Storium Theory: Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on May 31st, 2016.

I’ve written a little bit on the topic of establishing character bonds before, focusing on a concept of how one might use a few simple questions to sketch a picture of a group history for a group of player characters who are all supposed to know each other well at the start of the game. Since then, I’ve received a request to delve a bit more into the idea of establishing character relationships, but from a different tack.

When player characters do not know each other well at the start of the game, what should you do to get those relationships growing? Is it best to start out with a challenge that’s about establishing the relationships, or should you just get straight to the action?

I need to preface this with the statement that in every game I’ve actually run in Storium so far (save my beginner game,Defenders of Akakios), I’ve been using a group that knew each other well prior to the events of the game–old friends, co-workers, fellow explorers, a starship crew, that sort of thing. I’ve just found that fun to do! So I actually haven’t had much direct experience from a Storium narrator perspective in starting a game off with blank slate character relationships, where characters are meeting for the first time or close to it as game events begin.

I have, however, had a great deal of experience doing that as a player, and as an RPG GM before. Not everything carries over from these fields to Storium narration, but I think this does, at least in part.

As the question above stated, there are kind of two ways of handling the situation when you’re starting off a game with characters who are new to each other, and you need to have them work together pretty reliably going forward.

  1. You can set up a situation where they chat with each other and get to know each other, perhaps even making a challenge about it. You might do this as the very first challenge, or perhaps at least early on in the game.
  2. You can just set off game events and hope that the relationships are established in the process.

Both approaches have their merits.

Using a challenge, or at least a scene, to establish some character relationships can iron out the nature of those relationships more quickly, letting the narrator and players gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play between the members of the group. This is the same general principle as my “questions” approach for establishing group history–you take some time to set things up from the get-go and then everyone has a decent picture of how the group is going to operate.

At the same time, this can be something of a drag on a game–not just from a playing perspective, but from a reading one as well. It’s a very slow start to a game, and it can feel like the story is keeping the problems the characters are meant to start addressing at arm’s length. Since the problems of the story are one of the main ways to “hook” people, whether players or readers, starting with an explicit “getting to know each other” sort of scene can make it harder for them to stay involved and interested.

The opposing approach is to kick things off with something more plot-focused, and hope for character relationships to emerge naturally from play. The benefit here is that you can get people “hooked” more easily–you introduce problems in need of resolution and focus attention on the player characters by showing that they are the proactive heroes who will be resolving the problems of the story. We may not know who they are in as much detail as with the “get to know each other” approach, but we know why we care about them. Something is happening and these people are at the center of it in some way.

The downside, potentially, is that if you don’t focus attention on character relationships they may never grow. As much harm as it can do to have a story start at a glacial pace due to a lengthy relationship establishment scene, it can do far more to have the relationships never established at all. You need characters to be able to interact, play off each other, and forge bonds in order for a Storium game to succeed. Without that, they’ll just be playing independently, and that does not make for terribly exciting reading…or playing, for that matter.

As with a lot of things, I don’t think there’s necessarily one right approach here. I think the approach you take kind of depends on the focus of the game.

Is the game’s focus on the character relationships and how they develop? In that case, I’d really consider taking the extra time to explore the beginnings of those relationships. Maybe you set up a “get to know each other” sort of challenge, where Strong or Weak results affect the mood or morale of the group. Or maybe you take a variant on my “questions” approach, writing a few short questions that reveal how the group sees each other starting out. Or maybe you just let people roleplay for a bit.

Whatever your approach, I think it’s critical that you inject some part of the plot, so the scene isn’t just about the characters meeting up. When I do my “questions” for group history, for instance, I like to do them as part of the first scene and to give the characters something else that they’re also doing–not necessarily as a challenge, but just as something to give the scene some focus. For instance, in Twishted, the characters had just landed on an uncharted island and were starting their exploration of an ancient temple. In Twishted: Academia, they were all finding their places or getting prepared to help with an archeological presentation at a college. I think you can do a similar thing with the meet up concept: provide a framing device that has them meeting up while working on something.

Instead of a tavern opening, for instance, maybe you frame the scene as the characters meeting up in an army’s encampment, where all hands are needed to prepare supplies for a march. Or maybe the city they’re meeting in is besieged by an enemy army, and they’re meeting while helping prepare the city defenses. It doesn’t even have to be that dramatic, though–calmer work, like the aforementioned exploration or just finding seats / preparing a presentation can help too. You don’t need to use a challenge for these (though you certainly could)–they’re just to give the players something to do in the midst of meeting up, something that makes it clear that things are going on, even if they aren’t the focus at the moment.

Additionally, I suggest taking only the time you need. Don’t allow the meet up scene to linger. Whether you use a challenge for it or just handle it through roleplay or questions, keep it to one or two moves from each player before you interject something to give the game a stronger sense of purpose. You don’t want this to go on forever…or even for very long!

For the other approach: Is the game’s focus more on the problems at hand and how they are fixed? In that case, I’d kick things off with something related to those problems. Throw the characters in the midst of a situation that is going to require their immediate attention, set up some challenges, and let the players have at them.

For this, though, you can do a lot of good by still encouraging interaction. Set up the situation by putting the characters all in the same place. Make sure that there are enough slots on the challenge or challenges that most everyone should get a chance to play. Encourage players to play off of each other and to leave things open in their moves for other players.

Basically…set up a situation that needs to be worked on right now, the success or failure of which does matter and isaffected by the cards…but encourage them to get started on forging those bonds anyway. You’d be surprised how well this works in many cases. If players want to get to interacting–and many do–you may not even have to say word one before they’re calling out to each other in the middle of a battle or having their young warrior think about how the old veteran reminds them of their ex-soldier grandpa. Just throw them all in the midst of a situation and limit the location so they can all see each other, and you might be good already.

If you need a little more, a good thing to do in this case is to tie in something from the characters’ personal stories. Make the challenges personal, even if how they are personal is only hinted at for now. If you tie in some elements of the individual characters, you benefit both by making the characters a part of the game and by encouraging the players to reveal elements of the characters in their efforts to resolve the challenge, which can in turn encourage other characters to react to those elements, which causes bonds to start growing. If you can’t manage to tie things in to the character’s subplots or personal arcs, you can at least highlight the ties each character has to the situation at hand, which can accomplish the same thing. You don’t have to spell this out in great detail, but just take the time to try to make things more personal.

Additionally, nothing says that your challenges can’t do a bit to set up relationships! What if your Strong result had the situation getting cleanly resolved and the concluding character finding admiration for the abilities of another character who played on the challenge, for instance? Or if your Weak result had the situation getting resolved with difficulties and the concluding character seeing another character’s abilities as questionable or otherwise feeling doubtful about them? There’s a lot you can do with challenge results–you can certainly make them about both resolving a situation andforging relationships.

Between the approaches, if I’m starting with a group that isn’t supposed to have extensive prior knowledge of each other, I tend to like just getting to the action. In my experience players actually put a fair amount of work into establishing character bonds anyway, and I don’t tend to find that devoting a lengthy period of time to just working on those relationships benefits the game that much. If you kick things off, and just make sure you have some encouragement in the challenges, narration, and comments thread to help people build those bonds, I think you tend to get bonds forming pretty naturally. This has the benefit, as well, of not feeling forced, and therefore feeling stronger…and if bonds just kind of come from events of the game, those events take on deeper meaning to the characters (and their players).

Additionally, if needed, you can always put more of a focus on forging bonds after the game’s events have kicked off. Keep an eye on the way things develop, and if you find that after the first scene characters don’t appear to be interacting that much, you may want to take a moment out to shine a spotlight on how they relate to each other. I still think there may be better ways to go about it, though.

One way to enhance character relationships, especially after that first scene, is to set up challenges that relate strongly to one of the characters in particular–either their personal plot or just something that ties them to the story–but set too many points on the challenge for the character to accomplish it on their own. Force the characters to interact on something that relates to one of them in particular. This allows you to create ties between the characters that worked on the problem.

Or, set up challenges that support each other–two objectives that both have to be fulfilled and that are taking place in the same place. You’ll find that sometimes group camaraderie can grow just by doing something like that–complex situations where the characters are working together can get players showing more interaction between their characters, even if it is just something like asking for a status report of the other objective!

At a certain point, whether the characters in your game establish bonds or not is really going to be determined by the players. There’s only so much that you, as narrator, can do to encourage it…but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. You can use the above methods (and others, I’m sure) to help draw your player characters closer to each other. Characters with strong bonds to each other tend to result in stronger stories, so do what you can to help it happen