Storium Theory: Writing a Move – Neutral Cards

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on August 11th, 2016.

Last week, I discussed the thought process for writing a move using a Strength or a Weakness card, and I promised to come back this week to discuss writing a move with Neutral cards.

There are three types of Neutral cards in Storium: Subplots, Assets, and Goals. Playing to them will feel a little different, but functionally, as far as their effect on a challenge, they’re similar. Let’s talk about that first, and then we can get into a bit about how you might play to each card type.

Impact On a Challenge

When you play a Neutral card, the current “trend” of a challenge doesn’t change. A challenge that is trending Strong is still trending Strong, with the same Strong vs. Weak balance. Same for a challenge that was trending Weak, or trending Uncertain. So you might be tempted to think that a Neutral card shouldn’t have an impact at all–that the story will be static, right?

Wrong.

A Neutral card doesn’t change the trend…but what it does do is push the challenge closer to concluding. A Neutral card takes up a card slot on the challenge, and that means that the story of that challenge is one step closer to completion.

To put it another way: The situation remains headed for what it was already headed for…and now there’s less time to change it.

Let that thought guide your feelings on what a Neutral card will cause to happen.

If a challenge is trending Weak, and you play a Neutral card, then the challenge remains headed Weak, but now there’s less time to turn things around. So the Neutral card may not make things worse on its own, but it should still feel negative. Because there’s less time, things are less likely to turn around. Bad things have continued to happen.

If a challenge is trending Strong, and you play a Neutral card, then the challenge remains headed Strong, and now there’s less time in which things could go wrong. So the Neutral card may not make things better on its own, but it should still feel positive. Because there’s less time, things are less likely to turn around. Good things have continued to happen.

If a challenge is trending Uncertain (or you’re playing the first card), an Neutral card will reinforce that uncertainty. You set up, or continue the story of a situation that could go good or bad–depending on what other people do. This is a great opportunity to “Leave things open” for someone!

You can think of a Neutral card as reinforcing the current status quo. Where playing a Strength card in a Strong situation or a Weakness card in a Weak situation makes things notably even better or even worse, a Neutral card should leave things feeling the same level…just more certainly.

In practice, that means that a Neutral card can feel similar to playing a Strength card when the situation is Strong, or a Weakness card when the situation is Weak. It’s just that it feels more like its reinforcing what’s already going on than actively changing it for better or for worse.

In a Weak situation, good Neutral plays might show cases where a person tries to change the situation but fails…he pushes things back for a moment, but then they return to normal. Or, they might simply reinforce what’s going wrong, showing the impact of that situation on the character. In a Strong situation, they might represent working with other characters, furthering the story of successes that have gone on so far. Or, they might show the impact of those successes on the character.

They might also set up a situation and leave open the question of what happens…while portraying one result or the other as more likely, depending on the challenge’s current status. I tend to like this better than just having an action that’s negated–instead, show an attempt that leaves off before we know if it was good or bad, and let the next move determine that. “I try to break through, and…” is more interesting than “I try to break through and am definitely pushed back.”

Let’s take an example. Let’s say that you’re in a challenge about whether you can rescue innocents from an enemy mob, and you play your “Defend the Innocent” subplot, deciding that your move is going to about you trying to break through the mob to get to the innocent people trapped in the middle.

  • Challenge currently Uncertain: You might state that you manage to break into the mob, but now they are swarming in around you, though you aren’t cut off yet. If someone plays a Strength to follow up, they might hold the opening and widen it, letting the group reach the victims so they can fight in their defense. If someone plays a Weakness to follow up, they might be unable to get to you in time, leaving you cut off from the others and also from the victims.
  • Challenge currently Strong: For this, you might state the same thing…but now, since things are trending positive, you just tweak it to sound more likely that something good’s going to come of it. You manage to break into the mob, and they’re trying to swarm in…but you’re holding them off, fighting your hardest to save the day. Still, you’re going to need help or quick action to actually reach the victims. It just feels like the good result is more likely than the bad.
  • Challenge currently Weak: For this, again, you might state the same thing, but you just tweak it to sound more likely the bad result will happen. You break into the mob, but they’re swarming in so fast that you’re being overwhelmed, and some of them are already between you and the other heroes. The situation might still be turned to a positive, but the negative feels more likely.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at a Strength play and a Weakness play. If the current challenge status is Uncertain, and you’re writing a move where you break into the mob to try to get closer to the innocents:

  • Strength from Uncertain status: You break into the mob and hold them back, opening a clear path to the innocent victims beyond–the heroes can actually reach them through your action alone. The situation has definitely changed for the better–there’s no doubt here.
  • Weak from Uncertain status: You break into the mob, but they swarm around you and close up around you immediately. Now you’re not only cut off from the victims, but from the other heroes as well. You’re trapped in the middle of an angry mob and multiple foes can easily focus on you at once–you might even be getting battered. The situation has definitely changed for the worse–there’s no doubt here.

There’s a lot of other variants of what you could do, of course, but I hope the above helps. As you can see, the Neutral plays during a Strong or Weak situation can feel kind of like a Strength or Weakness play–but more tenuous or doubtful. A Strength or Weakness definitely changes the situation for the better or worse.

Whatever happens–whether you set up a tenuous situation, or show yourself trying to take action but being negated–remember to show the challenge’s story solidly progressing. Make it clear time is moving forward! Let’s take our above example, and assume the Strong Outcome is “You rescue the innocents from the mob, with all of them coming out alive,” while the Weak Outcome is “You rescue some of the innocents, but not before some have been killed by the mob” or even just “The innocents are killed by the mob.”

  • Challenge trending Strong: You might see that the civilians trapped amongst the mob have seen you and know rescuers are trying to get to them–you can see the hope in their eyes, and they’re managing to survive amongst the mob for the moment, maybe fighting back, maybe just defending themselves. Or, the mob’s paying more attention to the heroes than to the civilians at the moment. If things keep going this way, the Strong outcome will happen.
  • Challenge trending Uncertain: You see the civilians amongst the mob–no one’s been badly hurt yet, but they’re surrounded and uncertain, fearful. Maybe they’ve seen you, maybe they haven’t, but their situation is troubling–if you don’t get there fast, something bad might happen.
  • Challenge trending Weak: Something bad is happening. You see the civilians amongst the mob, and they’re getting beaten up! It’s clear that if you don’t manage to turn things around, the Weak outcome is going to happen, and now there’s less time.

Remember, just as with playing a Strength or Weakness card, don’t actually have a Strong or Weak Outcome happen yet, though, and don’t do anything to make one of them impossible! So for instance, if you show one of the innocents taking a beating, don’t actually show him dying, as that would render the Strong outcome here impossible.

Playing To Your Card

Neutral cards have some of the most fun card types to play to in Storium, but playing to them can be a little different than playing to a Strength or Weakness.

With a Strength or Weakness card, you’re generally treating the card as the “how.” “I’m making things better, or I’m making things worse…how?” That’s the question that the Strength or Weakness card is answering.

With a Neutral card…that question changes, and can vary quite a bit. That’s why Neutral cards can be fun to play, but it also makes thinking about them a bit more complicated!

Let’s take each in turn:

Subplots, as I’ve mentioned many times, are my favorite cards in Storium. Other cards show how your character impacts the story, Subplots show how the story impacts your character. When you play to a subplot, you’re generally answering one of two questions:

  • “Why am I doing what I am doing?” This question is about your motivations–it gets introspective, and shows how your subplot is pushing you to take the actions that you are taking as part of the move. An example is our bit above: Because the character has an urge to “Defend the Innocent,” he charges at the mob to try to break through. The move will dig into that, and emphasize his desire to save the people and what that means to him.
  • “How do these events affect me?” This question is more about how your character changes as a result of seeing or doing something. It gets even more introspective than the other one, and is great fun–especially as a move for the last card of a subplot stack. When you write this sort of move, instead of revealing how your subplot gets you to act, you reveal how the action of the story impacts your views of your subplot. Take “Defend the Innocent”–maybe the character’s inability to break through the lines, and witnessing one of the innocents being beaten up, has him depressed and is leading him to question whether he’s capable of fulfilling his goal. Maybe there are situations where the innocent can’t be saved.

Oftentimes, you end up in some way answering both questions, of course! You might show your motivation at the start of the move, and reflect on what the move has meant to your subplot in the end.

Next, let’s look at Goals. Goals are like subplots, but are themes the narrator wants to see explored in the story, rather than ones you were exploring. In this case, you might find yourself answering the question, “How does my pursuit of my goal spur me to do what I’m doing?” or “How do these actions take me closer to this goal?” or “What impact does this have on my goal?” This is similar to writing a Subplot, just with a theme set by the narrator instead of by the player.

It’s worth noting that Goals are used for more than just setting up things to accomplish by narrators, though. Many narrators will use them to represent conditions they’d like to see impact the story, like a broken limb or an enchantment. In those cases, playing goals is more like playing a Strength or Weakness card–you have a solid trait. I think I’d characterize it less as “how does this trait make an impact,” though, and more as “how does this trait affect my efforts to make an impact?” Thus, if you’re playing a “Broken Arm” goal on a Strong challenge, you might describe how you’re able to act despite the broken arm, or make the broken arm the reason you make tenuous changes rather than solid ones. If you’re playing a “Broken Arm” goal an a Weak challenge, you might describe how the broken arm prevents you from changing things or reinforces what’s already going wrong.

Finally, there are Assets. Assets are generally possessions, allies, or other traits/items that exist separate from the character, but that can be used by the character (or sometimes independently) to tell the story of the scene. Some games use Assets more frequently than others. Some will set up assets for quite a number of different things, even if those things are pretty mundane–for instance, you might have an asset for a regular pistol in a situation where guns are pretty much assumed. Others might set up assets only for special items, like the “Mystic Sword of the Hero.” Still others might set up generic assets and give players big stacks of them, with the assumption that they’ll be freely rewritten time and time again.

I’m not going to express an opinion on which of those is better right now, because I don’t know! It’s something I’m still figuring out myself.

What I do have is a philosophy on how you play to an Asset card. When you play an Asset, you’re answering the question, “How is this asset important in this situation?” or “How does this asset affect my efforts to make an impact?” You might be highlighting the asset’s presence, or how you use it. Or, if the asset is an ally, you might highlight its own actions. Just remember that it’s still a neutral card!

How you use an Asset is important, especially if it is a tool. A machine gun, for instance, might be used well (to lay down covering fire) or poorly (to fire at random and endanger allies). I like to play Assets with a Strength or Weakness card, highlighting the fact that I’m using the asset, but letting the Strength or Weakness determine how. That said, you can use the guidelines on playing Neutral cards alone during a challenge to guide you too! Make asset uses feel better if a challenge is going Strong, and worse if it is currently going Weak, just as with other neutral cards.

Playing Neutral Cards with a Strength or Weakness

While I’m on that topic, let me mention a good way to play a Neutral, especially if you have any trouble writing the above: Neutral cards are great to play alongside a Strength or Weakness card.

If you do this, you basically use the Neutral card to set the theme of the move–an exploration of motivation, a use of a particular asset for importance, a pursuit of a goal, an exploration of impact on you or your goals…whatever suits the card. Then, you use the Strength or Weakness to actually answer the question of what type of impact you’re making on the story, and how. This is similar, then, to writing for a Strength or Weakness–just with additional thematic highlights provided by your Subplot, Goal, or Asset.

I don’t think this is necessary–you can certainly write Neutral cards on their own, and make a good story out of their use–but it can be a fun way to write moves, and it can be a good thing to do while you’re learning, too. It’s a good way to be able to write the theme elements of your chosen Neutral card, while perhaps having an easier time writing impact thanks to the Strength or Weakness.

Final Thoughts

Neutral cards are a fun game element, and can add a lot to the plot of a game by emphasizing certain themes or side concerns of characters. They do a lot of the heavy lifting for characterization concerns. At first, using them on their own can feel a little difficult–trying to figure out how to move the story forward in a “neutral” manner can feel odd. I think if you work with the above ideas in mind, though, you’ll find it a little easier.