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Anxiety and recognition of narrativism [long]

Started by Callan S., July 30, 2005, 05:00:33 AM

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Callan S.

For a long time, years in fact, I've been trying to work out how to have better games. It's started with thinking about players who didn't feel like coming along to play when I rang them up saying I was going to GM. As a teenager, I took it as a bit of a blow. I was a nerd...surely I should be able to at least do nerdy things right?

It's funny, because the first game session I GM'ed (Underground RPG) went off really well. I still remember everyone sitting in the lounge room with blankets on their laps, shooting off enquiries and probing the material I had prepped with real interest. I still remember the game's story, which was about a corporate guy trying to sell out to another company on the sly, hiring the PC's to hunt down a spy the guys own company planted to try and see what's happening. The spy even turned out to be just like Mr Bean, after a player prompted it should be so. Then in true railroad fashion (an impossible to avoid trap floor while chasing Mr Bean) the players are lead in front of the another company guy who tells them the truth of the matter and how he would like to hire them to turn on their former employer. And then he gives them their clothes back...the trap floor lead to a gas trap and when they woke up they were stripped for some reason. And I forgot to give them back any clothes before the meeting happened (and a player noted this). Hey, it was a long time ago! Anyway, they got right into assaulting their former employers base (righteous betrayal is fun!) and the game went off great.

I don't think the story matters so much now, even though for more than a decade I have thought that story must be the key to a fun game (and I wasn't writing them right). Instead I'm now looking at how I was exploring the english spy stories I'd basically grown up with since my dad likes them. The stories of cross betrayal and dangerous people under crushing political pressure and many other things of that nature. It was a world I felt swept into and passionate about.

The thing is, being an anxious little nerd, after running a good game I worried about what people would think of my next session. I wasn't worried about this the first time I GM'ed, since no one thought I was a good GM when I started and if at the end no one thought I was a good GM, what had I lost? Nothing! So I indulged in my passion. But the second session, I thought about how to make people keep my rep as a good GM. And things began to slide. And the more they slid, the more I tried to make people happy. But it still slid.

This happened again years latter, when I had moved to the city and tried to hook up with a new group after not being able to RP for ages. I GM'ed with them (Rifts game), and again I remember the story mostly. It was something about how two men from different feuding families both loved a woman, but one of them won her heart in the end. The other wanted revenge and ate the heart of a special monster, to become an immortal monster himself and get revenge (even though it would destroy most of his mind). But as a monster he was beaten back to the hills. It was inter generation as well, since play happened years latter when his grown up son, who trained as a mage, now controlled his father as a weapon to get revenge on the other hated family (I think the son may not have known that it was his father or some such). Hmmm, I think the son might even have come from the man raping the woman before going off to become a monster (part of the reason he became a monster...not just for revenge, though he wouldn't admit to himself it was also out of guilt, yada yada yada).

This went off well (yeah, I can see an agenda clash now that I look at it, but it was still a good session). But again, anxiety struck. I worried about the next game and also rushed it a so as to get to GM the next week. There was a strong personality in this new group as well, so I felt I must perform. Again, the decline happened. After awhile I had shit like there being a giant worm you can't kill and have to figure out how to get rid of it through a portal (the answer being to ride it through). And you know why I had that? Because I was trying to appease how the players went through the first story, which involved maximising resources, trying to kill the monster efficiently and some show off color (like riding the worm basically is).

I was anxious to please, and I drew upon what they had presented as their focus in play to try and ensure I'd 'win' the next session by running a good one. I thought that was the way to go. Certainly it wasn't something I had tried at the start of the first decline and it seemed to make sense.

I went through years of this, trying to figure out the perfect game structure. Stuff like percentage of combat to RP and even finer fiddley little structural details. In fact, I think the heart of my RP has gone pretty cold, trying to figure the structure that 'wins' a session.

And now I'm thinking, I'm just thinking, that play didn't work out because as the GM, as the leader of play, I didn't give a crap about exploring the games contents. I cared about exploring the players needs to make them happy, but not about exploring the game world itself (the game world I had made with their needs in mind). I suppose it's like if I was interested in flying planes, but noticed they liked it more when I taxied the plane around on the tarmac. In anxiety, I make them a monster truck...but I just don't drive it. Driving only happens when I'm really interested in the vehicle. When I have a passion for the vehicle. The anxiety only made me passionate about trying to look after their needs. Ironically the same anxiety is why I frequent the forge so much, looking for answers.

All in all, it would have been better if I'd been more selfish. Also if I hadn't rushed myself...looking at it now I think I was making up my own address's of premise as the sessions material. Regardless of how wonky it is to do that as a GM, I think I needed my addresses to be heard and recognised. But they weren't, players were busy trying to get one last shot at fleeing monsters or trying to get around failed horror saves or adding one liners. And rather than present my addresses only for them to be ignored, I stopped building them into the game world and thus lost my passion to explore that game world.

I guess I receded to the meta game, the game of trying to make happy players, rather than play inside the game and have my big input, those addresses of premise, ignored. At the time I just had this 'ugghhh' feeling to 'just write', which at the time I put down to not wanting to write material that goes to waste. Wasted, the reasoning went, since the game structure wouldn't work and will waste the material with the failed game. So I should try and find that good/perfect game structure first. Once I found that structure and got the players happy, then...then the material wont go to waste and I will write it happily.

But searching for that structure was displacement activity on my part. Really thinking about it now, what was happening was that I couldn't discern address of premise from presentation. I treated my personal address of premise the same way I treated presentation it was embedded in...if it doesn't work, fix it so it does! In the interests of a better story/game, CHANGE IT! The anxiety of giving a good performance compelled and complicated this. It was subjecting myself to Typhoid Mary syndrome, where I was applying forcing to my own address in the interests of a better story. But I didn't stand for it even as I applied it to myself. Instead I withdrew from narrativist play entirely, focusing on the meta game and techniques to make players happy, as my input into the game.

Basically it horrified me to express my addresses of premise. Because it could be labelled bad/not the right address to make and have to be chucked. Horrified, even though I didn't understand address of premise enough to differentiate it from presentation (presentation being something that should face critique). Yet I 'felt' the address enough to never want to loose it/never have it thrown away in the name of the game. I feel very sad to suddenly see this now.

This thread has gone ways I didn't intend it to when I started talking about anxiety. Very valuable for me, but not so great as a forge thread perhaps. However, I've had a pretty good understanding of narrativism for several years now (thanks to the forge), but never recognised my own past tells about nar play until this moment. This may at least be valuable material about personal blindspots. I think there may be something here in regard to writers block as well.
Philosopher Gamer


Quote from: Callan S. on July 30, 2005, 05:00:33 AMAll in all, it would have been better if I'd been more selfish.
Selfishness rocks.  It is, very often, the guise under which we say "All in all, it would have been better if I'd put some of myself at stake, for people to either reject or praise."
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum

Ron Edwards

I think that was a superb and important post, Callan. Definitely a pointer for people asking questions.

When I wrote about the Typhoid Mary, I'd wondered whether anybody would dare to come clean about it. You're not the only one. I know you others are out there. Post about it.


Mark Woodhouse

I hear you. I've been there, retreating in to crowd-pleasing and technique because I didn't feel I had the right to get the things I wanted out of my play. Holding back from Premise because someone else at the table might reject my efforts - or trying to sneak up on my own play, hide it under a veneer of socially-acceptable minimalism.

I got bitter. And gaming turned into a burden. And I took out my frustration on my fellow players.

I'm trying to get better. But I still have that ghost haunting me. "Ahhh, nobody is going to go for that. How can I sneak it past them?"

David Bapst

Callan, thanks for that post. Your experience reminded me of an experience I had in a game I ran about a year ago, for about a year and a half. I decided at some point I wanted to pursue a particular moral question I found interesting in the source material, but the player's characters were entirely unsuited for that question in my view. In hindsight, they were unfit for how I wanted to present that question, they were perhaps not unfit for the addressing itself. I began to find players online late at night and begin asking them questions about how much they knew about the setting and the game, charging them with not knowing the sourcebooks well enough and about how I would prefer they change their characters to "fit my view of the game." Half the group approached me later at a game and asked me to stop harrassing them about the characters they'd made almost a year before. Not my prettiest moment. There was alot of other trouble flowing under the surface in that game, though, not all of it my doing.

It is good to be reminded of one's past mistakes.


Hmm, I'm not sure why it appears assumed that all games should include address of premise.  The fact that players may not be interested in the proposed and mandated poremise does not imply that they would have been interested in some premise had it not been forced.

Second, I worry that this sort of perspective leads to the abandonment of the investigation of structure.  To my ear it sounds rather more like piety than practicality.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Ron Edwards


Gareth, no one's mandating any such thing as what "all games" should be doing. If people want to enthuse about a form of role-playing they've been seeking and have finally found, then let'em. We can get to structure in a little bit without you levelling "piety" at anybody.

Wait a minute, though ... this forum is about understanding what happened during play, so yeah, you do have a point even if you didn't actually say it. Callan, give us the other shoe - the counterexample of experience in play which demonstrated to you that this other approach would be more effective.

Now, Gareth, did you see how I just winnowed out some faint hope of positive input from your post? Don't fuckin' make me do that again - when you post, make an effort for that constructive nugget to be clear to the people who need to get it. Critique, yes, but critique for something, and without all this waaah-being-marginalized implication.

Back on topic: Callan's play-experience, supportive examples, contrasting examples, the works.



Like Callan, I've been trying for a while to understand what my players want, and give it to them. However, I've found I just can't understand everyone, especially if they don't know what they want themselves. So the next campaign I'm launching, I've decided to just have fun with it whatever way I like, and expect the players to do the same. Saves me a lot of frustration, makes good players play well, too bad for those who don't like it.

However, there's one thing I've found. If you don't feel you can get to know person X, if you don't feel like a few beers together would be fun - perhaps you shouldn't be playing with them. If you can't talk well, chances are you won't play well.

Callan S.

Quote from: TonyLB on July 30, 2005, 12:06:56 PM
Quote from: Callan S. on July 30, 2005, 05:00:33 AMAll in all, it would have been better if I'd been more selfish.
Selfishness rocks.  It is, very often, the guise under which we say "All in all, it would have been better if I'd put some of myself at stake, for people to either reject or praise."
I've thought about what you've said a few times now. And at each end of your words there are two factors, both of which are like weights at each of some scales. There is 'selfishness'. And on the other side, rejection/praise.

Reject or praise for what reason? For what purpose?

I think there are many purposes. One of them is that some amount of this judgement will influence whether the other person will return and play again.

And I find this very confronting! Will I make an address of premise that'll mean another person wont come to this activity in future? Will I even make an address of premise which merely increases the chance another person wont come to this activity in future? Do I dare risk to any degree putting off another real, living person from their chosen activity? For my fictional address of premise. For something that doesn't exist? For 'My guy!'?

I saw an actual play example recently here in On rape and roleplay, where I don't think the central issue was about rape at all.
QuoteI start a conflict, and state that Sister Obedience wants to extract a promise that they will not enter town. The GameMaster states that the soldiers want to have sex. Under the circumstances, this can mean nothing but rape.

My mistake was that I did not speak up at this very moment. I should have, because I knew instantly that I did not want this to happen. That it would, in fact, spoil my fun and be very distasteful to me were these stakes to become fictional reality. Why didn't I speak up? I do not know. I guess that somewhere in my unconsciousness the maxim "do not whine about the adversity introduced by the GameMaster" is still present. Easier to take the path of least resistance, play along, win the conflict, and solve the problem without having to say anything.

Will you 'piss in someone elses wheaties' in the name of your own ficitional ideal? What sort of a hobby is that, if you do?

Grasping at straws here, I can only think of sports teams and how it's healthy to have a loosing team. But making someone else loose automatically because of your address...that just doesn't seem sporting!?

Or is that what the indie narrativist games are about, developing mechanics so you can make other players loose out on something fun in a sporting fashion (ie, they have means to resist)? And since it's sporting, you don't have to fear making your pure address?

But I wonder even then, if you can still make a connection between address and another persons likelyhood of playing again/enjoyment. I think that even with a good design, you still could to some small degree link them up to each other. I don't know what that means.
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards


Callan, I'm serious, this thread needs some real play to talk about. Are all these just thoughts bouncing around in your skull, or do you have some grounded instances?

For instance, did you ever get your wheaties pissed in, in this specific way?


Callan S.

Sort of. I once had a character who had the crap beaten out of him and then some heavy background laid on him. The GM had emphasised playing in character. Anyway, were in a space ship and another players super macho character decides to fire missiles at a nearby planet for some unclear reason. This macho guy, in previous events, killed about six of the monsters that just one of, beat the snot out of my PC. Then this macho character decided to take the controls of the ship (I don't know how, my PC was the captain) and dive the ship toward the planet, which was firing missiles at us. And I didn't grab the controls off him and save the character was almost little suicidal after the previous morale crushing events and just wouldn't suddenly be a macho hero himself and save the day (I'll admit I was a little tactical in this...the third player was far better equipped to stop the macho character. I thought I could safely have my moment and all would be well as he'd save the day. I dunno if that means I wasn't addressing premise).

But the other player froze up and did nothing, and the GM turned on me to change my actions and save everyones arse. Got quite pissed off about it with me (we even took a break over this), even as he was the one asserting the planets missiles would kill us all and not about to back down on his own statement in the interests of a better story. The macho guy's actions, through the GM, pissed on my wheaties. PS: I'm not pissed off with the player of the macho guy though. I think it was his address and I admired it actually (still do a bit...his PC was nuts!)

But I've been thinking about it and I think I've just utterly fk'd up with an early conclusion I made about all this, which leads to the concerns in my previous post. The conclusion that if players are happy, then they must have absorbed, thought about and even reacted to my address. Thus, the happier they are, the more they will absorb and react to my address on the issues close to me. By shear coolness, they will simply HAVE to take on and think about my address! And that, if players seem to admire the address, looking at it from all angles and saying cool, but then putting it down and forgetting about it/not reacting, it musn't have been cool enough!

I think I just screwed up and misstook exploration of premise to be an address of premise. Or just hoped that they really would address it next time, if I was just cooler...they'd make the leap to an address if it was cooler and more fun. It's like when your a gamist and you misstakenly think all those sim guys are admiring your tactics...when your really just alone. Trying to do cooler and cooler tactics because you think your tactics mustn't be up to standard or something, since no ones reacting.

Sound bogus to anyone? Do people think this fits in with the example above?
Philosopher Gamer

Frank T

Just a quick add: Some discussions in my German forum have made me think about GMs trying to meet player expectations. I have found that I have done that a lot myself, and what's more, I have ended up second-guessing my players much further than necessary. I once tried something new which didn't work, and from then on, I was always rejecting the thought of inserting new things I found cool into play, because "my players wouldn't want it", when really I was just afraid they might not like it. Even when I was proposing stuff to them, I was doing it in a self-defensive way, like: "I know this is nothing you would want, or is it? We needn't try it, or do you want to?"

I have heard of other GMs facing the same trials. Why? I think that Callan has nailed part of it. It's just a bad feeling to GM and have bored players.

- Frank