Friday, 30 January 2015

A Story-Telling Game: Until we Sink

I have played my first "story-telling game," Until We Sink.

Which begs the first question, what is a story-stelling game?

Is it a role-playing game, is it a matrix game, or is it improv acting?

Well my first response is to note that "Until We Sink" is unlike any game I have ever played before.

I suspect that is it more like a murder mystery game, except that the scenario is open ended. A story-telling game does not provide a murder and a murderer, or secrets for each player. It just starts off a scenario and asks the players to explain the occurrences in a story that they collaborate in telling.

There is a structure to these game, there were some mechanisms, but there is no method to determine the outcome of our play except through talking.

To put it crudely there was no dice rolling or coin tossing or paper, stones, scissors means to resolve conflict or outcomes.

We just talked and created a story that all could agree was consistent and then we could move on.

Game Structure

The structure of the game:
  • each player has a character to role-play
  • there is a story background and an environment - this is provided as a text to be read out
  • the game is divided into turns, each turn being a day
  • each day, a new event occurs - a card is randomly drawn from a stack of event cards
  • the players can only interact at the end of each day on a verandah where we discuss the days events
  • the day (turn) ends when at least two players leave the verandah
  • the last day of the game starts when a particular event occurs
  • the game can only end when we find an agreed explanation or story for each of the events of the previous days 


Each player takes on a character from a set of character cards provided by the game.

Each character has a basic description about the person, and we are encouraged to colour and flesh this out with, a name, age, nationality, and character traits.

An example of a character card.

                     Eternal Backpacker (guest)

You have circled the globe, and ended up on this island

You are a free thinker, independent and a little shabby

You like to point out how square the other characters are


And that is about it. Apart from the event cards that are played each day.

The players then have to explain the new event, in the context of the whole story.

Example of an Event Card

                A theft of underwear.

One of the character's underwear disappears.

All the players roll dice.

The one with the lower roll is one change
of underwear short.

If more than one player rolls low, those
players should reroll.

Game Play

I will not give a blow by blow account of the game. Suffice it to say, we all had a lot of fun, laughs, funny accents and bizarre incidents, and consumed a couple of bottles of red wine.

My favourite story was how we resolved the above event card - theft of underwear. The manageress of the hotel owned up to stealing the one pair of underpants (boxers) that the South African eternal backpacker owned as she needed a flag for her healing ceremony. His boxers - only kept for best - had the South African flag printed on them.

Game Critique

My intention in running the game was to explore a game format unfamiliar to me, that was very light on rules and mechanisms, and was thus accessible to inexperienced players. I wondered if this game format could be usefully applied to a learning game for use in school rooms or other training situations.

All agreed it was fun. All agreed it was entertaining. I think the inexperienced players were a little worried about the requirements of an unscripted, loosely structured role play but they all grew into it and found it easier as the game progressed.

As for its potential as a learning game, I don't think it we could easily see an application. One person thought that children would find it difficult to "join" in and worry about "loosing their cool." I thought having one or two experienced role-players would help overcome this.

Another person thought that the learning aims of any game would have to be more tightly scripted. That each character would be given a secret or a skill that would link to an event card and that the event cards should be ordered to create a desired story.

One thought I had was that there was very little the players could do to influence events. We could not decide to act and then see the results of our actions. I had proposed a learning game scenario about a cyber warfare or cyber security. In this scenario the players would need to know if their actions, had stopped or prevented some incident. This sort of scenario would require a game director, or dungeon master or a facilitator. And then we are back to a matrix game, or a facilitated role-playing game.

We all agreed that it would be a great activity for a drama group, a English literature class exploring narrative, or an English language class.

In conclusion: I think the lightness of the game structure has a lot to commend this sort of game; quick to pick up, easy to play. I would suggest that if your teaching aim was not about acting or narration, it would have to be more tightly scripted and a facilitator added, even if they just act as prompt to nudge the play back to the learning aim objective.


Thanks to Nicki, Polly, Seth and Stuart for making this an excellent evening's entertainment and for contributing and staying a bit longer to add their criticisms of the game. And for travelling into central London from the suburbs.

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