Introducing Story Realms: An Interview With Game Designer Angela Hickman Newnham

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Story Realms LogoStory Realms Logo

Games which the whole family can enjoy can be very difficult to find. Board games are often either too complicated for kids to grasp, or they are too simplistic to hold an adult’s attention. The games that hit the Goldilocks zone quickly become family favorites.

All three of my children are natural born storytellers. Recently, I introduced my ten-year-old to the wonderful world of Mouse Guard. We have created our characters, and I am looking forward to putting together our first adventure in the next few weeks. However, storytelling with the complexity of the Mouse Guard system takes time, preparation, and dedication. There aren’t many storytelling games that allow me to sit down with my kids and complete a story in an evening or, better yet, an hour. Rory’s Story Cubes are perhaps the best available product.

This is why I was so excited in March when I was introduced to Story Realms by Escapade Games at GameStorm. Here was a storytelling game which seemed to find the Goldilocks zone in just about every way. The game is now in beta testing and will be demoed by Game Salute at Origins this weekend. If you are going, first let me say I am insanely jealous, and let me encourage you to stop by their booth and give Story Realms a try.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Angela Hickman Newnham, one of the creators of the game, and talk with her about the game and the process which led to its creation.

Wecks: At GameStorm, you told me a little about the frustrations which led to you producing a storytelling game for families. I wanted to start here by letting you tell the story for our audience.

Hickman Newnham: At five years old, my daughter and her friends had organized their own superhero league. It was a fun way to play, imagining themselves as their favorite heroes and going on exciting missions to save the world. Last summer, my daughter got a new superhero board game. She was so excited to play with her friends. We planned a party, and the kids dressed up in their costumes, all ready to team up and game together — about three turns in, it turned into a bit of a disaster.

The game involved collecting items. To get them, you had to steal them from other players. So instead of a cool teamwork experience, where the kids got to play superheroes and fight crime together in a structured board game, they were randomly rolling to take away each other’s items. There were sad faces and upset kiddos. We tried to salvage the game by changing the rules on the fly but ultimately ended up encouraging the kids to drop the game and just go play together the way they wanted to.

While the kids ran around having fun, my friend Julian and I launched into a conversation about what we’d really like to see in a family game. We talked about the potential for games to encourage cooperative storytelling and engagement in a meaningful and memorable way. We began brainstorming ideas for how a game that was fun for kids and adults to play together could work, and the concept for Story Realms was born — an adventure game that combined roleplaying and board game elements to create a unique and fun story experience in about an hour.

Wecks: Well, at least something good came out of that party. Thinking about storytelling and kids reminds me of the recent article in Wired in which Clive Thompson talks about how fan fiction and world creation by kids has a high correlation with becoming a MacArthur genius grant winner later in life. Did you get a chance to catch that article, and do you see Story Realms as part of what he is talking about?

Angela Hicks NewnhamAngela Hicks NewnhamHickman Newnham: Absolutely! Thompson discusses the value of creating paracosms, intricate fantasy worlds, and how crafting logical and thoughtful stories within the context of an imaginary setting helps to develop skills that directly translate to real world endeavors. The world of Storm Hollow, in which the Story Realms game is set, is a fully fleshed out world with its own geography, history, culture, and characters. We have an introduction to this world in our pre-made adventures, but as players become familiar with the game and the world, they are encouraged to create their own stories and make the world their own. As the article states, fleshing out a world requires specific skill sets that involve creativity, logic, consistency, perseverance, attention to detail, problem-solving, and working constructively within a set of constraints to accomplish your goals. These skills translate across many other aspects of life, including achievement in school, work, and other intellectual pursuits. Playing a game like Story Realms with your kids is one way to help nurture and encourage the development of their practical creativity. Plus, adults benefit from creative exploration and imaginative paracosmic play too, so it’s a great opportunity to indulge in something fun and worthwhile as a family.

Wecks: I agree. After playing Story Realms, I think it fits nicely in what Thompson discussed in his article. So let’s talk more about the game. Give me a brief summary of how it works.

Hickman Newnham: Story Realms is a cooperative storytelling game in which players take on the roles of heroic versions of themselves called to a grand adventure and work together to tell a great story. One player assumes the role of the Storyteller and is responsible for describing and bringing to life the world and the problems that face it. The other players team up to save the day. Each game provides a full immersive adventure experience with players’ decisions and actions determining the course of the events and creating the story as they play.

Character making is a simple process that takes place during the game, so no preparation is needed. During the introductory scene, players make a few choices that capture the essence of how they want to play the game. Each character role explores a different classic adventuring trope, but has a fun new twist that shows off a bit of the flavor and lore of Storm Hollow. The players choose all the actions their characters will take in the game, and to resolve actions, players make one of six skill checks; Explore, Magic, Might, Move, Talk, or Think. We kept the skill list small, but tried to incorporate all of the possible actions a player might want to do. Instead of complex rules for every specific situation, we wanted to create a system in which clever ideas could be attempted and incorporated into the narrative on the fly, so that the focus could remain on creating the story, not looking up rules. In addition to skill checks, each character role has a few unique abilities, and as players advance throughout the game, they will unlock more powers and acquire new legendary artifacts that allow for further character customization and new ways to approach challenges.

Each adventure has 3 scenes, and usually takes about an hour to play. Some scenes are short descriptions that help set up the adventure and introduce people and places; these are called Conversations. Other scenes involve the players trying to solve some kind of problem and interact with various parts of the game world through Story Challenges. The third type of scene is when the exciting and dangerous parts of the adventure happen in a turn-by-turn play style known as an Action Challenge. Each type of scene adds to the overall story and helps create interesting moments and build tension, while still keeping the focus on great story telling.

Wecks: So how many different premade chapters come with the game?

Hickman Newnham: The base game is planned to come with a full epic storyline that consists of 10 adventures. We’re calling this adventure path “Book One: Pieces of a Broken World,” and each adventure makes up a chapter of the book. Each chapter takes about an hour to play, and the idea is a group can play each one as an individual story, or can play through the whole book of adventures to complete the overall story arc. The base set will also come with lots of extra goodies to make your own adventures.

The “Pieces of a Broken World” story serves as a tutorial to introduce all the different game concepts and get to know some key people, places, and lore of Storm Hollow, while experiencing a thrilling story set across several different fantastical landscapes. I’m really excited about the plot we’ve created for this adventure path and think we’ve got a lot of fun surprises in store. However, for some people, the real fun is in telling your own stories, so we’ve worked hard to provide a whole toolbox of storytelling devices, to make it easy to put together your own adventures and tell any story you can imagine.

On a related note, the art in this game is going to be amazing! We’ve been working with Game Salute’s art director Dann May, and we’ve come up with a really impressive visual style for this game, which I think is evocative of both classic fairy and folk tales and modern fantasy. One thing I am personally very excited about is that every scene in the “Pieces of a Broken World” book will be fully illustrated on beautiful art cards that are placed onto the Story Board to provide a visual reference of the events as they unfold for the players, bringing the adventures to life in a way that many storytelling games are not able to do.

Wecks: That sounds great! Now I am really excited to see the art. So I have to confess, at GameStorm, I had a bit of an ah-ha moment when you were demoing Story Realms in the game room. I was halfway through when I realized that I was playing an RPG for kids. Am I right?

Gametesting Story Realms at GamestormGametesting Story Realms at Gamestorm

Hickman Newnham: Not exactly! Story Realms was designed as a game for the whole family, not just a “kids game.” As a parent of two young children, I often find myself playing games with them that they enjoy but don’t really engage me. With Story Realms, we wanted to create an experience in which players of all different ages and experience could come together and share a story driven adventure that would have something to offer for everyone. We worked really hard to ensure that the game was playable by young children, but we worked equally as hard to ensure that there was enough depth, detail, and replayability for adults to get into the game and look forward to playing it. We’ve had great success playtesting the game with groups of adults, and I personally have had as much fun playing the game with my friends as I have playing it with my kids.

While Story Realms is closest to a roleplaying game at its core, we’ve also implemented a lot of ideas inspired by board games and video games to try to lower the barrier of entry and provide components that serve as visual indicators of progress. We are trying to create a great aesthetically pleasing and tactile interface for telling stories, and the physical game pieces and art work together to accomplish that. We want players to be able to focus on the adventure and imagination, not the bookkeeping that comes along with many traditional pen and paper roleplaying games.

Wecks: At what age could a kid become the Storyteller and lead an adventure by themselves?

Hickman Newnham: One of the great things about Story Realms is that it is really just an imagination game at heart. All of the components and rules are there to facilitate storytelling and provide a framework for adventures, but the real essence of the game is working together to create a memorable experience. Our rules system is simple enough for even young children to learn, but has enough depth and emergent complexity to still be an interesting game for experienced gamers.

I don’t have an exact age yet in which I would be able to confidently say most kids could run the game, but my guess is somewhere between 8-12 years old, depending on the kid and their desire, comfort with general game rules and procedure, and familiarity with Story Realms. One thing that is great about the structure we’ve created is that basic storytelling features are built right into the game; things like introducing characters and setting, building dramatic tension through rising action, and concluding stories with a climactic scene and meaningful resolution are part of the structure of each adventure. Just by playing the game, people will become more familiar with the concept of a story arc and narrative techniques, and creating and telling great stories of your own is a natural extension of that. The adventures create a stepping stone to learn about setting a scene, explaining challenges, asking players how they want to interact with the elements, and weaving collaborative stories. All of this is part of becoming a great storyteller or game master, so we built that in as a procedural part of the game. The result is a game that it is easy to pick up, and a system that provides a lot of support for new Storytellers, while still allowing freedom to create interesting and unique stories.

My 6-year-old daughter decided after just two playtest adventures that she wanted to start running her own Story Realms game. She loves making up adventures and leading me, my husband, her brother, and her friends through heroic quests and exciting stories. She is an emerging reader and doesn’t use the full system yet, but the experience is still really fun for everyone. We’ve “played” Story Realms snuggled up on the couch without any of the components by just talking through adventures and rolling pretend dice. It amazes me how quickly she picked up on the concept of running a roleplaying adventure; describing a scene, asking what players want to do, calling for skill rolls, and creating a narrative of how that all comes together. Without us ever explaining to her how to take on the role of the Storyteller, she naturally stepped into it and began designing her own adventures. I think this is something many kids will feel drawn to; a chance to collaboratively explore an epic tale of your own design is a pretty exciting idea!

Wecks: I have no doubts that kids will get it and love it. Kids tell collaborative stories every day on the playground. In fact, I think this would be a great game to see in every teacher’s classroom. So what is your timeline right now for Story Realms? Where is it in the development process?

Hickman Newnham: We are working with Game Salute to get Story Realms ready for publication. Our current goal is to launch a Springboard-Approved Kickstarter campaign by the end of the summer to raise funds for the initial print run and take pre-orders for the game. There is a lot more to getting a game like this ready to publish than I ever imagined! Writing rules, creating components, designing and revising game elements, creating a whole world with all the locations, lore, creatures, and details that make a setting come to life, playtesting and revising, art descriptions, adventure writing. The list goes on and on! It’s an amazing feeling to get to work on a project you love and see your efforts coming to fruition, and when playtesters sit down and dive into our game with enthusiasm and come out of it with a great story to tell. I think the best part so far has been watching our own kids really enjoy playing the game and ask for more.

We are just starting on our big beta playtest, where we are sending a rough prototype version of the game out to a lot of different groups and families to play. We’re really excited to get a lot of feedback about the game and how well our Storytelling tools are working, and plan to use that information to iron out the kinks and make any improvements we can. We’re also working to flesh out the rich and vibrant setting of Storm Hollow, finishing the Pieces of a Broken World” adventure path, and continuing to write and revise the rulebook. We want to make sure we do everything possible on our end to make it easy for someone to pick up the game and successfully run exciting adventures, even if they have no previous Storytelling or roleplaying experience.

Wecks: So what is next for Escapade Games? Do you have anything else on the horizon?

Hickman Newnham: Right now, we’re really just focused on making Story Realms the best game it can be. I have a whole new respect for game designers and the work they do! You won’t believe how much attention we’ve put into what seems like the most trivial things, like naming skills, character roles, and talents. We’ve probably gone through at least 10 drafts of each! I now believe one of the hardest things to do is to design a game that feels very intuitive and natural when played by a variety of different types of players, and I’m starting to think if we do our job right, no one will ever realize how much effort went into creating that seamless and fluid experience, because it will “just feel right” to most people.

We’ve got a lot of ideas for the game and the world, and if the Story Realms base set goes over well, we have a few expansions already lined up that we would like to do. Additionally, we have several other game projects on the back burner that we’ve developed over the years, and lots of ideas for new games to work on, so we’ll just have to see how it all unfolds. Ideally, we’d also like to get involved in doing some community events and promoting families playing games together in any way we can.

Wecks: Well, I am really excited to see what comes next, and I can’t wait to see the changes you have made to your game since March.

Hickman Newnham: Thanks, Erik! We’re really excited about some of the new ideas we’ve implemented into the game, and I really can’t wait to hear what people think once they get a chance to play the game. As a matter of fact, Game Salute will be publicly playtesting the game this week at Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio! We fully believe the more feedback we get, the better the game will be in the end. Our goal is to continue iterating and improving on the core ideas until we have a product that we feel really confident will deliver a memorable and fun family experience for everyone.

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