Storium Theory: The Spice of Life

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on January 5th, 2017.

I hope everyone had a great holiday season – we’re back for 2017!

Today, I’d like to take a little time to talk about variety in the context of a Storium tale – specifically, from the standpoint of the narrator.

Variety is important. I’ve written before about avoiding repetitive writing as a player by making sure to read over your prior posts to ensure you aren’t repeating the same themes over and over again in too short a time span, but variety is important for a narrator as well…perhaps even more so than for a player.

As a narrator, it is important to give your players varied situations to work with. Yes, you might be writing an action story, but it shouldn’t be all action, all the time. Players need some downtime to explore character moments and show the impact the story has had, so they can emotionally invest in what’s going on. It isn’t just about downtime or pace, though: even when you’re setting up challenges all over the place, it’s a good idea to change up what those challenges are about!

Speaking from my own experience as a player…I have limited ideas for what to do with any one type of situation as any one character. I’m pretty sure that’s the same for every player – nobody’s an endless well of ideas, after all. So, if you throw me in one gunfight, that’s fine. Two, yeah, I can probably handle that. But when we hit the third one in a row, well, I’m pretty much tapped out for ideas, and you’re not going to get much interesting writing out of me at that point.

So…switch things up. A gunfight to start, but then we get into the enemy’s base and seal off a passage, and now we have to madly search the evil overlord’s vault for the stolen datacube with the ancient starmap on it. Then, maybe instead of fighting our way out we’re fleeing with the army on our tails, hoping to reach the extraction point before our ship is forced to leave by the approaching artillery. Then we’ve got a bit of work to do on interpreting the map and treating someone’s injuries, and so on.

There’s still a lot of action there, up until the final couple challenges that are probably a sort of “downtime” bit to let people catch their breath, but there’s a lot of challenge types: a straight-up fight, a search under pressure, a mad chase that’s probably part fighting and part driving or flying or some such, and finally a calmer bit with interpreting the star map and some medical work.

It’s honestly not hard to do…but it’s also quite easy to get stuck in a rut. Especially if you’re running a game with a particular “feel” in mind – maybe it’s action, maybe it’s mystery, maybe it’s horror – it’s quite easy to get stuck into that mode all the time, and perhaps even a subset of that mode. I’ve played in action-centric games that were just endless fights, one after the other, until I didn’t even want to hear the word “sword” ever again. I’ve played in mystery games where we were just constantly combing for clues and interviewing witnesses and nothing with a bit of adrenaline or even a twist ever happened. And I’ve played in horror games that just seemed to want you to be running from the monster every…single…moment, which removed any sense of terror about the tale.

“Oh, yup. There it is. Monster’s back, everybody. Woo.”

Make a conscious effort to change things up. Do your best to ensure that every scene or two, things feel different. You don’t have to get away from your story’s theme, but make sure to use that theme to the fullest. Alter the pace. Throw in a challenge that’s about different things than usual. Maybe it’s an interpretation challenge in an action-heavy game, or a wild escape in a mystery, or heck, a chance to actually fight and win against something in horror.

As narrator, it’s your job to help players invest in the story, and to give them entertaining scenes to work with. To do that, and to keep everyone engrossed in the tale, you’re going to need to switch things around from time to time. It’s okay to have a theme or a tone for your game…just don’t get trapped by it.

Add some spice.