Storium Theory: Subplots and Character Arcs

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 4th, 2016.

Back in “Develop Those Subplots!” I wrote about how subplots can, and should, change over the course of a game. As we go over character arcs, I’d like to revisit that somewhat.

Subplots are possibly my favorite card type in Storium. Above all the others, I feel that they show where your character is at the moment in his personal story. By the same token, they’re the card type that shows where the character is in his character arc.

You can toss down all the Strengths and Weaknesses you like, refresh them a billion times, but the Subplot card is where you get to codify the change your character has undergone–to spell out the next act of his story, the next focal point. In the context of ascending or descending arcs, it’s where you spell out if things have gotten better or worse with his personal issues.

I wrote before that new subplot cards should, in general, build off of the previous one. When you make a new subplot, it’s usually best to make it something that spun out of the subplot card you had before.

That is doubly important when you are using them to support the character arc. Because the arc is partially about story and partially about direction, the subplot card can be used to shine a light on it by using description and tone to show the new story elements and the progress in a direction, respectively.

Let’s look back at one of the examples I used in the earlier article:

  • Cizyan Thunder-Friend is a young character from a barbarian culture (in a Star Wars game) who was learning to live in civilized society and to behave with discipline, in the hopes that he could go back to his people later and help lead them to a better time. After a disaster, he reverted to his culture’s more warlike, aggressive behavior as a means of survival.
    • Ciz’s initial subplot, thus, was “Shattered Discipline”: You were making progress, learning the ways of the Jedi, the ways to use the Force for peace and to help others. Then the explosion happened. With danger all around, will you revert totally to your wild instincts, or can you gather the pieces of your training?
    • At a critical point, Ciz ended up making a decision to tame himself once more, to follow his teachers among the Jedi and calm himself. His new subplot became “Follow Your Elders”: The last lesson Ciz received still rings in his heart…as does his failure as they made their way to the ships. He’s intent on relearning his self-control and civilized behavior. Time will tell if he manages.
    • So, let’s look at this card.
      • Storywise, it tells us the current focus of Ciz’s plot. It’s no longer a question of whether he wants to regain his discipline–he does. He wants to follow the teachings of the Jedi and achieve self-control, undoing the harm that the events that set up the game had done to his progress. He’s made a very important decision.
      • The tone of the card is dark, though. The card highlights the fact that he was spurred to make this decision by a failure–the low point of his arc thus far. Ciz is at a low point in his tale, but the card suggests he’s ready to start climbing.
      • The card then asks a new question about Ciz: now that he’s set himself on this path, will he manage to complete it? It’s an important question for him. He achieved discipline once before, after all, but it was broken. It could break again. At the same time, the card shows that he values it now…perhaps that would give him strength. 

Now, I want to be clear–that’s a lot of analysis, but I can’t say I thought it all through right away. When I was writing the initial subplot, I just had a general idea of the arc–that I’d like Ciz to have a few early standouts to look surprisingly talented, but then to start causing problems with his wild ways–giving him a descending arc in the early going.

When it came time to conclude the subplot, I started looking more heavily at what I thought had happened, and where it was likely to take Ciz, and where he was presently in the arc I’d thought he might go on. It was clear he’d fallen pretty low at that point–he’d struggled in the recent challenges, playing a lot of Weakness cards that showed his lack of self-control negatively influencing the situation. Two situations really called out to me – a lesson delivered by a Jedi spirit, and his outright failure to heed that lesson in the midst of his desire to fight while everyone was trying to retreat in the face of dangerous odds.

With that in mind, I decided Ciz needed to move forward–chastened by his failure, and remembering the lesson he’d been taught. It seemed much more suitable to his story that he start to correct his failings, rather than being consumed by them. It was time to start his arc ascending.

That’s key: the time when you’re playing that last subplot card, and then deciding on a new one, is a great point to reevaluate your character arc–to really take a good look at where you are in it. You might end up moving in the same direction, or you might end up deciding this is the point where things take a turn.

Let’s look at another example from the “Develop Those Subplots!” article, 157. He’s a pretty classic ascending arc character all the way through. There’s setbacks here and there, but overall, he continually improves over the course of the game, moving from a nearly non-sentient emotionless tool to something that is able to work on its own and decide its own priorities, and finally developing emotions and becoming more and more human. To that end, he ended up having the following subplots:

  • “Find a Purpose”: You’ve been freed from the experiments that have governed your life until this point. Unfortunately, you don’t have much of a sense of purpose beyond maintaining your ability to operate. You need orders. You need purpose.
  • “Know Thyself”: 157 is progressively breaking free of his programming—but if he isn’t going to just be a computer anymore…who will he be?  

The first is quite uncertain in tone. While it mentions freedom, it focuses on the danger inherent in what 157 was at the time. It demonstrates an inability to move forward without help. Clearly, the character is at something of a low point at the start of his plot. There’s a sense of possibility about it, but that possibility is very uncertain, and the character’s current state is portrayed as bad despite his being freed from a bad situation.

The second shows that there has been progress. The character’s plot has moved forward–he is, definitively, better off than he was before. He’s pursuing freedom now. There are still questions about him, but some have been answered–it isn’t whether he’ll be a computer or a human. He’s going to be human. Now the question is what kind of human he’ll become. That’s a much more affirmative, much more emotion-focused, much more aspirational kind of plot. It implies there will be further forward movement.

So, 157 started off at the lowest point in his plot from the very beginning, and as far as his character arc was concerned, he only ever moved upwards. The subplots highlight that through their tone, while calling out the issues that are most important to his tale.

Again…you don’t have to think this through in heavy detail, and I didn’t–much more of this is reflection than forethought. But subplots are your opportunity to show what has happened with your character, and to suggest where he might go next.

Let’s consider one more reason subplots are important: in Storium, characters will almost always be playing the same exact number of Strength and Weakness cards between every refresh (sometimes you’ll get an extra Strength here or there for finishing a subplot or a goal, but by and large, it’s the same). That means that portraying an arc is less about the number of strong and weak points, and more about where they fall…and their context.

The subplot is what gives them context. Everyone has points where they shine, and points where they stumble. What matters is how that ends up affecting them. Your subplot shows that.

I’ve written a great deal here about how to use the change in subplot cards to reinforce your point, but what about actually playing the card?

Good news! That’s another place where subplots are great for showing the character arc. Playing a subplot card it your chance to get a little introspective. It’s a smaller form of writing a new subplot–it’s your chance to reflect on recent developments in the story, or on the current situation, and show how your character arc has been affected, and how your personal plot is developing. Obviously, you need to show what you’re doing in relation to the challenge. But when you make a subplot move, take the time to call out your current place in your arc. It doesn’t have to be a big statement, or a lengthy one…just a reminder. A hint of the progress, or decline, being made. It’s a moment for you: this is where you remind yourself of what you’ve done with the character, and where you’d like to go.

I’ve done it with multiple paragraphs at times, and with a single sentence at others, all in the midst of a larger move. Sometimes you might feel like you should delve really deeply into the character’s psyche. Other times you might be content with a quick “where are we now” moment on his mental map. The length can vary–what matters is that you take at least a moment to call out that position. Then, when you go back later, you’ll find you can see the arc much more strongly.

Which really helps when you’re trying to evaluate the next part and write a new subplot, believe me.

This has gone on for quite a while, so I’ll close up there for now. I hope that I’ve managed to assist a little in showing how you can support your character arc with subplot cards. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because Subplot cards are neutral, they’re less valuable than Strengths or Weaknesses to your storytelling. I’ve found them some of the most interesting cards in the game, and very important to revealing the ongoing story of my characters. The more I use them, the stronger a story I end up telling.