“Let me tell you a story, because that’s what we do, right?” Those words were immortalised by Jim White in his spoken word piece 15 Minutes from his album A Funny Little Cross To Bear, and never have truer words been said. We, as human beings, tell stories. Whether we write them professionally, or just casually around the dinner table. When we evolved we became sociable beasts, and storytelling is our medium of communication.
Recently we have seen an influx of games that rely on this quirk of our evolution as a mode of entertainment, having storytelling as a core mechanic of the game. It has become so used, in fact, that now Storytelling has its own category on BGG. Within the category is everything from card games to board games to party games designed to entertain 10 people at a time.
No game, however, capitalises on storytelling quite as well as Gloom. Gloom is a “take that” style card game, wherein you control a family (The Sims style) and their life events. The only difference is, you want to make their lives as miserable as possible before killing them off (okay, so maybe not that different depending on how you played The Sims). Meanwhile, you have to make your opponents as happy as possible. To do this you play cards on either your family or theirs, playing events that make lives better or worse. The catch? You need to tell the story of how that came to be.
This has led to Gloom being seen as a Marmite game – you either love it or you hate it, and usually, that comes down to how comfortable you are telling stories on the fly. With that in mind, I thought I would share a few hints that we’ve observed whilst playing the game, during the funniest sessions we have had, and you may get some ideas.
How To Tell Stories For Gloom
Gloom is an interesting game as it comes with guided hints to help power the story along. The cards themselves are highly creative, with alliterative names to encourage the imagination. As such they have such events as “starved in a storm”, “was pierced by porcupines”, “was pursued by poodles” and “was trapped on a train”.
The families in Gloom all comprise of five members and are just as colourful as the cards themselves. There are four in the base set – who each have their own quirks. For instance, there are the carnival folk with characters such as Mister Giggles (the clown) and Darius Dark (the ringmaster). Another family is the Slogar family, who are quintessential mad scientists. They have Professor Helen Slogar, Melissa Slogar, and Lord Slogar. The latter is quite literally a brain in a box.
My favourite household, however, appears to be based on gothic horror. They include Balthazar (the dog), Angel (the starry-eyed killer), Cousin Mortimer, William Stark (who is kind of the head of the household) and The Old Dam, an old lady who never seems to die in our games. We end up exclaiming “Ol’ Dam” a lot.
The first point to remember with storytelling games is to relax. Ultimately, the aim of the game is not to win. Where this is a mantra for most games, you can’t really go into storytelling games with a complete bloodlust for winning at a game. No more is it so true that it is the taking part that matters than with storytelling games. You are not there for the destination, you are there for the journey.
Everyone around the table should feel comfortable. They should feel like they can come up with ridiculous stories to entertain both themselves and the group. This is imperative to the success of the game.
So, take a minute. Relax. Breathe. Be mindful (if you practice mindfulness). Enjoy. It doesn’t matter if you are a master roleplayer or this is your first time playing. You are here to enjoy the game above all else.
Run On Stories in Gloom
So far as the actual story goes, there are two approaches. For this let’s generate a small scenario. Let’s say that you have “pursued by poodles” in your hand, and you want to play the card on a member of your family.
Let’s say this is the story of The Old Dam so far:
It was a dark and stormy night in the cabin in the woods. The Old Dam was feeling particularly lonely that evening, as the storm had kept her family away, so she just stayed at home – counting her earrings. One…two…more than two! Oh if only she had more ears on her head or more holes in her ears to put piercings into! Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. She arose from her chair, and went to the door. Who could it be at this hour?
When she opened the door she was greeted by an unusual sight. It was a hedgehog carrying an ear piercing gun.
“Who are you?” she asked, not knowing what to expect.
“I am a woodland creature,” the hedgehog replied, “and I am a travelling ear piercing artist. Would you like your ears pierced?”
Now hedgehogs were notoriously good tattoo artists and ear piercers, so The Old Dam let him in. She sat down and he got to work. At first all was well.
Then “Ow!”. The Old Dam looked down at her lap and her ear was hanging there by a piece of sinew and a hair. It had a huge hole in it. It was at that moment The Old Dam realised that she was not getting head decoration from a hedgehog, but instead she had been attacked by their least trustworthy cousins. She has been pierced by a porcupine!
Now imagine that you don’t actually control The Old Dam, but instead you are from a rival family. I mean, that’s a pretty good start and you really want to match it. So what do you do? How do you play your “pursued by poodles” card?
There are two options. The first is to start afresh. Let’s say you want to play it on Professor Helen Slogar, so you start weaving your take where PHS is attacked by Poodles whilst walking home from the shop. There is nothing wrong with this; however, there is another option to help strengthen your storytelling skills. That is run on from the previous story – incorporate it into your own. This will strengthen the player interaction around the table, as well as bolster your story with the pre-existing one.
You may decide something like:
The Old Dam, escaping the rain and the porcupine of doom, fled into the town. She needed a doctor, and the only one she knew was Professor Helen Slogar. What she didn’t know however, was what Helen was a professor of. She was, in fact, not a human medical doctor. Oh no. Professor Helen Slogar was a vet.
The bell above the door rang and Professor Helen Slogar stuck her head out into her waiting room to see what the fuss was all about when The Old Dam came stumbling in, past Balthazar and Mister Giggles (who has brought in his goldfish) in the waiting room. She had lost a lot of blood, and was delirious, lashing around like a bull in a china shop.
She was smashing everything, throwing her arms left, right, up, down, all over the place. The Professor tried to calm her down but The Old Dam lashed out, hitting the latch on a cage. Within it were twelve angry fluffy puppies, who burst forth and terrorised the waiting room. When Professor Helen Slogar tried to calm the fuss down, they all turned on her. She found herself pursued by poodles!
What that story does is threefold. It reinforces the current story, making it something to focus on. It tells its own story, elaborating on the previous story. It adds new elements. Now four characters have been mentioned, as well as several new aspects to the story. The next player has the choice whether to start again, or whether to continue the story with The Old Dam, Professor Helen Slogar, Balthazar, or Mister Giggles (four characters from three houses). There is also an evil porcupine on the loose that can come back in later should anyone struggle.
Use The Game Meta
Using game meta is something which can help strengthen the game from a comedic perspective by ensuring a certain familiarity that can be leaned on should the need arise. This is especially the case if you play more than once with the same group of people as, with storytelling games, one session can blend into another.
Aspects from one gaming session can be carried into the next, by incorporating them into the story. What do I mean by this? Well, take this example:
We used to play Gloom with the same group because we love it and we had a great bunch of people we played with. In one session we had Balthazar, the dog, fall in love with a stick called, yes you guessed it, “Logina”. She had a jealous lover called “Logan” and “Stick-eve”. Every time we talked about them we tried to fit in as many tree, stick, and wood jokes as possible.
So, in the next game, we found an excuse to bring Logina back. She had been a funny addition to the story, and so haunted our games from then on.
The point is, Logina became a meta-joke within the game. We could keep bringing her back and using her as a story aide because we all knew what she was about.
Ultimately, the goal of Gloom is just to have fun. Enjoy it, have fun, but also go into it wholeheartedly. With storytelling games, you get out what you put in. This is the same with all RPG experiences, and storytelling is, in a way, no different.
There is definitely another article in that.
I have to admit, Gloom is even fun to write about, but I am drawing close to 2000 words so it is probably time to call this closed. With that in mind, I hope you have found this article on how to tell stories in Gloom useful. If not useful then I hope you have at least found it entertaining. If nothing else, then I hope you have some new creative writing ideas.
Now your turn. What do you think of Gloom? What would your advice be? Let me know in the comments below.