Story Realms: An Interview with Escapade Games
I encountered Angie, like many folks, via the growing board game community on Twitter. For a long time, she's been talking about this wondrous storytelling game called Story Realms. I offered to help, and over the past several months I've read over a few revisions of the rules to provide feedback.
Angie and the rest of her team have been working themselves nigh recklessly to revise, test, and produce Story Realms. The game is very unique and interesting and is worth a look if you have creative and imaginative kids, love RPGs but don't have the time, or just want a good story.
If you see HG, that's me. EG are the folks from Escapade Games.
HG: Introduce yourselves! Tell us about Escapade Games.
EG: Escapade Games is a really a family effort. Julian and Angie have been friends for over a decade and are the designers of Story Realms. Julian's wife Chrissy does the web design and Angie's husband Randy does media coordination. Chrissy and Randy have also helped out with playtesting and developing the game. We've been designing games together for years, but this is the first game we've been excited enough about to try and publish.
HG: Well, then, tell us about Story Realms!
EG: Story Realms is a cooperative storytelling adventure game that lets players go on grand adventures in about an hour. One player takes on the role of Storyteller and runs the adventure while the rest of the players take on the role of heroes and try to save the day. The players can try to do anything they can imagine to solve the challenges of the quest. A simple skill system and Tracker cards make it easy to determine whether these ideas work and when the players have won or lost.
The game has loads of beautiful art to feed the imaginations of the players. The board is a detailed map of Storm Hollow (the game's setting). There are Lore Cards for every major character or villain of the story and a Scene Card for each scene of every adventure.
HG: Who do you think would love to play Story Realms?
EG: The game was designed with families in mind, but it is our sincere hope that just about anybody can enjoy the game. We've playtested with a lot of people and everyone seems to have a great time. With Story Realms, we've really tried to make it a game that kids and newer gamers can play, but that parents and experienced games will still enjoy. The simple mechanics and focus on story and imagination make it easy to get in to. The artifacts and powers provide some depth and complexity. Some players might be timid to try a storytelling game. Experienced gamers might wonder about the simple mechanics. However, we feel that anyone interested in the theme and willing to try Story Realms will find something to smile about.
HG: What is the best part about Story Realms? Do you have a great story or moment from the game?
EG: I think what I like best is how different the story is each time you play. We've played the opening adventure with dozens of different groups and it never gets boring to run. Each group comes up with their own fun solutions and their own imaginative stories to overcome the challenges of the adventure. One scene involves getting down a huge waterfall. We've seen players come up with all sorts of clever plans; including creating machines to fly down, build elevators with ropes and pulleys, and causing the trees at the bottom to grow and shape into enormous size so they could climb down.
One particularly amusing time, two players got back up the falls by freezing it and carving the ice into a slide. Then they used a shield as a sled, strapped mechanical wings on their backs, and shot themselves back up to the top of the falls with wind magic to arrive in style! Everyone was laughing and having a great time and the image of their exciting exploits has stuck with us for months! Also, watching our own young children dive into the game and the world, creating their own memorable stories and engaging with us in our favorite hobby has been immensely rewarding.
HG: I know you've been working on the rules endlessly for months (I've seen a handful of variations myself). What has been so challenging about writing the rules for a game like this?
EG: Since we are trying to make the game playable by kids and fun for experienced gamers, it has been a long effort to strike the right balance. The game basics are intentionally simple to help bring imaginative ideas to life and make it easy for newer players and kids to get into the game. However, the game includes powers, artifacts, status conditions, and other details to give enough depth to be fun for experienced gamers. We want the rules to be an easy read, but offer enough guidance that new players feel comfortable running the game. We've been playtesting for months and adjusting the rules as we go along based on all the feedback.
In addition to all that, as educators and parents it is very important to us to make sure the game is accessible to kids and clear and easy to read. We’ve been working with the latest draft to improve the readability of all of the sections. This has no impact on the gameplay, the depth, and flexibility of the system, or the fun, it just makes it where kids can enjoy the lore, learn the rules, and run the game too!
We’re very proud of the educational opportunities Story Realms provides, and have made the entire rules, components, and flavor text read at a middle school level so that teachers can use the materials as part of a Language Arts curriculum. We'd like to get it down to a grade school reading level, but some of the fantasy themed game terms make it difficult. Though to be clear, the game has been tested and successfully played by non-reading 5 and 6 year olds. You don’t have to be able to read to enjoy playing the game.
HG: Overall, what has been the biggest design challenge for the game? How did you solve it?
EG: I guess the biggest design challenges were how to allow creative solutions to the adventures so it wasn't all hack and slash and how to help the storyteller run a variety of scenes in a simple way. Skills and Trackers were the eventual answer, but getting them right took a lot of effort. It wasn't easy to find the right six skills and the best names for them so that they would cover everything we wanted to cover and be completely intuitive. The names Move, Might, Magic, Explore, Talk, and Think were the results of a lot of discussion, brainstorming, and playtesting, believe it or not.
We also struggled over different probabilities for the skill dice and whether there should be different kinds of dice. With the trackers, at one point we had different boards for different types of scenes. Then we revised those boards. Then threw them out and tried several different kinds of trackers. Again it took a lot of playtesting and revision to discover that four simple trackers of Progress, Disaster, Threat, and Time would give us the versatility we needed to tell lots of different stories. After this experience, it is our sincere belief that anytime you see something in a game that seems completely intuitive and absolutely simple that means someone put a lot of work into thinking about so you wouldn't have to.
HG: Did you have any "ah ha!" or "eureka!" moments during development? If so, what were they?
EG: There have been a lot of those moments. Character creation as a simple choice of heroic role and unique talent was one, but the precise implementation of that took a lot of work. Probably the best "ah ha!" moment came from initial idea for Adventuring Kits. Of all the elements of the game, that one is still pretty close to the original idea. We knew we wanted a simplified version of adventuring equipment. When the idea struck for a card that showed what you had and a simple rule about adding an extra die when you have the right tool for the job, it just felt right. Having the pocket spots allowed for creativity and flexibility without a lot of planning and looking things up ahead of time. While the specific items in the kits have undergone a lot of revision, the concept and mechanics for how they work is almost exactly the same as the initial concept. It was a fantastic “Eureka!” idea that proved to be incredibly fun in playtesting and is still a favorite part of the game for many players.
HG: What were some of your inspirations for Story Realms?
EG: The overall concept of Story Realms was inspired by our desire to play a game with our kids that we honestly enjoyed as adults and didn't take too long to play. The concept of the world and the heroes was inspired by our love of folk and fairy tales, classic literature, and some of our favorite movies from childhood like Labyrinth and Neverending Story.
Mechanically, we drew inspiration from a variety of storytelling games; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Whitewolf Storyteller systems were big influences. We also drew inspiration from D&D, Pathfinder, and Everway. We discussed games like Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Tales of Arabian Nights for their ability to provide a variety of stories using simple board game systems. Magic the Gathering was often discussed as a game that manages to communicate a lot of complex game design through intuitive and simple key words and thematic concepts.
HG: What are some of your favorite games?
EG: We love all kinds of games, but have slightly different tastes. Magic the Gathering, Pathfinder, and Dominion are all games that might make it onto both of our top 10 lists. Both of us really like games that involve cool, strategic decision, but play in about an hour or less. It can be hard to find the time with kids and family to play longer games.
HG: Anything else you want to add?
EG: We'd just like to thank our families for all the support they've given us through this game’s creation and development. It's been stressful at times, but their support has definitely kept us going. We'd also like to thank the fine folks at Game Salute for believing in the game and helping us make it a reality. Our art director Dann May and our character artist Kelly McClellan and cartographer Herwin Wielink have done a fantastic job creating stunning art for the game that has definitely helped it stand out and catch people’s attention.
And thank you, Grant, for giving us the opportunity to talk about Story Realms. This game has already come so much further than we could have ever imagined. We feel very fortunate for the chance to develop and share this game with people, and incredibly excited about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.