I have been using stories a little bit wrong in 7th Sea. Not, like, technically wrong, but I think I’ve been emphasizing them incorrectly. I’ve been treating them as an advancement mechanism that shapes story rather than a story shaping tool that provides advancement.
That may seem distinction without a difference, so let me step back a little bit. For the unfamiliar, the story mechanic works roughly as follows: The player comes up with a story idea for something they’d like to play – say, they’d love to rescue a handsome prince from kidnappers – then figures out how that should go in very rough strokes. For example, they might want a story where:
- The hero dances and flirts with a prince at a high society party
- The party is interrupted by kidnappers! Chaos ensues and the prince is kidnapped!
- The Hero pursues the kidnappers and rescues the prince after a desperate chase!
The GM will handle the details, but it’s expected that this story will happen in game, and when it completes, the player gains advancement equal to the number of steps in the story (3, in this case).
Now, here’s the kicker – as part of coming up with the story, the player is also expected to have an idea for what they intend to advance – the reward. And because these are RPGs, that datapoint has assumed some amount of prominence, so that it is easiest to think of stories in terms of their reward. That is, I need 2 points to buy my sorcery, so I need to create a two point story to reflect that.
It is hard to fault that logic, but it also produces somewhat lopsided stories because it skews them very superficially towards an end. Sometimes’s that’s fine – our Doctor’s pursuit of the Wealth advantage has been a straightforward story of setting up foreign investments, no problem. But I feel like our Fate Witch and Captain have gotten short shrift, at least in part because Sorcery stories are always 2-steppers (which gets a bit repetitive, since it is expected to be bought multiple times).
This is the problem I want to address – I want players to be more free to aggressively frame stories that are interesting to them, without needing to stress about sizing them just right. And I don’t think that requires any specific change, just a little bit more mindfulness and flexibility on my part. I need to get the stories first, then work out how we want to handle rewards.
Curiously, this is the least problem for the character with the clearest advancement path. Our swordsman’s advancement priorities are pretty straightforward: 4th dot of Weaponry, 5th dot of weaponry, then other stuff. He’s hit those goals, so advancement is mostly filler for him now – he can get more badass, but the pressure is off. I suspect it will be a while before he’s completely out of things to buy, but it has planted a bug in my ear to maybe start thinking go other rewards for stories (specifically, setting-shaping ones).
I also am trying to figure out how to handle on other story-based complication: mobility. Because we have a ship-based game, players often find their stories paused because the next step is someplace else. For example, our Doctor is working on a 3 step story where she found investors and set up an office in Kirkwall, but has needed to get back to Vendel to set up another office to finish out the story. They’re finally going there, but she’s been (perhaps unfairly) jammed up for a couple sessions, solely because the events in play have kept the players elsewhere.
And, yes, this is partly on my head – juggling all my player’s stories is my responsibility, but at the same time I do not want to overly constrain their options – after all, part of the point of having a ship-based game is the freedom it allows.
One last thought: This maybe sounds a little complain-y, but this is all out of love. Stories is a FANTASTIC mechanic, and my interest in tuning it is a reflection go how much it excites and engages me.
In our game, I’m giving out “story points” at the end of a story instead of a specific reward. You can save up story points as you like and spend them to acquire character rewards of the appropriate value. So you could get a 5-point reward by completing a 2-step story and a 3-step story. Or you could complete a 4-step story to get two 2-rank skills. That way, the story can be the size it needs to be, and a 3-step story isn’t wasted for players who aren’t in a position to benefit from a reward that costs exactly 3 points.
Yeah, I’m considering doing exactly that, but I need to fix the stories first, otherwise it risks making the mechanical benefit *more* prominent.
One obvious idea is to give out “story points” as the PC progresses through the story, so they can buy advances as and when, independent of when the story concludes (or not).
The harder question, for me, is balancing all the different stories in play. With four or five characters, a compelling, grabby situation with its episode story, and a villain with their own plans afoot, there’s a lot going on to shift the spotlight around. I found it was really hard to bring the different stories into play at a reasonable rate. Not too sure how to address that…
It’s funny, my intention when I designed Stories was for them to serve as a story shaping tool that provides advancement. Mostly, because that’s how my crew plays games. We want to contribute to the narrative and, then in turn, get rewarded for it. Their motivations lined up with my intention and I never saw trouble with the mechanic.
Sadly, some people in playtesting treated Stories as Optional. (“I’m only playing one or two sessions so I don’t need to consider an advancement mechanic.”) Those that did engage with the mechanic may have been like-minded so I never saw the confusion until after the book was printed.
After print, I’d seen people treat Stories as an advancement mechanism that shapes story and I’ve been unable to figure out how to help them. It simply hadn’t clicked in my brain as to why until this article. You literally just gave me the words to explain the situation I’ve observed. Thank you, so freaking much.
i can think of a couple of approaches (see what I did there?) that might help alleviate this. I’m just riffing here, so no idea if they will work or not.
1) decouple reward from the story process. Instead, ask the player at chargen to pick three advancements that are important to him. Then let him create a story and determine the number of steps. At the conclusion, either let the player choose from one on that list or award one that you – the GM – feel is most appropriate. The cost should be the number of steps or less, so yeah you could award a 1 point reward for a 2 step story if it felt thematically appropriate, or the player might choose that one. When you do this, ask the player to rank them from 1 to 3 in order of importance to them. When a reward gets checked off the list, the player replaces it with a new reward and can shuffle the priorities as desired.
2) the player can pick an advancement from the get go IF the advancement is the goal. Ie, “I want to learn the Torres style of dueling” or “I receive a dracheneisen weapon”.
3) we need some story based advances that are tied to the hero’s place in the setting as opposed to advantages. Acquiring a new ship for a fleet, noble accolades or title, favor with a secret society. These are things that should their own reward but shouldn’t be codified as an advantage.
For example, for the first GM story I have in mind, I listed my reward as 3 wealth plus an option for a letter of marque. This was before pirate nations tossed the latter out as a 1pt advantage. This for a 3-step story. It might seem a bit on the cheap side, but it felt thematically appropriate.
I love the story mechanic in concept, but the players are going to focus on the carrot, not the stick. If the carrot is a mechanic advancement, THAT’s what they are going to focus on.
What we ended up doing, somewhat organically, is let the player drive the level of detail. That is, they could come up with the end point and leave it at that, come up with the start and end and leave it at that, or outline the middle steps if so inclined. Removing the obligation to flesh out an outline ended up immediately liberating players to zero in on the play they wanted.
As always, Rob, great post.