So, I got in on the alpha test of Storium recently. For those of you who don’t know about it yet, it’s Protagonist Labs’…well, I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s an innovative new use of technology to write stories together. It’s got obvious ties to RPGs–especially to story games–and to play by mail or by post, and yet it feels very different from both. Since it’s a largely new animal, it’s been fascinating to watch the community work out the social codes for expected game play and to see how various narrators use the software to encourage storytelling.

A brief explanation of the product: in Storium, you participate in telling a story online with a group of people. In each “chapter” (or location/encounter set,) players use cards to overcome challenges, narrating what those cards mean in terms of your character and in the context of the challenge and in the story as a whole. In the game I narrate (or GM,) my characters are ghost hunting in nineteenth century England. I might play a challenge for my players like OVERCOME YOUR FEAR, to which I assign a certain number of points. The points represent the number of cards my players must give up in order to finish the challenge and move the story along. My players might play strong or weak cards (strong being assets like NERVES OF STEEL or weak being things like DESPERATELY NEEDS TO BE LIKED.) Then they must narrate how that particular set of cards played relates to the challenge. Did the character who needed to be liked miss the ghost entirely because he was grandstanding for one of his peers? Did the player who had nerves of steel walk right up and try to grab the ghost, believing it to be a fake? Ultimately, players write a story together move by move, challenge by challenge. There are quite a handful of other mechanics, but those are the basics. For the curious, cards are designed to go along with the game world and locations you are using; Storium has many different sets of worlds/cards already made, but you can also make your own quite easily.

Right now, I enjoy seeing how players navigate the unspoken social codes around gaming that we take for granted in many other arenas. For instance, in 90% of RPGs, players take turns for their character and expect the GM/ST to take turns for the NPCs. Players ask if they can manipulate the environment and wait for the GM to respond and to tell them what happened; they don’t tend to narrate those outcomes for themselves. In a Storium game, though, play would bog down endlessly if everyone waited for confirmation of every manipulation, so players must negotiate with their group to figure out what they can control and how much control they have. How much does a particular storyteller allow a player to manipulate and speak for an NPC? How much damage or change can a player do to the environment? Can a player put other players in danger, and to what extent can a player do that before s/he needs to stop and let the player in danger respond? Right now, there’s no socially accepted, unspoken answer to these questions. Each group is working it out on their own. In my own group, I’ve decided to allow players to manipulate my NPCs and the environment as much as they see fit, but never to speak for or act for another player. Interestingly, the player I have who has done RPGs the least is the most comfortable taking bold moves, probably because he doesn’t feel like he should wait for a GM to respond first. In another game in which I’m a participant that is more explicitly taken from an RPG, everyone has chosen the classic “I take my move, I wait for the GM to cue me” setup; it works well, too, which just goes to show the system’s ability to embrace¬† different play styles.

Eventually, there will no doubt be Storium norms that lead players to expect a particular amount of autonomous player/world interaction, but for now, it’s fascinating to see how groups hash this out together. Do they talk about it explicitly? Do they let players figure it out on their own and correctly gently with the REQUEST REVISIONS button when a player oversteps the mark? Having started playing slightly before I started narrating my own game, I recognized my own anxiety about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do; I therefore tried to spell out my own expectations for my players. Yet a lot of the norming for my group came when a player started creating his own stuff–a demon boy, a dog whistle–and instead of reacting negatively, I added in the content and ran with it, confirming that, at least for me, this behavior was encouraged.

Most of us are having our first experiences with Storium right now, so these early interactions will have a lot of impact on the ultimate way the game is played. I’ve always thought that you tend to look for games that reinforce (or that do the opposite of) your early experiences in gaming. Those first RPGs you played set the tone for “this is what an RPG [or this system] is.” You may have come around to having a burning desire to collect every indie on the market to try out wacky systems, but on some level, the early games you play train you about how to “be” a player. How aggressive do you expect to be at the table? How much autonomy do you believe your character has? How often should you roll dice, and how often should you just try to think/RP your way out of situations? I have trained my Storium ‘table’ of players to expect a high degree of control over our story because I think the wait time between moves is the beauty of the system. If I’m sitting face-to-face with players at a table and a player creates his own new NPC, I may not have any ideas on the spot about how to run him or how he fits into the bigger story; with Storium, I have plenty of time to think about how he weaves into the bigger fabric of the tale. Encouraging intricate player input thus seems like a big win for this system. However, that means I send out a table of players into the Storium world who would expect (and, I hope, want) that degree of player autonomy in other games, and who may include it in their own.

The other thing that strikes me as interesting about this moment is the extent to which it mirrors the development of any new medium. In the early days of film, many directors simply sat a camera on the floor in front of a stage and recorded plays. That’s what made their audiences comfortable, as moviegoers already knew what to expect from the theater. As moviegoers got more used to the concept of film as its own medium, directors moved away from the restrictions of the stage and started playing with camera movement, lighting, and other special effects, and finally started writing narratives that could never have worked on stage. I suspect the same will happen with Storium. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of ports of RPGs; my game and one of the ones in which I’m participating are ports of World of Darkness games on some level, partly because it’s an RPG system that lends itself to this product well. Eventually, though, I suspect we’ll see a move away from seeing Storium as a new way to play RPGs and towards seeing it as a way to play an entirely new type of game. I very much look forward to seeing that journey and to seeing what types of games emerge as this medium comes into its own.

In its alpha build, Storium is one of the most stable and most polished web products I’ve seen in a long time. We have no word about how they mean to monetize participation, but its Kickstarter campaign opens soon. I know I’ll be throwing a good chunk of money behind it, partly because I am so delighted that someone has offered us up this kind of new experience. It’s a way to bring gaming/storytelling to groups of people who cannot meet together face to face, but it’s also a way to ask people to think differently about the stories they tell as they game. I wish the Protagonist Labs crew the best as they go into the next stage of development, and I hope to see the majority of you on Storium before the year is out!