possible Locations on the objects cards? I mean, the objects are already telling the players where they are supposed to be and what's going on before the Scene starts, but for some objects/players that case may be not so clear.
    That's a pretty cool idea! I'll try it out in some playtesting. I'm a smidge worried players will lean on the example locations too much but I'm guessing overall it'd be a good thing for the game.

  • edited June 2018
    I played a lot of collaborative storytelling games the last decade or two, especially games that mainly are about descriptive challenges; challenges where the participants use their creativity to describe their way out of trouble.

    I would suggest to look up InSpectres, Dragons and Bananas, Dr. Magnethands, Once Upon a Time, and Archepelago, and the setup in Alienor.
    During the game, the players take turns telling scenes. In each scene they draw one random Item card, one random Function card and one random Scene card. The Item and Function cards are put together to make a super spy gadget such as "A Pen that Repels Alligators" or "Glasses that Detect Lies". The Scene card has a story prompt like "Someone important must be saved." The player then tells a scene where that gadget is the perfect gadget to get the superspy out of trouble and fulfil the scene prompt.
    So the same person narrates the whole scene? Why is this a game for several people, when there is hardly anything that makes the people collaborate? It seems like your game is a multiplayer solitaire game. Even in games like Baron Münchhausen, where there is one, and only one, that narrates the entire story, other participants can add to the story.

    I come to think of the Czege principle: if the same participant come up with both the problem and the solution, it's boring.

    I mean, of course it's amusing to listen to someone else being creative in their narration, and the game itself creates some of the challenge, but why can't the participant on the right play the villain, and let that player come up with how the villain will put the spy in trouble?

    The more people you have to contribute, the easier it will get and the more fun it will get because more are involved and the uncertainty of where the story will go will increase.

    On a turn, the controlling player draws an Item Card, a Function Card and a Scene Card. The Item and Scene cards are face up, and the Item card is face down with only the controlling player knowing what it is.
    I'm guessing the function card is the one that is hidden from the other participants?

    ---

    I like the premise of the game, and how short the game is. When it comes to game design, I would like to see more looping structures of plays in storytelling or roleplaying games. It's easy, simple to understand, and can bring a lot of depth to it.

    However, I would like a round that sets up more about the world and the spy. Is it set in modern time? Who is the spy? What's the spy's name? How does the spy look like? You got something for the villain, but you need an icebreaker exercise to make everyone comfortable in what they are doing, and when it will end. That will make everyone more keen to participate in the narration, and if you also got a structure to involve more people in the narration, they will be more relaxed because you will then avoid the feeling that everything is depending on one person.

    • Start with the setting; say a few words about it.
    • Set up the goal: who's the villain, what's the villains goal, and where will the story end up?
    • Who is the spy that will stop this? Name? Nationality? Organization?

    And then start from there:
    • Where are we? (Location card)
    • What will happen here? (Scene card)
    • Why?

    I would leave the deck of the scene cards face up, so everyone would know where they will end up the next time. So when a participant is drawing cards, the next scene will be revealed as well. That will make it easier to transcend from one scene to another.

    When it comes to games like this, you need to give the players time to think. Dropping cards in their lap and expecting them to start describing right away is a somewhat tricky position to put them in.

    • Divide the burden by involving more people (one participant setting up the scene as the villain, and hooks the spy into it, and later on narrates the danger for the spy).
    • Hint what's coming up next (villains main goal, last scene card, next upcoming scene card).
    f the player had drawn the Scene Card for "A fancy party or high stakes gambling,"
    Also, you give examples in the rules that doesn't exist as a card. The "A or B" option is excellent, but it doesn't exist among your scene cards. A or B where A is a location and B is something happening would be a nice design of the game.
  • Thanks for all the specific ideas, references and feedback, Rickard! That's very helpful.
  • late to the party, but Ron Edwards has what he calls 'bangs' which is really just how all bond movies start anyway - a good old fashioned Cliff hanger! To avoid blank age syndrome, starting with a cliff hanger gives all players an immediate short term focus.

    As your players are starting, they dont have to provide any context for the cliff hanger - immediately - "Im on my moped being chased by a gang of thugs in vans thru narrow sicillian alleyways..." you can work out why in later scenes
  • edited July 2018
    You're probably discussing the "Kicker" concept from Ron's Sorcerer - those are, as you say, dramatically provocative starting situations that suggest a story without pre-determining it. The Kicker is not context-free in the way you mean, though, and probably doesn't do much for a light and casual game like this.

    Bangs are something different again: analytically produced modular situations that are used in improvisational scene framing during play to retain thematic cohesion; they're condensed GM notes that help in offering boldly story-relevant scenes without following a plot. Both Kickers and Bangs are in Sorcerer, but they are produced very differently (the player creates the Kicker for their own character) and used at different times.
  • I found this, about sorcerer kicks and bangs, it may be useful.
  • You're probably discussing the "Kicker" concept from Ron's Sorcerer - those are, as you say, dramatically provocative starting situations that suggest a story without pre-determining it. The Kicker is not context-free in the way you mean, though, and probably doesn't do much for a light and casual game like this.

    Bangs are something different again: analytically produced modular situations that are used in improvisational scene framing during play to retain thematic cohesion; they're condensed GM notes that help in offering boldly story-relevant scenes without following a plot. Both Kickers and Bangs are in Sorcerer, but they are produced very differently (the player creates the Kicker for their own character) and used at different times.
    Ah, OK, lets just go with 'Cliff hanger' as the term then - because it should help alleviate the blank page problem, and for this specific OP, its also very thematic!
Sign In or Register to comment.