Storium Theory: Thoughts on PVP (Player-vs-Player) Conflict

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on April 19th, 2016.

A bit of an impromptu post here–normally I’m working from a list of ideas that popped into my brain previously, and I take the time to really let them stew for a while, but this one popped into my brain, well, just now, so it may be somewhat undercooked.

As indicated by tortured metaphors.

Anyway…I’m sure that no one would be surprised to hear me say that I think Storium is a great system. Simple, but very effective for the vast majority of stories.

But there are places that I’ve found it to be…perhaps a bit difficult to use, in ways that I’m honestly not sure I would call problems so much as things in need of creative solutions.

The biggest one I’ve seen is the question of what to do when you want to have some kind of player-vs.-player conflict.

I’m not talking about minor little squabbles between player characters–quick disagreements about strategy, or about whether to trust a character, or things like that. I’m not even talking about bits in the story where one character might deck another because they said something insulting.

Those come up, and they’re best handled by a little roleplaying. How far players are allowed to take it (for instance, whether a player can actually say that their character strikes the other one) honestly depends on the game, the preferences of the players involved, and the sense of community and trust you’ve built. If you’ve crafted a game community where the players trust each other and are all following the “Make Everybody Awesome” concept, then you can probably just let things like this sail on through and it’ll all be good. If on the other hand you’ve noticed some tension between your players, you might need to take tighter reins.

But that’s not what I’m really discussing here. What I’m discussing here is full-on conflict. Straight-up fights, or major philosophical debates, or what-have-you. Points in the story where one player character becomes an obstacle for another.

First let me say this: I don’t believe these will work at all if your players are not comfortable with the idea of someone stating, in a move, that they strike and damage or cause some other sort of effect on another player character. It’s simply going to be far, far too time-consuming to write a fight scene if you have to wait for each player to respond with a hit-or-miss evaluation to every single move directed at them. There has to be some overlap.

Besides…a player playing a Strength card needs to show the impact of that card on the scene, and likewise with Weakness cards. In this case, that impact will be impact on other player characters. There’s simply no avoiding it.

If you do not feel your game’s community can sustain itself in the face of that, my number one piece of advice to you is to avoid PVP scenes. I do not believe they will work.

It is also one-hundred percent possible that you don’t need a PVP challenge even if you are doing a full fight. I played on MUXes for years, and I found that often players that trusted each other could work out a great, awesome fight scene with a winner and loser without any kind of system backing. Not everyone can, though…and let’s face it, Storium exists because it is cool to find out what happens rather than knowing what will happen. So even if you think your group might be totally fine doing a systemless conflict, it might be very fun to use the Storium system anyway.

If you think it can work with your community, and is needed…well, then you just have to decide how to do one.

Here’s the thing: Storium challenges are built with the general assumption that everyone working on the challenge is working together. Strength cards move the group towards one outcome, Weakness cards toward the other, but the central point is that they’re moving the group.

As one. Everyone’s fate, bound together.

For that reason–and I’m going to preface this and everything else I say in this article with the statement that this, probably more than anything else I’ve written, is only theoretical and I’m sure others will have different and entirely valid opinions on it–I do not believe you can do a PVP scene in Storium, and have it work, by asking both sides to play on the same challenge. I’ve seen that tried, and I believe it basically causes the Storium challenge system to break down–cause and effect doesn’t make much sense when you try it that way.

One further preface before I get to my thoughts on a method, then: I have not used this method in any game, and as I tend to write games in which the heroes are definitely a team and all share the same goal, I don’t know that I’ll ever have the chance to do so. If I do get to test these ideas at any point I will do a follow-up post.

So…all that said, here are my thoughts on how you might be able to run an effective PVP scene using Storium‘s challenge system.

First: determine what the conflict is about. Is there one goal? Are there many? Are the goals dependent on each other or independent?

Second…determine the level of specificity you want to use. Do you want the conflict to feel free-flowing and open, or would you rather lay out some specific tactical objectives / points of argument / etc?

Third…set up your obstacles and lay them out.

Let’s talk about these in turn.

Goals

In order to have a conflict at all you need to know the reason for it. This is going to guide how you resolve the conflict in the end, and will also affect the number of challenges you’re going to use and their descriptions and results texts. What do each of the characters want?

This is also where you will determine if, in fact, there needs to be a true conflict. If the characters’ goals are in direct opposition to each other–if one can only succeed if the other fails–you need to use one. But if one character wants to run away from the cops and another character wants to find evidence at the crime scene, you could run both of those as totally separate instances and just let them glimpse each other, without actually interacting. In situations like this, both could succeed or fail totally independent of the other, so you don’t really need to set up any kind of PVP–just do two different challenges.

So take some time and think this through. Are the characters actually in conflict? If so, what are their conflicts about?

Specificity

Let’s talk detail. This is really mostly about the general tone or thematic emphasis of your game. How much detail do you really like to get into with your challenges?

When you set up a battle when the players are working together, do you set up different objectives as different challenges (Hold the Line! Clear the High Wall! Seize the Guard Tower!) or do you just set up one big challenge for the overall battle?

Both are valid approaches–you might even do them both at different times in the same game! Using different objectives lets you zoom in on different aspects of the battle or show a longer, more complex situation, while using an overall battle lets you keep things moving faster and gives the players more freedom to create their own situations in the midst of the conflict.

The same general concepts apply to PVP-based battles, I’d say. If you want to really point out specific ways that the teams can impact the battle, that would seem to give you a more orderly scene that tells a specific story. But, the more open approach can perhaps grant more player creativity and lead to a nice, free-flowing fight.

It’s honestly up to you, but again, this needs to be decided before you start setting up your challenges.

Challenges

Okay, so you’ve thought about your goals, and thought about how specific you want to be on tactical objectives…now let’s talk setting up challenges. This is going to get complicated, and once again, this is all theory, so please bear with me.

You want to have at least one challenge per side in the conflict, for each major goal of the conflict.

I’m going to start with the “open” approach, because the specific approach requires a little more thought.

Here’s what I recommend. For each major goal in the conflict–each thing players might be directly fighting over–set up one challenge per team. If you have 2 teams struggling over the same artifact, for instance, make two challenges.

Tell each team they can only play cards on the challenge assigned to them.

For each challenge’s results, you will write something along this line:

  • Strong: You perform well in this task, and your team gets closer to its goal.
  • Weak: You perform poorly in this task, and your team gets further from its goal.

You can absolutely add more color than that, but the main point is this: neither result definitively says what happens with the goal–just that the team is better or worse positioned to accomplish it.

Now, here’s the key. Tell the players that once both challenges surrounding a goal have been completed, you, the narrator, will evaluate what happens regarding that goal. How you evaluate it is really up to you, but here’s what I suggest. Look at the challenges around that goal, and compare their results:

  • Strong vs. Weak: The Strong side clearly accomplishes the goal. The Weak side may suffer some kind of negative effects if you wish.
  • Strong vs. Neutral: The Strong side accomplishes the goal, but you might, if you wish, add a mitigating factor for the losing side. I wouldn’t give them another shot at the goal, though–you don’t want this to go on forever if you can help it.
  • Strong vs. Strong: Again, you don’t want this to go on forever if you can help it, so I suggest actually going through and carefully counting up
  • how many of each card type was played on each challenge. The side with the better ratio of Strong vs. Weak cards should win, but again, give the losing side some mitigating factor.
  • Weak vs. Weak: As Strong vs. Strong, whichever side has the better ratio of Strong vs. Weak cards should win, but both sides should end up taking some kind of negative effects. This conflict went badly for both of them.
  • Uncertain vs. Uncertain: This one will be tough, as really for this to happen both sides will have matching Strong vs. Weak ratios too. (You can’t get a neutral result without playing equivalent amounts of Strong and Weak cards–0 Strong/0 Weak, 1 Strong/1 Weak, 2 Strong/2 Weak, etc.). So no one really looks better or worse in looking at the cards played. But, you’ll notice this is basically just an Uncertain result in terms of challenge logic…so treat it as one. You, as narrator, just fully take control and write what happened. Put a twist in the tale. Maybe a third party comes in, maybe the characters are truly stalemated in some way that makes it clear they can’t beat each other…whatever happens, be sure it still moves the story forward.

So that’s the basics, really: you take the results of the two opposed challenges and evaluate them against each other, coming up with a solution.

So, what does my bit about specificity add? Well, here’s my thought.

If you spell out things that can affect the battle, then rather than setting up two generic challenges about a goal, you set up two named and described challenges that are about specific items, areas, events, and such that might affect that goal.

You still don’t want to have players of different teams playing on the same challenge, mind, so each time has different objectives–they’re just objectives that surround the same goal.

For example, with regard to the goal of winning a land battle, with the players on different sides and also each part of a larger army, Team A might have the goal of “Protect the Archers,” and Team B might have “Seize the High Ground.”

From there, it’s the same exact concept as above: evaluate how “Protect the Archers” and “Seize the High Ground” each went, then compare them to each other and, as narrator, say what the battle’s result was.

You can even set up multiple challenges for each side revolving around a single goal, if you want. What if Team A has to protect the archers, find the enemy general, and prepare the ritual, while Team B has to seize the high ground, inspire the troops, and fell an (NPC) enemy champion?

Then, you can again just evaluate the challenges against each other, though it gets more complex than above. If Team A got a Strong, a Weak, and an Uncertain, and Team B got a Strong, a Strong, and an Uncertain, Team B probably gets a pretty clear victory.

You might have players ask, with this approach, why their character couldn’t defend the high ground–honestly, I think that’s a weakness of this approach, which is why I’d probably favor the simpler one overall, but the answer in at least this case is probably that the battle is very large and these are the respective armies’ battle plans–deviating from them would probably have worse results than otherwise (and/or the armies don’t know about the opposing side’s plans perfectly, so when these events start clearly happening its too late to reposition their best fighters).

Overall, though, the point is just to set up different challenges for the different teams, so you don’t have players with opposing objectives for the conflict playing cards on the same challenge. This is more complicated setup-wise, but I think will lead to a cleaner scene overall.

Final Thoughts

The concept of Player vs. Player conflict in Storium isn’t really something I’ve thought of to a huge degree until…just now, really, beyond just preferring to avoid it in my own stories. But I think it’s something that can be done–it just requires some creative narrating work and definitely a good player community for the game.

Have you used a player-vs.-player scene in your game? What did you do to set it up? How did you use the challenge system? How did it go?

The above’s my theory–I’d love to hear yours.