Tabletop Tuesday — Story Engine, or “What to do when your idea well dries up before a session” (part two)

Last week's draw, which created the setting described in the blog post.
The cards we drew last week that got us our setting.

Last week, I talked about how when the RPG narrator inspiration runs dry, I tend to dive into pre-published adventures as a first go-to, but how when I’m just feeling stuck, I have two handy tools at hand. The first, the Deck of Worlds, created us a setting last week: the Prime Crater Observatory, a setting I could easily slide into any Star Trek Adventures gaming session. Drawing on the inspiration from the cards, this is the setting (and current situation) at the Prime Crater Observatory: Located on a moon orbiting a Federation World with a history of war and violence, the Prime Crater Observator has called in the crew’s ship for help. In the past, the moon was used as a testing ground for new weapon systems, and the devastation wrought by a subspatial weapon test gone wrong irradiated the moon. At the Prime Crater site, a weakness in subspace formed, and the small, shielded observatory was built to keep an eye on the anomaly, which mostly stayed quiet, but haa a tendency to fluctuate during times of solar flare activity. Recently, the anomaly has started to show signs of further instability—and, more worrisome—growth.

But as I said last week, a setting doesn’t an adventure make, not entirely. Now, I could happily run with that setting and fill it up with characters, motivations, a cause, and consequences for crew actions, but let’s say I’m in one of those creative droughts, the gaming session is soon, and I’m drawing a blank.

Time for that second deck. This one’s called The Story Engine.


The cards drawn for the character of the Veteran, laid out with the various selections visible from underneath the "Veteran" card.

Where Deck of Worlds had six types of cards, The Story Engine works with five: Agent cards (the people of the story or situation), Engine cards (their motivations or relationships), Anchor cards (stuff, places, or events), Conflict cards (providing obstacles or choices or struggles), and Aspect cards (just like the Deck of Worlds, these are qualities you can tack onto other cards for flavour). Now, there are multiple “spreads” you can lay out, drawing multiple cards in different ways to create different story set-ups, and the most basic story prompt involves drawing one of each. So, let’s give that a shot first, and see where we end up.

For an Agent, I draw a card, and there are four choices: a retiree, a veteran, a survivor, or a victim. Given the setting already includes a formerly war-like planet and a subspace munitions test, I decide to go with “a veteran.” A draw from the Engine deck gives me the choice between “Wants to gain the power of…” and “Wants to end the power of…” and I’m honestly torn, so I don’t decide which way to place that card just yet, wanting to see how everything else plays out. My next draw happens to come from the Science Fiction prompts expansion, and couldn’t be more perfect: my choices are “a laser,” “a space suit,” “a jump point,” or—and here’s what I’m choosing—”a spaceship.” Will it be the player’s ship this veteran wants to use (or end!) in some way? Let’s keep going. The Conflict card comes up with my choice of “But they will lose their life’s work” or “But they will likely lose their life.” I decide the former, since I’m not sure I want to motivate someone into self-destruction. Finally, for an Aspect card, the four choices on the card I draw are “kind,” “beautiful,” “decrepit,” or… wait… “possessed.”

Oh hey now. I like this. Looking back at our setting, we’ve got a weird subspace anomaly, unstable and potentially growing, and created during a weapons test gone wrong. What if everyone involved in that test wasn’t destroyed after all, but shunted to some sort of subspace layer, where they’ve been existing as consciousness-without-bodies ever since? And what if our veteran somehow made contact with these individuals—perhaps during the last solar flare—and is now sometimes more or less a puppet under control of one of them to the point where he’s going to attempt to use the player’s ship to crack the anomaly open wide enough to let the rest of those consciousnesses out, where they can claim new forms of their own—ie, bodies of the crew of said starship? The veteran has devoted his post-military life to peace and observation of the anomaly, but now he’s being used for violence.

A Little More Motivation

The spread for the trapped consciousnesses, with the "Agent" card face-down to represent the character already chosen, but the other selections visible from beneath.

Now that we’ve got an agent on the outside of the anomaly, it occurs to me it might be interesting to see if I can add more to the “get free” motivation of those individuals trapped in the subspace layer within the anomaly. One of the strengths of the Story Engine deck is the notion of “locking”—the instruction term for not drawing any part of a spread you’re already going to work with. In this case, I’m going to skip drawing an Agent card, instead placing one face-down to represent those trapped consciousnesses of the test-site victims who’ve been stuck in that subspace layer for years.

This time, the Engine card is a choice between “Wants to create (or improve)” and “Wants to destroy” and again I tuck it aside to see what else plays out. For my Anchor card options, I get “an election,” “a manifesto,” “a name,” and “a rebellion,” and stick with the latter. My Conflict options are “but a widely used technology will become unstable,” or “but a deadly experiment will be released from containment,” and I decide said deadly experiment is the anomaly itself—if the opening is widened enough for the consciousnesses to escape, it won’t go back to its previous dimensions but instead grow wide enough to destroy the moon and devastate the planet. And for an Aspect card, I nab my choice of “gilded,” “misunderstood,” “traumatic” or “revolutionary,” and I decide to tuck that under the Agent card—the consciousnesses inside the Anomaly still believe in the violent otherthrow of the current rulers of their world, despite having lost that battle decades ago now after the weapon test, and that makes the choice of Engine card “wants to destroy.”

The consciousnesses in the anomaly want out so they can stamp out what they still see as a rebellion, rather than the duly elected government of a world that only sees their war as a part of history. If that means destroying the moon and laying waste to the planet, they’re not going to stop.

Put it all Together, add Players, and Stir

So, the ship is arriving to investigate an anomaly growing more unstable at the site of a subspace weapon test from half a century ago. The players need to navigate the environment—the radiation is a problem, remember—and get to the Prime Crater Observatory, where among the personnel there, they’ll meet a former Veteran of the war who now works at the Observatory and was the last person to witness instability during solar flares a year or two ago. He has a second consciousness that possessed him from the anomaly when he was suited up and getting readings during that solar flare, and that consciousness sometimes takes over and has been working to widen the anomaly enough to allow more trapped soldiers and scientists to escape into nearby bodies, but his methods are slow—using the crew’s ship, however, would make things go much faster for him, but it will completely expose the Veteran as the sometimes puppet of the consciousness, so he’ll only have one shot to make it work.

For my players, I want to give my science types things to research and learn, which will include the history of the war, how the test ended it for the side testing the weapon, the strange subspace anomaly that decimated their forces and still exists, and how the other factions allied together to stop their recklessness. For the medical types, there’ll be some tweaking of inoculations to handle the radiation, and for pilot types, I’ll take the transporters offline (because radiation) and make taking a shuttle down to the moon among the various distortions of the anomaly part of the fun. For telepaths, the sense of consciousnesses inside the anomaly will be a slowly-growing awareness as the anomaly increases, and for security and engineering types, tracking down the growth of the anomaly to small devices that have been left out on the moon’s surface to project destabilizing radiation at the anomaly will be found and reverse-engineered during their EVA walks, leading them to realize the Veteran had to be involved only just in time for him to take control of Main Engineering on the player’s ship and try to tear open the anomaly. At that point, as the anomaly widens, the telepath will get a glimpse of the beings inside the rift—angry, violent, and still hell-bent on either ruling or destroying the planet—and everyone will have to come up with a way to shut it all down in time, before its too late, be it with technobabble or some other solution the players come up with, including freeing the Veteran from the presence’s control, as the Veteran might know how to undo what he’s done.

Ta-da. One adventure. All that’s left to do is statistics, setting tasks, assigning numbers to things, and maybe throwing in a red herring or two—which I could do another draw from, focused on a shifty-appearing Prime Crater Observatory scientist, perhaps—and I’m ready to go. Even if I had to wing it without much more prepwork, I’ve got characters, setting, motivation, and an idea of what will happen if the players do nothing, and that’s enough to work with on the fly. And all of that from drawing a few cards.

Thank you, Story Engine!

I already asked if you had any writing prompt or idea prompt generators, though if you’ve got more, I’d love to hear about them. What about pre-published adventures, though? Back when I ran D&D 3.5e, I think I ran half-a-dozen groups through a particular Dungeon Magazine adventure, “Mad God’s Key,” as it was a favourite and introduced new players to game mechanics easily. What about you? Have any favourite go-to adventures?

4 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday — Story Engine, or “What to do when your idea well dries up before a session” (part two)

  1. The Story Engine looks pretty handy. I love that people are creating stuff like this. There are just so many clever things out there.

    As for a go-to adventure, I’d have to say Shadows over Bogenhafen. If you’re not familiar, this was the 2nd part of the Enemy Within campaign for the original Warhammer Fantasy RPG (though Cubicle 7 has since released a new version for their take on the game). I have run for it WFRP, Fantasy Hero, and multiple versions of D&D over the years. I think it offers great RP opportunities and works well for veterans and new players alike.


  2. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Preprinted Adventures (or, “Store-bought is fine!”) | 'Nathan Burgoine

  3. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Throwing it Together (or… “I can barely keep awake…”) | 'Nathan Burgoine

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