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Author Topic: Gamism and Narrativism  (Read 13458 times)
Ben Lehman
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« on: April 19, 2004, 12:53:14 AM »

I have been thinking, recently, apropos to lumpley's http://www.septemberquestion.org/lumpley/hardcore.html#8">Arranging the Pieces of the Game as to what really defines Narrativism and Gamism, at a base.  I think that there are two issues here, which are of course intertwined, but largely seperate.

I'm going to cheat, and cut to the end point:  I think the Gamism and Narrativism are as close to identical as to *almost* make no difference between them.  I'm not proposing that they are identical, but rather that almost anyone who enjoys Gamist play will, properly introduced, enjoy Narrativist play, and visa-versa.

(I think that this also might be the "less-talked about" piece of Big Horseshoe -- that Gamism and Narrativism are almost touching, but not quite.)

The two issues here are the exploration and the social function.

First:  Exploration

Ron talks about exploration of Premise as the primary engine of Narrativism.  I agree with this assessment, by and large, but I want to take a little bit of time to talk about what exploration of Premise actually means.

A Premise, as I can sum it up in my head, is a Hard Question -- "Is the life of one man worth the fate of a village?" say.  The point of narrativist play is that the players, by which I mean everyone at the table even the GM hiding behind that little screen over there, have to look at that issue and decide to answer it one way or another.  I'd like to note, right now, that a key of a good Narrativist set-up is that the questions are not just limited to "yes/no," but rather allow a full range of options from giving up and watching away to "yes, but..." and "no, unless..."  In a real sense, we're talking about Exploring the premise here -- what matters is not necessarily the actual answer which is chosen in play, but the act of poking around inside the moral/ethical conundrum.  It could be called, also, Exploration of Hard Choices.

Right, okay, so that's a nice summary of Narrativism, but what does that have to do with Gamism, which is all about competing with each other, right?  Well, funny you should ask, I don't think it is.  Necessarily.  (this ties into point two.)

In a situation of Gamist play, we're going to see the players, sitting around a table, agonizing over a situation in the game, trying to figure out what the best thing that they should do is.  Funny, that sounds a lot like Narrativism, doesn't it?  Yes.  It is.  Because Gamism is also founded in Exploration of Hard Choices.

Any decent instance of Gamist play will present a series of challenges and difficulties, and the Gamist players (including the GM hiding behind his screen over there) need to decide how they might best be addressed.  A key to good gamist play (and something I hit on in an earlier thread called http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=6369">The Gentleman Gamist is that it allows for the full-range of possible responses to the situation, including "this isn't worth it I walk away," or "I go back to town and buy ten barrels of oil" and not just a matter of maneuvering into positions and attacking.

So, wow, those two things are similar.

Now, point two.  I was going to post this in a seperate thread and called it "Narrativism's Dirty Little Secret" but I realized that it doesn't strictly apply to Narrativism, it isn't dirty, it isn't particularly little (actually a pretty big deal) and it's hardly a secret.  And it helps me get to my conclusion here.

Ron talks, in his Gamism essay, about a lot of things, but he holds out that the bedrock of all Gamist play is competition to gain prestige among the people at the table.  I agree one hundred percent, while at the same time feel that he has missed a major point.

Consider, to pick a human social group at random, a group of Narrativist players, and consider how they might interact with each other.  They're going to be bouncing ideas off of each other, talking about the situation, and exploring the ins and outs of the premise like crazy.  And, whaddaya know, they're going to be competing for prestige.  Because the guy who can get the problem, who can really provide in-depth addressing tha makes you go "cool," the guy who always gets the brilliant scene -- that guy has more prestige.  And we all love prestige.

Now, is this the basic engine driving all Narrativist play?  No.  But prestige competition, I would argue, forms an important part of all human social interaction, which includes RPG play as a subset (caveat -- I am not an anthropologist, I just hang out with them.)  Narrativist play can be very competitive, very cooperative, or both.  It can be very "step on up and pour out your moral guts" or it can be very friendly and allow people to step back from the events and distance themselves from the choices, and it can lie anywhere in-between.  To borrow a term from the Gamism essay, the dials are flexible.  But to say that there is no competition is just strange.

Now let's look at Gamist play, and consider how Gamist might interact with each other.  They're going to be bouncing ideas off of each other, talking about the situation, and exploring the ins and outs of the tactics (and strategy) like crazy.  And, whaddaya know, they're going to be competing for prestige.  Because the guy who can get the problem, who can make his duel-flaming scimitar druid who is taking down demigods at fifth level, who can teach you how to make a Martial Artist not suck ass, who can scam an entire kingdom out from a king with only a beggar PC, a cod, and three candles, that guy has more prestige.

The point here is that Gamist prestige is gained by exploring the Hard Choices, and the Narrativist prestige is gained *in the exact same manner.*

Here are some questions:

Given that the two types are very similar, what is the best way to talk about the differences between them?  (The best that I can think is that you explore Gamist situations chiefly by cleverness, and Narrativist situations chiefly by moral clarity.)

Does this have implications for Congruent Nar/Gam design?

Does this have implications for the creating a vocabulary that Gamist-favoring players and Narrativist-favoring players can use to talk to each other, directly, without using Simulationist-by-habit terms that brand both of them as pariahs?

Given the rooting of both Narrativist and Gamist play in challenging, difficult situations, does this have something to say about the strong emphasis on Sim in mid-80s through mid-90s gaming, the nature of gaming as a geek and social reject culture, and the lack of acceptance of role-play by the mainstream culture?

Other thoughts?  Other question?  Any disagreements?

yrs--
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #1 on: April 19, 2004, 03:21:23 AM »

I stumbled on the same thing last week when designing my IGC games. Both Battle of Frozen Waste and Brotherhood are designs very close to the edge, at least in my mind. The former started as plain nar, switched to gam, and came back to nar, while the latter started as a game mechanic, reached terminal velocity before coming to the crossroads and became gamism with a narrativist goal. So yeah, I know all about this feature, and agree largely with your points.

The only significant difference between nar and gam is the source of prestige for the players, or in other words, the goal of play. I happen to think that this is something Ron knows, and it's just that we haven't understood him before. I myself came to have an inkling from playing mucho MLwM last month, and realised this from just trying to design those two games. In other words this thing has been sitting there quite a while, so I'd be surprised if nobody noticed it before.

Quote from: Ben Lehman

Given that the two types are very similar, what is the best way to talk about the differences between them?  (The best that I can think is that you explore Gamist situations chiefly by cleverness, and Narrativist situations chiefly by moral clarity.)


I don't know if the difference is something that one should try to establish if one accepts your points. On the contrary, by not establishing the difference one can shoot for a much larger and more distinguished range of design goals, ne? On the other hand, if there is a characterisable difference, it has to be known. I cannot neither think of one apart from what you offer. It's just a question of pure play goals; one player is satisfied by winning the battle, another by losing in a meaningful way. There's quite a continuum of possible choices, and they all are in some way gamism (being that the chooser has made this choice and thinks it the right on) and narrativism (being that the chooser knows what the story consequenses of his choise are).

When reflecting this back to classic gam and nar games I come to think that the significant difference lies in the construction of the game matter. If the matter is analytical (rules, quantifiable systems, binary logic, probabilities) the game is gamist, while if it's pure social contract (role playing, multiple win conditions) it's narrativist. In a gamist game the crunch is traditionally a matter of knowing the analytical system of rules and meanings, while in a nar game the crunch is producing a synthesis of game matter in a novel and "true" way.

This reflects to the Gamism as Lobe shift thread as well; we've been discussing how some of us think that empathy is a requirement of nar, while some think that analytical thought is a requisite and empathy is just a matter of taste. The assumption seems to be that if I don't take the story construct with passion but instead with philosophy, I'm playing in a gamist way.

The proof to a complete sameness would be if any gam game could be interpreted as nar and vice versa. I don't think that this is possible, which would seem to implicate a difference on some level. At first glance it's because the subject matters of the games are different, and there usually isn't any meaningful premises in how many torches one carries against the encumbrance factor. Likewise it's sometimes hard to see the winning goal and especially the allowed tactical options in typical nar stuff.

There is differences, but I'm not sure that they can be formulated on the creative agenda level. It seems to me that one could have any number of goals that are answers to premises as well. Discussion, folks! I'm interested in any insights.

Quote

Does this have implications for Congruent Nar/Gam design?


You can take a peek at the implications in the Brotherhood (if I wrote it clearly enough, that is). It's a game that is so perfectly balanced between the modes that I don't know there being any difference anymore. Haven't playtested, but it's hard to think of any situation where one could make a gam decision resulting in incoherence towards nar or vice versa.

Quote

Does this have implications for the creating a vocabulary that Gamist-favoring players and Narrativist-favoring players can use to talk to each other, directly, without using Simulationist-by-habit terms that brand both of them as pariahs?


One would think so, but the result would be a little "refreshing". A winning condition would be the same as a stance on premise (or would it?) and a thematic decision would be a tactical move, or something.

Quote

Given the rooting of both Narrativist and Gamist play in challenging, difficult situations, does this have something to say about the strong emphasis on Sim in mid-80s through mid-90s gaming, the nature of gaming as a geek and social reject culture, and the lack of acceptance of role-play by the mainstream culture?


I've generally found out that the same people consistently hate both gam and nar. It's indeed tied to the challenge aspect; many people have thought that they are gamist until they lose, in my experience. Some times they still think so after losing, and the loss was because the GM cheated. In reality a significant amount of roleplayers is indeed on a power trip, which is a type of sim and not conducive to any kind of personal stake. It's one of the more common reactions: whenever someone disagrees with some rule or feature by claiming that it limits the possibilities for roleplaying, the reason is that they find the demand for personal accomplishment limiting. For many people the best kind of game is the one where they cannot be wrong.

Just some random reactions.
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Rob Carriere
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« Reply #2 on: April 19, 2004, 04:11:41 AM »

Wonderful stuff!

One quickie reaction:

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
The proof to a complete sameness would be if any gam game could be interpreted as nar and vice versa. I don't think that this is possible, which would seem to implicate a difference on some level. At first glance it's because the subject matters of the games are different, and there usually isn't any meaningful premises in how many torches one carries against the encumbrance factor.


I think you could argue that, say, standard D&D play addresses the Premise `might makes right'.

SR
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greyorm
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« Reply #3 on: April 19, 2004, 05:12:49 AM »

Quote from: Rob Carriere
I think you could argue that, say, standard D&D play addresses the Premise `might makes right'.

Rob, that's not a Premise, that's a Theme. A Premise is a question that produces Theme.

Standard D&D might hinge around "What would you do to gain power?" or "What trials is the gain of wealth worth?" or anything similar. Properly phrased, the above Premise during the game would be, "Does Might Make Right?" To which the D&D answer is usually "Yes."

(Though I will note basic D&D sets up its situations such that you don't feel bad about it: the monsters are evil (not just "different," but really, actually "evil"), or are murderous (but unintelligent) beasts, and often involved in some nasty situation or other involving goodly folk who will be hurt unless the monsters are stopped.)

But honestly, D&D play is quite open in regards to what the game's Premise could be, it just depends on what the group, or individual players, focus on, and whether or not they're bothering to examine that question by way of their decisions. If whether or not might equates to right really has no bearing on their decision making, then it isn't a Premise, and may not even be Narrativist (if no Premise is having a bearing on their decision making).

Interestingly, while sometimes it is hard to seperate the above Premise from the Challenge, depending on the situation in the game, which does speak to Ben's point about the closeness. I don't know that it necessarily links them -- after all, you're either playing for Challenge-based reasons, or Premise-based ones, and I can't see it very different from the similar confusions that arise between Simulationism and Narrativism.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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« Reply #4 on: April 19, 2004, 06:41:11 AM »

Quote from: greyorm

Standard D&D might hinge around "What would you do to gain power?" or "What trials is the gain of wealth worth?" or anything similar. Properly phrased, the above Premise during the game would be, "Does Might Make Right?" To which the D&D answer is usually "Yes."


I don't think you necessarily got Ben's point (assuming I got it, that is). Read the last chapter of your post again, and compare to Ben's post. Note how he writes about how nar and gam games have similar parts, while you write about how one plays for premise or challenge reasons. Ben's argument is that the two can be one, and when not, that's because of some yet to be distinguished reason.

The point was not that all gamist games would have premise, it was that analytically premises and goals are very similar. So while it's useless to ponder the premise of D&D, the way it addresses goals and winning strategies is fundamentally similar to the way nar games address premise.

There's no premise to D&D simply because for about all possible premises the answer has already been given or they are not important to the game. As you yourself note, it's a little stupid to ask things like "Does might make right?" in D&D. The rules and play ethos answer the question already. There's no room for premise as the game is written.

On the other hand, there is plenty of room for the question "How do I win?", which is the gamist equivalent of premise. Or rather, the equivalent is "Do I win by this strategy/tactic/whatever?" One could conseivably try to map D&D to a nar game with similar structure to see how close the similarity really is, but for discussion purposes it seems that tactics are similar to themes (the ways premise is addressed). You choose one and try to prove your choise right.

Consider Brotherhood, again: the premise is along the lines of "What am I willing to do to win?" focusing on the real life player interaction. The gamist goal, on the other hand is offing the wizard, and is done by choosing from suitable play strategies, like "I'll skirt the edges of propriety in description." or "I'll build a trust relationship with another player and win by the lowering Ice." or even "I'll rape the characters of a couple of other players both physically and psychologically and then draw their lifeforce to get the magic for offing the wizard." Notice how each of these is indistinguishable from an answer to the premise? The game is built to be as close to a nar game as possible while preserving a gamist basis.

Interesting thought: remember how gam is supposed to include two differrent psych structures, gambling and skill play? I don't but something like that was written by Ron. Anyway; what is the nar equivalent of the gambling behavior? Is it choosing a premise and expecting another player (the GM) or maybe more properly the system to prove it right. Does this happen?
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Doyce
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« Reply #5 on: April 19, 2004, 10:41:21 AM »

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
I've generally found out that the same people consistently hate both gam and nar. It's indeed tied to the challenge aspect; many people have thought that they are gamist until they lose, in my experience. Some times they still think so after losing, and the loss was because the GM cheated. In reality a significant amount of roleplayers is indeed on a power trip, which is a type of sim and not conducive to any kind of personal stake. It's one of the more common reactions: whenever someone disagrees with some rule or feature by claiming that it limits the possibilities for roleplaying, the reason is that they find the demand for personal accomplishment limiting. For many people the best kind of game is the one where they cannot be wrong.


Ugh.  Yes.  I'm getting exactly this sort of problem with a recent session of Sorcerer I ran with a player who should, really, never play Sorcerer -- she didn't enjoy herself and I didn't enjoy running her part -- I have her in lots of games in which we both have a great time, but this isn't one of them and I can think of others in which her participation was frustrating for both of us -- all of those games can be summarized simply as premises in which the PC was doing something inherently unhealthy and 'wrong' in some context, and was paying the price for it.

They aren't about paying prices or being wrong -- in playing the game, they and I are both frustrated by the constant attempts to make those two things "Not be true" for their character.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: April 19, 2004, 12:57:47 PM »

Hello,

You guys are all so on target that I don't even know what to say. My personal "Hey! N goes with G, not S!" insight-moment was so re-orienting that it, above all else, prompted me to write GNS and Related Matters of Role-playing Theory as well as the three support essays.

And Eero, especially - Yes, I agree in full.

Best,
Ron
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greyorm
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« Reply #7 on: April 19, 2004, 03:27:40 PM »

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
I don't think you necessarily got Ben's point (assuming I got it, that is)...The point was not that all gamist games would have premise

That wasn't what I was saying, either, though I admit I could have been clearer as to my point.

Quote
There's no premise to D&D simply because for about all possible premises the answer has already been given...There's no room for premise as the game is written.

Actually, here's where I completely disagree. The answer hasn't been given. The answer is encouraged through the mechanics, but it is by no means a forgone conclusion, hence my statement about "depending on the situation in the game."

Consider the standard situation of a LG paladin confronting a CG bandit. The paladin could kill or force the bandit to submit, but that still doesn't necessarily make the choice "right" (and it might even cost the paladin his powers, dependent upon the GM's interpretation of the situation).

Now, does the system reward violence as a solution (in fact, the solution)? Heck yes, so if that's what is meant by "right" then sure, we can argue the system answers the question; but I'm not sure everyone is going to agree that "right" = mechanical effectiveness or mechanical reward. I mean, if you decide to forego the reward for killing X because it would be morally unconscionable, that's a pretty strong statement that must be answering a Premise.

Quote
Consider Brotherhood, again...

Sorry, I'm not familiar with the game, so I can only shrug and take your word for it that this is going on.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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« Reply #8 on: April 19, 2004, 03:40:47 PM »

Quote from: greyorm

Actually, here's where I completely disagree. The answer hasn't been given. The answer is encouraged through the mechanics, but it is by no means a forgone conclusion, hence my statement about "depending on the situation in the game."


I'm of the mind that such an interpretation is stretching the game over what is useful. Sure, D&D can be used as a vessel for moral deliberation, but so can any other game. It's as possible to use a narrativist game for gamist goals, but that's missing the game's point.

So yeah, one could argue that D&D doesn't say that might makes right. It's just that to the whole question is irrelevant to the action at hand, and the answer can be whatever floats your boat. You could argue theology or quantum physics within the game as well, but that doesn't mean that the game supports it. No game could forbid a premise in the way you are suggesting, simply because no game I know of forbids players from talking about whatever they will.

As to what I mean when saying that there is no room for moral deliberation in the game... if you play the game as written, you'll be rolling dice for damage and looting bodies, not confronting moral challenges. The paladin might have to stop to ascertain from the GM if killing the bandit is evil, but that's an additional tactical consideration, not moral premise. Paladins have limitations in a misguided attempt at balance, not because of interest in a moral premise. If anything, playing a paladin can be a moral theme, as the definition of good paladin works from is pretty fixed. That's no nar.

If you on the other hand do something else than adventuring, in what sense are you then playing the game? Isn't it some other game? If I was playing MLwM and a player suddenly declared his character wants to go to the nearby dungeon to get some treasure... in what sense is he playing the same game I am?

(Edited to change a theme to a premise. Try that!)
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #9 on: April 19, 2004, 03:48:58 PM »

Everyone--

Wow.  Great discussion.

Could we shift the D&D discussion, particularly about whether the hack-and-slay nature of D&D is rooted in the system or in social contract, off to another thread?  It isn't that I don't think it's important, it's just that I'm worried about it swamping all other responses.  Please post a link form this thread once you start it.  Thanks.

More in depth replies later, when I don't have class in ten minutes.

yrs--
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beingfrank
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« Reply #10 on: April 19, 2004, 07:01:27 PM »

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
I've generally found out that the same people consistently hate both gam and nar. It's indeed tied to the challenge aspect; many people have thought that they are gamist until they lose, in my experience. Some times they still think so after losing, and the loss was because the GM cheated. In reality a significant amount of roleplayers is indeed on a power trip, which is a type of sim and not conducive to any kind of personal stake. It's one of the more common reactions: whenever someone disagrees with some rule or feature by claiming that it limits the possibilities for roleplaying, the reason is that they find the demand for personal accomplishment limiting. For many people the best kind of game is the one where they cannot be wrong.


Yes, yes, yes!  I had a huge discussion on related issues with my game group this weekend.  One player, who I'd thought was pretty hard core Sim with Gamist tendencies, got really, really upset at suggestions that someone might enjoy things that were Gamist or Nar, to the point of stating that such things were wrong, selfish, 'not roleplaying,' and a perverse threat to her enjoyment.  She also specifically designs characters so that they cannot be wrong, and finds it slightly perverse that I enjoy designing characters who are wrong, or specifically set them up to fail.  So now I have a better idea of what types of games to play with her and which just to not even bother with.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #11 on: April 19, 2004, 10:26:27 PM »

Quote from: Ben Lehman
Could we shift the D&D discussion, particularly about whether the hack-and-slay nature of D&D is rooted in the system or in social contract, off to another thread?  It isn't that I don't think it's important, it's just that I'm worried about it swamping all other responses.  Please post a link form this thread once you start it.  Thanks.

http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?p=115497#115497">Alignment and Premise in D&D.

More about whether D&D is built in any way to address premise.

You're welcome.

--M. J. Young
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #12 on: April 20, 2004, 01:54:50 AM »

Okay -- for the most part, I'd like to say that most of the responses in this thread just make go "yes, yes, that's exactly it."  I like this but, like Ron, find that I have little to say about it other than agreement.

However, I think that there are some things about Gamism that need to be cleared up, because they create false distinctions here.

1)  Gamism is not, nor has ever been, explicitly about game mechanics.  Likewise Narrativism is not, nor has ever been, explicitly divorced from game mechanics.  For an example of the first, I hold up Amber Diceless in Throne War mode, and for an example of the second, I hold of Sorcerer.  So talking about Gamism in terms of "more focused on rules" or "less creative" is not in the picture.

2)  Likewise, Gamism is not, nor has ever been, necessarily about winning.  Gamism, I believe, is about the exploration of strategic/tactical choices.  This include an option for winning and for losing (see the "Gentleman Gamist" thread for more about this.)  What is important about Gamism is the quality of the Challenge -- whether it was a good game.  (Now, what *some* gamist groups do is place emphasis on exploration before the decision enters the Shared Imagined Space, thus allowing winners and losers, but I think that this is a subset of this larger exploration category.)  A Gamist, I think, will be happy to lose as long as the situation was fair and challenging.
  Likewise, Narrativism isn't necessarily about making any choice.  There is a type of Narrativism that is about making the right choice, I'm pretty sure, represented by, say religious teaching games.  The exploration of the Choice is still there, it just takes place on a metagame level, after the choice is made.

3) My point was not the Gamism and Narrativism are one and the same, but that both are based around addressing difficult questions, and thus very very similar.  I think there are differences.  The way I phrase it now is perhaps this, which is odd, because it is all in shared imagined space terms:

Gamism is about choices involving the material, which is anything easily grasped and defined.
Narrativism is about choices involving the ethereal, which is anything not easily defined (including morality.)

What do people think about these definitions?

So all you need to do to make a good hybrid is stick these two things together in the same package, like Eero does in Brotherhood.

See my comments in MJ's thread about D&D.

yrs--
--Ben

P.S. Apropos to Gamism and system crunch, I present "the lightest Gamist game in the world:"

You are in a jail cell.

(How do you get out?)
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pete_darby
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« Reply #13 on: April 20, 2004, 05:01:12 AM »

Hmmmmmm... I don't know why, but I'm uneasy about the whole material / immaterial divide there.

To my mind, Gamism is more tied to matching the player against the challenge of the situation in the SiS.

Whereas narratavism is the opposite ;-)

Actually, Nar is matching the player against the premise of the situation in the SiS.

There's certainly a degree of congruence there... especially given that, once a gamist works out a reward system geared to rewarding address of premise, they often migrate very quickly to N play, from G motives.

But going back to my original theme... I've often been in arguments with folks, often on ethical subjects, where winning the argument was more important than being right at the time. To me, that suggests that gamism may be "about" the immaterial or ethical issues, while premise in N games may be about entirely easily grasped material things (I could easily envisage an N game based around economic theory... "Opportunity Cost: the RPG").
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« Reply #14 on: April 20, 2004, 07:58:21 AM »

Hiya,

Ben, I agree with all your clarifying points in your last post, but not with your material/immaterial distinction.

In my eyes, the distinction between Gamism and Narrativism resides in one of the most important "lynchpins" in the Big Model's structure: the reward system. It's part of System, but you can see its causes "reverberate" down from Social Contract, you can see its integration with many of the Techniques during play, and you can see it pop in and out of play associated with various Ephemera (in fact, noting down "that's a Karma point!" or something is, itself, an Ephemera).

These "reverberations" of the reward system are as close to a material manifestation of Creative Agenda as we are ever going to get. And since causality in the Big Model is considered to operate primarily inwards (i.e. Social Contract as prime mover), then it's Social Contract we should turn to when looking for "fundamental" variables.

So ... all of that is a long way to say that the distinction between Gamism and Narrativism is:

1. Gamist play is rewarded with increased social esteem based on assessing one another's strategy and guts.

2. Narrativist play is rewarded with insight into one another as authors and into oneself via the text (in this case, I mean the SIS/transcript), at the visceral level typically associated with narrative fiction.

I'm pretty sure I said both of those things in the corresponding essays, as well as saying that I think they are procedurally very similar in role-playing.

Best,
Ron
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