Storium Basics: Narration Basics

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on August 31st, 2017.

One last article of “Storium Basics,” here – this series has been focused on the player side, but I would be remiss in not addressing narration at least somewhat.

It’s hard to spell out absolute basics for narration, and hard to really learn it without diving in and doing some narration. Unfortunately, there haven’t really been good ways to get a beginner narrator game going the way we can for beginner players. But here, I’m going to try to give at least a general overview, and link to some articles that can develop things further. I highly encourage going through at least some of the articles I link to below, as there’s just no way to adequately explore narration in one or more “basics” articles.

In Storium, a narrator is the person who is in charge of setting up the story, creating scenes, defining the story’s focus, and in general guiding the story along. It is the narrator who creates the game’s starting concept and advertises it to players, who selects the characters who will enter the story, and who creates the scenes and their challenges and outcomes to give players writing cues and situations to address.

Over the course of the game, the bulk of a narrator’s time is going to be spent setting up scenes, and setting up challenges. Storium makes this pretty straightforward technically – it only takes a few clicks to set up a scene and start creating a challenge – but philosophically, it can be complex.

While scenes can be set up without challenges, the bulk of them in your average Storium game are going to focus on one or more challenges, and that’s honestly how I encourage beginning narrators to think through their scenes: Focus on what challenges the scene is going to be about, and then work on the actual scene text. It may not work for everyone, but for me, I found starting out that starting with the mechanics and moving to the story text made my story text more focused.

So, let’s start out with challenges.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with that term: “Challenge.” It puts Storium narrators in the mindset that these are things that are meant to “challenge” the players, in some sort of tactical sense. They aren’t.

A challenge, in Storium, is simply a focal part of the story – a situation which can turn one way or another, and lead the story in different directions. One of those directions (the Strong outcome) feels better for the main characters or for the overall tale, and one (the Weak outcome) feels worse. There’s nothing tactical about it. It’s a writing cue.

When you set a challenge out, what you’re saying is “this is the situation I want you to write about for this scene,” or “this is the focus of this scene.” Think about things in that mindset. You aren’t trying to challenge the players – you’re setting up something for their characters to deal with, but as far as the players go, you’re just giving them something to write about.

A challenge can be one of two types: a Character, or an Obstacle. Mechanically, these work identically, and there’s not much of a difference that I’ve found about them philosophically. I use the two types more to just keep things sorted than anything else. Conceptually, a character challenge is one that focuses on dealing with a specific character (or sometimes specific group), whether that be by communication or by combat or anything else. An obstacle challenge is one that focuses on other things that can get in the player characters’ way or complicate the story, whether that be ancient artifacts, natural disasters, crumbling hallways, dangerous river crossings, corrupted magical energies, messy crime scenes, or anything else. Choosing the type of challenge you’re making is more something to keep things sorted as you get a lot of cards, in case you want to pull out a challenge again later, and to highlight to players what the focus of a challenge is.

When you create a challenge, you’re going to have to describe it. The challenge description will show up on the challenge card when players click on it in game. The purpose of the description is to give a basic overview of the challenge and help players understand its focus. If it is a character challenge, what is that character doing now, or what do they want now? How does the scene revolve around that? If is is an obstacle, what are its characteristics and how is it in the way? How does the scene revolve around that?

Once you’ve come up with a description (and, optionally, added a picture), you “Play” the challenge. This puts the challenge into the game, and brings up a new window where you’ll set three things: points, strong outcome, and weak outcome. Let’s take these in order.

The “challenge points” represent the number of cards which will need to be played on the challenge in order to complete it. One card equals one point, and a challenge can have anywhere from 1 to 9 points on it. So, if you set up a challenge with 4 points on it, the players will have to play 4 cards to complete it. This could come in various combinations – maybe 4 players each play 1 card, maybe 1 player plays 3 and another plays 1, maybe 2 players each play 2. What matters is that at the end, they’ve played 4 cards.

How do you determine how many points to put on a challenge? I think of two things.

First: the level of focus I want this situation to have. The more points a challenge has, the more moves it is likely to involve. If I set a challenge with a single point on it, no matter what, it will take only a single card to complete – which likely means it will be around for one move. If I set a challenge with three points, under default settings a player could complete it in one move, but it’d be a complex, multi-card move…and more than likely, it’s instead going to be played across at least a couple different moves. If I set it as 4 points, under default settings, I’m guaranteeing that multiple moves will happen as no player can play that many cards in one move. And at 9? I’ve just defined it as a major, perhaps singular focus for the entire scene, a huge situation that will take many moves to get through and let players play a lot of their cards and explore a lot of elements of their characters.

The more points, then, the more focus the challenge receives in the story. If a challenge is important, if it provides a lot of opportunity for drama and interesting writing cues, and if the situation feels complex and fun to write about, add more points.

Second: the number of players I hope to see involved. I mentioned this a bit above, but by default, a player can play only 3 cards in a single move. What that means is that you, as narrator, can encourage challenges to involve more than one player – you just have to set the points at or above the upper limit of what a player can play. If you set a challenge at 1 or 2 points, you may end up with only one player playing it. If you set a challenge at 3 points, you’re probably going to end up with more than one player playing on it – players, as they get more experienced, tend not to want to blow all their plays on one move. If you set a challenge at 4 points, you’re guaranteeing¬† that more than one player will play on it, because one player can only play 3 cards. And if you set a challenge at, say, 7 points? Now you need three players to complete it. All by default card settings, of course.

The more points you put on a challenge, the more players will play on it – so, if things feel like they should take more group involvement to complete, or feel like good opportunities for character interaction among the heroes, put more points on them.

Be aware, though, that you have a point limit: You cannot put more points on challenges in a scene than the number of cards your players can play in that scene (because, after all, we want challenges to be completed). So if, say, you have 4 players who can each play 3 cards, you will have a point limit of 12 for that scene. If you put down a challenge with 9 points, that means you only have 3 points left for any other challenges you want to do in a scene.

Except…in my experience, it’s actually not a good idea to use all of your points. If you do that, and one player is away or unable to play for a bit, you get yourself into situations where challenges can’t be completed and you have to work around it, which can be detrimental to the game. So, my personal rule is to hold back one player’s worth of points and not use it. At a basic level, then, if I have 4 players who can play 3 cards each, I hold back 3 points that I won’t use: So instead of thinking of my limit as 12, I think of it as 9. So if I spend 9 points on a single challenge, then, I won’t use those remaining 3 points that scene.

Now, once players have completed a challenge, they get to write the ending…and for that, they look to the appropriate outcome.

The outcomes, then, are the potential endings for the challenge. There are lots of different ways narrators have found to write outcomes, and I’m not going to delve too deeply here – suffice to say that you will find many of those in the links below – but let’s look at the basics of them, in any case.

Your outcomes are the challenge’s potential endings, and they come in two flavors on the challenge card: Strong and Weak. In both cases, what you’re writing is a quick look at how the challenge ends…an overview of the ending, with room for the player to make it fit his character’s actions and explore the specifics on his own.

You don’t want to spell out every little detail here – you just want to give the players what needs to be in the story for that ending, or how the situation goes more in general. You want to lay out what’s important, what needs to be specified, and let them play with the rest.

Now, as I mentioned, there’s two different outcome types you’ll be writing here: Strong and Weak. In general, the difference is simple: Strong is better for the player characters and the story situation than Weak.

Storium suggests that in general you use the following interpretation:

  • Strong outcomes mean that things worked out well for the players.
  • Weak outcomes mean that the situation was overcome but at a cost or with an interesting complication.

I agree.

This doesn’t have to be what you do all the time, but it’s a good philosophy to follow. Stories are most interesting when they keep moving forward, and they keep moving forward if, generally, the heroes are finding their way through situations. So, for Strong outcomes, I tend to write up outcome text that suggests an outright success for the heroes. Strong outcomes are pretty easy to understand how to write, honestly – I think we all get “the heroes succeed,” right? The main thing to worry about for Strong outcomes is making sure to give them the proper amount of success – if it feels like something should be more involved and not fully resolved, that’s fine – stories are full of really complex situations that can be resolved only in part. Just make sure your outcome text suggests that.

Weak outcomes can be more difficult to understand. For Weak outcomes, I tend to write outcome texts that still show the situation ending up resolved in their favor in some way, but with complications or costs, or that show the situation partially resolved in their favor but partially not.

This keeps the story moving forward, but perhaps even more importantly, it makes Weak outcomes often interesting for players – things they will intentionally decide to play towards at times. This is precisely what you want. You want your players to sometimes get Strong outcomes, and sometimes get Weak outcomes, and to be engaged with the story either way. An outright failure can be interesting, but more commonly, it serves as a brick wall that stops the story. If you outright fail to find evidence, well…where does the story go? But if you find the evidence just as the villain’s big, burly henchman comes in to try to destroy it, and now you have to run away from him, well, that just added a new twist to the tale. Primarily use complications, costs, and partial successes, and you’ll find that not only will the story move more smoothly, but the players will be interested in seeing the Weak outcomes come up.

The best experiences I’ve had in Storium, as a narrator, have been when I’ve played a challenge card into the game and players have looked at it and said, “Oh, wow – I hope this goes Weak!” I love that.

This is actually a technique that I’ve found in a lot of recent tabletop games. Fate uses it, and so does 13th Age, for two. You can find it under various names – Success at a Cost, Success with Complications, Fail Forward – but in all cases, the idea is that if the rolls don’t go well for the players, the story should still move forward. In Storium, things are a little different – the players aren’t depending on dice rolls or luck of any kind, and they may outright choose the Weak outcome – but the principle is similar: Keep the story moving forward, and keep things interesting for the players.

Again, this doesn’t have to be your theme all the time. You can do a Weak outcome that’s an outright failure on the part of the characters (note: the characters, not the players – never think of a Weak outcome as a failure on the part of the players, and never think of it as a punishment for them), and you can even do a Strong outcome that is a failure on the part of the characters, but a less painful one than the Weak. Those can and have worked for me. But by and large, stick to the philosophy above, and you’ll have an easier time.

Now, there is one more outcome type: Uncertain. This comes up when the challenges comes out neutral, with equal numbers of Strength and Weakness cards played on it (or none of those, just neutral cards). When the Uncertain outcome comes up, it is your job to write an ending for the challenge, rather than the players’. This is easiest if you spend a little time thinking about things before the challenge starts, and leave yourself a little room “between” the Strong and Weak outcomes that you can use for your Uncertain, but that isn’t the only way you can do them. Uncertain outcomes are a great chance to put in twists or send things a little sideways. For the most basic level, though…try to write something that feels “between” the Strong and Weak outcomes. You can get more advanced with these later and have more fun with them (see my article on Uncertain Outcomes for more on that!).

Now, it bears mentioning that you can have more than one challenge in a scene – either by playing more than one challenge to the game at once, or by playing a new challenge to the game as a continuation after the first challenge is resolved. The point limit I described above applies, but otherwise, it’s up to you how you want to handle it. Just be careful: It’s important not to have challenges that clash – if one outcome could prevent another simultaneous challenge from being resolved, they probably shouldn’t be out there at the same time. And you don’t want to undo the results of an earlier challenge, generally – so don’t play a follow-up challenge whose outcomes will undo the outcome the players just got.

Once you’ve set up the challenges, then, it’s time to write the scene’s actual text. When you’re doing that, use the challenges as your guide. What’s going on? What’s important? Those are the things you want to call out in the scene text. The challenge descriptions are the basics, but here is where you get to dress things up a little bit and make it actually exciting. If you’ve got a challenge about a charging army, for instance, you don’t just write “the army charges” as your scene text. Delve into how it looks. How it sounds. How the army is equipped. How the player characters’ allies, if any, are reacting.

What you’re doing isn’t just mechanically kicking things off, though that’s part of it. What you’re doing is setting the scene and giving the players things to use. This matters. Setting the scene with the enemy army charging, talking about how they’re heavily armored and well-equipped, and how the players’ allies look like they’re about to break and run, is very different than if you describe the charge as that of a massive but untrained and poorly equipped rabble, and the players’ allies as confident and heavily armored themselves. In the former, players are going to write moves about finding ways to blunt the dangerous charge or work around it and encouraging their side. In the latter, players are going to write about knocking back the charge and working with their confident allies. The tone of the challenge will be very different.

Your outcomes can affect this too, of course – I talk about this on the player side, but outcomes both describe the ending and set a range of things that can happen during the challenge – but your scene text is going to be a much larger impact.

Aside from just setting the tone, though, as I said…you’re giving players things to use. Cues. A lot of narration is setting up cues. It’s what you do in the challenge description, it’s what you do in the outcomes, and it’s what you do in the scene text. You leave openings for players to fill in the blanks. You give details that they can use to expand their storytelling. You lay the groundwork, the foundation, that they will build upon to complete the story of the challenge.

That’s the basics of narration in a nutshell. Look…there’s more, a lot more, but narration, at heart, is doing the above…over, and over, until the game is complete. A lot of the rest is style – there are a lot of different narration styles, a lot of different priorities, and a lot of different ways a narrator can make Storium work for them. I go into those a lot in the articles below.

Above all, remember: You are narrating to help the players draw out a story. It isn’t your story…it’s yours and the players’. Narrate to help them write. Narrate to make things interesting for them. Your job isn’t to challenge them as players. Your job is to help them as writers. Have fun, be a fan of them, enjoy what they write, and look for ways to help them bring out the themes of their characters.

For more on narration, you can see the “Storium Narration” category overall, but here are some articles I particularly recommend: