Storium Theory: Tell the Story of the Characters

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on May 25th, 2017.

I’ve written in the past about the responsibility of the narrator to use the details provided by player characters, and to set up challenges for the player characters chosen for the game. Today, I’d like to delve into that same general idea, but from a slightly different angle.

As narrator, you’re responsible for setting up the story. You’re responsible for figuring out possibilities for the game arc – the way the game will start, how it will progress, what variations could come up along the way, how open things are to being altered by the player characters and by how much, and where the story is likely to go. I’ve written about these concepts quite a bit, as the responsibility the narrator holds for defining the game as a whole is pretty huge.

But don’t forget that as narrator, your job is also to help the stories of the player characters – the main characters, the stars – emerge.

I wrote about this in brief a while back, when I discussed game arcs vs. character arcs – a story, ultimately, is not about what happens to the world at large, but what happens to the characters we are following. Therefore, the narrator’s job is not just to define the world’s plot, the game arc. The narrator’s job is also – in fact, arguably more importantly – to help draw out character arcs and issues.

It is all well and good to have a grand, epic game plot, or events that will affect the fate of the world, or other things that will affect a great many people beyond the main characters. That’s fine. In many genres, in fact, it’s pretty darn essential.

And it’s fine to have a structured story, plotted out to some degree in advance, with some events set reasonably in stone. Some narrators use looser setups with greater player influence, others use more defined ones with less player influence, and those are just a matter of the narrator’s particular style. As I said in my discussion of said styles, they’re all pretty much fine – it’s just a matter of narrators and players who like similar styles finding each other.

So that’s all fine.

But what’s essential, no matter how you’re running the game, is that the story needs to relate to the main characters. It needs to tie in with them. Not just involve them. Any story involves its main characters. What I’m encouraging you to do is more: Go beyond involving them. Go beyond just having them affect events in the story and be affected by them.

The story needs to be about them. It needs to relate to them. Even if there are events in the tale that would have happened without them, there need to be major, major elements of the tale that directly relate to the main characters.

Elements of the main characters’ pasts should impact how the story develops. Who the main characters are should matter to the tale. Who they are should be tied intricately in.

Don’t just set up events that would work with any group of characters. Look at the characters you have and design events, or at least twist events, to work specifically with them. The tale should never, ever feel like it would happen precisely the same way with another group of player characters. Sure, there can be certain broad strokes that could potentially come out regardless, but the intricate details of the story, the motivations and drama? That should all emerge from who these particular characters are.

And while the responsibility for that falls in part on the players – these are their characters, after all – it can’t rest entirely on their shoulders. You, the narrator, must help them. You, the narrator, must make efforts to connect your tale to their tales.

I don’t think I’m always successful at this, myself, but when I narrate a Storium game, I want the players to feel like it ended up tied in very strongly with their characters. I want them to feel like their characters’ personal problems, issues, subplots, nemeses, and more all got involved. Even when the events start out not directly tied to them, I want them to end up tied in. I want the story to be the story of these characters, not the story of the situation.

That’s the sort of mindset I encourage you to have.

Characters have their own subplots (they even have cards for those), their own issues, their own relationships, their own details. And these are not side elements to the story. These are the heart of the tale. These are what gives a tale meaning and drama and emotion.

Do not look at the individual character elements as the things to let players do when the main plot takes a break. Do not look at them as the things players can pull in if they want, so long as they don’t get in the way of your primary tale. Do not look at them as “side” elements. Do not look at them as things to be covered “between” major threats.

These are not side elements. These are not less important. These are the very center of your story.

Some narrators plot out a lot in advance. Others take things as they come. Either is fine. But in either case, let the characters guide your story. You can plan events. But plan events around the issues raised by the main characters. Maybe you have things plotted out in advance. That’s absolutely fine. But plot them out around the main characters.

There should never be a point in your tale where you say to yourself, “Well, this would be a good point to let the players go explore their personal plots, because I need a break between things for the main plot.” That’s because the personal plots and the overall plot should be interwoven sufficiently that pursuing the personal plots is pursuing the main plot, or vice versa.

If a player character has a villain in their background who kidnapped their brother, finding that person shouldn’t be a side story. That person should be intricately tied to the main story, so that by pursuing the overall plot, the character plot is also explored, and by pursuing the kidnapper, the overall plot elements are revealed.

If a player character was accused of a crime they didn’t commit, witnessed a foul deed, murdered a rival, sought approval from a parent, idolized a mentor…those are not things to leave on the sidelines or just explore when you have time. Those are things to tie into the tale. Those are things, in fact, to build the tale around as much as you can. The actual culprit is involved. The murdered rival had information that could’ve helped. The idolized mentor tried and failed to solve the problem…or maybe is involved in it.

Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an outline to start – having an outline to start is a great narration style. But the outline should be modified by the player characters. The story should fit their stories, and call to their themes.

Remember, you aren’t just telling a story – you are telling the story of the characters. Don’t build a generic story and then slot them in, or fit their tales into the breaks. Interweave the characters with the tale, and the tale with the characters, as much as you can manage.