Storium Theory: Custom Card Settings, Here We Come!

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on October 13th, 2016.

I don’t normally do news articles on this site, but this week, I wanted to write a bit about Storium‘s latest upgrade. I guess this still isn’t technically a news article so much as an opinion and dreaming about the news article, but hey, it’s closer than I usually get.

For those who might not have seen the announcement, Storium was recently updated with a neat set of new features, which I’ll summarize here:

  • On a Refresh, players will now be able to choose from every card they have played over the course of the game, rather than just from those since the last Refresh.
  • On playing a Wild card, players will be able to create a new wild card as usual, or now choose from cards they have previously played to reuse those concepts more easily.
  • And the really big one: Hosts now have the ability to customize the number of cards players can play per scene (from 1 to 10, default 3), the number of Strength and Weakness cards they start with and choose at Refresh (from 1 to 5, default 2 each), and the number of wild Strength and Weakness cards they start with and get back at Refresh (from 1 to 5, default 2 each). Aside from the standard sets, a couple preset changes are included which tilt the scales a little more towards Strengths or a little more towards Weaknesses, but hosts can customize them freely within those ranges.
    • Not only can this be set at the start of a game, but it can also be set during a game. In that case, the cards-per-scene rule goes into effect next scene, and the Refresh-associated rules go into effect for each character as they Refresh their cards.

These changes are, in a word, awesome.

Look: I really love how Storium works. I think that’s pretty evident by now. I’ve written article after article on the system and how to use it to support entertaining storytelling, and I think the system works very, very well for that purpose.

But I also think that if you want a system to survive for a long time, and expand in use, it’s a very good idea to allow for some house rules.

This is easy in pen and paper games. Whoever is running the game can pretty much do what they want–sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s no hard-coded computer programming standing between them and their desired rules changes.

With Storium, though, you’ve got a website coded to function in a particular manner…so the creators have to specifically code the house rule options they want to allow. Before this point, you were stuck with the existing Strength/Weakness balance and cards-per-scene count. Even if you wanted to “house rule” things, there were some things you simply couldn’t change.

Now you can.

That’s very big.

Before I go on, let me make sure to note that Storium‘s creators have been open that this is not the only change they are looking at–other requested features are getting looks as well. This was just what they had fully decided on, and were able to do at this point.

But let’s look beyond just the concept of house rules for a second, and look at something else. Storium‘s rules are so fun because they encourage storytelling–they help set particular tones for a tale, help bring out character arcs, help establish themes, help generate ideas…that’s what the system has been very good at.

When I started looking at these new features, I was struck by one in particular: Card settings can be changed while a game is ongoing.

Think about that.

The card settings, clearly, are able to be used to establish a sort of tone for the game. You can see that even from the names of the presets that are available. You have the standard setting, which keeps Storium’s normal balanced approach. You have the Heroic setting, which tilts things towards Strengths, thereby making for games where it feels like the heroes tend to succeed and achieve. And you have the Gritty setting, which tilts things towards Weaknesses, thereby making for games where it feels like the heroes spend a lot of time struggling.

But you can change settings midway.

Which means you can change a game’s tone midway.

This immediately opens up some major possibilities for storytelling!

What happens to the game if you start out on Gritty, for instance, and midway through shift to Heroic? Or what if you start out on Heroic, and shift midway to Gritty? The tone of your game will change. Characters who were shown struggling will be shown to be overcoming things more frequently and easily, or characters who were shown as mighty will be more frequently brought low.

Consider: A group of ordinary people face a supernatural threat, starting the game in Gritty, with many challenges going Weak because there aren’t so many Strength cards to go around. But midway through, they end up receiving power of their own–now, the game changes to Standard or even Heroic, and the characters start being able to end more challenges Strong. The tone of the game changes from struggle to achievement.

Consider: A group of mighty superheroes easily pummels a supervillain into submission, starting the game in Heroic, with many challenges going Strong because there just aren’t that many Weakness cards. But the villain gets his revenge by cursing them, and their powers start failing or their personal problems are enhanced. You set the game to Standard or even Gritty, and now more challenges start going Weak as Strength cards become rarer. The tone of the game changes from achievement to struggle.

Obviously, for these to matter, the game will generally have to have a couple Refreshes in it so players get to experience both modes…but this is, theoretically, a terrific addition to the narrator’s arsenal for emphasizing theme, not just in a game overall but in particular sections of a game.

This is a new feature, and we don’t fully know what all the results of it will be yet…but I, for one, am very excited that new storytelling options now exist in Storium. I think this is going to enhance the experience and allow narrators and players even more freedom to tell their own style of story. It is wonderful to see Storium still developing in such major ways.

Please note: There will be no new article of Storium Theory next week, as I will be on vacation.