Storium Theory: Setting Up a Challenge, Part 4–Narration

Happy New Year! This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on 12/15/2015.

Today is the final post of my series on setting up a challenge in Storium. Previously, we’ve covered the Name and Description, the Rating, and the Results. Today, we’ll be talking about Narration.

Challenges aren’t all about the game mechanics. They need to be supported by your actual narration, making them part of the game world. Storium is a blend of storytelling and system, and in order to work properly, your challenges need to be set up not just mechanically, but in the story text as well.

There is more to this than just describing the basic start of an event, or giving a dry statement of the objective. Your narration is where you set the tone, the mood of the story during the challenge. It is where you give it greater focus. It is where you make it exciting and interesting. And it is where you set up things for players to play off.

Consider these possibilities:

  • With a shout, the enemy army charged.
  • The imperial army gave a bold shout, all voices joining as one, blades flashing bright in the sun. The earth rumbled with their footsteps as they charged across the field, growing ever closer to the small band of heroes and the weary kingdom forces. The kingdom’s men were tired, nervous, their eyes wide and their hands shaking as they held their battered blades. They looked to their heroes…could this battle truly be won?
  • The barbarian horde shouted and chanted, waving their vicious blades and clattering them against their shields or armor. A wild, frenzied mass, their mightiest warriors sprinting ahead, they charged at the kingdom’s disciplined lines and the heroes standing at the fore. The kingdom’s men were well trained, their armor and weapons of the highest quality…but the fury of their enemies had them unnerved regardless. As the horde closed, the kingdom’s men looked to their heroes…the charge must be blunted, for the honor of the kingdom.

The first gives barely anything to go on…very generic, just a basic statement of events. Avoid doing your challenge narrations this way. Flat statements are for the challenge card (and even on that, I’d still ask a question), not for the narration.

The other two, though, set up a lot of mood information and give players something to work with. Both portray the enemy army as a threat, but the former displays it as a better-equipped and more numerous force against a demoralized and weary group of defenders, while the latter suggests that it is a wild and undisciplined mob facing a strong army that is just caught off guard by the mob’s ferocity.

Chances are, the imperial army version will lead to players making more posts about fighting against the odds, fighting back from despair, and trying to prove that the enemy can be broken, and will likely focus more on the enemy numbers than on any single opponents. The barbarian horde one will be more likely to be about supporting an initial strong position, proving that the discipline of the army can prevail, and perhaps fighting a champion or two.

Obviously, the situation you set up should be determined by the story to that point. The point is…really dig in and describe the situation. Give players at least a good paragraph on what things are like, what the current situation is, what sort of NPCs might be present…anything that springs to mind on how things start.

This is where the narrator needs to support the game most. You can do all you want with setting up a great challenge card, and that is essential, but your primary job as narrator is to make the story interesting for your players (and readers). The cards can’t do that alone (especially for the readers). The actual story text, the narration and player posts…those are the parts that really capture people’s attention and get them charged up to play or read the next bit.

Perhaps even more importantly, they give players things to use in their own posts.

Look back at the posts above. The first post really doesn’t give the players anything to use. There’s an enemy army charging, but what is it like? Is it huge? Small? Well-equipped? Poorly-equipped? What about our side?

You’re putting a lot on the players when you write a post like that. While a lot of players enjoy making up the nitty-gritty details of the opposition in a challenge, and that’s good, most will want at least a little something to go on. Give them at least a theme or a few concepts to play off of!

In contrast, they’ve got a lot to work with in the other two versions. The imperial army establishes that they’re outnumbered, facing a better equipped foe, with demoralized allies who have damaged, poorly maintained equipment. The barbarian horde establishes that they’re facing a big army, but one that probably doesn’t outnumber them–the main challenge is the enemy’s sheer ferocity and lust for the battle, while the heroes’ allies have good weapons and training and reasonable morale.

Those are all details players can pull into their posts…and these are pretty basic examples. You can do a lot more to set the scene than the above.

I’m not saying that you should necessarily specify every little detail of a situation…leave the players a lot of room to make things up, in general. But take some time, set the mood, and give the players some details they can pull in. It will really help get them involved and make writing posts easier on them.

Remember: narration isn’t about setting up opposition. It’s about helping players tell a fun story. Your job is to support–not build walls they have to tear down.

At the same time…don’t go overboard. For instance, unless it’s vital that there’s a particular NPC there–and if it is, maybe he has his own challenge as well or is at least mentioned in the results statements to tell players what range of things can happen with him–I wouldn’t call out specific names or even specify the number of champions in a barbarian horde. Doing that forces players to address those specific elements–if you say there are four champions, and by scene end they’ve only taken out three, it feels odd (it can also be a problem if by the second post the players have wiped out all four champions, leaving others who really wanted a personal duel without the chance to get one). What you want is something that gives them things they can work with, not things they must work with.

There’s a lot you can do to help set up a challenge in narration, but really, it’s more about philosophy than any specific method. Just remember that you’re setting the tone and helping the players come up with ideas, here. It’s a balancing act, and it takes time to get it right (and I don’t think I get it right reliably, to be honest). If players seem unclear or ask for more details…add them! Don’t be afraid to embellish further if the players seem to need it.

Just as a quick note, though I may go into it in more detail at another time: What about narration during a challenge? That varies by game. Some player groups will like and possibly even expect the narrator to respond to their posts with enemy moves or dialogue. Others will be totally comfortable controlling all that themselves. I advise going with the latter unless 1) It’s really important to the story that a particular thing gets across, or 2) The players seem to be floundering and need some more idea fuel. Let the players have more control over things otherwise, and encourage them to take it. During the challenge, the game really belongs to them. Let them take control.

But for setup…do what you can to really set the scene and get things started off strong. A good challenge opening can kickstart player imaginations and keep the game running well.

That concludes my coverage of the basics of Storium challenges…I hope that these articles have been helpful to you in understanding the thoughts that go into putting those together. Storium is a pretty simple system compared to your average tabletop game, but there’s still a lot of thought involved. If you remember these points, it should help make that thought process a little easier to get through.