I imagine this short-form game might be in the running for the title of “Game Known By the Most Different Names.” I’ve been playing it for many years now as Should’ve Said so that’s my preferred nomenclature. It’s typically an audience favorite and provides a helpful mechanism for quickly making unfiltered choices or pitching Curve Balls under pressure.
My standard way for introducing this game is to note that someone is going to be gifted a “bell of second chances” which allows them to briefly rewind the scene to allow players a second crack at making a new choice – wouldn’t that be lovely in real life! This function is usually taken on by the host or a caller from an opposing team. A scene is then performed punctuated by bell rings that prompt players to quickly offer an alternative to their prior line of dialogue.
A scene begins in a pizza kitchen as Player A and B are hurriedly working their stations.
Player A: “Brad should have predicted this rush what with the big game tonight!”
Player B: (putting yet another pizza into the oven) “And yet, he’s conveniently not in the store tonight.”
Player A: (rolling out some more dough) “That’s soooo Brad.”
Player B: “Well, at least we don’t have him barking orders at us all night…”
The Caller rings the bell
Player B: (flirting) “Well, at least I’m here with you…”
Player A: (with an eye roll) “Alright now, we’ve talked about this…”
Player B: “I’m just saying I enjoy your company.”
Player A: “I know what you’re saying…”
The Caller rings the bell
Player A: “I recognize that look…”
The Caller rings the bell
Player A: “I know where Brad keeps his secret stash of liquor…”
In addition to encouraging players to take risks and embrace surprise, Should’ve Said can also help push characters to action and out of bland scenic patterns or ruts.
Traps and Tips
1.) Use the bells for good. The game certainly benefits from the appearance that the caller is torturing the players with their bells, but as I’ve discussed here strive to deploy the bell device in a way that builds and elevates the scene rather than rushes it towards improv oblivion. An attuned caller can mess with the players while also serving as a sidecoach, gently and playfully nudging players away from blocking or inactivity. Bells should ultimately heighten the joy and assist in the story telling efforts of the team. Specifically, don’t erase a strong scenic choice if you know leaving it in play will help the players in the long run.
2.) Pace the interruptions. Most games benefit from some iteration of the advice “play the scene first and the game second.” Ringing the bell multiple times in a row right as the scene begins doesn’t really let you build the dynamic later and may undermine a sound CROW and foundation. Give the players room to establish the central premise. Not every fun offer needs a bell: I’d argue the audience can quite enjoy seeing the caller weighing the option to bell and ultimately deciding to let the choice stand. It’s likely (and preferable) that you’ll be ringing the bell more at the end of the scene than the beginning so it’s helpful to begin a little sparsely.
3.) Embrace the change. As a player within the scene be cautious of wimping when you are cued to change your line. This often takes the form of essentially repeating your prior choice (so “I love you” becomes “I love you so much”) or paraphrasing it in such a way that the meaning doesn’t really change (so “I love you” become “You are just so perfect for me”). If I’m operating the bell, I will nearly always cue another change when I see these moves as they don’t really honor the contract of the game. Player A does this a little in the example above when they only mildly change “I know what you’re saying” to the quite similar “I recognize that look.” Using some parallel structure, on the other hand, can prove quite appealing: “I know what you’re saying” morphs two bells later into “I know where Brad keeps his secret stash of liquor…” Players can sometimes fall into a pattern of explicit opposites as well (“I love you” becomes “I hate you”). This honors the general spirit of the challenge but can feel uninspired or predictable if it becomes a crutch. In these instances a curve ball may be in order!
4.) Track the live choices. As the content of the scene can change radically from moment to moment, tracking current choices stands as a unique challenge of Should’ve Said. Avoid referencing or reincorporating offers that didn’t survive the gauntlet of the caller’s bell. This may happen inadvertently and can certainly add to the fun of the game, especially if the caller plays along and bells in a correction. While there are exceptions to every rule, generally trying to deliberately pull back prior dismissed choices feels a little against the spirit of the game although I must admit I’ve seen this work on occasion when it feels like a player is joyously fighting back with the caller and if everyone involved is on the same playful page.
5.) Risk. Ultimately, take the risk to just blurt out the next thing that is top of mind trusting that the caller will serve as a safety net if it’s needed. The clumsily constructed choice assembled in the furnace of the moment will often land more strongly than the carefully constructed and delayed response. Let the audience see and delight in the struggle. Offer that seemingly random curve ball that will require some clever justifying further down the road. On a related note, be cautious of appearing to “cue” a bell as a player within the scene. If it looks like you’re setting yourself up for the bell, then you’re stealing the caller’s agency in a way that undermines the inherent risk at play.
No matter what you may call this game, there’s a reason it is such a perennial short-form favorite: the audience experiences the unfiltered joy of immediate reactivity and creation as players scramble to assemble a coherent story from a muddle of possibilities.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming Game Library entry on New Choice which takes this same conceit up a level.
Connected Concept: Curve Ball