Storium Theory: Character Development Through Wild Cards

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 9th, 2016.

Over the course of the last few posts, I’ve talked quite a bit about character arcs and the way that they can develop. Now, I’d like to focus a bit on the actual character itself again.

In a Storium game, characters start with named Strength and Weakness cards, each highlighting a trait that’s important about the character at the beginning of the game. They also start with wild Strength and Weakness cards, though, and those are the subject of today’s post. I touched on this a bit in earlier articles, but I’d like to go more in depth here on how wild cards can help you define your character.

Wild cards are a powerful element of the Storium system, and aside from Subplot cards, they’re likely to be your main way of using the card system to reveal new things about your character. When you play a wild card, you name it and describe it–and thereby identify a trait of your character, something important about his being that will be impacting the story.

Wild cards, therefore, explain new information about your character.

Where a subplot tells you where the character is now in his personal story, a wild card tells you more about who a character is. For instance, we may already know that a character has a gambling addiction from a prior Weakness…but a new wild Weakness may reveal that he is also an Alcoholic. Or, we may already know from a prior Strength that the character is a Master Swordsman…but a new wild Strength may reveal that he has a Keen Tactical Mind.

Using Wild cards is simple, but using them well can be difficult. Each new trait should–normally–seem to fit into the general structure of the character: Who he is, as explained by his Nature, description, and the other cards that you’ve played previously. At the same time, each new trait should tell something new about the character. It’s something of a balancing act. You want to reveal new information, but not throw everyone for a loop.

For example, let’s say that I am playing a character, 157, with the Strength “Groundbreaking Computer Interaction,” reflecting that he can interact with computers on a deep level, surpassing normal cyberpunk-style links. Let’s look as some possible wild strengths.

  • Great Hacker: This flows from what we already know about the character, but it doesn’t really tell us much that we don’t already know. You can certainly use a card like this, but you’re not really growing the character.
  • Swift Intrusion: This tells us something more specific–157 is skilled at hacking, but specifically, he’s good at getting into systems fast. That’s new information–it tells us more about how he hacks into things. This one’s a little better, and I did actually use it, but it’s also pretty limited in scope (see “Writing Good Strengths and Weaknesses“). Still, it’s workable, and we can certainly extrapolate other things from it.
    • One of those things? Perhaps something like “Quick Thinker.” 157 is fast at breaking into computer systems because he thinks, and therefore codes, very quickly. Honestly, if I were writing this wild card today I probably would have used something like that, as opposed to a pure hacking-focused one.
  • Multitasking: Here we go. This tells us something new about 157–that his computerized mind allows him to be adept at paying attention to and working on on a large number of things at once. Not only is this new information, it’s new information that can apply to a variety of situations–it’s a full, new character trait. I’m very fond of this wild Strength.

Now, all three of the above are viable new strengths that grow out of the character, and I can see any of them as useful…but there’s a difference between them. Where “Great Hacker” largely just tells us what we already know, “Swift Intrusion” and “Multitasking” add to our knowledge of the character.

They grow the character.

You can certainly use wild Strength cards to just reinforce what’s known of a character–“Master Swordsman” and “Skilled Swordplay” for instance–but the more often you manage to grow the character with your wild cards, the more entertaining I think your story is going to be.

Now, growth doesn’t always mean spinning directly off of existing traits. Sometimes, it means showing an element of a character that has been hinted at before, but hasn’t been covered by cards quite yet.

Clayton “Clay” Riley is a nice guy, and his starting strength, “Genuine,” reflects that he’s likable and friendly and seen as honest. I did some spinoff strengths for that, obviously (such as “Believe the Best,” which shows that Clay’s more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, thereby avoiding paranoia that someone else might’ve experienced in a situation), but there were other elements of Clay’s character that were noted in story but not placed in card form until later.

One of those? “True Faith.” Clay’s belief is strong, strong enough to allow him to stand against monsters vulnerable to faith and hold them back (i.e. the classic crucifix vs. vampire scene). This doesn’t directly grow out of his nice guy nature, but it’s still a valid element of his character, and something that fit in with the rest of his design.

In general, wild Strengths (and Weaknesses) should follow this sort of pattern: they either grow off of existing traits and tell us something new about the character, or they grow off of elements of the character that are brought up in story or background but haven’t been cards yet and therefore tell us something new about the character.

What they shouldn’t do is grow off of nothing and tell us something new about the character.

Usually.

There are times that you can do just that, though, to great effect. Sometimes there should be a massive twist in your character. Sometimes there should be a trait that comes out of nowhere. I’d reserve that for rare occasions, though–once every few characters, you can pull out a trait that totally changes how the character has been seen…just be ready to write that character in that entirely new light, showing his old traits and earlier involvement in the story from the new viewpoint.

(And it’s probably a good idea to actually work it out with your narrator, at least, pretty early on–I’d even suggest from the point of character creation. “My character is entirely different than everyone thought” isn’t a twist all narrators will accept, at least without being clued in from the get-go.)

The best example I have for this from my own work is probably Ziv, a mysterious youth who worked on a sort of combined negotiator / SWAT team dealing with supernatural threats. He was portrayed largely as fast and agile in the early stages, with an odd demeanor that kind of suggested something was up. Later in the game, it was suddenly revealed that he in fact had supernatural powers of his own (as he was able to use a holy light to burn demons). I’d cleared this with the narrator from the start, along with the final revelation in the last stages of the game as to what, exactly, Ziv actually was–but from a story perspective, it was a pretty sudden twist.

At the same time, you’ll note that Ziv was always characterized as odd and mysterious. Those traits are the sort that make people wonder just what a character might be hiding, so it probably wasn’t a surprise that Ziv did, in fact, have some special, hidden qualities. I think that’s likely key to doing a “twist” well–a twist with a character’s nature does grow off of their existing traits. It just grows off of traits that are hidden…with their hidden nature being hinted at or even highlighted in the story.

I haven’t spent much time on Weaknesses in this, so before we close, let’s take one look at a Weakness example, with Detective Ernest Sorensen. Detective Sorensen’s starting Weakness is “Self-Centered,” reflecting his tendency to see everything in light of what benefit it might have to him and his goals. He doesn’t much care about others.

As the plot developed, he got a new weakness: “Aggressive.” This grew out of Self-Centered–his lack of care for others meant that he didn’t much care how his approach to solving problems would make others feel, leading him to take a forceful approach rather than a graceful one, and start problems that way. This also expanded the character, though–Aggressiveness as a personality trait is linked to, but different from, Self-Centeredness. It tells us something more about the character–that he has a temper, that he’s capable of bursts of anger or forcing his will upon the situation. And, of course, it’s rather broad.

One more note: Don’t forget that when you’re playing a wild card, your inspiration should come from the whole character–not just the matching card type. If you’re playing a wild Strength, take a look at Weaknesses for inspiration as well as Strengths. If you’re playing a wild Weakness, take a look at Strengths for inspiration as well as Weaknesses.

157’s computerized brain gave him a whole host of advantages and made him very useful…but it also provided inspiration for some wild weaknesses. Case in point: “Automated,” which noted that 157 had some pre-programmed behaviors that would emerge from time to time to control his actions in inconvenient or dangerous ways. Again, this tells us something new about the character that emerges from his existing traits–it’s just that those traits were Strengths, and the new card is a Weakness.

I hope this has provided some guidance and thinking points for using wild cards effectively to reveal new information about your character. Wild cards are powerful, and provide a lot of opportunity to complete the picture of your character, but there’s definitely a trick to using them well. I don’t think I’ve gotten it 100% of the time–but when I have, I’ve been able to show exciting and interesting sides to my characters, helping me–and the other players–figure out more about who they are.