First Look: Storium – The Online Storytelling Game

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.

Storium’s Kickstarter campaign has ended, after raising ten times its asking amount. You’ll be able to buy the game’s beta via the official site in just a few days.

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50 Comments »

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  1. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    This sounds really cool, but a couple of questions:

    How does it actually work? Do you arrange with other people beforehand? Drop-in? Is the game played simultaneously with the narrator or by asynchronously posting what’s happening?

  2. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    between this and InForm, it appears story-driven, text-based games are about to be on the rise.

    It will be interesting to see how the traditional, well-developed RPGs like Pathfinder, D&Dwhatever and Shadowrun warm to it. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to wait about five minutes after release for a Dark Eye module, those crazy Deutsch loving the setting as they do.

    It does sort of fly in the face of traditional RPGs in that there doesn’t seem to be character development as in new levels/karma/gear/loot etc, and combat is going to be very abstract. Which is basically where the die-rolling in most RPGs lies. It looks good for telling a story, it will be interesting to see how well it works for playing a game.

    Thanks for posting this, missed the Kickstarter, but signed up.

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      Jackablade says:

      It sounds good to me. I always thought the dice rolling malarkey got in the way of the role playing. A structured story teller sounds like just what I always wanted when I played D&D and Rifts as a younger, spottier man.

    • jomala says:

      Another great recent example of collaborative storytelling is mightandfealty.com (which recently got funding from indiegogo and is now in paid beta with a free trial period available). It provides a (medieval cum Game-of-Thrones) simulation within which to create the stories, rather than mechanics specifically to drive the narrative, but most of the discussions on the forum are about what elements of the simulation help produce interesting stories, so in many ways it has a lot in common.

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    Bluerps says:

    Interesting! So it’s basically a rules-light indie P&P RPG, but meant to be played online (though it sounds like it could be played offline easily).

  4. Frank says:

    I have yet to be convinced that the best way to take advantage of computers is to simulate cards, dice and other board game paraphernalia. Seems to be the latest retro fetish. (Which is to say: I quit reading when I saw cards mentioned.)

    • The Random One says:

      Well, it seems it’s not so much the case that the game mimics cards as dice as much as that it uses these physical objects as shorthand for resources and random number generation.

      • Lanfranc says:

        You’re half right. The cards represent your character’s Strength and Weaknesses, as well as various resources and goals you pick up during play. There is usually no randomness involved at all, however. The narrator presents the players with “challenges” that they need to solve in one way or another, and they do that by playing their cards and describing their actions.

        For instance, a certain obstacle might be a “6-slot challenge”, which means it is solved when six cards have been played. But dpending on which cards have been played, the outcome can be either “strong”, “weak” or “uncertain”, which then determines which way the story goes from there.

        • The Random One says:

          So there are no dice, simulated or otherwise. That’s pretty good news.

    • CarpeGuitarrem says:

      It uses cards as a UI element, a method of presentation, that’s all.

  5. Tei says:

    I had a lot of fun with The original storytelling game “Sleep is Dead“. It was great fun specially because thanks to it I had the luck to know better other RPS-ites :D

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    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Would anyone care to join me in trying it out? I was a Kickstarter backer because I am all about the wordsing.

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      Hideous says:

      Absolutely. I’m not a great writer, but I’m fairly sure this could be tons of fun. My username on Storium is the same as on here, if you’d like to send me an invite.

    • Velorien says:

      I’d be happy to give it a go as well. My Storium username is likewise the same as my RPS one.

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      Rise / Run says:

      I’d also love to give it a try, especially with one as venerable as your Lordship.

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        Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        Do you have a Storium username, that I might use to send thugs… er… I mean, communicate with?

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          Rise / Run says:

          Unfortunately, I do not yet have a storium account, as this was the first I had heard of it, apparently 17h too late to participate via kickstarter. I’m waiting for them to open it back up, at which point I will be joining most promptly. Hopefully that does not preclude my joining in with this merry band of RPSers.

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            Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

            Then, good person, go to my Blogging Parlour (click my name). Upon the right, you will find an elegant and finely-crafted link. Use it to email me and I’ll send you a player invite.

    • Lanfranc says:

      I would indeed! I’m in a couple of games already, and it’s great fun. My username there is AKjeldsen.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Our merry band is now complete. Invites shall be going out tomorrow to the brave souls who have replied (as I won’t be back near my computer until tomorrow afternoon.) I am, as you might have guessed, “Smingleigh” on Storium.

      May God have mercy on your souls.

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        Hideous says:

        It’s been past said afternoon – I am eagerly awaiting said invite so that I may romp through whatever worlds you create for us. Please still be alive.

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      Jackablade says:

      I’ll be in as soon as I can. Wish I’d known about this sooner. I’ll probably be called Jackablade unless it’s one of the rare instances where someone has already taken my alias.

  7. pleaseletmecomment says:

    Can someone explain what this is in like, three sentences or something?

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      SuddenSight says:

      A collaborative story telling game. Players take turns adding bits of story. The computer gives you a limited set of things (referred to as “cards” in the article) you must incorporate into your story. Arbitrary numbers on the cards determine who gets to write the resolution to your story segment (you or the narrator).

      There are no world-simulating rules. The only thing that drives player input is the desire of all the players to tell a coherent narrative. Similarly, there isn’t really any “skill” or “strategy” to the game, unless you count getting better at writing.

  8. Kitsunin says:

    So how is the payment model going to work? Taking a very cursory look at the Kickstarter page I would make a crazy guess that it goes something like $10 per year to be able to narrate stories, then you can invite your friends in to participate as characters for free?

    Hopefully it’s something like that, I would love to try to get some family and friends involved here but there’s no way I could get a monetary investment out of them. I would be up for organizing things with internet folk but I have a nasty habit of abandoning such things part way through and that would be especially lame with this sort of thing.

    I also hope that there won’t be any barriers to creating new settings, because I am really easily bored by generic fantasy offerings, and have difficulty involving myself well into other people’s worlds; I’d rather create some entirely unique.

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      Wordmercenary says:

      It’ll be a $25 a year subscription, although Stephen mentioned you’ll probably be able to play a few games as a free demo. Extra settings will be sold at very low prices, one or two dollars.

    • CarpeGuitarrem says:

      Here’s the relevant info from the Kickstarter. Those three games can also stretch a long, long while.

      When it launches to the public, Storium will have a modest annual membership fee of $25 per year — the equivalent of just $2 per month. Becoming a backer at the MEMBER ($20) level gets you your first year of Storium membership (starting on the date we launch publicly) for just $20.

      Members will also be granted a special ability when Storium launches publicly: the use of our forthcoming World Creator tools to build their own Storium worlds and share them with the Storium community.

      (By the way, there will always be a free version of Storium — and it will be the full game, not a demo version. You’ll be able to play up to three games, with full functionality, before you have to pay any membership fee!)

      • Reapy says:

        Wait…. you have to pay 2 dollars a month to use a glorified email client? From the description it sounds as though most of the creativity will be up to the participants in the game, so why are you paying a subscription fee for this? It really just blew away any interest I had in looking at it.

        • CarpeGuitarrem says:

          Hmm. I can see that perspective. For me, Storium really does add enough value to justify the monthly price tag. It keeps the entire game easily-organized, presents all the information in a clear way, and the core mechanics are just enough to keep the game rolling.

  9. Symbiode says:

    Lightning flashed across the walls of Castle Shotgun, illuminating John Walker in all of his foul glory.

    “So, you have slain my six lieutenants, but do you really think you can defeat me with that pathetic weapon?” Walker spat, his voice dripping with unholy power.

    Benjamin raised his Axe above his head. This was no ordinary Axe, for it had been passed down through his family line for generations, from father to son. The runes on its body glowed as bright as ever, and his first strike blared loudly across the ramparts.

    “Now,” Benjamin said, “this will be the instrument of your destruction.”

    Benjamin’s fingers began dancing across the strings of his mighty Axe, slowly at first, a haunting tune drifting up to the sky. Walker began to laugh, but Benjamin persisted, rising in tempo as the beat grew more and more intense. Walker’s laugh began to falter, but it was too late for him to realize how wrong he had been: Benjamin was playing the world’s most epic power ballad.

    “No, that’s impossible!” Walker screamed, his form beginning to waver. “Aggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!”, his scream faded into the ether as he disintegrated, finally bringing an end to his reign of terror.

    Benjamin walked to the edge of the wall and overlooked the crowd below. A great cheer went up, and he knew in his heart that he had been right.

    They were finally free.

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      SuddenSight says:

      HTTP ERROR:
      You are standing at the entrance to Castle Shotgun. The gates are securely locked. There is a Refresh Button here.

      > Push Button

      The button shudders, then spews out steam. Jim looks up from his work. “It won’t work. The power generator shut down.”

      > Fix Generator

      Jim sighs. “I need more background on the problem. I think it’s a historic issue, but no one remembers anymore.”

      You see a fiddle here.

      > Take Fiddle

      You pick up the fiddle. As you do, a sheet of music falls out.

      > Look Sheet

      “Ballad of the history of Power at Castle Shotgun”

      This is a folksy ballad about power usage at Castle Shotgun. Kinda boring, to be honest.

      > Play Ballad

      Really? If you say so…

      You start singing,

      “Let me tell you of the story of the power here at Shotgun,
      From the times when trees and rivers ruled to advent of computers,
      I’ll start with old man Jamey Smith, with crooked knee and a forgotten face,
      He… Uh… He built a water wheel on the… bank… *snore*”

      It is not an exciting ballad.

    • dE says:

      Do we post it here? Why yes, I think we do.

      There’s a time and place for everything, Mr. Berrybottom. The concept of gravity, my friend, came late to this world. You should have seen Fate trying her hardest. You see, she was quite the scholar and the alchemistic idea of equivalent exchange was just the latest fad in the Ivory Towers. Surely an idea as changeful as gravity would require a force equal to the impact, pardon the pun. It took some time before she realized the concept of time and place. Oh and the idea that human skulls have a penchant to crack when married to sticks and stones helped a bit, I guess.
      You see, Arthur needed the Sword in the stone to become King, Excalibur for all its glory and magical power was just the second born toy for it missed its time and place. Time and place, Berrybottom, Time and place. The place is here. Castle Shotgun is at the threshold of imagination and stories, sitting atop the literary and the figurative world. A million storytellers sit in the clouds and wait for a chance to play with words and worlds. Tis a place of power. After all, it’s in the eve of twilight that things betwixt gain magical reign over mundane matters. This is how stories happen, my friend. The anachronism of the name shall play Checkhov’s Gun for this epic to unfold. For it is old hard dying concepts of gender my ballad shall challenge. It shall stricken the nation with accursed realization, with music carried on feathers, the devil within untethered. I insist with but this lousy rhyme, on those walls it shall be and it’s about damn time.

  10. The Random One says:

    As someone wot loves RPG’s but hasn’t had a chance to really play since I became a Grown-Up and immediately lost all my friends, this sounds super alluring.

    On an unrelated note, uh, anyone wanna play Fiasco online?

  11. aliksy says:

    Sounds interesting but I’m not sure how much it adds that couldn’t be easily done with index cards and dice.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      The ability to play over a large timespan, with people who already have massive unwieldy time commitments, and are separated by oceans? That’s a pretty big selling point for me.

  12. hypercrisis says:

    How does this compare to those text-based online RPGs? There was one set in some fantasy Victorian setting reported here on RPS some time ago even.

    • CarpeGuitarrem says:

      If you’re thinking of Fallen London, the two are vastly different in their scope. Fallen London was focused on making your way gradually through content, and on obtaining resources to unlock higher and higher branches of content. It was also a solo affair.

      Storium is based around playing with a group. One of them is a sort of lead player, setting scenes and giving the other players something to react to, and setting challenges to beat. There’s a pretty tight resource-management economy, where characters spend their character’s traits to tilt the story in a way that helps them…or a way that hurts them. (You only get new cards when you spend all of them, so sometimes that means you have to make the story go badly before you can recover your strength and make it go well.)

  13. Arglebargle says:

    What’s the moderation of Storium like? Is there a central gatekeeper overlooking content, or is it peer based?

    For Tom, I don’t think rules heavy PnP systems somehow preclude creativity. Mostly, rules heavy systems draw people who like rules heavy systems. Perhaps to the detriment of story. Of course, I have been lucky enough to play with some of the best game masters around, including some really superior game designers, authors, etc, so my mileage may have varied.

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      ErraticGamer says:

      The narrator has the ability to request that you change a move that your character makes, if they feel that what you wrote doesn’t match the setting / the card you played / etc. They also get to set up and close each scene, which puts them in charge of plot and location transitions. Beyond that, though, the narrator is largely another player – they make “moves” like everyone else, but with different cards to play. Everybody’s just writing the next part of a scene, though.

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    ErraticGamer says:

    I’m starting up my 2nd Storium game right now (as a character, not a narrator) and it’s been a blast. The strength and weakness cards (and the requirement that you use both) ensure that everyone is writing to make an interesting story, not just to Mary Sue an invincible superhero character, and because the players get to narrate a strong outcome, the “GM” has to react to them as much as they have to react to him/her.

    It could use some tweaks – in the first game, a couple characters dropped out mid-story, and there wasn’t an elegant way to account for that, for instance, and the whole thing needs a messaging system that isn’t tied to the game so people can send hidden info, private messages, etc. But it’s a really smart system right off the bat and the flexibility is pretty much literally limitless. You’re just writing stories – write whatever kind you want.

    I’m really looking forward to the content packs that they funded through the Kickstarter, though. It’s easier to get people to be creative by starting them off with a solid foundation, and there are some great ideas in there.

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    LogicalDash says:

    It seems like the most direct influence on Storium is Universalis. This tabletop game uses “coins” to make players bid for control over one aspect of the story or another. Storium is more “market” and less “auction” but you’re still using basic economic concepts to distribute control of the story.

    • Josh W says:

      My impression was somewhat different; it seemed to me that each card by itself says whether a positive or negative trait of your is coming to the fore in that situation, and it’s the aggregate of the traits the players have applied that decides what happens next. So there’s not really bidding, more like having a hand of high and low cards, with the main focus being on stopping the inevitable curse of fanfiction or forum roleplaying; Mr Goodluck Neverfails.

      Anyway, whether it’s similar or not, universalis is a pretty impressive game. My favorite bit is not the economic aspect, but the way that you mostly only get power to solve problems by using things that have already been developed in the story, encouraging even the most rambling of people to start reusing older themes and making things more coherent. It’s also brilliant if you get two people with vast imaginations “and poor impulse control” in a game, because it still somehow forces them to wrestle their different ideas into some sort of whole.

  16. Idealiad says:

    it doesn’t seem like it, but I’m curious if there’s any influence from text-based mushes and MOOs, two branches of text-based muds with real-time roleplaying in persistent worlds, sometimes using RPG rules like FATE or WoD. There are dozens of these games active currently, with anywhere from 2 to 200 players online at the same time.

    From what I can tell there’s more of a PbP influence, but the similarities with mushes are striking all the same.

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    strangeloup says:

    This looks pretty awesome. I signed up via the site to be notified when I can buy in, and I’d be sorely tempted to see if I could set up the old White Wolf games in this format.

  18. psuedonymous says:

    Sounds like a more structured version of the ‘quests’ that are common on various forums and imageboards: essentially ‘choose your own adventure’ games with decisions made by vote or suggestion to a varying degree (ranging from voting on set choices to open-field suggestions chosen by the author).

  19. DXN says:

    DO. WANT.