Some Of Our Favorite Authors Helped Build This Online Storytelling Game

Illustration for article titled Some Of Our Favorite Authors Helped Build This Online Storytelling Game

Storium is an online platform for creating collaborative stories. It's part role-playing game, part shared fiction organizer, and the creators of the game's myriad settings include some of our favorite authors.

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Storium is the brainchild of Stephen Hood, Josh Whiting, Will Hindmarch, J.C. Hutchins, Mur Lafferty, and Chuck Wendig. The list of novels, screenplays, short stories, and RPGs that you'll find on their collective resume is pretty impressive. What's more impressive is the list of authors lined up to design worlds for Storium. As of now, there are nearly 50, with more to be unlocked as various stretch goals in the Storium Kickstarter are met. Once the game goes live, it will cost an annual fee of $25 to access.

I can't possibly list all 50-odd authors, but here are some of my favorites: Stephen Blackmoore, Nancy Holder, Saladin Ahmed, Richard Dansky, Elizabeth Bear, Keith Baker, Jordan Weisman, Robin Laws, Kenneth Hite, and Fran Wilde. If you've read any speculative fiction in the last ten years, you're certain to know a few of them.

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So what will these authors be doing? Let me explain how Storium works. One player begins a story by doing the initial set up: choosing the setting, inviting the other players, customizing anything that needs customizing, and so forth. That player is the Narrator. The other players choose characters from a list (which may be specific people or just archetypes, like "hardbitten private investigator"). They can customize those characters as they choose (by essentially writing a paragraph or two of backstory), but the Narrator gets final approval.

Illustration for article titled Some Of Our Favorite Authors Helped Build This Online Storytelling Game

Once the game starts, the Narrator begins a scene. Each scene is built with a place, some characters and obstacles, and some assets and goals. All of these things are represented by virtual "cards" the Narrator has access to. These are created when the game is first started, but the Narrator can customize them freely as the game progresses.

Once the scene is established with a few paragraphs of text from the Narrator, the players jump in. Each player makes a move by playing one of their own cards and adding some descriptive paragraphs. Player cards are either strengths or weaknesses, and when they play one, it counts toward the total number of cards needed to overcome a challenge (set by the Narrator). Whoever plays the last card that overcomes a challenge gains narrative control of its outcome, although if the last card played was a weakness, there will be complications.

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This continues as long as everyone wants to keep the story going. There are lots of publicly accessible Storium games that you can peruse, to get a better feel for how it works (but you can only see them if you register, and you currently need to get an invite from someone or back the Kickstarter to gain beta access).

What this boils down to is a collaborative story, with the narrative baton being passed back and forth based on the loose structure of the challenges and the player cards. There is, of course, no ultimate goal and no winner. The Narrator role is something like the GM in an RPG, in that she directs the story and describes the game world to the players. There are some big differences, though — primarily, it works better if you leave things very open-ended, without too rigid of a predefined plot. You'll start with some cool locations and interesting characters, and then just let them bounce off of each other and see what makes sparks fly.

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That's where all the authors come in. You can create every aspect of a Storium game, customizing every card that both Narrator and players use. But you can also use a preset world, where these things have been created for you. This obviously saves a lot of time, and you can always customize a few key pieces to fit your own vision. The authors that are working on Storium are creating their own worlds for players to play in. Seanan McGuire's world is based on legendary Atlantis. Logan Bonner is creating a Mad Max pastiche. Matt Forbeck has created an academy for evil monsters. Maurice Broaddus' world sets Prohibition gangster stories in the Harlem Renaissance.

If you ever wondered what it would be like if your favorite authors mixed up a batch of story ingredients, then let you use them to make whatever you wanted — that's pretty much what Storium is going to be like. Admittedly, you need some friends who are half decent writers, but it's not too hard to find a group online. In our beta test game, we had a lot of fun simply hitting every cyberpunk and film noir trope and cliche we could think of.

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It will be interesting to see when the first novel is published based on a Storium game.

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DISCUSSION

GrendelKhan
Erik Sofge

I hate to say it, but I've been trying Storium for a little while, and it's...sort of a letdown. It feels like it's stuck somewhat awkwardly between a game and a writing group exercise.

Since there are no random game mechanics—nothing like the equivalent of a tabletop RPG's dice roll—the action is very binary. You know how many cards you need to burn to succeed, so you burn them, or you don't (you can spend less for a partial success, but the number of cards necessary, and the general result, are known from the start).

And the cards, I think, get in the way of the writing exercise aspect. You aren't just taking a turn, and shaping the story. You're shoe-horning in some item-based card, or your established personality quirks or motivations. It'd be one thing if that stuff only factored in every so often, for more dramatic moments in the story. But the way it's currently set up, you're forced to keep incorporating virtual props or recurring character traits, every time you play cards against an obstacle. The resulting text, as far as I've seen, is really clunky. Since you're basing your contributions on the cards you're playing, there's less of an impetus to write in the reactions or actions of other characters in the group. It's not so much a group-written story, but a transcription of a bizarre tabletop game where everyone takes 10 actions at once, before the next player goes.

I think there's a lot to like about Storium—I really do!—but I hope they're serious about this being in beta, and plan to make some major changes based on playtesting. Maybe groups could choose between a few different levels of "game-iness," ranging from something with random mechanics (nothing complex, just something that makes me wonder whether my "dynamite bundle" or "eldritch figurine" card is going to actually work), to a much more open-ended framework, that only rarely requires cards to establish scene resolution. Or that uses cards like Dark Cults did, as very general inspiration.

You seem to be liking it a lot more than me, Ed, so obviously I'm not speaking for everyone. But I'm not just the target demographic—I'm the bullseye, a wannabe fiction writer and once-fanatic RPGer (and a pretty pretentious, anti hack-and-slash one, at that) who no longer has a way to game regularly. If they're losing me this quickly, that should be a concern.