Storium Theory: Cast Size

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on May 26th, 2016.

When you’re setting up a new game on Storium, one of the major considerations is cast size–that is, how many characters are you going to accept for the game? 3? 5? 8? 10? 12?

The size of the cast influences quite a bit about the way the game will run, and where your focus as narrator is going to reside.

Storium‘s official documentation states that it “plays best with 3-5 players (including the narrator), although you can have as many as you like.” I’ve been in very successful games with 3-5 players, but I’ve also been in very successful games with up to 10 players.

Ultimately, your choice of cast size alone won’t guarantee success or doom your game. How you handle the size of cast you’ve chosen is more important than the actual size. What is vital, though, is recognizing what you can handle as a narrator. (It’s worth noting that it’s also important to learn your preferred cast size as a player, to ensure you feel satisfied with the games you enter.)

Now, there are limits. I don’t know that I’d ever suggest going over 10 simultaneous, frequently active characters at one time–that strikes me as very much pushing the limits of what could be considered manageable. But within that limit, here’s what I’ve seen, and what I’ve noticed as the resulting traits and possible pitfalls of a game.

As with Storium‘s documentation, I’m counting the narrator in these player counts. It is also worth noting that I’m counting these by players with the assumption that each player other than the narrator plays one character. I haven’t honestly been in many games where players consistently play more than one character, though I’ve taken over characters sometimes when players have had to hand them off. I’m not honestly certain how much additional size “feeling” it adds to have players playing more than one character–that may be a future topic.

There’s a little overlap between the categories–that’s because different narrators and players bring their own traits to the game, and thus games can feel larger or smaller than each other even with the same number of players.

Small Games (2-3 players)

In a small game, where you have the narrator plus only one or two other players, you can tell deeply personal, highly character-driven stories. These stories have one or two characters that they stick with at all times, and if the narrator and players work well together, they can lead to some very powerful tales that really delve into a character’s psyche and put a spotlight on every little part.

That said, they are very dependent on everything working perfectly between the narrator and players, and on the players staying active and involved in the game. When you have a cast this small you really can’t afford to lose anyone (especially if it’s just the narrator and a single player, which I’ve never tried but have seen some interesting examples of), and if anyone has to pull back from Storium for a bit it basically puts the game on hold.

Challenges can also be a bit tough with games of this size. With only a couple players, you’ll only be able to do a couple challenges per scene, and may find them getting completed in very few moves. You’ll want to pay close attention to when players are coming up on refreshes, as oftentimes they’ll be low enough on cards that a particular challenge result is all but certain.

This game size, I think, is something I’d advise trying only once you have a player or two with whom you’ve already established a good rapport.

A small game will feel very personal and likely involve a high focus on characters and the effect of the story on those characters. It can certainly involve major, epic events, but because you’re seeing so much of the story through the eyes of one or two people, you’re just naturally going to see the impact of events on those people.

Medium Games (3-6 players)

This is roughly Storium’s recommended game size, according to their documentation.

I’ve also found it’s my personal preferred game size. I can go a little larger, but this general range just kind of works for me.

A medium game spreads the focus more among multiple characters, but tends to still be very easy to follow. Narrators can help each character receive spotlight moments easily, but normally the games will feel like they have more a spread in focus among the characters, rather than having one or two “main” heroes (though it is certainly possible, depending on the players, for the game to end up feeling like it has a main character or two with a consistent supporting cast).

Medium games tend to have a pretty good balance for challenges. There’s enough players that most of the time, you can do a lot of different challenges or longer challenges if you want during the game, and refreshes tend to be spaced out somewhat between the characters so generally the players have enough cards between them to feel like they’re determining the game’s path. These games tend to have a good recognizable flow between the characters–some will have Strengths, and some Weaknesses, usually at different times, so you’ll get a feeling of them helping each other through the events of the story.

A medium game tends to be more resilient than a small game, and less vulnerable to stalling due to one or two players going on vacation or dropping entirely. Games of this size have enough players to safely “background” a character or two for a time, or to survive a character’s exit from the story, though the loss will generally be felt. Narrators will need to keep other players going if someone exits the story, and will likely need a plan to deal with the absence if the character can’t just be backgrounded easily.

I think this game size is generally a pretty good one if you don’t have a clear reason to use one of the others. You’ll have a game that is small enough to be manageable, but large enough to let you refocus things if players need to pull back. At the same time, it’s important to be sure you engage all of the players involved in a game this size, and forging ties between the characters of the group tends to be important–and somewhat harder than in a small game.

Large games (6-10 players)

Large games require good organization and management skills on the part of the narrator.

Large games will tend to either have a lot going on with their big cast all moving reliably, or come down to a couple main characters and a very sizable but inconsistent supporting cast. Either way, there’s quite a bit for a narrator to manage, and a lot of the narrator’s time ends up focused on making sure everyone has enough to do and that everyone understands what is going on with everyone else and where everyone currently happens to be.

Challenges in large games can be…interesting. Players have an abundance of cards to use and there’s only so much you can do to make really lengthy challenges without things starting to drag or becoming complex to read. If you generally use large challenges–using the full point allotment or close to it–challenges can work pretty much like they do in medium games, just…bigger, and with more going on. But that can lead to things not quite feeling right, sometimes–sometimes it’s appropriate for challenges to be set up shorter, and if you’re doing that a lot, you may find players not getting the chance to play. The narrator needs to manage the game to make sure that everyone who wants to do things has something to do.

Large games make it pretty easy to keep things going if players fade or drop from the game, so long as the narrator takes a little time to adjust for any trouble that might cause to characters linked more strongly to the character in question. Because it’s rare for characters to have a ton of focus on them, generally most characters aren’t as vital to the story–you can “background” them pretty easily and minimize the impact if they go on vacation for a while or leave. Not that your players aren’t important, mind–just that it’s easier to adjust if they fall by the wayside.

At the same time, this same lack of focus makes it hard to tell stories that really shine a spotlight on characters and show their personalities or subplots developing. It can be done, but it falls very, very heavily on the players–the narrator has to do a lot of managing of the overall game–and it’s really easy for things to get lost in the shuffle. (This is my main reason for not caring for this size game, really–I tend to find it doesn’t let characters get spotlighted in meaningful enough way to truly show their development, at least without major–and creativity-draining–effort.)

It can also just plain be difficult to keep track of everything that’s happening!

The best way I’ve personally seen a large game managed is probably mikitracey‘s “Star Wars: Order 66.” Miki was able to effectively divide up players, make clear what was going on, help us keep track of events in each of our areas, and generally provide a strong structure for us to work in regardless of the fact that we just had a massive number of characters. Organization–and splitting up the cast to different areas frequently–really made a large difference, and made the story quite fun. It also helped give the players a better opportunity to highlight their characters, since though there was a lot going on in the game as a whole, there tended to only be a little going on at each location.

I’ve seen other large games not go all that well and turn into disorganized messes where no one really knows what’s going on and no one’s much playing off each other because there’s just too much to read. These games tend to crash and burn pretty quickly despite having a lot of players, because everyone just loses interest. It’s very important for a large game narrator to take a very active role in keeping things organized!

I’m personally of the opinion that large games, when they’re fun, tend to be fun more in spite of the size rather than because of the size. They can absolutely work, and the durability received from having so many players is a big benefit, but it takes a special sort of narrator to manage the game well.

Final Thoughts

While my own preference is generally for Medium games, I think all the game sizes I’ve listed here can work very well, with the right narrator. The smaller the game is, the easier it is (and the more help the narrator can give) to tell character-focused stories that really delve into personalities or personal plots, but the more critical it is that all players are heavily involved in the game and stay in the game. The larger the game is, the easier it is to keep the game going even if some players aren’t as involved or leave the game entirely, but the harder it is to provide characters with focus and tell a meaningful story for each character rather than just overall.

What is right for you? Well…that depends on you. I just hope the above analysis can give you some things to think about when deciding on your cast size–and some things to watch out for or plan for while running your game.