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Dice Tabletop RPGs

Rory’s Story Cubes are one of my favorite improv GMing tools

This Adventure Time dice bag rides in my gaming bag every day, just in case. What’s inside?

Why, it’s a big ol’ pile of Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link)!

I carry these to every game because they’re one of the most useful improv tools in my GMing toolkit.

Here’s my full assortment:

That spread includes the following Story Cubes sets (also noted is where they appear in the above photo; all are paid links):

I don’t find every Story Cubes set to be perfect for improv GMing — Actions (paid link), for example, doesn’t really meet my needs (but it might meet yours; YMMV, and all that). There are also newer sets I haven’t considered, but I worry that having too many dice in this bag would dilute some of its potency; this amount is a good fit for me.

What I love about Story Cubes

These dice are well-made: a nice size, tumbled, etched, and well-inked. They’re easy to read, even for my aging eyes.

The symbols are whimsical, but also tuned for what I find to be an interpretive sweet spot: It’s a dinosaur, but that can mean a literal dino, an old person, someone with antiquated habits, a museum, an archaeological dig site — and so on.

That interpretive sweet spot applies just as well when rolled together — better, even. The instant context provided by the rest of the roll, and my imagination, makes different meanings pop out at me.

Three examples

The most common thing I do with my Story Cubes is reach into the bag, grab a handful (no specific amount) of dice, roll them, and just look at the results for a moment. I generally do this when I need a jolt — perhaps I’m feeling stuck, or I’m considering an element of the game that I hadn’t considered before, and some random inspiration seems like it would help.

That’s totally unscientific! But it works for me.

But I sometimes use them for more specific things — like coming up with NPCs (which I wrote about on Gnome Stew three years ago).

I usually use three dice for NPCs, drawn at random from my full mixed set. Here’s a sample throw:

That could be: a planar traveler who uses a magic gemstone to slip into other worlds, a globetrotting hypnotist, someone under the influence of a cursed jewel (ignoring the globe; I often do this if I can’t use every die in a throw), and so on.

Three dice gives me enough to work with, but doesn’t overwhelm me with details to think about. (An especially important NPC might merit more than three dice.)

I also like to use them to think about what’s going on with [X], whatever X might be at the moment — a conspiracy, a faction’s agenda, a mystery, etc. For those throws, I generally use at least five dice, and occasionally more than five. Here’s a five-die throw:

The first thing I thought of was an adventure hook: giants are using enchanted bees to put people to sleep so they can steal their treasure. I read the dinosaur eggs as sleeping babies when I first saw that die, and interpreted the heart to mean that this was a charming, Disney-esque plot rather than a more serious one.

If you looked at those throws and started getting ideas for an NPC or other game element, then you’ll probably like Story Cubes.

A security blanket

Lastly, I like just having Story Cubes nearby when I’m GMing, because I know they’re there if I need them. Zero-prep GMing still makes me nervous sometimes (and I suspect it always will), so knowing I’ve got a proven, useful tool for getting back into the groove — or finding the groove, or unsticking my brain — in my gaming bag is comforting.

And that’s one of the coolest things about Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): They have a million gaming applicatons. Throw in being inexpensive and well-made, and they’re incredibly easy to recommend.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Storylike

After posting The Thief, the fourth game I designed, I started thinking about the third, Storylike. I designed Storylike for my daughter, Lark, for New Game Day 2014, and we played it with my wife, Alysia, and our friend Jaben.

I came away thinking it probably needed some work, but a year later I haven’t done that work. So why not put it out there?

I’d probably design it differently now, but in cleaning it up to publish I realized that that’s not a bad thing — Storylike reflects what I wanted out if it in 2014. It’s a snapshot, and a playable one; we had fun playing it. I might tweak it someday, I might not.

My design goals for Storylike were:

  • Create an RPG for my daughter, age four, that plays quickly enough for her attention span but which includes some traditional RPG trappings. There are dice, you roll them to see what happens, you have “hit points” (sort of), and the game has a “strong GM” role. It plays in about 30 minutes.
  • Use as many of the standard polyhedrals as possible, as she’d just bought a set of her own. (Storylike uses d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12).
  • Make it easy to tell which dice are which on the character sheet, since she was still working on her numbers at the time.
  • No math, just compare results, because addition doesn’t come easily to her yet. Every roll is one die vs. one die, high die wins (players win ties).
  • Encourage creative thinking, teamwork, and perseverance. Storylike does this through Talents, which require creativity to apply; dice odds, which incentivize helping; and Problems, which anyone can have and which need to be overcome.
  • Assume the GM can improvise a short game on the spot, and don’t provide advice for doing so. The GM was me, so for good or ill the game assumes I know what I want to do with it.
  • Fit the whole thing on one page. It’s two pages if you count the character sheet.

The odds of success also tell you quite a bit about the game:

These odds incentivize players to help each other (which increases your roll to the next die type) and to try to use their abilities (d4 is the “I don’t have that” default, and gives the worst odds), but the odds are always tilted in the players’ favor thanks to players winning ties. The possibility of failure exists, but it’s not rampant; that felt about right for my kiddo.

My favorite things about Storylike are Problems, Hidden Talents, and the visual character sheet. You can tell that the latter wasn’t designed by an artist, and that I created it in Word. Anyone with a drop of design talent could sexy it up in just a few minutes.

I like Problems because they’re so flexible. They can be injuries, sure, but they can also be conditions like Afraid, Embarrassed, or Dazed. Problems were inspired by stress and consequences in Fate, but they distill that combination of tracks and aspects down to a single mechanic for the sake of simplicity. Hidden Talents are similarly flexible, and they also signal that characters should develop during play.

If you try out Storylike, I’d love hear what you think of it. Enjoy!