Notes on Playing "The Impromptu Tale"

Running Demos

I have introduced "The Impromptu Tale" on two occasions with good results each time, but from the start, I introduced guidelines that make it more clear to players what they should plan for as the story unfolds. I don't think "The Impromptu Tale" needs these guidelines to be playable--in fact, the base rules should be even more fun with experience--but they were helpful for running one-shot demos and bringing in more history.
  1. Known story goals: I gave each player their designation in an order they should expect for it to appear in the story. That is, going around in a circle from left to right, I "named" the players with the terms that would mark their entry into the story. I told them that I would begin the story, per the rules of the game, but I would end my initial contribution at a point where the player to my left would need to take up the story, and I asked them each to develop the narrative in such a way that it would also pass to the person on their left--although, if need be, they could send the story to me as Confidant, and I would send it to the next person in order. Thus, players could anticipate how their primary contributions would both start and end.
  2. Everyone handles at least one "twist": "The Impromptu Tale" specifies that the Confidant--and in one variant, exclusively the Confidant--will look to other players for unexpected words that might derail the story. So that every player would have the experiences of asking for and supplying words opposite to the direction of the story, I asked each player to look at least once for an unexpected word from the player to their right, i.e. the player who had probably passed the story to them.
  3. Trivial forfeits: The concept of pledges/forfeits is worth explaining in a demo game to give some historically-accurate flavor to the experience. However, any penances given should not be onerous or embarrassing. "The Simple Confidence" only requires communicating to one other player a trivial secret that must be amusing or gallant, although a player could still decline this. "The Telegraphic Message" takes a few minutes, and players may be surprised by its history. In the one demo game where a pledge was given, the player's companion volunteered to take him away for a moment, he happily agreed, and they simply declared his penance was done when they returned.
  4. Richer story goals: Even in the 19th Century, a game of "The Impromptu Tale" could involve story elements like Solitude, Youthfulness, or overlapping designations for the same character like Eliza / The Invalid, so it wasn't strictly a matter of designating obvious motifs like a Castle or the Captain of the Guards. To suggest more concretely where a player should take the story in a demo game, I developed a list of story motifs based on Sara Coleridge's fantasy novel Phantasmion. So, for example, one player was given the "name" of "The baby in the eagle's nest," another had "The corpse of Dariel, the gardener," and so on. Trying to get from each of these destinations to the next was delightful and surprisingly similar in style to Phantasmion, even though the connecting material was completely extemporized. I've included a fuller list of suggestions below.
  5. A meta-gamed conclusion: In 1779, de Voyer offered this discussion of "Interrupted Stories": "The last, who will have loaned the greatest attention to that which the others will have said, during the short space of time that they will have been told not to overspend, finishes the story with a dénouement such as their wit will suggest to them. When one knows well how to arrange this little game and if most of the actors are people of wit, it is charming." In other words, keep in mind the need for a satisfying conclusion and deciding who will end the story. In "The Impromptu Tale," the story may be thrown to the Confidant, who is supposed to be capable of handling this need, but it's not actually a rule. If you ask players to pass the story according to some order, as I did, you may also want to arrange for players with strong storytelling experience to go last or else advise the players that they can hand the story off to the Confidant for a conclusion.
Voilà, a game that technically falls within the rules for 4 out of 5 versions of "The Impromptu Tale," yet clarifies a process and adds more story detail such that a one-shot demo may be more certain to give every player a chance at something memorable.

Borrowing Story Destinations from Phantasmion

Basing a game of "The Impromptu Tale" on story destinations taken from a contemporary work of fiction may further enrich the experience and deepen the players' sense that they are engaging with history. In 1837, Sara Coleridge--abandoned daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who told her fairy tales as a child--wrote Phantasmion, which has been described as the first "other world" / "secondary world" fantasy novel.

Coleridge herself compared it to a wide range of fictions, including novels: "Robinson Crusoe, Peter Wilkins, Faust, Undine, Peter Schlemil, and the Magic Ring or the White Cat." At the same time, it is a literary fairy tale, i.e. a fairy tale originally composed by an identifiable author rather than being a product of oral tradition, and the story does have a veiled relationship with our world, because its landscape is inspired by Coleridge's childhood experiences of the Lake District (n.b.: her map of Phantasmion's world is housed at UT Austin, and her autobiographical annotations are housed at UNC Chapel Hill).

Phantasmion has no connection to parlor games (Coleridge's accounts of its composition are alternatingly prosaic and wild). However, it is contemporary with "The Impromptu Tale"--in fact, Élisabeth Celnart's "Le Roman impromptu" was republished in 1836. Furthermore, parlor games being played in France did circulate in England and the US at the time, as we can see in Anne Lister's diary entry for Oct. 10, 1824, Donald Walker's 1837 translation blending Madame Tardieu-Denesle's example of play for "The Impromptu Tale" with Élisabeth Celnart's rules for "The Impromptu Romance," and Catherine Harbeson Waterman's parlor game manual "translated from the French" in 1853. Beyond that, fairy tales by American author Lydia Maria Child could even have been influenced by Celnart directly, because Child's translation of "The Butterfly" is based on Celnart's text. So, for Anglophone gamers, Phantasmion is a plausible model of storytelling on which to base a game of "The Impromptu Tale."

It's easy to do: a little in advance, read even the first few chapters of Phantasmion to develop a starting point for your own game that will introduce young prince Phantasmion and at least one of the magical beings from the novel, and then assign each player one of the optional story destinations below and begin the narrative. Incidentally, if you read the whole book, keeping notes like this will help. Alhough very beautiful and magical, its plot unfolds confusingly, a bit like much older, non-fantasy English prose romances and early novels (Mary Wroth's The Countess of Montgomery's Urania from 1621, Penelope Aubin's The Life of Charlotta Du Pont from 1723, etc.). Fortunately, fostering witty and thoughtful appreciation of a confusing narrative is exactly what "The Impromptu Tale" is good at too.

Initial Characters

Young prince Phantasmion, plus at least one of the following magical beings:

Optional Story Destinations

Additional Sources

If you exhaust the possibilities in Phantasmion and want to try literary fairy tales, proto-science fiction, and other odd texts originating in French, Black Coat Press has many translations that might be suitable:

Of course, translations of many 17th-19th C. fairy tales are available for free online. In "Once Upon a Time in Paris," Terri Windling offers an introduction to some, and here are a few texts: Sources such as Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine, Villamaria's "The Sea Fairy," or The Queen's Mirror: Fairy Tales by German Women, 1780-1900 offer a small sample of lesser-known options originally in German.
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