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I’ve used Storium for awhile now, playing in a handful of games and narrating a couple. While Storium norms are still in their early stages, I’d like to offer some preliminary ideas about what’s worked for me. Naturally, YMMV. After all, the background of player groups on Storium vary wildly; some come from RPG backgrounds, while others come from PbP games and still others from fanfic writing. Those player groups have different styles which work for them. That being said, though, here are some things that make sense to me.

Define the Level of Player Autonomy Before You Begin

Some Storium games are more collaborative than others. In two of the games in which I play, the narrators describe the setting and let us do whatever we please, creating situations within those spaces as we see fit. Those games are a little like free-form LARPs. In another game, the narrator expects players to take moves and wait for feedback about what the NPCs do and how the world changes in response; she’s got a scripted game and we play to find out what she’s written, much like a tabletop RPG. My own Warhammer game runs somewhere in the middle: I have a scripted idea of what’s happening on the largest level, and I tend to start scenes with strong direction from NPCs. Yet I have invited my players to speak for NPCs, add events, and complicate scenes as they see fit.

Not all narrators are comfortable with the same level of player input, and the same goes for players. Advertising your expectations clearly and reinforcing those expectations early on makes for better game play, as everyone knows what types of moves are expected and allowed. Can players speak for NPCs? Can players drastically change the plotline? Can they solve problems with magic or other mechanics you haven’t explicitly introduced?

Where you fall on this scale will drastically change how you approach planning for and responding to your game. If you’re going to ask players to wait for your feedback, you’ll need to check your account and respond often so that players aren’t sitting and waiting on you to tell them what an NPC thinks or how a magic spell worked. You’ll also have to have a clear sense of what’s happening in your world. If, on the other hand, you mean to allow players to alter the course of events and speak for NPCs, you’ll need to roll with the punches and be willing to change your story–perhaps drastically–at the drop of a hat, perhaps re-envisioning your main characters through the lens of the players’ understanding of them.

Personally, I’ve had a great time rolling with the punches. The beauty of Storium is that you don’t have to respond right away like you do in a tabletop game; I can see what my players have said, mull it over for awhile, and come back to them with something that suits them. At one point, for instance, my players were infiltrating a cult of Nurgle. In the Commentary section, one of my players made a crack about wanting “balloons” in the scene. I had originally planned a fairly straightforward cult, but the balloons idea resonated with me, and I crafted a whole scene around a Nurglish birthday party ritual. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a game, and it was great to have the opportunity to respond to a player idea (even if it was just a jest!)

Use the Commentary Section

As a narrator, I’ve found the commentary section invaluable. It’s the best tool you have for explaining the expectations you have about player behavior in a given scene, about a piece of lore, or about how you want players to use the mechanics. If you’re a player, it’s a great place to ask questions.

In my Warhammer game, there’s one NPC I don’t want the players to speak for; he’s been in a couple of my Warhammer games, and I have a very clear sense of his character. Plus, he’s incredibly powerful, and putting his power in the hands of my players might unbalance the game. So what did I do? I used the comments at the first mention of his name to let them know that I didn’t want them to speak for this particular NPC. I reminded them when I introduced the next NPC that they could speak for him–just to reinforce the overriding expectation in my game–but the Commentary gave me a great place to underscore the one exception that proved the rule.

In another game in which I play, my narrator had a dangerous NPC lock us in a room after storming out. A challenge card for her character remained, though. I wanted to know if he was envisioning the challenge associated with that NPC as being “gone” since she wasn’t in the room, or whether I could still play cards on her challenge and count those cards as representing our making a plan to overcome her when she came back. The Commentary gave me the perfect space to ask about his understanding of the rules and let us discuss it before I made my move.

Give Players a Focus

If everyone in the group has a strong LARP background, a clear focus might not matter, as players can entertain themselves through RPing with one another. In most groups, though, games tend to grind to a halt when players aren’t sure what to do, and challenge cards don’t always give quite enough direction. In your main narration, keep the tension high. Give your players a problem to solve or an impending threat to overcome. Make it clear, present, and obvious. Is that thing about to explode? Is someone ill? Are guards on the way? Is there a monster outside? Books don’t quite work like this–not every scene is high-tension. But writing games often should work this way, just to give players a sense of urgency about their moves.

If you want a pure RP or planning scene, first, use the Commentary to make sure the players know your plan. Second, give them a good backdrop for their RP. Add in some entertaining scenery, an animal or child, or a shiny object. If the conversation flags, the players can pick up on the background cues to keep things moving. Use those props to give information about your game world. If you want to give hints about what’s to come without having an NPC tell the players too much, put it in the scenery and let the players discover it. Just don’t cover the important detail with so much verbiage that they miss it!

Use the Mechanics Only When They Suit

Currently, there are some odd things about Storium mechanics. For instance, settings can never be challenges, but NPCs are always challenges. Roll with these punches, too, and only use challenges when there’s really a challenge to overcome. Generally speaking, I introduce the NPCs and setting (usually at the end of the previous scene) and let things heat up before I throw out a challenge card to open the next scene. That gives me a chance to know where the players want to direct their attention. If the players enter the catacombs and ask questions of the head cult member, that’s a cue to me to throw out an NPC challenge that relates to him. If, on the other hand, they enter the catacombs and immediately take interest in the bodies buried there, that’s an obstacle challenge that represents their investigation, and I might never use an NPC card for that cult leader at all.

For me, NPC challenges tend to represent persuading or incapacitating. Obstacles represent anything else.

Define Outcomes Creatively

It’s tempting to give your challenges yes/no outcomes: if the challenge is completed successfully, you kill the monster; if not, you don’t. It doesn’t have to be that simple, though. First, you might want to give your players more autonomy. What if they want to know something about the monster that they can’t find out if they chop off its head? You might have a successful outcome be “if the challenge is completed successfully, you kill OR incapacitate the monster.” Now they can choose. I use many EITHER/OR outcomes in my challenges to give players choice.

At other times, you might offer players degrees of the same choice. Right now, there’s an NPC in one of my scenes that I don’t want killed. He’s being a pain in my players’ asses, but I just don’t want them to kill him. Still, they should have the chance to do something to take his questionable behavior down a notch. My outcomes for his NPC challenge look something like this: SUCCESSFUL: you quiet him down and keep him happy. UNSUCCESSFUL: he’s still here, but he’s freaking out and will be less easy to control in the future. There’s still a choice about how much effort they want to put into making this NPC calm, but the outcomes aren’t quite as drastic as dead/alive.

Finally, think about uncertain outcomes. When players hit an uncertain outcome, I tend to think of it as a chance to give information without moving the story substantively forward or backward. Let’s say the players have a challenge to climb a mountain that looks unstable; their outcome on that challenge winds up uncertain. I might tell them that they think they could do it successfully with rope (which they don’t have,) adding a further complication to find rope. Or I might tell them that it looks so unstable that they wouldn’t climb it until the rain stops, then give them a challenge relating to killing time or keeping dry until the rain stopped if they wanted to give the challenge another shot. For NPC outcomes, it’s a bit easier: they don’t impress or upset the NPC, but the NPC tells them something they didn’t yet know.

Reward Player Cues

Hopefully, you have players who read carefully and pick up on the little details in your prose. If so, reward them by returning the favor. If they describe a particularly interesting bit of their character’s clothing, let an NPC notice it–perhaps it’s how the guards recognize that PC later on. If they bring up a relationship with a character who isn’t a PC, bring that character in as an NPC and let them have some meaningful interaction with her. Not only will you keep your players engaged, but you’ll also encourage them to read your text more carefully and use your details creatively.

When playing, do the same. There’s nothing more rewarding to me as a narrator than seeing someone run with one of my little details and turn it into a bigger part of the game. Tell your narrator which parts of the game interest you; encourage her to give you more of that. That’s not to say that you should ignore the things your narrator has staked out as major plot events, but interacting with the details you find intriguing is a useful form of feedback for your narrator.

 

Hopefully these thoughts will help others as they hash through their own preferences and playstyles as both narrators and players. I’ve had a great time with Storium thus far, and I hope that others will keep telling awesome stories with it!

If you’re a member of Storium, stop by and visit my Warhammer game! Click here.

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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!

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