Telling a Tale With Storium

Telling a Tale with Storium
Screenshots and image combination by Helen Barker. Storium logo © Storium.

Stories stir something very deep in the human psyche. People have reveled in the familiar rhythms of stories for thousands of years.  The art form has developed gradually from people gathered around a campfire swapping tall tales of myths and legends to a myriad of storytelling forms, including printed and electronic books, films, comics, and video games. We are comforted by the rhythmic repetition of a favorite children’s tale, frightened by a horror film, or captivated by an epic fantasy. Stories are powerful because they are tied to our emotions; they take us to new places and allow our imaginations to take flight.

This is part of what makes us human, and storytelling is therefore an important and valued skill.

Like many other GeekMoms and lots of our readers, I am a prolific consumer of stories. I regularly have at least an ebook and a paper book on the go, as well as the films and TV programs that I watch. Although some of my GeekMom colleagues are very accomplished authors, I’ve always been more of a reader than a writer.

As a teacher, I am constantly helping children to improve their writing, but I don’t do any myself beyond short examples or story starters for my students. I love good writing and I’ve always been sure that I couldn’t write as well as the authors that I like to read. I have, however, been playing with some story ideas recently and wondered whether I might be able to write a story. So when I heard about Storium, I was intrigued. An online storytelling game not only sounded like fun, but it might help me to get some practice in crafting stories to help to build my confidence. It also sounded like it could be an interesting tool to help engage and support children in story writing in school, so I decided to take a closer look.

I started with Storium‘s Kickstarter page, where there’s lots of information about the game and examples of how it works. I was incredibly excited by what I saw, as it could bring writers together to collaborate on stories set in a variety of storytelling worlds. Storium has already been in development for a while, so a playable beta is available right away for backers.

The basic idea is that a narrator sets up and runs the story, while the other players create characters and react to the problems that the narrator places into the story. The narrator can either craft their own custom world to set the story in, or choose from a variety of pre-built starter worlds that can be tweaked and adjusted. There’s a choice of nine pre-built worlds in the beta, including steampunk and space adventure worlds.

To start, I spent some time reading games that were already playing, looking at how the narrators moved the story on and how the players used their characters to overcome challenges and problems. The standard of the writing is generally very high, and you can see how enthusiastic the players are, as some stories are developing at a breakneck pace.

I decided to dip my toes into the waters in two ways. Firstly, I’d join a couple of public games, before trying to create a game of my own with some friends. It was easy to browse the open games that were looking for players, and I chose a couple that looked interesting. My next task was to create a character and submit it to the narrator for approval. This is achieved by selecting or creating a variety of cards to describe the character. After choosing the character’s nature card, you build on this by selecting their strength, weakness, and motivation. You can go with a set of suggested cards that match the nature or create your own. By that point, you have a basic idea about the character that you can then begin to flesh out a little in the description, as well as adding a name and an avatar.

The narrator vets each character submission and if it doesn’t quite fit with their ideas (they have too many elves, for example, or not enough pirates), they can either reject it or ask the player to edit the character and resubmit it. Some of the narrators are very exacting in their requirements for characters, asking players to come up with their own cards and answering sets of questions in their character descriptions, as well as specifying the voice of the writing. The characters created for one world that I looked at with very detailed instructions were amazing, and showed real thought and writing flair in their construction. I’m keeping my eye on that one, as I think it could be a very interesting story to read. Also, it gives me something to aim for as I develop as a writer.

Storium Character Cards
This is the set up for my character, Skya. It shows her strength and weakness, as well as a bit about her background. Screenshot by Helen Barker.

It was quite nerve-wracking to submit my first character, but I was excited to see whether they’d be accepted and where the story would go. I ended up having both characters accepted, after some tweaking on one of them. I was going to write as a graphic designer in an office mystery game and as a young unproven fighter in a more traditional fantasy quest adventure. Both games had larger casts of eight and six characters respectively, meaning that the action could move quite quickly.

As things happened to my character, I had to decide how to play my cards and move the story along, without treading on anyone else’s toes. Both of the narrators were skilled at moving the action on and also writing the non-playing characters (NPCs). I had been worried that the writing would be patchy and that players might try to ride roughshod over the game, but my fears were unfounded as the writing was of a very high quality on both games and was truly collaborative. You could tell that the players were thinking carefully about their character and their interactions with the storyline, and any questions were raised in the comments section for players to discuss.

Some moves required me to play one of my cards to move a challenge towards a strong, uncertain, or weak outcome, while other moves were exposition or further description. The outcome of each challenge then fed into what happened next in the storyline. The narrator could add extra narration if required, set up new challenges and control the scenes, meaning that the story flowed onwards. The stories are nowhere near their conclusions yet and are becoming more interesting as they progress. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Making a move in Storium
Here you can see how the story passes from character to character. Screenshot by Helen Barker.

My last challenge was to set up and narrate my own story. I chose “The Mysterious Island” template and left all of the cards in their default settings. To begin, I selected the crash site and used most of the suggested text to set the scene. I added some of my own description at the end to help my players understand what to do next. My two willing guinea pigs have each played a few times, and so far I’ve found it really interesting to narrate the story instead of write it as a character. It uses a different set of writing skills, as you need to have a more overarching view of the story.

This was a really positive experience for me. I found flexing my narrative muscles to be really exciting and interesting, and looked forward to other players making their moves as much as writing my own contributions.

Storium's Narrator View
This is what Storium looks like for a narrator. You can see that the characters are working towards their “Assist and Treat the Injured” challenge. Screenshot by Helen Barker.

Storium‘s Kickstarter is currently storming through stretch goals, including a huge range of new worlds from a variety of talented writers. Further stretch goals just announced include avatar and card art, as well as a Gamma test, which will include more new features. If you’re interested in writing, need a creative boost, or just want a new game to play with friends, you can back Storium from just $10, which gets you instant access to the beta program. I’ve gone for “The Deal” level, because I really want access to all of those stretch goal worlds, particularly State Liminal, described as “Casablanca in space” and written by GeekMom’s very own Fran Wilde. Those will be available later this year.

I caught up with Stephen Hood, the brains behind Storium, to find out how this software came about and where they’re heading next.

GeekMom: So can you tell me about Storium‘s backstory? How did this idea lead you and your team to work unpaid on developing the platform?

Stephen Hood: I had the realization that many of my favorite games—especially tabletop role-playing games—are engines of creativity. They use rules and other techniques to encourage people to work together to tell stories. I thought that if these tools could be brought to a much, much larger audience, we could make a real difference by helping people express themselves in new ways.

I became obsessed with the idea and decided to go for it. Myself and my co-founder Josh Whiting left our jobs to begin work on Storium full-time. Along the way, we assembled a great team of partners and advisors, including our lead game designer Will Hindmarch, novelists Chuck Wendig and Mur Lafferty, and transmedia storyteller J.C. Hutchins. We all believe that Storium could be something big, and that gives us the drive to work on it so hard. Speaking personally, of all the things I’ve worked on in my life so far, it’s Storium of which I’m most proud. I really want to see what it can become!

GM: What are you hoping that users will gain from their Storium experiences?

SH: We’re hoping that Storium will inspire more people to become storytellers! Stories are part of what makes us human, and telling stories is a fundamental human creative ability. They enrich our own lives and the lives of the people who experience them. If we can help more people to tell stories and inspire them to write, I think we’ll be doing something positive for the world.

GM: What have you got up your sleeve for features in future versions of Storium? (If you’re allowed to say!)

SH: We have lots of plans! While Storium is designed to be played asynchronously (that is, at your own pace), we also want to support “real-time” play, for when you and your friends are all online at the same time and want your story to move even faster. We have some cool ideas for how to make that work within the context of Storium. We also want to support different styles of play. For example, we want to build a version of Storium in which each player takes turns playing the narrator’s part. We think this will lead to an ever more collaborative (and probably more unpredictable!) approach to storytelling. Those are just a couple of examples of where we’re heading.

I think that Storium is a really powerful storytelling tool. With my teacher hat on, I could see this being used easily in classrooms to support collaborative writing, make storytelling exciting, and build writing confidence. Stephen tells me that they are looking forward to exploring Storium‘s use in education, and I can’t wait to see what happens with that. Personally, I’ve found joy in building something with other people and have also enjoyed the buzz of collaboration and creativity. It’s certainly helped me to feel more like a writer and I’m hoping that as my stories progress, my writing skills will too. Its narrative might have only just started, but I shall continue to play along, as I think that Storium has the potential to be very important indeed.

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