The Narrative Design Toolkit (available in both English and Spanish) is a deck of cards intended to help the user think through the creation of a new plot, starting with a twelve-card representation of the Hero’s Journey as the basis for elaboration.
As the picture shows, it’s got a simple but stylish design, and includes cards in different colors to represent events and character archetypes, drawing on the writing of Jung and Propp, Campbell, Rodari, and Vogler. Cards include elements such as “the Shadow,” “the Innocent,” “the Grump,” et al. (I think some of the more personality-driven archetypes may have been supplied by the creators of the deck, since they alone don’t have an alternative attribution on them.) Meanwhile, it skips some of Propp’s more specific and startling elements, such as “The hero follows bloody tracks” or “someone pursues the hero, rapidly transforming himself into various animals.” (Though even that’s not as wild as some of the stuff in S. Thompson’s motif index of folk literature, featuring motifs like “Cow drops gold dung” and “Council of fishes decide to get rid of men (who eat fish)” and “Sun and moon born of lizard”. I could page through that stuff all day.)
I myself probably wouldn’t call this a toolkit for narrative design overall so much as a toolkit for plot generation — but that’s still an interesting and useful thing, potentially. Different writers wrestle with different aspects of writing, but “I hate plotting!” is a more common cry than one might think.
Those who’ve been tracking this blog for a while will know that I’m skeptical of the Hero’s Journey and especially of its overwhelming prevalence in game narrative how-to books; also that I’m a total sucker for card decks designed to inspire creativity or to teach IF methods or to tell stories. Likewise tabletop RPGs that offer interesting rules for inventing plots and characters, and the whole challenge of thinking procedurally about the working elements of story. So I went into this unsure whether I’d turn out to like it a lot, or find it very exasperating.
The recommended method for using the Narrative Design Toolkit is perhaps a little underspecified relative to one of those RPGs. It suggests that you:
- Lay out cards 1-12 representing the stages of the hero’s journey, then
- Swap, remove, and/or replace those cards with other cards in whatever way you wish.
So all in all rather a loose grammar. However, I did sit down and follow these rules.
Well, sort of. I sat down intending to follow these rules. What I actually did was remove a couple of steps from the sequence — the ordinary world beginning of the story, and a couple of other twists — until I had a streamlined 8-step version of the hero’s journey. Then I used this as a spine for my story, not replacing these cards but piling others on top of them: usually an event plus a character card, or sometimes even multiple of these.
So for instance, with the Call to Adventure, I clustered Rebel and Fanatic and Help, imagining a scenario in which an outspoken activist calls for allies to his or her cause. With the Refusal of the Call, I layered Incognito Presence and The Survivor as well as The Hero: our protagonist is perhaps an immigrant and refugee, someone who has already lost a lot and is now hiding from the authorities, and has very very good reasons not to want to call attention to him or herself. For Meeting with the Mentor, I put in The Caregiver, perhaps an older member of the protagonist’s ethnicity and background who has come to the same rally. They’ve suffered even more than the protagonist, but they continue to attend events like this one.
On the Crossing of the Threshold, I put Transgression and Pursuit: our Caregiver has committed a minor transgression and gotten caught up in the system, and the protagonist has no choice but to follow. At the Approach, I had Unmasking the False Hero: perhaps the protagonist turns to the rebel leader from Call to Adventure for help with rescuing the Caregiver, only to find that they either can’t assist or don’t care to do so. Distraught, they have to go on alone to The Ordeal, a solo encounter with The Shadow which is also The Judge, an enforcer of the status quo. I was a little stumped about The Return and the later stages of the story, because it seemed like they needed to reuse characters from earlier in the narrative and I only had one each of those cards; so I just left those piles nude.
Describing it this way, of course, suggests a more organized and orderly activity than it actually was — I was shuffling through the cards and adding things to different piles, thinking better of this one or that one, taking it off again, etc.
So… obviously, there’s quite a bit more to do here before this would be an actual story of any value. The characters are unfleshed, there’s not really an identifiable theme, and the setting remains quite vague — while I was thinking about it, it shifted back and forth, sometimes a commentary on contemporary American politics, sometimes set in a historical or fictional locality instead. But that’s hardly surprising: I wouldn’t expect to have more after fifteen or twenty minutes’ thinking. What I do have is the beginning of a structure — an inciting incident, characters who have some reason to be interacting, a need for the protagonist to get involved and some situations what would likely make him or her reflect on past and future choices — and while this too needs work and elaboration, it could be a great relief if one was struggling with getting one’s plot rolling.
Would it work if I’d already had a character, setting, or theme in mind, as opposed to starting from scratch? As a second experiment, I tried this process with a character and premise I’ve been blocked on, and found it a mixed success: the formal structure of the Hero’s Journey did suggest some restructuring of events that would speed up the pace, and gave me a couple of interesting ideas, but it also felt like the wrong shape for what is fundamentally quite an interior, relationship-focused premise. Not Every Story Is The Hero’s Journey. But I knew that already. In theory, the deck’s rules mean I could have swapped any other events I liked in for the events of the Journey, but events more suitable to the story I wanted to tell weren’t in the deck at all.
How useful is it to have the Hero’s Journey + tropes and archetypes in card deck form? It doesn’t really make use of randomization — you’re meant to think about what you’re placing where, not just draw a card randomly. On the contrary I suspect it is most useful as a tool to someone who knows the contents of the deck pretty well already, and can reach for the right pile in the right circumstance. But the ability to pile, cluster, and reorder was convenient. I slightly wished the cards had their names at the top or bottom rather than the middle, since then you could stack them together in a compact but still-all-legible format.
After a bit of experimentation I found I was making up characters out of a blue card — which tended to represent a role in the monomyth, such as the hero or the mentor or the antagonist — plus a purple Jungian archetype card and/or a character trait card. To some extent, it felt as though the blue cards were possibly redundant, describing figures whose function was implied by the event cards, but there were times when it was helpful to be able to specify them.
I also found myself wishing that the deck came with some blanks — this feels like the sort of set one might easily want to extend with one’s own favorite tropes, or the mechanisms of a particular genre — though it’s functionally not very important that the cards all match up, so you could augment this deck with some other cards of your own and still make it work.
Anyway! It’s interesting, and potentially useful if you struggle with plot.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this deck from the creators.