Unfortunately – a storytelling game

(Tim Sheppard posted the following description on the Storytell listserv)

This reminds me of a game I play with my course participants. It always works well, and since I talked at length recently about games without describing many, I’ll give the details.

There are two versions, Unfortunately and Unfortunately Fortunately. It’s important to start any group on the first one, for reasons I’ll give later.


The group stands in a circle, and can be anything up to about 20. Note that they can sit, but that always diminishes the energy and liveliness of mind. The game is to tell a story, contributing one sentence each, going round the circle. The story carries on, circulating many times, until the leader interrupts (out of turn, probably) and says The End. The group may sense that the story might have ended, but nobody will want to take responsibility for stopping. Often the story can be improved by carrying on, despite the story-situation seeming finished. The story can easily last for 10 – 15 minutes.

The vital instruction that gives the game its name, is that each person’s sentence MUST start with the word Unfortunately. This not only shapes the story, but provides a known beginning to start speaking with. This is a great aid, because it’s important that people be told that they must start speaking immediately their preceding neighbour stops and looks towards them – there must be no pondering, hesitating, censoring etc.

This is an improvisation game, and the faster and more unthinking, unjudging it goes, the better the creative flow – which necessitates urgent pressure on everyone to be fast. Otherwise everyone wants to agonise over the best and cleverest thing to say. The leader must be cruel to be kind, and keep rushing people to say the first thing that comes into their head, if they hesitate. That’s why knowing the first word to say gives each person a start, and momentum to carry on speaking without planning.

One further note, about impro stories in general – try and keep the action here and now. Talking about other times and places tends to sap the energy. However, I’ve never really had that problem with this particular game.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a very negative game, but remember that necessity is the mother of invention? It only takes a handful of goes before things can’t get much worse, but they must – so real ingenuity comes out and it’s very exciting. The story tends to be very comic and farcical, not depressing.

Here’s an example (the first sentence needn’t start with the word, since nothing has happened yet):

  • John was renewing his library book
  • Unfortunately he was at the wrong library
  • Unfortunately the librarian screamed at him for being stupid
  • Unfortunately everyone in the library looked round at him
  • Unfortunately John had a phobia about being looked at
  • Unfortunately he grew long hair and teeth and started trying to bite everyone
  • Unfortunately for John, everyone built a fortress out of books and hid inside
  • Unfortunately he found the back door
  • Unfortunately he was also afraid of the dark, and when he got inside he found there was no light
  • Unfortunately everyone started hitting him with books
  • Unfortunately they started with the Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Unfortunately the worms had nearly finished eating it, and the volumes burst into clouds of dust
  • Unfortunately the worms starting eating all the people
  • Unfortunately they found them delicious
  • Unfortunately this sent everyone mad
  • Unfortunately they swarmed out of the fortress and ate the librarians
  • Unfortunately they tasted horrible
  • Unfortunately the shop next door had run out of chocolate sauce
  • etc. …

The story is always driven towards the kinds of things people would often steer clear of, given the choice. But this is a vital fact about impro – people avoid monsters of all kinds in real life, and can be very skilled at doing the same in impro stories. But consider going to a film in which Godzilla grew up to be a cute friendly chap 2 feet high, who slept all day…. nothing would happen! We secretly love stories to immerse us in all the exciting things that we hope will never really happen to us. The unfortunately game generates these very well, yet each person has to find a way to carry on, so there are always implicit temporary solutions to each disaster.

Consider this:

  • All the people from the library have been eaten by John..
  • Unfortunately it was very cramped inside John and they were very uncomfortable
  • Unfortunately he had had 2 gallons of Pepsi for breakfast
  • Unfortunately they all drowned
  • Unfortunately Heaven had just filled up and they had to wait outside
  • Unfortunately some angels forced them to have harp lessons while they were waiting
  • Unfortunately they were all tone deaf
  • Unfortunately Paradise wasn’t such a nice place to be with a crowd of tone-deaf harpists making a racket outside…
  • etc..

There is never a situation from which you cannot carry on.

Unfortunately Fortunately

This variation needs greater skill, and is best done by those who have had experience with the previous game.

The game is just the same, but as the turn goes round the circle the first word alternates between Unfortunately, and Fortunately.

The danger is that people will fall into one of the most basic traps in impro – Canceling. This is where an interesting conflict or situation is introduced, and then people back away from it by simply denying it. E.g.

  • John was renewing his library book
  • Unfortunately he was at the wrong library
  • Fortunately the librarian didn’t mind
  • Unfortunately everyone in the library looked round at him
  • Fortunately John didn’t notice.

You can see that this kind of story gets very boring.

The way to play this game is to make the Fortunately contributions still push the action onwards.

People who have played the first version a couple of times can usually sense how this works, especially if the leader points out once that canceling leads to dead ends, but confronting problems and monsters always works. If you look at the first Unfortunately example above, you’ll see that the sentence where the fortress is built is actually a disguised Fortunately, got by switching perspectives.

I prefer the first game, which is always hysterically funny, but the second one, if played well, can be funny and delightful too.

Have fun. Tim

Thanks to Tim Sheppard for his kind permission to reproduce his article here

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