Using Rory’s Story Cubes as an Idea Generator for RPGs
I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation at one point or another in our lives, you’ve got a game to prepare for the end of the week, you’ve been staring at your notes while the seconds tick by and waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike; given all the other pressures in life that can pile up and demand our attention it can be sometimes very difficult to get over that initial hurdle and get the ideas flowing to create a session. I’m a big fan of anything that either jump starts this process or helps give the GM a little creative boost to get the mind working.
A couple of weeks ago I saw an advert on the internet for a product called Rory’s Story Cubes; the concept is a fairly simple one, each story cube is a six sided dice containing a number of small pictures rather than numbers, you roll nine of these cubes and then use the imagery on them to inspire a story.
The basic set of Story Cubes is the orange box shown above and contains a wide variety of initial pictures from light bulbs, to moons, draconic shadows, fish, torches and globes, all of these are designed to be fairly ambiguous so that they can be interpreted in a number of different ways when you tell your story; the point is not to see a flower and say, well i’ve rolled a flower so i’ll have to put one into the story, your tale might not mention a flower but it could feature other vegetation, the concept of beauty, growth or any other idea spurred in your imagination by the imagery.
For example below is a sample roll using just the basic set:
In that initial roll I have a shooting star, a crescent moon, a flower, a dice, an L plate, a mobile phone, a light bulb, a pyramid and a high rise apartment building.
So why is this any use for RPGs?
Well although the basic idea of the Story Cubes is to tell a narrative inspired by the icons, to me one of the central facets of RPGs that makes them very enjoyable and that keeps me coming back to the table year after year, game after game, is that RPGs are essentially a group narrative, a story, but one created by the collaborative input of all of the people involved. An RPG isn’t just me sat tapping away on my computer keyboard with a mug of coffee or can of cider next to me (as i’m doing whilst writing this) and with only my ideas going onto the page, it’s a group creative space where lots of people can throw their ideas into the ring and where the result often exceeds the sum of it’s parts.
But doesn’t the GM have more control in the game than any of the players?
There are some schools of RPGing that believe that the GM should have a lot more control than the players and that can work in some games, however, i’ve always been a fan of getting the players involved in games I run and giving them almost as much control over the narrative as myself; this means that occasionally i’ll get surprised or not know what shape a session is going to take, it can be scary, concerning and occasionally a lot of work if things really go off track, but it’s never boring and i’ve had some truly magical moments in RPGs when the players have taken that narrative ball and have really run with it.
So using Story Cubes for RPGs
The core Story Cube idea is to roll nine of the dice, these might all come from the orange basic set or there are two additional large sets (covering voyages and actions respectively) and some smaller sets (I have three, enchanted, clues and prehistoria, each containing three dice).
You take a number of dice from your sets totalling nine, roll them and then create a story based on the imagery. The instructions suggest that you select three of the dice to represent the beginning of a story, three to represent the middle of a story and the remaining three (unsurprisingly) to represent the conclusion of the tale.
Now of course roleplaying games are a little different, when it comes to planning an adventure you aren’t defining the whole story, since the actions of your player characters may alter it significantly; there are a few ways that I think Story Cubes could be useful during RPGs though:
Coming up with adventure ideas
If you’re stuck for adventure ideas then the Story Cubes could help give you some ideas to get you started, since you’re not going to be determining the middle and end of the adventure beforehand, i’d suggest that instead of rolling 9 dice and splitting them into beginning-middle-end that you roll 3 dice per adventure that you want to create (so you would get three adventure seeds out of the default 9 dice pool).
As an example i’m going to make a roll below and use it to create three adventure seeds, these will all be set in a standard tolkien-esque fantasy world for ease of example (since most people are familiar with that setting) but you could do the same for your home-made campaign world or any purchased RPG campaign.
This example was created just using the basic orange pack.
And here is my roll, I have grouped the dice into three lots of three and below them are three potential basic plot/adventure seeds that I have come up with using them as inspiration:
Herd animals are dying across the world in a deadly plague that is spreading in an unknown fashion, leaving animals twisted and mutilated, people have begun to whisper that perhaps more than a simple disease is behind the deaths.
A strange mask has been discovered locked in a seal compartment within the fortress of an ancient and noble race whom no longer walk the world, all those who discovered the mask died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards.
An ailing noble has discovered a reference amongst some ancient papers that he purchased at auction to a wizard having unlocked the secret of immortality, he now seeks people brave (or foolhardy) enough to venture to the desert ruins of the sorceror’s previous lair to recover the elixir of life.
These are just three possibilities for different adventures all from a single 9-dice roll, there is plenty more potential in the basic set and even more once you add in dice from other sets.
The same technique can be used to create world events, things that are occurring in the background of your world and that may or may not directly involve the PCs, having these events in your game though help to create the fiction that the world exists independently of the player characters rather than it being a simple stage set that depends on the actors to give it life.
The example below was created using the three dice from the three smaller sets that I own:
Strange creatures that hunt only by the dark of night have been hunting along stretches of river that supply several kingdoms with water.
The unsolved murders of several prominant citizens, all reputedly linked to the founding families of the kingdom has lead to an increasing city guard presence and further draconian laws being introduced in the kingdom.
Seismic activity amongst a local mountain range has caused several herds of animals and more dangerous denizens to venture down into populated areas, panicked town authorities are currently looking for a way to deal with the unwanted animals whilst fearfully eyeing the smoking mountain tops.
The Story Cubes can also be good for finding out what sort of occupations or activities a random NPC is engaged in, we’ve all had those encounters where the PCs have stopped a few random bods in a town or city and it can be difficult to come up with occupations and activites for them; rolling a single dice (or a few if you wish can help give you some ideas.
The rolls below use dice from the blue ‘actions’ set:
In the examples below I offer a suggestion for both an occupation and an activity.
Action – “Oh I was just here looking for a friend of mine.”
Occupation – Scout.
Action – Looking for someone to stash something important.
Occupation – Builder.
Action – Travelling to a nearby well to fetch water.
Occupation – Alchemist or apothecary.
I hope this blog post has given you some ideas for how Story Cubes could be used to help you create some interesting adventures, world events and NPC activities/occupations; obviously the cubes don’t do all the work for you and there’d still be a lot of fleshing out to do, but if you’re stuck for an initial idea or you’re coming up a blank with your starting concepts then the Story Cubes could at least get you up and running. Personally I found them easier to use than a random table because I tend to be quite visually minded and something about seeing a picture (as opposed to a line of text) not only got me thinking more but it also allowed me to make broader interpretations.