Early Collaborative Games of Fantasy and Imagination


This site focuses mostly on 19th C. French games with elements of fantasy, role-playing, or collaborative storytelling: These are parlor games: simple indoor games having few rules, little equipment, and often a special round of activities to pay for mistakes.

Collaborative Storytelling Games with Fantasy Elements

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 their rules 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)--not to mention freeform 'steeplechase' novels such as La Croix de Berny (1855), A Casca de caneleira (1866), The Fate of Fenella (1892), or X... Roman impromptu (1895), The Whole Family (1908), Consequences (1933; based on a different parlor game--see below), or other models of literary collaboration, including the shared world of Mugby Junction (1866) or round-robin works by the Detection Club (1930s):

Here are more rules and suggestions for playing the game: Earlier sources document another collaborative storytelling game that had few rules beyond agreements about a genre and plot devices to allow. In two texts, it's called the "Jeu du Roman" or "The Game of the Romance" (in the literary sense of a long prose narrative pre-dating novels). In two other texts, it's called "Interrupted Stories." And in Charlotte-Rose Caumont de la Force's novel Les Jeux d'esprit it is called "The Game of the Romance"--but also described in the text as an interrupted story. Several examples and descriptions are translated here:

Notably, the memoirs of Marie Du Bois, valet de chambre to Louis XIV, describe the young king playing this game in 1655, when he would have been around 17 years old. In the evenings, after dancing,

[O]n joue aux petits jeux comme aux romans. L'on s'assied en rond. L'un commence un sujet de roman et suit jusqu'à ce qu'il soit dans quelque embarras. Cela estant, celuy quy est proche prend la parole et suit de mesme, ainsy de l'ung à l'autre les avantures se trouvent, où il y en a quelquefois de bien plaisantes. Minuit estant proche, le Roy donne le bonsoir à la Reine
Little games like novels are played. People sit in a circle. One person begins a subject for a romance and continues it until he is in some difficulty. This being the case, his neighbor speaks and continues in the same way, so from one to the other there are adventures, sometimes very pleasant ones. Midnight being near, the King bids good evening to the Queen

Two untranslated variants of the game with complete examples can be found in the final third of the "Second Day" of Charles Sorel's 1642 La Maison des jeux. The Game of the Romance is also mentioned briefly in de Scudéry's 1667 "Games, Serving as a Preface to Mathilde." A verse rendering of the fairy tale "La Creste de Coq-d'Inde" (1712) came about in much the same way as a jeu du roman: the Duchess of Maine proposing that Nicolas de Malézieu and Charles-Claude Genest take evenly-divided turns composing it over the course of three afternoons. And the Comte de Caylus's 1743 fairy tale "La Princesse Lumineuse" still mentions the game, listing it among other games known in reality but within the context of the fairy tale being 'invented' for the amusement of an imaginary king. 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).

However, the two forms given by Sorel for the Game of the Romance are especially interesting. In the first, shorter form, one player must invent a story incorporating a list of words selected at the start, a challenge accepted throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries (e.g. also published by Harsdörffer as "Die zergliederte Mähre" in 1645 in the 5th book of his Gesprächspiele; and forming the basis of a short story published in Mercure Galant in July 1704, notably claiming an unnamed woman reinvented the game based on bout rimés in poetry; as well as an enigma by Jacques Vergier published in 1726; poetry in the Journal de Paris in 1780; Kotzebue's novel History of My Father in 1788; GutsMuths's game "Die Erzähler, oder das Geschichtemachen" in 1796; a fable in Mercure de France in 1802; a monthly song composition challenge in L'Epicurien français in 1808; "Das einfache Wörterspiel" in 1828; etc.).

After giving an example of this first kind of "Game of the Romance," Sorel himself introduces the topic of bout-rimés, in which the final rhyming words of a poem are given while leaving the bulk of the poem for others to work out. Bout-rimés show up in parlor game manuals much later too, e.g. as a forfeit task in 1801 (not to mention poetry by John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alexandre Dumas), and it is tempting to see in them a list of verbal 'destinations' to incorporate, very like those given for this first form of the "Jeu du roman." In any case, there are interesting examples and/or discussions of bout-rimés in 1696, 1735, 1738, 1746, 1747, 1755, 1764 (especially), 1775, 1787, and 1795.

In the second and longer form of the "Jeu du roman" given by Sorel, multiple players take turns together, narrating one unified story with many contributors. Incidentally the story given as an example is set in classical Crete and feature sacrifices to the god Saturn, oracular divination, and other occasional mythological references.

"The Impromptu Tale" combines both of those game mechanics--a list of words set out at the beginning and also collaborative narration--and since the former mechanic can be found in "The Game of the Romance" in an overlapping timeframe and the latter mechanic at an earlier date, a genealogical relationship between "The Impromptu Tale" and "The Game of the Romance" seems likely. The additional rule in "The Impromptu Tale" that a narrator should from time to time lead up to an obvious word for which another player supplies a non-obvious replacement is remarkable as an innovative form of play focused on counterfactual plotting.

Collaborative Games with Role-Playing Elements

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. Consider the king game in Herodotus, or see βασιλίνδα in Pollux, as described in this recent monograph or this Latin text from 1627, which may be a role-based form of "Truth or Dare" / "Questions and Commands." Or see the story/role-playing games invented by the Brontë children, the "let's pretend" games played by Prince Albert around the same time (see Count Mensdorff's recollections and Prince Albert's own letters of 1/17/1830 and 4/17/1830, a couple of years after visiting the school where GutsMuths ran "Color War"-style Kriegsspiele--q.v. below and/or this blog post), classical / early medieval military simulations, the "mock tournaments" and imaginary "shop" in Bruegel's "Children's Games," and the "let's pretend" games of Tudor children and kindergartners ca. 1914. But like most "let's pretend" games, "The Butterfly" has no resolution mechanics for contested facts within its tiny flowerbed world. Nonetheless 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 transforming into a butterfly after several others had transformed into flowers--but "The Metamorphoses" is a more general game of comparisons between the players and anything they have 'transformed' into. Earlier role-based games such as "The Game of Hell" (1555) or "The Lovers' Hell" (1572) were similarly limited in interaction and length, highly ritualized, and thematically not unlike historical trivia games such as "Great Ghost; or, the Character Game" (1876) even if several had imaginative classical / mythological motifs.

One game from the late Renaissance, though, is especially notable for its modest LARP-like qualities: "The Game of Ceremonies" (1555). The rules instruct players to take on named roles such as Adonis or Galatea or the nonhuman roles of Nymphs and Dryads to act out a ritual sacrifice to Venus and Cupid--whose roles are also taken on by specific players. Players have very little agency in acting out their roles but not none: they choose what gifts to offer and whom to call on next. "The Game of Ceremonies" is still very much a parlor game, as the point of it was to create occasions for forfeits to redeem by answering thoughtful questions at the end of the game (it's unclear whether the gifts counted as forfeits or whether errors in the ritual are the cause of forfeits or both). But it is remarkable for being a game of gods and magic assigning one-to-one correspondences between players and characters--none of which are abstractions or inanimate objects, as in some other Renaissance games--with the explicitly stated goal of having fun.

If parlor 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 typify wargaming with miniatures, a tradition that eventually gave rise to 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--e.g. the garden wargames in Tristram Shandy, Kriegsspiel, and his own childhood imagination--that are independent from parlor games, even if he knew some and could conceivably have known others.

Collaborative Storytelling Games with (Proto-) Surrealist / Oulipian Elements

Parlor games that involve some kind of narration, however strange, also had some presence in France in the 20th Century:

Although "Exquisite Corpse" has a connection to the game Simone Collinet called "Consequences" (presumably meaning "Résultats" specifically, which Anne Lister described in 1824 as though it were already well-known in French and in English), rules for another game known in contemporary English translations as "The History" typically include multiple variants: one that is basically a form of "Consequences" with a slightly different template of slots to fill in, but another with freeform contributions built up line by line on folded paper much like "Exquisite Corpse." Whether the Surrealists were actually playing either of these very similar alternatives bears contemplation. When "The History" first appeared in Antoine Fabre d'Olivet's pseudonymously-written Le Savant de société (1801), its example of play was not very surreal, perhaps having been made up as an example of how the game might work in theory, so Léon Collier concluded the history of "The History" probably ended there.

But d'Olivet's Le Savant de société was a sudden hit, rapidly imitated, paraphrased, and/or expanded on. Ducœurjoly's Les Nouveaux Savans de société appeared later the same year. The second edition of Le Manuel des sorciers was expanded in 1802 to include parlor games. And the examples of play for "The History" in manuals published in Le Petit Savant de société (1812), Les Jeux innocents de société (1817), and so on show much more interesting outcomes. A verse example published in 1812 is particularly striking for its Surrealism avant la lettre, and a prose example from 1817 is at least absurd. Whether Prévert was--unknown to others present--even vaguely aware of this variant when he suggested an innovation to "Consequences" probably can't be ruled out, particularly given that "The History" continued to circulate at least until 1903. In fact, its 1903 variant even concludes using the same template as "Consequences." Still, inventing "Exquisite Corpse" solely on the basis of "Consequences" remains completely plausible. Some other Surrealist games do strongly resemble earlier games--for example, "One Into Another" more or less combines the centuries-old games "Métamorphoses" and "What is My Thought Like?"--but they also typically put some new spin on things, and none of these games are so complex as to preclude independent reinvention.

Incidentally, d'Olivet's 1801 Le Savant de société also includes a proto-Oulipian poem generator that still appears in the 4th ed. from 1824, revised by Pierre Joseph Charrin: "Ave Maria, Hymne Mythologique et Mystérieux, imité du Salutation angélique." Inspired by the Ave Maria cipher developed by Johannes Trithemius in his Polygraphia (1518), d'Olivet composed his own Ave Maria cipher in French, instructing readers to replace each letter in each column of plaintext with a corresponding word or phrase in his cipher, repeating as necessary until the reader has generated ciphertext that looks like a poem--in fact, most of the time, like a hymn to some goddess from classical mythology. Rougemaître's "Couplets" from 1822 is similar, albeit non-mythological, and for what it's worth, another much older poem with combinatoric potential to it, akin to Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes is the Sieur de Porchère's sonnet "Vœux pour sa maiesté" from the early 17th Century.

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--and some later sources, like Frank Leslie's essay on "Consequences" or the collaborative novel Consequences by Elizabeth Bowen, et al., are notable for connecting these games to wider phenomena:

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. Here on Neocities, "Historical Games" also has a good bibliography and introductions to various games.

Earlier Sources for Parlor Games

There are a lot of pre-19th Century parlor game sources (further contexts for many sources are linked in a discussion of redeeming pledges / forfeits):

Incidentally, the term jeux d'esprit ("games of wit" / "mind games") overlaps with both parlor games and word games, and as Voltaire and Goethe as well as Jane Austen all make clear, the connection is not just a semantic overlap but a practical one, insofar as brief poems could redeem forfeits and word puzzles could be worked out as a group. Accordingly, many sources on wordplay prefacing De Voyer's 1779 "How You Can Make the Wittiest People Pay" may be relevant. For 19th-20th C. sources on parlor games, see especially all the game manuals with sections on forfeits.

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; Gerald Nachtwey for mentioning Charles Nodier and connecting modern gaming to Romanticism, medievalism, and medieval Romances; Evan Torner, Jose Zagal, and Reddit's /u/WeirdCranium for additional 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.