Gloomy education? (Creative writing and card games)

Posted on October 11, 2012


This isn’t a rant about the state of modern education. Rather, I want to talk about a somewhat melancholy card game called ‘Gloom’ (info) (amazon).

Gloom is a game of “inauspicious incidents and grave consequences” – a game where you control the fates of a band of misfits and malcontents, playing cards to make their lives miserable and (hopefully) your opponents’ lives more happy and content. The main aim is for the family you control to be beset by tragedy on all sides and to meet untimely deaths. All deaths in this game are untimely!

What sets this game apart is the storytelling it inspires. You are recommended not just to play the cards in your favour, but to construct stories around what that card does, with everyone contributing to the communal mythos building up in from the cards. This, to me, is the interesting part – using these cards and the evocative text and artwork on them in a creative writing exercise. The cards provide enough story material and texture to inspire but also enough of a constraint to focus the mind. Sometimes the worst thing to have when writing is the freedom to write anything you want!

Spinning the yarn

Pick the characters you want to use. I’m only going to use one here, but don’t let that guide you. Pick a family, pick randomly, pick any combination of them that you feel might be inspiring. Picking 3 characters might be a sensible idea for a young student – enough of a constraint for them to work with, but not to many so that a character is left out.

Shuffle the event cards and the modifier cards together, as usual.

Place these face down and draw 5 cards from the top. So far, this is very much like playing the original game. Even if more than one person is playing this collaboratively, only draw a single hand.

At this point, setting the scene for the story with a short introduction might be worthwhile. You can give your characters more depth and describe parts of their personality or backstory that you think would be interesting to include.

The ‘gameplay’ is simple – play a card, and draw a card. However, all notion of points should be ignored and you should only pay attention to the text in the banner at the top (and optionally, the text that states that a card can only be played if a certain symbol is visible on the character. For example, a character cannot be ‘widowed at the wedding’ if they haven’t had any love/marriage-themed cards placed on them beforehand. Again, it is up to you!)

You can see, on the left in the picture below, a typical card that you might play with descriptive text in the banner at the top, some symbols and numbers along the sides and a little snippet of text at the bottom, adding flavour to the modifier.

Event cards (see below) cause various gameplay actions to happenin the normal game, but for this version, you can ignore this aspect. The important part is, as usual, the text at the top – “A Second Chance”, “Smoke and Mirrors” and so on. Use these sentences to spur on an idea for an event in your story. Did a character just have a run in with the law? Maybe the “Smoke and Mirrors” event could be a chase sequence where they successfully lose their pursuers only to land in an even more dire situation?

The final type of card are the Untimely Death cards. These have RIP in each corner and describe the final tragedy of a character. Sometimes the card states it cannot be placed on a character unless a certain symbol is showing. Use your own judgement on this, but you might find your story makes more sense if you do pay attention to this!

The characters can suffer Untimely Deaths at any time the player chooses. Kill a character after putting them through an veritable odyssey of misfortune and heartbreak? Give them a fleeting moment of happiness before dashing their hopes to pieces? Have a family member die early to provide an element of pathos for the rest of story to play on? Who knows 🙂

If playing collaboratively, I suggest the following ideas:

  • As nature intended aka Just play the normal game! I’ve put the following down as ways to concentrate on the story and not be distracted by beating your opponent, but with 3 or more players, you might find the normal method of playing to be a good exercise in itself. The goal is to tell a good story after all!
  • Madlibs style: people play cards turnwise, passing the cards to the next player after they have told their tale,
  • Death by committee: cards are placed only after everyone has discussed and agreed on the card put down,
  • Roleplay: Each player chooses a character for themselves and play proceeds in the Madlibs style above. Every time a card is played, the player must construct the story so that  their character is involved in some way – as a witness, the cunning instigator or just acting in character.

I’ll walk through an example of the story play, just to show you what I mean. First a quick introduction:

I’ve picked out the ringleader of “Dark’s Den of Deformity”, Darius Dark himself:

Truth be told, Darius is a dreadful talent scout for the freakish and the deformed. In fact, he is the worst. His ‘den’ consists of such ill-chosen acts as a bearded man, a shy and bashful painted lady who refuses to show her tattoos, and a creepy skull-faced clown. He fails to understand why people aren’t as astounded as he is by his show. He cannot see that why a man who has a beard but cannot a moustache isn’t that amazing. He fails to grasp that not everyone has his childlike imagination, and are not satisfied just thinking about the infinite artistic, mysterious and inspiring possibilities of the tattoos on a woman who keeps herself covered from head to foot. He believes in the wondrousness of his family even if the rest of the world doesn’t

Business has been very bad for some time and many of the acts feel at their lowest ebb. Darius, ever the optimist (and he’d have to be with a show like his), is still striving for the big time, looking for that one lucky break that will get his family of freaks the renown they deserve.

Ironically, most who come to see the show only visit to find out if the show really is as comically bad as everyone says.

I played through a few cards, before finally killing him off:

They can be read as a very wordy epitaph, with a little embellishment:

Darius Dark, the sinister ringmaster,

Pursued by Poodles,

and Galled by Gangrene.

He was given a second chance

but he Stole from a Stiff in desperation.

Haunted by remorse, he ruined himself on liquor and rum.

He was killed in a bar-fight, after drinking the wrong person’s whiskey.

I’ve added a little bit of colour to the text, but I think you can see how this can be a useful exercise, whether it’s for a young student or just someone trying to switch creative gears.

Why Gloom?

Why not? It’s been written with storytelling in mind, dark and miserable storytelling but still, there is nothing special about the cards that means it cannot be done by some other means. Print a number of inspiring suggestions on small cards, written in the same format as the modifier and event cards and use those instead. The mini-moo cards look to be an interesting size for this sort of thing too. Why not make your own ‘Happy’ version!

For those who do not have the time, or don’t believe they have the ability to to the above, then Gloom might be an interesting set to begin with. If used with students, I’m sure that they will soon be writing their own cards and adding them to the mix 🙂

Gloom played for real

Wil Wheaton and friends played through a game of Gloom on an episode of Tabletop which is worth watching to get the feel for the game and the characters in it.

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