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Last-minute lit gift: The Unlimited Story Deck

December 24, 2009 |  9:35 am


Whether you're stuck for a last-minute literary gift or for the next turn in your novel-in-progress, the Unlimited Story Deck may be the answer. Developed by Pennsylvania college student Tait Johnson, the Unlimited Story Deck is a card game that takes classic storytelling elements, like character and setting, and melds them with the interactivity of multiplayer games and the serendipity of Tarot. And he's made the game available online for free download with a Creative Commons license: just print the cards, cut and you're ready to wrap your last-minute gift.

"I have been writing stories since I was a child and with a serious intent since 2000," said Johnson, 29, now a creative-writing student at the University of Pittsburgh. He created the Unlimited Story Deck for a class on narrative and technology, but its scope is larger than the classroom. "I'm somewhat of an autodidact," he said. "In all the years I wasn't in school, I never stopped teaching myself and reading everything I could."

The volume and breadth of the storytelling elements in the deck are exhilarating. The 90 characters include a dandy/hipster/fop, an athlete, an artist, a doctor and a robot, a spy, a superhero, a troubled teen, a thief and an undead/zombie/mummy/ghoul. Of course -- you can't have a story game in this millennium without zombies.

But that's just the beginning. To build the stories, there are cards in four other categories: setting, events, objects and dynamics. There are lots of choices -- but like any story, the first choice you make begins to give it shape. And here, the shape -- and the fun -- comes from playing the game.

Any number of people can play. Seven cards are dealt, and the first player begins the story by telling it to the group -- one, the scribe, writes it all down. The cards serve as prompts for the story that the group tells, player by player. Unlike the absurdist storytelling game Exquisite Corpse -- in which people only know a little bit of the story when it's their turn to add to it -- the challenge here is to get multiple storytellers to create something together that makes sense yet has all the best parts of story: character, conflict, resolution.

Those familiar with Tarot will recognize some of the rules of play, which are fairly simple. A character can be given an attribute by playing one card on top of another. An inverted card means its opposite -- the marriage card, played upside-down, would mean divorce. Cards set perpendicularly mean ongoing action in order to keep track of complex stories. Dynamics cards set in a prominent place can set the mood or the genre of the story -- watch out, postmodernism is in there.

The narrative connections are made in the story as it's told -- and parallel narratives can be built out on different parts of the table. With seemingly endless possibilities, what's interesting is how the narrative choices will force the story to narrow and bend. Maybe you hope to play your celebration card, but someone has put the character in a swamp. Can you make it work?

In bringing the deck to classes to test its play, Johnson sometimes worried that it had too many choices, that it was too big. But he also noticed that the players sometimes moved in similar directions, as if responding to some burbling cultural meme. For example, when playing the character card genie/djin/leprechaun -- "This spirit may grant a wish or three, but watch out what you ask for!" -- people always chose the leprechaun. Maybe "djin" is too hard to pronounce, and genies aren't hip these days. Or maybe it's that tricky leprechauns seemed to have the most narrative potential.

As for future plans, Johnson hopes to find an artist to create "nonprescriptive" illustrations; he knows words aren't the only way we tell stories and, he said, "people like to look at pictures on cards." And he's considering splitting the deck -- making one that's kid-friendly (no sex or drugs), or one that doesn't include fantastical elements. Although he's noticed that it's the fantastical bits that open up players' imaginations the most. 

"It would be great to find a larger range of people for beta-testing, including already established authors," he said, "but with another semester coming up, moving forward on this might have to go on hold for a couple months." He's also hoping to get back to his novel, which he set aside to create the Unlimited Story Deck.

If he finds the novel-writing difficult, he can always return to his cards. Like any decent card deck, this one can be used for solitaire. A lone storyteller could use the cards as a prompt, or a challenge. Stuck on your plot line? Pick a card, any card.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images courtesy Tait Johnson