Storium Theory: Add Some Color with Cardless Moves

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 25th, 2016.

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about how you can use Storium‘s system to support a good story. I write about setting up challenges, playing cards, choosing your cards, and all sorts of ways to use the system to guide your storytelling.

But there’s something I’d like to discuss today that, in a way, is the inverse of that…an element of Storium‘s system that I haven’t much mentioned on the blog yet. Cardless moves.

Storium does not require a card to be played when you make a move, so moves outside of the “challenge” structure are clearly possible. But…when should you make a move outside the challenge structure, and what should it mean? Should you even write cardless moves at all? Do they mean anything? Should they mean anything?

I want to emphasize first that I’m talking about cardless moves here largely in context of scenes that currently have an active challenge. Things change a bit when you’re doing an overall cardless moment – a scene that does not presently have any active challenges, but which is still open for roleplaying. I’ll discuss those at a later time.

With a challenge active, cardless moves are a handy tool for adding color and characterization to your game. They shouldn’t replace moves that use cards, and shouldn’t (generally) have as much impact on the story as those moves…but they should, absolutely, be included.

A cardless move is a great way for you as a player to express your character’s thoughts or feelings on a situation, or to show some reactions to things that have happened. It’s also a good way to throw in some extra details about what your character is doing or what is going on in a scene, which can give other players something to play off of.

They’re where you can easily toss out some quick comments, a little dialogue in the midst of a fight, perhaps. They’re where you can laugh at an ally’s joke. They’re where you can mourn a loss.

But they’re also where you can show things continuing as they’ve been shown already, but with more detail. Are you fighting an evenly matched battle, and not quite ready for it to change yet? Toss in a post showing both sides countering the other and no one coming out ahead. Are you searching a creepy old house, and not ready for the situation to worsen or improve? Use a cardless move to build up how creepy things are and how carefully you’re moving through the dark.

I think that’s the central point, really: you can do quite a lot with cardless moves, and build on what’s been put into the scene, making a more complete story. You just shouldn’t change things with a cardless move–that’s the domain of the actual cards.

When you play a move with a card, you’re showing how the situation progresses. When you play a move without a card, you’re adding detail to the situation as it currently exists. Cardless moves shouldn’t make the situation better or worse, but they can add interesting elements to the story and help everyone learn more about the characters. They’re a valuable tool.

But what about neutral cards, like subplots?

You may notice that I kind of describe cardless moves similarly to how I describe neutral cards, and…that’s true. I see them somewhat similarly, and the difference between them under this concept is…a bit hard to describe, aside from neutral cards clearly bringing in a particular “theme” based on the card. If both neutral cards and cardless moves leave the current Strong/Weak balance in place, what’s the difference?

I think the difference, really, is that, again, a card–even a neutral card–progresses the situation. A cardless move maintains the current situation.

When you play a neutral card, you should show that the situation moves forward – something changes about it, even though it doesn’t necessarily get better or worse for the characters. There’s something different now. The neutral card leaves the Strong/Weak balance in place in one way, but it changes it in another: there are now less slots left. The challenge is closer to completion. Things moved forward.

When you play a cardless move, though, you should pretty much keep the situation as it is, and just add some details, color, or characterization to it. The number of slots remaining has not changed. Things have not moved forward in any notable way. The challenge remains as far from completion as it was before the move.

A subtle difference, maybe, but important.

Now…there are times you shouldn’t use cardless moves, really. Making too many of them can stall the momentum of a scene. Not everything requires a character comment, and even if you do need to make one, nothing says you can’t make comments while pushing the scene forward with a card. Some scenes need to be moving forward constantly.

I think that’s the trick, though. Cardless moves are a valuable part of the game and shouldn’t be discarded – they just shouldn’t be ever-present as well. You don’t want to let them overwhelm things, and you don’t want to use them to claim narrative power that should belong to the cards. But if you use them well – if you add details and bring out information about your character and the situation, without changing the situation notably – you can end up with a story that feels more…whole. Don’t dismiss the power of cardless moves!