The Story Engine
Writers and Gamemasters are creative souls who are typically looking for something to inspire their next creative writing spurt. Depending on whether you’re a traditional writer or a roleplaying Gamemaster, the market is full, though not flooded, with products aimed at inspiring a creative’s next masterpiece. Some of these products are good, though most are singularly focused, and more than a few are complex and challenging to use (I speak from experience). Peter Chiykowski saw a need for a resource that was easy to use, provided usable inspirations, and delivered results. In his own words, “I designed The Story Engine Deck because I met so many writers with incredible story ideas, character concepts, and D&D campaign ideas trapped in their heads.” and “I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re missing out on your best creative years. Sometimes you just need something to unlock your creativity and get you started.”
A Rolling Boxcars Patron asked if we could look at The Story Engine and give readers our thoughts. The publisher was kind enough to provide us with a physical copy of the core product for evaluation and review purposes.
The Story Engine, What is it?
The Story Engine core set consists of 180 cards, broken into five different decks, each for a specific purpose. The five decks represent one of the five core elements found in all great stories—Agents, Anchors, Aspects, Engines, and Conflicts—each deck has 36 cards. As cards are arranged in various ways, following the Guidebook’s simple instructions, users quickly create engaging, thought-provoking, and usable story prompts.
Core Concepts & Terms
Two fundamental rules govern The Story Engine; everything else is just a suggestion.
- Don’t put the deck away until you you create something. It can be a word in a notebook or an idea in your head.
- Ignore any card, rule, or guideline that doesn’t help you create.
Types of Cards
To understand and appreciate how the system comes together and works to produce prompts, let’s look at the types of cards. These are the foundation of everything that follows.
- Agents – are characters who make choices in the story. Each card has four cues.
- Engines – are motivations and relationships that drive the story. Each card has two cues.
- Anchors – are objects, locations, or events of importance. Each card has four cues.
- Conflicts – are obstacles, consequences, or dilemmas. Each card has two cues.
- Aspects – are adjectives that describe other cards. Each card has four cues.
There are three ways to arrange cards, all of which is keeping with The Story Engines goal, creating usable prompts.
- Place: Put a card on the table face up—place cards left to right unless otherwise specified.
- Tuck: Place a card face up under another card so that one cue (white text on the cards) from the bottom card is visible.
- Rotate: Turn a placed or tucked card so a new cue is facing you. Rotating can be done at any time.
Types of Prompts
The Guidebook offers a host of different prompts that yield different results, depending on your need. They come in three basic forms—Simple, Complex, and Multiplayer Prompts. Simple prompts are the most basic and are linear, meaning they are read from left to right. Complex prompts are made of one or more simple prompts arranged in a multi-directional or non-linear structure. Multiplayer player prompts are simple and/or complex prompts with a few adjustments.
Within each of these, specific prompts provide users with topical results. A few of the Guidebook prompts include the Simple Prompt: Character Concept, Simple Prompt: Story Seed, Complex Prompt: Circle of Fate, Complex Prompt: A Soul Divided, and the Multiplayer Prompt: Collaborative Storytelling. Furthermore, The Story Engine is very agile, allowing users to modify and expand existing prompts types to provide endless possible results.
Cards are arranged to create narrative writing prompts for different purposes. When cards are placed, the cues are combined into a narrative prompt and should inspire further development. Depending on the type of prompt, cues are read in a linear or non-linear fashion as prescribed in the Guidebook.
In the example below (Simple Prompt: Story Seed), taken from the Guidebook, we see: A survivor wants to expose the secret of a corrupted paradise, but their community will reject them.
So, with the understanding of some core concepts, let’s now look at how to functionally use the cards to create different types of prompts and seeds for your next story or game.
Let’s look at a small sampling of the types of writing prompts you can create in two of the three main categories. I will not be evaluating the Multiplayer prompts as I currently lack suitable partners with which to do so. I will walk you through the process of each and provide my thoughts on the results. In the Simple Prompt category, we’ll look at Character Concept. For the Complex Prompt, we’ll dive into A Clash of Wills.
Simple Prompt: Character Concept
The Character Concept’s instructions suggest that the results will create an idea for a complex character or give the user a starting point for their character arc. Following the instructions, except for the optional step “E,” I ended up with pretty satisfying results. A disturbed and damaged painter wants to upstage a rival with a controversial forgery, but it will mean risking the thing most precious to them.
Complex Prompt: A Clash of Wills
This complex prompt is designed to present two characters, typically rivals, who want the same thing for different reasons. As before, I followed the instructions to the letter and ended up with the following prompt. If you recall, complex prompts are read in multiple directions. This prompt is read from left to right to the midpoint and right to left, again to the midpoint. The resulting prompt gets the creative juices flowing. A controlling politician wants to create a revolutionary company, but it will turn them into someone they never wanted to be. A hardened veteran wants to save the world from the revolutionary company, but it will cost them physical health.
As you can see in both examples above, the results are solid, plausible prompts that any writer or Gamemaster could easily use. The instructions for each are clearly written and easy to follow, but always keep in mind if a card drawn doesn’t fit the emerging prompt narrative, draw a new one.
I want to call your attention again to the system’s agility. If you have existing written material and want to flesh out bits and pieces or perhaps, to use the “A Clash of Wills” example above, have already defined the “revolutionary company,” you can omit the step and place that card face down. Placing that or any card face down symbolizes an existing element that does not necessarily need to be further defined but that you want to be part of the narrative prompt.
Another example of how flexible the system is, draw specific cards when creating RPG characters (as a player) or NPCs (as a Gamemaster) to flesh out little details. For example, in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, players need to describe their investigator and memorable location. Players can quickly draw and rotate Aspect and Anchor cards as a new source of inspiration.
While I present only two examples here, there are several other types of prompts in the Guidebook. Additionally, the author provides ways to change prompts should the user become bored, stuck, or looking to find new and different results. These expanded options include reconsidering rotating cards, relocating them within the spread, or salvaging a card from the discard pile to revisit it. Other high-level suggestions are to tuck more story cards to define further and clarify various aspects of the emerging prompt, replacing or removing cards in an effort to expand or simplify the emerging prompt, or getting ever more creative by reformatting the prompt in new ways to give unique results.
As of this review, The Story Engine has three expansion decks and six booster packs available for purchase separately or as part of bundled deals directly through the publisher’s website. Each of the expansions is a 60-card genre-specific deck that expands the main deck. Currently, Fantasy, Horror, and Sci-Fi expansion decks are available. The six booster packs highlight specific sub-genres such as Eldritch Horrors, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Post-Apocalyptic, Mythology, and Dystopian—each is 18-cards.
Expansion decks and booster packs were not evaluated as part of this review, but I felt it was important to mention that the core product is expandable.
Form Factor and Quality
The core product is housed in a 12.5″ x 8.5″ x 1.75″ hinged lid box with magnetic closure, and that is then wrapped in a thin cardboard sleeve. Inside the box is a sturdy five-welled plastic insert to store each of the five types of cards.* The insert is good but could have been better designed for increased functionality. For example, with six deeper wells, the box would not only accommodate the main decks but all of the expansions and booster decks currently available and future releases. I feel the publisher has missed a golden opportunity by not taking advantage of the available unused space on the hinged lid’s underside to print guideline summaries. Overall, the box itself is constructed of heavyweight chipboard and built to last.
Although I have already discussed the card’s function above, they are printed on what feels like standard playing card stock, albeit square-shaped. I did not notice any appreciable wear to the cards or edge bumping through repeated shuffling and use. With most cards that go unsleeved, I feel like there will be eventual wear to the card faces, but that’s to be expected. However, early indicators point to that process being slow.
* Our Patron that requested this review has confirmed that the box and insert are not large enough to store the main deck along with the expansions and boosters packs.
The Story Engine is a fun, simple, and fast way to create writing prompts for authors, Gamemasters, or anyone who enjoys creative writing. As a 30+ year Gamemaster who enjoys coming up with story seeds as a “creative exercise,” The Story Engine is a great addition to my “toolbox.” In the future, and after continued use, I wonder if it will replace some of the other products in my “toolbox” already?
My only complaint is with the storage box and its inability to accommodate the expansions. If you only ever purchase the core product, it’s outstanding. But if you decide you want to buy the expansions to provide more options, it becomes quickly apparent that the design did not account for future expansions or expandability.
The bottom line—The Story Engine’s design provides endless possibilities, prompts creativity, and is extremely versatile.
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