Storium Theory: Use the Characters You Chose

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 18th, 2016.

In my last post, I talked about how players had a duty to support the game world in their character design. Here, I’d like to talk about the other side: the duty of the narrator to support the characters he has in his game.

As narrator, you can put a lot of work into your own special world, and a lot of prep work into the story you want to tell. It’s easy to let that overwhelm things–to make a world and story that feel set, even before you have any player characters.

But Storium is a collaborative writing game.

When a player submits a character, the player wants to see that character get involved in the story–to see the character’s themes brought up, Subplot explored, Strengths used, Weaknesses challenged. To see the character’s background involved, the history important.

Making sure those things happen is in part the narrator’s responsibility.

Player characters will often come with additional details, details beyond their personal traits. The character might have a particular homeland, with details provided. Maybe he worships a particular deity. Maybe he has a certain reputation or history with the world.

As narrator, you need to take a good look at the character writeups–the cards, and the description as well–to find things that you can involve in the game, and details that should affect the game.

If a character is from a particular area, for instance, and the player spells out some details regarding that area, take a good look at those details. If the area is going to come up in the story somehow, it should feel like it does in the player’s description. (And by the way: the area should come up in the story somehow, even if it isn’t in the form of the characters going there. Mention how events affect that area, or how its nobility are interacting with this region’s nobility, or something.)

If a character description mentions a particular person, and provides details, well…same thing. Involve the person in the story, and keep the details consistent.

It’s pretty simple, but also pretty easy to forget: just use the details the players have provided. If that means your world is going to be a little different than you had originally planned, that’s fine. (If that’s not fine–and there are limits–you should be discussing it with the player before you accept the character, not after.)

It goes beyond what comes up in the story, though. Your job as narrator is to emphasize the characters through the system part of the game, too. That means giving players the opportunity to play the cards they’ve chosen and emphasize the themes of their characters.

A lot of that is done with challenges.

When you’re making a challenge, you have a lot to consider, as my earlier 4-part series on challenge design demonstrates. One of those things, though, is making appropriate challenges for these characters.

You’ve chosen this particular set of characters…set up challenges in a way that feels appropriate for them. If you’ve accepted a bunch of Superman-level characters, maybe don’t set up a seven-point challenge focused on stopping a single mugging. If you’ve got a game with a bunch of skilled thieves, maybe there shouldn’t be a challenge about open military combat–maybe they’re meant to go behind enemy lines to steal plans instead.

Drop some seeds in your setup that characters can pick up on. Got an assassin character? Note how there’s pools of shadow among the pillars. Got a warrior with a one-against-many sort of tone? Up the enemy’s numbers so he can have fun bashing lots of skulls. Got a computer whiz? Suggest that the security systems are probably networked.

And again, don’t forget: use the things your players have designed. If a player character has a personal foe, that foe should absolutely show up as a challenge over the course of the game. Probably as more than one. If a player character has a missing sister, his quest to find her should show up in the game.

Here’s the general point: for story, world, and challenges, make them fit the characters you have. Don’t go generic. Use what the players gave you. Run with their character concepts. Emphasize their character themes.

The last thing you want a player to say is this: “It feels like this story would’ve gone the same way regardless of what characters were in there. My character design didn’t seem important.”

This goes back, in a sense, to The Player Characters are the Stars. I spoke in that article about not letting NPCs overshadow player characters. This is the same idea, just about the game world and story.

Don’t let your story overshadow the characters’ story.

Ultimately, stories are much less about what happens to the world than what happens to the main characters. The Lord of the Rings isn’t about Gondor or Rohan or Mordor or the Ring. It’s about Frodo, and Aragorn, and Sam, and Legolas, and Gimli.

Make the player characters important. Make them matter. Focus the story on them. Use what your players have created.

Your story will be stronger for it.