Reference Desk #10 — The Story Engine

The Story Engine is a card-based tool to generate endless, semi-random writing prompts. It’s is billed as a tool or multiplayer game to aid in writing fiction, playing tabletop RPGs, or just to be played on its own. It started out in 2019 as one of those Kickstarter projects that caught fire and got fifteen times as much money as they were asking for. Now, the full product is launched, along with myriad add-ons enabled by Kickstarter stretch goals.

As a writer, a TTRPG player, and general lover of boxes of cards with nice art, I decided to try it out.

What’s in the Box

The main box comes with 180 cards. There are also three 60-card “expansions” that can be purchased separately: sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; and six 18-card sub-genre “boosters” for cyberpunk, steampunk, eldritch horror, post-apocalyptic, mythological and dystopian. I went for broke and got the whole collection. The core set is genre-agnostic, but the add-ons are clearly focused on speculative fiction.

The build quality is solid, which I appreciate as someone who has accumulated quite a few board and card games of varying quality. The box is a sturdy, fold-open affair that latches with magnets and has a sleeve. The cards are glossy, nicely weighty paper, and the illustrations are evocative. The cards aren’t plastic-coated, so expect the edges to get roughed up as they’re repeatedly shuffled.

How Does it Work?

The cards are divided into five different types: Agents, Engines, Anchors, Conflicts and Aspects.

  • Agents represent characters
  • Engines represent a goal or desire
  • Anchors represent places, things, and ideas
  • Conflicts are challenges or difficulties
  • Aspects are adjectives

In its simplest form, I can play one card of the first four types, in sequence, to generate a random prompt, such as

A daredevil (agent) wants to enact a secret plan revolving around (engine) an election (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

I can then customize that prompt in two ways. First, each card has 2 or 4 prompt phrases depending on type, so it can be turned 90 or 180 degrees to change the “active” phrase facing me to something more inspiring. Secondly, I can add an Aspect. Since aspects are adjectives, they can be applied to the noun cards: agents (characters) and anchors (places, things, ideas).

With those changes, I might transform the first prompt into

A tormented fraud (agent + aspect) wants to unmask the conspiracy of (engine) a rebellion (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

The guidebook that comes in the main box also suggests ways to use the cards to generate character concepts, items and settings, as well as several more complex prompts that utilize more cards. These include things like conflicted characters with multiple goals, or two characters in conflict over related goals.

Finally, it includes rules for multi-player storytelling games and some helpful hints toward RPG players as to how the various prompts might be used in building campaigns, settings and scenarios.

Despite all these prescriptive rules for building prompts, The Story Engine is also happy to tell you that this doesn’t have to be rigid, with hard and fast rules. You can use the cards however you’d like.

1. A robot wants to map an obsidian prison, but they will have to try something frightening and new. 2. An archivist wants to pay an old debt with a corrupted tool, but they will have to resist a great temptation.

My Experience

The Story Engine does a good job riding the line between too specific and too vague. I often find writing prompts irritating when they’re little more than a vague topic, but too much detail obviously takes any agency away from the writer.

I filled a few notebook pages using the “simple” writing prompts. Not all of the results were instantly inspiring, but I was able to glean a few ideas that feel promising, and a few more that seem like they could lead somewhere with a bit more time and thought.

The complex prompts include more cards and more structure, and as a result they are less open-ended and more inflexible. These are sometimes too detailed for me, feeling like there’s not enough room for filling in the blanks. However, you can always swap cards or break the rules to get something more to your liking.

The individual cards are also just fine as prompts by themselves. Sometimes a one-word character or setting description is all you need, especially when trying to flesh out an idea in progress. The pictures on the cards also do work as extra inspirational elements that don’t insert more words into the mix.

What about RPGs?

I’m not currently running a campaign, so I haven’t tried incorporating The Story Engine into one. However, I have used the similar dice-and-table-based prompts in The Perilous Wilds to run totally improvised one-shots of Dungeon World. I could definitely see using The Story Engine to do something similar.

If you have a home brew campaign, these prompts are probably going to be more useful than if you’re trying to add to a pre-written one. They might also be fun for generating NPCs on-the-fly when your adventuring party takes an unexpected turn.

Conclusions

So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve gotten out of The Story Engine, and I’ll continue to use it. My only concern is that the prompts might start to feel samey after a while. Even if there are technically billions of combinations, the cards will eventually become familiar. Still, with the core and add-ons, I have quite a few cards to work with. I think I’ll be using these cards as a story brainstorming tool for a long time.

If you’re unsure, the core set is a good starting point, and it’s genre-agnostic. If you’re not writing speculative fiction, the add-ons don’t offer much. If you are writing spec-fic and The Story Engine sounds exciting to you, buying one of the bundles gets you a pretty steep discount vs. buying piecemeal.

Check it out at https://storyenginedeck.myshopify.com/

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

The phrase “writer’s block” gets tossed around a lot, to the point that it has become a trope or boogie-man in the modern mythology of what it’s like to be a writer. The truth is that there’s no one thing that stops us from writing. Like any other job, writing is harder some days than others. Sometimes we have good reasons that the words aren’t coming. Other times, it’s a mystery why the muse has abandoned us.

Likewise, there’s no single formula to overcoming writer’s block. Everyone writes differently. Some find a routine and stick with it throughout their lives. Others have to catch a few words here and there, or need variety to stimulate their creativity.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me. Next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, give one a try.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

1. The Jump-Start

I discovered something about myself a few years ago. I’m often pretty bad about chores like cleaning, laundry, and dishes. What I realized was that all I needed to do was get myself started. I’d enter the kitchen, notice some crumbs on the counter, and decide to wipe it down. Then I’d clean the little island counter. Then the stove. Before I knew it, I was doing dishes or cleaning half the kitchen.

Getting started on a task is often the hardest part, especially when it feels big or unpleasant. It’s like diving into cool water. The initial plunge is the hard part, and then you get acclimated and comfortable. It’s easy to agonize over the opening of a new book, or even the first few words in a regular writing session. If I can get myself into the middle of a sentence or paragraph, I’m much more compelled to keep going.

Make a deal with yourself. Instead of thinking “I have to finish this chapter,” or “I need to write 2000 words today,” just tell yourself to write something small: a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes your writing session just needs a jump-start to get the engine running.

If you find this works for you, you might even want to end your writing sessions mid-sentence, even if you know how the sentence should end. It will give you something you can immediately start writing the next time.

2. The Deadline

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

Trying to be creative while up against the clock might seem unappealing at first, but deadlines can be a tool. When unlimited possibilities are overwhelming, it can be hard to come up with something concrete. Deadlines enforce limits. If you want to get your writing done within a time limit, you have to stop thinking, stop planning, and start putting words on the page.

Self-imposed deadlines can take many forms, but to really be effective, they need some sort of external accountability. You’re more likely to get it done if the alternative is telling someone that you failed.

If you’re working on a rough draft, you might hold yourself accountable to beta readers, friends, or a writing circle. If you’re writing short fiction or poetry, you might be able to find a fitting contest, anthology, or magazine that has a limited window for submissions.

You may not need a particular person to hold you accountable. Committing to a schedule, participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, or writing daily or weekly blog posts or serial fiction might be enough of a push to keep you going.

3. The Speed Demon

Sometimes you’ve got an idea, but you just can’t find the right words or place to start. Well, it turns out that’s a problem for future you! Here in the present, all you have to do is write a pile of words that sorta, kinda get the point across. Write fast, and let that poor sucker, “future you,” worry about editing that hot mess into a beautiful manuscript.

How do you force yourself to write fast when you’re already struggling to write anything at all? You could try applications like Write or Die, The Most Dangerous Writing App, or Flowstate. These apps can play angry noises, flash, or even start to delete your words if you stop writing for too long, helping you learn how to write fast and stop worrying about the quality of the content.

If these tech solutions don’t appeal to you, you can still go old-school. Challenge a fellow writer to a word-count race. Put on a your favorite speed metal playlist and try to write a hundred words by the end of each song. The important thing is to get those words out. You can make them better later.

4. The Prompt

Creative cross-pollination is a real thing. A story that’s floundering may be missing some vital idea that will make all the disparate pieces fit into place. It can help to get away from the story, especially if you bring something new back when you return to it.

One of the best ways to reset the writing brain is with prompts. If you aren’t aware, writing prompts are popular. They’re everywhere. You can find hundreds with a quick internet search. If you prefer something physical, there are writing prompt journals, books, calendars, and cards.

If you prefer higher stakes, try looking for a themed contest. Many contests require a specific genre, setting, or topic. Find one in your wheelhouse, or try something you’ve never written before. You might even turn your writer’s block into a cash prize.

5. The Spike

Stuck trying to get a story from point A to point B? Not sure where the story is going? Too many possibilities, or no way forward? Try a spike.

I blogged about writing spikes in a previous post. In short, a writing spike is a little writing experiment to figure out where a story should go and how it might get there by trying different possibilities. Spikes are designed to be thrown away, so there’s no pressure to make them perfect.

6. The Great Outdoors

Do you always write in the same place? Use the same computer or the same notebook? Write at the same time of day or week? Routine can be grounding, and it can help to carve out time when schedules are tight. Routines can also become dull and stale.

A change of scenery, a different time of day, a switch from pen to keyboard or vice versa – all of these can help break that block.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try, and try again. Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block requires trust that more words will come. Sometimes just eking out a few words leads to a flood. Sometimes the words have to be bad so they can be made better later. Sometimes it takes external motivation or a change in scenery to make writing feel fresh and new again. And what you thought was terrible may turn out to be pretty good on re-read.

Do you have any favorite tricks to help you get past writer’s block? Let me know in the comments.

The Reference Desk – #1 – Start With This

Over the years, I’ve picked up useful information and ideas from books, websites, podcasts, and other resources about writing. In this ongoing series, I’d like to share some of those things with you. For the most part, these are going to be things that are interesting to other writers. However, if you’re a reader who enjoys learning “how the sausage is made,” you may find them interesting as well.

Start With This

Start With This is a podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. If they sound familar, it’s probably because of their most popular project, the podcast “Welcome to Nightvale.” Nightvale is something like small-town lovecraftian horror, with a healthy dose of humor, seen through the lens of local public radio.

Start With This is a writing podcast that comes in comfortable, 30-minute installments. Each bi-weekly episode focuses on a particular theme, like “Feedback” or “Collaboration.” First, the hosts talk a bit about their own experiences in that particular arena. Then they provide some homework: one thing to create (usually a short exercise relating to the theme) and one thing to consume (some work that exemplifies the theme).

The hosts have plenty of experience in theater and live shows, as well as podcasting, and since they’ve been working together for years, they have good rapport. The episodes feel snappy and focused.

Because of the pair’s experience, the show skews a bit toward podcasts in particular and theater in general, but there is enough content for a writer outside these media that I still find the show worth listening to.

The show also caters to various levels of listener enthusiasm. I’ve found that I get something useful simply listening, but the “create” and “consume” assignments add another layer for those who want to invest the time. There is also a subscription-based forum where true enthusiasts can discuss the episodes and assignments, and find collaborators.