Storium Theory: Finishing a Challenge – Uncertain Results (Narrator Role)

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on May 19th, 2016.

Concluding my series on finishing a challenge, I want to talk about the narrator’s role in writing Uncertain results.

Uncertain results intimidate narrators. It’s true! We plan out great Strong and Weak outcomes, and we burn up our brainpower on those, and then our players go and hand us that dreaded grey result.

Our first instinct is sometimes to scream “Argh! What did I ever do to them?”

But it shouldn’t be.

Here’s my philosophy on writing Uncertain outcomes as a narrator.

First: Replace “Argh!” with “Yay!”

Uncertain outcomes are fun, if you allow them to be fun.

It’s easy to let them stress you out…so it’s important to take a positive attitude.

Look at it this way. An Uncertain outcome is your chance to play with the story the way a player does. It’s a removal of your limitations as a narrator.

Normally, you set up the situations and ask the players what happens. Here, you set up the situation, and the players played in it…and then they asked you what happened.

So give a “Whoop!” and get to work.

Second: Read the challenge so far.

Take a look at what the players have done so far. Get a feel for how the challenge has gone thus far. Did it start off going Strong, then take a turn for the worse? Start off going Weak, then take a turn for the better? Ping-pong back and forth like mad?

An Uncertain result will feel better if it clearly draws upon the way the scene has gone thus far–especially the way the last few moves have felt. If the last few moves have felt like they’re shining some light into a dark situation, I suggest emphasizing that. If the last few moves have felt like they’re darkening a bright situation, well, emphasize that instead.

When you do this, you make the players feel like the cards they played mattered. You acknowledge the way the scene flowed. That’s important.

Third: Don’t feel bound by the results text.

An Uncertain result is where you get to play, so play. Your narration to close things out should feel like it relates to what’s going on, obviously…but you shouldn’t feel like you have to hold perfectly to them. Uncertain results are your opportunity to introduce an interesting twist to things.

Now, again…your Uncertain results should relate to the challenge, and relate to the Strong/Weak options. But what I mean here is that you shouldn’t feel like your Uncertain result just has to be “whatever is perfectly in the middle between Strong and Weak.” That’s not how it works.

Here’s what the Storium Player Guide says about Uncertain outcomes:

  • From “Challenges“: This means the challenge was overcome but the narrator (you) gets to say what happened as a result.
  • From “Winning Control of the Story“: This means the challenge was overcome but the narrator gets to say what happened as a result.

Nowhere, there, does it say that the narrator must write a result perfectly between the Strong and Weak results. In fact, nowhere does it say the narrator has to do anything other than say what happened.

So again…while I feel that you should let yourself be guided by the Strong and Weak results, and I want you to look at what has happened in the scene so far and write something that builds on that, like I’d ask anyone to do…you shouldn’t feel bound by them.

Play.

Twist things up.

Have fun.

Fourth: Write an outcome.

“Duh,” you say.

Well, yeah, but this is sometimes missed.

What I mean by this is that you need to move the situation forward. The outcome is Uncertain, but the challenge was overcome–that is, completed. The situation after your Uncertain outcome should feel appreciably different from the situation before it.

Not just a slight variant, and not just a changed-up presentation of the same thing. Move it forward just as a Strong or Weak outcome would. That situation is done. You’re not revisiting it. It just resolved in a different way.

I suggest doing this by looking at where the Strong and Weak outcomes of a challenge leave you. If the Strong and Weak outcomes of a challenge say that a fight is over, then an Uncertain outcome should still end with the fight over. If the Strong and Weak results both say that the battle has reached some certain critical point (say, as below, “the point where we really need our allies to be here,”) an Uncertain result should bring the battle to that point. If the Strong result says that you get a full set of information and a Weak result says you were stymied and have to go to someone else, an Uncertain result might give you partial information…but it shouldn’t leave the situation open to where you can get the missing info by pushing further. Close things up. There are exceptions I can think of, but in general, end things.

Uncertain outcomes are still outcomes.

Example:

I spoke about this on the forums a while back,  and as part of my discussion, I gave an example of how I thought an Uncertain outcome might work in a hypothetical battle situation. I think it was a pretty good example, so I’m going to post it here, with some added comments.

Challenge: Hold the Line!

  • The enemy army is threatening to breach your defensive line. Can you work together to hold them back long enough for your secret allies to join the battle?
  • Strong: You hold out well, and though the enemy presses you repeatedly, your defensive line is still strong when your allies arrive.
  • Weak: CHOOSE: A flaw in strategy gives the enemy an opening and they break through—your allies arrive and you are healthy, but you’re going to have to use their help to retake the advantage, rather than to crush the enemy outright. OR: You hold the line and keep the enemy back…but only barely. You are exhausted, and many of your soldiers are injured. Your allies will have to handle the bulk of the fighting now.

So, let’s say that challenge comes up uncertain. A player, even in the case of that, might be able to show his character boldly fighting, slaying several foes, calling for the line to hold, please hold, a moment or two longer. He can show quite a lot.

He just can’t actually say that the line holds and that the allies arrive…or that the line fails and the enemy breaks through. Basically, he should leave all the elements discussed in the challenge results—the line holding or not, the allies arriving—on the table for the narrator to work with.

So what might you do, as narrator?

  • Maybe the enemy starts to break through the line as the allies arrive, so they haven’t actually broken through but the lines are weak and the next challenge is more chaotic.
    • This is pretty much an “in the middle” sort of result. The enemy hasn’t quite broken though, but you haven’t quite held out. It’s still interesting enough to work, though.
  • Maybe a part of the line fails and some enemies get through, but the breach is filled before the rest of the enemy army can take advantage. The next part of the battle will involve a secondary challenge where some of the heroes have to go after the enemies that made it through.
    • This feels more fun, to me! You use the outcome to set up an interesting situation where the players have the advantage in one way (against the main enemy army) but the enemy still has a chance to hurt something important to the players.
  • Maybe the line holds well…but the allies haven’t come. Now, some of the heroes have to find out what is keeping them from arriving.
    • This one works, but it might feel a little out-of-nowhere. It’s a good idea to tie it back to the heroes’ actions in some way, and how you do that may depend on the story.
    • One good option I’ve seen in stories sometimes: the cowardly ally who wants to know he’s joining a winning fight. If the players were clearly the strongest, he’d show up on their side easily, but now they’ve struggled so much…what if he joined on their side and then they lost? The consequences! Just think!
    • If you do that, or something like it, you make it clear that the reason the ally didn’t show up is related to the heroes’ performance in the battle so far. Then, of course, the next challenges are about trying to keep the fight going while others try to get the ally involved.
  • Maybe the line holds…because the enemy army realized allies were coming and turned part of their assault on the allies early. Now the characters lack an ambush advantage, but maybe they can still turn it into a pincer attack and turn things around.
    • If you do this, again, I’d say clearly that it was a result of the heroes’ actions. Point to something in the scene that led the enemy to realize allies were on the way. It’s not absolutely required, but it can help make it feel like a clear part of the story.
    • I think this definitely constitutes a fun twist, though–instead of the allies arriving to help the heroes, the heroes now have to help the allies!

All of these are totally valid uncertain results that the narrator could decide to put in. It’s up to him to decide what feels most interesting for the story, and what he can draw best from the events that have happened so far.

You see? There’s a lot of fun options in the middle of that situation. Whether you go for something roughly “in the middle” or introduce a neat twist, you can have some real fun with the concept.

Let’s review:

  1. Replace “Argh!” with “Yay!”
  2. Read the challenge so far.
  3. Don’t feel bound by the results text.
  4. Write an outcome.

Uncertain outcomes can be a challenge (no pun intended), but if you think about them by the methods above, I think you’ll find them becoming fun instead. It isn’t easy! I still have to force myself into this thought pattern (there’s a reason Step 1 exists, there). But…think of Uncertain outcomes as your chance to play. Your chance to twist the tale, have a little fun with it, and get creative.

One more thing.

It can really help to think about the possibility of an Uncertain outcome when you’re writing the Outcomes text while setting up a challenge in the first place…or, heck, when you’re coming up with the challenge at all. Think about some things that could happen if the situation resolves unclearly. Leave yourself some openings to use–think about putting a bit of space between Strong and Weak, or think about what twist you could put on those outcomes to make things Uncertain.

A little pre-planning early on can speed your writing later.