Storium Basics: Subplots

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on July 13th, 2017. My apologies for the delay on getting it over here – thought I had done it when I set it up to post and only just realized I hadn’t. O_O

Welcome back to Storium Basics – today, I’d like to briefly discuss the Subplot card type.

Subplots are actually my favorite card on Storium. The other cards show your character’s impact on the story—a subplot shows the story’s impact on your character.

Subplot cards are considered neutral, so they don’t affect the Strong/Weak balance of a challenge. They do, however, push things closer to a conclusion. I like to use them to set up situations that might go either way, or to emphasize the way the challenge is currently going while moving events forward.

It takes some time to get used to writing subplots, but here’s the basics: When you play a subplot, it’s time to get a little introspective. Show how the subplot has been affected by the story events—how are the events of the story shaping your views of your subplot? Or, alternatively, you can show how your subplot is driving you to take the actions that you are taking. I use a mix of both. As you play subplot cards scene after scene, show how it is developing in your character’s mind.

Now, that doesn’t mean that your move is entirely internal! As I said above, this is still a move on a challenge, and thus it still moves the story of the challenge forward. So, this move needs to be both about your character and about the story of the challenge. It is tilted more towards your character than other moves, but the challenge’s story shouldn’t disappear.

A great way to do this is to tie what’s going on in the challenge specifically to what’s going on with your character’s subplot. You can, like I suggested above, show how your subplot drove you to take the actions you’re taking in the challenge. Or, you might instead decide to show how the actions you took affected your view of your subplot.

For example, if you’re playing a character with the subplot Prove Yourself, reflecting his desire to have his abilities acknowledged by those around him, that subplot might be involved in a few ways. Now, these aren’t the only ways you could do it, mind – but here’s a couple thoughts:

  • Inspiring Actions: Out of a desire to Prove Yourself, you charge headlong at the enemy, filled with ambition to win the day and be acknowledged by the other heroes.
  • Reflecting on Actions: You charge headlong at the enemy, and X happens. In the moments afterwards, a thought goes through your head about how that’s likely to affect your goal of proving yourself – do you think you’ve gotten closer, or further away?

As mentioned above, a subplot is a neutral card. That means that it doesn’t tip the balance towards Strong or Weak as far as the challenge’s progress towards an outcome goes. But it does progress the challenge’s story.

Neutral cards can be a little hard to picture this way at first – how do you progress the story while not making things Stronger or Weaker? That’s a bit of a misconception, I think.

When you play a neutral card, like a Subplot in this case, you push the story forward. This can feel like it’s pushing closer to one of the endings, based on which ending the challenge was headed towards. If the challenge is already going Strong, your subplot can feel strong. If the challenge was already going Weak, your subplot can feel weak.

Why? This is because a neutral card leaves the status quo where it is, but leaves less slots to change it. So while you aren’t actually making things Stronger or making things Weaker, you are progressing the story of the challenge and there is now less “time” for the challenge to turn around.

So, while a subplot play shouldn’t feel exactly like a Strength or Weakness play, there’s no problem with using it to emphasize the current story direction. With a neutral card, you’re saying that things continue along the same path they’ve been continuing on…if that’s a good path, that’s good, if it’s a bad path, that’s bad.

That assumes you’re playing a neutral card on its own, of course – playing multiple cards at once is an option in most Storium games, and I’ll discuss that technique and its effects on moves another time.

When you play the last subplot card in your stack, it is time to move the subplot forward in a notable fashion. Show how the story’s events have led the character to some kind of development point—some place where their views change, or perhaps harden and evolve to a new level.  Moves where you’re finishing up your subplot stack should feel significant. Even if they’re in the middle of a challenge and other things are going on, be sure to take some time to leave a sign of development of your character’s story. You don’t have to know precisely where it’s going yet, but you should make clear that something has changed in how your character views or interacts with the issue covered by the subplot. Leave yourself some cues, some thoughts on how this might develop

It’s okay – even fun – to leave the full development a bit up in the air here more solidly decide when you pick your new subplot a little later. You can ask yourself a new question the subplot inspires rather than providing an answer. This doesn’t have to be a full conclusion to the subplot. It’s a major development, not necessarily an ending. You are moving forward in a way, but you aren’t necessarily moving forward to something totally different.

You also get a wild Strength card any time you play the last subplot card—you’ll get it at the close of that scene.

At the start of the next scene after you finish your subplot, you’ll also have to define a new subplot. It’s pretty simple—just click the “Define a New Subplot” button that replaces your Move button, and write one like any other custom card.

What you want to do here is think a bit about what happened regarding your prior subplot. Where did your character start out regarding that issue, and where did he end up? What is he thinking about now? Is it the same issue, with some new color to it, or has he moved on to some other thing?

This is why it helps to be thinking about your subplot each time you play it, and get a little introspective each time. If you take the time to think about this along the way, you don’t have to think about it all at once. And, if you use that final move of a subplot to leave yourself some thinking cues, you’ll more easily find direction in writing your new plot.

Don’t forget to consider how the game’s story itself has been going, either! Subplots are about how your character and the game interact.

Subplots are, as I mentioned, how you show the game’s impact on your character–and when you define a new Subplot, that’s a big chance to show it. It’s one of my favorite times in Storium–when I get to write a new subplot, I can definitively show everyone just what my character has gone through and what issue he’s working through now as a result. Sometimes my new subplot is a development of the prior one, a furthering of that issue with a new name and new stakes. But sometimes things have gone totally sideways and unexpected things came up, or the character realized that what he was working through wasn’t what he thought he was working through, leading to a subplot that’s pretty drastically different.

Here’s an example of one that developed over the course of “Sorrow’s Shores” for my character, Brennan:

  • It started out as “Learning the Basics,” reflecting Brennan’s unfamiliarity with the situation he was in and his desire to be able to at least help out a little and learn what he could to take care of himself.
  • From there, it moved to “I Have to Do More!” as Brennan learned to do his part but saw the group struggling and dealt with the loss of one of the group’s members–he felt like he hadn’t been strong enough yet and wanted to push himself.
  • Finally, it became “When it isn’t enough…” as more bad things still happened, and he began to realize that sometimes no matter how hard you tried, sometimes you weren’t strong enough on your own, and maybe it wasn’t just him that was like that, maybe it was everyone. So he started wrestling with what that meant and learning that it was okay if he had to depend on other people.

I hope that all this has helped you gain an understanding of Subplots in Storium. If you’d like to read more, here are a few articles on this and related topics: