As an avid but regularly unmotivated (read: lazy) writer, any tools that can help and improve my ability to create a narrative are not only welcome but essential. Which is why I was eager to investigate Tales of the Fabulist, a storytelling party game by Texas-based collaboration Monkey Gun Games which has just hit Kickstarter.
I’m a big fan of these kinds of games, as my well-worn copy of Once Upon a Time and narrative roleplaying game shelf will attest (looking at you Microscope and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen.) But I’m also experienced enough to know that narrative games don’t always work, sometimes in spite of their best efforts, which can result in disappointing failures (such as the stunningly beautiful but ultimately clumsy Winter Tales.)
Not only this, but storytelling games can sometimes be rather demanding of their players. After all, much of the entertainment value comes down to shoving someone into a spotlight, giving them a cue, and expecting them to dance. If you’re feeling tired, uncreative, or self-conscious, that can be the exact opposite of fun. A good storytelling game needs to be the perfect dance partner, not only making the invitation onto the floor attractive, but being a supportive and generous lead once the music starts.
So it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached my review copy, kindly sent out all the way from Lone Star territory. And I’ll confess that when I first read the rules and flicked through the cards I didn’t have high hopes.
Tales of the Fabulist is a simple storytelling game beginning with two characters and an opening premise drawn from their respective decks and then the players take it in short 30 second turns to flesh out the story by detailing Plot Twist cards from their hand. Once nine turns have been played each player suggests a “moral of the story” and the Fabulist (a sort of head storyteller and pseudo-referee) picks their favourite moral. A variant is also presented where the Fabulist tells the story solo and the other players try to derail them playing their Plot Twists whenever it seems most amusing.
Alright. All so simple so far, I thought as I read the rules, but I suspected maybe too simple. I leafed through the Plot Twist cards and wasn’t really inspired by them, thinking they might not be quite up to the task of aiding the storytelling, and I certainly thought that they’d be better off using past tense rather than present. As for the artwork, it was alright and some of the gags were solid enough, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the mod-fantasy mashup going on. And thirty seconds? I just couldn’t see that producing a story of any real merit.
So yeah, I had pretty low expectations going in.
Quite happily, I was wrong. Tales of the Fabulist proved to be smooth, imaginative, and charmingly silly.
I think a lot of it has to do with that 30 second time limit. You don’t have time to second-guess yourself or worry about how clever or witty your contribution will be; you’ve just got to throw out whatever you’ve got and hope for the best. And the game warmly accepts even the most mediocre of efforts with a clap on the back and a smile.
Where it really succeeds over something like, say, Once Upon A Time, is that it isn’t intimidating. You don’t need to be witty or clever or have to stick to the tropes or be a naturally gifted wordsmith. The bar is set much lower, low enough that anyone can jump it, but that rapid time limit sees you hurtling toward it just fast enough to make you panic. There’s no time for wit or cleverness JUST GO! So you’ll throw out some stupid fart joke or a ridiculous pantomime voice and everyone else playing will love you for it. Nobody fails, everyone wins.
The simple fact is this isn’t a board game or a storytelling game. It’s a party game. An icebreaker. An after-dinner opener. A drunken, late night, beer-and-pretzels guilty pleasure. Though the gameplay pretends to build a narrative what it’s really building is laughter and good humour. It’s genial dumb fun, and it does it unashamedly (and without the cruel or uncomfortable jabs that can be encouraged in some other party games.)
On a second look through the cards, the Quests show some quite clever ideas and though not all of the characters are great some are inspired (the adventure capitalist goblin and the “tri-polar” manticore are a couple of personal favourites.) That being said, I still think there’s room to improve the Plot Twist cards as currently they are merely serviceable, and the two “Instant Play” cards in the deck don’t seem to add anything to the game and rather interrupt the flow of play (we removed them.)
I expect the final product that comes out of the Kickstarter campaign to be different than my prototype copy, of course. I’d like to see the card backs redesigned a bit, at least to include the name or initial of the card types on them (the Fabulist “f” seems like a placeholder. Even Q, C, and P will do the job, though something “twisted” for the Plot Twist backs could be fun.) I do hope the upgraded neoprene playmat stretchgoal is unlocked because it’s pretty neat, and making the cards waterproof will greatly help those of us who can get a bit clumsy with the tankards.
I’ll confess that it isn’t my favourite storytelling game. It doesn’t have the clean focus or inspired sharpness of A-grade top tier games like the excellent Action News or the oft-mentioned Once Upon A Time. But I like it, and I think a lot of other people will too. Most importantly, each time I’ve played it all participants have laughed so much more than any of us anticipated, and even the best games don’t manage that. We’ve had a great silly time. If Tales of the Fabulist isn’t A-grade, it’s B-grade in the same way that cult films are; some won’t like it but those who do will adore it and play it on repeat.
Tales of the Fabulist is on Kickstarter until mid-December.