Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Unplugged Dilintia: A Meticulous Analysis of Fantastic Storytelling
Fantastic Storytelling is kind of a light and friendly party game that probably doesn't require the sort of in-depth analysis that I'm about to give it. If you are playing this game with a group of friends who insist on turning it into some sort of miserable numbers game, then you're probably playing it with the wrong friends.
So why am I going over this? Partly because I'm just that much of a nerd. But also, partly, because I've run into some puzzling situations while playing, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm playing the game wrong or if it's an intentional part of the game.
So here's a little run through all of the cards and the way they fit together. It's worth pointing out that I'm only taking a look at the base set and not the adults-only booster set, because... I dunno.
Character, Event, and Thing
These are the main grammatical building blocks of the game. There's really not a lot to say about any of them individually. Each Character and Thing card is a complete noun, and each Event card is a complete predicate. Taking one Character or Thing card and coupling it with one Event card will always make a complete sentence.
Of course, whether Thing and Character cards are completely equivalent depends entirely on the sorts of people you're playing with and how wild they'll let you be with the game. Some groups will allow "A cold bowl of sick tucked into a delicious eel pie", but others won't. If your group won't allow you to treat inanimate objects as alive, then fully 12 of the 15 Thing cards can only be used as the object of a sentence. Even then, you might be able to make a case for a sentence like "A bucket of delicious popcorn could not understand simple maths".
Some Story cards require you to begin your story with an Opening. Thirteen of the Opening cards are what I would call Easy, and the other twelve are Hard.
The Easy cards are basically a free point. An opening like "Once upon a time..." doesn't impact the structure of the sentence that follows in any meaningful way -- you can remove the Opening, and the rest of the sentence still makes sense.
The Hard cards are difficult because they are practically a complete sentence. "The brave knight raced to save..." just needs an object like "the CEO of a major company" to finish it. The trouble is, you'll always have more than one card following it, so you'll either need to use your Connectors to Frankenstein together a long run-on object for this sentence, or play a conjunction that lets you start a whole new sentence.
So either a free point, or a beginning handicap, and nearly a 50/50 chance of either.
These are your meat and potatoes, the cards in your hand. And surprisingly, there are many different types of connectors available. Here's a rundown of the different categories, and when they are useful:
And is OP. They can connect two subjects, two predicates, two objects, or even two complete sentences. There aren't a lot of situations that an And can't solve; that's why the rules only allow one in each sentence. There are ten plain And cards in the deck, and while it's a good idea to save them for your toughest situations, filling your whole hand with them limits your options on your turn.
There are seven cards that fit the structure of "and then", including "but then", "and at the same time", and even "but then a ferocious dragon came and". These cards can either be used to connect one sentence to another, or to add a second predicate to a complete sentence, as in "A bunny rabbit tucked into a delicious eel pie AND THEN dug a large hole for no reason whatsoever."
There are five cards that fit the structure of "but", including "at the same time as" and "which upset them, because". These are even less powerful than And Then, because they can only be used to connect a new sentence to a sentence that was already completed. This can still be useful, because starting a fresh sentence is one of the easiest ways to recover from finishing a sentence.
There are 20 cards that fit this structure. One more step down from But, this is a connector that can only be used to connect a completed sentence to a new sentence, with the subject (he/she/they) already provided. This can still be useful, but having the subject provided means that you don't get to add another Character or Thing card to your story.
There are two As cards in the deck. Like But, these cards allow you to combine two complete sentences, but they have another curious use -- you can use it to imply that a character is dressed up as another character or thing, as in "The strange man from down the street did karaoke AS Professor Dumbledore".
There are three Who cards in the deck, and they are some of the few cards that let you insert a subclause into your sentence, as in "Your dad, WHO grew a fancy moustache, embarked on a mission to defeat Skril the Cephalloid Conqueror". If your sentence ends with an object, it also gives you an opportunity to turn that object into the subject of a whole new sentence, as in "Your dad embarked on a mission to defeat Skril the Cephalloid Conqueror, WHO grew a fancy moustache." Very situational cards. It's probably best to jump at any opportunity to use them.
There are three With cards (and one Alongside, which I can't help thinking is functionally equivalent). These seem like very difficult cards to play; about the only use I can think of is to add another subject to a sentence that's already complete, as in "A man with a terrible beard took the ring to Mordor WITH a super scary dentist."
There are fully six He/She/They cards, and they are some of the most troublesome cards to try and play. Grammatically, they are all subjects -- they make the most sense when they begin a sentence. In other words, they're connectors that don't really "connect"; you need to burn an And just to play them. There are three more cards that have this problem: "he/she/they then", "as a result, the townsfolk", and "this upset mother, because she". The only reason I can think to play these cards is if you badly need a subject, but you haven't played enough Connectors to draw a Character or Thing. It's probably best to trade these in when you get them; I'm tempted to just leave them out of the deck altogether.
Also is an odd sort of connector. It's sort of an unnecessary word in normal speech, and it doesn't really fit anywhere in this game except between a subject and a predicate, as in "The ghost of an ancient warlock ALSO crafted a rather delightful little birdhouse." This is a card to burn for an easy extra point, or maybe to whip out if you suddenly need to play another connector to get your hands on another Character or Thing. "Purred like a kitten whilst they" and "hated it when they" also follow this sort of grammatical pattern.
There are fully 15 verb or verb clause connectors in the deck, ranging from "kissed" to "said they were always impressed with". The thing these cards have in common is that, when combined with a Thing or Character card as their object, they become a complete predicate. And since playing one of these connectors lets you draw one of those cards, it's usually a good idea to play one of these and get two points compared to one for a single Event card. Combine that with a Who card to turn your object into a subject, and you're really on a roll.
Some of these give you a little wiggle room for creative use. I'm fond of "The Prime Minister HAD a model railway COMPLETELY DESTROYED", for example. Others, like "played" can be a little tricky to pull off (unless, for instance, you can imagine "Emma Watson PLAYED a cool new bike" like a musical instrument).
This verb phrase is unique in all the deck because it allows you to connect a subject to a complete sentence, as in "Lord Voldemort FORGOT THAT Daniel Radcliffe backed a Kickstarter project".
I know Mike Jeavons, the creator of this game, primarily as a humor writer, and one that I'm rather fond of, but I have no idea what kind of chops he has for game design. So when I started fiddling around with Fantastic Storytelling and I discovered, for example, the difficulty in playing the "he/she/they" cards or the Hard Openings, I was vaguely worried that it was due to some sort of inherent game flaw -- that Jeavons didn't worry about the way the game fit together because it's just a simple party game, and people are going to be too busy laughing about all of the silly phrases to worry about balance or mechanics or anything like that.
Going through these cards and looking through the numbers has given me a better sense that there is some method -- and even some strategy -- to all of this. Yes, some cards are more useful than others, but what fun would this game be if every card held the same value? Where would the challenge lie if you didn't occassionally get stuck with a tricky Opening? Where's the drama and excitement if the game is just a rote exercise in linking up parts of speech?
The game does in fact seem to have the sort of balance that you usually see in party card games. There are a plurality of very useful cards that make it easy to keep the game moving, a relatively small number of really lousy cards to keep the tension and challenge up, and a few little oddball cards with interesting situational properties to give the whole affair a pinch of spice. Casual players can feel like they're doing really well just by playing whatever they have available, which is pretty appropriate for a party game. More experienced players can really think about the way parts of speech link up, and once they get a sense for the rhythm of the game, they can use that to build strategies, which keeps interest up once you've exhausted the amusement value of making ferocious dragons kiss things. And the whole thing is wrapped up in the inherently complicated and vague nature of the English language, which allows you to jam words together in a way that isn't necessarily predicted by this kind of deconstruction but which nevertheless ends up making sense.
So yeah. It's pretty all right.