Reference Desk #17 — Story Engine: Deck of Worlds

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember my review of The Story Engine. The Story Engine is part card game, part tool for generating semi-randomized writing prompts. I’ve used it as a fun way to brainstorm ideas for short stories, and I’ve found that it works well for me. As someone who enjoys card and board games, it’s just a much more fun and tactile way to generate ideas than sitting in front of the notebook with pen in hand.

Recently, the folks behind the original Story Engine kickstarted a new product in the same vein. It’s called the Story Engine: Deck of Worlds. Deck of Worlds is another card-based brainstorming game, but this time it’s focused on settings instead of plots. It’s billed as a tool for storytellers and TTRPG game masters to easily generate interesting and deep settings.

I received my order right before the holidays, and I was able to take Deck of Worlds for a test drive.

What’s In the Box?

The base set of cards for Deck of Worlds comes in a flat box with a plastic insert, magnetic latch, and a heavy tagboard sleeve that guarantees it will stay closed. This is nearly identical to the box that the original Story Engine came in, and the build quality is good. It’s the sort of box you’d expect from a premium board game.

However, the original Story Engine had many expansion packs that added more cards, and Deck of Worlds is the same. If you add extra cards to your set, you’ll quickly fill up the small amount of extra space in the box. Luckily, the creators of the Story Engine are well aware of this problem, and they’ve created a new card box with dividers that is capable of holding all the cards, even if you’ve got every single expansion. They’re inexpensive, so I got one for my original Story Engine set as well as my Deck of Worlds.

I also received three expansion packs for Deck of Worlds. “Worlds of Chrome and Starlight” is the science fiction expansion, “Worlds of Myth and Magic” is the fantasy expansion, and “Worlds of Sand & Story” is the deserts expansion. I chose these because sci-fi and fantasy are my two favorite genres to write in, and I have a TTRPG project percolating with a strong desert component.

Much like the original product, the Deck of Worlds main box includes a slim “guidebook,” which describes the intended ways to use the Deck of Worlds—although the creators are clear that there is no wrong way to play.

The Card Types

There are six card types in the Deck of Worlds: Regions, Landmarks, Namesakes, Origins, Attributes, and Advents. According to the guidebook:

  • Regions establish a setting’s main terrain type and act as a hub for other cards
  • Landmarks add geographical sites and points of interest
  • Namesakes combine with Regions or Landmarks to create in-world nicknames
  • Origins record significant events of the area’s past
  • Attributes highlight present-day features of the area and its people
  • Advents introduce events that may change the area’s future

Regions are the only cards with a single prompt on them, and have a nice background that illustrates the geography of the setting. Landmarks have two prompts to choose between, and each one has a background illustration. The other four card types have a symbol and color to identify the card type, and four different prompts to choose from.

Building Basic Settings

The simplest way to play with Deck of Worlds is to create small settings, or “microsettings” as the guidebook calls them. These will typically be built around a single region (terrain type) and a single landmark, like a building.

For my test run, I built a few of these microsettings. First, I chose the prompts I liked best and combined the cards. Then I expanded or focused the results, writing a little blurb about each setting. I only spent a couple minutes on each of these examples.

The Grassland of Crowds

The museum’s founding piece is a huge fulgurite dug out of a sandy hill. The museum was built around this dug-out hill, and the piece is displayed, unmoved, where it was found.

The “lightning festival” grew in this area, and is held during the season of rainless storms. People display all kinds of art. One of these presentations is voted the winner of each festival and incorporated into the museum.

The Scree of Rivers

(Cyberpunk) The scree was mined for the long, winding veins of precious metals near the surface, leaving a maze of narrow, shallow canyons and piles of leavings. Rivers form when it rains. A grey market meets here periodically, protected from government scanners by the trace metals in the rock, with lots of escape routes and hidey-holes for quick getaways.

Not sure about the prophecy bit.

City of Sand and Story

The City of Rains is nestled in rocky mountains in a desert. During the wet season, the mountains funnel moisture and clouds and it rains on the city, creating a temporary river. All inhabitents capture as much water as possible, to live on and trade for the rest of the year. They plant crops along the river while it lasts.

A recent sandstorm uncovered caverns in the rock beneath the city, leading to underground ruins and vast cisterns. The discovery of so much water could upend the economy of the entire region

Complex Settings

The guidebook also includes some rules for building more complex settings out of multiple microsettings. There is really no limit to the number of smaller settings you could combine. There are optional rules, including a “meta-row” for attributes of the larger area as a whole, a “sideboard” of extra cards to give you more choices when selecting any given card type.

To test this out, I built a setting from four different microsettings, using the meta-row (on the left) and sideboard (on the right).

The Golden Plains

Once known as a wealthy region, but its reputation is fading. The area has been covered with strange dark clouds for weeks, but there is little rain.

In the North: The Red City

Home of a religious order, this city was built on a river and filled with canals. It was once a hub of commerce, but the river grew over the years and eventually overflowed its banks south of the city, disrupting the flow and creating a vast swamp.

Now, the priests of the Red City ply a darker trade: they’ve made the city into a prison for the worst criminals. The prison is the center of the old city, and is called “The Prison Without Walls.” It is surrounded by deep and fast-running canals, and is only accessible by a single, heavily-guarded bridge.

The priests have traditionally been led by a patriarchal lineage of high priests, but now a lowly priestess is gathering a following among priests and prisoners alike. She has radical ideas of rehabilitating prisoners instead of working them to death as penance for their crimes.

In the South-East: The Swamp of Ink

These thickets were once hunting grounds of the nobility, until the river overflowed and the land became swampy.

The few people who still live here are led by an excommunicated priest from the Red City. They harvest “swamp mites,” tiny, stinging crawfish that can be ground into fine black dyes. Travelers from the North recently called out the priest as an exile, and he imprisoned them, but there is unrest and talk of rebellion among the people.

In the West: The Moraine

The coast of mists is the western edge of the Golden Plains region.

The Moraine is the home of the School of Poets. It was created by a celebrated poet who was known as a cantankerous jerk. The only woman who ever loved him, muse of his thousand poems, made him promise to teach other poets his craft.

The school is rumored to be haunted. While most of its inhabitants don’t take this seriously, many students have recently complained of strange and disturbing noises coming through the stone walls.

In the Southwest: The City of Smoke

A city on the slopes of an inactive volcano, built atop the ruins of the “old city,” which was destroyed by the last eruption.

Hot springs in the city are warmed by the heart of the volcano. They supposedly have healing properties, and draw tourists who hope to have their injuries or sickness cured.

Vineyards planted in the fertile volcanic soil use a unique variety of small, golden grapes, harvested after the first frost to make sweet wine.

The dark clouds that have shrouded the region threaten the growth of the grapes and the year’s wine harvest.

Takeaways

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the Deck of Worlds so far. It has a very similar feel to the original Story Engine. The cards strike a nice balance by giving you a few options to pick from, but also limitations that force your brain to make interesting and occasionally surprising connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Like any sort of brainstorming, not every single idea will be a good one. The randomization means that sometimes you get combinations that just fall flat or fail to inspire. Some of this depends on your own creativity and willingness to explore.

Like the original Story Engine, the quality of the product is great. The new boxes are an improvement, allowing me to keep all my original and expansion cards together in a form factor that takes up less space than the original box.

I don’t necessarily like all the rules suggested by the guidebook, but it’s easy to tweak the process until it works for you. They’re just cards, and they can be arranged however you see fit. The extra rules for bigger settings are a little complicated for my tastes, but the end result in my experiment had some interesting ideas that I wouldn’t mind exploring further.

The guidebook also has more rules that I didn’t get into, for collaborative multiplayer and for combining Deck of Worlds with the original Story Engine. All of that feels like more complexity than I want when I’m brainstorming—I would much rather create smaller ideas and then mix and match myself. However, I’m sure this style of prescribed creation could work for others.

Finally, I think this could be a great tool for GMs/DMs who run custom table-top RPG campaigns. I’ve long believed that the best way to approach TTRPG worlds is the “billiards” style described by Chris Perkins, where you set up a number of interesting locations full of interesting characters, and then let the player characters bounce around between them, setting events in motion.

The Deck of Worlds is a great way to invent these little islands of content, and I think it would be pretty easy to create quick and dirty sessions with very little prep, especially if you’re using a lightweight rule set.

Where to Get It

The Deck of Worlds and its expansions are available directly from the Story Engine website. In addition to the Sci-fi, Fantasy and Desert expansions I chose, there are Horror, Coastline, and Arctic expansions. If you’re planning to use the deck for tabletop RPGs, they also have expansions for lore fragments, cultures, and adventure prompts.

Author: Samuel Johnston

Professional software developer, unprofessional writer, and generally interested in almost everything.

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