Storium Theory: Maintaining the Pace

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on January 26th, 2017.

If you’ve narrated (or played, for that matter) on Storium before, you know there’s a pretty large tendency for games to slow down as they go on. If you haven’t narrated or played on Storium before, well…you’ve just been clued in. It’s simply a fact of playing on Storium, and it happens for a variety of reasons, from games just being more “exciting” for players and narrators when they’re new to life sometimes getting in the way. It’s important to accept the fact that your game will encounter slowdown at some point during its run.

But there’s a difference between accepting that fact and encouraging the slowdown to happen in the first place, and today, I’d like to share some things that I’ve found that can help at least a little. Some of these are things I’ve mentioned before in passing, but I wanted to take the time to highlight them some more here. These alone won’t keep a game going fast and furious the whole way through, but they can make sure that the game isn’t encountering situations that actively slow it down.

Don’t Use All Your Challenge Points

Each scene, you as narrator have a collection of points to use for challenges, representing the number of cards that each challenge will require to be played on it in order to complete the challenge’s story. You receive points equal to the number of cards one player can play in each scene multiplied by the number of players. For example, if you use the default setting of 3 cards per scene and have 5 players, you start each scene with 15 points to use for challenges. If you changed it up and allowed players to use 4 cards per scene and you have 6 players, you start a scene with 24 points to use for challenges.

It’s probably a good idea to avoid using every last one of those points, though.

Here’s the thing: Like I said above, things happen. Players get sidetracked by real life. Sometimes people can’t play for a little while. Sometimes they just outright disappear.

If you use every single point available to you, you are going to run into a point where the only player who has cards left to play hasn’t logged on for a week, and the game is being stalled. Sure, there are things you can try to get around that, but…better to just take steps to avoid the problem in the first place.

What I advise is that you mentally subtract one player’s worth of cards from your total. So if you have 3 cards per scene for 5 players, play like you have 3 cards per scene for 4 players: a max of 12 points in the scene instead of 15. If you have 4 cards per scene for 6 players, play like you only have 5 players: 20 points per scene instead of 24.

What this does is make sure that if one player completely disappears for a scene and doesn’t play a single card, the other players can still fill up every challenge slot, keeping the game moving.

Even if you don’t have a player needing to go on vacation or fading into the background for a while, though, this just helps with maintaining a decent pace. You’re not forcing players to go to the absolute end of everything they can do in the scene, which means that at any given moment, the scene has more options available and more people who can play. If you reach the last challenge point for a scene and three or four people have a card left to play instead of just one, there’s more people who can log on and fill in that gap…and more options for brainstorming, as well.

Overall, I just find this a helpful technique to keep in mind. It seems to help with speeding play in general, and definitely helps when you hit those situations where one of your players isn’t going to be able to log in for a bit.

Do Your Part

Narrator posts can be a large source of slowdown in Storium games. They’re big, complex things and we as narrators often need some time to think. But it’s important to realize that a pace is easiest to maintain when it is consistent…and one of the easiest ways for a pace to be broken is for the narrator to fail to keep it up.

This is probably my biggest problem that I’m trying to address this year as a narrator myself. I oftentimes take a while to think of just how I want to continue the scene or close a scene out and start a new one, and this puts a bit of a wrench into the works.

If players, say, collectively play at a rate of about one move per day, then they fall into a pattern where each day, they’ll check Storium because there will be something new in the game and they’ll at least want to read it. But if, when it comes time for the narrator to do something, the game pauses for three days without a move…that’s three days where they checked Storium and there wasn’t anything new.

It broke the pattern.

Sometimes, the game will go right back to the old pattern when a new section starts up – players will go back to checking every day and all will be well. But sometimes, it’ll instead be the start of a new pattern, where players start checking once every couple days, or once every three days. This of course means that their play slows down as well, reinforcing the new pattern.

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not saying you should rush to get just anything out, and I’m not saying you’re some kind of horrible awful narrator if you need a few days to think sometimes. What I am saying…

Well, first off…remember, it isn’t always gold. Sometimes you just need to call it good enough and get something out there to keep the game moving. Remember the draft principle and do your part to keep things going.

Second…if you do need some time to think, announce such to your players. Communication, as ever, is important in Storium. Players in my experience are more likely to keep going strong in a game when they know there’s supposed to be a delay than when they came on to see something new and found nothing. Note to them that you’re going to need a few days for the continuation and ideally give a date on which you expect to have the continuation is done.

Third…keep to that date. This is something I personally have been horrible at that I think can really impact things. If you say you’re going to have a continuation on the 22nd, have one on the 22nd. Otherwise, giving a date made things worse, not better – it led players to expect the game to move at a particular pace and then dragged it out further.

Fourth…if possible, start planning out your next steps before the challenges are done as much as you can. Obviously there are limits to how much you can do with this, especially if you’re a narrator that uses a more open style, but even then you can start getting the gist of how things are going and start thinking of possibilities. A common mistake I make is not really thinking that much about what comes next until a challenge is fully complete, not even in vague concepts at times, and this can lead to me needing more of those thinking points – which leads to more delays. If you at least have a general concept or two ready before you need them, it can help.

It isn’t just about continuations, though! Pay attention to the comments and Green Room and character pages, too. Players can, and will, ask questions – don’t miss it when they do, and reply as soon as you’re able to. That’s another place where the narrator can be a pretty big holdup.

Again, this won’t solve all pace problems, but I think it’s a contributing factor sometimes and it’s definitely the point the narrator has the most control over!

Stay Involved

Just because you’ve put your challenges and narration out there, that doesn’t mean you can sail off elsewhere and come back when the scene is over. Stay active and involved with your game. I don’t mean doing continuations during the play of a challenge, I mean just…being there. Being obviously present, watching what’s going on, and caring about what happens and what the players do.

Be a presence in the comments section. Praise people’s moves. Express curiosity about where things are going in the story they’re telling. Laugh when someone does something funny. Sympathize when a character is going through struggles.

Be the story’s biggest cheerleader. You, more than anyone else, should be in the comments section for your game, showing that you’re interested in it. Because you should be interested in it. I’m not saying that you have to react to every single post, but…get invested in the story! You’re not just telling an overall tale, you know? You’re helping the players tell their tales…and you are, I hope, enjoying reading those tales. Let players know it!

And remember: Make the players feel valued, here. It’s okay to discuss your own things too – to bring up some cool idea you had or something you found to base a story section on, things like that. But look for bits like that in player moves too. Look for lines you loves, big dramatic moments that make you gasp, parts that make you giggle, anything like that…and tell the players.

This has a couple effects. First, it makes the players feel really good, and know that you value their contributions. That’s great, and a player who feels like their contributions to the story have been noticed will be more likely to keep contributing to the story on a regular basis. Reward the behaviors you want to see, right?

But second, I think you’ll find that it encourages your players to do the same thing: To look at each others’ moves and at your narration and find bits to call out as awesome. And that just leads to a better atmosphere for the game overall…which helps make everyone want to play more.

It’s a simple fact of human nature that when something makes us feel good about ourselves, we want to engage in that activity more. So make your players feel good about themselves.

Be Available to Help

I’ve written about brainstorming before in pretty heavy detail, so I’ll keep this brief…but…be available to help your players if they need it. Don’t be pushy about it, but make clear from the beginning of the game that you’re open to collaborate with players if they need some thoughts, suggestions, or even just to bounce ideas around. I try to put that in the game info for my games, even, and say it as the game gets going. It’s important that players know that if they’re stuck or having trouble, they can come to me and get help figuring out a move or how to play off their cards or where to take their story.

I don’t want to control the players’ stories, but I do want to help bring them out.

If you have an open attitude and make clear your desire to support players and help them if they’re getting stuck, players do tend to come to you when that happens. That can really help speed the game up by lowering the number of points where there’s a long pause because no one has any clear ideas.

And if you do notice a long pause in gameplay, longer than you’re used to, just bring up the option again. Again, don’t be pushy about it…but a handy reminder that you’re available to help if someone needs it, just given in general, can help players realize that they do need someone to bounce ideas around with and that you are available to help out.

Remember, Storium is collaborative – a lot of people come at this from a history of solo writing or tabletop play, either of which can kind of stop them from thinking about the fact that they have other writers around here who are sharing the burden of writing the tale. So a little reminder that you’re willing to do just that…it can help.

And of course, if someone does ask…be responsive! Take the time to communicate with them and go through the possibilities, and be open to interesting interpretations of cards and situations.

Cut Your Losses

I am not a proponent of disregarding the card system easily – of ending a challenge early and going on on any kind of regular basis. I think I’ve been pretty clear on that. But sometimes you need to recognize that for one reason or another something is not working. Cut your losses, and move on.

Maybe the players are confused by how you set things up. Maybe the challenge isn’t interesting. Maybe you played all your challenge points, you silly narrator you, and then the one guy with card plays left had to go out of town for four weeks.

If you hit a point where the game is obviously not going to move forward as things stand, cut your losses and move it on. I’ve written before on just how and when to use this technique, so I’ll let that article speak on the specifics, but it definitely bears mentioning as a way to manage pace.

Be careful how you do it, and don’t use this often…but don’t entirely wall it off from your mind either. Sometimes you have to kick things back in gear when the game’s momentum is failing. Be willing to do it. Just don’t be over-willing.

Recognize That It’s Going to Happen

Again, though…it’s important to recognize that slowdown can and likely will happen to your game. It’s natural, and it is pretty much inevitable. The above techniques can help to prevent it from happening unnecessarily, and can help you keep the game going when it starts to drag, but you need to realize that there’s not really a clear-cut way to absolutely prevent slowdown.

So when it happens, don’t let it get you down. Keep coming in, keep doing your part, and keep being involved. Keep talking to your players. Don’t fade away from the game because it has gotten slower – that’ll just encourage it to get even slower. And don’t talk about the game like it might fail…because then, it will.

Just stay involved, and continue to be the game’s biggest cheerleader. That, more than anything else, can help a game keep moving even when it slows down.

What’s important isn’t that it keeps moving fast – just that it does, ultimately, keep moving. Believe in your game and your players, and help them…and even if the game crawls, it can reach the finish line.