Storium Theory: Letting Your Players’ Cards Guide You

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on September 22nd, 2016.

I mentioned this very briefly back in “Use the Characters You Chose,” but in light of last week’s article, I think it’s appropriate to draw some attention to it again.

As narrator, your job is to guide the story and help the players tell an interesting, entertaining tale that is fun to play and hopefully also fun to read.

A big part of that is making sure that you make the tale appropriate to the characters you have–that you focus the story on these characters. Rather than building a story and then slotting the characters into it, you should be at least in some way building the story around the characters that you have (who have, hopefully, been built for the world and story details you put out to begin with: see “Play Within the World” for that!).

Part of that is taking a look at the cards players have.

Cards, in Storium, represent the traits that players are telling you they’d like to highlight about their character–the traits that the player wants to show up in the story. When a player picks a card, the player does so because he or she wants to use that card at some point. It isn’t just to tell you about the character–it’s to tell you that they want the character to be shown using this trait or dealing with this issue or exploring this subplot.

Let yourself be guided by that.

If someone picks “Handy with His Fists” as a Strength, give them chances to sock someone in the jaw!

If someone picks “Petty” as a weakness, give them chances to offend someone with their nitpicking.

If someone picks “Something to Protect” as their subplot, give them chances to figure out what they want to protect–present them with things to protect, or situations where they need to confront their desire to protect things versus their desire to attain other goals.

I’m not saying that you have to study every card that a player has, necessarily, and make sure every one has a scene meant specifically for it! That’s going overboard. What I’m saying is to make sure you have an understanding of what themes the player seems to want to explore with a character.

If you have a character that seems to have a rough-and-tumble, brawling, graceless focus, give him chances to make that matter to the game for good or ill.

If you have a character who focuses on smarts and being judgmental, give the character chances to make that matter to the game for good or ill.

You see?

To be clear: it’s not your role as narrator to make the players play these cards. It’s not your role to plan out their moves. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it’s your role to make sure that the opportunity exists–to plan scenes where players will have an easier time bringing in the cards they have.

Your role is to pay attention to what the players have told you they’d like to see–that’s a part of collaborative storytelling.

I certainly won’t claim I’ve gotten this perfect!

Again…don’t go overboard, and don’t stress yourself out over this. Just take the time to periodically look at what cards your players have, and think about if your upcoming scenes help them to play those cards. If it feels like some might be tougher or require more thought to play, either look at adding parts of the story that focus on those traits, or be ready with some suggestions of broad interpretations.

There’s ways to use “Political Thinker” and “Spendthrift” in fight scenes, sure–I just spent an article talking all about that. But consider doing scenes to highlight those instead (especially if more than one player has cards of a similar sort). The story will feel stronger and more linked to the characters if you take the time to build it around the traits the players have told you they’d like to show in the tale.

Even as narrator, let the cards guide you to some extent–you have a tale to tell, but it’s a good idea to let it link in as strongly as possible to the character traits your players have chosen to highlight. Your players are telling you what they want to show–let them!