Early Collaborative Games of Fantasy and Imagination


Several parlor game manuals in French have rules for a fantasy-themed collaborative storytelling game over 200 years old that has not been described in popular histories of fantasy gaming: "The Impromptu Tale" is remarkably similar to the independently-invented modern game Once Upon a Time.

Some earlier and later variants of "The Impromptu Tale" omit fantasy elements, but they are still more complex than later games in English such as "Rigmarole" in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868; which does have a fantasy aspect to it) and The Huddersfield College Magazine (1875; which has a Christmas ghost story), "Improvisatore" (1882; which has a fairy tale example), or "The All-Around Story Game" (1895):

Here are more rules and suggestions for playing the game: Incidentally, the Manuel des châteaux from 1779 includes a discussion of another "little game" of collaborative storytelling that had few rules beyond agreements about genre and allowed plot devices: Further evidence for an early game like this can be found in (fairy tale author) Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force's 1701 "Le Jeu du Roman," a game also mentioned by de Scudéry in 1667. Earlier story games existed as well, e.g. telling a story to illustrate a proverb (1642) or the very simple combinatoric story game of "Thief" (1551).

Several parlor game manuals also include a trivial "let's pretend" kind of game called "The Butterfly" in which each player takes the role of a flower or insect and describes their feelings and actions vis-à-vis the opposite. Among adults, goals of the game evidently included flirting with specific players and/or allegorically discussing gender in essentialist terms. "Let's pretend" games have always been with us (e.g. compare with the king game in Herodotus or βασιλίνδα in Pollux, also described here, here, and here; or consider the Brontë children), and like most "let's pretend" games, "The Butterfly" has no resolution mechanics for contested facts within its tiny flowerbed world. But this is early documentation of an imaginative game with numerous rules and roles to play at indefinite length being combined with improvised first-person perspectives in an adult social circle.

"The Butterfly" may be related to the simpler, common, and much older game of "The Metamorphoses" found in manuals from 1572, 1642 / 1671, and 1788--the latter even mentions the possibility of transforming into a butterfly--but "The Metamorphoses" is a game of direct comparisons between the players themselves and the plants or animals they have 'transformed' into. Even earlier role-based games such as "Le Jeu d'Enfer" (1555) or "The Lovers' Hell" (1572) appear to be similarly limited in interaction and length, highly ritualized, and thematically not unlike historical trivia games such as "Great Ghost; or, the Character Game" (1876) though several also had imaginative classical / mythological motifs.

If these games exerted any influence--however indirect--on the history of modern tabletop games involving storytelling or role-playing, one place to find it might be in the biography of H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose rules for Little Wars published in 1913 occupy a key place in the history of wargaming with miniatures and, out of that, Dungeons & Dragons. Wells was aware of many parlor games. His 1911 novel The New Machiavelli makes an allusion to "Hunt the Slipper" (a well-known parlor game depicted in chapter 11 of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766). His 1918 novel Joan and Peter describes acting charades, hide-and-seek games "Ogre" and "Darkness Ogre," a card game called "Demon Patience," and specific rules for the partially silent version of "Crambo" (a.k.a. "Rhyming Words in Pantomime," which had been a favorite of Karl Marx). In general, he often refers to games: chess, the card game "Nap," spellicans, and more. However, aside from a brief reference to the card game whist, the text of neither Little Wars nor Floor Games implicates anything like parlor games as influences, and in The New Machiavelli, chapters 2 and 3 offer fictionalized pictures of playing games of "phantom warfare" as a child and young adult with no mention of parlor games. Wells instead describes a variety of influences and experiences independent from parlor games, even if he knew some and could conceivably have known these.

Anyway, there are a lot of pre-19th Century parlor game manuals too:

Parlor games that involve some kind of narration, however strange, also had some presence in France in the 20th Century: Incidentally, "Exquisite Corpse" has sometimes been described as having a connection to "Résultats" / "Consequences," but "The History" is a stronger match. If it has been conflated, that would be very understandable, because "The History" includes multiple variants--one that is basically "Consequences" and another with freeform contributions built up line by line on folded paper.

In any case, here's a selection of games that generate elaborate series of non sequiturs by matching up different players' contributions in a way they couldn't entirely foresee--"The History" in particular turns them into stories and poems:

For more game manuals ca. 1870-1910, here's a bibliography of texts usually available at Google Books, HathiTrust, or the Internet Archive. It was published in 1913--coincidentally, the same year as Edith Nesbit's "magic city game" in Wings and the Child.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the Public Paperfolding History Project for pointing out "The History" (1836) and connecting it to "Exquisite Corpse"; James Wallis for encouragement, an important question about forfeits, confirmation about the independent development of Once Upon a Time and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and generally being a model of enthusiasm on this topic; Evan Torner, Jose Zagal, and Reddit's /u/WeirdCranium for helpful feedback.

Note on translations: I'm a hobbyist, and this is all for fun--not scholarship--so be careful not to read too much into translations that are likely full of errors and infelicities.

French texts transcribed on this site are already in the public domain, as are the words of Sara Coleridge and the paragraph from a translation of Goethe's autobiography. As for the rest (translations, notes, etc. all included): This work by WobbuPalooza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.