An Improvisational Storytelling Game
Designed by Dr. Scott Nicholson,
Associate Professor, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University
This is a living document. Find the newest version at http://tinyurl.com/crossedpaths .
Crossed Paths is a game for 5 to 5000 people who want to create stories through an improvisational activity. To use gaming terminology, Crossed Paths is a light diceless roleplaying game that does not require a game master. It is ideal for libraries and schools, but will work well in any setting where participants are able to make noise. It works well with both children and adults (and can serve as an icebreaker for mixed groups). The full activity takes about one hour to complete, but the activity can be shortened to thirty minutes.
Crossed Paths takes place in two parts. During the first part, participants will select a book, story, folktale, television show, or movie that they know well enough to choose a Setting, Character, and Conflict from. In the second part, participants work as a group to create a story that mixes the Settings, Characters, and Conflicts in some way that makes sense. The goal of each group is to create their own new story and enjoy the experience of group improvisation.
This packet contains a facilitator’s guide and a worksheet. Ideally, each participant should have a copy of the worksheet and a pen or pencil; however, a blank index card or sheet of paper will suffice instead of the worksheet.
This game is released under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-Commercial license. While it is free to access and use, the cost of using the activity is providing feedback!
The creator would appreciate knowing how this game was used in order to document the impact of releasing a game through Creative Commons. After running this event, there is a short survey at http://tinyurl.com/44rzyct with a few questions about the setting for the game, the number of the participants, how the game was adjusted for the setting, and any feedback about this game. This document is a living document, so feedback that facilitators provide can help guide the refinement of this activity.
Crossed Paths is a game that adjusts to many different settings and group sizes. Some of the possible uses are for:
· Libraries looking to create a more interactive version of a book discussion,
· Literature classes wanting to explore short stories, books, or other studied works,
· Churches seeking to encourage children or families to explore parables and tales,
· Communities wanting to explore any sort of folktales, legends, or other stories,
· Fans of a specific genre to further explore stories in that genre, or
· Groups wanting an ice-breaker where attendees can relive aspects of their favorite television shows or movies.
To prepare for the activity, you will need a Crossed Paths worksheet (found in the Appendix) and a pen or pencil for each player. The activity can be done without the worksheet, in which case the instructions can be put up on a screen or written on a flip chart or classroom board. The Appendix contains a guide to storytelling that can be passed out to groups as they form in the second part of this exercise and bullet points that can be used for a PowerPoint presentation to facilitate the experience.
Introduction of the Activity
To introduce the activity, the facilitator should place the activity within the context of the setting and discuss why this activity applies to the specific group of participants. After presenting the appropriate context, the facilitator can then present the structure of the activity. An important ground rule to present to participants is the improvisational rule of “Yes, and”. Here is a sample introduction to this concept:
Welcome to Crossed Paths, an activity where you will work with others to create a story of your own. This is an improvisational activity, and as such there is an important rule used in improvisation that will be in play here. That is the rule of ‘Yes, And’.
Many times in life when you are presented with something you don’t agree with, you reply with a “no,” or if you want to be kind, a “yes, but”. In this game you are storytellers of equal power, all with equally valid ideas. When someone says something, it is then part of the story. You may have an idea of where the story should go, but if someone says something to take the story in a different direction, you respond with “Yes” and then advance the story. To do this successfully, you should free yourself from thinking about future ideas and instead be an active listener of what others are saying. This will let your story grow quickly in unexpected directions. The goal is not to develop a perfect story, but to enjoy the process of collaborative creation.
Part 1: Finding Inspiration (10 minutes)
After this, participants should be instructed to gather in small groups with the people around them with the goal of identifying a story that they all know. Based upon the context of the activity, the facilitator may guide the groups to select stories based upon specific media, such as books, movies, folktales, or television shows. If the game is to be used in school or church, the teacher can assign specific stories to different groups. If the small group can’t come up with one story that everyone knows, they can split into smaller groups where everyone in the smaller group all knows the same story. People can work by themselves as well on this first part, but it is better if they are in groups.
Adjustment for 5-25 people: If there are fewer than 25 people participating in the activity, each person should do the first part of this activity on their own rather than in small groups.
The group should then document three aspects of the story:
- Setting. Without using specific place names, the group should describe one setting from the story. This could be generic, like “a deep dark forest” or a specific location, such as “Paris in the 1930’s”. But instead of using a proper name like “Hogwart’s Castle,” the sights, sounds, and smells of the setting should be described. All participants in a group should document the same setting.
- Character. Participants should select a character they are comfortable with from the story. This should be a significant character in the story so that participants can understand the motivations driving that character. Each participant in a group can select a different character to document, or all can document the same character. They should document the external appearance and personality traits of the character. In addition, they should document the external goals and any secret goals that the character has in the story.
- Conflict. Participants should document one point of conflict between two people in the story. This can be a large or small point of conflict, and does not need to involve the setting or character previously documented. This could be something physical, like “one person has just recovered a great treasure from a trap-filled tomb, and the other person is waiting to greet him with an army of hired men” or more mental, like “the King’s wife is having an affair with the leader of the army, and the King is suspicious.” As with the setting, specific names of the people involved should not be named; instead, the focus should be on aspects of the conflict.
Each participant needs to have his or her own notes about the setting, character, and conflict from the group’s selected story.
Part 2: Change Groups (5 minutes)
All participants should then be instructed to find a new group made of people they did not just work with. (In case of a smaller class, the participants can now form groups). Ideally, groups should be 5-7 people, and it is worth the effort for the facilitator to manage group members until all groups contain between 5 and 7 people. Participants should be instructed not to name or discuss their original stories until the end of the activity. In addition, each group should select a volunteer who will begin the activity.
Part 3: Starting the Story (10 minutes)
Groups should now be instructed as to the goal and process of the activity. The volunteer at the table will introduce the Setting. The other participants, except for the last one, will introduce their charaters. The last participant will introduce a conflict between two characters. In this first part, each group will first introduce the aspects of the story, then explore how this situation came to be through improvisation and storytelling.
Here is a possible script to explain the mechanisms for the game:
Now it is time to make you all into storytellers. You will be working as a group to create a story made up of a setting, a conflict, and characters from different stories. The goal of the first part of the activity is to focus on the past of the story – why are these characters together in this setting with this conflict? Remember the rule of “Yes, and.” Work to advance the story that others are telling. While you may be introducing the Setting, Characters, or Conflict, when you start exploring the story, you no longer control that aspect of the story. Instead, you are working as a group of narrators telling a tale.
The volunteer will present the Setting for the new story. The person to the volunteer’s left will be presenting the Conflict, but will only do so after each other participant introduces his or her Character. You will go around the table clockwise, starting with the Setting, and each person will introduce his or her element. When you reach the Conflict, the person presenting the Conflict will establish which two characters are in conflict.
After the introductions, continue the story. Each person should continue the story for a few sentences, remembering the rule of “Yes, And.” The players who have introduced the Setting and the Conflict may present more detail about the setting or more complexity to the Conflict. Players may speak about Characters in in first person or in the third person based upon their comfort in taking a role. If you find that you are participating heavily in the storytelling, sit back and let others have a turn continuing the story. Your group will have ten minutes to explore the start of your story.
The group will then tell the story as to how all of this came to be through improvisational storytelling. You may roleplay your character or may speak about characters in the third person; it is your story! Remember - everyone has something important to contribute, and being an attentive listener is as important as talking.
The group should tell their story by taking turns, with each person at the table providing a few sentences to advance the story. This will prevent any one person from dominating the story. The goal of the group in this part of the exercise is to make a cohesive past as to why all of these characters are together in this place with this conflict.
If the facilitator feels that the groups need more structure to take turns, there are several ways to do this. One is to ask the groups to continue telling their stories around the table, so that each person takes a turn in order. Another is to provide a “talking stick”, which is used to indicate who is speaking so that someone isn’t interrupted. A third is to provide each table with a bag of candy, and each player may put a piece of candy in front of him every time he or she speaks; no player may have three pieces more of candy than another player at the table (and everyone can eat their candy after the activity as a reward for contributing). These rules do complicate the activity, however, and it may be better to just let groups organize themselves.
For a 30-minute activity, the facilitator should then skip to the Debriefing section of the activity. For the full activity, the facilitator should stop the storytelling after 10 minutes, explaining that all good stories have cliffhangers.
Part 4: Continuing the Story - Part 2 (10 minutes)
The next chapter of the story starts with the introduction of two new characters, presented by the people who introduced the Setting and the Conflict in the first part. Therefore, each particiant now has a character available to be part of the story.
After the two new characters introduce themselves, one of the other participants introduces a new Setting for Part 2, and another participant describes a Conflict between these two new characters.
Therefore, in Part 2, all participants will be playing characters, some of which were there in the first part. There will be two different conflicts, so participants should explore making alliances and determining which people will be working together in preparation for the final part of the story.
Part 5: Finishing the Story (10 minutes)
In the final chapter, the group can decide what Setting to use. The goal is to bring together the first and second parts of the story and to resolve both conflicts.
Therefore, the group should feel free to explore and create a good story, using everything discussed so far in their storytelling palette. Participants should not be attached to “their” characters; as with any conflict, there will be a winning side and a losing side to the conflict.
To conclude the story, go around the table and have each participant make a statement about the future of their character (or their character’s legacy) as an epilogue.
Part 6: Debriefing (5 minutes)
The final part of the exercise should connect the activity to the reason that this activity is being run in this setting. In a library setting, participants should introduce their original books to each other. As an icebreaker, participants should now introduce themselves. As an educational tool, participants could talk about the creative process, aspects of story telling, or the impact of stories on culture. For educators, librarians, or facilitators, the group can then talk about what a roleplaying game is and how they could take this activity back to their own organizations. As with any activity, the real learning takes place during the debriefing process, so this step should not be skipped.
Part 7: Feedback
After running the event, please visit http://tinyurl.com/44rzyct and fill out the short survey there. This will help the designer of this activity improve the documentation, discuss interesting ways to use the activity, and collect data on how this activity is being used.
The facilitator may also choose to do a formal assessment of the activity in order to understand if desired outcomes are being met by the activity. Rather than focus on typically asked questions like “Did you enjoy this event?”, facilitators should ask questions about how the game changed participants and met outcomes for having the event.
Worksheet for Crossed Paths
Written guide for Crossed Paths (optional)
Bullet points suitable for use in facilitation
Worksheet for “Crossed Paths” storytelling game
Designed by Scott Nicholson, http://becauseplaymatters.com
Setting (Where does the action take place? Think about different senses: sight, sound, smells.)
Key physical aspects:
Outward goal or ambition:
Secret goal or ambition:
Conflicts (What are some points of conflict between two parties? Use A and B instead of names.)
Optional Handout (one per table)
Storytelling Guide for Crossed Paths
This is an improvisational activity. One of the core rules of improv is that whatever a participant says is part of the story. When someone says something, even if it doesn’t agree with where you thought the story should go, you take in their contribution and add your own. Picture yourselves as having the power to create, and by simply speaking something, it comes true.
Everyone gets to help create the story. When you start, go around the table in a circle. As you get into the flow of storytelling, you can relax this rule. Even if you aren’t going in a circle, let everyone speak before you speak again.
Another key concept of taking turns is not having the stage for too long. Each time you talk, you should present no more than a paragraph before letting someone else take the story.
Thinking is OK
Taking a few seconds to think before talking is fine. Your group is both the creator and the audience, so you can move at the pace that you are comfortable with. This isn’t about rapid-fire improvisation; but rather, it is about telling a good story.
Add to the Story
The elements presented of Setting, Characters, and Conflict are not the only things available for the story. You can introduce other characters, things, places, and issues as appropriate. Consider your original story for other aspects to make your group’s story richer and more involved.
Bullet Points useful for Facilitation
Step One: Find Inspiration
Step Two: Change Groups
Step Three: Starting the Story
Step Four: Continuing the Story
Step Five: Finishing the Story
Step Six: Debriefing (depending upon context)