Jess Nickelsen: Discombobulated
June 14, 2021 - Telling Stories


Been thinking heaps about storytelling lately, connecting dots, and playing with constraints, and random generators and all that sort of stuff. I’ve been working relatively steadily on the story for my writing group, but I’ve also got re-caught up in solo roleplaying as well–which isn’t as sordid as it sounds! In addition to those I’ve been doing a few tarot readings for people, and it struck me in which there is so much overlap between all three activities, and how you use the same storytelling skills for each. In fact, I have come across quite a few instances of people using tarot cards as generative devices for solo rpg-ing (and they have a long history of being used in fiction writing as well).

On the solo gaming side, there is much to recommend the Mythic framework from Word Mill Games. It proves a structured approach to playing solo (and in fact they address playing through published adventures using that framework as well, in their Mythic Magazine #3, a supplement to the main game). But lately I’ve also been thinking about that structure in terms of my story writing too, using the convention of keeping track of Story Threads and Characters…and I’m tempted to use some of the random tables that you use in Mythic, that have an interesting way of drawing you back into the story, but adding twists and surprises to them.

I suppose I’m not explaining myself very well. I guess I’m just excited. Mythic is a complex beastie, but once you have your head around it, it’s very complete and interesting.

Another thing I am interested in, is how, when I have my gaming hat on,” all this writing feels like a game, and how, when I am in the thick of trying to figure out a story, it feels like hard work.” In reality there’s very little difference between the two activities, apart from the fact that in the first one I am not insisting on any sort of story structure, whereas in the second I am very much thinking of the reader experience.” Most of the time, however, the emergent story is as interesting as anything I might have planned. It might be that some of my own biases come into things, wanting to keep some semblance of story shape. Or it might be just that the tools do a good job of not letting a meandering story get too far out of control!

I think, at heart, as humans, our brains are prone towards telling stories, to connecting dots, to imagining what if?” I’ve read that our success as a species has had a lot to do with our ability to imagine different possible outcomes to a situation, and forward-plan. It’s interesting to me that we do this both as a survival mechanism, but also as a form of entertainment. We treasure the imagination and the strange places it can take us.

Reading tarot for people, at least the way I do it, is a similar thing. What story or stories does the progression of cards tell us? What does it mean to look at the following spread and interpret not just the cards themselves, but their relationship to each other and also their position in the spread?

tarot cardstarot cards

Or if my character in a game comes across $RANDOM_EVENT and I decide to roll it up on Rory’s Story Cubes?

story cubesstory cubes

Or if I instead decide to use one of the Mythic tables, using a couple of d100 rolls?

mythic tablesmythic tables

The thrill of playing in this way, or perhaps indeed using these random inputs for a story, or piecing together a useful bit of information in a reading, is that you CAN make it mean something. That’s why bibliomancy works, and presumably other oracles too. Sure, sometimes you get rubbish, but that’s just the nature of randomness. And it’s fine to throw it out and say not this time.” But more often than not my brain can find the angle that makes it all fit together, and it’s the surprising nature of the angle, I think, that makes the new element help your story. Just as a different perspective on a problem (in the case of tarot) can make you sit up and pay attention. It’s not about making something up,” but finding a new way to look at what’s already there.

I definitely want to write more here about using these three things together. About the itch that solo roleplaying fills, even when I have ongoing tabletop games with other groups in progress. About how adding unexpected twists or elements to my writing might add freshness and unpredictability to a standard tale.” And about how tarot, rather than being for woo woo” flakey types, is a way of tapping into something quite primal, the power of symbol.

I do fear that my brain has leapt away on many tangents in this post… apologies to those of you who are wondering what on earth is going on. I’ll try and get more specific in future pondering posts :)

(Also, I think, I have the tags working that I was mucking about with in the previous post. Which means a few play reports will inevitably end up here at some time in the future as well!)