The Story Engine: Lore Master's Deck

Created by The Story Engine

Lore Master's Deck is the ultimate creative jumpstarter for writers, game masters, and worldbuilders who want to fill their stories with rich, interconnected lore.

Latest Updates from Our Project:

The mistake we ALMOST made with the Emblems Expansion + livestream TODAY!
5 days ago – Thu, Feb 22, 2024 at 06:06:09 AM

Hello backers!

I wanted to invite you all to join us live at 3pm today to launch the open beta PDF of the Emblems Expansion!

We'll be talking about the development process and reviewing design updates from the alpha, distributing PDFs live on YouTube, and then creating prompts in collaboration with the chat.

If you don't already have the Emblems Expansion PDF as part of your pledge, you can still edit your pledge and add it on or buy it from the preorder store any time between now and March 9, when we'll be locking pledges.

Thanks to everyone who tuned in to watch us launch the Namesakes Expansion last week! Some of the highlights included:
  • Me sharing my biggest regret from Deck of Worlds (hint: I still get emails about it).
  • A behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and opportunities of adapting Namesakes from Deck of Worlds.
  • A walkthrough of the changes to the deck since the alpha demo during the BackerKit campaign.
  • A live prompting session where the chat helped us create the reckoning raven, also known as the woolly raven, a bird that grows thick plumage in response to sudden environmental changes.

You can watch the replay below!

How the Emblems Expansion changed during development

The Emblems Expansion began as an experiment for us, and grew into one of my favorite lore-weaving tools.

Our original plan was to release 60 Emblem cards that could be shuffled in with Modifiers. As with the Namesake cards, we realized that would flood the Modifiers draw pile with too many expansion cards. We also had a similar challenge to the one we faced with the Namesakes Expansion, where some cues worked well for particular card types, but not for others.

There was also the added challenge of showing new users the different ways they can use and interpret the emblems and icons we'd curated for the deck. Purely visual cues are new tools for us, and for many worldbuilders, and we wanted to balance:
  1. giving people guidance about how to think divergently about symbols and images in their worlds.
  2. giving people the freedom to interpret those symbols in a manner of their choosing.

Our solution involved a few changes:
  • We cut down from 60 to 32 Emblem cards, and we made them their own dedicated card type so we could be deliberate about how and when to use them.
  • We added 28 special variant lore cards of the 7 primary card types.
  • We used symbols in place of text cues on the the primary side of the expansion's lore cards.
  • To the secondary side of the lore cards, we added short cues that require players to draw Emblem cards to complete them. These offer a variety of ways to think about how symbols can connect to different elements of lore.

Here are a couple of examples!

You can also draw an Emblem instead of a Modifier card any time you expand a lore cluster.

The mistake we ALMOST made with the Emblems Expansion

I've talked before about why I think sensitivity readers are a crucial part of the development process. We worked with three reviewers on this project, all of whom offered a bounty of insight and editorial recommendations on the main deck and expansions. Their notes and perspective helped flag potentially sensitive material and provided guidance about how writers and worldbuilders can approach that material in thoughtful and respectful ways.

The review of the Emblems Expansion was particularly revealing. We sourced a wide variety of icons, symbols, glyphs, and images for this expansion, and were careful about our selection. This included a small number of runes, including some dwarven-style runes based on Elder Futhark.

It turns out that specific Elder Futhark runes have been co-opted by white nationalist groups as either coded or overt hate iconography. While these runes are authentic pieces of culture predating these groups by thousands of years, some are currently being weaponized by white supremacists to further a deeply damaging cause.

On the advice of one of our sensitivity reviewers who flagged the algiz rune during their review (along with a couple of other symbols), we did a careful cross-examination of our symbols with the Anti-Defamation League's database of hate symbols.

Philosophically, this process raised some interesting questions: who decides what a symbol means? What happens when the meaning of a symbol changes over time? These are the questions that made the Emblems Expansion so fascinating to work on in the first place.

Practically, we knew that philosophy takes a back seat to making sure people from targeted communities feel safe and ensuring we don't inadvertently empower hate groups by deploying symbols they also use.

We cut the small number of symbols that resembled anything in the ADL's database and overall reduced the number of Elder Futhark-inspired runes, introducing instead a wider variety of runic styles. This ended up bringing more variety to the deck and improved it as a resource!

Symbols are powerful. For good and for ill, they evoke an immediate response and become containers for so many different kinds of meaning. I'm grateful we had such diligent sensitivity reviewers to help us shape the final lineup of symbols and think about how to provide guidance on using symbols in lore-weaving.

I'm excited for you all to dig into the Emblems Expansion with us today, and I hope you'll join us for the livestream!

Searching for the Archive of Endlings
11 days ago – Fri, Feb 16, 2024 at 07:38:59 AM

The Lore Master’s Deck is now in the wild, and we had a blast coming up with some lore with the open beta during our launch party livestream. 
If you tuned in, you already know exactly how we ended up with the lore web below. (In fact, you probably influenced some of our decisions.) For the rest of you, we thought we’d give you a quick recap to run you through some of the highlights.

Keep in mind that this is only a loose summary – and as with any worldbuilding exercise, the facts are mutable and open to interpretation. Reply in the comments to let us know what you’d do with this prompt, or check out the replay of the livestream if you want to get the full story!

Without further ado, let’s take a journey to the Archive of Endlings!
Our story begins with a conclave of cryptozoologists – which is closer to regular zoology in this particular world. This Conclave has an affinity for extinct and endangered creatures, many of which have mythic properties in this setting. Members are expected to be comfortable with dangerous monsters, which is why initiates need to pluck a feather from a griffin in order to become a member. 
The Conclave itself was created to find the fabled Archive of Endlings (yes, “archive” won the great “archive” vs “museum” debate).
There have long been rumors about the Archive of Endlings – a mythical zoo that only houses creatures that no longer exist. According to the legend, the magical Owl that built the Archive is itself the last member of its species. Whenever another creature is about to go extinct, the Owl calls the endling – the last of its kind – to the Archive for protection. The endlings cannot leave (the Owl is a prisoner of its own design), but they are safe from further harm. The Archive only exists in the space between worlds, and is further guarded by an array of powerful enchantments.

Those enchantments can only be broken with the help of a Rod. No one knows where that Rod is today. The stories suggest that it was originally found buried beneath the Archive (though no one can explain how it got out if that was indeed the case). However, everyone agrees that the Rod provides a direct line to the Archive. Those one of a kind properties also make the Rod extremely valuable, which is why the market is flooded with knockoffs from people trying to make a quick buck off the gullible. The Conclave’s decision to use the Rod as its symbol could be viewed as an attempt to manifest the goal of their search.
Of course, ambiguous legends have been known to cause intense disagreement. The Conclave first learned of the Archive through ancient, rudimentary carvings. Most members of the Conclave saw a griffin. Others saw a dragon – and insisted on it so aggressively that they were eventually expelled. The fan club eventually came to worship the dragon, though its loyalty is in doubt. Everyone knows that the club’s leaders can be bought, and their constantly shifting allegiance has created considerable mistrust with the public.  
However, the fan club is still bitter about its exile, and its most devout members are still bent on revenge. One day, they just might unleash the Armadillo god upon the world. 
We hope you enjoyed this journey to the Archive of Endlings! Catch the rest of our livestreams for more exercises in lore!

How I hacked the math for the Namesake Expansion + livestream Thursday
14 days ago – Tue, Feb 13, 2024 at 07:04:06 AM

Hi again backers!

Thanks to everyone who came out to join us on last week's livestream as we officially sent the Lore Master's Deck open beta PDF out into the world!

The livestream was an absolute blast, and luckily coincided with the whole Story Engine team being together in one room! You can watch the replay on YouTube and catch the highlights, including:
  • The resolution of the great "museum" vs "archive" debate
  • The start of our lore web: a mysterious conclave of griffin worshippers
  • The middle of our lore web: a mythical repository where the last specimens of extinct species go when their evolutionary lines end
  • The end of our lore web: a fan club of dragon-worshippers who are guarding a god-beast they may one day unleash on the world

It was such a fun stream, and we hope you'll join us for the next livestream at 3pm ET this Thursday, February 15 as we launch the open beta for the Namesakes Expansion!

I also wanted to share a little behind-the-scenes info on the Namesakes Expansion, which has changed a little bit since we unveiled the alpha during the campaign.

How I revamped the Namesakes Expansion (with math!)

The Namesakes Expansion is inspired by the Namesake card type from Deck of Worlds, which we released at the end of 2022. Namesakes are actually my favourite card type in Deck of Worlds. They provide some short text-based cues that you can combine with a Region or Landmark card to create an instantly-evocative nickname that feels like it originates within the lore of your world.

I find those cards achieve an almost alchemical reaction when people use them. Like magic, suddenly you're not just creating a boring "tower" or "swamp." You're creating "The First Tower" or the "The Swamp Where No Bird Sings." Your creative brain is waking up to ask questions about where these names come from and imagine interesting answers!

Namesakes as a dedicated card type didn't fit in the main Lore Master's Deck (although a few secondary cues do introduce nicknames and epithets). However, I saw some amazing opportunities to adapt Namesakes into an expansion. My original plan was to create 60 Namesake cards that would work much like Modifier cards, except they'd provide fragments of nicknames that could be paired with primary lore cards as in Deck of Worlds. Here are some examples of these cards from the Namesakes Expansion booklet:

However, translating Namesake cards from Deck of Worlds to Lore Master's Deck introduced some challenges and opportunities that had me rethinking how to construct the set:
  • Compared to creating Namesakes for just geographical features as in Deck of Worlds, it's hard to find name fragments that work universally with the 7 primary lore card types: Factions, Figures, Events, Locations, Objects, Materials, and Creatures.
  • Lore Master's Deck offers a unique opportunity to construct nicknames that combine two card types, but this would be hard to achieve using just the Namesake card format.
  • A full expansion of 60 Namesake cards would outnumber the 48 Modifier cards in Lore Master's Deck. Too many Namesake draws might lead to the card type being less special and featuring too prominently in lore webs.

So during the alpha playtesting, we made some adjustments:
  1. We went from 60 to 32 Namesake cards to better balance the draw ratios and focus on the very best universal cues.
  2. We also converted the Namesake cards into specialized Modifier cards instead of treating them as a separate card type with its own set of rules. You can just shuffle them in with your other Modifiers and you don't need to learn any new mechanics.
  3. We added 28 specially formatted lore cards to the expansion (4 each of Factions, Figures, Events, Locations, Objects, Materials, and Creatures).

This third change was the biggest one, and it's where the math comes in. This one change let us do so much more with the expansion than the alpha version was achieving. The 28 new lore cards in the Namesakes Expansion feature a primary side with cues that combine with other primary lore cards to create a new named lore element in your world.

This format essentially turns every other lore card in the entire deck system into a potential namesake for another lore element. In other words, those 28 lore cards enable 252 additional cards to act like a Namesake card would, adding tens of thousands of interesting combinations and exponentially increasing the reusability of the expansion.

Here's an example from the booklet featuring a Figure named after a cue chosen from a Location card in the main deck. In the lore of this setting, this character is known by the epithet "The Voice of the Mountain."

The primary cues in the Namesakes Expansion feature words we curated to work well with a wide variety of random card draws from specific card types. The cues we ended up with include a mix of new words and some primary cues from the main deck that take on interesting new meanings and resonances when paired with other cards.

The secondary side of the lore cards from this expansion feature a variety of cues, including additional nicknames that are specific to that card type. In the same way the original Namesake cards from Deck of Worlds work well because they're focused on geography, these cues work well because they delve into the specific quirks of each card type.

I'm excited to put the revamped Namesakes Expansion into action and show you all the improvements we've made! I hope you'll join us for the Namesakes beta release livestream at 3pm ET this Thursday! Don't forget to click "Notify Me" on the livestream link so you don't miss it!

Settle a bet for us + tomorrow's open beta launch livestream
20 days ago – Wed, Feb 07, 2024 at 08:19:13 AM

Thanks so much to everyone who tuned in for our Creator Convo + Q&A livestream last week! We had so much fun answering your questions and sharing some of our behind-the-scenes highlights, including:
  • Me finding the hand-written index card prototype of the original Story Engine Deck
  • The secret project we put away to focus on Lore Master's Deck
  • The process we use to decide which cues go on which cards, and how it's different for Lore Master's Deck than for any deck we've created so far
  • The 2 words we spent the longest time arguing over during the editorial process (more on this in a moment)!
  • And so much more!

Watch the replay if you'd like to get caught up!

Tomorrow at 3pm we're hosting the Lore Master's Deck RELOADED Open Beta Launch livestream, during which we'll be distributing the beta files live and then creating prompts with our copy of the deck. As we were reviewing the replay of the last livestream, we realized we need you to settle a bet for us!

At one point, we recalled the 2 hour friendly debate I had with our community manager/contributing writer Eric Weiss about whether "archive" or "museum" was a better primary cue to include in the Location cards and solicited some votes in the chat.

Eric was leading Team Archive, arguing that it was a broader term that could be interpreted in wider variety of contexts and offer more creative options.

I was leading Team Museum, arguing that museums as public spaces offer more opportunities to tell stories involving a wider range of characters.

The chat weighed in, too, and we agreed to reveal the decision we came to on the beta launch livestream tomorrow! We're hoping you'll weigh in through the community poll attached to this update!

We also hope you'll join us tomorrow and share the excitement of opening your PDFs live on the air and creating some lore prompts with us! Click "Notify Me" on the YouTube event page to make sure you don't miss it.

You can also visit our YouTube Live page to get notified for our full run of upcoming streams!

Send us your questions + join the Lore Master's Deck Reloaded Q&A on Thursday
29 days ago – Mon, Jan 29, 2024 at 09:56:25 AM

Hey backers!

We're excited to be kicking off 2 months of weekly Lore Master's Deck livestreams starting this coming Thursday with a pre-launch Q&A about the updated Lore Master's Deck at 3pm ET. The day after, at 2pm ET, we'll also be doing a live webinar with BackerKit to talk about the nuts bolts of crowdfunding and how you backers were our biggest champions on this project!

For the Thursday stream, we want to hear your questions so we can answer them live! We want to know what YOU want to know about:
  • The deck
  • The design/development/review process
  • The beta process and our collaboration with backers
  • How we iterated on our prototypes to take us from a page of haphazard brainstorming notes in 2022 to a polished deck system in 2024
  • Anything else about the Lore Master's Deck and its expansions

You can get an initial behind-the-scenes look at some of the design process in our closed beta retrospective update and our most recent update to fuel your imagination for questions!

Also, if you missed the campaign and would like to get in on the open beta, you can still make a late pledge via our preorder store and receive the open beta when it launches on Feb 8.

Leave your questions in the comments below or put them in the comments on the YouTube live link. You can also click Notify Me on the YouTube page so you don't miss when we go live.

A little teaser for what's to come!

I was pawing through my old journals looking for a specific set of a notes when I stumbled over the oldest record of my work on Lore Master's Deck.

Back then, I wasn't trying to design a lore-weaving deck. I really just wanted to design a deck for creating interesting creatures for fantasy or science fiction worldbuilding. The page on the right was actually scribbled down hastily in the middle of a game of Oceans (the board game by North Star Game Studio). The game does a great job of representing evolutionary adaptions through mechanics, and my friend Aaron and I stopped to brainstorm some more creature traits that could be mixed into a species-prompting deck.

You'll notice in the picture on the left that I wrote down some brainstorming categories to help shape the brainstorm. In particular, the categories focused on "Utility" (is the species useful in some way to humans or sentient species) and "Connection" (which explored social behaviors and bonds within the species, as well as larger connections to the ecosystem and setting). These categories made me realize how much more interesting creature creation gets when you looked at the lore links between the species and the world they live in. This eventually grew into the link cues mechanic and the broader deck concept: a set of card types that explore the interconnectedness of creatures, material resources, locations, events, factions, figures, and objects.

It was a long road connecting an impromptu mid-game brainstorm to the final format of the deck, and I'm excited to bust out my journals and prototypes on livestream and share the process.

In particular, there are three creative lessons I want to highlight:
  • Pay attention to what excites you. There's a reason certain topics, projects, and ideas get your neurons firing, your heartrate spiking, and your imagination bubbling with new ideas. If I hadn't acknowledged the excitement and asked a friend to indulge me in a brainstorm while the lightning was flashing, Lore Master's Deck wouldn't exist.
  • Write down your ideas and revisit them. You'll record 100 "bad" ideas for every "good" one, but you don't find gold without digging through some dirt first. Collect all your raw ideas and pan through them later looking for the bits that glimmer. Scrub away at those. Interesting "bad" ideas are often just first drafts of "good" ideas.
  • Talk through your ideas with different people. From the first brainstorm for this project with Aaron, to explaining the concept to our project director Miroki, to co-creating prompts with backers, to working through revisions with the sensitivity readers and our community manager Eric, the biggest breakthroughs always came from presenting my ideas and getting an outside perspective on what was wonky or working well.

We'll get into this more during the livestream! Until then, make sure to subscribe and hit "Notify Me" on YouTube and register for our BackerKit webinar!