A writing prompt generator and a strategic story game

For a few weeks recently, I had a mission in mind. I have several original stories and characters I want to write about, but I rarely write. When I do, I like to come up with great big plots and settings, but I don’t often drill down to the fine details like character dialog and scene-by-scene dramatic twists. Yet I like to program, and I like to reply to things with witty puns and captions: What if I made a program that set up a scene that I could joke about? Maybe I could write dialog as a side effect!

In pursuit of this, I made a little procedural generator for writing prompts. The code is here, and you can see it in action here.

You’ll find procedural story generators all over the place online, and this is one of the simplest possible: It just takes some sentence templates, plugs in a few character names, and plugs in a quality (or two) of those characters. For instance, here’s a sentence generated for my “Mikkamon” continuity, along with the sentence template that creates it:

Everyone suddenly copycats Mick in shaking a sign, but Marty doesn’t follow along.

Everyone suddenly copycats [character A] in [having a certain quality of A], but [character B] doesn’t follow along.

This writing prompt might not be meaningful to you because you don’t know Mikkamon, but I can explain. Mick is the main character, and his enthusiasm for the upcoming battle-toy Mikkamon leads him to work as a sign-shaker for the grand opening event. Marty is one of his best friends, but she constantly has to supervise his harebrained mischief to keep him from hurting himself.

Despite the simplicity of the generator, this writing prompt opens up layers of characterization for me to think about: Why would everyone start shaking signs? Maybe because Mick uses a sign-shaking stunt to win a Mikkamon battle and it catches on. Why wouldn’t Marty follow along? Maybe because she associates Mick with dangerous behavior, and she finds it worrisome that others would treat him like a role model. If I were to show you instead of telling you, this could turn into a pretty interesting story, I think.

This generator has gone through some iterations as I’ve added various story continuities like Mikkamon, added various sentence templates, and tweaked the pseudorandom distribution… but I didn’t get quite the same kind of writing motivation I expected. That is, I actually called the generator “Monday Comics” with the idea of eventually writing stories on Sunday nights, but I haven’t actually made a habit of that yet.

My parents taught me that if I’m indecisive, I can flip a coin. If I like or don’t like the result, that tells me something about what I wanted in the first place.

This writing prompt generator is a coin, and when I flip it, I discover several stories I find fun and several stories I don’t. But most of all, I realized I’d like to write the stories that introduce my characters and their relationships so that people like you will know what the heck these random interludes mean for the characters involved. I also discovered I was more excited and productive writing for the generator than writing from it, so I might want to build a few more generators like this one to help flesh out my ideas.

Canonball, a strategic story game

On that note, I came up with a second generator a couple of weeks ago. On my commute, in one hour, I wrote down the rules of Canonball, a customizable tabletop game. To be fair, some form of the rules was lurking in my mind for months. (Warning: At the time of writing this blog post, Canonball has gone through only three turns of playtesting, which isn’t even a whole game.)

A primary design goal of this game is to generate fun and dramatic storytelling as a side effect of strategic gameplay, while being open-ended enough that players can design custom add-ons for the kinds of stories they would like to see.

I’ve made numerous attempts at exactly this premise for at least ten years, all under the name “Crossovers and Cameos,” but I’ve gotten bogged down at the prospect of designing hundreds of TCG/LCG cards. Canonball represents a different approach: Each player’s deck has only a handful of cards, currently four, so the game is playable even if I only bother to write up a dozen or so card designs. Not only does that let me approach this as a casual project, but it means players will have a low-effort path to card authorship too!

I want this game to facilitate many of the most popular kinds of stories, so I’ve taken heed of predominant storytelling fomulas that transcend genre:

  • In the hero’s journey, a hero ventures to obtain some treasured item and takes it back home.
  • In slow-moving serials, characters exchange secrets, and this knowledge can dramatically change their perceptions and goals. If a character discovers a secret that the audience has known for a while, that’s called an internal reveal… or at least that’s what it’s called on TV Tropes!

I’m always excited to see stories break out of the usual structures, but these formulas thrive for practical reasons: Hero’s journeys are schematic advice (or at least encouragement) for adapting to and taming unexpected circumstances. An internal reveal is a pivotal event in the story, so it can reinforce viewership.

When players design new character cards, their experience with these popular story formulas may influence them whether they realize it or not. Even though a game of Canonball doesn’t involve great advice or episodic viewership, it goes with the grain by imitating the superficial appearances of those formulas:

  • Each player has a treasured item called their ball. The objective of Canonball is to steal the opponent’s ball and bring it back home, over and over.
  • Each player has a power-up card called their evidence. Word spreads fast, but not too fast; if a character has evidence, another character may spend their turn copying it.

Once I’ve playtested Canonball some more, I look forward to encoding several of my characters as Canonball cards. It’ll be a way to help me think about my characters in more depth, and maybe some other people could have fun with these cards even if they don’t know my characters like I do.

Canonball is still in a very early stage, and the rules are mostly notes to myself, but it is playable! If I end up letting it stagnate for a while, don’t let that stop you from trying it out and sharing some card designs. :)

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2 responses

  1. I should introduce you to Randy Lubin, who created http://plotypus.com.

    1. Ah, nice pointer! I’ve seen several story game reviews on Emily Short’s blog, but I don’t think I’d heard of that one yet.

      I personally have trouble with games that involve real-time improvisation. I set high expectations for myself, and when I don’t meet them, I get more and more nervous. I want a good improvisation-free story game to exist. Self-centered as it is, that may be the most genuine reason I have absolutely no improvisation-based mechanics in Canonball.

      There are still lots of ways to incorporate open-ended storytelling into the game. The game can set up scenarios that make it fun to improvise, without making players like me feel it’s expected. There are other parts of the game related to storytelling that don’t necessarily happen at a game table: Telling people about a prior game session is storytelling. Seeing a card and being reminded of a prior game session is an introspective, involuntary kind of storytelling. Creating custom game materials is storytelling. I hope Canonball will be an evocative storytelling platform in all these ways, even while being a purely formalizable, strategic game.

      When I first started tinkering on Crossovers and Cameos as an improvisation-free story game around 2004, the only story-oriented tabletop games I knew about were RPGs. It’s been exciting to see more and more card-based story games since then I’ve read about story games eagerly for the sake of taking lessons from them, but I’m not exactly playing. Plotypus looks like it could be a good match for my taste in stories, so I sort of want to try it. :)

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