Thursday, 17 July 2014

Is Storium a Strategic Game?

Buckle up, this is going to get intense: as both a board-gamer and a role-player, I can't help looking for narratives within the former and strategies within the latter, but Storium describes itself as an on-line storytelling game which "turns creative writing into a multi-player game." So how much game has it got in it? Potentially, quite a lot.

From the basics, there are very broadly three types of cards players receive in Storium:

  • Strengths: good stuff your character can do (+1)
  • Weaknesses: not-so-good stuff about your character (-1)
  • Everything Else: there are also Sub-Plots, Assets and Goals, but these all have the same mechanical effect when played in response to a challenge (=0)
In each scene, the Narrator gets a number of challenge points equal to 3x the number of players (12 points per scene in a 4 player game, for example) Using this economy of challenge points, the Narrator creates and plays Obstacles and People, allocating points from their budget for the scene to each one: the challenge rating created is the number of cards the players must play in order to overcome that challenge. There's no explicit 'fail' option in the game and a challenge can only be resolved for good or ill when its challenge rating has been met.

Each challenge can be resolved in one of three possible ways, being Strong, Weak or Uncertain: glance back up to where I described the character cards, taking special note of those numbers, because those are the simplest way to explain how challenges get resolved.

  • Strong outcomes occur when the sum of the character cards played is more than zero, so a 3-point challenge met with two Assets and a Strength will lead to a Strong outcome.
  • Weak outcomes occur when the sum of the character cards played is less than zero, so a 3-point challenge met with an Asset, a Sub-plot and a Weakness will lead to a Weak outcome.
  • Uncertain outcomes occur when the sum of the character cards played is exactly zero, so a 3-point challenge met with a Goal, a Strength and a Weakness will lead to an Uncertain outcome.
With both Strong & Weak outcomes, the player who played the last card needed to meet the challenge narrates the result, within guidelines laid down by the Narrator, essentially like stakes; with Uncertain outcomes, the Narrator gets to say what the result is.

Important Note to Self #5: This isn't Blackjack, it's OK to count cards.

If you're the Narrator of a Storium game, the system will tell you how many points you have left to spend in this scene each time you play a challenge card, but it doesn't automatically tell you which players are capable of responding: each player can only play 3 of their cards per scene, so once they've reached the limit, they can't play cards on any further challenges until the next scene. This aspect of things has caused myself and several players to sit there twiddling our thumbs waiting for someone else to do something before realising that they can't. Fortunately, a Storium user has created a tool that tracks this information, making it easy to see at a glance how many cards each player has played and when they last made a move.

The product of this system is that it creates necessary collaboration between players: any challenge worth more than 3 points cannot be resolved by a single PC, they need the help of the other players to overcome it, which brings me to the strategies of play. The first and most obvious point is knowing how many of your cards to play: you only refresh your set of cards as a player when you have played all your Strengths & Weaknesses, at which point those cards refresh to their starting levels. You're also limited by the exact nature of your cards: each represents a different aspect of your character, so you're only supposed to use them when they fit the challenge you are facing, because you have to be able to describe facing the challenge in those terms. If the challenge is sneaking past the guards and your only Strength is 'Explosives Expert', then you probably can't justify playing that card narratively, even though mechanically there's nothing to stop you doing so.

In fact, it's only the narrative constraints that prevent players from completely gaming the system and getting a Strong outcome on almost every challenge; mathematically, the starting set of cards for every player has a net sum of zero, so playing cards randomly, you would expect most challenges to end with an Uncertain outcome, or for there to be an equal number of Strong & Weak outcomes. In fact though, since it only takes a net sum of +1 to complete a challenge with a Strong outcome, and a Weak outcome is the same whether it's met with -1 or -6, players can easily collaborate so that only 1 Strength is played per challenge, with the rest of the requirements being met with Sub-plots, Assets and Goals, and then pick one challenge every so often that they don't mind getting a Weak outcome on and have everyone play nothing but Weaknesses on it. This strategy doesn't quite work in practice however, due to both the narrative constraints and the variable number of cards needed to meet challenges as set by the Narrator.

Important Note to Self #6: If you're going to do it, do it; if you're not, tell the other players that you're not.

There is a thought that may occur to you when story-gaming in general and playing Storium in particular: when this thought occurs to you, expunge it from your mind immediately:

"I've just thought of a cool thing that could happen, but I'll need a couple of scenes to lay the groundwork for it."

No. Just don't. If it's cool, do it now or give up on any commitment to it; sure, it might be super-duper ultra-cool, but this is a collaborative activity and it's quite likely the other players won't notice your careful build up to your big reveal and will simply take the story in a direction where a) your cool idea is no longer relevant or apt, or b) someone else beats you to the same or a similar cool thing, leaving your idea redundant. If, later on, events happen to come together in a way that makes it possible to do your cool thing, then pop that champagne and celebrate the awesome power of serendipity, but if you're really married to the idea of having your cool thing happen, then make it happen now and fill in the back-story behind it later.

The opposite side of this particular bad penny is this:

"I've got a cool idea for something another character could do, so I'll just put this plot thread in my narration and leave it to them to run with it."

The catch here is that if you don't specifically say that you're leaving that particular thread dangling, the other players may well assume that you've left it like that because you're planning something for it later and therefore leave it alone out of respect for your narrative authority. Additionally, even if you state clearly that you're leaving it for someone else to resolve, well, they might just not be interested: they've probably got ideas of their own for their next piece of narration, so don't be offended if they don't bite on your bait. The lesson here is, if you've got an intent, then communicate it directly to the other participants, don't assume that your narration is communicating that intent for you.

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