Storium Theory: Weak Outcomes are Not Punishments

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 31st, 2016.

This is a topic I’ve mentioned sometimes in the past, but I wanted to go into it a little more, and make more of a definitive statement on it.

Weak Outcomes in Storium games are not intended to be punishments for some kind of failure.

Storium is different from many tabletop RPGs in this. In tabletop RPGs, oftentimes, the game is structured so that if the players don’t play well enough, or if the dice just go against them, they receive a bad outcome–the enemies win the battle, they can’t get through the door, they fall from the cliff, or some such. The bad outcome may in fact even stop the story cold–the party might be slain, or lose their only lead. There are games (like Fate and 13th Age) that are providing new ways to look at failed rolls (Success with Complications, Fail Forward), but the concept even in those remains: Players are meant to be avoiding those outcomes. They need to work with the tools the system gives them to succeed outright. Some systems may treat failure harshly, others more gently, but all the same, it isn’t the result players want.

In Storium games, players aren’t meant to be strategizing to try to hit Strong outcomes all the time. Getting a Weak outcome doesn’t mean someone screwed up. It doesn’t mean the players failed tactically, like if they lost a battle in a tabletop RPG. It doesn’t mean they missed an important clue and chose wrong.

It just means that that’s the way the story went.

It may even mean that’s the way the players chose.

What does this mean?

It means that if we as narrators come from a tabletop gaming history, we may need to change our way of thinking about Weak outcomes. We’re used to handling “failure” of tactics or luck as…punitive, in a sense. We’re used to setting up tasks that must be overcome in order for the story to proceed. The players have to beat the monster, pick the lock, climb the tower, find the evidence. Even if the system treats failure gently, the players are pushed to use their resources to succeed.

That’s simply not the case in Storium. The players have a set of resources that they are supposed to spend to bring the story closer to a Weak outcome. They aren’t intended to try to balance their card plays so every Weak card played is blocked by a Strong one, or something like that. That’s not the point. They’re supposed to play Weak cards when it feels right for the story.

You want players to feel comfortable playing whatever card they want in a situation. You want them to feel like the Weak outcome is interesting, from a story perspective. You want them to feel like it takes the story in a fun direction.

Weak outcomes aren’t things they should always be trying to avoid, and just sometimes fall into because their tactics failed. Weak outcomes don’t come about because of errors in judgment or failures of luck. They come about because the players played cards with intent. Either the players were comfortable just seeing what happened…or they actually outright chose the Weak outcome.

That doesn’t mean Weak outcomes should be without consequence. It just means that those consequences should feel interesting, not punitive. Nothing went wrong when players got a Weak outcome. Heck, that’s still one of the outcomes where players get narrative control! If you see Storium as a system in which players are playing to earn narrative control for themselves, and I think that’s a pretty legitimate view though I’d say it’s more than just that, a Weak outcome is a success for the players in that light.

It’s…hard to wrap your head around sometimes, if you come (as I do) from a tabletop RPG background. There needs to be a difference in attitude towards Weak outcomes, and it’s difficult to spell out just what that difference means in truly concrete terms.

For me…I think it’s expressed itself largely by writing Weak results texts in my challenge setups as complications, not walls. A Weak outcome generally doesn’t cut off an angle on the story, or stop the players from going towards their current goal. Instead, it adds complexity to what the characters are working on, or throws a wrench into the works. Generally, I look at it as Weak outcomes setting up further challenges, or modifying the situation to make it more chaotic, or giving the characters a twist on what they were working towards. That’s not to say Weak outcomes should always avoid a sense of failure, but even then, there should be a sense of the story continuing and there should be something in it that catches the players’ interest.

Weak outcomes should be fun. The characters may not think so, but the players should.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of outcome text here…I’ve already covered that a bit, and I may give more examples another time, but that’s not what this article is about. This is about philosophy. If you think of Weak outcomes as interesting story directions rather than punishments for failure, I think you’ll find yourself thinking of how to write them to be fun naturally.

This is why I mentioned, in my article on ending challenges early, that you shouldn’t default to a Weak outcome for that–you don’t want players to associate Weak outcomes with some kind of punishment or failure on their part. You want them to think of those as just another interesting angle on the story, something they might even intentionally play to get. That won’t work if you impose them because the players did something you don’t want them to do.

And it won’t work if you write the results text to show something that comes off as a punishment, either.

I’ve seen it argued, for instance, that if a player is playing outside the tone you want, if their character doesn’t seem to behave like there’s risks, that you should write a Weak outcome for a scenario that hurts them or kills them or something, so that the player feels the risk.

That’s not what Weak outcomes are for. When you write a Weak outcome, you should always be thinking of it as an option for players to choose, not something they’ll definitely want to avoid. They aren’t supposed to scare the players away.

If you’ve got a player who you don’t feel is writing with the proper feeling of menace or threat, that’s something to talk to them about. You don’t use Weak outcomes to whip them into shape. You talk to them in private messages. If that doesn’t work, you use revision requests. And if that doesn’t work, you think about whether they should be in the game.

But you don’t use Weak outcomes as a hammer. That damages the perception of Weak outcomes–not just for that player, but for all of them…and for you, as well.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time here talking about this from the narrator angle, but I want to take a moment or two to talk to the players as well.

I want to encourage you not to fear Weak outcomes. Don’t think of them like you think of failure in a tabletop RPG. Getting one, as I’ve said above, doesn’t mean that you screwed up. It means that’s where the story went.

I want to encourage you to be fine with them, to even like them.

I want to encourage you to sometimes even play towards them intentionally.

Stories are more interesting when heroes have some setbacks, when they face a twist or two, or when they succeed with some sort of complication or cost. Weak outcomes give you the way to make that happen.

So don’t avoid them. Don’t get worried when they look like they’re going to come up. Embrace them.

They’re not punishments.

You didn’t fail.

Sometimes you may encounter one that you’re not as keen on. That’s okay. You can speak up, express your preference. You might even ask the narrator for a variant on it, or if going with some other complication might be okay.

But in general…just see where the story goes. Play your cards as feels right for the character in the situation. Or, heck, just play them at random and see where they take you–I know at least one player who does just that and has a lot of fun with it. The beauty of Storium is that the cards guide us through the story–we’re not just writing what pops into our mind, we’re writing what the cards lead us to write.

Let yourself be led.

Even if the path leads to a Weak outcome. Let it happen. Let it twist the tale.

Weak outcomes aren’t punishments. They’re story directions.

Narrators…players…treat them as such. Don’t make them things to be feared.