By Tom Hatfield on May 9th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Computers suck at stories. We’ve been trying to create AIs that will make writers redundant for decades and it’s just not happening. Even clever, experimental systems like Storybricks are using sophisticated technology to create stories which amount to “There are bandits on the road.” If you want plot twists more complex than “And then I killed the guy”, you’re going to need a writer.
That’s why I’m interested in Storium, a web based card game inspired by ideas from pen and paper RPGs like Fiasco, FATE and Apocalypse World. It’s a game in which the players collaboratively tell a story and the computer only exists to do the housekeeping and ensure they play by the rules. It’s a game where everyone is an author, not an actor, and you don’t play to win, you play to find out what happens. And if none of this paragraph made any sense to you, then don’t worry, because in order to fully explain what Storium is, I’m going to have to give you a crash course in the last ten years of pen and paper RPGs.
Storium’s creator, Stephen Hood, started playing RPGs back in the 90s and 00s. Back then games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition) and G.U.R.P.S strived to create worlds where the rules were like physics, and everything, from dragons to housecats, were simulated by dice. They were the Dwarf Fortresses of their day, only more frustrating because Dwarf Fortress doesn’t force you to check the rulebook every time it makes a calculation. They were messy and poorly balanced, but fun could still be had because a smart Dungeon Master could skip over the fiddly bits and get to what was exciting. “Even the very best videogame can’t replicate that experience because the computer can’t create.” Stephen explains. “There is no game master, dungeon master, whatever you want to call it. There isn’t a person who reacts to what the players and characters do. At the end of the day there are rooms you can’t go into and things you can’t say, and things that simply can’t happen in the story.”
Time moved on and, like most of us, Stephen fell out of touch with his gaming group and struggled to fit playing into his busy life. There are a lot of ways to play RPGs online these days, from simple ‘play by post’ over a forum to sophisticated virtual tabletops like Roll20. But Stephen decided to create his own system, one that fit the way he wanted to play and did all the fiddly bits for him. At the same time he discovered just how much the world of RPGs had changed in his absence.
Pen and paper games were struggling to tell good stories. Complex, simulation heavy rulesets meant that Dungeon Masters were planning their games out well in advance, losing the spontaneous qualities that were their biggest appeal. More games began experimenting with lighter, simpler systems that would drive good fiction. FATE, released in 2003, was one of the earliest, rewarding players for suffering dramatic failure with the chance to be awesome in the future. Fiasco featured an incredibly simple set of rules designed to force players to act out the calamitous black comedy of a Coen Brothers film. Later Apocalypse World, and its fantasy spin off Dungeon World would codify this approach as “Play to find out what happens.” Some people called them ‘storygames’, but whatever the name, the principle was simple: don’t play to win, play to tell a story, and build a system that lets you do it.
Which is exactly what Stephen is trying to do with Storium. When he started it was just an improved version of play by post, with players alternating writing passages, but that proved a little too broad. That’s why under the care of lead game designer Will Hindmarch, it’s become more like a virtual card game. “Storium comes at it not like a gamer but like a writer and like an actor.” Explains Filamena Young, an experienced RPG writer who is now trying her hand at writing a Storium setting. “It embraces the idea that if you have a canvas that is too open and too broad, you can get a very unfocused creation. So it adds elements that guide the story. You set boundaries to suit the themes and vibe of the story you want to tell, and you actually promote a lot of creativity rather than have a bunch of players suffering from choice paralysis.”
Here’s how it works. When you start a game of Storium, you pick a setting. There’s only a handful right now, mostly sci-fi and fantasy (plus the unusual addition of ‘Medical Drama’). Lots more are being funded via Kickstarter, including some by prominent tabletop game designers and a surprising number of novelists. Alternatively you could ignore the pre-written stuff and just create your own setting from scratch. You might even be able to sell it in the future, Stephen has plans for an ‘app store style’ marketplace for settings, with creators keeping the bulk of the profits.
Once you’ve picked a setting, you get a deck of virtual cards. Some have locations, others have characters and challenges, but again you’re free to customise them or write your own. As the game’s creator, you’ve become the ‘narrator’ and it’s your job to set the scene. Every time you play a card, you have to write a passage justifying its inclusion in the story. So when you put down “The dark forbidding walls of Castle Shotgun” you have to tell characters exactly why they happen to be clustered outside such a desolate place. Characters and challenges work in the same way, but they each get a difficulty number that the characters must overcome in order to push forward. That’s where their cards come in.
When you create a character you assign them a strength, a weakness and a subplot. The first two are obvious, the latter is your secret motivation, a signal of the direction you want to pull the story in. When you encounter a challenge or a character that needs to be persuaded, you play these cards and write to explain how it fits into the story. How exactly does your secret desire to “Play the world’s most epic power ballad” figure into the confrontation on the walls of Castle Shotgun? You tell me. (In the comments. Points will be awarded for the best.)
Once the various characters have played enough cards to beat the difficulty the scene pushes onwards. If they played more weaknesses than strengths, they get a weak outcome, while more strengths nets you a strong outcome. The words success and failure are avoided, as lead designer Will Hindmarch explains: “ I’ve seen too many tabletop RPG sessions go off the rails because someone interpreted a bad die roll not as a failure with momentum but as a failure to progress in the game world or narrative. For Storium, we want things to be happening all the time, not failing to happen.” If it’s a weak outcome, the narrator explains how something bad happens to you, if it’s a strong outcome, you get to explain what happens to the narrator.
This is one of the things about Storium that might confuse those who grew up on videogames rather than the tabletop. “Players take on the role of author in addition to the role of the characters they’re writing about.” Will explains. You’re not just controlling a single character’s actions in a simulated world, you can control anything you can write about. So when you play the last card of a ‘strong’ outcome, you win control of the story from the narrator and get to explain exactly how everyone present, and even the environment itself, responds to your hot riffs.
So why would you ever play a weak card? Well that’s the other big departure Storium makes from videogames: a story where the hero succeeds at everything is boring, so you have to let yourself fail sometimes (or you’ll run out of cards). But unlike so many games where you win the fight but lost the cutscene, how and when that happens is entirely up to you. Jason Morningstar, the creator of Fiasco and one of Storium’s setting authors, puts it like this: “The best stories are told on erratic trajectories – highs and lows, victories and defeats – and games like Storium (and tabletop RPGs generally) systematise this very satisfying arc you see in cinema and literature.” Pen and paper RPGs have been trying to do this for the last ten years. Videogames? Not so much.
The result is distinctly literary, which is probably why there’s so many authors and fanfic writers playing. One of them is Stephen Blackmore, author of Dead Things, who’s creating a Storium setting called Redemption City: “This is collaborative storytelling that has some mechanics in place to help keep the story moving rather than to determine specific outcomes. If anything I think it might actually be more accessible to non-gamers than to gamers.“ He explains, “This is very much a writer’s game. The mechanics are so unobtrusive as to sometimes feel almost incidental. Storium lets you play with plot, theme, metaphor, character, voice. What other online game not only allows that but encourages it?”
That’s something Stephen Hood is very enthusiastic about. He talks a lot about trying to attract different audiences to Storium. About 50% of Storium players are female, he estimates: “I’m really proud of that. I think if we’re going to grow the hobby of gaming we need to be welcoming to people who aren’t the traditional dominant market of gaming.” It is, apparently, a great way to get around writers block: “Games can help people be creative, because they set a context that is non-judgemental” says Stephen. “It’s just about having fun.”
I’m terrifically excited about Storium, and not because it’s just given me the excuse to write about my favourite pen and paper RPG games on a PC gaming website for 1,500 words. There are smart ideas coming out of this medium, and the idea of finally seeing them cross over onto my PC is fantastic. I want to see game designers start paying attention to storygames, because I have absolutely no idea what they’ll come up with when they do.
That’s the point. You have to play to find out what happens.