Card-Deck Narratives

In a previous post about narrative structuring, I promised a followup about stories based on card decks — not simply the card metaphor that Failbetter uses in StoryNexus, but actual physical decks, sometimes accompanied by rules.

I’ve covered a few narrative card games here before. Gloom is a popular card game about Gorey-esque horrible events, in which you accumulate misfortunes for your characters until at last they die; each event is named briefly on its card, like “attacked by ducks,” and it’s up to the player to describe how this fits into a larger sequence, if at all. Some players work harder on their narration than others.

Gloom has a number of expansions and spin-offs at this point, including a Cthulhu version and a fairytale recasting. There are also a few features in Gloom designed to encourage continuity, symbols on some event cards that determine whether later events can be played, but in general any chains of causality are invented by the players at game time, rather than baked into the rules or the behavior of the deck. And because Gloom is emulating a type of story in which one bad thing arbitrarily happens after another, there also is not much attempt to guarantee a well-paced story arc.

Once Upon a Time is light in both writing and mechanics: it’s a sort of trope toolkit that the players can use to stick together stories, so that your card might just say “Brave” and leave it up to you how the concept of bravery applied to a character in the story will enhance what is already going on. Or there are Story Cubes, which are dice with trope-y images on them. The line between game and brainstorming device is pretty thin here, though, and I wouldn’t accuse either Once Upon a Time or Story Cubes of actually being or having a story already in any meaningful sense.

Then there’s Dixit, which provides image prompts and it’s up to the player to find some way to describe what is happening in the image. The narrative content is pretty light here, though, and I’ve found that usually we become more engaged with the wordplay of it — what is an interesting, slightly misleading way of characterizing this picture? — than with anything of narrative merit. Perhaps a more successful and storyful version of the Dixit idea exists in Mysterium, which game reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down really liked, but I haven’t had a chance to play that yet. (It was available at Shut Up and Sit Down’s curated board game area at GDC, which was awesome, but I was there at the wrong time to get a try at it.)

Meanwhile, there are also aleatory traditions of literature to consider here: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book in a box with unbound pages, to be read in any order; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, with chapters the reader may reorder. Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová have written about shuffle literature in more depth, including those works and several others.

So it is in light of those various traditions that I’m going to have a deeper look at two particular card narrative games that recently came my way: Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, and the USC Game Innovation Lab’s Chrono Scouts.


FamilyArcana“SHUFFLE CARDS BEFORE READING” says the sticker on the tuckbox of The Family Arcana, a story in cards by Jedediah Berry. (Berry is also the author of the excellent Twine Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World.) The deck is a standard pack of cards, except that each card contains a paragraph of text; and except for two jokers and two nameless, rankless cards with pictures on them.

The pictures start to signify things, after you’ve been reading a while. The texts describe the life of a very odd family, and (often) that family’s approach to making meaning and determining its own membership:

“Grandmother’s stories don’t have endings or beginnings, they’re just middles piled one after another.”

Sometimes the juxtapositions are particularly striking: a card about planting rivets and watching “machine roses” come up, followed by another card about dreams of seeds and soil. One card will hint at a mystery and another hint at its resolution, though you might interpret differently if you got them in the other order. Cards refer to some characters allusively: “our aunt, the sleepy one” or “the brother who was pickled.” Resolving these references means patching together what else we know, only this absolutely is a world in which people can be pickled whole (and then still walking around to talk about it).

I found the queen of diamonds particularly relevant to the themes of the whole project. Its text reads, in part:

“…there roams a thing for which we have no words, and if we find the words, the thing will retreat farther into the woods, and then we will need more words, and heavier boots, and a song like a lantern to make us brave through the night.”

Of course, a playing card deck is not the same as 52 sheets of blank paper. Heart Suit, one of the shuffleable stories described in Husárová and Montfort’s article, explores exactly this point: the feel and appearance of the cards are important, and the piece includes an instruction to read the joker last, however the rest of the cards are placed. (I am working entirely from the article description here, as I have not played with Heart Suit myself.)

If I were creating a work like this, I would not be able to resist the urge to make suits and numbers mean something. I might tell readers to shuffle the deck, but I would certainly hide connections that would come clear if you read the deck in order, or set up contrasts to emerge when the cards were layered black-and-red as in a game of Solitaire. I initially told myself that I would read Family Arcana according to its rules, shuffled, without looking for suit and number connections — and I did read it that way the first time — but I wasn’t able to keep from coming back for another look, just in case the system meant something.

And the suits and numbers do matter. Spades cards tell about the siblings who are the first person plural narrators of the story. Clubs tell about the extended family: father and mother, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmother and grandfather. Diamonds tell of the house and lands and temporal rituals, which furniture is where, what grows outside and what actions are performed on which days. Hearts tell of key points in the relationship between Father and Mother. Ace text is pithy. Kings and Queens have to do with men and women respectively. Jacks are possibly to do with disguises and deceptions. Twos have to do with the image of the black square, the blank space, the thing that cannot be seen or, if seen, cannot be recognized. I think. Nines are about multiplicity and/or pickles. I am not sure of all of my interpretations. The nine of diamonds is a list of vegetables, certainly both various and susceptible to brining.

In any case, the sense of hidden significances — readings of the arcana — is integral to the experience and makes the deck into a sort of puzzle.

If you like, you can order from the same press a Supplementary Pack of cards, The Family Arcana Card Game, which introduces a ruleset, several more illustrated cards, and a few curious extras, such as a card containing a recipe for Blackberry Thyme Shrub and others, ominously, for multiple types of pickle. This pack converts the original deck from an aleatory reading experience or divinatory apparatus into a playable trick-taking game.

An interesting thing about this is that the game is not about ordering the card-texts. Instead, the rules of the game implicitly create additional structure and meaning around the symbols in that deck. The card texts frequently refer to Poughkeepsie; in the game, Poughkeepsie is the name of the discard pile. The Bank People, mentioned in the deck texts, explicitly become antagonists to the Family: these are the names of the two teams in a four-person trick-taking endeavor. The image cards all have special functions in the game.

I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but the rules make it look like a slightly surprising variant on the trick-taking concept: there are trumps, but they’re only established partway through a hand; meanwhile, there’s something called contract rank, a rank selected to be even more powerful than the trump suit. The game is also slightly asymmetrical, with different advantages for the pair playing The Bank People and the pair playing The Family.

So to the extent that this system contains a plot, it’s all in the rules of the card game, the unequal struggle between Family and Bank People, the fact that they are trying to one-up one another but that they adhere to slightly different rules. Contract ranks are Bank People-style power, bureaucratic, backed by the overwhelming force of the government, but comparatively rare and hard to enforce.

I begin to feel that by sorting the deck for my second reading, I have behaved in a very Bank Person way. Bank People believe in suits and numbers. I may have extracted a meaning from the deck by Bank-Personing it, but not the whole meaning, and there were necessarily things that defied me, including the jokers and the two extra numberless suit-less picture cards. In fact I felt that The Family Arcana invites its reader to be playful and undisciplined just as Nicholas Bourbaki’s if invites its reader to be systematic and persistent. Not only does it require the reader to come up with a reading strategy, but the strategy chosen then illustrates something about how the work relates to the reader.

Bandcamp has an audio version of the story, with different readers for each card. Shuffle tracks before listening, it says. I like the cards that I can hold in my hand. But I also like the audio version for the proliferation of reading styles, suited to a story told from a first person plural perspective. Emma June Ayres reads the list on the Nine of Diamonds in a way that savors the name of each vegetable.

Recommended, especially for people who like Berry’s other writing; people who enjoyed Little, Big; people who collect unusual card and tarot decks; people interested in the way symbols can flex and bend and point towards different meanings; people whose relatives play a lot of trick-taking card games. I am all of those people.


chronocards3dudesDeveloped at the Game Innovation Lab at USC, Chrono Scouts is a very different entity, designed to teach historical inquiry to students; though non-fiction, it falls firmly in the games-of-co-authorship category.

On each card is some assertion about the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I: “The ideals of nationalism spread throughout Europe,” for instance; or “Britain had a long-standing agreement to protect Belgium.”

The aim of the game is not to figure out what happened, in the sense of establishing particular events, but to construct a coherent explanation about the causes of the war that the whole team will accept. Players start with five cards open on the table representing the current explanation for what happened, but they may swap in cards from their own hands, or rearrange the sequence already on the table.

A few additional elements complicate matters. There are several optional audio tracks you can use to provide a timer for the game and to add some special events after a certain amount of playtime has elapsed. Mission cards can require or forbid players to incorporate in their sequence cards with a particular thematic symbol: so for instance, you might be forbidden to include any explanations with the “alliances” symbol.

Even just playing this as a solitaire pursuit is kind of interesting: I found that I disliked certain kinds of explanation and was eager to clear them off my spread; also that I wanted to build up as long a chain of causes as possible, which made me tend to get rid of redundancies when there were multiple explanations for the same outcome. And yet, the variety of the cards and diversity of the actors on them serve as a reminder of just how complicated a system Europe was at the time. So it makes a neat systematic demonstration of how human pattern-making produces many different, possibly conflicting, and certainly individually inadequate interpretations of a chaotic situation.

Of the works discussed in Montfort and Husárová’s article, the one that seems closest to Chrono Scouts in some regards is Eric Zimmerman and Nancy Nowacek’s Life in the Garden, in which readers select three, five, or seven pages with vignettes set in the Garden of Eden and read them in sequence. In both Chrono Scouts and Life in the Garden (and in contrast with Family Arcana or Heart Suits), the player is taking a subset of the available texts and discarding the rest. But where Chrono Scouts is about constructing a causal explanation, Life in the Garden apparently goes the other way. Montfort and Husárová observe:

The stories selected have different emotional textures, but there are not strong ties of semantics or consequence between one page and the following one… The Garden of Eden, a space without the traditional sort of consequences, is a setting in which emotionally resonant, fabular, and allusive incidents can surface in different orders.

Could a causality-constructing system like the one in Chrono Scouts be used for fictional storytelling? I think it might: the cards of Chrono Scouts expect the players to have a bit of familiarity with the period, but only a bit, and mostly they’re suggesting causalities that we might elect to believe in or not. I could particularly imagine using a Chrono Scouts-like structure for elaborating fan explanations behind a sequence of canon events. I could also imagine one that focused on motivations in a romance or a family drama, perhaps working with a very tropey plot-line but more subtle and interesting explanations.

Indeed I often go through a phase with my own work where I have a number of vignettes I know belong in the finished piece, but have not yet woven them into the story. These live in notebooks or scattered text files on my computer, but I know some authors write them on index cards, waiting a time when they can be inserted into their proper place.


There’s no hidden information in Chrono Scouts, so the backs of the cards are used for a second, different game called Fact Fuse: Fact Fuse has players constructing assertions about World War I, which they are then able to claim for points if the majority of other players agree that that statement is true. I didn’t attempt to play Fact Fuse myself in any meaningful way, but the elements here are nouns and verbs rather than longer chunks of text, and this makes for much more simplistic statements for debate. They were, I felt, less evocative and resonant, less like a story and more like a grammatical exercise.

This is not a criticism of the game, which may be quite useful in its intended educational purpose! But it’s interesting to see at what point a basically similar mechanic stops being perceived as narratively rich, based on the simplification of the elements being combined.



17 thoughts on “Card-Deck Narratives”

  1. Another great, in-depth post! Not sure if it’s really in the same category as these, but I’ve enjoyed playing “Aye, Dark Overlord!” One players, the overlord, asks his quivering goblin minions why their mission went wrong, and the other players take turns playing cards from their hand to embellish the story while passing the blame off on others. Very simple, no enforced continuity, and maybe more of an improv exercise then a true game, but still enjoyable!

  2. I keep thinking about tarot in relation to this. It might be interesting to try to fit that system in this analysis. It’s almost like an (auto)biographical version of Mysterium. Actually it doesn’t seem like a stretch to see tarot as the ultimate (at least as an old and densely layered) “trope toolkit.” And there are at least some connections to experimental narrative (Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies).

    Have you thought much about tarot and the narrative techniques/technologies that you work on?

    1. I have thought a lot about the tarot — I’ve got a number of decks, and I find it interesting to read them against one another: to see how one tarot artist has taken a particular symbol in a totally different direction from another artist. I tend to think of these less as ways of telling and evoking stories and more as ways to express hypotheses about what forces are at work in the world and in our personalities. So, for instance, the Steampunk Tarot has a lot of imagery about, and focus on, technical projects; the Collective Tarot is about queerness and trauma and negotiating community; Robin Scott’s Urban Tarot has a lot of imagery about how individual people fit into and interact with institutions, from the court to the schools to corporations.

      I started a Tarot of the Parrigues generator at one point, which is to say, a project to procedurally generate a deck and a tarot reading guidebook. (It had five suits rather than four, corresponding to the symbolic distribution of the Parrigues concept.)

      However, a lot of other game writers have also used or written about the tarot and divinatory symbols: Merritt Kopas has used tarot readings as a metaphor in talks. Mattie Brice has a couple of articles. Anna Anthropy’s Personal Game talks about her relationship to tarot. Andrew Plotkin has shared an old deck of his. And if you’re curious about the divinatory side of things, perhaps see also Naomi Clark on tasseomancy.

      So “have you thought about this?” is different from “do you have something truly new to say about this?” and in the latter case I’m not yet sure that I do. I would like to, but I’m still considering.

    2. Thanks for the great reply. I’m looking forward to following up on all those articles and resources. I especially like your point about how different decks pose different theories of what’s important, rather than different ways of telling stories (would it be fair to say the difference is ontological rather than epistemic?). I haven’t dug deep enough in this, so I’d been thinking about newer decks as basically theme overlays on top of the fundamental Smith-Waite design. Seems worth going back to.

      I don’t know about “truely new,” but I really like the basic idea of including these card-based narrative games in the larger discussion of interactive narrative design. I think it opens up some cool opportunities in a couple of directions.

      For myself, I’ve been trying to start to think about tarot from a history of technology perspective (for a podcast episode, actually). What would it mean to think of tarot as a technology? From that perspective, what does it do? How does it relate to other technologies? What kinds of skills are involved? What kinds of relationships does it create and foster?

      In the early 20th century, I think there might be an interesting contrast with stage magic (which was weirdly aggressive toward various sorts of divination), that’s partly about a different relationship between practitioner and audience (and largely about gender and constructing respectability), but I think there’s also something about different kinds of storytelling. Stage magic narratives have this pre-cooked quality, while tarot reading (and other divination) has an emergent, contingent, procedural, interactive quality. In reading your post about card-based narratives, I’m thinking something along the lines of: if stage magic is part of film history (lots of people argue this), then maybe tarot is part of the history of interactive storytelling.

      Which is all to say that this article really has me thinking! Thank you!

      Also I love the idea of procedurally produced tarot.

      1. Which is weird to me as a 21st century person who isn’t deeply into tarot reading or stage magic — functionally speaking, you could perform stage magic using a tarot deck just as easily, no? Imagine TCT with things like “three of spades” and “queen of hearts” replaced by “three of swords” and “queen of cups” — same deal.

        * my sole claim to the first is ownership of one (1) tarot deck; and to the second, the fact of having had a crush on an aspiring stage-magician in high school. Obviously super qualified to discuss the topic.

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