Storium Basics: Challenges and Cards

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on July 6th, 2017.

Continuing my Storium Basics series, today we’ll be taking a look at the basic gameplay mechanics of the Storium system.

Storium is played, primarily, by making moves that lay cards onto challenges. These cards tell the story, move by move, of what happens during the challenge.

When you play a card, write a move explaining what your character does, and how those actions impact the challenge.

The effect depends on the card you played. Strength cards improve the situation covered by the challenge. Weakness cards make it worse. Neutral cards, which might be subplots, assets, or goals, push it closer to conclusion without making things feel better or worse.

To think of it from another angle: Challenges have Strong outcomes and Weak outcomes. A Strength card pushes the challenge closer to the Strong outcome, and a Weakness card pushes it closer to the Weak outcome. A Neutral card pushes it closer to a conclusion – a Neutral card doesn’t change the direction or push it closer to either outcome, but it does shorten the amount of moves left in the challenge. Thus, a Neutral card might feel good if the challenge is trending Strong or bad if the challenge is trending Weak, as you show things continuing along the lines they have been so far.

It is a very good idea, actually, to check the possible outcomes before you play any moves on a challenge. You can do this simply by clicking on the challenge title / challenge card – this will also show some descriptive text, which can help guide your writing as well. The outcomes tell you what the possible range of results of a challenge are, and where you should be focusing your writing. Knowing them in advance gives you something to work towards. You know that if you play a Strength card, you should be writing something that pulls things closer to the Strong outcome, and if you play a Weakness, you should be writing something that pulls things closer to a Weak outcome. This gives the scene more of a feel of a full story, rather than a bunch of independent moves.

When you lay a card, be sure to involve that card in your move—if you play a Strength card labeled “Agile,” for instance, your move should be based on your agility in some way, showing how it helps. If you play a Weakness card labeled “Cowardly,” your cowardice or tendency to be overcautious should affect things and make them worse somehow. And if you play your subplot, it’s a good time to get a little introspective and show how that subplot is driving you to do what you do, or how the events of the game have changed your view of your subplot.

Note that when you’re starting out in a game, it’s usually easier to play your first move as either a Strength or a Weakness. Subplots are great cards (my favorite type, in fact), but they can be hard to use for your very first move.

Because you know what impact you’re having on the challenge when you lay your card, you should go ahead and write that impact. Don’t feel that you need to keep to just your actions—write how you changed things.

A lot of narrative power rests with the players here. Don’t worry if you don’t quite get it right away—it can take some time to learn the right balance, especially if you’re used to a tabletop or MUX method where someone other than you determines your results.

There are limits: until all pips on the challenge are filled, neither of the final results of the challenge should happen. For example, let’s assume that the following two challenges exist:

  • Drive Back the Assault!
    • Strong: You and the other defenders solidly repel the enemy army, driving them away from the town with a minimum of damage or casualties. The battle isn’t over and the bandit lord still lives, but the town has some breathing room.
    • Weak: You drive back the bulk of the army to give the village some breathing room, though the bandit lord still lives. However, several of the bandits break through the defenses and make it into the village proper. There, they light several more fires and snatch whatever limited wealth the villagers have.
  • Rescue the Villagers!
    • Strong: You manage to get most civilians – including the mayor – further into the village, to relative safety, without any of them getting notably hurt.
    • Weak: You get most of the civilians to safety, but a few – including the mayor – are killed either by the bandits or by being trapped among fires started in the midst of the battle.

Until “Drive Back the Assault!” is finished, you shouldn’t get the enemy army totally clear of the village, and no bandits should get into the village proper.

Likewise, until “Rescue the Villagers!” is finished, you shouldn’t state that all the civilians are free of danger, and you shouldn’t state that any significant number the civilians have been killed, especially not the mayor.

However, while playing on “Drive Back the Assault!” you might kill some of the bandits on any card play, organize some villagers into a strong defensive line, take down an enemy champion, slip up and let some bandits surround you, get knocked aside and let the bandits get closer…any of these things, and more, are within the bounds of the challenge.

And on “Rescue the Civilians!” you might certainly get some civilians free, kill a bandit or two threatening them, rescue some from a burning building, be unable to find a way past some threatening bandits or into a burning building, or otherwise show the situation developing.

It’s a balancing act—the trick is to show development but leave the final conclusion for the last card. Be guided by your own card play as well, of course, and by which Outcome the challenge is headed towards.

When you play the last card on a challenge, you need to write the conclusion. You’ll do that based on the result the game displays. Strong or Weak results are written totally by the player.

Take a look at the outcomes above – they state, in low detail, what happens when those challenges conclude Strong or Weak. If you finish the challenge Strong or Weak, the applicable outcome text will show, and you should use it to guide your writing.

For example, if you play the last card on “Rescue the Villagers!” and it finishes Strong, then by the end of your move, it should be clear that most civilians, including the mayor, are in relative safety further into the village and away from the bandit threat, and none are notably injured. How that happens, though, is up to you!

Remember: The challenge outcomes are important. Don’t just stick them in at the end of your move – if you’re writing the final move of a challenge, involve the outcomes in your move. Make them a central element of that move’s story.

An Uncertain result – which happens if there’s an even number of Strength and Weakness cards played or if none are played – is written by the narrator. If that comes up, you’ll leave the final results open and the narrator will write something for them. I generally advise that in those cases, you pretend you’re writing the second-to-last move of the challenge rather than the last.

Though there are only 3 result types—Strong, Weak, and Uncertain—Storium does track the actual number of each card type played, and if more cards of, say, the Strength type are played, it will take more Weakness cards to bring it back to neutral—or vice-versa. In Storium, every card play does matter, even if the results only fall into three basic fields.

And, of course, the scene can feel very different depending on the card play flow. If the group plays 3 Strength cards followed by 4 Weakness cards, the scene will read differently than if it played 1 Strength, 2 Weaknesses, 2 Strengths, and 2 Weaknesses, or some other combination—even though the final result is Weak either way. The first way will feel like a situation that was promising at first and took a drastic disastrous turn from which it never recovered, while the second way will feel like it went back and forth.

In Storium, by default, you can play up to three cards on a single move, and up to three cards per overall scene. This can vary by game based on settings the narrator chooses, but bear it in mind – if you blow all your card plays on a single challenge, you will have a major impact on that challenge…but no impact on the rest of the scene. Sometimes that’s entirely right and proper, mind! It’s just something to be aware of.

Some narrators will set up special rules regarding card plays – for instance, some narrators want players to generally only play one card at a time. If your narrator has set up rules for how to play cards, be sure to follow them, as they are part of how the narrator sets up the feeling and tone of the game.

For more information on playing on a challenge, see…well, most of the articles I’ve written. But especially these ones: