Storium Theory: Challenges That Matter

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 10th, 2016.

I’ve written quite a bit here on challenges in Storium. I’ve written about the mechanics of a challenge, the way to play cards on one, the way to set up a challenge with narration, and even a possible house rule about playing single cards at a time. Plenty more will come on the mechanics in the future, I’m sure.

But right now, I want to discuss another part of challenges, something just as important…actually, probably quite a bit more important than the mechanical side of things, the setup of a challenge, or anything else involved in them.

That’s…making challenges matter.

It’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you’re narrating in Storium is guiding players in building a story. Stories are filled with events, events that lead to rises and falls in the fortunes of the main characters. I’ve discussed character and story arcs in the past, and I’ve discussed how challenges assist in portraying those arcs.

But the narrator has a huge responsibility as well. The game mechanics only go so far to make things work…you, as narrator, have to work hard to use the mechanics, and the results of the mechanics, to build a good story.

Perhaps the biggest task you have is making sure that each challenge feels like it matters while it is being played, and feels like it mattered when players look back on it later. You never, ever, want a player to honestly think to themselves, “I got a Strong/Weak/Neutral result on that challenge, but it doesn’t feel like it affected anything.”

That’s a real killer for game morale.

So, how do you make challenges matter? As with many things, I can’t say that I have the only way, but here’s the rules I follow:

  • Challenges should feel major, feel consequential. Storium challenges cover overarching situations–not every little action that leads up to a bigger result. In an RPG, you might roll the dice for every swing of a sword, for instance. In Storium, you wouldn’t set up a challenge for something like that (usually–there’s always exceptions), but for the whole battle or a very important part of it.
  • The result texts of a challenge should feel like they will cause a change in the story’s state. Rarely, if ever, should the players feel like the Strong/Weak text suggests the story will remain in roughly the same state as it was before. There should be a feeling that things will be different. Challenges don’t maintain the status quo, they alter it.
  • The result texts of a challenge should be definite. No ifs or maybes, no possibilities. Use certainties. This happens. You do this. Ideally, this happens, or you do this, now. You get the information. The person tells you X. The battle is won and the kingdom is saved. Doctor X falls to his doom.
  • The result texts of a challenge should not be reversible, at least not with any kind of ease. If the players get a Strong result, they get a Strong result. If they get a Weak result, they get a Weak result. The story moves forward from that point–it shouldn’t feel like that can be reversed, or like the challenge is going to be re-done in the next moment. Forward momentum, for good or ill. If the heroes suffer a setback, take the story forward from that point and deal with the consequences. If the heroes gain a great success, take the story forward from that point and deal with the consequences. Don’t imply that the situation can be reversed immediately–not before the challenge, and not after.
    • That isn’t to say that you can’t let the heroes have a chance to dig themselves out of a hole they’ve found themselves in…just that it shouldn’t come in the form of any kind of immediate reversal. Make it a major plot in the story, something that takes place over multiple scenes. Same for a success that ultimately risks crumbling. Let it stand for a while before it is threatened.
  • And finally…as narrator, use the results of the challenges. If a player makes up some kind of resource, use that resource in the story. If a player wins a battle, have people reference that later. If a player loses a friend, have that come up. You get the picture…those events have happened, and now they should be part of the world’s history.

 

These are the guidelines I follow with challenges. Never let one be inconsequential…if it doesn’t matter to the story, why are you having people play cards on it? Push yourself to make challenges that matter. You’ll end up with a stronger story, and happier players.