The Elements of Storyjamming

Not Better, Perhaps, but Definitely Different

How does a Story-jam differ from a conventional ‘role-playing game’?

Most traditional role-playing games focus on a teller/audience paradigm. The computer (or Gamemaster, or Dungeonmaster for D&D) creates a world, and the player interfaces with it in a limited fashion. The computer or Gamemaster makes the world come alive, and the player merely interacts in a limited way with the Story-world. The Gamemaster gets most all of the practice in Storytelling skills, and the players get a very limited amount.

In a sense, this has a lot in common with listening to a Storyteller do their work, with one step beyond in terms of interaction (you no longer just listen, but interact somewhat). However, you sit on invisible rails, and will only go where the computer or Gamemaster has planned for you to go.

In a Story-jam, we create the world together. In so doing, every player works on and constantly improves their Story skills.

Not only that, but we learn higher-level skills of collaboration, listening and responding, setting aside ego, following intuitive guidance, that the other scenarios do not require (though such skills would certainly improve their craft).

To Story-jam, means to learn Storytelling plus a whole other bunch of stuff too.

The Elements

Drawing from Viola Spolin’s Intuition and Improvisational Theater games, and my training at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School, I see a convergence of skills and games…and guidelines for exploring them. In the Indie Story-game movement, we see books like Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley, that point us in this direction.

Truly though, I think it takes the animist perspective of the tracker to understand the forces at work in a rich Story-jam, and know what to emphasize and bring fully to life.

The first understanding, from this animist perspective, I’ll articulate this way:

When we Story-jam, we share the same vivid waking Dream.

Therefore, we see, rather than invent. We go there, to the vividly imagined place, and then bring it back in words and gestures.

With the help of Graham Walmsley’s book (with Walmsley drawing his source material in turn from Keith Johnstone, improv teacher), we have some key ways of really capturing this attitude.

Play! The Story-jam, like a music jam, shouldn’t feel like all work. If it does, spare your Band-mates by finding something else that you will actually enjoy. Building skill at this may feel uncomfortable, may work your brain, but it should feel fun too.

Play the obvious. Don’t get clever. If you say what you see, you say the obvious thing. If you make stuff up, you get ‘clever’.

Go for average play. Don’t grab the spotlight. Don’t try to outshine your band-mates. When you shoot for average, you play naturally, and stay in the flow of the shared Dream with your other players. Have loads of fun, but just go for average.

Make each other look GOOD! Support other characters, and their stories-within-the-story. Make them look good, and trust that they’ll return the favor. You can look good playing a bumbling foolish part in a Story.

Yes, and…! Build on the energy there, build on ideas, keep the flow going. Not ‘no, because…’, but rather ‘Yes, AND this happens next!’ The rules of the Story-game itself will cue you when and how to use character conflict to propel the story.

A World of Intuition and Improvisational Skills

We could add different elements and guidelines to that list all day long, but in the end they boil down to a very few core things. Work your ability to experience vividly with all 5 senses, in your imagination, and in every day life. They support each other. Learn to listen, and respond without censoring your natural instinct.

Of course, right? Basic animal tracking skills.

When in doubt during the jam, always go back to what you vividly see. Follow that.

As in Story, so in Life.

Written by Willem