Tabletop Tuesdays: Solitaire Story Game

Tabletop (Free)
Jamie Friston

Jamie Fristom of Torpex Studios, a long-time videogame developer has, in recent years, become enamored of story games, that subsection of indie RPGs that emphasize short-duration roleplaying with a goal of shaping an emergent story, rather than encouraging min-max gameplay, with character development optional or deemphasized.

For this year's Game Chef competition, he submitted a soloplay story game called Storyleaves and won "Overall Favorite" in the soloplay category.

Now, the mere idea of a soloplay story game is somewhat paradoxical on the face of it; story games create stories through rules-constrained roleplay, and without an audience, if only of other players, the idea of "roleplay" is suspect. But what Story Leaves really is, is a short story generation system.

Not to go into excruciating detail (read the rules for that), but it works like this: You write characters, events, aspects, details, and places on a set of cards. You shuffle them, and deal them out until you have five characters, and choose three you like as Protagonist, Antagonist, and Beloved. Each of the three gets a card representing a "facet" of the character, and three cards are "shared" by each pair (e.g., "antagonist" and "protagonist" may share "a dangerous journey").

Note that you are generating the cards here. One of the things you do is assign a number to each, starting with 1.

You write up the beginning of a story, setting the scene with the characters, their facets and shared things, and pose a "goal" of the protagonist.

You reshuffle, and deal yourself five cards.

Each 'turn', you choose something your character is trying to do, and may use one of your cards, weaving it into the story, then drawing a card from the deck for the antagonist's response. The card with the higher number 'wins,' and you add to your story, writing what the win means. The player wins the game if he accomplishes three successful actions; he loses if the antagonist causes three 'conditions' (loss, loss of the beloved, or estrangement from the beloved) in the course of the game, even if some or all are recovered from.

This is actually kind of an interesting approach to story generation; you write on cards story elements you might think are useful, and then in a semi-random, but partly selected way, you use them to generate a story -- but specific narration (as in many story games) is up to you, and there is a win and loss condition.

It's worth a look -- but needs some work in my opinion.

To show that, I'll provide my experience of play.

Setting: Fascist America, sometime in the early-mid 21st century


1. The President (character)
2. Open Source Guru (character)
3. Chinese Spy (character)
4. Christian Officer (character)
5. Left-Wing Journalist (character)
6. Wise Guy (character)
8. White Shirt (character)
9. Copyfighter (character)
10. Cab Driver (character)
11. Anarchosyndicalist (character)
12. Informer (character)
13. Refugee (character)
14. Conscript (character)
15. American Moslem (character)
16. The Gulag (place)
17. Erie, Pennsylvania (place)
18. The Front (place)
19. An Apartment (place)
20. Spreading Unrest (event)
21. The Uprising (event)
22. The Wilderness (event)
23. Assault (event)
24. Quiet Conversation (event)
25. Non-Violent Protest (event)
26. A Dangerous Journey (event)
27. The Bomb (item)
28. The Back Door to DNS (item)
29. Cross of Gold (item)
30. Internal Passport (item)
31. A Scatternet (item)
32. The Truth (item)
33. Surveillance Drone (item)
34. Cynicism (aspect)
35. Fervent Belief (aspect)
36. Hatred (aspect)
37. Reluctance (aspect)
38. Addiction (aspect)
39. Black Humor (aspect)
40. Stony Faces (detail)
41. A Gunshot in the Distance (detail)
42. Silence (detail)
43. A Surge of Hope (detail)
44. All News is Suspect (detail)
45. The Smell of Tear Gas (detail)

Initial Cards:

From five initial characters, I chose Copyfighter as the protagonist, American Muslim as the beloved, and Wise Guy as the antagonist. The copyfighter's facet is cab driver, the wise guy's is white shirt, and the American muslim's is fervent belief. The copyfighter and muslim share reluctance, the wise guy and muslim share hatred, and the copyfighter and wise guy share a dangerous journey.

From these facts I generate the initial narrative:

Jurgen Zhukovski's day job as a -cab driver- provided the perfect cover for his real work: as a -copyfighter-. The laptop on the seat beside him was constantly searching for, breaking the encryption of, and using the broadband provided by wireless connection hubs in areas he drove through, to seed and upload torrents carrying the information the government sought to ban. Each morning, at 5AM, shortly after the beginning of his shift, he would pick up his first fare of the day, near the garage in Brooklyn; a woman he knew only as -Rashida-, an -American Muslim- who despite the dangers of doing so, wore a headscarf that proclaimed her -fervent belief- in Islam; he took her to the Brooklyn Academy of Music each day. He had tried to talk with her at times, but she seemed -reluctant- to respond, and though he found her unutterably erotic -- the nose piecing, the forbidden nature of her religion, even her somewhat dowdy clothes that utterly failed to disguise the lush nature of her body -- he was -reluctant- to press her, and somehow doubted that she would ever go out with him in any circumstances.

One morning, as Rashida opened one rear door of the cab, the other opened likewise. As Rashida slid in, so too did a beefy, blonde man in a black suit, a gun in one hand. A -wise guy-.

"You!" said Rashida with -hatred-, trying to get out, but he pressed the gun to her side.

"Be qviet," he said in a slavic accent. To Zhukovski, he said "We go to Yersey City."

Jurgen looked at his laptop, busy uploading torrents. A moment with it would allow him to summon help, but the man would doubtless stop him if he tried.

"That's a -dangerous journey-," he said. Jersey City was overrun with -white shirts.-

"Start meter and shut up," said the man.

I must also choose a goal for the protagonist:

Zhukovski reluctantly obeyed, wanting nothing more than to get this fucker out of his cab. Well, that and a date with Rashida.

I deal myself five cards, and get The Gulag (16), The Back Door to DNS (28), A Scatternet (31), The Truth (32), and Stony Faces (40). This does not look good; most actions require beating a random card draw, and only The Gulag is decent.

Not sure what to do, I choose to 'wait and see,' meaning the antagonist gets a draw; Copyfighter (9), which got shuffled back in. I figure this means the antagonist discovers what the copyfighter is doing, applying the condition of "lost":

Unexpectedly, a hand reached down and snatched up his laptop.

The wise guy chortled. "Aha!" he says. "Mutorrent. Copyfighter asshole. You and Moslem bitch. White shirts will fuck you up, both, I bet."

Zhukovski started to get scared, feeling lost. Yes, beat them both to death, most likely, the reactionary bastards.

Okay, try to reverse the condition; perhaps foolishly, I deploy my highest value card, The Gulag (16).

Zhukovski studied him in the mirror as he made the turn onto Atlantic. Something about the lines in his face made gave him an inkling. "You've been in Rural, Kentucky, haven't you? Or maybe Guantanamo." -The Gulag.-

The antagonist gets a card pull in response: Assault (23), a higher value, therefore losing.

The suited man snarled, dropping the laptop onto the front seat and shoving the barrel of the gun to Zhukovski's neck. "Shut and and drive, fuckwad," he said.

Curiously, the threat of -assault- merely gave Zhukovski confidence.

...That is, "lost" condition reversed.

I don't have a lot of confidence in my cards, but I decide I need to try to advance, to pursue my goal. I choose The Truth (32).

"Why don't you admit it?" he said. "Isn't -the truth- that the fuckers who put you in the gulag are as much your enemies as mine?"

Antagonist gets a draw; Quiet Conversation (24) beats The Truth.

The gun barrel withdrew, and the suited man sat back in his seat, not looking in the slightest put out. "The truth is they pay better than driving cab. "

Rashida glared with hatred at him. "Is money all you care about?"

The man raised an eyebrow. "Vhat else is there?"

This -quiet conversation-, Zhukovski reflected, was getting them nowhere.

I might have used Rashida's hatred as a counter, but it's 36, which doesn't beat 24.

Okay, try again with Scatternet (34):

Stopping at a red light, wondering what to do next, Zhukovski noticed a persistent glowing icon on his laptop; a modified Bluetooth symbol indicating a -scatternet- connection. Trying to hide the motion of his hand behind the seatback, he pressed CRTL-F1, the "help wanted" instant. As the symbol turned blue, he knew someone had received it.

Antagonist draws Conscript (14). Way better than 34.

Just as the light began to turn, a soldier, assault rifle in his arms, stepped in front of the cab: one of the many -conscripts- occupying restive New York. He motioned to Zhukovski to roll down his window, and once Jurgen had complied, showed his own mobile, the glowing 'help' icon on the touch screen.

"Is everything okay, sir?" he asked.

The man in the back seat glowered, realizing something was up. He leaned forward, taking a card from his inside jacket pocket.

"Everthing fine, private," he said. "Am taking subversives to Yersey City. Card has RFID chip, will verify."

The soldier blinked, took the card, and swiped it over his mobile. His eyes widened at what he read on his screen. "Yes, Mr. Kouretsov." He stepped back, and waved the car on. Reluctantly, Zhukovski drove on.

Okay: at this point, I give up. We will be beaten to death by the American equivalent of the Hitler Youth, because all I have is a back door to the DNS system (!?!) and Stony Faces.

One flaw of the game is the numbering system, which Fristom seems to think is arbitrary, numbering cards as they occur to him, as I did here. But from a storytelling perspective, you wouldn't even introduce something like a back door to the DNS system unless it was critical to the plot and highly effective; you might still be thwarted, but not by something as lame as a conscript soldier who just happens to stumble onto you.

A better system would be: after you write down your cards, go over them, and assign numbers to the ones you think should be most effective, from low numbers (effective) to high ones (less effective).

But even that doesn't solve the fundamental problem that the system requires three 'positive' actions for a win, you have five cards (plus your facets and shared facets), and if your draw is shitty, you're fucked.

Some stories are tragedies, of course, but it seems curious to have a game that's story-driven, and yet so highly dependent on luck.

All that being said, obviously I spent some time with this thing and enjoyed it, and you can, likely, do so as well.


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Hey, Thanks!

Thanks for playing it! That's awesome! Nice setting! Sorry the game fucked up your story. I wish the game could claim credit for the quality of your ideas, prose, and dialog, which are all excellent. FWIW, you might have been able to survive by burning a couple of traits, but it would have been a pretty costly 'win.'

"Short story generator" - I like that.

Yes, still working on it.

Does it have in it's text or

Does it have in it's text or does it talk about the idea that you can't start playing until you have some sort of problematic moral issue?

Philosopher Gamer Blog
Driftwurld : My WIP browser game

"Problematic Moral issue"

No, merely a goal of the protagonist, and a reason for the antagonist to oppose it.

Well, I'd pay that as a

Well, I'd pay that as a moral issue - it depends if thats set up as the important thing, or whether it's just something there along with other stuff.

Just a quick correction,

Just a quick correction, Story Leaves was entered into the RPG Solitaire Challenge, which is a (probably 1 time) game design contest that was inspired by the Game Chef series but is independent from it. All the games submitted were intended for one player.

I loved Jamie's game, and I'm glad you enjoyed playing it, too!