Storium Theory: Player-Driven Outcomes

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on September 29th, 2016.

Way back when I was writing my initial coverage of creating Challenges, I mentioned that there were a few types of outcomes: Player-Driven, Narrator-Driven, and Mixed. Since then, I’ve written a fair bit about how to set up Narrator-Driven outcomes–how to clearly describe what will happen on a given outcome (while not completely stifling creativity, mind). And I’ve written about my personal version of “Mixed” outcomes, the “Choice” outcome. But I haven’t really written much about the Player-Driven sort of outcome.

A Player-Driven outcome, to recap, is an outcome where the narrator leaves as much as possible open to the player’s creativity. The narrator defines only what must be defined for the story to move forward at all, otherwise leaving things up to the player.

What this means in practice can vary by game. Some narrators have gone so far as to just set up outcomes like “This goes well. How?” In practice I find that to go a little too far for many players, and I find it helps to at least have some guidance in there as to the subject the player should be writing about.

What I’ve found works best is to give a general concept of something going well, or something going poorly, and pick particular elements that can be player-created. You still allow quite a bit of room for players to define what’s happening, but give them some cues to write with. I like to define one or two details, and then ask questions.

Sometimes, I just define the subject: “You discover information on Rachel’s plan to target Kennen…and it involves Melody (or rather, her duplicate). What are they plotting?”

Sometimes, I go further and define more of the meaning, while leaving methods and details up tot he player: “From various intermingled legends, and remembering Dr. Galland’s actions before you ended up on the island, you piece together information on the ritualistic use of the stone to interact with ‘the Giver.’ Only in this way can those who approach the Giver receive their true heart’s desire. What is the method? (On a Strong result, you’ve understood everything properly–including that the ritual will cover everyone present. The Giver, it seems, truly is generous.)”

In the first example, the information is pretty basic, leaving the overall nature of what the player has found entirely up to the player. Only the participants are really mentioned by the outcome–all that is necessary for the game to continue.

In the second example, the information given is more complex–several elements are specified, things that needed to be there to drive the outcome. But the specifics of just how things will work, and what the players will need to do, are still player-driven. They’re still left very open.

I commonly use these challenges with research scenes or similar story points, because those are where they can be most easily used to define large game elements. In the above examples, for instance, the players actually get to define things they’re going to need to do–a plan they’ll have to oppose, in one instance, and a ritual they’ll have to perform in another. I can then draw on those and create challenges that come directly out of what the players have said.

I personally find it more difficult to use outcomes that are as open-ended in other circumstances, such as action scenes…but it’s not impossible! I’ve just found that I need to tend more towards my “define a lot of it, but leave certain details open” approach, then, so I can still manage the overall story flow. Still, there’s a lot of potential here!

Strong and Weak examples from the same challenge:

  • Strong: You find your way to a reasonably safe place *within the museum* (where?). This part of the museum hasn’t been badly damaged yet–you’ll have some time to help the injured among you.
  • Weak: You aren’t able to find a stable, safe place in the museum–you’re stuck with a spot that’s still badly damaged and seems like it could quickly become dangerous (where in the museum are you, and what is the danger that threatens?). Still, you might be able to take a few moments to treat injuries before you have to move on.

As you can see, the basic elements of the outcomes are pretty definite. But, the player gets to define just where the group ends up, which can certainly affect things as the game goes forward.

As one final example, let’s look at a challenge about noticing details, and see the Strong result: The man seems dazed and sleepy, but you manage to either get him focused enough to talk to him, or otherwise find out that his security badge was stolen. What does he normally do at the museum? What concerning place does his badge allow access to?

Again, this is set up to basically define what needs to be defined for the story to move forward, but the player here is allowed to set up some pretty major elements of the outcome all the same. Just where the badge allows access to could set up some significant story elements down the line! So, while the broad elements of the discovery are defined for the player (this is a museum employee, he’s dazed, his badge was stolen, and it allows access to someplace alarming), the actual details of the discovery are left open to the player, allowing them to guide the plot and define their own threats.

I think, overall, that’s the key: writing player-driven outcomes isn’t necessarily about leaving things totally open. It’s about letting players define important elements of the game, important enough elements that they won’t just be “color”–they’ll help set up just where the game goes or how it gets there. Even on narrator-driven outcomes, players already get to define things like how they succeed or why something works. For a player-driven outcome, you want to leave them something more, something that you’re going to use in the future.

And then…make sure to use it! I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if you’re getting players to add details to the game, make sure you use those details in the future. Otherwise, there’s not much point in it, and you’ll find players less willing to spend the time to get creative if their creativity doesn’t seem to matter.

Player-Driven Outcomes don’t work for everything or for every group–but they’re a powerful tool in the narrator’s toolbox that can excite players and give them a real opportunity to add to the game’s world and to the story. How have you used them?