Storium Theory: Let’s Make Some Trouble

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on October 6th, 2016.

I’ve written a bit on this blog before about playing during a challenge–in particular, how players should leave things open for other players to play on and involve other players in the challenge to tell a complete story. Today, I’d like to write about playing during a challenge again–specifically about making trouble in a challenge.

By “making trouble,” I don’t mean being disruptive to the game atmosphere, of course! This is about writing an interesting story, not getting yourself booted from games.

When a narrator sets up a challenge, the narrator provides some details about what is going on–what threats currently exist, what the conditions of the challenge are presently, where the characters start out, that sort of thing. And, of course, the narrator sets up the challenge description, which sets the tone for the challenge and the central questions to be answered during it.

But then, the players get to tell the challenge’s story.

And while they’ll always be working to answer the challenge description’s question, and working towards the outcomes…the starting point of the challenge? That gets left behind pretty fast.

What that means is that as a challenge progresses, the players tell how it evolves. This involves telling about their successes, their failures, and how those change the situation.

But it also involves telling how the situation reacts to their efforts, or how the story proceeds moment by moment.

This is sometimes pretty obvious, and sometimes falls under advice I’ve given before–if you’re fighting an enemy army, for instance, and you play Cowardly, well, maybe you run away and you leave an opening for the army to stream in, thus clearly worsening the heroes’ position, right?

But players have more authority to tell the story than just that.

Once the situation has progressed out of the starting gate, players tell the flow of the story. The rises, the falls, the successes, the failures…and the new problems.

You don’t need to feel bound by just what the narrator put in at the very beginning. If the scene opens with the enemy army charging, they don’t have to be continually charging. Maybe after someone repels their initial charge, they try a different tactic. Maybe they loop around and try to catch the group in a pincer attack. Maybe they back off and try to lure someone into a trap.

That part of the story comes from the players, too.

And what about another situation? Say you’re running through a collapsing building, and the narrator sets up the scene talking about falling blocks of concrete and danger, but the challenge is about finding your way to a stable location, not just avoiding being crushed. Well, sure, your moves can be about the falling concrete and trying to avoid being crushed as you run like hell, like the narrator initially set up. But what else could be going on in a collapsing building that could stop you from getting to a safe place?

Collapsed hallways could block off paths. Gaps in the floor could have to be jumped or crossed somehow. Dust and smoke and an ever-changing environment could be disorienting. Fires could start up. Other panicked survivors could mob around a good path and slow you down or force you to go another way. Stairs could be blocked off and cause you to have to climb down an elevator shaft with the elevator itself damaged and hanging perilously above your head.

There’s a lot more to the challenge, potentially, than what the narrator initially laid out. None of those problems were directly called out by the narrator in setting up the challenge…but they are all ones that could arise while you work your way to one of the outcomes.

This is particularly helpful for two purposes: First, giving you the opportunity to play cards, and second, giving you things to leave open for other players to resolve.

Let’s say that you are Observant, and you’re in the battle I mentioned above. The enemy charges, and a strong warrior character on your side blunts their charge with his Ferocious Strength. Let’s say you’re having a little trouble thinking of ways to play Observant just going from the situation at hand–it’s just an open battle now, right?

Well, no.

To play Observant, you could write in a trouble for it to resolve: One that works well is the “pincer attack” idea. The initial charge was important, sure, but the enemy sees it didn’t work and splits its forces, sending some around to try to get at your troops from behind. Being Observant, you spot them and manage to work up an effective defense.

Introducing a new trouble provides you with the opportunity to play a card you might not have been able to think of a way to play before.

Or let’s take that collapsing building escape. Say that you have Overconfident. Now, there’s obviously some ways to play that even in the context of falling blocks (say, being confident that you can run past something before it falls, only to find out you can’t), but let’s say you want to set something else up. Maybe your Overconfidence expresses itself by being sure that you know your way around the building…only to find out that one of the passages you thought you could take has collapsed. You try to think of another way around and can’t, making you realize you didn’t know the building as well as you thought.

This leads me to the second point: Providing things to leave open for other players. Making up new troubles for the situation can be a great way to do this. In that situation where you find the path blocked, maybe you leave off there–leaving it to another player to tell the story from that point. How does the group get around the blocked path? It’s up to them. Maybe they’ll play a Strength to push aside the rubble in orderly fashion, or to figure out a way around the blocked hall. Or maybe they’ll play a Weakness to get further lost, or to get the rubble out of the way but get hurt in the process.

Possibility. You introduce possibility, and then let another player make use of it.

And you can do that even with a Strength! Going back to the battle, let’s say that Observant allows you to spot the pincer attack and organize a defense…but that you’re only able to hold back the assault, not fully push it away. Call that out! Make it clear you need some more help! Then let another player come in on their move to resolve the situation more completely (and then set up their own new tactic for the enemy, if they’d like). Even on a Strength, don’t always immediately fully resolve the trouble you set up.

And heck, you can even set up a new trouble in response to your resolution of one. Let’s say that in the battle example, you’re the guy who played Ferocious to stop the enemy charge. Maybe you then set up that the enemy’s response is to try a pincer attack. You’ve made the situation better, but you also tell how the enemy is trying to respond.

By doing these things, you can tell a more complete story–a story that moves forward move by move, but always builds on itself. You can make challenges feel like they progress. The situation doesn’t have to remain exactly as it was starting out all the way until the last move–it evolves. Troubles are overcome and new troubles arise in their place. Troubles worsen and change. That’s telling a story.

I look at it this way: the narrator is responsible for setting up the challenge and setting its conditions, true…but once a challenge has started, the players are all part narrator. They’re responsible for telling the story of the challenge, and that involves both dealing with existing troubles and establishing new ones to overcome.

Now, there’s a caveat I need to lay down, here: Keep your new troubles within the bounds laid out by the challenge and its outcomes. Don’t go totally out of left field. If you’re running to escape a collapsing building, the challenge is about that–so you might encounter falling rubble, blocked hallways or staircases, dangerous climbs, holes in the floor, all that sort of stuff. But you probably shouldn’t add machine gun toting robbers to the mix, unless they’ve already been part of the story and could rationally show up here (and really, even if they did, wouldn’t they be more concerned about running?).

If you’re fighting a battle against the Maltraskan army, your new troubles should be things about military tactics…probably not a sudden earthquake that casts you down into a pit (unless this is a fantasy game and the Maltraskan army has powerful wizards that caused it, mind).

There’s a lot of freedom here, but remember that you’re telling the story of the challenge, so keep in mind what the challenge is about.

And keep the outcomes in mind, too–what are you working towards? If the collapsing building challenge is about fully escaping the collapse, with outcomes about escaping the building entirely / finding a safe place, then all sorts of trouble involving finding a way out might come up. But if its a short one just about running away from falling blocks, and the outcomes are about either getting to the end of the hall without getting hit or getting banged up on the way, well, your troubles there should probably be more about the need to run to the end of the hallway, not taking lots of twists and turns.

Now, you could still introduce new troubles! They’d just be things like, perhaps, a piece of heavy furniture toppling over in your way as you flee down the hallway, needing to be pushed aside before the part of the roof above your heads crumbles and hurts you. Or maybe your foot gets pinned under a fallen object, forcing you or others to lift it off.

Likewise, if the challenge with the enemy army charging is clearly entirely about that charge and whether it is repelled or not, rather than just using it as the starting point for a longer fight scene, don’t repel the charge early, and maybe don’t make troubles about other enemy tactics. Instead, your Observant play might be about noticing a weak point in the enemy’s charging line or a group moving more slowly, and directing some forces there to help blunt the charge’s impact when it hits.

You can almost always make new troubles for a situation to make it more exciting and evolve it beyond its starting point. It’s just always important to bear in mind the challenge’s context, and where it is going to end up in the end.

And don’t go overboard! If there’s already a lot of troubles on hand, work with those–don’t add new things when the situation really doesn’t need to be any more complex. You don’t want to end up with a lot of dangling trouble threads–what you want is to tell an interesting, exciting tale. If the enemy is already battering your front lines, catching you in a pincer attack, and subjecting you to massive artillery barrages, you probably shouldn’t also have them also bring in their dragonrider air support. Deal with at least some of what’s already there, first!

One last thing: When introducing a new trouble, don’t entirely negate someone else’s victory. If another person played a Strength about being able to find their way through the building, I’d avoid pulling in a trouble that plays out as their expected path being blocked and their being unable to find a way around. That negates their Strength. Instead, here’s a few concepts:

  • Overconfident, you briefly convince the group to go another way, claiming it is better, only to find that path blocked–then the person who played the Strength earlier directs everyone back onto the better path, but you’ve lost some time.
  • The path is right, but you stumble on an obstacle, like a big hole in the floor, that has to be surpassed. The person who told you the directions is still right and this is the right way (and best way) to go, but you need to get past the hole (make it clear this is difficult but possible–the path is still good).

You can see this, as well, in my framing of the “pincer attack” suggestion for play with Observant, above. The enemy uses the pincer attack because the first player managed to repel the charge. You make it clear that the first player’s victory mattered, and forced the enemy to adapt–still creating a new danger, but leaving the victory intact rather than negating what the player did.

All in all, learning to make troubles will help you tell a more exciting story–not to mention give you more opportunities to play varied cards in challenges that might at first have appeared more limited in scope. Remember to stay within the overall framework of the challenge, and take care not to overwhelm the group with too many problems or negate the good things that have happened, but use this technique to tell more complex and interesting stories–if you can master this, you’ll find your options expanding immensely.