Storium Theory: Narration Styles: mforrester

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 23rd, 2017.

This blog highlights a lot of my narration philosophy, but my way is hardly the only way to narrate a Storium game. I’ve been interested in bringing in some other narrators to have a chat and explore their narration styles.

This week, I’ve had the chance to speak with mforrester (Maurice Forrester), the narrator of some very, very good games that use quite an open narrating style. With games like One Night in Hooverville, Jake Tuttle’s Funeral, and A Midsummer Hippie Wedding, Maurice has taken players through some interesting and unusual settings…while giving players a high degree of control over the game’s direction, plot, and secrets. I’ve always been impressed with how well Maurice manages to not only invite player input in his games, but also use that input later on.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity where necessary. I hope that you enjoy it!

Robert: Thanks for corresponding with me on this. I’ve been writing a lot here at Gaming Creatively on narration techniques, and I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to some narrators that I’ve admired and see what their personal narration styles could reveal.

I’ve experienced several games with you as narrator at this point, and I’ve found you to be a real master of taking player-crafted story elements and tying them together into a story that feels player driven, but unified all the same.

I think to start out, though, what I’d like to just get from you is…a statement, a summary of what you feel your narration style is. If you had to summarize your narration style, how would you describe it?

Maurice (mforrester): I consider my narration style to be collaborative. I’m not trying to tell a story; I’m working with the players to create a story. I have my ideas of where the story could go, but I’m also prepared to drop my ideas when things change. Anyone who has run tabletop RPGs knows that the players will inevitably do the unexpected.

The Hooverville game is a great example of that. I expected there to be supernatural elements to the story, and there were a few times when I tried to nudge it in that direction. That wasn’t the way the players wanted to go. They wanted a more traditional murder mystery. The supernatural hints got explained away, and the game evolved in directions that I did not anticipate.

As a writer, I love the first draft process during which you discover unexpected elements of the story you are writing. You’ll sometimes hear writers talk about characters taking on a life of their own. Storium games are very similar, and I love it when a player does something both unexpected and totally sensible within the context of the story we are creating together. It forces all of us to be more creative and it makes the process more enjoyable.

Giving up my own ideas isn’t always easy, but the game belongs to the players as much as it does to me. One of the cool features of Storium that I have not yet explored is the chance to run a game again with a different set of players. That might provide an opportunity for that Hooverville game to turn into the supernatural story I expected – or it might turn into something entirely different.

Robert: I can attest to things going differently with a different player set, definitely. Even with my pretty hardcoded plots for the Akakios beginner games, each game can run quite differently on the way to the end goal – I imagine with your narrating style you’d get a lot more variance!

So, let’s talk a bit about your planning process for a story to start off with. How much of the story do you have in your head before you start up the tale? Do you have an idea of where things are going and what sort of things might happen before you open the game up for apps?

Maurice: The bulk of my planning is with the setup of the game. I don’t do much long-term planning in terms of specific plot points. I want to get the game off to a strong start and then be ready to adapt to what the players do.

I start with a pretty simple premise – something I learned to do after my first game fell apart – and build from there. I spend a lot of time on the initial pitch trying to set the hook and make the game appealing to the players. That also helps me solidify my sense of what the game is going to be – or at least how it is going to start.

I generally create all my own cards, and I try to set the tone in the card text. Players are welcome to create their own cards, but I hope they’ll read through what I’ve prepared to get a sense of the game. I may use some of the same ideas from game to game, but the wording will change. For example, I tried to make the cards for Jake Tuttle’s Funeral a lot of humorous than the cards for One Night in Hooverville. For A Midsummer Hippie Wedding, the character natures were lines from songs appropriate to the period.

I also spend a lot of time on my cards: the supporting cast, the places where scenes might take place, and some initial challenge cards. Since I don’t know what the players are going to do, the challenge cards are mostly limited to those that I’ll use in the opening scene. For the characters that I create, I establish their history and goals. That gives me guidance on what they will do in response to the actions of the players. I want the non-player characters to feel as real as the player characters.

To help set the mood, I like to have good images for people and places and I can spend way too much time looking for those. I’ve set a couple of games in the 1930s in part because there is the great collection of WPA photographs available on the Library of Congress website. The game I’m currently running, and which is close to wrapping up, is set at a hippie wedding in part because I figured I could find a lot of fun, colorful photos to use.

For that current game, A Midsummer Hippie Wedding, I did a little more pre-planning than usual in part because I was trying the new story format option for the first time. That game includes an evil priest who is conducting a ritual, so I made some notes mapping the steps in his ritual to the three act structure. This is a bigger game than the last couple I’ve run, so that planning has helped keep my main villain on track.

Robert: So it sounds like in general, what you try to do is plan out where the game starts in quite a bit of detail, and really set up the world and theme, but then leave things pretty open from there to find out where the story goes based on the players’ initial actions – is that correct?

It sounds like most of this happens before you’ve actually picked which player characters you’re going to accept, but do you ever find yourself altering your starting world or setting information based on which player characters you ended up taking? Finding that you’ve got a cool character to accept but your initial concept of the world or starting events needs to alter to take them?

Maurice: Yes, that’s a fair summary of how I proceed.

I can’t say I’ve ever made significant changes to the world as a result of a character submission. I’ve certainly expanded upon my starting concept based on player characters and I’ve asked players to tweak their character to better suit the game, but that’s as close as I’ve come to what you’re describing. I guess I can imagine doing it at some point, but it seems unlikely. I try to provide enough material up front for players to create an appropriate character.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t actually run a lot of Storium games. I only run one at a time and sometimes Storium has to take a back seat to other demands for my time. It’s possible I just haven’t run enough games to encounter that situation yet. I’d be interested in reading the experiences of narrators who have had that experience.

Robert: All right, so let’s talk about how you get the story going – you’ve said that you’ll start with a premise, and set the scene, and then you’ll see where the story goes based on player input. What I’d like to know is: what are you looking for in the player moves? What sort of things do you seek out, or try to pick up on, to tell you where the story should go next or what the players might be looking to get out of the tale? 

Maurice: This breaks down into at least three different elements: the character concept, the challenge cards, and the player moves.

I love characters that come with their own built-in plot elements. The might be reflected in a strong goal for the character or in the character write-up. Sometimes just a little comment can add texture to the game. In the “Jake Tuttle” game, I had an NPC (if I can use tabletop RPG terminology) who was an ex-wife of Tuttle. One of the players picked the nature of Old Rival and included mention of being a romantic as well as business rival. I immediately added the PC’s last name to the string of last names belonging to my NPC. It gave us one more thing to play off of during the game. The NPC existed before the game started, but the character concept added a subplot and gave the NPC more depth.

I give players a lot of latitude in challenge cards and tend to include questions as part of the outcome text or even the challenge itself. Early in the game, the questions are designed to provide plot elements: What do you find? Where was it? Who do you see? Later on, I try to use the questions to tie up those plot elements by asking Why? and How? questions.

Here’s an example from the Hooverville game. Early on, there was a bit in which an NPC had seen someone suspicious. I played a challenge card “Who fits the description?” and a player (okay, it was you) introduced a new NPC called One-Eyed Ted. That NPC continued to be important throughout the game. Toward the end, there was a challenge card related to questioning another NPC. That card included within the outcome text “Harriet acknowledges her relationship with One-Eyed Ted. What is it?” A different player took that challenge, drew upon all the stuff that had happened since Ted was introduced, and wrapped up the question of that particular NPC.

When I started that game, there was no Harriet, no Ted, no particular relationship that played into the mystery. All that came about because I asked a couple of questions and the players took advantage of the opportunity to flesh out the story.

Robert: That’s one thing I’ve noticed in my time in your games – you’re very, very good at both asking players questions so they can world-build, and critically, using the information that they’ve given you.

Let’s talk a bit more about the way you set up challenges to get that player input, first – you’ve said that you set things up with a question designed to provide plot elements. Do you find that some questions work better than others?

Maurice: I guess I’ve not yet figured out the best – or worst – questions. What I can say is that I try to do more leading of the responses early in the game than I do later. So a strong outcome on an early investigative challenge might be “… there is a crude drawing of an angel with a broken wing. You’ve seen that before. Where?” In that case, from the Hooverville game, I provided a clue but let the player provide the context. Later on, I’m more likely to give the players more latitude and just ask something like “What did you find and why is it important?”

Starting out that way allows me to exercise some control over the plot elements and maybe it helps make the players become comfortable with the freedom I allow in their moves. I have had comments asking for reassurance that the player can do whatever they want. If there are move limitations, I’ll try to work it into the card or say something in the comments.

Robert: So you kind of start off with more guided questions, asking players to define what a particular item means or to generally work on a more defined subject, and later on will open things up more as you find them getting more comfortable with answering freeform questions. It’s probably a good idea to kind of ease players in to this sort of thing – not everyone is used to a very open style.

Now, once you’ve got information from the challenges, you take it and use it to continue and flesh out the story. Can you talk about your thought process there? How do you work to include someone’s submissions in the story? How does it guide your thinking, or how do you make sure it works in and keep things consistent?

Maurice: I’m not sure how well I can articulate my thought process, but I can describe a few things that I do.

One is to keep notes. I have a document for each game and that’s where I’ll first write my text and challenge cards before pasting them into Storium. I keep a bullet list of how the players responded to each challenge and will refer back to those lists regularly. I also keep a list of dangling plot threads and check that often when writing text or challenge cards. I look for opportunities to work those threads back into the story or maybe tie disparate elements together.

I try to make use of the asset cards to help with this, too. For physical objects, I’ll give an asset card appropriate to what the player has introduced into the story. Playing that asset card against a challenge is another way players help shape the story. I know this is an area that I can improve on – I have a tendency to forget the asset cards and they sometimes get added later than they should.

I have to give credit to my wife here. Lori has helped me brainstorm through many scenes. One example from the Jake Tuttle game was a plot point about the cat, Shadow. We were away visiting family and spent a lot of time in the car. And we spent hours trying to reconcile a couple of different, potentially contradictory, plot threads. All of those hours of conversation probably only resulted in a couple of paragraphs of text in the game, but it was tremendously helpful when I was afraid I’d painted myself into a corner.

That calls attention to one of the issues that sometimes has a negative impact on my games: it can take me awhile to figure out how to weave a couple of different elements of the story together. Storium games can die when too much time elapses between moves, and I’m acutely aware of that in the current Hippie Wedding game. The larger scope of the story combined with additional demands on my time from my professional life have led that game to move much slower than I’d like. I’ve been thinking about how to deal with that in my next game.

Robert: These are some really good guidelines for making sure that you involve player input in the games when you’ve asked for it. It sounds like you have a process that helps keep you organized and to make sure you don’t leave things out, and I can attest that the results really do make it feel like I and other players have had a big impact on the story. It’s great to see some little thing (or big thing) a player introduced carry forward and be tied into the game’s plot.

You’ve mentioned that there’s situations like the Shadow one where you had to resolve some potentially contradictory plot threads – I wonder if you could go into one of those a bit more, to show us your thought process or what you went through in order to take input that might’ve been contradictory and pull it into the story. What happens when you see new player input, for instance, and aren’t really sure how to fit it in with what exists in the game so far?

Maurice: One example that comes to mind was in the Hooverville game. Toward the end, the players had found a box. The challenge card included the text “There is something unusual about the money. What is it?”

I ran that challenge by my wife who said it would be Confederate money. “No,” I said. “This is the 1930s. It’ll either be Reichsmarks or counterfeit money. I can either go with espionage or organized crime as the motivation. But it won’t be Confederate money.”

The player decided it was Confederate money.

I had to do some rethinking of where the game was headed. Instead of the money being the primary driver in the actions of the major villain, it became something that helped define his character. He’d been robbing homes and keeping any Confederate notes he found believing they were or would be valuable. In hindsight, I could have done more with that bit of information but I was taken a bit by surprise by the player’s choice – even though the choice had been predicted to me before I posted the card.

Robert: Haha! Well, great minds think alike and all that.

Your games really show the power of a highly player-driven approach engineered by an organized narrator – the impact it can have on a game when players are allowed to create story elements, and the narrator actively involves those elements in the story. Are there any favorite moments you would like to highlight along this line? Any bits where the player-created fact or event and what you were then able to do with it just “clicked” in a very special way?

Maurice: It’s hard to pick a favorite moment – there have been so many. Creativity inspires creativity, so a good group will push each other to better and better writing. The Jake Tuttle game was great for this because it was so open to new elements. I was inspired by the screwball comedy movies of the 1930s where anything could happen (and usually did!). The players took full advantage of that freedom and helped me build a complex backstory for the deceased.

Once we settled into a groove in that game, I felt comfortable playing cards that were wide open to player input. There was a Follow Your Nose challenge which let the players individually define how they got closer to their goal – with or without a complication depending on the outcome. I believe that’s when one of the players revealed he had brought a bone saw with which to mutilate the corpse. Later on, when I felt we were close to spinning out of control, I had a WTF? challenge which let the group get closer to resolving some questions. I think we got more complications than answers from that card but a bunch of fun stuff got introduced in the process.

The wackiness of the Jake Tuttle game provided more opportunities for those moments, but they can happen in any game. You just need a group that’s willing to invest some energy and to draw inspiration from each other. I’ve been fortunate in having players who did exactly that.

I want to expand on one of those points. When I say that the group pushes each other to be better writers, I don’t mean to suggest that I expect publishable fiction to come out of this process. For me, Storium is a game first and a writing project second. There will be rough spots and I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes in stuff I’ve written as both a narrator and player.

Better writing within the context of Storium comes down to a couple of basic things:

An effort to minimize errors of grammar and spelling. We’re not going to be perfect but a little proofreading goes a long way to minimizing distractions and improving the game.

Paying attention to what everyone is doing. I don’t want the players to exist in separate bubbles; that doesn’t make for a very good story. There should be some interaction among the players.

Put some color in the moves. Don’t just say “Joe opens the safe” – describe what he’s experiencing. Let us be in Joe’s head for a moment.

And finally take seriously the responsibility to entertain each other.

That’s the stuff that improves as the narrator and players engage in a successful collaboration.

Robert: Very good points. Is there anything you would like to say to your fellow players or narrators, especially any who might want to try your style of narration?

Maurice: At the beginning of this conversation, I described my narration style as collaborative. For that style to work, the group needs a common understanding that:

  • They trust each other to work together to create an enjoyable experience for everyone. As a narrator, you can’t lay down a card with a wide open question without trusting that the players will respond in a way that works with the story.
  • They are willing to take some risks. As a player, the safest response to that wide open question may not be the best response within the context of the story. Sometimes a risky response will fall flat, but that’s the nature of risk. Embrace it.
  • They are going to communicate with each other about their expectations and concerns. Don’t assume you know what the rest of the group is thinking; use the tools within Storium to make sure you are all on the same page.

Finally, this is the approach I’ve used to successfully manage Storium games, but I have no reason to believe it’s the only way. I imagine there’s a lot I can learn from narrators with different styles.

Robert: Great advice, and I think that atmosphere of trust is important no matter what narration style you may be using.

Thank you for talking with me about this – it has been great to get some insights into your narration style and how you have used Storium. I appreciate it!

I hope that you’ve been able to take away some useful information from this interview. Maurice is a very good narrator with a style that truly makes his players feel deeply involved in the creation of a story, and I’ve always been impressed with his ability to remember and use all the crazy things his players come up with…while still somehow making the story feel like it all fits together. It takes a lot of work on his part, but it leads to some truly excellent results.

If this sounds like a narration style that you could fit into, I hope that you’ve found some things here that you can use and some tips that can make your experiences as a narrator easier and lead to some very entertaining games.