Universalis and Storium gamify storytelling
April 24, 2014 | 3:14 am
One of the reasons I enjoy collaborating with friends on writing Internet fiction is that the give and take between you and your fellow authors is kind of like a game. It’s like roleplaying on a MUSH or in chat, except that you have take-backs and you can even jump into each others’ characters and make them do exactly what you need them to instead of relying on the other person to figure it out.
In recent years there have been some great games based on that idea—games that are about telling stories rather than moving one particular character around on a little map. In particular, I’m fond of Universalis by Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes, which is available in PDF form for $10.
Universalis is a very free-form game that uses coins as tokens people can use to buy plot elements, and it’s about as close as I’ve ever seen an in-person game come to capturing the same crazy creative fun I get from shared-universe writing. Characters and other elements are held collectively, and changing a character or making a character do things is as simple as spending tokens to say you’re going to. There are rules for mediating the inevitable conflicts between players—in fact, those conflicts are how you earn more coins.
The one problem with it is that there isn’t really any good way to capture what you do in story form beyond the quick outline you jot down as you play. When you’re playing in person in real time, you have to act extemporaneously. On the other end of things, of course, you have play-by-email game campaigns and scenarios—you could even adapt Universalis to those—but it’s easy for those to get bogged down when you lose track of whose turn it is to do what.
But there’s a new on-line game system being Kickstarted that looks like it has a great shot at being the best of both worlds. The game is called Storium, and is effectively a specialized web-based content management system for turn-based storytelling. It skews a bit closer to the traditional game side of things—people still own their one specific character over all—but there are specific tokens they can play to affect how the story plays out, and everyone gets chances to give their input into how a scene should go.
Storium is built around “worlds,” which are decks of virtual cards that contain the source material for a particular setting: places, items, NPCs, and traits that players use to build their characters. The game has ten fairly generic such worlds bundled with it, and over thirty more have been commissioned so far as stretch goals in the Kickstarter (with more to come, assuming further goals are met in the 14 days remaining). A number of these worlds are being created by fairly well-known names in gaming or writing: Keith Baker (creator of the Eberron D&D setting), Ursula Vernon, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Seanan McGuire, among others.
The worlds can be customized by editing, adding, or deleting cards, or new worlds can be created from scratch as needed. The gamemaster, or “narrator,” uses certain cards to set the scene, then players can use the traits built into their characters to affect the outcome in positive or negative ways. The rules are pretty simple, and only take ten or fifteen minutes to read. And as games are played, the content is posted in the open on the site (unless the narrator opts to make the game private) so that readers can follow along and leave comments—another great source of knowledge on how the game works.
Unlike most Kickstarters, where you have to wait until the Kickstarter is over and the thing is actually made to start using it, pledging at least $10 provides immediate access to the Storium beta site. Only the narrator of a game needs to have kicked in; he or she can then invite other non-donors to join his or her game.
The game is a little barebones right now, without much artwork and with a number of features still locked. But that should change once the Kickstarter is over and the designers have funds to pour into filling it out. Also promised are interfaces optimized specifically for use on mobile devices, rather than just the basic web site it has now.
Once Storium is out of beta, it will operate on a $25 per year subscription fee. (People who kick in at least $20 will get their first year free.) I’m not entirely sure I like the idea of a yearly fee, but it seems small enough to be reasonable, and to allow the creators to support the game and continue to improve it. Additional worlds may also cost some amount of money to purchase.
I’ve kicked in for it and poked around, and even created a customized world, though I haven’t yet had the chance to get into any actual play. But I think it looks like a great idea, solid in its execution, and the price is right. If you like to write, and think you might like to try a storytelling game online, go ahead and kick in. Help unlock some further stretch goals.