Immersive Storytelling Engines: A Case Study

carbines and skull revised

I read once that part of Hemingway’s genius was how tightly he could pack meaning into a small amount of words. Supposedly he came by that honestly from a background in journalism. Cool. I binged on Hemingway in college and read essentially everything he ever wrote. He’s worth your time if you haven’t made that happen, maybe start with the Nick Adams stories or Old Man And The Sea. 

I’ve written about haiku here before, particularly as a mechanism for tightly packing stories into powerful little wads of meaning, like exercises for fiction writers.

It strikes me that there is a lot of wisdom in packing hints of hidden worlds and  imaginative triggers into small packages to send readers off into flights of fancy. In my day job, we spend a lot of time making people in manufacturing plants think improvements are their ideas so they’ll own them and drive changes. Doesn’t the same thing apply in speculative fiction? I mean, the whole gig here is to get inside someone’s head and try and leave a trace you were there.

So something fantastic happened this week, along these lines.

If you’re tracking us lately, we’re developing a terrain-based card game based on some of the concepts and technology in Tearing Down The Statues. A core concept for me at least is that every card, every character, has a backstory hidden in the art or the card text that paints nuances into the worldbuilding. The mechanics of the game are intended to be an engine for immersive storytelling through expansions, brought to life by the players.

box cover-texturized

Over the weekend, I had a quick flash image pop into my head of a little sand timer placed on the tabletop when a certain card was played. I liked it – in my mind, it seemed both players were suddenly rushing through their turns for some reason. No idea what the timer was for, or why one guy playing some card triggered it. So the week went on, with a vague idea. I had a few cancellations, so some time at home to poke around with this.

I’ve been learning how to better use Daz Studios and Blender; and I’m okay with Photoshop. I figured out how to add realistic tattoos onto figures early this week; and that’s great because tattooing played a big part in the book. It seemed to me a custom tattoo would be very cool – portraying one of the most distinctive pieces of technology we have in our intellectual property: the ball lightning carbine.

ball lightning carbines

So that’s where the dealie-o at the header of this article came from. The skull was from Turbosquid, rendered in Blender and made into an ink drawing in Photoshop with a filter. Still needs work, but it’s shaping up. Anyway, so I had the tattoo. Was just spitballing some tough-guy characters with tattoos when another thought sprouted:

Both players have a card that can trigger that timer, right? So what if the two cards represented brothers? What if they’re absolute terrors on the battlefield when solo, not even needing attack rolls. Then when both brothers are on the field at the same time, they go after each other…that was a real spark for me.  The game mechanic seemed solid; and the characters looked the part of people who would want to slaughter each other. That’s uhhh..what I was going for. But I was still missing the boat.

Sometimes, going for a run clears things up for me. I can set a creative problem or story block in my mind and come back in an hour or so with a solution. In this case, the problem was easy – why are these brothers trying to kill each other? The game manifesto says everybody has a backstory…everything happening is for a reason. There has to be a purpose behind all the battles the game represents. What was their deal?

Then it connected.

salt mystic

Two thousand years ago, the Salt Mystic herself hid cunningly engineered myths in their very stories capable of practically possessing the right person in the right time. Like tripwires, triggered when we make enough of a mess of things that we need a guardian. Millions will follow them, and they’re endowed with almost supernatural leadership and insight. 

The brothers wanted that. I imagined an old hag, years ago when they were very young, sheltering in their parents’ house from the rain. She spoke something terrible to them that shot poison into the family and ripped it apart. And it eventually led to the two of them haunting battlefields, searching for each other to burn his sibling down and take the prize.

She told them one of them would arise as guardian. Only one.

Anyway, here’s how the cards turned out:


Make sure you keep an eye on us as this thing develops. Any feedback is appreciated!

See you next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.