An interview by J.D. Harlock
(This article was originally published June 2021 by Interstellar Flight Press, June 2021)
Peter Chiykowski, the creator of the award-winning webcomic Rock Paper Cynic, has recently found immense success as the designer of The Story Engine Deck of writing prompts. The Story Engine is an innovative set of 240 cards for coming up with ideas for your writing or roleplaying. The Deck of Worlds is the latest expansion in the series and allows users to develop ideas that could spice up their SFF settings. It’s currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter, where it’s made over $550,000 and counting.
We recently sat down with Peter to discuss his life before the Story Deck Engine, this latest expansion, and any other ongoing projects.
What were you up to before the Story Deck Engine came into your life? Did you have a day job? Any particular ambitions and/or expectations you had for yourself? What did you imagine life was going to be like before you came up with the idea?
I worked a lot of random jobs and wore a lot of hats before I started working on The Story Engine Deck: bookstore sales assistant, museum gift shop worker, writer at a children’s charity, freelance writer, editor, RPG writer, odd jobs illustrator, webcomic artist. Through all those jobs, I was always trying to find new ways to launch creative projects that could help me do creative work full-time. I’m obsessed with learning about what creativity is and how it works on a psychological level, an emotional level, a sociological level, an evolutionary level. It’s one of my favorite subjects to read about, so it feels natural that the project that really took off for me was one focused on tapping the creative process.
Where’d the idea for the Story Deck Engine come from?
It came from a blend of influences, but the biggest one was Tarot. Tarot means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and for hundreds of years, this simple set of cards has been used to help people see connections, patterns, and story threads that make sense of their lives. The Story Engine Deck takes a lot of lessons from Tarot: how turning a card can change its meaning entirely; how cards can take on new significance in proximity to other cards; how the way you arrange cards and perceive connections leads to countless ways to interpret them.
The other half of the influence came from my creative writing background. I’m generally dubious when writers make rules about what is or isn’t a story, but there’s a definition of a story from Canadian novelist Douglas Glover that I really like: “A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it.”
So simple, but it’s a really great recipe for a story, and I thought about that a lot when figuring out how the different card types in the deck would work together.
Were you caught off guard by the Kickstarter’s massive, earth-shattering success? How has your life changed because of it?
I was caught so off-guard! I was trying to get this base deck I had been concepting for a long time off the ground, and I had been writing out expansion ideas as I headed into the Kickstarter launch. I thought those would come 1-2 years later.
But it was clear within hours of launch that the deck was attracting a community of its own and that they wanted the expansions. We hit our funding goal so fast, and the momentum wasn’t letting up. I took a look at the overall project timeline, at the content I had ready, and what I’d need to fast-track to make expansions happen. After doing a day or two of test-writing and playtesting to make sure the expansions would come together the way I wanted them to, I decided to announce the first expansion stretch goal. People jumped on it. From there, we just steamrolled stretch goal after stretch goal until we had an expanded deck, three expansions, and six boosters.
The final days were absolutely surreal. I’ve seen Kickstarters fail by success, where the creators take on too much too quickly. It bloats the project to the point of collapse, so I was having daily talks with myself to keep my head level and try to remember that it was more important to bring this runaway train safely into the station rather than show off with fancy bells and whistle. I’m glad I cut off the content list where I did because it was the perfect size given the timelines I had.
Why are you running a second Kickstarter?
I don’t say this on the Deck of Worlds Kickstarter page, but working on all these projects has meant that I don’t really get to play games as much as I used to. I used to play and DM a LOT of D&D and do a lot of worldbuilding just for fun as a creative exercise. That feeling of playing around with the creation of a fictional world is one I badly miss. I wanted to figure out how to tap that feeling as a solo exercise and to make it something I could enjoy as an activity with a few spare minutes. Plus, being cooped up in the pandemic, dreaming of these expansive worlds to explore was good medicine for the soul.
So I started prototyping an open-ended deck for building worlds. It took a long time to hammer together a structure that could bring together the many many elements that go into worldbuilding and set them down in categories that made sense as cards. But I knew I had something special when I kept pulling the alpha off the shelf for one more prompt because I was just having so much fun with the settings I was creating.
What are your plans for the Story Deck Engine going forward?
There are a lot of avenues to explore, and I have a spreadsheet full of ideas I want to try, but I’m trying not to jump the gun on any of them. The best decisions I’ve made working on The Story Engine Deck all came from listening to backers, and I’ll be paying close attention to what they connect most with on this Kickstarter before I go back to that spreadsheet of ideas and decide which ones to pursue. Two things I’m certain I want to explore are more educational resources for teachers who want to use creative decks in their classrooms and more playable stories for using The Story Engine: Deck of Worlds with RPGs. I’m toying with a format of booster pack-sized campaigns that breaks up an epic story into 20 cards scattered around the world you create, and key elements of the campaign are dictated by your setting. I think it’s going to be ridiculously fun, but I want time to perfect it before I show people.
Are there any other interesting projects that you’re cooking up?
I’m really excited to have a book of microfiction coming out with Andrews-McMeel this year, and you’ll definitely see the fingerprints of a worldbuilding engine all over it.
It’s called The House of Untold Stories, and it brings together 50 stories set in different pocket universes. The pages you turn as you progress through the book are designed as doors, so you’re actually navigating this impossible house jumping through far-flung realities and alternate timelines. Writing it was definitely a way of escaping quarantine mentally, if not physically, for me, and I think it will give readers some freedom to roam in their minds. A lot of the stories explore the link between setting and story, the way the spaces we occupy are homes for stories that linger even after we’re gone.
It comes out on August 31, and it’s definitely the most cohesive and risk-taking collection of fiction I’ve written!
J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer/editor based in the Lebanon. He is the the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine, Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt, the Outreach Manager at Utopia SF Magazine, and the Social Media Manager at The Dread Machine. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.