Storium Theory: Getting the Right Cast

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on 11/11/2015.

When you come up with an idea for a new game, it can be really tempting to start it as soon as you get some applications for it. “I need four players,” you think, “and here, there’s four applications! Time to accept them and go!”

Don’t think that way.

I advise taking your time, letting the standard application timeline run its course, or at least get close. See what comes in.

For a Storium game, getting the right cast is vital. If you’re narrating, you need to wait. Let the apps come in.

And then…review them.

Take a long, hard look at the characters. Make sure you really, truly understand them. See what ones seem like they would play off each other well. See what ones seem to be interesting, or unique. See what ones give you plot threads to work with. Sometimes there’s a great character that just doesn’t really work with the rest of the cast you want to pick.

And take a long, hard look at the players as well. If they’ve played in previous games, read some of those. See how they seem to interact, how they write. See how often they go inactive. How many games have they retired from? How many games have they completed?

I don’t advise outright dumping everyone who retired from a lot of games and hasn’t completed any…but if a guy has been on Storium for three months and retired from 10 or 20 games already, you might want to investigate further. Maybe there’s an explanation. But maybe he just starts a lot of games and loses interest fast.

And if you need to talk to a prospective player to ask some questions…do it.

Storium isn’t a job interview, but from my perspective, it’s pretty close. You’re asking for people to sign on with you for a writing project that, chances are, will run for several months, maybe even a year. You want people you can work with, and you want people that you’re at least fairly certain will be dependable.

Do not feel obligated to say “yes.”

Believe me, I know. It hurts to tell someone you aren’t accepting them for your game, because we’ve all been on the other end of that conversation. It’s also easy to feel fairly obligated to take those who apply because we all know there’s a shortage of public games. But as Narrator, your job is not just to run a game: it’s to run a game well, to run a game that will reach its conclusion, hell or high water. You can’t do that without making some choices.

So take the time. Wait for the apps to come in. Review them. Look things over. And make your choices.

And when you reject an application…give as good an explanation as you can. Be polite, but explain. If there’s an actual problem you found, try to help the person understand how to change things for another game. Sometimes there isn’t a problem, though. Sometimes you just don’t see a character working with the cast, even though it’s a good character. If that’s the case…be honest about that too.

But above all, do your best to get the right cast, not the first cast.

4 Comments

  1. Justin Hall
    Apr 2, 2016

    Great post…I don’t agree with you. Well only, not mostly. You make a lot of good points. Making sure the characters fit for your game and checking previous play history can save you from disappointment later. But…if you are too critical of the submitted character, you might be forgetting this isn’t just your game it’s all of the players game. When the Storium starts, your story will change. When I envisioned DAO, I was looking for more of an X files/Warehouse 13 feel. But when I started opening the game up for submission, I got a cougar men, a manticore, a techie, and a doctor of psychology. If I rejected the monstrous characters because they didn’t fit my vision, DAO wouldn’t be as awesome as it is.

    Honestly, I feel people put to much emphases on getting to know the character before the game. I find this concept limiting. A character doesn’t become real until they can act during adversity. History, personality traits, and beliefs don’t form until they are needed. I didn’t know Lea’s baby brother died in her hands until I made that move. This is a year after I started playing the character. I didn’t know the first iteration of Morena was gay until the second scene. If I needed to know these parts of their story before the game started, I would never have been able to play them.

    Last point. Rejection is the worst. If you are looking for only four characters (a bad idea), and eight characters are submitted, that is four people who took an hour of their time to create a character that you are going to deny. They have probably waited a week wondering if they were going to get in to the game. This process handicaps new players who are still learning Storium etiquette. We as veteran narrators should be nurturing the new players. We should be making Storium as open as possible.

  2. Robert Mohr
    Apr 4, 2016

    One thing I have to disagree with you on here is that recruiting only 4 people is a bad idea. Even Storium’s official help documents state that the system works best with 3-5 players, counting the narrator, and I tend to agree. Keeping the game at least around that number of players tends to help the challenge system work best by preventing the narrator from having to lay down large numbers of challenges / set challenge values extremely high to make sure everyone gets a chance to play their cards. It also assists the narrator with being able to handle “spotlighting” different characters at different points of the story, enabling him to better help the players bring out their character’s issues, plots, and chances to shine.

    Games can certainly work with large numbers of players, but in my experience, the more characters there are, the less individual character plots and issues matter to the story, the less characters get spotlight moments or scenes specifically meant to call out their issues, and the more…confusing…scenes can get. Your mileage may vary, but I tend to find games with more than, say, six players tops pretty hard to read, and it gets very hard to remember details and catch things even in the context of a single scene. While I’ve been able to enjoy games that had more than the recommended 3-5 players, it’s a lot of work to keep myself up to speed on what’s going on, and it feels like I have to fight to have my character’s issues have time to be explored. In a smaller game, things just seem to flow more naturally.

    I don’t think that you have to know everything about a character before a game, but as a narrator, I do want to see that you do have *some* kind of picture about what the character is. I’m not asking to know all their details, but I want to see that you have a concept of how you’re going to play them, and I want to think about how that concept fits in with the other characters that have applied for the game.

    Likewise, I agree that you need to be at least fairly open about what you are willing to allow in a game. That said, I think there can be a rational limit to openness in terms of concepts. Where that limit resides depends on the game. If you see a character and have a reaction that it would be cool to put into the game despite the fact that it wasn’t your initial intent (as with the monster creatures in DAO), that’s fine. If you see a character and have a reaction that it really doesn’t look like it would work at all, that it’s too far from the concept intended for the game, that’s fine too.

    I do not agree that there should be any obligation on the part of a narrator to take all players who apply for a game. I have two goals as a narrator. One, I want to ensure that the game is fun for everyone who ends up taking part in it. Two, I want to ensure that the game reaches completion so that everyone involved has a fun story to look back at later on, and so that people coming to Storium see that games *do* run to completion and there *are* complete stories out there.

    I think that every narrator has a particular style, and a different set of abilities. I firmly believe that if I took eight players for a game, I would fail as a narrator. I cannot possibly handle that size of cast and run a coherent game with an interesting story that entertains my players and anyone who comes by to read it. Therefore, if I take eight players for a game, I am doing those players a disservice. If my game turns into a shambles and utterly tanks as a result, I have done far more harm to Storium than I would have if I had given four of those players thoughtful rejection notices and taken the other four to a successful and fun game.

    I don’t think you realize how special your ability to work with a massive amount of players really is, Justin. In your games, you’re able to keep facts and concepts and characters organized even though you have to write multifaceted plots and provide events for people across multiple regions, and remember quite a lot of things that have been going on. That’s wonderful, and that’s a reason that you’re able to handle very large games. I cannot advise every narrator to try that, and I cannot advise *myself* to try that.

    It is far, far easier for a narrator of my style and abilities to work with a smaller game. I believe that for many narrators, especially narrators starting out (who this article is, really, aimed at), it will be easier for them to narrate if they pick a smaller cast. Once you have a few games under your belt, you know what style works for you. You know if you will feel comfortable bringing more people in to things. If you decide to start bringing in every application, that’s fine. You know what works for you, at that point.

    But if I’m giving advice to new narrators on accepting applications, I believe it will be better for them to start small and follow the advice I’ve given here. Learn the basics, and you can always break from them later.

  3. Justin Hall
    Jul 13, 2016

    You make a good point, new narrators should probably start with smaller casts. I’ve just seen too often a narrator starts gets four people with great bios. Then, after a few scenes, two of the players drop off Storium. Now, there isn’t enough cast to complete the story. Now, the narrator, who was doing a good job is discouraged from narrating. Part of the problem, players forget that games go on a loooong time. Each narrator needs to think about attrition.

    • Robert Mohr
      Jul 13, 2016

      Eh–I’ve been in multiple stories that completed with two people, so I can’t say I agree that that’s not enough. But your central point–you need to be ready for attrition–is totally right.

      The first game I was ever in on Storium was quite large–I believe it had somewhere on the order of ten people. When some players dropped, the game just utterly collapsed. If you’re not ready for attrition, it doesn’t matter if your game is large or small–it’ll end up collapsing when you lose players. A large game does have some more resilience, true, but when characters drop it can still be a major impact. You have to be ready for it and have an idea what to do.

      The same narrator ran his next game with only four players, and it was a very fun game that completed, didn’t lose anyone, and remains one of my favorite games on Storium. He ran another game with five players where we lost two of them, but he handled it well and the story still went to completion and was a lot of fun. So I really think it has more to do with being prepared and figuring out how to deal with potential attrition than with the size of the game, there.