StoryNexus Design discussion

I would love to have a discussion on design choices in building StoryNexus games. For example, right now I’m thinking about the use of Sometimes decks and Always cards. For example, what do you put on a Sometimes card? An Alwys card? Do you simulate locations using an Area or by using a single Always card with lots of branches for each locale? I imagine that would depend on what you want in your Sometimes deck, of course. But the menu of branches presented on a card is much easer to browse than the library of pinned Always cards which to me makes it a consideration.

And then there’s weird stuff. For example, using a dedicated Sometimes deck to simulate an NPC companion.

Anyhow, if anybody else is thinking about this, let’s talk! And if you’ve already made these decisions, I’d love to hear your reasonings.

I actually just formalized this for my game last night. The Sometimes deck will be “daily” actions in the life of an organism - finding resources, seeking shelter, exploring, and likely random event cards that start stories (disasters, boons, etc). The Always deck will be formal stories that result in two things - Evolution Points (how you measure progress in my game) and Millions of Years Gone By (the time tracking element).

That’s a little different from how other games are structures, though I think this is pretty similar to the way Cabinet Noir divided them, with Encounters on one end and Major Plot on the other.

Locations is something I only just started integrating into the story, so I’ll be interested in other peoples responses there as well. :-)

Design practices we’ve adopted:

  • Opportunity cards represent things that COULD happen. Some of them are “unique” (unrepeatable) while many are repeatable. This is also how we handle BasicAbility grinds: medium-high frequency Opportunity cards with BWARK-locked branches tailored to the Quality’s current level.

  • Pinned cards represent things the player will always want access to (our Change Area card) and things they’ll always have access to (a goods exchange at Amarillo’s Wall Market). Pinned cards are also the bulk of our main plot and subplot Storylets. Almost all of them are unique – although some are repeatable within a limited scope, e.g. those used in a Midnight Staircase structure.

  • ICED OOLONG has functionally three location locks: within an Area, within the main Setting (for now, Amarillo), and off in a set of Settings that represent weird states of being with restricted options – for example, eating brunch at the Metropole, having a fistfight with a local tough.

The above tiers of location allow us to lock content in a graduates way. (Example: you can only meet Mr Velvet at St. Francis’s, but you can Move Around Town anywhere in Amarillo. And if you’re at the Metropole – well, eat your melon and don’t worry about leaving just yet.)

  • We handle the progress of time with two gating Qualities: Date and Time. Think of them like the minute and hour hands on a clock. All of our time-specific Storylets are locked to Date and Time. For strings of slets, we gate the first slet and prevent the player from advancing the Time until all the time-locked content is complete. (We only do this for our major main and subplots. Otherwise you’d have a list of fifteen Qualities you’d need to advance.)

  • We ha’ve a few different ways we handle NPCs. For those who exist entirely within a certain plot, their relationship to the Protagonist is tracked by that plot’s controlling Quality. For those NPCs who are a little more around and about, we use a two-switch Quality that denotes them as either Ally or Nemesis. We do NOT attempt complex tracking of affections, because that would quickly get exponentially hairy.

  • The FBG wiki article on narrative architectures is hugely helpful. Recursion is your friend.

I’m using areas for location, but I’ve also created a Location quality. This allows me to have Sometimes cards that do different things in different locations (there doesn’t seem to be a way to make actual location necessary for playing a branch).

The only problem is that it presents itself a bit clumsily. If you move location the text says “You have moved to a new location: Upstairs! Your Location quality is now Upstairs!” or something like that. Oh, well. I have thought of a way to get around this but it has other issues.
I have a couple of design questions, if that’s ok:

  1. How long do you guys think a good game should be? Obviously one answer is “However long you want!”, but realistically, how long would you expect to play an SN game before reaching an ending? If you’re using major Qualities that work along the lines of Watchful etc from EB, how high do you imagine them getting by endgame?
  2. Target audience: the games I’ve seen so far tend to assume you’re familiar with the SN’s “stories and qualities” system. At the moment this makes perfect sense, as I guess every playtester has played EB or is a friend who’s willing to listen to an explanation of game mechanics. But once this stuff goes live, do you plan to hold new players’ hands as they learn how the SN system works?
    Cheers peeps.

I thought Cabinet Noir felt short. Fallen London is obviously very long. I suppose it has a lot to do with the scope implied by a story’s initial set-up, really. I will note that it took me a lot longer to finish Cabinet Noir than it seemed to take other people-- I wasn’t trying to maximize value per turn and I was trying to keep my notoriety low. As for stats… well, I think it’s good to get to a point in any RPG where the initial challenges are a fingersnap you cannot fail. On the other hand, I’m not sure I really expect that kind of stat growth in all StoryNexus games, you know?

I’m not planning on hand-holding at the moment, although I am trying to demonstrate new concepts gradually-- first pinned cards, then opportunity cards, for example. I think one of the strengths of StoryNexus is that handholding isn’t really necessary; you click on things and stuff happens. It’s not required that you understand the story-quality system in order to actually experience a game.

I am, of course, assuming everybody who plays a StoryNexus game has played SOME kind of computer game previously, mind.

Yeah part of FL in the first place was that it is incredibly easy to learn then if you like the story, it gets more and more involved. SN carried this over quite well I think, it is just a matter of us authors getting the hang of the tools.


I only started Cabinet Noir yesterday, and it made me panic a bit. My game is meant to be meandering, like EB (although nowhere near as long, obviously). Where CN seems to go for a fairly tight, if variable, plot, mine’s more about exploring various Areas and eventually finding one of several ways to reach an ending.

So when I played CN, my reaction was along the lines of “Ohmigod, is this how we’re meant to build them?!”

As far as hand-holding goes, I’ve got a “safe” opening section (no menaces etc.) that allows SN novices to get the hang of Quality challenges, and SN veterans to get an idea of what the main qualities do, without being overburdened by content or punished with Menaces. But I’ve got nothing telling people that it’s sometimes a good idea to replay storylets, for example.

[color=#009900]There isn’t a ‘meant’. :-) Not even all Failbetter worlds will be like that. We do have a pacing model which we’re trying out in CN (and to a lesser extent in Tree) which we’ll make available to creators who want to use it - pacing design takes a lot of hard work and fiddling with numbers. But even the pacing model is NOT the one true way. We’re looking forward to seeing what people come up with.[/color]
[color=#009900]EDIT to add: If it does sufficiently well, Cabinet Noir will be the first of several episodes set in that world.[/color]
edited by Alexis Kennedy on 9/4/2012

Nah CN is just one of many ways to build stories with SN, A large portion of which I am sure we will see. I’m a little up in the air with menaces… I actually got turned away from FL after I gained my first few menaces at low-mid levels but that was back when there was a daily limit on actions. >.< I still get a pain of regret occasionally when I use up my actions to reduce my menaces now, but no where near as bad as before. On the other hand though, after reading the story building wiki, I can kind of see reason behind a few menaces, even if only to experience more story.

Yeah, I’m not sure about menaces either. I’m doing a lot of thinking about both menaces and grinding and the reasons behind them and if I agree with them. (Currently a lot of my SN ‘work’ is thought exercises since I have a five year old, a six month old and an overdue novel-- but school starts soon!)

Mind, questioning menaces and grinding in an RPG is a lot like questioning the need for puzzles in old-school text adventures.

[color=#000099]@ Alexis[/color]
Thanks; I was hoping you’d say that!

What’s a pacing model? Is it like a set of formulas advicing you which numbers to use when? (E.G. stuff like “when your quality is at X, you should be unlocking challenges with difficulty X+Y”).

I’d been thinking about that sort of thing in terms of the interaction between goods and statuses. I’ve got a Thing in my game that serves as a basic currency, and I’m wondering whether I should give it a set relationship to Quality level (if you succeed in a Diff 5 challenge you get Money 50, a difficulty 10 challenge gets you Money 100) or have your income accelarate quicker (Diff 5 gets you Money 25, 10 gets you 75, 15 gets you 225 etc). The latter seems more intuitive from a gameplay perspective, but I’m worried about it being hard to manage. If you guys have happened to notice that one system tends to work and the other tends to fail, I’d appreciate knowing which is which :)

[color=#000099]@ Chrysoula

[color=#000000]Heh. Yeah, it’s a bit like saying “Why do FPSes have to have all these baddies wandering around?”[/color]

That’s a part of it. Let’s say you have X unique branches of story content. But you want your players to use Y number of actions to play through them. Y is bigger than X. A pacing model is a way of relating those two numbers together so that some content is repeated, some is not, and the player enjoys all of the game, not just when they get a story beat. As Alexis said, there’s no one true way. But we’ve got a model (or rather, a set of models, as the numbers can be tweaked). It’s not that hard, but the numbers look a bit intimidating if you’re not used to that sort of thing. We’re trying to find a sensible way of expressing it, and the time to do so. So you’'ll most likely see the model soon, but not immediately.


[color=#000000]Heh. Yeah, it’s a bit like saying “Why do FPSes have to have all these baddies wandering around?”[/color][/quote]

Exactly! By asking the question you can certainly produce some games that fit within the genre without that element (Portal springs to mind) but in general you’re going to find that they’re the easiest way of achieving the right kind of tension and pacing for that style of game (and that kind of UI, honestly. Wandering baddies and random-object manipulation puzzles would both be… exciting to implement in SN.)

But it’s also true that if you’re nt sure about what you’re making, questioning assumptions can make a better game, which is where I’m at now.
edited by Chrysoula on 9/4/2012

“If only we could talk to the demons.”

See, I don’t agree I feel like the story is reward enough and motivation enough to play something, no matter what it is. Everything else just adds to the experience. Of course, it does take a certain amount of skill to successfully pull that off.

Given the option, wouldn’t you rather play a well-designed game that rewards your narrative engagement?

Yes and the story is the heart of that design. Everything else is just bells and whistles to appeal to certain audiences while the actual lore is what keeps die-hard fans coming back time and again, with a few exceptions. Halo: Reach is an example, the story was eh but tens of thousands of people bought it just to shoot other people, and I honestly cannot see any feasible story for Halo 4 but people will still buy it.

On the other hand, a game where all you have is baddies running around for you to shoot with a few generic weapons laying around and no goal to obtain is going to die quick.

@ Chrysoula

I just had my first ever playthrough of Portal the other week. It’s an object lesson in questioning expectations. It’s also just flat-out awesome.

@ Kitsune

"On the other hand, a game where all you have is baddies running around for you to shoot with a few generic weapons laying around and no goal to obtain is going to die quick. "

Well, my hundreds of hours playing Call of Duty deathmatches would disagree. But then they use a levelling system, which tends to keep people (me, at least) hooked. And there’s admittedly something different about repetitive gameplay when it’s multiplayer. For a start, it’s less repetitive.

Something to remember is that your preferences are not universal. It’s a hard lesson to learn as a game designer, but your preferences are often a lot less universal than you think.

That said, if you think that games should be just like X - go and make a game that’s like X. Show us how to do it.

As a writer I’ve always been rather s,ug that all the best games have excellently told stories, with the single exception being games focused on multiplayer experience. Oh, and sandbox games like the Sims. But still! Story! :)

But one of the two game designers I’m consulting with loves customizing systems to fit a story; he’s a big proponent of how a well designed system can enhance the story. The thing is, you really do have to figure out what a system is going to do in relation to a story, and why people aren’t just reading a book. As an example, I’ve long believed that systems serve as an interactivity enhancer, which increases story investment. If that’s what you decide you want a system to be, you have to make design choices that enhance tat sense of interactivity, or that sense of investment, or that sense of immersion, or a sense of exploration, or whatever.

I tried making a text adventure focused on story with no puzzles, because I believed that story was all that counted. And I discovered that the ‘story’, open-ended, mostly ungated, was also very unstructured. It was easy for people to get to the end without understanding enough of the story to follow the plot. If I were making that game now I’d put in more puzzles as a way of forcing more exploration.