Storium – an asynchronous storytelling game

English: Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con i...

English: Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for many players to get together for a game. Real life has a nasty habit of getting in the way. Gaming online using Google hangouts, Roll20.net and the like help by eliminating the constraint that everyone has to be in the same geography, but they still mean that everyone has to be free at the same time.

Storium is different. It is an asynchronous story telling role playing game. Whether you are a player or the narrator, you can take turns whenever you want. All you need is an internet connection and a smidgen of time.

At the time of writing, Storium has 36 hours left of its kickstarter campaign. I am a backer, a player and a narrator but have no other affiliation with the game or its publisher.

To start a game in Storium, you can choose from one of the pre-populated stories or worlds. More are being added each day as the kickstarter campaign rumbles on. Each of these comes with a set of ready made plot elements including characters for the players to interact with, challenges for them to overcome and assets to help them along their way. These plot elements remind me of Fiasco playsets in that they suggest a framework for the story but do not dictate the plot.

After that, enter the usernames or email addresses of people you want to join your game and invites will be sent out on your behalf. You can decide whether your game is open (and can be viewed by everyone on storium.com) or closed. New players can be added at any point during the game.

Players create their characters by choosing cards to define who they are and what they can do. Firstly, they select a card that defines their background – similar to a class. Then they define their biggest strength and their biggest weakness. Players can either choose from the options available or make something up. Each strength / weakness can be used 3 times. In addition to the defined strength / weakness, players also get a wild strength / weakness which can be defined when played. Lastly, the player selects a calling which is like a starter plot.

Characters, once defined, are submitted to the narrator for approval. The narrator can ask for revisions to be made or simply accept the character.

Once play is under way, the narrator uses the various plot elements to construct scenes. Using a location card, the players know where the action takes place. Character cards indicate who’s there. Asset cards show things that may be picked up. Challenge cards show difficulties that players must overcome to progress the story. Subplot cards can be picked up should characters feel motivated to solve them.

Players take turns in any order and can make more than one turn at a time. They solve puzzles by playing their strength / weakness cards and describing what they do to overcome the challenge. The outcome depends on the combination of cards played. If all cards played are strength cards, then there is a strong outcome. All weakness cards means a weak outcome. If there is a combination of the two, then the outcome is uncertain. The player who plays the last card narrates what happens for a weak / strong outcome. For an uncertain outcome, the narrator decides what happens. Even when players describe the outcome, the narrator can request revisions if necessary.

In between scenes, any players who are out of cards can refresh their hands and each player may only play 3 cards per scene which stops anyone from monopolising the story. Any player / narrator can make comments which appear in a commentary box beside the action.

The game plays very well. In some ways, it helps if your players are in different time zones because each wakes up at a different time and the story rattles along. You can only get out of a game like this what you put in, but we have had an absolute blast and it means I can play games with friends on the opposite side of the world.

It seems churlish to criticise a game like this because it does what it sets out to do very well. It would help if there were a more sophisticated way to browse ongoing games, maybe a search feature. There is no inbuilt combat or damage mechanism so it is difficult to simulate peril except through narrative. If you are into simulationist games, then you probably want to look elsewhere.

If you love storytelling games and you are having trouble finding a game, then this is an absolute gem. Not to be missed.

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Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.

The games club

Magic: The Gathering card back

Magic: The Gathering card back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The room was full of people, but eerily quiet. Feet were shuffled and looks were exchanged between everyone in the room.

Eventually… “Why don’t you do it?”

Despite waiting for someone to break the silence, I inadvertently jumped as the question came in my direction. The guy asking currently ran the games club and the pregnant pause came about because he announced that he wasn’t going to do it any more and we needed to find a successor.

“You like games. You’re down here every week. I think you’d do a good job.”

People around the room started nodding their heads, either agreeing or glad that it was me not them. I mentally tried the idea on for size and thought why not. So began my decade long tenure. There wasn’t much to do if I’m honest. Making sure we had a venue, collecting the subs and organising the Christmas raffle was hardly taxing, but technically, it was my first position of responsibility.

We played all sorts of games over the years. I enjoyed a collectible card game called Magic the Gathering for a little while. I used to get some strange looks from my colleagues when I used the free help line to clarify the rules. Well, the conversations must have sounded a bit weird;

“Say I lightning bolt his Hypnotic Spectre, and then he casts Giant growth on it, then I counter spell his Giant Growth and then…”

We got through some roleplaying campaigns too. I remember playing pirates in Freeport, battling drow in Dungeons & Dragons and fencing atop a zeppelin in Castle Falkenstein.

For a while, we played a lot of Formule De. A racing game that simulates Formula One motor races by using different sized dice for each gear. One of the guys bought every single track so we played out a full season timing the races to match the real races that played out on the TV. We played a Subutteo World Cup one year whilst the real one was on. I was amazed at how it brought out the worst in people. I’ve never seen so much cheating!

The really good thing about the club was that members brought down different games every week, so we got to play a huge variety of stuff. The sheer breadth and quality of board games on offer is astonishing, particularly from the Germans. I could never go back to Monopoly and Cluedo.

Often I would get phone calls from people wanting to find out more about the club. One day, a woman phoned. She was about to make a TV program celebrating the anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to know whether we would be willing to take part. I said I’d put it to the members. They agreed and I phoned her back.

“Can you describe where you play?” she asked.

“A cellar under the Old Town Hall. It’s fairly dark & dingy.”

“Do you dress up to play?”

“No!”

“Will you? We’ll provide the costumes and everything.”

“We might be sad, but we’re not that sad.”

Gamification

Andrew contacted me after reading my post about Jane McGonigal and asked whether I’d like to share his Infographic about gamification on this site. I’m impressed by his work and I’m happy to share it;

Please include attribution to OnlineBusinessDegree.org with this graphic

Winning at Their Own Game: The Business Benefits of Gamification

It’s not a draw! You all lose.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wargames is one of my favourite films. It came in an era when every teenager who was lucky enough to own a home computer spent their spare time plugging away at their keyboards. I wrote loads of games on my trusty Spectrum, so a film about a teenager skilled in the art of hacking just hit the spot.

I would like to think that nearly causing world war 3 by hacking into the NORAD computer is a bit more difficult than suggested by the film, but I found the story entertaining all the same. Our hacking protagonist starts off challenging the computer on the other end of the phone line to Tic-Tac-Toe and ends up playing a game of global thermonuclear war.

In the film of course, everything works out OK because our hero, Matthew Broderick, proves to the machine that it is not possible to win the game. The computer goes through every strategy it can think of and the end result is the same, the world is left a smoking ruin with no victor to share the spoils.

I love playing games. When a friend of mine suggested that we play a game called Supremacy, I asked him what the game was about. It’s about global conflict and there are nukes. We gathered some friends and cracked open the box. The gate-fold map depicted a stylised map of the world, not dissimilar to the schematic shown in the huge command centre from the film. We started setting up the board. Everyone had tokens to indicate their armed forces and there were cute little plastic mushroom clouds to show which bits of the world that were too hot for comfort.

My friend explained the rules, which were fairly standard board game fodder. You could make money by playing the commodity markets. With the money, you could buy conventional forces, nukes or defence satellites (which shoot down nukes). It all made sense until he read out the final rule; “…and if 12 territories end up with a mushroom cloud, every player loses.”

We all looked up. “You mean it’s a draw?”

The player reading the rules insisted “No. It’s a game about trying to achieve global supremacy without leaving the world a smoking ruin.”

“But that’s the definition of a draw isn’t it? Everyone getting the same result.”

My friend was resolute. If the world ended up a radioactive dead zone, we forfeited the game.

Turn 1, the first player crashed the commodity markets. Turn 2, everyone bought nukes. At the start of turn 3, someone landed an army in South America, which resulted in the South American player launching a nuke. Then came the retaliatory strike during which, one nuke went astray bringing someone else into the fray. In the end, we ran out of plastic mushroom clouds and the man who owned the game stormed out with the huff.

We should definitely get rid of all nuclear weapons, especially if the people in charge are anything like us.

I’m a sucker for a map

Die Zehn

Die Zehn (Photo credit: gringer)

During a particularly boring day during my two long years in a mundane job, I happened to sit next door to a colleague who was idly doodling in his sketchbook. It was obviously a map of some kind of underground complex with passageways and doors. When I asked him about it, he immediately clammed up and it took some persistent cajoling to get him to explain what it was.

“It’s for a game” he said curtly.

“What sort of game?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“I can’t explain – if you really must know, you’ll have to come and play.”

So I did – and boy, am I glad I did. The game was Dungeons and Dragons and the first thing handed to me was a sheet of paper. On one side was a picture of a medieval figure complete with armour and sword. The other side was jam-packed with statistics. The second thing handed to me was a handful of polyhedral dice.

As I studied the character sheet, struggling to make head nor tail of all the statistics, my new friend told me not to worry about it and drew my attention to the table where he drew a map of an inn. He asked me where I wanted to be. Something in his tone told me that something was about to happen, so I chose to stand over by the window. He told me that the other patrons were looking at me strangely, so reluctantly, I took my place at a table.

A D&D game session in progress

A D&D game session in progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It wasn’t long before a wolf came bursting through the wall and I became locked in mortal combat rolling dice like fury. The whole evening zipped by and at the end, I was desperate to play again. That evening was nearly a quarter of a century ago and yet I remember it in vivid detail. I have played role-playing games ever since.

I like every aspect of them. I love discovering new worlds and exploring amazing stories. The fact that many of these experiences play out over long campaigns of play make them an immensely satisfying experience. The things I like most though, are the maps. I am a very visual person and I find a map transports me to where the action is. Without a map, I struggle to take in what’s happening. I have a great collection of maps I’ve built up over the years and I’m always reluctant to throw them away.

So, am I still in touch with the friend that introduced me to the hobby. No, unfortunately, he was put away for attempted murder but that’s another story. I will always owe a debt to him for all the new worlds he introduced me to.

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.

I once had a religious experience

10-sided dice are used for games requiring per...

10-sided dice are used for games requiring percentages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to run a thriving games club in our local town hall. We mainly played board and card games with the occasional foray into a war-game or roleplaying game. The town hall is only a short walk from where I live so I used to walk there and back. We had no storage at the club, so I usually dragged along a large kit bag full of games that we could choose from.

One evening, I was walking home carrying the kit bag as usual. Up ahead of me was a man leaning up against the wall smoking a cigarette. He was a good 6 inches taller than me and he had big shoulders. He had a skinhead haircut and exuded menace. He might have been waiting for a bus except that the bus stop was 30 yards further up the road.

As I walked past him, he said something to me that I didn’t quite catch. I didn’t really want to get into any kind of exchange so I just mumbled something non-committal and hoped that inertia would keep him there smoking his cigarette. When I was about 10 paces ahead of him, I heard him stamp out his cigarette and start walking up the hill behind me.

I needed to cross the road to get home anyway and I wanted to know if he was following me so making sure the road was clear I quickly crossed the road. I heard him cross behind me. I was anxious now, running through the possibilities in my mind. What was I going to do if this came to an altercation? Mother Nature wasn’t very kind when handing out my physique, so there was little hope of me outrunning him and even less of me coming off as the victor in any kind of scuffle.

I came to a junction. Normally I would turn off the main road into a quieter residential street. This time though, I carried on up the hill. There was a petrol station up ahead and maybe that was where he was heading. We walked past the petrol station and he was still there behind me. His pace quickened and my stomach started to churn.

A plan formed in my mind. I would throw the kit bag at him and run like hell, hoping that he was more interested in the contents of my bag than in doing damage to me. I heard him close behind me and braced myself. As I turned to face him, a car careened off the road beside us and came to a screeching halt in between us.

The man ran off.

I peered into the car, my legs like jelly. The window came down and inside there were three nuns. Not women dressed up in fancy dress – honest to goodness – nuns. They asked if I was OK and told me that they had seen the man and they were convinced he was a sinner. I agreed and thanked them. They offered me a lift, but I declined and made my way nervously home.

If it hadn’t been for their timely interjection, it could have been a very nasty business.

Sometimes, open warfare breaks out in the office

The theatre of war

The theatre of war

All things considered, our office is a mellow place. There is seldom a crossed word and it is a rare occasion indeed when voices are raised (and even then, it never lasts for long). Every now and then though, the office is home to a pitched battle and I feel that I am somewhat responsible.

You see, as well as a first class office for the technology division of the market leading banking software house, the facilities are also tailor-made for the odd war-game.

The scenario underway in these photos is the very first battle in the Pacific War, the invasion of Malaya by Japanese forces. The night before the fearsome attack on Pearl Harbour, just after midnight, Japanese forces descended on the coast near Kota Bharu.

It doesn't look good for the British

It doesn’t look good for the British

Luckily for the British (or more accurately Indian) army, the seas were very rough and many Japanese soldiers drowned. Despite these losses, the Japanese fielded a formidable force. In defence, the British relied on a network of pillboxes, minefields and an appropriated 18 pounder gun.

Our game focussed on one spot of beach defended by the 3rd / 17th Dogras under the command of Captain Nawin Chandra. Unfortunately, just like in real life, the battle did not end well for the British and victory lay in the hands of the Japanese.

It was to be the beginning of a long and bloody campaign that spanned the Pacific and unfortunately, many more battles were lost before the tide turned.

Next time, we’re off to the Russian front!