This update is going up late thanks to a massive snowstorm at Mephit HQ, but I’m here today to talk about the newest Monte Cook Games game system, Stealing Stories for the Devil. This enigmatic heist game has mind-bending qualities and mechanics the are fun and flexible. Just what you’d expect from MCG.
Following in the surrealist tone of Invisible Sun, Stealing Stories is a strange mixture of magic and immersive storytelling (which reinforces said magic). While the concept of this game is as strange as the elevator pitch for Invisible Sun, it’s also more accessible in that the setting is our modern world and the object is fairly clear and measurable. Stealing Stories bills itself as “a zero-prep RPG of reality-bending characters in exciting high-tech heists,” which is a bold identity. We’ll see at the end how that pans out in practice.
The game comes in a package of three core books so let’s take them one at a time.
Book One of the game, Liars, is the player’s guide. As the players’ avatars in this game, usually starting with the characters themselves can help establish the tone and design of the game. In Stealing Stories, your character is a traveler from the distant future, here in the twenty-first century and trying to fix time. You were supposed to be the crew-in-stasis of the multiverse-traveling ship the Celeste but something went wrong and your journey to see other realities was cut short. When the ship’s AI succeeded in returning the Celeste to Earth, the crew discovered that they’d somehow traveled back to the twenty-first century.
They also discovered that something is messing up reality here in the twenty-first, creating Zones of Improbability where physics and causality are being warped. The “heist” aspect of the game involves finding and procuring the key at the center of this Zone to undo its effects. To go about their mission, Liars have reality-bending powers of their own, the ability to “lie” to the universe and have it believe them, which means they can make fairly improbable situations happen themselves. It’s a high-risk endeavor: if they can collapse the Zone of Improbability then the timeline rights itself and any disruptions by the Zone or the Liars are reset like they never happened. If they don’t fix the problem or push things too far, though… things get messy.
Some of the characters will be Sleepers, just awoken from stasis and told they are in the twenty-first century (surprise!). Others are Scions, the descendants the half of the crew whose stasis pods malfunctioned and opened up en route. Scions have spent their whole lives aboard the Celeste so being on Earth is a trip but at least they have had a longer time to get used to the time-traveling aspect. Both of these character backgrounds start with two Traits which can be chosen from a list of 16 provided Traits, or you can make up your own (with guidelines). You also pick three Skills that your character is Good at, or pick a Skill twice to become Very Good at them. Sleepers tend to be focused on science-y Skills while Scions tend to be good at social-y skills (but there are no strict rules) and every character gets either Stealth or Deception for free to help with the heist. You also get a Detriment which is something your character is bad at.
There are three different kinds of Liars that you can play: Planners are whose who use their senses to affect objects and places, Plotters use their knowledge to change things in the past, and Schemers use their words to lie to people. Each of these types of Liar have examples of the kids of lies they tell and limitations of what they can’t do. This means that any of these three types can find a way through any general situation, they just have to decide how in a way that fits their talents. For instance, getting into the staff entrance at a museum could involve a lie that the lock is broken (Planner), a lie that someone was just on their way out and you slip in (Plotter), or a lie that an employee helpfully holds the door open for you (Schemer). There are also two different inherent abilities for each kind depending on whether you’re a Sleeper or a Scion.
At the start of a session, players are each dealt three (or more, depending on abilities) Mission Cards that can be played as one-time benefits (removing an injury or boosting a roll result). There are fourteen different Mission Cards which are broadly beneficial for any kind of scene. The structure of the game is shared between players and GM and they run through three acts from an Act One setup to Act Two action and planning scenes, moving through a Turn where things go in an unexpected direction and finally to Act Three where the climax brings it all together.
After a mission you count up all the Mission Cards played by the players (and other cards played by the GM, see below) and that’s the number of Story Points that PCs get for Advancement. You spend these to get a General Advancement, an implanted Technology Advancement, a Psionic Advancement for truly weird stuff, or an Advancement depending on the kind of Liar you are (Planner, Plotter, or Schemer).
So how does gameplay actually go? Tasks are assigned a number called the Hurdle which determines the number to beat, ranging from Easy (1-2) to Diabolical (11+). Normally you roll a d6 to beat the Hurdle but if you are Good at the Skill or have a relevant Trait then it’s a d8, while being Very Good gives you a d10. If you’re Bad at something (because of your Detriment) then you roll a d4. Getting twice the Hurdle gets you an enhanced success with an extra good thing, while failing with a 1 gets you an extra bad failure. Getting exactly the Hurdle is a mixed result, a success with a complication.
Working together creates Harmony, providing multiple dice and taking the best roll. If you’re Good (d8) at something but your friend is Average (d6) then you roll both dice for a better chance at a good result. Tools or handy circumstances can also add dice, and more rarely you’ll get a Boost which steps up your die (making it the next size bigger) usually as a result of Mission Cards.
On a failure, or a mixed result, you might get an Injury. You can resist getting this with a roll using the normal Hurdle ratings and narrative reasoning: for instance if you are balancing on a ledge and fall, it might be Easy if the drop isn’t that far or Diabolical if you’re over a pit of spikes. Taking an Injury adds a special d10 to your roll; the physical game has specialized Injury dice with nine blank faces and an icon on the tenth face, but you can just use a regular d10 and watch for 10s. You roll any Injury dice you have with every task roll and if the Injury icon (or a 10) comes up it’s a failure no matter what the other dice say. So if you have an Injury die then you have a minimum of 10% chance of failure and multiple Injury dice are even greater (thankfully, the Liars have advanced tech that lets them heal rapidly).
Rolling is for doing mundane things like picking someone’s pocket, trailing a target, or climbing the side of a building. If you are Lying to Reality you don’t actually roll… you just do it. The mantra that appears over and over in the book is that “Lies Always Work,” whether they’re big or small, but the bigger lies have bigger risks. Each lie gets a Hurdle but this isn’t for whether or not the lie works (it always does) it’s how hard it is to resist getting hurt by the lie (the resistance roll described above). A big lie could seriously hurt you and might even kill you… but it’s all for the cause, right?
When considering the size of the lie you think of the Versimilitude (believability) and Scope (complexity) of the lie. Getting your name added to a night club bouncer’s clipboard (believable and not complicated) is much easier than getting your name added to an employee database for a company (hard to believe and complex to access). You can imagine intermediate lies as well such as adding your name to a night club’s computer system (believable but complicated) or adding your name to a sign-in sheet for an employee retreat (hard to believe but not complicated).
Book Two, The Devil,is written to give direction to the GM. I kind of wish they actually called this person the Devil but it’s just plain old GM. Oh well.
The GM’s book for this game is shorter, about half the size of Book One, and starts off with a lot of solid advice on crafting and leading stories in this game. Of course, the game is supposed to be zero-prep once you have the rules so there is a decent amount of improv advice too. To this end you have two different cards that you can play like the players’ Mission Cards: Twists are immediate complications that affect the story for a whole scene while Turns are major plot points that change the trajectory of the story in a big way. Unlike Mission Cards, each of the six Twist cards just says “The GM decides to add a little surprising twist” and the details are left up to the situation. Likewise, the single Turn card just says there’s a major, unexpected event and “Act Two becomes Act Three.”
It’s good to leave these details up to the situation and there are lots of examples of Twists in both books and three prompts for Turns (a key player showing up, an event that no one could have seen coming, or a revelation of information) but the wording on the card is purposefully vague and non-committal. It might be more helpful to have actual prompts on the card (“Someone bursts onto the scene looking angry. Who is it?”) but I guess that makes people feel more hemmed in. You might be asking yourself, though, why do I even need these prop cards? I questioned too but realized it’s for the Advancements mentioned above. You can just make a Twist in the story but physically tossing out a card makes it easy to count up at the end and see what Story Points the players get.
So what else is there to help with improving a game like Stealing Stories? Well, the Act system creates natural break points where you can take ten minutes to grab snacks and stuff… and to think about the plot and plan a little ahead. Step-by-step instructions tell you how to use each of these breaks to set up the story. Because each mission involves a key object at the center of a Zone of Improbability, there are examples of objects and Improbabilities that you can just close your eyes and point to. You’ll have to pick a location and I wish there were some random choices here too, but if you really want guidance there’s a twelve-part campaign that you can run right out of the gate with some pretty crazy stuff going on.
The Stories They Steal
The three varieties of game that the authors of Stealing Stories for the Devil envisioned were one-shot heists, short “seasons” of twelve sessions, and open-ended campaigns. Twelve is an arbitrary number of missions for a season but it follows a trajectory that’s outlined by the sample season in The Devil book above. You can adjust that storyline or make up your own but the outline of events is pretty helpful. First you have an introductory adventure to learn the ropes, then pulling on a string, then finding the end of that string with mor strings attached on the other side. Repeat the string-to-string approach several times with increasing stakes until the final showdown with the antagonist behind the whole thing. There’s a cosmos and a game background written for Stealing Stories but none of it is essential to the player side of things (or most of the GM’s side) so it can be whatever you like.
I mentioned in the last section that I wanted to see location prompts for the improving GM but you’re not entirely on your own. This Book Three is a collection of different design elements for a location to throw at players. Different kinds of access control elements, locks, general security measures, people and creatures, fire/rescue and police procedures, and infrastructure of buildings is provided. So once you have an idea you can pull from this book to add, say, a card access system to the office building the Liars are trying to enter, some security guards with standard responses, and reactions for how people treat caterers like the PCs are trying to pose as. There are lists of NPC names and traits and lots of plot hooks.
I think you could use this for a zero-prep game experience but it’s not necessarily something to read in the moment. However, there are forty-eight (!) different maps to pull out and use as-is for different locations. There’s an office building, apartment, bank, airplane, cruise ship, casino, laboratory, bowling alley, FBI office, basketball arena, tech campus, convention center, hotel, and many more options. Each of these is detailed enough to be immediately useful and vague enough to fit anywhere and I love them.
The big question here is whether Stealing Stories for the Devil is zero-prep and my answer after trying it out is: mostly. It’s not something you could pull out of the box and run in ten minutes but, like Monte Cook Game’s Cypher Shorts, it’s something that you could take your time to learn and then pull together a game in ten minutes. Unlike the Cypher System Instant Adventures, Stealing Stories missions are truly ready to go without needing to read anything. You can make it all up on the spot and with very few character creation decisions and no numbers to fuss around with, the ten minutes you take to pick out a key object and think up a location to start in are ten minutes when players can easily make their characters from start to finish.
I’d say that what’s required of the GM is a little more intensive if your improvising everything, but it’s much less intense than that approach would normally be. The guides and helpful tools here are all very helpful and once you read through them you’ll be able to flip to a page and use that portion to help you out. I think there’s room for improvement in inspirational prompts and might be creating some of my own in the future but there’s certainly lots of resources to mix-and-match everything.
While Stealing Stories for the Devil bears some resemblance to Invisible Sun (box with props and a surreal story), the experience is a lot punchier and streamlined. I always feel like I could sink into Invisible Sun and live there while playing Stealing Stories is like being on a wild ride that you’re seeing unfold along with the players. I love improving so this was a natural fit for me, but if you’re new to that approach and want a supportive first experience then this could definitely be your game. If you’re not interested in flying by the seat of your pants and you want to plan out everything intricately and completely, I suggest Night’s Black Agents or City of Mist for your heist experience. Keep this one in mind, though, because sometimes you just want to grab a game and peal out at high speed!