I don’t recall how I first was introduced to Story Forge Cards, but I know that it didn’t take me very long until I ordered a set for myself. These cards are a deck of tarot-sized cards of different colors and suit icons that represent larger concepts that you’ll find in most stories, such as “destiny” and “wealth” and “identity.” More importantly (at least for how I want to use them), they each have 2 concepts on them — usually polar opposites of each other — each oriented to a different end of the card.
For example, one card has “Memory” on one end and “Amnesia” on the other, with brief definitions of each of the terms and hints at how you might use them in a story. The deck is accompanied by a booklet that gives all sorts of card layouts for different types of work — creating main characters, background characters, various types of genres and plots, etc. (Click on the link to the site above and choose “See Cards in Action” to see what I mean.)
Since I got them, I’ve dabbled with them just a little bit, such as forming deeper, more detailed background information around characters for stories I want to write someday. I even used them to do a character-build for a short lecture session at a confirmation retreat with 7th & 8th graders last year. But what does this have to do with Abbottsville?
When I first started working on the game, I defined the theme and player experience that I wanted, but very quickly let my mind slip into what it’s most comfortable at — trying to work out the right math, how to balance things, forcing systems around things, symmetry, etc. But, since I wanted the game to be more organic and storylike, I remembered a couple of things that might help. First, was Daniel Solis’ post about forming natural distributions across a set of cards. I’ve used this a number of times since I first read it and I’m always pleased with the odd combinations that result. I usually end up tweaking things a bit to make sure things fit in the game right … but I like to start with this method.
The second thing I remembered was the Story Forge Cards. I knew that I wanted 12 character cards and that the main differences between them would be what dice they let you roll, and what special ability they would have. So after laying out some dice combinations that I would like to see and jotting down different special abilities that might be useful in the game, I decided to simply start with story type characters.
I made a list of 12 period-seeming names, starting at the letter A: Adam, Beth, Charles, Dorris, Earl, Franny, Gregory, Harriet, Ian, Jessica, Karl and Lily. Now I wanted to give each one a background story and something akin to personality traits, but I didn’t want to do full-out character-building layouts like the ones shown in the Story Forge booklet. (A little confession: I was on a plane with my family for a spring break trip, so I didn’t have a lot of room to work with.) So, I simply flipped-and-shuffled through the deck until I had 2 descriptors for each character.
For example, Adam got “Justice” and “Compassion.” Beth got “The Meddler” and “Delusion.” And so on. These words then gave me a little info to work with on what their background story and purpose in the game might be. I married each of them up with the set of dice they would have and one of the special abilities I had jotted earlier … and it all came together rather quickly.
One nice little thing that happened is that Adam’s descriptors made me think of a natural born leader … someone who may be the patriarchal leader of this village. A name to fit popped into my head — William Taylor Abbott. And, of course, their village would be named after it’s founder — Abbottsville. So, this little exercise lead to not only having deeper, more natural-feeling characters, but also changed the plot of the game’s story and created its name. 🙂
After one very fruitful playtest, one of my buddies who is also a writer sat down with me and walked through each of the characters and how he saw them fitting into the game. We tweaked some of the properties a bit to smooth things out and make sure each character would bring something useful to the table. The full set of finalized character cards is shown below (click to see bigger version):