Storium Theory: Guiding the Story

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on October 27th, 2016.

A while back, I wrote a post about different types of narrator, which I named the Director, the Guide, the Editor, and the Attendant. Today, I’d like to go into one of those styles a bit more…specifically, the one I think I align with the most, the Guide.

While I think that in my tabletop roleplaying game GMing I’ve been more along the lines of a Director, I’ve found myself loosening up a bit with my time as a narrator in Storium, and I find myself working more within the Guide style (my beginner games excepted, those are much more in the Director style). So, now that I have some games under my belt, I feel like I can speak a little more on exactly what I’ve found to be involved with this kind of narration: how does one guide the story, exactly?

In my experience, it comes down to two things: setting a goal, and reading.

You want to always have a feeling for where the game is going–where you’re currently headed. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s a good idea in Storium games to have an ending from the start. Not an unchangeable ending, but an ending.

This is especially important for the Guide. The Guide narration style largely works by figuring out what ending the game is currently headed for, and setting up the next portion of the game based on that. What the Guide tries to do is to set up scenes in such a way that the current ending heading can either be reinforced or disrupted. He’ll set up events that can lead towards what he’s seen as the story’s most likely ending. Based on how those events go, then, he’ll reevaluate the story’s condition and see if the ending has been changed. It’s somewhat freeform, but also somewhat scripted.

Effectively, you can look at a Guide-narrated story as a series of segments. At the start of the first segment, the Guide predicts in general terms where the story will eventually end, and sets in motion the events that will lead there. After the first set of events, the Guide starts a new segment of the tale. At the beginning of this segment, he takes another look at the current condition of the story and where it seems to be headed. He then sets up the next segment of the tale to lead towards this new place – it may be similar to what he thought before, or it may be quite different, depending on how things have gone thus far. As the segment draws to a close, he puts in flow-guiding challenges based on what has happened which will help him define the next path, setting up an important branch that could alter the ending the story is headed towards. At each new segment, the process repeats.

A Guide–at least my version of it–rarely actually plans in any sort of detail more than one or two scenes ahead. He has a sort of general idea of where the story will end up, presently, but doesn’t take the time to think in any major detail about it. Instead, he focuses on the now and how that now might potentially set things up to lead to a given ending–and how it might be twisted away from it. Challenge outcomes are used to reinforce the story’s current flow (usually with Strong outcomes) or to question it (usually with Weak outcomes). In cases where the story’s current heading is negative for the player characters, that relationship might be reversed.

In some cases, these flow-guiding challenges might be single challenges with a huge impact, while in others, they might be collections of smaller challenges that all work together to nudge the flow bit by bit in one direction or another. What matters is that they effectively represent branches: places where the story can go one way or another in a significant fashion. When a Guide puts out this sort of challenge, it isn’t just a matter of whether the characters are doing well or poorly at something–it’s a question of whether they end up on one story path, or a significantly different one.

A flow-guiding challenge is one that drastically alters the path of the story. Do the characters evade capture or do they get taken in? Do the characters convince the Knights of the Grove that they can help, or do the Knights remain their enemy? Do the characters decide to try to save the guy who’s been antagonizing them this whole time, or let their hurt and anger rule?

These challenges can drastically impact where the story goes–how the latter part of the story will feel, how the next scenes are set up, what sort of ending actually comes to pass. Now, not all flow-guiding challenges are created equal. All those above are ones that happened pretty late in the stories–I’d still say their impact is quite large, but they didn’t so much alter what I’d look at as the stories’ endings as color them.

But earlier ones? Those can change a game’s entire course. Do you manage to convince someone to help you early on, or does he call in someone else who has some secrets to help you out? That person’s secrets might go on to impact the entire rest of the game. What do you find while you travel through the cave? Hey, maybe that’ll be an important item later on. Do you interpret this information correctly or incorrectly, and what do you do with it? That can set up an entire future segment all on its own.

A Guide sets up those sorts of challenges at various points throughout the game, and uses the results to figure out what is coming next – effectively, beyond each flow-guiding challenge, he doesn’t actually tend to know what’s coming. He may have some basic ideas, but he intentionally avoids any real pre-planning past those points. That way, he can use not just the challenge’s results, but the specifics of how the players write during the challenge and how they write the result to truly put a twist in the tale.

That brings me to the other skill a Guide needs to have: reading.

A Guide needs to read–clearly, and completely–what the players write. He needs to remember what they create, understand what they’ve done, and figure out the direction they’ve left the story going in. He can’t just look at a Strong or Weak result and figure things out from that alone – he needs to understand why the result happened, what went into it, what the goals of the characters were whether or not they were attained, and the full story of the challenge. He needs to be able to look at the story as a whole and figure out–not just from the end of a challenge but from the whole thing–where to take things next, and where things seem to be headed.

But more than that, a Guide needs to get a good understanding of the player characters–to be able to understand how they’ll act in different situations, how they might react when things happen, and what choices they might make. I’ve mentioned before that using “planning scenes” can be a really, really bad idea in Storium games…but to avoid them, a Guide needs to be able to make a choice for the player characters without it feeling illegitimate. What that means is that a Guide must try to get an understanding of the central motivations of the player characters–to figure out what makes them tick, what they’ll insist on, what they’ll agree to help with, all of that.

It isn’t easy, and I definitely don’t think I get this perfect. (Which is why openly asking players to let you know if you use their character to make a choice they definitely wouldn’t make is also a good idea!)

As a Guide, you’re going to have your best success if you can sometimes write for a player character, to have that character agree or make a choice or otherwise act in support of the story’s “path” or to set up the next flow-guiding challenge. But it has to feel right. If you just seize a character to say what you need the character to say, that’s railroading. That’s not what you’re going for.

As a Guide, what I’m trying to do isn’t use the characters to get the story where I want it to go. What I’m trying to do is understand the characters so I understand where the story will go.

It’s not “how do I get Jake Munroe to go into the forest?” Instead, it’s “based on how I read Jake Munroe, where would he decide to go in this situation?” You don’t use the character to push the game in your chosen direction. You use the character to tell you where the game will go.

Now, true, sometimes you can leave that straight up to the players, or make that the subject of a flow-guiding challenge, as in some of the examples above (for instance, the “do you try to save your foe, or let anger and hurt take over?”). But sometimes you’re going to have to just do it. Take the challenge above about convincing the Knights: the question is whether the characters convince the Knights they can help, or fail to do so–whether they change their situation or not, right? Not trying to convince the Knights, though, wasn’t an option set up–I didn’t ask the players first whether they would try to converse with the Knights. Why? Because my reading of the characters over the course of the game suggested that if the opportunity presented itself, they’d try to talk things out, try to get someone on their side, rather than trying to use force to escape. Nothing suggested they would try to fight–their actions so far were focused on talking to people, and on trying to get people on their side. So, I felt on safe ground setting that as their goal, rather than leaving things more open or talking it through with the players.

Basically, that’s what I’m getting at: if you read and get an understanding of the characters, you can sometimes take control–not to guide the story where you want it to go, but to hustle the story towards where the characters are saying it will go–where the latest challenge results have pointed it. It’s a difficult line to walk sometimes and one that I’m not always sure I manage well (see my commentary on “Twishted” for more on that), but it helps a Guide write a game that both keeps moving along at a decent clip and feels like it is player-driven.

Overall, I think the Guide style is a fun one to use, and it has suited my narration in Storium quite well–but it isn’t for everyone. If this doesn’t sound like you, Guide isn’t the only narration style! Take a look at my earlier article to try to figure out where you lie – they’re all capable of good games. But I hope that this has helped provide a more expansive look at one style in particular, and perhaps helped with an understanding of technique.