Storium Theory: Ending Challenges Early

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 24th, 2016.

If you’ve listened to the Storium Arc podcast lately (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?), you know that Justin and I had a debate about ending challenges early and the effect that could have on a game. I mentioned during that debate that I wasn’t necessarily totally against the concept, I just felt it was a technique to be used with caution.

I’d like to go into that a bit more today…but I’d also like to go into how I think you should go about ending a challenge early if you have to do it.

Reasons for Ending a Challenge Early

Let’s first talk about why someone might decide to end a challenge early. When I’ve seen it, it primarily comes down to keeping the game moving. If a challenge seems to be stalling out, a narrator may decide it’s time to move the game forward, hell or high water, and conclude a challenge before all the slots are filled.

I’ve also heard it stated that a challenge might be ended early if it narratively feels “done”–that is, it feels like the challenge has its ending and no further moves on it are necessary.

Let me address each of those in turn.

The first–keeping the game moving–I generally agree with. When the health of the game is in question, when things seem to have stalled out, the narrator’s responsibility is to act for the good of the game. If that means he needs to push aside the rules for a moment and change things up or move things forward so the players can / will play again, then that’s what he has to do. I see this as something that sometimes needs to be done–for instance, if players have dropped, or gone on vacation, you may simply not have enough active players to finish a scene. Less commonly, you may find yourself in a situation where you have plenty of players but no one seems to have any real ideas on the challenge, and everyone seems stuck.

I just advise making sure that actually is the situation first, but I’ll get into that below.

The second–the challenge feeling “done” early–I’m less thrilled about. I’ve gone into this, but when players are playing on a challenge, their moves should push the challenge closer to one of the ending scenarios…but shouldn’t actually cause one of those ending scenarios to happen until all the slots on the challenge are full. If players are playing in this fashion, this result pretty much shouldn’t happen. If it does, it’d seem to me that it means one of three things:

  • A player has grabbed too much narrative control and defined a result for the challenge in his post when the challenge wasn’t there yet.
  • The narrator’s challenge results were not clear and the player didn’t realize that he’d fulfilled them.
  • A player did something drastic that didn’t technically hit one of the challenge results but feels like maybe it should lead there anyway.

If a player grabs too much narrative control, I advise politely asking the player to scale it back a bit, clarifying that the results aren’t yet truly gained.

If the challenge results are unclear and that’s why things seem “done,” I advise checking on everyone’s understanding of the results and situation, and seeing what you can do to improve result descriptions. Then, see what players feel still needs to be attained in the scene. If they still feel the challenge has life in it after the move, let it keep going. If they don’t, consider asking for a revision request, or use the same methods as for a drastic move, below.

If a player did something drastic that feels like it should resolve the challenge even though he didn’t mean it to, check how the other players feel about it. If people generally agree that the challenge feels like it should end early (and no one has a twist on the situation that could change things up / keep the challenge going), and the move feels okay within the game world, then you can end the challenge early and run with it. But I really advise using caution on this…remember, no single person is in control of the story in Storium, and you might be surprised what additional twists could come up to take a situation in another direction.

So those are the two situations that could lead to a choice to end a challenge early, in my experience (I’ll get into the idea of “optional” challenges another time).

My Concerns

So, what are my real concerns about it?

Let’s start off with narrative control.

Storium is a system of shared narrative control, with tradeoffs and levels of narrative control defined by the system, basically to ensure, as best possible, that everyone gets their turn in the spotlight and their turn to tell what’s going on in the story. Narrative control rests with the narrator when he is defining challenges, and when a challenge ends with an Uncertain outcome. When challenges are active and open for moves, on the other hand, it rests with the players, collectively.

When you end a challenge early, then, you are taking narrative control that, systemwise, belongs to the players at that moment. You are removing the ability to define the resolution of the challenge from their hands and placing it in yours.

But it’s more than that: when you cut off a challenge early, you are cutting off story possibilities. Players may have moves that could twist the situation…or just moves that can reveal more about their characters. Ending a challenge early cuts off their chances to do that.

My thought is that ending a challenge early risks sending the message that what matters is the narrator’s view of the story, not everyone’s view of the story. That’s not the case in Storium. In Storium, everyone should get the chance to tell their story, and we as narrators should be looking to be surprised by our players.

I’d argue, then, that if we’re thinking of ending a challenge because it “feels done,” that’s exactly when we shouldn’t end it.

If on the other hand the game seems to be stalling, we as narrators may not have much choice in the matter…but it’s important to make sure.

Here’s the thing: if this is something you do once or twice over the course of a game, when it really feels necessary, and with an abundance of caution, I don’t think it’s going to cause any problems.

But if you find yourself doing it a lot? That could be causing problems, or it could be a symptom of problems that already exist…or both. You could be sending a message that it doesn’t really matter if players complete challenges…which could lead to more challenges being left undone. You could also damage the interest of players who are particularly dedicated to the game and interested in the narrative by regularly seeming to take control over it.

Those aren’t guaranteed results, but they’re enough of a possibility to justify concern.

How to End a Challenge Early

So, how do you go about ending a challenge early?

Not the mechanical steps, mind…that’s just basically telling the players, and pushing the scene forward to new challenges or ending the scene with them incomplete. What I want to go into here is the choices that you make when ending a challenge early.

First: make sure you really have to end it. I know I’ve said this over and over already and you’re probably really tired of it…but it bears repeating. The very first thing you should do when you’re thinking of ending a challenge early is put a comment in the game to that effect.

If it’s because the game seems to have stalled, I suggest checking if players need to bounce ideas around with you–some players don’t realize it’s okay to toss ideas around in the comments or Green Room, thinking they need to come up with solutions themselves. Put an offer out there. Maybe go ahead and make a couple suggestions for how players could use their cards. Mention specific player usernames to ping them if need be.

If it’s because you feel like the challenge was completed and you’re okay with that, send a message asking if the players agree, and if anyone has other ideas or complications for the situation since you’re thinking it feels resolved. Be sure to check the comments posted previously in that scene, too, and the Green Room, just in case someone has already mentioned having plans for that challenge–then you can check if that player still wants to act.

Then, maybe a day later, add a comment defining a date on which you will end the challenge and move things forward. I suggest naming a date two or three days off, probably, but decide based on your game. I wouldn’t go lower than one day, though, because of time zones and differing play schedules.

When that date comes, if no one’s moved or notified you they will be moving in a short time, go ahead and close the challenge.

(Quick note that I’m aware that there are some players on Storium who will say they will be moving, but don’t. These are general concepts–they can always be tailored to individual situations.)

Now…here’s the tougher part, actually. What do you do when you close the challenge?

There’s a few options:

  • Count the current status as the result: With this method, you count the challenge as receiving whatever result is currently showing. If the challenge currently shows Strong, for instance, you count it as Strong. Basically, you just assume there were no more slots left on the challenge and declare it over, and write a result for it based on the appropriate result in the list. It ends like it would have if it got that result–it’s just that the narrator’s writing the ending.
    • You can also just tell whoever made the last move to adjust it to include the result, but that may or may not be a good idea since it can potentially slow things down.
    • This is pretty much the method I’d recommend if you have to do this. It takes into account the cards played on the challenge. Sure, there might be hedge cases where the result “doesn’t make sense,” but you can either write around those or just address them as unique cases when they come up.
  • Count it as Uncertain: With this method, no matter what the challenge currently shows, you count it as an uncertain result and write as you would for that. This replicates the normal situation when the challenge would pass into the control of the narrator, but may ignore the current cards on the challenge.
    • This one’s a concern for me, if the challenge doesn’t already show uncertain. It’s not major, especially if you write uncertain outcomes as somewhere between Strong and Weak, or just write some interesting twist, but it does lead players to question if their card plays counted for anything as far as the game’s story arc goes. It can work, and if you feel like the game needs to be shaken up a bit to get it moving again, you can do it…but overall, I’d be cautious.
  • Count it as Weak: With this method, no matter what the challenge currently shows, you count it as Weak and write a narrator continuation based on the Weak result. Basically you’re saying that no matter what the cards were on the challenge, the heroes didn’t complete it appropriately so it’s going Weak.
    • I’m just going to outright say I don’t think you should do this at all. This positions Weak results as punitive, and that’s not what they’re about. They’re about moving the story forward in an interesting fashion, just with the heroes experiencing trouble. You never want them to feel like they are a punishment for the players doing something wrong or “failing” at something. The more players think of Weak results as Punishments, the more they’re going to try to avoid them in games by playing cards strategically, and I don’t think that’s what Storium is trying to do. I’ll get more into that another time, but just…don’t do this.
  • Leave it Inconclusive: You could also start up a new situation based on where the challenge was left, avoiding making any ending for it at all.
    • I can see this being helpful in some situations. If you have active players who are out of cards but are still interested in completing the challenge, then ending the scene and starting a new one so they can play on it again can help. Outside of that, though, I think you’ll just end up staying right where you are–if players aren’t playing on a challenge, you have to resolve that problem, not hand them the same challenge again.

Of those options…I’d go with the “current status” one in general. You want players to feel like what they did on the challenge so far mattered, and the best way to do that is to keep the result that they’ve played to thus far.

There are cases where you might find the narrative works better another way…for instance, if a challenge has been trending Weak but someone just played a Strength and wrote a great move for it, you might check if the players agree that the challenge you’re ending early should end Strong. (And yes, you might do the same to give something a Weak result–that’s fine, under the right circumstances, as long as you make it clear that it’s because the latest move sets it up well rather than because the players didn’t finish the challenge and you’re punishing them.)

But by and large, just going with the “current status” of the challenge should work pretty well, and make sure players feel like their input mattered even though you had to cut things off early. It ensures they don’t feel like they’re being punished–and especially ensures they don’t associate certain result types with punishment, which could damage not only your game but other Storium games as well. Overall, I think the “current status” method is the best way to resolve a bad situation.

Does this Happen Often?

It shouldn’t.

I generally find that if a narrator is open about being willing to help and prepares himself to offer suggestions based on the players’ cards when necessary, the game won’t need the narrator to end challenges early very often.

If it does…if you’re having to make these choices a lot…I suggest taking a good look at how the game’s been running. If players aren’t frequently active, it could mean they’re just busy (in which case you may just have to accept that things are going to be a little slower–better for players to be slow but invested than to lose their investment), but it could also mean that players aren’t that interested in what’s going on. Or, it could mean that players are confused by the challenge texts or narration. And, of course, it could be because you’ve gotten in a cycle–you’ve ended other challenges early and players have stopped feeling like it’s as necessary to play them to completion, because the game will go forward anyway.

Again, the solution there is talking with your players. Find out what, if anything, you can do to get things back on track. You want most of your challenges to come to a conclusion–if they’re not, find out why. Do players understand what the challenges are about? Are some of them nervous about taking narrative control? Are you setting up result types that don’t really fit your current player set?

Not everyone, for instance, is comfortable with more open-ended results (the “you find an item…what is it?” sort of results). You may find that a player who ends up having to resolve the challenges often because of the schedule he plays on is also one who would prefer to have a list of options to choose from or to just have the results text more solid–adjusting that, then, might help the game.

But this could also mean that your idea of the game’s pace differs from that of the players. It’s a good idea to talk about that, too. Different people have a different idea of what a “good” level of activity is. I really suggest making this clear as early in the game as possible (ideally, spell it out in your game details). I don’t critique Storium often, but one thing I will say is that their game pace settings are…pretty useless. I wish they’d talk in terms of “moves per week” or some such instead…so that, or some other statement of the expected speed or consistency of play, is good to include in your game text.

But in the grand scheme of things, it’s important to accept that Storium games will not necessarily always move at the speed we’d like. Creativity and storytelling are complex and draining activities, and they’re a lot of fun, but they don’t come naturally to everyone. Some people can post in 10+ games a day with no problem. Others take an hour to “get into character” for each new person they have to write. And yes…it’s up to the players to recognize their writing traits and know how many games they can sustain. I’ve been clear about that in the past. But it’s also important to accept that sometimes things are just going to run more slowly.

I’ve been on this topic for quite a while now, so I’ll close up here. Ending challenges early can be a useful trick for getting a game moving again…but it’s important to make sure that players still feel like their contributions matter, and that they’re being given time to write what they’d like to write. Use it…but only if you truly have to, and when you do…use it well.