Storium Theory: Getting Personal: The Loner

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on January 12th, 2017.

This week, we’re coming back to “Getting Personal” to talk about a character type I think might be harder to do well in a Storium game than nearly any other: The Loner.

Loners are pretty popular characters in fiction – the lone wolf, the dark hero who works alone, the agent whose last partner got killed and who isn’t willing to accept another, the guy with a problem with authority. You can probably think of popular fictional heroes for each of those “loner” types, right?

But while they’re popular in fiction, loners are tough to write in the context of a Storium game. (Heck, they can be tough to do in tabletop, too.) Storium games are often (not always, but often) set up from the standpoint of a group of characters generally working together – and not just that, but generally all staying together for the duration of the story. There may be points where the characters split up for a little bit to fulfill individual tasks simultaneously, but Storium games that leave a bunch of characters idle while they focus in on action with one particular character tend to die off unless the narrator has gathered a group totally open to that idea (individual scenes just take too long and everyone else gets bored and goes away), so it’s rare for a Storium game to be able to support a true “I work alone” attitude.

So…how do you play this popular fictional archetype in the context of Storium?

Well…you play the loner without actually being a loner.

Loners work best in Storium games by slightly breaking their loner personality from close to the start of the game. Give the character a reason to link up with the other characters and stay around the other characters from the first or second scene. Help the narrator find your character’s reason to stay around.

The loner doesn’t have to like it. He doesn’t have to want it. But he does need to do it, because if he’s always trying to go off on his own and do his own thing, the game can break down very, very quickly. Loner characters who are actually trying to be loner characters all the time can kill a game fast…or get themselves booted from it in order to save the game as a whole.

Now, like I said, though, the loner character doesn’t have to like it. You can get a lot of mileage out of showing the loner being uncomfortable working with others. You can show his problems with authority, and a general unwillingness to follow orders is a great chance to use some Weakness cards. He can deliberately disobey orders or ignore a plan but pull off a great success with Strengths, too. You can cause a lot of interesting interpersonal conflict that way, and loner types work really well in a team atmosphere as a means of adding some tension and deepening relationship complexities (just look at one of the most famous loner types, Wolverine, and his relationship with the X-Men).

But while this is useful in moderation, you need to be careful how much you use the above tropes. There’s a point where this is all cool and gives some great character moments and shows that sometimes orders are better than your character thinks and sometimes he has the right idea but maybe goes about it in the wrong way. But there’s also a point where it just gets actively disruptive. You want to aim for the former, not the latter. Use restraint.

Do not do everything by yourself. Do not always run ahead of the group. Do not separate yourself from the group all the time. Those are the sort of things that make other players wonder exactly why you’re part of the game.

Your loner character should grudgingly – but reasonably successfully – go along with the team in most situations. Pull out the “disobeying orders” or “can’t work with others” bits at specific moments, when it feels like they can truly add to the drama of a scene or progress a relationship he has with another character. Don’t use that theme all the time! You can show him wrestling with the idea pretty frequently, but he should actually break with the team far less often than he thinks about doing so. He should be uncomfortable working with others, but not totally unwilling.

A loner, like the arrogant character type I’ve written about before, can be played more easily in games if the other players and the narrator are aware of what you’re doing. If you just start throwing in a bunch of problems with authority and arguing with the group and running off to do your own thing and (especially) moments where you look good at the expense of other player characters / the group without talking to anyone first, you’re going to find your fellow game members reacting very negatively to the character and most likely to you as well.

Instead, talk with the players and the narrator before the game. Explain that the character is meant to be a loner, but has reasons to tie in with the group. Talk about those reasons and how the story can reinforce them. Talk through some ideas for where he might make situations worse by not going along with the others or trying to do things on his own, and about one or two bits where it might be okay to have him prove his value to the group by being right or taking the right moves against the group’s will. And talk about what might be able to bring him more fully into the fold.

Pre-planning helps when you’re playing a character that could be disruptive. Storium is a collaborative writing game, so collaborate!

One more thing: As I’ve often said in these articles, it’s a good idea to figure out how to break your character’s personality – what will cause that character to act in a way that opposes their normal mannerisms, or against their normal goals? These moments can be the biggest, most dramatic moments in a character’s tale.

With the loner, that’s still true. In his case, the question is: What event will make the loner accept being in a team, or make the loner choose to ally himself fully with the others, rather than just working there because he feels like he has to? What will make him like having his fellow team members around? What will make him admit that?

When the guy who held himself separate from everyone else chooses to go back for the others instead of finishing his foe, or when he’s saved by another person and honestly, truthfully thanks them and is glad they were there, or when he tells the leader he’s been clashing with that he respects them and at just the right moment smoothly plays his role in the team…those are huge, huge moments in stories.

Pick a moment like that and work for it. Ideally, tell the narrator and the players involved that you’re going to work towards something like that, so they can help out. It’ll make the story more powerful (and make it easier to accept the character clashes beforehand).

Loner characters are tough to write in truly collaborative games – unless you’re truly collaborating. I’ve seen a few instances of them being written very poorly in Storium games, leading to their players being dissatisfied and leaving games, other players being dissatisfied and leaving games, or just plain weird story events that clashed pretty heavily with the rest of the tale. But if a loner character is written in full cooperation with the other players and the narrator, he can provide some great interpersonal conflict with an excellent resolution.

Loners are, ironically, potentially great in teams…but only if their players are focused on the team a heck of a lot more than their characters are. I don’t advise trying them often, and you need to be very prepared to answer how they can truly be a part of the game…but if you can make them a part of the game and a part of the team, using them to emphasize the game’s story and the team’ story, they can be great fun for everyone. Just use them with caution.