Narrativism: Story Now
Copyright 2003 Adept Press
Acknowledgments are due to Mike Holmes, Ralph Mazza, Christopher Kubasik, Jesse Burneko, Paul Czege, Clinton R. Nixon, Vincent Baker, Seth Ben-Ezra, M. J. Young, Chris Chinn, Pete Darby, Gordon C. Landis, Walt Freitag, and Matt Snyder for comments on the first draft of this essay. All mistakes or misattributions should be considered my responsibility.
This is the third of three essays building upon the topics addressed in "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/). The previous two essays were "Simulationism: The Right to Dream" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/15/), and "Gamism: Step On Up" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/21/). This series' purposes are to clarify the original essay and to develop and incorporate insights from discussions at the Forge.
This one is about Narrativist play, which is simultaneously the least and most problematic of the Creative Agendas I've described. It's incredibly easy in application, and the most difficult for discussion. I think that this difficulty lies mainly in some of the peculiarities of role-player/gamer culture, entrenched in the history of the hobby, rather than any particular logical or cognitive hitches in the mode of play itself.
In the first two essays, I began presenting an overall model of role-playing, but piecemeal and in stumbling verbal form. As of this writing, I've finished that model, and it is included here as well. It's a bit out of place, being more of a capstone or umbrella to the three essays rather than an intrinsic piece of the Narrativist one. More complete discussions about it may also be found in "The whole model - this is it" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=8655).
History of the term
The Threefold Model for role-playing included the term Dramatism, as presented by John Kim at his Threefold Model (http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/theory/) webpage. When I learned about the Threefold, I'd already been thinking about stuff I'd later call Currency and also about Jonathan Tweet's discussion of resolution presented in Everway. The basic notion of the Threefold impressed me: it was time to talk about goals and priorities independently of everything else, then to see whether everything else flowed to and from them. This was at the time that Sorcerer was making its small way into commerce, so the mailing list was the place for our first discussions; most of them are archived at the Sorcerer website (http://www.sorcerer-rpg.com).
At this point, since "Drama" as a resolution category in Tweet's schema and "Dramatism" as a goals-category in the Threefold referred to two different things, I decided that the names were confusing. Going by which set of ideas was first presented (Tweet's), I changed Dramatism to Narrativism. This terminological change was limited to discussions on the Sorcerer mailing list and later at the Gaming Outpost.
However, our use of the terms and ideas on the Sorcerer mailing list took on its own character almost immediately, such that in my first essay "System Does Matter" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/11/), "story" was already its own distinct, process-oriented term.
The biggest change in my thinking about role-playing is represented in the essay "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/), in which the concept of Exploration becomes the underlying foundation for the three modes or goals of play. This new picture was startling: (1) potential story elements were now considered present for all three modes play, and (2)Narrativism now appeared to be a mirror image or twin sibling of Gamism, counter to older impressions shared by me and anyone else who ever wrote about role-playing that Gamism was the odd man out.
I've tried to emphasize this new outlook throughout these three supportive essays. Whereas I think most people think of Gamism with (or synonymous with) its Hard Core variant over in one ballpark, with Simulationism containing an internal "story" variant in another ballpark, my concepts are radically different. I hope to make this picture, and its implications, entirely clear in this essay.
The foundation: Exploration and more
Here's the big ol' model for role-playing that the previous two essays sort of fumbled at. Notice that "rules" are absent; I now consider "rules" simply to mean text, which may be about anything you find in the model. The brackets are very important: if B relates to A as [A[B]], then B is considered a part, application, version, or expression of A.
[Social Contract]. Social Contract encompasses everything else about role-playing. If these people happen to be role-playing together, then Social Contract crucially includes "Let's play this game." This crucial element is what's further subdivided throughout the rest of this model.
[Social Contract [Exploration]]. Exploration means "shared imaginings." The sharing has to be explicit and agreed upon, usually through the spoken word although any form of communication counts. The imaginings have to be the subject that is shared, which is why me reading aloud to my wife does not constitute Exploration. We are independently imagining based on the spoken word, but neither she nor I is telling the other what we imagine from that point. Exploration means that such communication is occurring.
The five elements of Exploration are interdependent: Character + Setting make Situation, System permits Situation to "move," and Color affects all the others. This concept applies only to the imaginary causes among the elements; the real people's actual priority or cause among these things, in social and creative terms, varies widely. See my essay "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/) for more about these elements.
[Social Contract [Exploration [Creative Agenda]]]. Creative Agenda is the blanket term for people's demonstrated goals and desired feedback during play. In the past, I called it "GNS." Since all of this is enclosed in Social Contract, GNS-stuff is not only "what I want" but also "what I want from role-playing with this group of people." Since Exploration necessarily includes System, that means, as soon as we start talking about Creative Agenda, real play has begun.
On paper, I draw this term as an arrow, because this "step" or "level" in my model shifts out of the abstract and solidly into this group, playing this game, this way, at this time. The model instantly ceases to be a broad overview and becomes a diagnostic or description of a real play-experience among real people. Unless you are thinking of such a case, you will be left flailing at this point in the discussion.
[Social Contract [Exploration [Creative Agenda --> [Techniques]]]]. The panoply of Techniques being employed over time either satisfy or fail to satisfy one or more Creative Agendas. Techniques include IIEE, Drama/Karma/Fortune, search time & handling time, narration apportioning, reward system, points of contact, character components, scene framing, currency among the character components, and much more. Each of these terms represents a range of potential play-methods. I consider the two most important Techniques to be reward system and IIEE (see glossary).
Techniques may be thought of as directly expressing the more abstract concept of System (way up in Exploration), except that System doesn't exist all by itself - it's fully integrated with the other components of Exploration. But if you keep that in mind, then yes, the arrow represented by Creative Agenda can indeed be "shot" from the bow of System.
Techniques do not map 1:1 to Creative Agenda, but combinations of Techniques do support or obstruct Creative Agendas.
[Social Contract [Exploration [Creative Agenda --> [Techniques [Ephemera]]]]]. Ephemera refers to the smallest-scale interactions and activities of role-playing: anything that gets factored into or is expressed by play in the space of a few seconds. As with every level/box so far, fairly extensive combinations of Ephemera express or apply to one or more Techniques. They are the internal anatomy, if you will, of Techniques and hence (conceptualizing upward) of System.
Ephemera include individual Stances, in-character vs. out-of-character diction and dialogue, referring to texts, sound effects, taking or referring to notes, kibitzing, laughing, praise or disapproval, showing pictures, and anything similar.
Understanding any Creative Agenda, in this case Narrativism, means examining its potential roles and expressions in the whole model. Narrativism's little code phrase for that purpose is "Story Now."
Long ago, I concluded that "story" as a role-playing term was standing in for several different processes and goals, some of which were incompatible. Here's the terms-breakdown I'll be using from now on.
All role-playing necessarily produces a sequence of imaginary events. Go ahead and role-play, and write down what happened to the characters, where they went, and what they did. I'll call that event-summary the "transcript." But some transcripts have, as Pooh might put it, a "little something," specifically a theme: a judgmental point, perceivable as a certain charge they generate for the listener or reader. If a transcript has one (or rather, if it does that), I'll call it a story.
Let's say that the following transcript, which also happens to be a story, arose from one or more sessions of role-playing.
The real question: after reading the transcript and recognizing it as a story, what can be said about the Creative Agenda that was involved during the role-playing? The answer is, absolutely nothing. We don't know whether people played it Gamist, Simulationist, or Narrativist, or any combination of the three. A story can be produced through any Creative Agenda. The mere presence of story as the product of role-playing is not a GNS-based issue.
Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing. "Address" means:
Establishing the issue's Explorative expressions in the game-world, "fixing" them into imaginary place.
Developing the issue as a source of continued conflict, perhaps changing any number of things about it, such as which side is being taken by a given character, or providing more depth to why the antagonistic side of the issue exists at all.
Resolving the issue through the decisions of the players of the protagonists, as well as various features and constraints of the circumstances.
Can it really be that easy? Yes, Narrativism is that easy. The Now refers to the people, during actual play, focusing their imagination to create those emotional moments of decision-making and action, and paying attention to one another as they do it. To do that, they relate to "the story" very much as authors do for novels, as playwrights do for plays, and screenwriters do for film at the creative moment or moments. Think of the Now as meaning, "in the moment," or "engaged in doing it," in terms of input and emotional feedback among one another. The Now also means "get to it," in which "it" refers to any Explorative element or combination of elements that increases the enjoyment of that issue I'm talking about.
There cannot be any "the story" during Narrativist play, because to have such a thing (fixed plot or pre-agreed theme) is to remove the whole point: the creative moments of addressing the issue(s). Story Now has a great deal in common with Step On Up, particularly in the social expectation to contribute, but in this case the real people's attention is directed toward one another's insights toward the issue, rather than toward strategy and guts.
Say it yourself
I receive a lot of emails like this one from Landon Darkwood:
"In a word," I replied, "Yes."
Narrativism has a single definition, but it's difficult to articulate for people grappling with muddled RPG terminology. As far as I was concerned, not only had I presented what Landon said in "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/), I'd repeated it dozens of times in forum discussions. In fact, I'd said it in the message to Landon that immediately preceded this reply. But he had to say it himself, with his own use of words like "just" and "genre." I am now convinced, after many such exchanges, that an "experienced" role-player comes to this conclusion only by working it out in his or her own terms and examples.
How is this done, actually, in play? It relies on the concept of something called Premise and its relationship to an emergent theme.
I already snuck Premise past you: it's that "problematic issue" I mentioned. I've taken the term from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. In reading what follows, bear in mind that he is discussing the process of writing, not an existing playscript or a performance:
A protagonist is not "some guy," but rather "the guy who thinks THIS, and does something accordingly when he encounters adversity." Stories are not created by running some kind of linear-cause program, but rather are brutally judgmental statements upon the THIS, as an idea or a way of being. That judgment is enacted or exemplified in the resolution of the conflict, and a conviction that is proved to us (as Egri says),constitutes theme. Even if we (the audience) disagree with it, we at least must have been moved to do so at an emotional level.
I think that any reliable means of story-writing, in any medium, conforms to Egri's principles. They may seem simplistic: the burning passion of the protagonist directly expresses a burning passion of the author's, who uses the plot as a polemic to demonstrate it. However, "Why Johnny shouldn't smoke dope" is only the starting point. More nuanced, ambiguous, and insightful applications arise insofar as more nuanced, ambiguous, and insightful authors and audiences are involved.
I said earlier that any role-playing can produce a story, and that's so. But Narrativist role-playing is defined by the people involved placing their direct creative attention toward Premise and toward birthing its child, theme. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is. The real variable is the emotional connection that everyone at the table makes when a player-character does something. If that emotional connection is identifiable as a Premise, and if that connection is nurtured and developed through the real-people interactions, then Narrativist play is under way. Some nuances:
"Character does something" can mean foreshadowing, flashback, and anything in between. It can mean the character is just thinkin' about it, or it can mean the character flat-out does it. As long as the fictional character is brought into the perceptions and possible emotional responses of the other people at the table, then it counts.
It doesn't matter whether the character fictionally "meant" to do the action, premeditated it, or acted on-the-spot.
In stories (unlike real life), the character's immediate environment is kind of a weird sidekick, who sometimes acts in the character's favor and sometimes against him or her. "Character does something" often includes this sidekick's behavior.
"Identifiable" means assessing how the players treat one another during the process, socially.
From my essay "GNS and related matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/):
I'm still saying the same thing. But now, I've returned to my earlier usage; it's the only meaning for the term "Premise" in my model.
That bit about moral and ethical content is merely one of those personalized clincher-phrasings that some people find helpful. It helps to distinguish a Premise from "my guy fought a dragon, so that's a conflict, so that's a Premise" thinking. However, if these terms bug you, then say, "problematic human issue" instead.
Egri presents his Premises as flat statements, and I state them as questions. Using the question form isn't changing anything about what Egri is saying. Premise must pose a question to the real people, creator and audience alike. The fictional character's belief in something like "Freedom is worth any price" is already an implicit question: "Is it really? Even when [insert Situation]?" Otherwise it will fail to engage anyone.
Egri's statement-construction is very useful for the single author faced with a blank sheet of paper, with the goal at hand being a finished script. The audience will see the play, not the process of creation. However, in the role-playing medium, not only are there multiple authors, but the audience is also composed of these same authors, and their appreciation of the material occurs simultaneously with the significant creative decisions. Therefore, the Premise's imaginary resolution is up for grabs among the group in role-playing, just as it is up for grabs within the author's own head before the play reaches final draft. In the latter case, the jump to "the point" is swift and hopefully certain; in the former case, the new medium, it is anything but. I phrase it as a question for role-playing, to indicate that everyone involved has his or her fair crack at it as one of the authors.
From Robin Laws' essay "The Literary Edge," published in Over the Edge (Atlas Games, 1992):
Egri's Premise, meet role-playing. Oh, I can quibble ... instead of the word "conscious," I prefer "mindful," and I think that "emulate the classic tales" is a bit simplistic, but never mind. The point is, if you want a Narrativist Manifesto from one of the great minds of role-playing, then there you go.
Here's a bit more about that theme business. Think of it as the conclusive "uh!" that may accompany the climax and resolution of a story. It's uttered by the playwright as he hits a certain key or scribes a certain sentence, by the audience members at a certain point as they view the play, and by role-players in both capacities during the session, often simultaneously.
From the discussion of themes in the chapter "The Art of Storytelling" in Demon's Lair: the "God" Guide (Lasalion Games, 2002):
Substitute Premise for theme, and theme for the "something," and that's just about right. I especially like the implied causality: (1) the actions of the players (2) teach the players something, which becomes non-circular when play actually addresses Premise. Unfortunately, few other features of Demon's Lair, including the example which follows the above text, are consistent with this point, and most are wildly at odds with it.
More insights about theme are available in Chris Chinn's article "The power of myth" in Daedalus #1, in which the word "theme" may be substituted for "myth" throughout.
The other way: pastiche
What happens when you want a story but don't want to play with Story Now? Then the story becomes a feature of Exploration with the process of play being devoted to how to make it happen as expected. The participation of more than one person in the process is usually a matter of providing improvisational additions to be filtered through the primary story-person's judgment, or of providing extensive Color to the story. Under these circumstances, the typical result is pastiche: a story which recapitulates an already-existing story's theme, with many explicit references to that story.
Is pastiche necessarily bad and evil? No. Is non-pastiche necessarily incredibly good? No.
Here's a little dialogue between me and one of the first-draft readers of this essay:
My final point for this issue is that creating pastiche is primarily a form of fandom, pure homage to an existing body of work. Most High Concept Simulationist play gravitates toward it, and some game texts are explicitly about nothing else.
Issues on the table
I submit that playing in the Narrativist mode is just as intuitive and instantly understood by most people as Gamist play. Not everyone agrees.
Two sources of resistance and confusion
The most difficult aspect of writing this essay is the presence of two distinct problematic audiences, neither of which I realized existed when I first wrote System Does Matter (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1). - Role-players who greatly value the story quality of their transcripts, but don't play Narrativist to make them. It's often painful for them to be, as they see it, relegated to Simulationist play (usually Exploration of Situation). "We create stories too, dammit!" - Role-players who play Narrativist already, but who think what I'm describing must be harder or more abstract than it is. Since they can identify Exploration of Character and Situation in their play preferences, they think they must be playing Simulationist. "That's Narrativist? But we do that, using a plain old well-known role-playing game - it can't be Narrativist!"
The first problem these audiences pose for me is that any point, example, or clarification I make that's specific to one of them is automatically misleading for the other.
The second problem is that, when I say Not Narrativist to the first, and when the second mistakenly says Not Narrativist to me, then Narrativism as a label gets misconstrued as "how Ron himself plays."
I can't afford giving special consideration to these outlooks in this essay. Otherwise I'd have to write three separate essays, two of them piece-by-piece dismantling the respective bugaboos, and one "everyone else essay." I've decided to reserve the customized discussions for the on-line forums.
What it ain't
The following misunderstandings only arise from exposure to the role-playing subculture, as distinct from the activity. I'll have more to say about that later in the essay.
The so-called Storyteller rules-set is not especially, nor even partly, facilitative toward Narrativist play. Furthermore, I have observed only a decided minority of White Wolf play that can be called Narrativist, usually involving considerable rules-Drift.
2 (related). Adhering to published metaplot which is intended to surprise and involve players in tandem with their characters, or any similar one-hand-on-rudder for the crucial story decisions, will not facilitate Narrativist play.
The number of textual rules involved, as well as how much the rules must be consulted during play, are irrelevant. "Narrativist? Must be rules-light!" is just one of those little humps to get over.
Focusing on single Techniques to define Narrativism will not yield understanding. For instance, Drama resolution is not in and of itself Narrativist. Nor are the common use of improvisation, trading of narration, and overt Director stance, in and of themselves, Narrativist play.
Issues of "consciousness" in terms of Premise are collectively a complete red herring. People daily address Premise without self-reflecting, both as audience and authors. There's no special need to say to one another, "This is the Premise" in order to be playing Narrativist. Laws' term "conscious" and my "mindful" only refer to the attention to and social reinforcement of the process - not to self-analytical or abstract discussion about the content.
Narrativist play doesn't force a "separation" from the imaginative commitment to the role-playing. As the whole medium of Creative Agenda is Exploration, you don't have to diminish Exploration at all during Narrativist play. It is instead focused and heightened as the mechanism for addressing Premise.
Depth and profundity of the Premise and/or theme are false variables. The key issue is whether participants care enough to produce a point, not whether the point is deep.
People's creative roles: what you do
Narrativist play makes special use of the general role-playing principle that the participants are simultaneously authors and audience. The common metaphor of improvisational jazz applies quite well, better than any other medium-comparison. "Entertainment," in role-playing in general and in Narrativist play especially, does not flow from playwright to script to production team to audience. Instead, the shared-imagining act = the shared-performance act = the entertainment = the audience feedback.
Role-playing texts are consistently very confusing about how conflicts and resolutions are established in play, especially in games whose mechanics and some features of their instructions suggest Narrativist play. "Prep and plan carefully! But story never goes as planned, so be ready to change and improvise!" What's that supposed to mean, from a Narrativist perspective?
I grappled with this in my own work - from the chapter "Fantastic Adventure" in Sorcerer & Sword (Adept Press, 2001, author is Ron Edwards):
That text is specific to Sorcerer, so it needs expanding into what the term "GM" means in the first place, and how the answer is subordinate to Creative Agenda - and in fact, is nothing more nor less than a Techniques question for role-playing in general.
I suggest that considering "the GM" to be either (a) necessarily one person or (b) a specific and universally-consistent role is badly mistaken - we are really talking about a set of potential behaviors (roles, tasks, whatever) which may be independently centralized within or distributed across a group of people. Here are some of those GM behaviors, roles, and tasks: - rules-applier and interpreter, as in "referee" - in-game-world time manager - changer of scenes - color provider - ensurer of protagonist screen time - regulator of pacing (in real time) - authority over what information can be acted upon by which characters - authority over internal plausibility - "where the buck stops" in terms of establishing the Explorative content - social manager of who gets to speak when
A given role-playing experience must have these things - there is no such thing as "GM-less" play. But which of these require(s) enforcing varies greatly, as does whether they are concentrated into a particular person, and as does whether that person is openly acknowledged as such. What matters for Narrativist play, however, isn't any specific point in the diversity-matrix of these variables - it's about what the person (or persons) currently in the GM-role is responsible for.
From Maelstrom (Hubris Games, 1997, author is Christian Aldridge):
Putting aside the synecdoche ("the whole premise," etc), two key features show up in this passage as well as in the whole of the Maelstrom game text. (1) No mention is made whatever of seeming to grant player control - it's real freedom he's talking about. (2) The freedom is specifically over what the character thinks is right and decides to do: the goal he or she brings into the current imaginary situation. The GM ("narrator" in this case) cannot wield any authority over what the characters are supposed to want, which therefore extends to a similar lack of authority over how any conflict during play is supposed to turn out.
From Christopher Kubasik's Interactive Toolkit series of essays (1995, originally published in White Wolf Inphobia #50-53):
It all comes down to this: a "player" in a Narrativist role-playing context necessarily makes the thematic choices for a given player-character. Even if this role switches around from person to person (as in Universalis), it's always sacrosanct in the moment of decision. "GMing," then, for this sort of play, is all about facilitating another person's ability to do this.
In all role-playing, the player-character is the lens of the Creative Agenda at work. That's right, I said all role-playing.
Simulationist = the character "fits" - its setting, capabilities, outcomes, behavior patterns, and so on, all reinforce the Dream for everyone.
Gamist = the character is a direct opportunity for player-strategy. Its construction doesn't hamstring the player (except with agreed-upon handicaps) and permits him or her to Step On Up.
Narrativist = the character's predicament is how Premise is seen/felt in full, and what he does, and what happens is how a theme is realized.
By definition, a character faces "relevant stress" for the Creative Agenda. The term used most often for that is "adversity," and it is required in all three modes of play. Without it, there is no Situation. Without Situation, there's no role-playing, just sitting around and diddling. You can tell when this happens: everyone stops paying attention to one another, and quite likely the one person talking is only paying attention to himself or herself. Adversity, which may come from any participant during play, is the key.
Now we run into a conceptual tangle. In literary terms, if there's a story, there's one or more protagonists. Since story can arise from any sort of role-playing, then protagonism of the relevant character comes with that, part and parcel. However, "protagonism" at the Forge as discussed most frequently by Paul Czege, tends to focus on very specific processes of play: those which prompt Premise-addressing interest in a given character among all of the real-person participants; in other words, a specifically Narrativist process.
That's a real terminological conundrum. I shudder at the thought of co-opting the term "protagonist" into anything besides the fictional context of a story, regardless of how it was produced. However, I also want to preserve Paul's point that people may establish emotional, relatively high-stakes connections to other people's player-characters. But neither are restricted to Narrativist play.
Fortunately, for discussing Narrativist play by itself, the two things are one and the same. Which means I shall happily relegate debate about the term in a larger (all of role-playing) sense to the forums and neatly dodge it for purposes of the essay.
So let's talk about Narrativist protagonism and how it's established, starting with the adversity. From Sorcerer (Adept Press, 2001, author is Ron Edwards):
But that needed clarifying, so from Sorcerer & Sword (Adept Press, 2001, author is Ron Edwards):
In Sex & Sorcery (2003), I presented some further terms to represent multiple-person input and some other nuances into the Bang concept: Bobs, Weavings, Crosses, and Openings; all are listed in the glossary following this essay.
Aside from a lack of adversity, the other issue regarding protagonism is the problem of de-protagonizing, a term coined by Paul Czege. Deprotagonizing literally means to deprive a person of the means to express one of the bulleted points above (depending on the Creative Agenda at hand; Paul is usually discussing Narrativist play). There are dozens of ways to do that, and all of them are grounds for instant breaking of the Social Contract for that play-experience. No one accepts deprotagonization willingly; those bulleted points are heartfelt priorities at the very core of Creative Agenda. As a minor but thought-provoking point, character death is not deprotagonizing if it satisfies the Creative Agenda for that person and group.
Nearly all of the dysfunctional issues described later in the essay concern deprotagonizing in the context of Narrativist play, which is best defined as Force: the final authority that any person who is not playing a particular player-character has over decisions and actions made by that player-character. This is distinct from information that the GM imparts or chooses not to impart to play; I'm talking about the protagonists' decisions and actions. In Narrativist play, using Force by definition disrupts the Creative Agenda.
Force techniques include IIEE manipulation, fudged/ignored rolls, perception management, clue moving, scene framing as a form of reducing options, directions as to character's actions using voiced and unvoiced signals, modifying features of various NPCs during play, and authority over using textual rules. The Golden Rule of White Wolf games is, in application, a mandate for Force.
Force Techniques often include permitting pseudo-decisions, which we can discuss at the Forge if necessary. Also, Force Techniques do vary in how flexible a scene's outcome is permitted to be. Some GMs (to use the classic single-GM context) might do anything up to actually picking up your dice for you in order for you to talk to "that guy," or he might let the characters miss the clue, either 'porting it to another character or letting its absence go ahead and affect the outcome.
System - "it does matter" all over again
Remember the System "bow" which shoots the Creative Agenda arrow? It must be an active tool. The Explorative Situation must change with verve - anything that introduces ebbs, flows, and unpredictable elements into the real-person decision-making process. That's what System does, whether it's composed entirely of dialogue or relies on pages and pages of probability charts. How does it do it? Through the combinations of Techniques being employed.
I'll focus on one bit of System: resolution. I'll break it up into Techniques regarding what exactly is being resolved. For Narrativist play, the key is to focus on conflicts rather than tasks. A conflict statement is, "I'm trying to kill him," or, "I'm trying to humiliate him," whereas a task statement is, "I swing my sword at him." (It doesn't matter, by the way, how much in-game time and space are involved; conflict resolution can be "very small" and task resolution can be "very big." We can discuss this more on-line.) I submit that trying to resolve conflicts by hoping that the accumulated successful tasks will turn out to be about what you want, is an unreliable and unsatisfying way to role-play when developing Narrativist protagonism.
How does this relate to game mechanics? I'll take the most-common example of Fortune systems. The big distinction I want to make is between Fortune-in-the-Middle and the more commonly-understood Fortune-at-the-End. For the record, I think both go back to the very beginning of role-playing; I didn't invent anything by naming them.
Fortune-at-the-End: all variables, descriptions, and in-game actions are known, accounted for, and fixed before the Fortune system is brought into action. It acts as a "closer" of whatever deal was struck that called for resolution. A "miss" in such a system indicates, literally, a miss. The announced blow was attempted, which is to say, it was also perceived to have had a chance to hit by the character, was aimed, and was put into motion. It just didn't connect at the last micro-second.
Fortune-in-the-Middle: the Fortune system is brought in partway through figuring out "what happens," to the extent that specific actions may be left completely unknown until after we see how they worked out. Let's say a character with a sword attacks some guy with a spear. The point is to announce the character's basic approach and intent, and then to roll. A missed roll in this situation tells us the goal failed. Now the group is open to discussing just how it happened from the beginning of the action being initiated. Usually, instead of the typical description that you "swing and miss," because the "swing" was assumed to be in action before the dice could be rolled at all, the narration now can be anything from "the guy holds you off from striking range with the spearpoint" to "your swing is dead-on but you slip a bit." Or it could be a plain vanilla miss because the guy's better than you. The point is that the narration of what happens "reaches back" to the initation of the action, not just the action's final micro-second.
There's a whole spectrum of extreme connect/disconnect between conflict and task. At one end, the task does fail, but the goal fails too, perhaps with a nuance or two. The other end is much wider in interpretative scope: we know the character's goal (killing some guy) doesn't happen, but with those in place, narration takes over to provide all the events involved. Applying different judgments along this spectrum, for different parts of play, is a big deal in games like Dust Devils, Trollbabe, Sorcerer, and HeroQuest. In Sorcerer, failing a dice roll means failing the goal, almost always due to failing at the task; in Dust Devils, certain card outcomes dictate that you fail at the goal, but whether the task failed or succeeded within that context is entirely up for grabs and determined by that scene's designated narrator. HeroQuest and Trollbabe permit the group to customize between these extremes as they see fit for that scene.
Fortune-in-the-Middle as the basis for resolving conflict facilitates Narrativist play in a number of ways.
It preserves the desired image of player-characters specific to the moment. Given a failed roll, they don't have to look like incompetent goofs; conversely, if you want your guy to suffer the effects of cruel fate, or just not be good enough, you can do that too.
It permits tension to be managed from conflict to conflict and from scene to scene. So a "roll to hit" in Scene A is the same as in Scene B in terms of whether the target takes damage, but it's not the same in terms of the acting character's motions, intentions, and experience of the action.
It retains the key role of constraint on in-game events. The dice (or whatever) are collaborators, acting as a springboard for what happens in tandem with the real-people statements.
Not all versions of this principle are alike. Some of them involve scene-scale resolution (Story Engine), some involve narration-trading (Dust Devils), some are heavily integrated with tactics (The Riddle of Steel), and some of them require role-playing "bits" to justify incorporating system features (The Dying Earth).
Some Fortune-in-the-Middle applications give opportunities for tweaking after the roll: usually, spending points of some kind after the dice have hit the table to alter the effects. Some games have this feature and some don't; Forge jargon calls such things "FitM with teeth" because such a system forces the group to acknowledge that the dice do not "finish" the job of resolution.
Does Fortune-in-the-Middle define Narrativism? No, nor does it even facilitate it in isolation. It's merely a strong component of many Narrativist-facilitating combinations of Techniques; I've left its potential integration with reward and behavioral mechanics out of this discussion.
Is there such a thing as Fortune-at-the-beginning? Playtesting so far indicates that it's not very satisfying for Narrativist play; see discussions at the Forge of Human Wreckage and The World the Flesh and the Devil.
Is Fortune the only resolution method for conflict resolution? The answer is emphatically no. The two main alternatives are apparently Karma + Resource management, which I consider to be underdeveloped at this point, and highly-structured Drama, which may be investigated through Puppetland, Soap, and to a lesser extent Universalis.
The game world
Since Exploration is best understood as a medium and tool in Narrativist play, rather than a product itself, the role of "in game reality" needs some review - not so much about who has authority over it (the usual concern in Simulationist play), but what the heck it is. The answer is, it's a medium and tool for addressing Premise, and nothing more at all.
From Maelstrom (Hubris Games, 1994, author is Christian Aldridge):
The "doesn't interfere" matches to my "prioritization." The "narrative flow and enjoyment" matches to addressing Premise. The "whole point of the story" and "intent behind the scene" are Premise itself, expressed in this scene as a Bang. More topically, I can think of no better text to explain the vast difference between playing the games RuneQuest and HeroQuest.
A lot of mental sweat has been shed to try to link Stances with modes and goals of play. I think most of that discussion was misguided by an overly 1:1 approach. In my big model as currently constructed, only combinations of Ephemera comprise a Technique, so we're not talking about one Stance in a given moment, but the distribution of Stances through multiple character actions, decisions, and scenes. And that's only one Technique, which is not enough to dictate or identify Creative Agenda.
Bearing all that in mind, Author Stance may be considered the default for Narrativist play only in the sense that it needs to be in there somewhere. Narrativist play doesn't have to be exclusively in this Stance, nor does it even have to be employed more often than the others. The only requirement is that it be present in a significant way. Narrativist play is very much like Gamist play in this regard, and for the same reason: the player of a given character takes social and aesthetic responsibility for what that character does.
Narration the non-issue
Before going on, I'll take a quick break to discuss "narration," which is no more and no less than saying what happens in the imaginary events. I want to distinguish saying what happens (narrating) from establishing what happens (currently a non-named concept), because they are often confused. I'm taking the
I'll break it down.
Narration is not a Drama mechanic unless it is literally the means of resolution.
Narration is in practice shared among members of a role-playing group and far less centralized than most people think.
The only concern about narration per se is that its relationship to establishing-what-happens must be clear. That entails that how things are established is itself clear: is it ad-lib? is the GM where the buck stops? is it traded about, organized in any way? or what? Those are good questions, but once they're established, narration is a no-brainer.
Game texts are typically astonishingly bad at explaining this issue. Positive exceptions for Narrativist-leaning games include Soap, The Pool, and Universalis, and other recent games like InSpectres, Otherkind, Dust Devils, Trollbabe, and Donjon, which all distribute narration around the group as a means of distributing who establishes what.
Historical diversity of Narrativist play
Narrativist play-procedures are pretty scattered in terms of actual game books. I suggest that titles and texts are really just rustles in the bushes, such that one has to infer the actual play that either informed them or might have proceeded from them. For most of what follows, I've spoken with game designers and many, many play-groups about these issues.
I think that Narrativist play goes back to the beginning of role-playing. Yes, a "non-Narrativism" shroud descended over role-playing design and publishing, but I think that dates from the mid-late 1980s. In other words, the "Narrativist revolution" of 2000-2003 is not an innovation, but a return to a lost art.
Looking at earlier games from a Techniques perspective, a shift to Narrativist play within the larger Gamist context is apparent in some Tunnels & Trolls, as discusssed in "Gamism: Step On Up". I also recommend reading and playing Marvel Super Heroes, reviewing the entire Strike Force text in light of the 1st and 2nd editions of Champions being used by that group, reviewing the extensive documentation of Champions play presented in the APA-zine The Clobberin Times', and giving Toon, Ghostbusters, and James Bond a try. I am not saying "These are Narrativist games," but rather, evidence supports the claim that these rules-sets supported some Narrativist play back then.
I do not think that the strong minority trend beginning in the very late 1980s toward Drama-heavy role-playing represented by Amber, Theatrix, and The Window was especially Narrativist in application, although that mode of play was probably found in some groups playing these games. This trend is better understood in combination with games like Fudge and Risus, and most especially in terms of the Mind's Eye Theatre approach to LARPs.
During the early 1990s, however, a certain approach to numbers and Fortune became apparent across a number of games: Prince Valiant, Over the Edge (especially in light of Laws' essay), Castle Falkenstein, Everway, Maelstrom/Story Engine, Zero, and The Whispering Vault. Later, similar games include Sorcerer, Orkworld, and The Riddle of Steel. All of these texts demonstrate an internal struggle to articulate means of addressing Premise, littered with trip-ups based on assumptions of GM-power and the utter lack of precedent in explaining the whole idea. Some of them slammed toward Simulationist texts upon second-edition revision and via supplements, probably to make it "more like an RPG."
The internet revealed something vastly more startling: in-your-nose Narrativist designs like Ghost Light, Soap, InSpectres, and The Pool, as well as their Gamist cousin Elfs. These games' influence was vast at the Forge, including but not limited to Dust Devils, Trollbabe, Otherkind, Paladin, Violence Future, My Life with Master, and Universalis, along with further Gamist cousins like Donjon. The internet also revealed active play-communities that had previously been invisible to store-centered commerce, including Marvel Super Heroes among others.
Since the historical trends are so textually diffuse, I think that this section will do better to focus on procedural diversity, small point by small point. Each point presents a separate and independent spectrum of variation. As always, game titles are used only to refer to the actual play that they best seem to facilitate.
Basic diversity of Narrativist play
Making it up in play vs. setting it up beforehand
A lot of people have mistakenly interpreted the word "Narrativist" for "making it up as we go." Neither this nor anything like it is definitional for Narrativist play, but it is indeed an important issue for role-playing of any kind. So it's not a bad idea simply to ask, for a given group or session, when and how is the Explorative context (setting, situation, whatever) established?
High improvisation during play: e.g., Universalis, InSpectres, Extreme Vengeance
Rock steady based on preparation - Orkworld, Castle Falkenstein, HeroQuest, Sorcerer
In between - Trollbabe, The Pool, Dust Devils, My Life with Master
Many people get unnecessarily hung up on this issue ... playing Universalis is not "more Narrativist" than playing Orkworld, for instance. Also, this issue is not at all correlated with centralizing vs. distributing the various GM-tasks discussed previously.
Where little Premises come from
Given that Explorative content for Narrativist play exists to provide meat for addressing a Premise, it shouldn't be surprising that differing starting points for the process can be found depending on what kind of details and efforts are involved in preparing for play.
Just as in Gamist play, the big gorilla of the five Explorative elements is Situation. What I'm contrasting here is which elements begin detailed enough to yield Situation relatively quickly during play, as opposed to which ones can be "relaxed" in terms of detail and depth at the start, to be developed later.
Character-based Premise: Characters begin play with at least one significant Premise-based decision in their backgrounds.
Setting-based Premise: External adversity swarms upon the characters based on unavoidable, often large-scale elements of the overall setting.
Situation-based Premise: The immediate conflict at hand is already under way and rich with Premise; fill in Character goals and Setting justification as needed during play.
I suggest that it's useful to reduce the pre-play effort on the other elements involved. Loading too many of them with Premise prior to play yields a messy and unworkable play-situation in Narrativist terms, in which characters' drives and external adversity are too full to develop off of or to reinforce one another. More discussion and debate about this issue may be taken up at the Forge.
Character-based Premise is the easiest to implement, and unsurprisingly it reflects Egri's ideas in full. Games whose design relies on this approach include Zero, Sorcerer, Dust Devils, and The Riddle of Steel, among many others. I think this form of Premise-building is probably the most common form of Drifting to Narrativist play. From the "Campaigning" chapter and "The Developing Campaign" section in Strike Force (Hero Games, 1988, author is Aaron Allston):
An interesting qualifier shows up in the final paragraph of this section:
... which I think is a bizarre statement, possibly related to the idea (which I remember all too well) that Champions players should all cooperate to preserve the group regardless of their differing goals during play.
The final section in this chapter indicates, I think the key point - which is only presented parenthetically in the earlier text (above - "or his player").
I consider this important because it acknowledges that the developing Premise is best recognized by the people who play the protagonists.
Setting-based Premise is a bit more developmental, usually involving "someone else's problem" or an overriding external adversity of some kind - zombie attack being perhaps the most basic example. It might actually be a bit better for introducing Simulationist-by-habit players to Narrativist play, as they can start with sketchy characters and grow into addressing a pretty-well-defined Premise over time. From HeroQuest (Issaries Inc, 2003, primary text author is Greg Stafford):
I don't think I've ever seen a more challenging Premise in a role-playing text than "religious requirements are not human ideals." That is HeroQuest in a nutshell, and there is no avoiding it during play. A character may begin as just another goat-herder, but he isn't going to stay that way. Other games with similar origins of Premise include Castle Falkenstein and My Life with Master, in which the Master is, for all intents and purposes, the setting.
Situation-based Premise is perhaps the easiest to manage as GM, as player-characters are well-defined and shallow, and the setting is vague although potentially quite colorful. The Premise has little to do with either in the long-term; it's localized to a given moment of conflict. Play often proceeds from one small-scale conflict to another, episodically. Good examples of games based on this idea include Prince Valiant, The Dying Earth, and InSpectres. From The Dying Earth (2001, Pelgrane Press, authors are Robin Laws, John Snead, and Peter Freeman):
The point is that the Situation doesn't have any particular role or importance to the Setting, either in terms of where it comes from or what happens later. The setting can be quite vague and might even just be a gray haze that characters are presumed to have travelled through in order to have encountered this new Situation.
This type of Premise does carry some risks: (1) the possibility of a certain repetition from event to event, but probably nothing that you wouldn't find in other situation-first narrative media, which is to say serial fiction of any kind; (2) the heightened possibility of producing pastiche; and (3) the heightened possibility of shifting to Gamist play.
Who gets the GM jobs
Earlier, I listed some of the various roles and tasks usually associated with the term "GM." As I said, the question is not whether there is a GM (there is always one or more for any scene during play), but rather how the GMing tasks are distributed. The potential range of diversity is staggering. The most important variables include: - Which of these roles are most important to be formalized for this game - Whether the roles are centralized in one person - The concept of "the buck" - in the event that different people suggest different things, who says what goes
In the interest of space and keeping the complexity of these sections limited, I'll only provide examples for the centralization-issue. - Centralized: The Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer, Orkworld, Castle Falkenstein, HeroQuest, The Dying Earth - Widely distributed: Universalis, Soap - In between: Trollbabe, The Pool, InSpectres, Dust Devils, Violence Future
Classically, a story has the following structure: (a) introduce character and situation, (b) introduce conflict, (c) rising conflict, (d) climax, and (e) resolution, of which (a, b, d) are the key pieces. Most stories indeed follow this model regardless of their chronological presentation, point-of-view, or any other details. There's usually no particular worry that Narrativist play will fail to produce a story (of whatever quality), without any overt effort to force it. However, it is also at least possible for overall story structure to be part of System.
Sorcerer presented the Kicker Technique, which is to say, a player-authored Bang included in character creation, giving the GM responsibility to make it central to play. It may be considered the precise opposite of the "character hook" concept presented in many adventure scenarios and role-playing games.
Some recent games feature the Endgame concept: a status for a character (and sometimes all characters) that signals "Now is really Now," and it's time for Premise to become theme without dilly-dallying. I suppose it can first be seen in Soap and Puppetland based on these games' explicit real-time constraints, but it's also embedded in the Guts/Coincidence mechanics in Extreme Vengeance, the "Schism" version of Humanity in Sorcerer, and the Insight mechanics in The Riddle of Steel. It's most explicitly present in Violence Future and My Life with Master.
A similar structural issue is to decide how much Premise-addressing (story, if you will) has already occurred before in-play decision-making begins. At one extreme, you have "Blood Opera," which is to say, several characters already engaged in serious committed effort to do something-or-other, usually contradictory. Such play, regardless of how many sessions are involved, tends to end up with several dead protagonists and plenty of tragedy due to conflicting obligations and/or misunderstandings; it's quite cathartic. Typically it's more satisfying when all of the participants are enlisted in scenario preparation. At the other extreme, you have play in which the Premise is introduced very slowly and piecemeal, through a variety of scenes and events.
Here are some interesting trends which crop up along this spectrum:
When the character's judgmental and active presence is established and already in action as play begins, that beginning point is usually the crisis-point for the story in general. Playing Legends of Alyria, Prince Valiant, My Life with Master, and Soap tends toward this end; all of them carry a slight danger of "over before they begin," but they are also the most reliable for immediate Premise-consensus.
When the Situation is well-established prior to play and essentially independent of the player-characters, then how they encounter it and become enlisted in its hassles is up for grabs, including when they arrive. The protagonists usually play a catalytic role toward everyone and everything else. Playing Everway, The Dying Earth, InSpectres, Orkworld, The Whispering Vault, and Trollbabe is a lot like this.
When the Situation must slowly develop into Premise, play is necessarily extended into multiple sessions. Playing Sorcerer, HeroQuest, Dust Devils, Violence Future, and Over the Edge often proceeds in this fashion, to the extent that the first couple of sessions resemble the first sections of a classical novel rather than a movie or play, and they tend not to show off all of their most satisfying features during single-session demonstration play.
Not all game designs must fall onto this spectrum explicitly, although play does - I leave the different ways to place playing The Pool, Universalis, and The Riddle of Steel onto the spectrum as an exercise for the reader (hint: there are three answers, one for each game).
Finally, another subtle enforcer of story structure is the range of possible focus, or specification, for player-characters' abilities. It doesn't surprise me that many Narrativist-facilitating game designs don't distinguish very much among player-characters' abilities (Sorcerer, The Dying Earth, and My Life with Master characters are all pretty much alike within each game, mechanically); when they are so distinguished, however, the differences tend to lock down the range of the potential Premise(s) during play.
So the most constrained story-structure game design would include Endgame mechanics, an almost-over Situation, and strongly-distinguished abilties (and hence story-roles) among the protagonists; interestingly, I can think of no RPG design which features all three.
Resolution and reward mechanics
For Narrativist play, character creation may be considered the first step in or the chassis for the reward and character-change systems. It differs from the similar principle in Gamism in that personal strategy is not an issue, but rather personal emotional agenda about the Premise. What's interesting is that when play includes a focused reward system in Narrativist terms, its numbers and effects are always integrated directly into the event-resolution system.
One whole category of play, however, does not provide any special connection between the two and usually doesn't include much of a reward system at all. Earlier games of this sort include The Window (partly), Theatrix, Over the Edge, Castle Falkenstein, The World the Flesh and the Devil, and possibly Puppetland. I think Soap, InSpectres, and Universalis represent a development in this category of stronger IIEE-structure, as well as providing a very abstract resolution + reward mechanic, but retaining the Drama emphasis for resolution. These games also feature pronounced GM-sharing as distinct from the earlier ones.
The other category includes very strong reward mechanics design based on character decisions, with resolution based on Fortune in the Middle in order to preserve Author Stance during those decisions. Example games include Prince Valiant, The Whispering Vault, Zero, The Pool, Sorcerer, Dust Devils, Trollbabe, Legends of Alyria, My Life with Master, HeroQuest, and Orkworld, as well as The Riddle of Steel in a cunning fashion.
A recent development in both categories is to bring relationships into the game mechanics to a very high degree, as in HeroQuest, Trollbabe, and My Life with Master. Earlier versions of this idea may be seen in Albedo, Lace & Steel, and Pendragon, but its primarily-Narrativist application is recent and very significant.
Character behavior mechanics
This topic is potentially rather a sore point among role-players, unless they have experienced play which shows the diverse strong points along the entire spectrum. It concerns how limited characters' behavior may be.
At one end of this spectrum, there's nothing of the kind: just contextual material that prompts the issues and perhaps a character descriptor here or there. The primary engine for Narrativist play is purely personal fascination with the issues at hand and with working them out. Castle Falkenstein, The Whispering Vault, and Over the Edge are good examples.
Moving just a little over, characters' behavioral descriptors are required, but they don't have any special role in determining what the character does - except for providing secondary bonuses to some resolution events, as in The Pool and HeroQuest.
Moving well toward the other end of the spectrum, specific behaviors have generalized consequence mechanics. Sorcerer, Trollbabe, Dust Devils, The Riddle of Steel, and Orkworld are all examples - the characters have free will regarding what to do, but immediate mechanics provide significant effects.
Far at the other end of the spectrum, behavior is heavily structured, for either or both character-creation and scenario-play. This kind of game often entails playing "against yourself" for the character, and the GM is potentially semi-adversarial, even ruthless, playing both external and internal adversity. Examples include Wuthering Heights, Extreme Vengeance, Violence Future, My Life with Master, Le Mon Mouri, InSpectres, Otherkind, and The Dying Earth. "Schism", "Urge", and other sorcerer/demon combination versions of Sorcerer effectively shift the game's play into this category.
Procedural diversity: thematic content
Given that theme arises during Narrativist play, what does it look like, and how limited or well-defined is it? This breaks down into three independent issues, all of which are pretty subtle and deserve more discussion.
The potential for personal risk and disclosure among the real people involved.
High risk play is best represented by playing Sorcerer, Le Mon Mouri, InSpectres, Zero, or Violence Future. You're putting your ego on the line with this stuff, as genre conventions cannot help you; the other people in play are going to learn a lot about who you are.
Low risk play is best represented by playing Castle Falkenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Dying Earth, or Prince Valiant. These games are, for lack of a better word, "lighter" or perhaps more whimsical - they do raise issues and may include extreme content, but play-decisions tend to be less self-revealing.
The depth and profundity of the resulting themes. Counter to my lousy phrasing in GNS and related matters of role-playing theory (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/), "literary merit" of a theme is irrelevant. Themes are indeed important, and I suggest that two broad categories are available: cathartic vs. deconstructive, with the former splitting up into happy-ending, sad-ending, and ambiguous. A related point concerns the range of the possible themes for a given play-instance, from narrow to broad. I'll forego providing game examples as the depth and range of theme rely very greatly on the given play-group's use of the game.
The humorous content. This is, in many ways, a red herring. I consider "funny" always to be a secondary phenomenon, perhaps modifying theme, or modifying something else entirely. For GNS or other theory purposes, you have to look at the something else and discuss that first. Still, there are a couple of points worth mentioning for role-playing.
Is play itself funny, or is the topic of play funny? This is a very complex issue, fully analogous to the endless discussions of fear and suspense in horror role-playing.
Is the humor acting to bring participants' emotions closer to the Premise, or to distance them?
GNS crossover issues
I suggest that historically, two basic Creative Agendas have been perceived for role-playing: 1. Gamist, with the sub-set of Hard Core Gamism; 2. Simulationist, with a sub-set of Simulationist-becomes-Narrativist.
Oh, I know, people never used the GNS terms for this purpose. But this is how newcomers to the theory often read the terms, indicating their current understanding, and those readings are fully consistent with the explanations of play found in hundreds of game texts. I consider this dichotomy, sub-sets and all, to be badly mistaken, but before I get to that, let's take a look at its cultural results.
Over time, as I see it, many practitioners and designers correctly realized they were playing and promoting Simulationist-becomes-"Narrativist," in quotes. Those quotes mean, producing stories mainly through front-loading or post-editing, not through protagonist decision-making as run by the players. They mean focusing on story as product as opposed to Narrativist play. Reactions to this latter insight have varied widely, and they include:
Abandon the perceived overall mode (Simulationism) entirely for Gamist pastures;
Embrace the Simulationism and drop any pretense at story-creation through play, such that story is at most an epiphenomenon to the Exploration, usually of Setting;
Embrace the quotes in the "Narrativist" with verve, putting as much effort and sophistication toward metaplot and GM-driven-story as possible;
Give up role-playing in disgust with the inability to produce Narrativist play without the quotes;
Mute down any particular Creative Agenda, making sure to provide a little Gamist candy, in the interests of group harmony;
Drop the quotes around the "Narrativist," which means abandoning Simulationism as a starting point and turning to explicit Narrativism.
My construction of the modes of play is extremely different. As I see it, one starts with [Exploration]. Now, either prioritize the intensity of imagining some specific content as the agenda of play, which gives you [E[Simulationism]], or develop the Exploration into a further-derived agenda, which gives the choice of [E[Narrativism]] or [E[Gamism]].
Gamism and Narrativism
As I've tried to show at various points so far, Gamist and Narrativist play are near-absolute social and structural equivalents, sharing the same range for most Techniques save those involving reward systems. They differ primarily in terms of the actual aesthetic payoff - what's appreciated socially and aesthetically. That difference is extremely marked. Happily, therefore very little if any chance exists for these modes of play to come into conflict with one another - a group simply goes one way or the other.
From the Introduction section of The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (Marvel Entertainment Group, 2003, "Direct Edition," authors not credited, editor is Mark D. Beazley):
I can always quibble. I think the above text adheres a little too closely to the mistaken dichotomies presented earlier, with the concomitant red herring of combat vs. no combat. But it's flawless in terms of caring together about what's up, and about socially constructing and reinforcing what's up. And the key point for me is that the same game system is usable alternatively for Narrativist or Gamist (or Hard Core Gamist) play, rather than simultaneously. Also, the text includes very little mention of or attention to Simulationist play per se. Enjoying "being a Marvel hero" in this game is not Simulationist at all, but merely the foundational Explorative expectation for either of the two focused options.
Whether the Gamist and Narrativist modes may be played "congruently" is controversial (see Congruence in the glossary). I remain skeptical.
The grim epiphany: Narrativism and Simulationism
This section supercedes the section "El Dorado and Drift" in my essay "Simulationism: the Right to Dream" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/15/).
I'll begin by identifying a very common misconception: that if enjoyable Exploration is identifiable during play, then play must be Simulationist or at least partly so. This is profoundly mistaken: if you address Premise, it's Narrativist play. Period. If the Exploration involved, no matter how intensive, hones and focuses that addressing-Premise process, then that Exploration is still Narrativist, not Simulationist.
That's why Feng Shui and Hong Kong Action Theater are hard-core, no-ambiguity Simulationist-facilitating games including their explicit homage to specific cinematic stories, and that's why The Dying Earth facilitates Narrativist play, because its Situations are loaded with the requirement for satirical, judgmental input on the part of the players.
"El Dorado" was coined by Paul Czege to indicate the impossibility of a 1:1 Simulationist:Narrativist blend, although the term was appropriated by others for the blend itself, as a desirable goal. I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such "Vanilla Narrativism" is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as "Simulationist-by-habit," exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.
However, what about subordinate hybrids? Simulationist play works as an underpinning to Narrativist play, insofar as bits or sub-scenes of play can shift into extensive set-up or reinforcers for upcoming Bang-oriented moments. It differs from the Explorative chassis for Narrativist play, even an extensive one, in that one really has to stop addressing Premise and focus on in-game causality per se. Such scenes or details can take on an interest of their own, as with the many pages describing military hardware in a Tom Clancy novel. It's a bit risky, as one can attract (e.g.) hardware-nuts who care very little for Premise as well as Premise-nuts who get bored by one too many hardware-pages, and end up pleasing neither enough to attract them further.
Historically, this approach has been poorly implemented in role-playing texts, which swing into Simulationist phrasing extremely easily, for the reasons I describe in "Simulationism: the Right to Dream". You cannot get emergent Narrativist play specifically through putting more and more effort into perfecting the Simulationism (which requires that the Narrativism cease), no matter how "genre-faithful" or "character-faithful" it may be. I consider most efforts in this direction to become reasonably successful High-Concept Simulationism with a strong slant toward Situation, mainly useful for enjoyable pastiche but not particularly for Narrativist play at all.
The key issue is System. Narrativist play is best understood as a powerful integration and feedback between character creation and the reward system, however they may work, in that the former is merely the first step of the latter in terms of addressing Premise. Whereas the usual effect in High-Concept Simulationist play is to "fix" player-characters appropriately into the Situation for purposes of affirming the story-as-conceived, especially in terms of varying effectiveness at specific task-categories, and reward systems in these games are usually diminished and delayed to the point of absence. Games which stumbled over this issue include Fading Suns and Legend of the Five Rings, both of which require extensive Drifting to achieve even halting Narrativist play despite considerable thematic content.
The more successful primarily-Narrativist, secondarily-Simulationist hybrid designs include Obsidian, to some extent, possibly Continuum if I'm reading it right, and The Riddle of Steel as the current shining light; I also call attention to Robots & Rapiers, currently in development.
How about the reverse? Can Narrativist play underlie and reinforce a primarily Simulationist approach? I consider this to be a very interesting question, because it's not like Gamism in this regard at all. What happens when Premise is addressed sporadically, or develops so slowly that the majority of play is like those hardware-pages? Whether this is "slow Narrativism" or "S-N-S" or just plain dysfunctional play is a matter of specific instances, I think. But I do want to stress that it's not the "N/S blend" as commonly construed, which is to say, both priorities firing as equal pals.
Dysfunctional Narrativist play
It is very easy to spot players who are disinclined toward Narrativist play, but nevertheless want a story to be produced, in a group that favors Narrativist-oriented play. They write up rich and intense characters on paper, but in play, they're paralyzed. They can posture towards one another, and they can defend against attack, and they can spot clues, beat up mooks, and band together against a common threat like nobody's business, but only on the basis of GM cues. In an otherwise Narrativist group, they are black hole voids for addressing Premise, and typically they don't continue playing with that group for long.
More subtle and more likely to be sustained are Narrativist-oriented participants in largely non-Narrativist games. They practice "stealth" play to get what they want, usually through making suggestions to the authority in the group, often practicing a lot of trade-off negotiation. A skilled stealther can sometimes become a significant co-GM as long as he or she doesn't call attention to the influence. Stealthers tend to do a lot of waiting.
Less happily, such a player in a game with a strong Simulationist/Situation bent is in big trouble and vice versa, especially when the group is committed to Illusionist Techniques. Illusionism is a widespread technique of play and arguably, textually, the most supported approach to the hobby, as testified most recently by the publication Secrets of Game-mastering (2002, Atlas Games). It relies on Force, as defined earlier in the essay. GMing with lots of covert Force is called Illusionism. I call that the Black Curtain; if the Curtain is drawn, then the players aren't immediately clued in about the presence and extent of the Force itself.
Force (Illusionist or not) isn't necessarily dyfunctional: it works well when the GM's main role is to make sure that the transcript ends up being a story, with little pressure or expectation for the players to do so beyond accepting the GM's Techniques. I think that a shared "agreement to be deceived" is typically involved, i.e., the players agree not to look behind the Black Curtain. I suggest that people who like Illusionist play are very good at establishing and abiding by their tolerable degree of Force, and Secrets of Gamemastering seems to bear that out as the perceived main issue of satisfactory role-playing per se.
Producing a story via Force Techniques means that play must shift fully to Simulationist play. "Story" becomes Explored Situation, the character "works" insofar as he or she fits in, and the player's enjoyment arises from contributing to that fitting-in. However, for the Narrativist player, the issue is not the Curtain at all, but the Force. Force-based Techniques are pure poison for Narrativist play and vice versa. The GM (or a person currently in that role) can provide substantial input, notably adversity and Weaving, but not specific protagonist decisions and actions; that is the very essence of deprotagonizing Narrativist play.
Get just one Story Now player into an Illusionist group, and the game becomes a battlefield for control and story creation. I consider this to be one of the worst instances of high-level GNS incompatibility, because it typically doesn't resolve itself through a clean parting of the ways. As long as the people involved buy into the false notion that Narrativist play is a subset of the Simulationist aesthetic, then the war will not end, as they wave their "integrity of the story" flags at one another in the mistaken belief that they share aesthetic goals.
It all becomes much clearer when the Gamism-Narrativism similarity is acknowledged. No one in their right mind permits a fully-committed Gamist into a Simulationist-Situation role-playing group, and the same goes for fully-committed Narrativist participants, for the same reasons.
Here's another outcome for the faulty Simulationist-makes-Narrativism approach. Actually, it's the same phenomenon as Simulationism-makes-Gamism, which I discussed in "Gamism: Step On Up" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/21/) as "the bitterest role-player in the world." I consider the Narrativist version to be the "most deluded role-player in the world."
How do Ouija boards work? People sit around a board with letters and numbers on it, all touching a legged planchette that can slide around on the board. They pretend that spectral forces are moving the planchette around to spell messages. What's happening is that, at any given moment, someone is guiding the planchette, and the point is to make sure that the planchette always appears to everyone else to be moving under its own power.
Taking this idea to role-playing, the deluded notion is that Simulationist play will yield Story Now play without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so. The primary issue is to maintain the facade that "No one guides the planchette!" The participants must be devoted to the notion that stories don't need authors; they emerge from some ineffable confluence of Exploration per se. It's kind of a weird Illusionism perpetrated on one another, with everyone putting enormous value on maintaining the Black Curtain between them and everyone else. Typically, groups who play this way have been together for a very long time.
My call is, you get what you play for. Can you address Premise this way? Sure, on the monkeys-might-fly-out-my-butt principle. But the key to un-premeditated artistry of this sort (cutup fiction, splatter painting, cinema verite) is to know what to throw out, and role-playing does not include that option, at least not very easily. Participants in Ouija-board play do so through selective remembering. I have observed many such role-players to refer to hours of unequivocally bored and contentious play as "awesome!" given a week or two for mental editing.
What I see from such groups is the following:
They use a highly customized house-version of a given rules-set, usually AD&D, BRP, or an early edition of Champions; many of the customized details are unrecorded.
They employ a personalized set of subtle cues and expectations that arise out of their long-term friendships and habits of play.
The satisfaction-moments are rare to the extent of being perhaps a yearly event. "Nothing happened tonight" is typical, but the group believes that you don't legitimately get the cherished moments any other way. Such moments are treasured and carefully repeated among them.
Rarely, another person participates and (horrors!) actually overtly moves the planchette, or discusses how it's being moved. That person is instantly ejected, with cries of "powergamer!" and "pushy bastard!"
They're socially isolated from other role-players, as their play is so arcane and impenetrable that no one else can easily participate. If they go to cons, they go together, stay together, and leave together. One of them buys a new game that "looks good," and they rarely if ever try it, always rejecting it when they do.
They're socially isolated not only from gamers, but from everyone, insofar as their hobby is concerned. Forget social context; it's just these guys, aging, playing their tweaked versions of the game they discovered in high school, reminiscing about that one awesome time when character X did that awesome thing.
Ouija-board groups vary in terms of how much fun they have, and I'll leave further discussion of the phenomenon to the forums.
Minor issues within Narrativist play
The first minor issue is not really a big deal - simply, not everyone is necessarily a whiz at addressing Premise even when they try. If they were, we'd see a hell of a lot more great novels, comics, movies, and plays than we do. Signs of "hack Narrativism" include backing off from unexpected opportunities to address Premise or consistently swinging play into parody versions of the issues involved. I don't see any particular reason to bemoan or criticize this bit of dysfunction; all art forms have their Sunday practitioners.
The second is a recent phenomenon: the "do it right" purists, often recently made aware of GNS or other theories, who then get on their fellow participants' cases during play to accord with some theoretical ideal. It's usually accompanied by the fallacy of focusing on one or more Techniques as the "real" Narrativism.
The third was mentioned earlier, based on the tendency for pre-game preparation to develop Situation so far along the process of addressing Premise, that the participants' input during play essentially delivers only the final moments. I call such play "96%-ing," which can be functional, but it tends to play safe to a degree that undercuts the process.
The fourth is maintaining privacy among the participants about what's important to each one, whether about one's own character or the characters of others. Such play might be thought of as keeping Premise personal and close to the vest. That privacy may detract from others' enjoyment, although see Ouija-board role-playing below for some further thoughts.
The final minor problem is to resolve play-Situations rapidly and without developing them much beyond the initial preparatory circumstances: "over before it begins." This typically occurs when people are so floored by the possibility of actually addressing a Premise through play, that they hare off to do so before some RPG god notices and intervenes to stop them. Usually, this sort of play is a short-lived phase as the group builds trust with one another.
Bad apple Narrativists
All of this section concerns Narrativist play which is practically guaranteed to be dysfunctional. It's really one thing, but it comes in two versions depending on whether the person in question is acting as GM.
The non-GM version is the Prima Donna, a devoted Premise-addresser - but what he can't do is share. If a given scene is not about the issue that he cares about, he disrupts things until it is. If his character is present in a scene, then he'll demand center stage until forcibly stopped. He understands protagonism, but won't permit anyone else to have it. Essentially, he's the equivalent of the Hard Core Gamist, but with a significant difference: only one person can do it successfully; it can't even spread through the group. Prima Donnas are obnoxious, selfish, and pushy. Their typical fate is to be removed from a group or to become its GM (often to the present GM's consternation), in which latter case to become a Typhoid Mary.
What's a Typhoid Mary? Well may you ask. It's a would-be Narrativist GM who uses tons of Force upon the player-characters. He introduces the Premise and is emotionally invested in how the players are supposed to address it, to the extent that he makes their characters' significant decisions for them. Effectively, this means the other people are present only to praise and reflect the GM's ego. Play amounts to "we tell the story, but I'm writing it" - he continually demands that the players appreciate his Narrativist aesthetic, but suppresses the same aesthetic in their behavior. He prioritizes and insists upon Premise-addressing input yet makes it subject to his approval.
Such play is appallingly unrewarding and is rightly labeled railroading. To sustain it, the Typhoid Mary must exert primary dominance over all aspects of the Social Contract, which is usually not possible among adults. I can think of no more effective means of ensuring that other people never role-play again, than encountering a Typhoid Mary. Also, unsurprisingly, get one Narrativist player with a spine in that game, and it's root hog or die, the worst Force-vs.-Narrativist duel possible - such conflicts have been known to disrupt romances, friendships, and even jobs and marriages.
Narrativist game design
One reason I presented the big model of role-playing in this essay is to say, game texts are no more nor less than recommendations, manuals, and inspirational materials for play. For such texts to be effective, they need to be clear and inspiring for all the levels in the model. I think that Social Contract always comes first. Most especially for Narrativist play, which has been textually marginalized throughout the hobby's history, the game-rules' focus must expand to social and procedural behavior at the table, not merely the Techniques subsets of scene and conflict resolution.
What to do
I wrote a pretty sketchy little game in the early 1990s called "BSL," or Bullshit-Less. You know what my friends said? "You can't read this like you read a game book. To enjoy it, you'd have to play!" Much to my surprise, that was a stone-wall stopping point for them. I had a terrible time coming up with what they'd need to know in order to make that step easily and quickly. I think that whatever a role-player is best at is the last thing on earth that occurs to him or her to write about, and Narrativist-oriented authors are especially in a jam, as they lack precedents and examples.
Looking over the diversity I listed earlier, I realize that an effective manual or teaching text was Terra Incognita for Narrativist play until very recently. Sorcerer, for example, was not written as a teaching text for a general role-playing audience, although its supplements were. Now, however, we have InSpectres, Dust Devils, My Life with Master, the three Sorcerer supplements, Universalis, Trollbabe, Legends of Alyria, HeroQuest, and more, all representing individual attempts. (I will leave the very interesting question of why Everway failed in this regard to future discussions.)
So, the goal is to work through the big model, probably from the top down. For a Narrativist-oriented game, the touchpoint throughout should always be, what's the Premise? I think stating it right out in front of everybody is the best way to go, or a version which is easily customized further. An alternative might be to inspire the Premise through Exploration-discussion, but it's risky - doing that usually works only for Situation-based Premise games, like The Dying Earth.
Let's look at that diversity again. Where does Premise come from? How much do you have to work with, and how much improvisation is involved during play itself? Is the story underway yet, and how close are the decision/crisis points? Where's the spin in the System? Dice? Others' input? Any negotiation/trading? IIEE must be dead bang center with what you're driving at; does the reward system feed back into protagonism? Prompt Endgame? Shift GMing roles? Or what? What does actual play look like, in terms of Ephemera-combinations clustering to create and/or support Techniques?
|Basic Content: Improv vs. rock steady||Source of Premise||GM Jobs: Distribution among participants||Story Structure: Endings, e.g.||Resolution and Reward: See spectrum in essay||Behavior Mechanics: See spectrum in essay||Thematic Content*: Risk factor; depth; humor|
|Sorcerer||Steady||Character||Spread in prep, centralized in play||Encouraged by reward system||Connected: Short term bonuses Destiny and goals in Sorc & Sword||Middle||High risk High depth Occasional humor|
|TROS||Steady||Character||Centralized||Varies by prep||Connected: Spiritual Attributes||Middle||Potential/variable risk Mild to medium depth Low/absent humor|
|Universalis||Improv||Varies||Fully spread out||Varies by prep||Fully identical (coins)||Mild to none||Varies by group in all three|
|MLWM||In between||Setting||Mostly centralized||Fixed endgame||Connected: Net consequences = Epilogue||Extreme||High risk Fixed medium depth Humor as defense|
|HeroQuest||Steady||Setting||Centralized||None||Fully identical||Mild to middle||Medium risk Extreme depth Mild but inescapable humor|
|The Whispering Vault||Steady||Situation||Centralized||Fixed conflict||Almost no connection||Mild to none||High risk Medium-low depth Low/absent humor|
|The Pool||In between||Varies||Mostly centralized||Varies by prep||Fully identical (dice)||Mild to none||Low risk, usually Mild if any depth Humor varies by group|
|InSpectres||Improv||Situation||Partly centralized, with specific non-GM input moments||Fixed conflict||Extremely connected: Stress and resources||Middle to strong||High risk Medium/fixed depth High humor|
|Castle Falkenstein||Steady||Setting||Centralized||None||Almost no connection||Mild to none||Low risk Low/variable depth Occasional humor|
Yes, this column is highly personal. Please feel free to fill it in with your own assessments based on your play-experiences.
Some food for thought: constraints
A whole critique of the role of constraint in creativity is probably beyond my powers, but I can't over-emphasize how important it's been in my experiences of design, preparation, and satisfaction in any creative endeavor. For role-playing, I think a designer should consider constraints to be his or her most important ally: elements which, once established, remain fixed and actively inform a whole suite of possibilities for the future. Whether they concern Currency (e.g. Universalis), outcomes of resolution (e.g. Sorcerer, The Riddle of Steel), character creation options, behavioral choices, Setting, or whatever, strikes me as the primary issue for designing games of any kind, and Narrativist goals need them desperately.
I foresee a whole slew of threads discussing the difference between "restraint" and "constraint," so here I'll only bring up how effective Paul Czege's decision to constrain Setting is for My Life with Master. Once you know "about 1805, central Europe, isolated village," the doors are thrown open to bring maximum creativity to bear on the key issues of the game. For whatever reason, I think that this aspect of the game text makes the rest, especially the tricky wide-open parts like "More Than Human," much easier. By comparison, the designs of Dust Devils and Sorcerer are currently a bit hampered by their wide-open settings, which I now think require a little too much group-based customizing. Or, at the opposite extreme, Trollbabe does provide the Setting constraint, but it's so subculturally focused (you get it or you don't) as to limit access to the game. My Life with Master provides not only the focus, but also a topic which raises the same issues for practically anyone who encounters it. Furthermore, as Paul says, if someone wants to change the setting, they'll do it - but they're able to do so all the better because the textual setting made sense to them.
Pitfalls of Narrativist game design
1. The Timid Virgin. The reasonably successful Narrativist-leaning GM is writing a game, and suddenly experiences a loss of nerve - he visualizes all those other players out there who obviously don't play in this fashion. One result is a kind of "but-but" motorboat effect scattered through the generally Simulationist-reading text: admonishments to keep non-GM participants from screwing up the apparently-Narrativist goals, usually by pleading, scolding, or imposing sudden and apparently out-of-place limits on the players' authority to provide input. Good examples include Little Fears, The Burning Wheel, Fvlminata, and The Dying Earth.
Another sort of Timid Virgin effect is a full spin toward Force Techniques in isolated spots, which is less schizoid in terms of the reading experience, but perhaps more confusing in the long run. Sorcerer, Everway, Zero, Prince Valiant, and The Whispering Vault all have this bi-polar problem, which I think characterizes many early-to-mid-90s game texts.
2. Karaoke. This is a serious problem that arises from the need to sell thick books rather than to teach and develop powerful role-playing. Let's say you have a game that consists of some Premise-heavy characters and a few notes about Situation, and through play, the group generates a hellacious cool Setting as well as theme(s) regarding those characters. Then, publishing your great game, you present that very setting and theme in the text, in detail.
From Over the Edge (Atlas Games, 1994; author is Jonathan Tweet):
All I see, I'm afraid, is the curse. The isolated phrases "mixed blessing" and "(or crutch)" don't hold a lot of water compared to the preceding 152 extraordinarily detailed pages of canonical setting. I'm not saying that improvisation is better or more Narrativist than non-improvisational play. I am saying, however, that if playing this particular game worked so wonderfully to free the participants into wildly successful brainstorming during play ... and since the players were a core source during this event, as evident in the game's Dedication and in various examples of play ... then why present the results of the play-experience as the material for another person's experience?
3. Metaplot. From Sorcerer & Sword (Adept Press, 2001, author is Ron Edwards):
Metaplot is central to the design of several White Wolf games, especially Mage; all AEG games; post-first-edition Traveller; AD&D'2, beginning with the Forgotten Realms series; as well as others. Nearly all of them are perceived as setting-focused games, and to many role-players, they 'define role-playing with strong Setting.
However, neither Setting-based Premise nor a complex Setting history necessarily entails metaplot, as I'm using the term anyway. The best example is afforded by Glorantha: an extremely rich setting with history in place not only for the past, but for the future of play. The magical world of Glorantha will be destroyed and reborn into a relatively mundane new existence, because of the Hero Wars. Many key events during the process are fixed, such as the Dragonrise of 1625. Why isn't this metaplot?
Because none of the above represent decisions made by player-characters; they only provide context for them. The players know all about the upcoming events prior to play. The key issue is this: in playing in (say) a Werewolf game following the published metaplot, the players are intended to be ignorant of the changes in the setting, and to encounter them only through play. The more they participate in these changes (e.g. ferrying a crucial message from one NPC to another), the less they provide theme-based resolution to Premise, not more. Whereas in playing HeroQuest, there's no secret: the Hero Wars are here, and the more everyone enjoys and knows the canonical future events, the more they can provide theme through their characters' decisions during those events.
In designing a Setting-heavy Narrativist rules-set, I strongly suggest following the full-disclosure lead of HeroQuest and abandoning the metaplot "revelation" approach immediately.
4. Sole reliance on deepening and detailing any aspects of Exploration is misguided. The vast majority of attempted Narrativist design is a hunt for the perfect Simulationist design that will ostensibly permit the Narrativist play to emerge, leading to abashedness at best. It's often combined with mistaking an effectiveness-improvement mechanic for a reward system - at this point, the game text simply facilitates High-Concept Simulationist play, and the Narrativist goal is left to Social Contract alone. Various publishing practices, especially a long string of scenario and setting supplememnts, provide the coffin nails.
5. Going "no system," especially for IIEE aspects of play, combines the undermining aspects of both of the above two approaches, especially when the author idealizes story as a product rather than Narrativist play as a process. Don't forget, all role-playing has a system; turning it over to "oh, just decide and have fun" merely makes the system crappy and prone to bullying.
Frankly, un-structured Drama turns out to be ill-suited to Narrativist play. It's clear why people turn to it so consistently; years of suffering through task-resolution systems that fail to resolve conflict, with the attendant Simulationist creep of rules-revisions during the 1980s, is enough to put any aspirant Narrativist off of "rules" and "systems."
The Window (latest version 1997, author is Scott Lininger) makes a brave attempt at this approach to play:
There are plenty of explicit Narrativist goals stated in The Window, especially its Third Precept:
The Window includes a dice-rolling mechanic, but most of its resolution is handled through Drama, with or without the rolls. Unfortunately, the unstructured-Drama system of the game is anything but invisible - it must be redefined and "referenced" at every moment of play. Contrary to popular belief, it demonstrates the highest Points of Contact of any sort of role-playing. Furthermore, it's the one mode of attempted Narrativist play which fails to prioritize or organize protagonism. It mistakenly asssumes that narration yields Narrativism, and that constraints on narration are necessarily restraints on Narrativist play.
What's the problem with this? Why am I being so harshly critical? It all goes back to Force - if establishing the IIEE circumstances is under one person's control, without reference to any System features, then scenes' outcomes become the province of that person. Which in turn means that the decisions and actions of player-characters are now details of this one person's decisions. Narrativist de-protagonism is the near-inevitable result.
6. Fleeing to Social Contract to solve everything. Some designers, enthralled by the idea that input does not have to be restricted to or filtered through a central person, rely on the hope that everyone feels like contributing extra-protagonist content at any given moment. Unfortunately, this creates a "dead ball" effect in which one must create, on the spot, both adversity and its resolution from whole cloth. People apparently prefer a fair amount of context and constraint in order to provide input instead.
A related tendency is to rely on restraint, stating or implying that "good players wouldn't do that!" I suggest two alternative approaches: (1) that System provide "rebound" or consequences to make the variety of choices interesting, and (2) stating explict Creative Agenda expectations up front.
The biggest pitfall of all, though, needs a section of its own.
The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast
All right, here we go. This section represents a different angle of attack for me - I'm not discussing System or mechanics design at all, just the "how to role-play" texts. Some of the following games have, in my view, very focused Creative Agenda content in contrast to these sections; other games, not listed or discussed, are comparatively muddled in procedural terms but have crystal-clear "how-to" sections. So this is entirely about the "how-to" text, nothing else.
From Space: 1889 (1988, GDW Inc, author is Frank Chadwick):
From Traveller (1996, Imperium Games Inc., authors are Marc Miller, Lester Smith, Tony Lee)
From Tsyk (1996, Propaganda Publishing, author is Serge Stelmack):
From Agone (2001, Multisim Publishing, authors include Sebatian Celerin, Mathieu Gaborin, Stephane Marsan, Frederic Weil, and others):
From Undiscovered (2001, Eilfin Publishing, authors include Adam D. Theriault, Antonio da Rosa, Philip Theriault):
What could any of this be saying? How is Entity A creating the tale, guiding characters through the adventure, judging what can be accomplished in a scene, making things come out right, and "your story" to be reconciled with Entity B being "like a novel author," determining characters' actions, bringing a story to an end, and having the lead roles? As plain explanation, all such text is unmitigated nonsense. It's such nonsense, that personalized readings that themselves make sense are often projected onto it, as what the authors "must obviously" have meant. Two such projections include:
Players of the protagonists always provide those characters' decisions, especially climactic ones that drive the resolving scenes; the GM-role is there to provide relevant adversity for everyone else, e.g. managing scene framing, Bangs, and pacing.
The GM has the story decisions, i.e., wields substantial Force. "Story" isn't coming from player decisions at all and may be considered, itself, a piece of Explorative-material input from the GM. Everyone else is providing color and material through pseudo-decisions.
Both of these are perfectly reasonable approaches to play. Don't mistake your solution as justification for Impossible Thing game text. If a person is stuck in the rhetoric of The Impossible Thing, he tends to seize his personal solution and embrace it like a life-raft, rejecting any examination of the Thing itself.
No one is safe, apparently. From Maelstrom (Hubris Games, 1994, author is Christian Aldridge):
Gaaaahh! Right there in a book studded with some of the finest applied Narrativist techniques known to role-playing, there it squats, pulsing! Based on the rest of the text as well as my discussions with Aldridge, I know the first "provide the story" in this excerpt indicates adversity; the second ("author the tale") indicates Narrativist protagonism. But without that distinction in mind, reading such explanations is agonizing; one can see the author filling in phrases he is accustomed to seeing in role-playing texts, then, clearly realizing he's written something he didn't mean, correcting himself mid-paragraph, resulting in a contradictory hash.
As discussed earlier, the issue hinges on the super-big red herring called "the plot, the story." It can mean so many things: - the NPCs' plan to do something, which is irrelevant in GNS terms, as that's merely in-game adversity, a staple of any role-playing. - given the definite article and given a pre-player-decision context, it's absolutely anathema to Narrativist play. - stripped of that article and given a purely post-play context, it means nothing more than story, and is irrelevant for prep for Narrativist play.
It's also easy to get distracted by the word "GM." A person may have a mental tautology going between "GM" and "power," with a corresponding death-grip on his or her perceived responsibility to perform and entertain. Once the term is understood to be a set of independent roles which may be distributed differently across the participants, then the whole thing becomes a lot easier.
As far as game design and text is concerned, The Impossible Thing is easy to avoid. All you have to do is be up-front about where and how those GM-roles are distributed. If you're doing a solid Simulationist game with a strong story emphasis via Force, say so and don't bleat about "players control their characters' decisions" (see Call of Cthulhu and Arrowflight). If you're doing a solid Narrativist game, keep Force out of it entirely (see Dust Devils, InSpectres, and My Life with Master).
The hard question
I suggest that both Gamist and Narrativist priorities are clear and automatic, with easy-to-see parallels in other activities and apparently founded upon a lot of hardwiring in the human mind (or "psyche" or "spirit" or whatever you want to call it). Whereas I think Simulationist priorities must be trained - it is highly derived play, based mainly on canonical fandom and focus on pastiche, and requires a great deal of contextualized knowledge and stern social reinforcement. This training is characterized by teaching people not to do what they're inclined to. No one needs to learn how to role-play, but most do need to learn to play Simulationist, by stifling their Gamist and/or Narrativist proclivities. Such training is often quite harsh and may involve rewards and punishments such as whether the person is "worthy" to be friends with the group members.
If the typical role-playing preferences among humans are Gamist and Narrativist, then play based on these modes should be easy to pick up, easy to spread, and easy to sell, and I think it is all three. However, since the typical role-playing text and typical training is Simulationist, the net effect is to bump the majority of interested people away from the hobby after first contact, and to consolidate the Simulationist primacy in all evident features of the hobby, as opposed to the potential ones. This is one of several reasons why the hobby remains decidedly fringe.
So the first question is, how about you? Are you Simulationist-by-habit, which is to say, well-trained to this mode by the first group you encountered? If so, is that what you really want? If so, then excellent. But! If not, if you'd rather be addressing Premise, then you have a lot of habits to break - perhaps even those which, in your mind, originally defined the activity.
The second, larger question is much like the Gamist one: why role-play for this purpose? Why this venue, and not some more widely-recognized medium like writing comics or novels or screenplays? Addressing Premise can be done in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of artistic media. To play Narrativist, you must be seizing role-playing, seeing some essential feature in the medium itself, which demands that Premise be addressed in this way for you and not another. What is that feature? If you can't see one, then maybe, just maybe, you are slumming in this hobby because you're afraid you can't hack it in a commercial artistic environment. Maybe you even hang with a primarily-Simulationist group, with the minimal levels of satisfaction to be gained among them, because it's safe there.
But let's say you do answer that question, and hold your head up as a Narrativist role-playing practitioner, addresser of Premise. Fine - now you have to ask yourself whether you can handle artistic rejection. That's right, no one might be interested in you. This is exactly what all aspiring directors, screenwriters, novelists, and other practitioners of narrative artistry face. In which case, you'll have to decide whether it's because your worthy vision is unappreciated and should seek new collaborators, or because your vision is simply lacking. It's not an easy thing to deal with.
But let's say that's all resolved too, and you are holding the brass ring: successful and fulfilling Narrativist play with a great bunch of fellow participants, fine and exciting content from your and the others' work, and the sense of worthy artistry. Now for the final conundrum: what will you sacrifice to sustain it? Maybe your spouse is tired of the time you spend on this; maybe you and a fellow group member get a little too close; maybe you decide your art would be even better if your best friend's sorry ass was no longer gumming up the group's work. Can you make those sorts of choices? Can you live with the results?
Good luck with it. No one ever claimed that balls-to-the-wall artists were necessarily easy to live with.
The following terms continue the lists at the end of the essays "Simulationism: the Right to Dream" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/15/) and "Gamism: Step On Up" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/21/), which themselves are additions to the definitions given in "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/). Which is a polite way of saying go look at all of them, for now. A complete glossary is under way.
Introducing events into the game which make a thematically-significant or at least evocative choice necessary for a player. The term is taken from the rules of Sorcerer.
- Black Curtain
My term for the techniques a GM may employ to keep his use of Force hidden from the other participants in the game, such that they are at least somewhat under the impression that their characters' significant decisions are under their control. See Illusionism.
- Blood Opera
Play in which character generation focuses on potentially irreconcilable differences among at least some of the characters, and in which scenario generation is designed to put as much pressure on these differences (and therefore on unexpected alliances as possible). Notable for high mortality rates among characters, in the manner of Reservoir Dogs. The term was coined by Ralph Mazza, Jake Norwood, and myself after playing an especially masochistic session of The Riddle of Steel during Origins 2003.
- Bob (from Sex & Sorcery)
Withholding response or otherwise mandating a "rest" in the Premise-addressing action of play.
- Conflict resolution
A technique in which the resolution mechanisms of play focus on conflicts of interest, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict. When using this technique, inanimate objects are conceived to have "interests" at odds with the character, if necessary. Contrast with Task resolution.
Term coined by Walt Freitag to describe the theoretical possibility of simultaneous play of different Creative Agendas which, although fulfilling very different needs for their employers, are also mutually supportive between those employers. The existence of sustained congruence remains controversial.
- Cross (from Sex & Sorcery)
Introducing effects from previous scenes into current scenes, although the scenes do not contain the same protagonists.
- Deprotagonize (Paul Czege)
To limit or devalue another person's opportunity to establish their character as a protagonist during Narrativist play. Note that this is specific to Paul's use of Protagonism strictly in the limited Narrativist context.
- Egri, Lajos
the author of The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946); see Premise.
- El Dorado
Coined by Paul Czege, a term for the unrealizable ideal of consistently addressing Premise through explicitly Simulationist play.
Originally called "GM-oomph" (Ron Edwards), then "GM-Force" (Mike Holmes) - Control over the protagonist characters' thematically-significant decisions by anyone who is not the character's player. The Force is an especially good term for this phenomenon, due to (1) its sense of imposed mandate and strength-in-control (not just input), and (2) its parodic Star Wars connotation - whatever you want the plot to be, "use the Force!"
- Ouija-board role-playing
Coined by me in this essay, a form of Illusionism practiced among all the participants upon one another to conceal both Step On Up and Story Now priorities from one another.
An artistic production which relies on invoking pre-existing productions' features for its primary effect; at worst, a simple imitation, but at best, potentially a strong secondary commentator on the original text. Often associated with "fanfic" or other forms of homage.
- Premise (adapted from Egri)
A generalizable, problematic aspect of human interactions. Early in the process of creating or experiencing a story, a Premise is best understood as a proposition or perhaps an ideological challenge to the world represented by the protagonist's passions. Later in the process, resolving the conflicts of the story transforms Premise into a theme - a judgmental statement about how to act, behave, or believe.
- Prima Donna
A Narrativist player who engages in Premise-addressing, but will not share screen time or Premise-significant decision-making time with other participants. An extremely dysfunctional subset of Narrativist play.
A problematic term with two possible meanings. (A) A characteristic of the main characters of stories, regardless of who produced the stories in whatever way. (2) A characteristic set of behaviors among people during role-playing, associated with Narrativist play, with a necessary equivalent in Gamist play and possible and Simulationist play.
Control of a player-character's decisions by the GM, or opportunities for decisions, in any way which breaks the Social Contract for that group, in the eyes of the character's player.
- Simulationist-by-habit (Jesse Burneko)
A form of synecdoche which defines "role-playing" according to certain historically-widespread Simulationist approaches to play." The system's job is to provide the physics of the game-world" is a good example.
an imaginary series of events which includes at least one protagonist, at least one conflict, and events which may be construed as a resolution of the conflict.
- Story Now
a mode, or Creative Agenda, in which Premise is addressed through play. The epiphenomenal outcome for the transcript is almost always a story.
- Task resolution
a technique in which the resolution mechanisms of play focus on within-game cause, in linear in-game time, in terms of whether the acting character is competent to perform a task. Contrast with Conflict resolution.
an account of the imaginary events of play without reference to any role-playing procedures. A transcript may or may not be a story.
- Transition (coined by Fang Langford)
Changing from one Creative Agenda to another through the course of play using rules designed to make that process easy.
- Typhoid Mary
A GM who employs Force in the interests of "a better story," usually identifiable as addressing Premise; however, in doing so, the GM automatically de-protagonizes Narrativist players and therefore undercuts his or her own priorities of play, as well as being perceived as a railroader by the players. An extremely dysfunctional subset of Narrativist play.
- Vanilla Narrativism: Narrativist play without notable use of the following techniques
Director Stance, atypical distribution of GM tasks, verbalizing the Premise in abstract terms, overt rules concerning narration, and improvised additions to the setting or situations. People who typically play in this fashion often fail to recognize themselves as Narrativists.
- Weave (from Sex & Sorcery)
A GM technique of bringing NPC activities closer to the player-characters and to introduce multiple responses among NPC and player-character actions.