Origin Story

Back in the summer of 2014, we were working on a startup called MuseForMe. The idea was to help hobbyist writers find motivation and build good writing habits. We did a lot of research about gamification, behavior change techniques, and the roots of motivation.
After a period of market research and design, we decided not to continue the project for various reasons.
Still, the domain of writers and stories stayed in our minds, and we really enjoyed working together, so during one of our long talks we came up with an idea for a card game about storytelling.

It started out as an idea for a game for writers who want to practice building plot arcs and improvising within a limited structure, and we were considering using a subset of the steps in "The Hero's Journey" as the framework for the game.
The Hero's Journey is a well known structure for writing, based on a book by Joseph Campbell called "The Hero With A Thousand Faces", and famously used by George Lucas in the Star Wars story.

The players would tell parts of the story in turns, for a specific number of rounds, each time focusing on a step of the journey. Each step would also have a mad-lib form where you would fill in the blanks with appropriate cards.
For instance, one of the steps is "Refusal of the Call". In this step whoever was established as the hero of the story refuses a certain call to action, be it a mission they refuse to accept, or a person they are avoiding (the best example that comes to my mind is Bilbo in The Hobbit).
Perhaps the mad-lib would be "<HERO> meets <MENTOR> in <LOCATION> and tells them they must decline because of <REASON>". Or something to that effect.

We thought such a game would be a really fun writing exercise for groups of writers, and we still think so, but after some discussion we decided to pivot the design - and make a game that would appeal to a larger audience of board and card game players. We realized it was probably too rigid to use the Hero's Journey structure. It was also very complex to design, keeping in mind all the different card types that were needed for the mad-libs and the need to keep all parts of the story thematically connected.
So we made some changes, decided to make the game simpler and more accessible, with a light-hearted feel. We kept the card choosing mechanic and the rotating role of Storyteller, but not much else. This is an important skill in game design and in most other fields of creative work - ruthlessly throwing away things that don't work. And we did that a few more times over the course of the project, each time (hopefully) improving the game.

For instance, another cool idea we had in the original discussions was a different method for the players to choose cards. Instead of each player choosing secretly and placing their card face down, we thought it would be interesting if the players placed cards face up, and one after the other, starting from the person sitting closest to the Storyteller. Why? Well, with this mechanic players know what the players before them played and can decide to strategically play cards that fit in well with the existing ones, or to contradict them with something they think the Storyteller would prefer. The first player would have no information, and the last player would have the most information, but the first player would also have an advantage in "setting the tone".
We really loved this idea back then, though in hindsight I'm not sure our assumptions about its value were correct. Anyhow, we decided to kill that darling too, because we soon realized it would pose some problems. One problem was keeping the identity of whoever played each card secret from the Storyteller (a blindfold was briefly considered). Another problem was the extra time for each person to think what they want to play considering the existing information (instead of the players all doing their thinking and choosing simultaneously).

With the new version of the rules, we created a prototype using the cards from Once Upon A Time as our story cards. This first playtest was one of the most exciting moments in the process of making Fireside Tales. It was a great feeling, seeing people laugh and enjoy themselves while playing our game.
We learned that there were some parts that needed to be improved, and that we had to come up with a list of cards that would better fit this game than the fairy tale themed "Once" cards. Playtesting early in the process (when we didn't have our own cards yet) helped us focus on improving the mechanics of the game, and to find out early what works and what doesn't. So if you're working on your own game - that is the single best advice we can give you: test early, test often.
During that playtest, we also learned that giving the story a genre at the start of the game could create an interesting and funny story, especially when the genre and the cards don't seem like a natural fit (like Science Fiction and fantasy cards), something that informed the content of our cards later on.

All along the way we've had to look at things critically and gather whatever data we could from playtesting. It was a great learning experience to go through this process. Frustrating at times, but rewarding at others, and it's great to be here at the end of the road.

Nataly and Michael.