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The Players as Bass

Started by John Kim, February 02, 2003, 08:38:45 PM

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John Kim

I was intrigued by Ron Edward's essay comparing a Narrativist GM to a bass player.  Mostly, it brought home to me that Narrativist as he conceives of it is narrowly defined.  I want to try defining an alternate, non-Narrativist style, which is still concerned about narrative and story.  I would think of it as a complement to Narrativism.  

Though I'm not sure quite how well it fits, I'm using the example of the players being the bassmen.  The players start of the campaign as such by defining their characters.  This is what "sets the beat".  The GM takes his this beat as a given, and must come up with ideas for melodies (plots) which fit that beat.  Most of the time, it is the GM who initiates the melody.  However, if the melody he starts up doesn't fit with bass, then he is doing something wrong and has to adjust to stick to the beat which the players have set.

OK, I don't think I can go all that far with the analogy.  The two key points to the analogy are that the GM must get the beat first from the players, and if there is a mismatch between the PCs and the GM's plans, then the GM has to adjust to keep with the beat that the players set.  

This seems to be different than Narrativism.  It is rather a more "traditional" dramatic style, which might be termed something like "reactive drama".  In typical RPG genres, the action is initiated external to the protagonist.  i.e. The private eye has a beautiful client walk into his office and hire him for a job.  The superheroes see clues that a supervillian is up to something.  In this style, the GM acts as that external force: designing a situation which the PCs will be embroiled in.  She kicks off the melody, but it takes the whole group to carry it.
- John


I may be way off here, but this sounds at first blush to me like Illusionism.  In a fully railroaded game the GM is playing the whole band and ignoring the players altogether.  But in an Illusionist game the GM is still playing most of the instruments but has to be skillful at picking up the "bass line" that the players are throwing off and altering his own melody to allow for that.



Personally, I think this metaphor is either useful as is (apparently it is to Ron and some others) or not worth revising (as for me).  I think you either like it or lump it, and I really hope Ron isn't going to demand liking it --- I very much doubt he will, actually.

What you're proposing might equally be analogized through, I don't know, the structure of formal counterpoint in a fugal mode, or the way the "standard" song acts in relatively traditional trio jazz, or the way Claude Levi-Strauss thinks mythology works.  Let's not go there --- we're only going to end up debating which metaphor is better.

So setting that aside, I quite like your basic point about GMing.  I think the idea of the GM initiating a plot/element/thread/theme (that's PETT for short) which directly or indirectly arises from or responds to the players is valid, as is the point that once initiated, it's everyone's job to keep it going.
Chris Lehrich

Le Joueur

Hey John,

I think I know where you're coming from.  The narrowness of the Narrativist definition has bothered me for some time.  It throws out a lot of 'story now' players who are interested in 'story over everything,' yet don't grok Edwardian Premises.  I even wrote a piece Ron's been pestering me for an 'article version' of about exactly this.  Over in the Scattershot Forum, I collect all these types of play under the Auteur Approach.  The major difference between Scattershot Approaches and the GNS Modes is that the GNS is about diagnosing priority in a single instance of play and an Approach is the way you collectively desire.  (That is, the Mode of an instance versus a desire for a pattern of Approach.)  They come from different realms; GNS states that it is not for people who enjoy what their doing (it helps solve problems) and Scattershot's Approaches are about deliberate choices 'going into' play.  You might check it out and see if there's anything you can use.


I'm not sure one can project 'gamemaster in charge' to "come up with ideas for...plots which fit."  Given that play isn't Illusionism (it could be, but why limit it to that?), maybe something like the 'Shared Gamemastering' I've been trying to hammer out, it really might be a case where the gamemaster is simply running what the players implied they want.


I like what you're proposing, the idea of using the character write-ups this way I think goes a long way towards protagonizing those characters from the instant play starts.  (Which I think doesn't necessarily fit the 'Illusionist gamemaster running out plots based on those write-ups' idea.)

This looks like a thread of gold you got going here John.  I'm not sure it fits the GNS very well though.  It may not even be narrowed to just a GNS issue, I'll have to think about that.

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Jack Spencer Jr

Hey John.

Oddly, this is a very tight metaphor, but in your example, it's probably better to think of the players as playing keyboards, which Ron says can either support, like a bass, or play lead, like a guitar. Which makes a group like those groups in the 80's which were like 3 keyboard players and a lead singer (maybe with drums and a guitar). So what you got is four or more guys laying down a synthesizer baseline and the lead singer (GM) singing "Cars."

Now, there's nothing wrong with this if it's what you're into. But not everyone is going to be into it.

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

I'm thinkin' that "Ron's Narrativism is too narrow" is arising out of a tendency for people to think that one idea is the whole idea. Oh, I get it, I have to play just like he described right there to be Narrativist. My answer: no, that was an idea. A particular thing, to help a particular person with a particular outlook (specifically the guy with the Moog organ who's exhausted, dissatisfied, and feeing trapped).

Your description really sounds very much like a functional form of Narrativism to me. What matters is that the story is arising out of mutual communications during play itself, and understood/enjoyed as story itself at that time.

Which Illusionism, in either of the ways the term is applied, doesn't do. (I thought you were describing Illusionism at first too, like Ralph provisionally did, but a quick review showed that you're not.)

Hope that makes sense ...


John Kim

OK, first of all, I think that while it may have been an interesting lead-in, the "bass player" analogy really doesn't go terribly far -- and it can easily become misleading.  I would prefer to drop it and talk more directly about the difference of styles.  There are only a few key points to the analogy:

[*] The players start off the basis of play by defining their characters and continue to define this basis throughout the campaign.  
[*] Anything the GM does has to conform to basis set by the players.  If there is a mismatch of what the players want to do and the GM's ideas, it is always the GM's ideas which have to bend.  
[*] The actual plots originate from the GM, however.  i.e. He initiates the action by creating a situation which the PCs respond to.  (Simplest example: a supervillian begins a deadly scheme to rule the world.)  

Valamir -- being relatively new here, I wasn't actually familiar with the term "Illusionism", but I have now read through Ron's thread from November entitled:">Illusionism: a new look and a new approach.  

I don't think that Ron's description of Illusionism fits what I am talking about, however.  His essay seems to inherently be centered around the idea of an "illusion" of player control.  In the style that I am talking about, I don't see any illusion.  Indeed, the players do have absolute control and the GM is subordinate to that.  

Let me take a simple example: In a college campaign of mine of psychic powers in the modern world, I started off by having the PCs all be contacted by a former member of a world-wide conspiracy.  He gave the PCs information about the conspiracy and asked for their help.  They helped him for a little bit and dealt with some other ex-conspiracy-members.  However, at that point they decided that the problem was essentially over their heads and did nothing to investigate the conspiracy any further.  

OK, so at this point I had to drop all my notes on the conspiracy and instead work out what other things they might be interested in.  The conspiracy still existed, but it never entered the game again.  I instead worked out different material based on their going to contact another group of psychics.  I instead worked out the problems that they were facing, and the strange beings from another dimension that they came into conflict with.  

The point being that the player control was not an illusion.  They did in fact control the flow of the game, and if there was a clash (as there was when they turned away from the conspiracy), I was the one who had to hop.
- John

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

That fits with my reading of your first post. What do you think of my response of, "Look, Narrativism"?

Basically, y'all were makin' story during play and enjoying doing so. Sounds like fun to me, and - if you don't mind me saying - not at all a falsifier of my Narrativism definition.

I very much appreciate the real example of real play. I was just about to ask for that.