Storium Theory: And I’m All Out of Bubblegum

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 15th, 2016.

Heroes need hero moments.

There’s a tendency, when narrating in Storium (or when GMing, for that matter), to forget that–to make every challenge that the heroes face a serious danger to them and their cause–something that could not only go wrong, but go seriously wrong.

For some genres, this actually works just fine. If you’re writing a story about normal people caught in a highly dangerous situation that they’re totally unprepared for, it’s appropriate for there to be severe danger at every turn. If the tone of your story is despair and dread, if things are supposed to look bleak from the get-go, or if the characters are pretty normal folks and don’t need to look highly capable…that’s fine. Ignore the advice to follow.

But if you’re writing a superheroic story…the sort of story where already-epic fantasy heroes crusade for a cause, or superheroes face off against a dastardly villain, or action cops take on crime bosses…you need to give the players some hero moments–moments where their characters get to show off and look good. Moments where they impress. Moments where we see that the heroes aren’t just good–they’re amazing, larger-than-life. The characters are already capable and powerful, at whatever scale the game needs–we need to see that, before things move on to show them struggling.

An aside: a superheroic story doesn’t necessarily have to involve superheroes in the comic book sense. What I mean here is the story’s tone, the fact that it is about people who are more capable, or skilled, or powerful, than ordinary humans could be, and need to look it.

Hero moments are moments where the characters just plain look cool. Things go their way, they kick some real a**, and show off. Early in the story, they show us how the characters can succeed at things, how they look when they’re facing off against things they’re used to dealing with.

This has three main effects:

  1. It shows off the heroes’ skills and powers and helps readers get to know the characters.
  2. It convinces readers that the heroes are capable and effective, and have the skills to succeed. No matter what happens later, readers can believe in the heroes’ abilities and root for them.
  3. It builds up future threats by comparison. By showing what the heroes can handle easily, you establish just how serious later threats are – the heroes are struggling not because they’re incapable, but because the bad guys are just that bad.

In a tabletop roleplaying game, you might do this simply by setting up a fight against weaker monsters, intentionally underleveling the fight, and letting the players slice and dice hordes of weaker foes without significant problems (the “mook” enemies in games like 13th Age are terrific for this, particularly if you pick ones a little underleveled…starts feeling like Dynasty Warriors!). You don’t spend much time on the fight because the players plow through the enemies like butter, and you let the players describe their victories in wondrous action movie detail. Believe me, it works. Players feel great.

In Storium, you can do this too…it’s all in how you set up the challenges.

What you want to do is make sure that your Weak outcome is not in any way perceivable as Failure, and that even the complications of a Success with Complications approach are relatively gentle. Whether the players get a Strong or Weak outcome on the challenge, it should feel like the heroes had a pretty easy time of it. With a Weak outcome, they just might also have to deal with some other consequences (property damage, maybe) or just have some kind of danger foreshadowed (the villain’s been observing and noticed something about someone who played a weakness in the fight that he’ll use against them later).

Players, then, can and should play their Weakness cards more gently in such a challenge, and their Strength cards more strongly. Remember my earlier advice on the “range” of outcomes for a challenge, and how your card plays should generally keep things within that range. If the range of outcomes is from “You win the fight easily” to “You win the fight easily but cause property damage,” your Weakness plays shouldn’t, largely, be about putting yourself in some kind of major danger. They’d be more about taking bigger risks or being less careful, or slipping up momentarily but recovering after some attack hit something relatively important.

Basically, no matter what, the heroes look good here. If Weaknesses show up, things still work out despite them, and they’re more hints at what might come in the future rather than actual trouble right now.

Here’s an example of what such a challenge might look like:

  • The Aces High gang is trying to rob the bank! They’re taking hostages and breaking into the vault–it’s up to you to stop them!
    • Strong: You easily capture the gang members and rescue all the hostages. The bank’s funds, staff, and customers are all safe, and everyone’s grateful.
    • Weak: You easily capture the gang members and rescue all the hostages. Everything and everyone are safe, but choose: Lots of property damage was done during the fight and the bank’s going to have to close for repairs for a week or two, OR the gang’s leader, who was watching from afar in some way, got a good view of one character’s played Weakness and will plot something related to it in the future.

Plenty of other ways you could do this as well…the central point is that the challenge should feel like it was a breeze to the heroes, storywise, and while it can and should still have story impact (challenges should always matter), the chance of immediate significant negative impact feels minimal. Make it clear to players that this is their chance to look super-cool and awesome, while hinting (if they’d like) at what could bring their character down in the future with their Weaknesses. Then watch the fun.

Now, I want to emphasize something here. This is something you should do early on in the story, only once or twice, before moving to more notable challenges. Stories should pretty quickly move to actual struggles. Superman shouldn’t spend long in a story having mugger’s bullets bounce off his chest–he should open up the story like that to show he’s awesome, then move on pretty quickly to Luthor’s deadly schemes or cosmic-powered monsters capable of leveling the city, or what-have-you.

Now, you can also use hero moments for another purpose: showing that characters have “leveled up,” as it were (possibly literally, if we’re talking tabletop). In stories where characters have the odds stacked against them but rise to the occasion and become better, it’s good to have a moment midway through the story where we see that a threat that was serious to them before isn’t that bad now. This works the same way, as far as the system goes. Storywise, take a threat you threw at the characters in the past…but now, make the Strong outcomes stronger and the Weak outcomes better for the heroes. Show that they can face the same threat with less risk. This works for any story type, not just the superheroic, larger-than-life ones.

Again, though…only do that once or twice before you move back to the serious stuff. Make it a momentary breather, a chance to show off what they’ve learned…then throw the heroes back into the notable challenges.

A quick interjection to note that even when challenges get notable I still favor Success vs. Success with Complications rather than Success vs. Failure–just that the Complications should be bigger when things are supposed to be “risky.”

Now, there’s one more type of “hero moment” I do have to mention, and that one’s player-driven.

Narrators set up challenges and set the range of results. But the players decide how their characters go about solving those challenges.

The players can, therefore, give themselves some cool hero moments (or set up good hero moments for others) in the midst of a challenge.

This doesn’t work all the time–some challenges demand an absolute gravitas at all times, with the situation established as unavoidably dangerous and a suggestion through narration, challenge text, and outcome range that every move should be a struggle.

But others are more open…even with a wide range of results, if the tone of the challenge is more neutral, players in a superheroic game should feel free to show off when they play a Strength. Fighting an army? Don’t just “push forward,” slay a dozen soldiers and shock the enemy lines with your battle roar. Getting information out of some mobsters? Don’t just pressure the bad guys, have a couple of their thugs attack you and take them out with a cool martial arts combo, then ask for information.

The scale may vary by game – in some games, it’s entirely appropriate for a hero to slay a hundred men in a single attack, while in others “impressive” might just be an utter decimation of one opponent among the many they’re facing, for instance. The point is that you can throw in cool little hero moments where you show off just how good your character is, even if the challenge isn’t specifically set up as an overall hero moment challenge (and indeed, even if the challenge isn’t necessarily outright geared towards your character’s strengths, as with the “we need information but I’m a bada** martial artist, not a talker” bit above).

Don’t overuse these, and always make sure that you’re fitting the tone of the scene and staying within the range of outcomes for the challenge…but take the time to make your character, and those of others, awesome.

And narrators…nurture those moments, and do your best to bring them out. If you want a superheroic tone for your game, it’s important to make the heroes larger-than-life. They should face struggles…but only after we’ve seen just how cool they can really be.