Story Tennis: a conversational play-by-chat game

After spending two and a half weeks playing a Fall of Magic game entirely on Facebook Messenger (which was a delight, to play a story game while lounging in a bathrobe), I have a bunch of thoughts on that format. Namely setting aside specific time to play is really great, even though the format can be asynchronous. Getting to stay in the headspace for an hour or two, before breaking for the night, helps the story flow in that time.

Our way of handling play was for a scene to start by being typed out, then the other person asked provocative questions or jumped into the scene to make it a dialogue. But it has a drawback that typing a scene out can take a bunch of time where the other person is waiting during that initial scene. Sometimes I’d have some video on in the background to fill the space, and pause it when the other player’s scene came in to engage with it.

And when I’m writing, I’m conscious of the time I’m taking. It’s a balance of making something that would delight both players, and something the other player can respond to sooner. Time is finite, after all.

With our Fall of Magic game now done, we want to keep playing out stories in this medium. I’ve been chewing for a week or so regarding uneven engagement. Sometimes that’s fab, but what if it wasn’t the norm in faceless real-time chat? What about a game that felt more like a conversation, without it inherently being about dialogue?

Last night, I proposed a simple format I dubbed story tennis.

Starting the game: One person starts with a simple prompt and a query. We started with “A teen looking to find themselves in a new city, with some twist we’ll discover. What are they glad to be gone from?”

The back & forth: The other person replies with a short answer to the question. Try to keep the response to a short paragraph, maybe no more than 50 words. This isn’t a firm rule, but communicates the spirit of intended play. Giving short answers means it’s more conversational and it gives space for the other person to build in ways that surprise you.

Then they offer a question to you, which may or may not relate to the answer they just gave. Sometimes questions will be introspective, about feelings or the past. Others will move a story forward by asking about actions taken in the present or events that happen. Questions we asked include:

  • Why did they choose this city? This place?
  • The first time they’re hungry, what do they do to get food?
  • What belief drives them forward each day?
  • What big surprise happens three months in?
  • How do they surprise their neighbors in this crisis?
  • What happens when the power comes back no one expects?

This cycle goes back and forth, building a narrative and world through provocative questions and unexpected answers.

Finishing the game: There’s no particular way one ends the game. In the game last night, we ended by one of of saying they should go to bed soon, so we agreed to one more round each. But you could also set a time limit, a number of rounds, or maybe some goal you build toward (though I’m a little dubious at that idea). Could always pick the game up later, or appreciate it as a short story rather than a chapter in a novel.

Room to grow: This is obviously a slim framework. There’s room to add and pivot, like using images collected on Pinterest (my partner’s fab idea) or doing something akin to Microscope where we call for an interaction scene about something to see a moment in time. You could play a series of games that work as an anthology in the same world. Really, there’s a lot of places this simple structure can go.

While our prompt was about a character, we could have easily built a world with a prompt like “The Empire of Atlantis is falling, but few believe it. What are Atlanteans proud of?” (To be fair, we did build a world, just from the lens of a single character rather than a broader lens.)