Storytelling cubes

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You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

There are three additional nine-cube sets available: actions (which I now own – pictured on left), fantasia and voyages (my next on the wish list). These have very different images on their faces (see the blue faces in the photo above) to reflect their theme. Plus there are five nine-cube sets based on particular pop cultural themes (Scooby Doo, Doctor Who, Batman, Moomin and Looney Tunes) and 15 three-cube sets that add additional images along specific themes (mythic, prehistoria, intergalactic, medieval and so on – see the store).**

(Sidebar: I plan to get more of these. Only the base set is available locally, and outside Toronto I haven’t seen any others. I may have to order them online unless someone can point me to a local source…)***

Each image in the base set can be treated as a noun, a verb or even an adjective/adverb in the right combination. They can be literal or metaphorical symbols (that creepy shadow could be a monster or being scared and the demon might be a nightmare). Actions can be past, present or future. No messy punctuation, spelling or syntax to worry about. Obviously good for painless language development.

The action set is more focused on verbs and activity, although some might be considered gerunds (calling as a noun instead of a verb, for example). there’s some flexibility is meaning too – for example in the picture above, rightmost die on the top row -the androgynous character could be asking a question, holding a conversation, voting or swearing an oath. The butterfly and net, lower row, could be a metaphor for biology, entomology, or collecting in general. The meaning contextually variable: up to the storyteller at the moment. Most are obvious, but a few are ambiguous, allowing a wider range of interpretation.

So far so good. I like the idea of both invoking the imagination and procedurally creating stories as well as teaching the structure of narrative. But how well do the cubes work for actual storytelling? Let’s roll them and find out. Base set first:


This was what I rolled with the base set. I tried to put the cubes into some sort of order that reflected a possible story line. Not as easy as it seems, or maybe it’s not as easy for old farts than for kids. Imagination can fossilize along with joints and arteries. Here goes…

Imprisoned in a castle, the character has an idea he wants to be free. Escapes from his jailer – an old man sleeping on the job. He tries to cross a bridge to freedom but is turned back by a locked gate. Speaks with a magical fish in the moat who tells him he needs to find a key (quest). Searches in the castle’s buildings. Finds key to escape. The end.

Alright, it’s a bit thin and no one’s offering me movie rights yet. Yet it more or less fits into the “quest” theme in Booker’s Seven Basic Plots list, but it would need a lot of fleshing out to make it into an actual story. But perhaps not a whole lot more. The basic Pixar formula for story is very simple:

Once upon a time there was ___.
Every day, ___.
One day ___.
Because of that, ___.
Because of that, ___.
Until finally ___.

Okay that’s not an official formula. It’s taken from a series of tweets by Pixar story artist Emma Coats. But it captures the simplicity of a certain style of story that meshes well with the story cubes – the sort of story that teaches connections, logical thinking and consequences (hmmm. Maybe I should design a set of political cubes for our incoming council… simplify the processes for them. But it might not work: we know at least half of the incoming lot don’t read… and certainly lack imagination).

You are welcome to arrange these images in any order to develop your own story, however (that could be a fourth game: create a new story from the same faces arranged differently). Like this version of the same faces:

Re-arranged cubes

So now we have… a magical fish lives in a moat that surrounds a castle. He wants to go see the world, but the river has a gate that is locked. He speaks to an old man who is nearby and the old man has an idea. He goes to the town where he purchases a key that can open the gate. the fish escapes and goes free. The old man waves goodbye. Still in the quest theme, though, but a change in protagonist.

So let’s roll in the action cubes (in blue, below) and rearrange the order of the previous set a bit:

With action cubes
That extra set certainly opens up a lot of possibilities. I’ve arranged the cubes according to one story line that came to me – a mysterious letter, secrets in the library, locks and forbidden passages, hidden keys, an old, wise man to provide clues, a talking fish and the key to escape. You can probably figure the rest out.

The action cubes also introduce interaction. Although few actually show more than one person, the others can be implied or inferred. Like the image of someone calling out – calling out to whom? And the instructions with the action cubes suggest new games – using favourite movies as the theme, or identifying the opposite action with a face (like crying for laughing).

There are no murders or crime scenes on the faces, no adultery or drunkenness, no car chases or shootouts, no war, no religion, no corrupt politicians or elitist CEOs, no furry-headed Donald Trumps squashing civil rights. I don’t see much that looks like love, courtship, family, friendship, play or even pets in the base set. But those things might come out in the telling. And I have to consider the cubes were designed first for kids, and not for grumpy seniors who like to watch B-films and Star Wars re-runs.

The dice are admittedly tame. You won’t come up with Apocalypse Now, or Maltese Falcon or Exorcist with them. Not even Fiddler on the Roof or Star Wars. Maybe a more adult version could be produced to satisfy those of us who want to expand into broader themes. And to use them for adult language development (if I want to teach, say, English to adults, I won’t get as far with magical fishes and castles as I might with images of cars, shopping carts, wine glasses and dogs).

Still, it’s a game. Educational, instructive, and fun, but still a game. It is difficult if not impossible to have enough dice and images to develop a real literary plot from such a device. Even the massively complex Plotto cannot contain all of the plots, themes, interactions and conflicts in most modern novels. Nor can the even larger “Motif-index of folk-literature : a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends” you can explore here thanks to the University of Alberta (great resource, by the way!)

But the strength here lies in how these simple dice get the creative juices flowing; that alone is modestly addictive and entertaining. And for that I expect to play with them for a bit longer. And to get some more sets to expand my fun.

If you have children or grandchildren, I highly recommend a set of Rory’s Story Cubes as one of the stocking stuffers this Christmas.

~~~~~

* Unlike normal dice where each die is identical to every other die, Story Cubes have unique faces. When rolling normal dice, you can get duplicates – more than one two, for example. It is entirely possible (although highly improbable) to roll nine twos with nine dice. But in Story Cubes, the faces are not replicated on any other die. So you will never see, for example, this image

and this image

rolled together in the same ‘story’ because both are different faces of the same die (unless, of course, you buy more than one set… tempting, tempting…). The image that starts this footnote shows the six faces of just one die – none of which will appear together in any combination. So as for unique combinations, I suspect the proper equation lies in factorials: 14!/(9!*5!) based on this explanation, which formula comes out to 2,002 combinations for the base set of nine. But I can’t say for certain (my math skills are pretty rusty) and would be gratified if a mathematician could explain the errors in my reasoning.

** A suggestion to the company would be to sell a set of blank dice with printable (and removable) labels cut to fit on the dice faces. That way owners could make their own cubes and put family faces on them. Users could re-order labels from Rory’s or even buy and cut their own from office supply stores. Mixed with the standard cubes you’d have personalized storytelling!

*** There is an app for Rory’s Story Cubes on the iTunes store. While it looks well made, I don’t recommend it because it just encourages more screen time and the gods know we don’t need more of that in our world.  We need quite the opposite, actually. The dice are tactile, giving them a sense of worth that apps lack. Plus the dice allow easy group participation where an app is more solitary or at best inconvenient for group sharing. The dice are real objects that can be given away, passed down to others, lasting years if not centuries – while any app is merely transitory.

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