If you’re on Twitter, Kickstarter or probably every other site online, you’ve probably heard about Storium – it made a big crowdfunding splash back in April/May, raising like a quarter of a million dollars and drawing in an astounding number of writers, artists and game designers to create content.
If you somehow managed to miss all of that… well. Storium is an online storytelling game, as the above logo indicates – although it’s one where ‘game’ plays a very distant second fiddle to ‘storytelling’. My favorite annotated bibliography maker Jebiah Sommer describes it as primarily a platform for collaborative writing, where contributors use prompts to guide their efforts and work towards building a coherent story. There are RPG-like elements in there, such as one contributor being a ‘Narrator’ that directs the group effort and the prompts being measured out using virtual cards, but they’re pretty light, and a like-minded group could probably ignore all that if desired and just use the clean, intuitive online platform to write-jam-party together.
I’ve been a Storium playtester since last year, through the Alpha test (which was quite different) and the Beta into what is now the… I think it’s the open Beta? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve been using it for a while, and currently have two games/stories on the hop – Zero Zero One, a cyberpunk story about memory husking and treacherous corporations, and Ravenloft Redux, an experiment in turning a old location-based D&D adventure into a more narrative experience. And those games are a lot of fun; they don’t replace roleplaying for me, but they’re an enjoyable aside.
Enjoyable and educational. Because Storium is also a concrete demonstration of some key principles of writing, and I’d like to look now at five things using it has borne home for me.
Plot is character
In Storium, every player (other than the Narrator) controls a single character, designed once the stage has been set and the context/setting/genre decided. Characters are sketched lightly using prompt cards – a central concept with Strengths, Weaknesses and Suplots attached to it. Backgrounds can be added/written to your heart’s content, but aren’t necessary. Once play starts, the Narrator sets a scene with a situation or event and then the players write their characters’ actions and responses, with (some) freedom to also write the way the scene changes as a result. Players write back-and-forth, possibly with occasional extra inputs from the Narrator, until things are resolved and the scene ends.
The key point here is that every scene revolves around these characters – what they feel, what they say and (especially) what they do. If you set up a scene and no-one acts, then nothing happens – all you have is a dead screen. There’s no option for a scene without characters – I mean, you can write it, but only by ignoring all the structure that’s set-up. Importantly, Narrators don’t have characters (well, not in the same way) and can’t write a scene that just involves other people doing stuff – they have to open it up and let the main characters drive the story.
The stuff around characters matters too
Most of Storium’s stretch goals were about bringing in well-known creators to make worlds – sets of prompt cards and the story concepts attached to them – and Narrators can create their own from scratch as well. In addition to their base cards, characters can pick up Goals and Assets to help define them, while Narrators have sets of Place, Character and Obstacle cards. (The full Storium release, due later in the year, also promises other non-card world material, such as opening scenes, setting data dumps and so on.) As play progresses, more of these cards come into play to sketch out the world and reflect the story.
Call it a world, a setting, a context – stories have to happen somewhere, not against a blank backdrop. Characters may drive the story, but the story is better if they drive through interesting scenery . A bland set of setting elements don’t have to damage a story – you can do a lot with stock elements, especially if you tweak them here and there – but a rich, vivid set gives it real colour and flavour. Maybe too much flavour – you have to be careful not to overload things and pull the spotlight off the characters. (Storium gets the balance pretty right, but I do wonder how much fun some of these heavily-defined worlds will be to work with.) Keep the focus on the character, but make sure what’s outside the spotlight throws up fascinating shadows.
Conflict drives story
Storium players have their characters and associated cards, so what does the Narrator have? She has Challenges – the Character and Obstacle cards, each of which is given a numerical rating when put into play. That number is the amount of player cards that have to be played on that challenge before it’s met in some way. Scenes end when all the challenges are met – and once players write their moves to demonstrate how those elements of the character impact the challenge. With limits on how many and what types of cards can be played by each character in each scene, there are lots of ways in which challenges can be met and scenes can unfold.
You can pitch a scene where characters just talk to each other, and for some people I’m sure that’s fun – but nothing actually happens until the main characters rise to meet conflicts, either pitting themselves against other characters or against situational dangers and problems. Conflicts bring the drama, the tension, the uncertainty – even if it’s uncertainty about how characters will overcome them (and the price they pay in doing so) rather than whether they overcome them. A story without conflict is a squashed doughnut, edible but unappetising – or possibly an inappropriate metaphor that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, they suck. Don’t write them.
Failure is as interesting as success
Depending on the cards that are played on it, every challenge has a Strong, Weak or Neutral outcome – and players, not the Narrator, write the Strong and Weak outcomes. The player of the last card gets to decide how their character has met the challenge and what that means – whether they get what they want or not and how that impacts the rest of the scene, the next challenge and the rest of the characters. Narrators write neutral outcomes, which tend to maintain the status quo or have a smaller, more ambiguous impact on the story – they’re serviceable, but they’re not as much fun as writing it yourself.
The single smartest thing in Storium may be the way challenges are handled. Letting players write both good and bad outcomes is inspired – because the story remains focused on them, even if things aren’t going their way. Narrators get to shape this to an extent by suggesting strong/weak outcomes for each challenge card – and the best pre-written ones all give broad suggestions, with weak/failure outcomes that keep the story going but introduce complications, rather than grinding things to a halt. It’s glorious stuff; it means that failures are fascinating, maybe even more so than successes, and both are much more engaging than neutral coasting.
Pacing is hard
How many challenges should you use in a scene? Is one 6-point challenge easier or harder than two 3-point challenges? Is it better to conserve your Strengths or to alternate them with Weaknesses? How often should the Narrator hand out Asset and Goal cards? Are Asset and Goal cards worth playing? These are the questions that really affect the pace and flow of play/story, and Storium doesn’t give a lot of guidance on the best way to answer them – so pacing is a really tricky beast, especially on a platform where players might go days or weeks between moves. It’s the roughest part of the product, and I hope they give more clarity once the full release goes live.
Just as every Storium game is its own beast and needs its own unique practices to keep things interesting and moving, so does your writing. Your pacing and flow issues might not relate to card play, but they’re still there and they’ll probably never go away. You just gotta try different things until you find something that works – and it might work differently in the next project.
Well, I wrote a lot more on that topic that I’d planned. That either means it’s super interesting or that I get carried away – you decide.
Anyway, in summary: Storium’s pretty cool. And like any platform that you can use for telling stories, there are things that are unique to it and things that might be applicable elsewhere. If you get a chance, dive in and give it a try; it’s fun in and of itself, and you might learn something. Or you might not. I mean, pulling apart the progress of a Storium game won’t fix your novel – but fuck it, try it, it probably can’t hurt.