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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Ron Edwards on November 03, 2011, 07:15:37 AM

Title: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 03, 2011, 07:15:37 AM
This is a spinoff thread from decoupling Reward Systems from broad-scale Story Arcs (, to address an issue I think lurks alongside the topic of that thread. To summarize, we're talking about play in which (i) a story, in the most ordinary sense of the term, is largely pre-conceived and sequentially imposed (although I'd prefer a less loaded term) into play, and (ii) this is being done with a sense of collusion and needed participation on the parts of everyone else. I wrote a little essay recently about something else which tapped into this issue enough to be useful for it, called Setting and emergent story (, helping to lock down the terminology into Story Before, Participationist play.

I mentioned an idea briefly in the parent thread and then decided, in parallel with the thread author, that it would do better in its own thread. The idea is that discussing how to do Story Before, Participationist play well, is quite likely subject to taint and distraction when a certain body of players is taken into account, those who would much prefer but do not know much about playing Story Now. I think I know a lot about this because I was one of them and to an extent still am (as the actual point of my above-linked essay demonstrates).

This potential problem occurred to me as I was combing old threads that might be relevant to the parent thread. A lot of them were, but I found that again and again, the topic of the old thread was all about getting Story Now play into action, or more specifically, how to do so in contrast to a single, historically-prevalent way to play Story Before. So in most cases, especially the ones from 2001-2002, the discussion of techniques was remarkably clear and inspiring, but simultaneously confounded with Story Now/Before issues.

What I'm saying - and as confirmed to me again and again as I meet role-players today, so this is not some momentary thing that's over - is that people who want to break away from the familiar, historically-prevalent way to play Story Before must face a very hard, non-intuitive question: whether they want Story Now instead of Story Before, or whether they want a more satisfying way to do Story Before. David says he knows which he wants, and that's great. The parent thread has done a good job of outlining the tasks involved in the latter. But I think ignoring that question in terms of audience may create a cruel trap for some of them, so I want to dedicate this thread to examining the question in detail.

A genuine concern
I played in a multiple-session game of Obsidian during 2000 and 2001, with Dav Harnish as GM.

Let me tell you about Dav. He was the primary content author, co-designer of the system, and one of the publishers for the game. Its setting is quite hardcore mix of apocalyptic future, occult nastiness, and punkish brutality. Its resemblance to “goth” or “White Wolf clone” is misleading; the game is much more authentic. The group included me, his girlfriend at the time (another member of the publishing team), and another fellow named Mario who’s shown up in my actual play posting; we enjoyed playing together a lot and stayed together as a group for quite a while.

He and the other Obsidian authors differed regarding their ideals of play, and as the main content author, he’d managed to keep the book from going the full GM-in-charge route despite some legacy text. As a player, with one of the other authors as GM, he had reached the point of such combined annoyance and weariness with the Shadowrun-adventure model of play, that he often had his character simply pull out a gun and shoot NPCs who tried to brief “the team” on the next mission. “He was obviously going to betray us,” he’d say.

So in our game, he employed intuitive continuity (a term coined by Gareth-Michael Skarka in one of his early games), effectively using player-character actions and players’ statements of interest to shape his preparation for each session. The technique relies as well on aiming toward a synthesis which then turns into more traditional set-up prep, especially for revelations and set-piece combats. The point is that you don’t do that stuff, including even creating the back-story, until you’ve gathered enough material from player-character activity to do so. The net effect is that the characters are automatically hooked into the plotline and the players’ attention has not been tweaked or yanked toward anything they weren’t already interested in doing.

It would have worked wonderfully toward the end of a nice set-piece fight with a bad guy, if it were not for one thing: me. My character, Ysidra Xo, a cross between a homeless person and a militant saint, exerted immense “grab” on all of us, me included, since I deliberately ignored any and all urges to “make a story” out of her, playing in full advocacy and nearly all Actor Stance at all times. What happened was that I provided an example of someone who would be a human being at all costs, which in the Obsidian setting meant a lot of room to pay those costs, and a lot of opportunities to punish those who’d cheated in that same game.

Mario was playing a relatively “safe” concept, a cyber-merc-bodyguard character – but a few sessions in, found himself playing someone who had chosen how to die well, and who sought to make “well” into the best it could be, with his cyber-equipment being a means to that end. Elizabeth was playing her boilerplate character she always played, a Kultist who’d gone rogue, and for once, she found herself actually trying to make a new life for the character.

I’ll brag because Ysidra led the way, but the fact is, the room was full of frustrated Narrativists, three of whom had never encountered unequivocal and non-negotiated group buy-in toward thematic tension and inevitable payoff. Dav was astonished in particular because we absolutely despised any hint of him taking it easy on us, and demanded confrontation with stuff he’d merely hinted about in order to be spooky. So he had to abandon intuitive continuity and start thinking in terms of more dedicated prep. The moments of play were great because they were all emergent and horribly personal. For example, in their home/other game, Dav was playing a really nasty torturer and mutilator, but it meant nothing, just yawns or gross-outs. But in ours, when Ysidra made a fist and pumped her arm such that the bicycle chain went clank, clank, clank as it wrapped around her forearm, we’d all wince – in our game, a punch from her hurt even to imagine, because we knew whom it was hitting, and why.

We’d planned on playing a few-session minor story, but it went on weekly for almost six months. It was a good example of the setting-centric approach, too, and I found myself committed to becoming a student of Obsidian’s setting. I certainly would otherwise never have read the setting material in the core book or the later supplements (Zone, Wasteland, Demons) to any extent.

I describe all of this to show that it’s crucial to find out what someone who’s tired of Story Before actually wants. In this case, it was rare-meat Story Now.

But what if it’s not? The problem I’m raising is that someone like me would have been a poisonous, impossible presence in that group if my goals of play were restricted to myself, especially if the other people wanted functional Participationist play of any kind, and most especially if they wanted Story Before Participationist play. In those circumstances, the presence of some nascent Narrativist is about to unleash a whole swollen sac of skunk-stink into the group, and the fact that it would be inadvertent would not mitigate the problem one bit.

I know this from much painful experience. I found a brief older thread about it, When the Narrativist is dysfunctional ( (The thread’s age does show; note that at least one person confuses Director Stance with Narrativism.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the worst features of such a situation is that the opposed parties are both passionately invoking the term “story” in an idealistic and defensive fashion. I’ll elaborate on this problem in my next post.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 03, 2011, 08:19:57 AM
 Don’t try to make me think, you Nazi

Whether we’re seeing clash at the table, as I mentioned above, or talking about what various techniques are for or do, another problem comes up. This next post applies to the whole sandbox problem as well, so it has some implications for the parent thread. Its purpose in this thread concerns the fact that even talking about “what we are doing here” goes badly south when incipient Narrativism is either present or even mentioned.

If you don’t know what you want (Story Before or Story After or neither), or don’t want to examine it due to baggage and loaded terms, you become emotional, defensive, and prone to projection. In short, I can’t talk to someone struggling in the grip of cognitive dissonance.

To call someone out on this directly: see my dialogue with Louis in "Sand Box" Adventures ( I realized that the conversation would go nowhere unless he would come absolutely clean with me whether his particular play-goals included incipient Narrativism or not. If so, then we could talk a lot more about what “sandbox” meant with such things in mind, and if not, then we could talk about it meant without them.

And yes, he did call me a Narrativist Nazi. Most importantly, he did so without knowing anything about what I meant by the term Narrativism. So phase one of the conversation was all based on him thinking I meant “Story Before,” which is the one thing I do know is loathed by anyone using the term “sandbox.” And then when reading my essay, he mis-read it entirely to mean in-place Story Before (i.e. detached authorship) and became angry enough with that to curtail the conversation. Which meant completely missing my other fork in the road, to discuss what might be going on if emergent Narrativism were not the goal.

The thing is, it’s entirely unclear whether he was mad because:

i) incipient Narrativism was the goal but it went against his subcultural grain to admit it. This is a big deal for some of the OSR participants, who feel that all goals of play are supposed to be utterly organic and unspoken, mediated only by talk of “playing right,” which in turn is then polluted by a certain fundamentalist orthodoxy in the latter.
ii) incipient Narrativism was emphatically not what he wanted; in which case, I can’t say more because we never got to that point.

Furthermore, based on this and many similar conversations, I am convinced that people in this situation do not themselves know why they are angry.

One reason might lie in associative rather than definition-based terminology. The terms are loaded beyond belief and embedded in veritable strata of subculture and group-specific meanings. To some, saying “story” in role-playing means being railroaded, and even if they make wonderful stories of their own using what to me are classic Narrativist-facilitating procedures, then they are going to swear up and down and sideways that they don’t, or if they did, they never, ever intended to. Others have honed Participationist techniques to perfection and in their case, one of those techniques is never, ever to admit that they follow cues when “deciding” where their characters will next go on the map.

Another might lie in subcultural positioning and identity politics. The logic in that case is based on the idea that a particular game title is supposed to carry hobby-wide bragging rights for the good, best, most pure, and highest geek-status role-playing. The extent to which the authors and consumers of railroady White Wolf adventures and designers of games that blatantly imitate White Wolf buy into this is quite clear. The extent to which some OSR participants resent the “wrongful” dethroning of pre-2nd edition D&D (with or without the “A”) from this status is a matter for some concern

(It is worth noting that representatives of both groups despite their dislike of one another are united in inaccurately accusing me of such views regarding the Sorcerer text. I particularly like the claims that it openly and specifically defames White Wolf or D&D. There is no such mention. Inventing evidence is a giveaway sign of identity-based defensiveness.)

The question is whether the people discussing what sandbox is (and I hope, what it isn’t, some day, please) right now are going to descend into a such a morass as soon as one of them displays incipient Narrativism without knowing it, and no one can tell why everyone is suddenly getting angry.

More posts to come, about playing Champions 'way back in the day, and also The Babylon Project.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Chris_Chinn on November 03, 2011, 08:56:00 AM
Hi Ron,

This is pretty much the reason I created The Same Page Tool ( - I was looking for a way to talk to new people about what kind of game they're trying to play (and, of course, that alternatives exist, even if they were not aware of them initially).

I figured by grabbing a bunch of recognizable techniques and putting them in a value neutral menu, people could at least start getting together without the issues of "THEORYOMGWTFBBQ" reactions.

Aside from the usual "real gamers don't talk about the magic they make" thinking, I think a lot of the other anger comes out of a lot of these people having had bitter battles with past groups about what they were trying to do.  I'm finding a lot of the sudden rage outs is because some idea happens to poke a spot that's an unattended wound from past group conflicts - usually also buried down with "We don't talk about it".


edited to fix link - RE

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Abkajud on November 04, 2011, 06:50:52 AM
[hopefully this is on topic. If not, I'll just go put it up on my blog :)]
I've been the dysfunctional Narrativist in the room, and honestly it did boil down to me having a narrow vision of what was an acceptable form of play.
To whit (I may have shared this with you individually before, but anyway):
- Allison, a college friend, was going to run 4e D&D in the Eberron setting ( (
- I was still learning what I did and didn't like about Step On Up play, but I figured I'd give it a whirl.
- When the group made characters, I had a pretty strong concept in mind: a druid-ish priest of hearth and home who believed the Doom of Khorvaire was caused (spiritually, that is) by the people of that nation forgetting what was really important in life - obligations to family, community, and nature, and this Doom and the subsequent wars were their just punishment. My "guy" was going to find a way into Khorvaire, gather up any refugees he could find, and lead them to safety on the condition that they convert to his religion.
- The first scene I was in had me being told my "mission" by a prince: he would supply and reward me and my companions in exchange for us going into Khorvaire on a fact-finding mission. I told him I needed tents and food and water for refugees we were going to rescue, and he wasn't interested.
So we argued.
Pretty quickly, Allison seemed like she was actually getting upset with me for not going along with the "plot". What frustrated me was that I was; I just wanted to make some demands of this wealthy benefactor before going out on my quest. Sadly, negotiations (albeit of a more confrontational bent) constituted "getting away from the plot". She had assumed I would "understand" (that is, read the social cues) that I was just being given a mission brief and this was not the time to talk or really do much of anything other than listen.
- Later, with the party walking around the city after my briefing, the Warforged PC (a steampunk golem kinda dude, if anyone's unfamiliar) starts getting hassled by some locals who don't take kindly to their... kind. I stood up for our buddy, but an NPC accompanying us (as a guide, I guess?) told me to just let it go, that these things happen. When I went for a weapon, Allison interjected a Meaningful Look, and I got the message - - "Don't go exploring shit; this is my plot and you are ruining it right now."
- That was my first and last session with the group.

I think what I'm trying to say is that if I know where my interests lie, it's up to me to assess whether anyone else shares them in the group, and if they don't, I need to switch gears or gtfo. If I push for Narrativist play, and no one else wants that/knows what it is/kill it with fire!, then there's gonna be trouble. It's really interesting how every style of play, no matter how GM-heavy or GM-directed it is, requires some combination of active participation and passive non-interference in order to function.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Callan S. on November 06, 2011, 06:45:44 PM
It's only a hypothesis, but I imagine for story before players, they have already made their address of premise during prep. Then it's a matter of playing it out. The story now player gets identified as a story before player (people with hammers just see other people as having hammers). This apparently story before player then starts disrupting the playing out of the prepped address of premise. Which makes them a story before equivalent of a prima donna or player typhoid mary (the story now player effectively uses 'force' on the playing out of others prepped address of premise, since it wont let it play out). And so they get as angry as the rage felt when the names 'prima donna' and 'typhoid mary' were invented and defined.

How you'd test or more importantly, disprove that theory, I'm not sure of a method right now.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Abkajud on November 06, 2011, 08:39:01 PM
... okay. I think I get it. So, the misconception is that, because no one else has even heard of Story Now, they assume that you want Participationist play like the rest of the group, but you want the pre-determined plot to revolve around you and only you. Yes?
That is exactly what happened with me in the AP I mentioned; I could tell from the looks I was getting that this was the impression people got of me.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 09, 2011, 11:58:26 AM
Not surprisingly, early thoughts on how to get theme-emergent play focused on nailing down story structure. My and others’ thinking was, if you get the rising action and climactic stuff scheduled, even without necessarily pre-setting its content, then you can stop worrying about whether it will happen.

The tricky thing is that whole “it will occur vs. what is its content” distinction. I wrestled with this issue perhaps as hard and as long as anyone possibly could have for a solid decade. For reference, I began role-playing in 1978, with plenty of D&D of various textual combinations, also with a strong dose of The Fantasy Trip. Later games (not an inclusive list) included RuneQuest and Stormbringer.

My purpose here is to show that imposing structure does not itself resolve the Story Before vs. Story Now question of play, leaving the door open for all the problems I tried to discuss in my above two posts. I also want to show that I, when groping around in unstated but heartfelt commitment to Story Now, could not see how to (or that I should) avoid Story Before. My current thought is

The chapter technique
From 1985 through 1992, I played Champions almost continuously, at times playing in several games/groups simultaneously. For reference, until 1990, I used the 3rd edition (1985), including supplementary materials from earlier editions. After that, I used the 4th edition, although refusing to employ a number of its rules changes and relying mainly on the philosophy of play implied and sometimes explicit in the earlier editions’ materials.

Let’s see … 1985-1986, that was the Champions game (meaning, our fictional supergroup’s name was the same as the game’s title) that I GM’ed; then 1986-1989, that was the Shield game (no relation whatsoever to the organization in Marvel Comics, merely the same name) I GM’ed for almost the same people; then there was the Northwatch game I played a character in, in 1987-1989, with a different group entirely. Then I moved from Chicago to Gainesville, Florida, eventually organized a new group beginning with a Cyberpunk game, and GM’ed the Force Five game from 1990 through 1992, as well as a few shorter games, both GMing and playing in, during visits to Chicago.

Portrait of a gamer: I played a bunch of other games during this period too, some briefly, some for quite extended periods: Rolemaster in several settings, GURPS in several settings, Heroes Unlimited, Cyberpunk (original), a few home-brews of my own mostly about psychedelic fantasy adventure, Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy, The Fantasy Trip … probably more I’ll remember later. I should also mention my extreme involvement with The Clobberin’ Times APA, although only in its paper phase (see its History section ( Fortunately I was able to dig out my copies last night and find some very detailed material about the game, which means I don’t have to dig even further into the old notebooks, all of which I do have somewhere …

I’ll focus my attention on the method I worked out for the Shield game and then applied very, very strictly in the Force Five game.

My first, eponymous Champions game had been a social and creative sprawl, probably more like an actual Marvel title from the mid-60s through the mid-70s in doing “whatever” as we went along. The second game, Shield, was much more focused and got a few things out of my system: the epic time-travel circle (God, how tedious), learning the conceptual limits of mind control, and genre expectations. Also, along with the Northwatch game, it really taught me the game’s precise social and creative breakpoints.

Therefore, in setting up to play the Force Five game (note – the name was created by the players during character creation, not imposed by me), I presented and expected very strictly composed, articulated, agreed upon, and applied look & feel, comics sources, values standards, rules applications, and mechanical point structure. In my current terminology, I’d call it deep Color commitment + precise System manifestation.

First, I began with a handout, a couple of pages summarizing the general superhero setting and some twentieth-century history. So you know, I disliked “alternative history” settings for superheroes, preferring the approach more widely used when I was young, of having the superheroic events be effectively in our world, both as it happened and as it’s happening now, case closed, all inconsistencies ignored. I was also pretty tired of superhero settings with super-characters numbering in the hundreds of thousands. So, it looked like this ( I just noticed that I did not include some crucial information in the handout, but it had been articulated clearly to each player – that super-characters had never been common, but in 1980, at the most common (about 120 world-wide), 99% of them disappeared.

I am not sure how many people reading this will understand, but regarding the setting, the point is to prepare very, very little beyond what’s on the page. This handout also included a brief but very pointed summary of the comics I was most inspired by for this game, what features of them I wanted to draw upon, and why; as well as a specification of my desired application of the rather sprawling Champions rules. This latter was particularly emphasized in my initial verbal invitation to play and at our first get-together.

Then came massive character creation with a lot of aesthetic commitment, cluing the players into most of the general prep aside from a secret or two. Properly constructed (per CA), Champions characters are honed combinations of flash, bang, and soap opera, in varying proportions which lend themselves well to individual players’ desires. My goal at the time was to tie as much of all three into my own super-historical back-story ideas as possible, thus enriching the latter considerably and providing as much immediate relevance per character as possible.

(Huh! I hadn’t broken superheroes into that little set of casual variables before. Very helpful.)

Content was particularly good for the Force Five game, and I had a strong idea of how much to provide, how much to make up later, and how much to let arise from the characters.

The players did a pretty good job! Force Five ( (mis-identified at the CT site as the Shield), clockwise from top left: Serpentine, Strobe, Blackfell, She-Dragon, Irie. Blackfell was a replacement for Cortex, a character who had to be retired for a while when a player moved away and another guy joined the group. I’ll see about scanning some of the other art we accumulated as well; some of it is quite good.

Strobe: flash that won’t quit, enough bang for fun, and hardly any soap opera (player was Lawrence Collins)
She-Dragon: maxed out on all three (player was Mike Kent)
Irie: very hip flash (Jamaican = coolest on Earth, at the time), plenty of bang, enough soap opera to work with (player was Pat Beatty)
Cortex: scary bang, not much flash (had to force it), not enough soap opera (forced that too) (player was Andy Rothfusz)
Serpentine, if she counts: smooth blend of all three with maximum hooking-in (my in-group NPC)

Their various back-stories and details led me produce new, more detailed handouts (, in tandem with preparing stuff for play. In other words, the new handouts contained a lot of seed material for the first notions I had about what to do. Looking over these handouts, I think they were actually built upon the originals after a few sessions of play.

I knew some major in-play features awaited down the road: revealing that their quite decent patron had been (the real) Doctor Chaos to see what they would do about it, going up against Raptor (his son) and learning what the Disappearance was. But when and how this stuff would happen, I left for later. I tried not to let that overwhelm the question of the moment, which was, what were we doing right now?

more in a minute

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 09, 2011, 12:00:55 PM
Now here’s the important part: specific preparation. As with the Shield game before it, for the Force Five game, I always prepped with five sessions in mind, which I called a chapter. I set up five sessions for which the fifth will climactically resolve the conflicts brought to the fore in the preceding ones. Typically, I’d choose or invent a villain or villain group to be the central problem, thinking in terms of shining a light on what I used to call “campaign history.” I want to stress that the post-prep, post-play result of a given chapter made our “game world” look very deep and detailed, but the depth and detail actually arose from this chapter-prep and play, not from prior work.

As a detail which is interesting in its own right but not immediately to the point here, every chapter or two (i.e. 5-10 sessions), I’d choose up exactly three published adventures or sourcebooks for either Champions or Villains & Vigilantes, and basically cherry-pick anything I liked in them, renaming and retooling as desired, to use in the material I was currently prepping.

I’d also think character-centric, looking at relevant NPCs, especially the “official” ones like Dependent NPCs and Hunteds (non-Champions people, that means hunters of the player-characters), looking at outstanding or time-to-discover issues for the PCs (whether personal or group). I thought about whether the events arising from this musing would be drive vs. distraction, and mystery vs. confrontation.

As with many other Champions players, I followed the advice of the core book to play, name, and number play-sessions as if they were precisely like issues of a comic book.

The first chapter of the Force Five game was called Feather Tigers. It had deepened the “campaign history” and established some characters I’d plan to use throughout the whole campaign, notably Raptor and Patternmaster. In the second session, I’d annihilated the “big” supergroup called the Citadel, using cherry-picked bits from the V&V supplement (There’s a) Crisis at Crusaders’ Citadel); my big twist was that it wasn’t a villain attack, but rather Raptor twisted the world’s premier supergroup into his supervillainous minions. I was pleased with the whole chapter thematically because a lot of the nominal villains were just guys trying to make a buck or deal with a bad break, and a lot of the nominal heroes were superficial and not especially effective jerks. So Force Five gained an internal-motivation mandate to “be better” despite their apparent maximum glitzy flash. However, it wasn’t much of a story; the fifth session simply happened to be especially dangerous.

So I’ll try to explain exactly what went into preparing for the second chapter, which I decided to call Mind Games, after the title of another published sourcebook I’d chosen. In fact, I used quite a bit of it, and had already merged a certain amount of its back-story into my canonical original prep. The big exception was that the organization PSI stood for Paraphysical Studies Insitute and it was not based on psychic/psionic powers, just surreal ones which I built to deconstruct the whole “psionics” trip in the first place.

I also used the Champions supplement Deathwish, greatly altered, turning the textual heavy-metal villains who also happened to be a band into a real band who were not villains at all and openly used their (minor) powers on-stage. My idea for their story role was that the band’s profits were being covertly siphoned away to fund PSI. I can’t for the life of me remember what PSI was actually up to. Something bad.

Merge that with the “our heroes themselves” and “learn some history” material, much of which involved extending opportunities for soap opera. I wanted to show that now, after the Citadel was fallen, the other superheroes in the world were either minor professionals like Deathwish or quite limited in their effectiveness, like Revelation and Fist of God with Christ’s American Church.

So in laying it out by the numbers, the two books’ inclusion and my thoughts on what to do with it all looked something like this:

Session #6: introduce Helene Cheneneaux, who manifests fear-powers and disrupts Deathwish concert, she becomes Chimera; set up Force Five’s home base in Tampa, offer Helene as potential crèche member for Cortex (this worked in #7)
Session #7: introduce PSI member Mind’s Eye, fight their front (and naïve dupes) Christ’s American Church; abduct Albert, Strobe’s DNPC, to get things moving
Session #8: abduct Cortex and Serpentine, introduce turncoat PSI member Omen who helps the team, Strobe vs. PSI assassins in the supervillain prison facility, hence the two youngest members of the team are forced to make a lot of decisions, discover Deathwish funds PSI
Session #9: Deathwish concert, find the PSI mole in the band
Session #10: assault on PSI headquarters

You can see that I relied heavily on abductions for plot hooks which looked more like shepherd’s crooks, but by #9, they were no longer employed because the heroes were on the move on their own at that point, and I had the NPC Omen to provide some impetus as well. I remember that I was amused at having PSI easily located via the phone book once the heroes found out Mind’s Eye’s real name. (I mean, that’s the whole point of a secret identity, right, that you’re fucked if someone finds out? Why should villains not have to worry about that?)

By this point, I was either drawing from a large list of potential session titles, that I was always compiling, or having new ones occur to me. I used them as scheduled about 80% of the time, sometimes coming up with a new name based on what actually happened. In this case, they turned out to be, in order, Haywire, Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake, Dagger of the Mind, The Heart of Rock and Roll is Still Beating, and Dance of the Seven Veils.

Some other dynamics were also at work. I wanted to provide a justification for getting Cortex out of play because Andy was moving out of town, so turning him to stone in #10 was pretty much a fixed plan. I was accumulating as much soap opera as possible, especially the Helene-Cortex relationship. I really wanted to let the players’ actions set up the events of #10, and see whether they could “do Force Five” without me handing it to them, which turned out well. Basically, they brought down PSI and gained accolades and a sense of a job well done due to their own decisions about how to conduct an operation of this kind.

(I often took a section of the big time-line you saw in the first handout and “deepened” with many details following a given chapter, drawing on what we had established in prep and play. I just found two of these written after about 10 sessions, detailing the histories of the Citadel and PSI.)

(Our third chapter was called “Family Matters” and focused very deeply on character origins, Serpentine being the team patron’s daughter, She-Dragon’s fraught relationship with her over-controlling parents, and stuff like that, all embedded deeply in the overall history/back-story.)

When it worked, the chapter-based prep was incredibly satisfying, because we enjoyed the sense of a story “coming together,” being relevant to characters due to coincidence and due to historical events now coming “home to roost,” and with knowledge that certain crisis/question material would in fact come to an irreducible resolution. Looking over my play accounts in the CT, it’s fascinating how I specified, even twenty years ago, that I absolutely did not want to railroad people into pre-planned climaxes. It required a lot of flexibility and a certain amount of compromise. Sometimes that flexibility turned into “Roads to Rome,” regarding a climax or revelation I simply could not live without, but sometimes it opened up into “well, whatever happens.”

What I didn’t realize was what we were failing to do, which became quite pronounced after the 20th session. (We played out 45 sessions, if I remember correctly, which given the high-content chapter prep, was easily the equivalent of 200 sessions’ worth of content compared to a number of Champs games I was in.)

I can see why that was the transition. It so happened that when the fourth chapter was over, we’d pretty much accounted for the entire original timeline, dealt with the Looming Threat implicit in it, decided what to do with the fact that Doctor Chaos was still alive and their patron, and effectively established Force Five as the real-deal superhero team, perhaps the first one in history.

That brings up a lesson I learned about back-story and Premise, which is that they only go so far – endings do matter. In violating this lesson, endless serial fiction has inherent limits that have to be accepted to be fun, and in some cases, doing so is less fun. I’m not one of these people who says “Man, they should have had another season.” I think Holmes should have died in his fight with Moriarty.

Anyway, what we needed to do, but failed to happen from that point onwards was character-driven, decision-driven story. Our setting-work completed, we turned toward character development, and the entire crisis of “who’s character is it, anyway?” slowly took root, in different ways per character. It never ruined the game in a climactic sense, but it did itch at all of us. Mike Kent was the guy who brought it up to me; I knew we were having less and less fun, but couldn’t tell why, and he knew what the problem was, but didn’t know why or how it messed up our plots.

We hashed it out to find that neither of us knew how to resolve “GM’s Story” vs. “I play my hero.” I’d finally discovered that even if everyone wanted to do this, and trusted one another to do it well, and in fact did do it with integrity and “fun first” as the point … that it didn’t work.

Remember, I’d played the most astonishing truckload of Champions by this point. I had identified every single intrinsic game-busting problem for me and the people I liked to play with, and with the Force Five game we had resolved them all … only to find that there was one, fundamental, infrastructural detail left: that the basic act of “we make this story,” which we’d considered to be a no-brainer, was broken. I wanted a great story and took responsibility for making sure it happened + Mike wanted to play his character for real + he liked my stories and wanted to enjoy them + I wanted Mike to play his character = Does Not Compute.

You can see it right there in the handout, in a spritely and confident: “Your characters will be the MAIN characters in the story …” What a quagmire awaits below that simple, ordinary, quickly-passed over word, “in.”

At the time, we didn’t resolve it. In retrospect, I can see that my structural approach to preparation was intended to solve the problem of “Will we have a story,” and that I’d socially, creatively, and systemically honed the rather sprawly and potentially broken notion of “play Champions” into non-problematic engine. If we’d all wanted to use Participationist technique to enjoy my stories, we could have done it. But … ultimately, Mike and I, and the others to a lesser extent, thought we were getting problematic stuff out of the way so we could (without using the term or openly understanding the concept) play Narrativist. The problem we uncovered, after succeeding at the first part, was that we did not know how.

The lesson: imposed rising-action structure cannot itself solve the problem of Before vs. After vs. Now. It can be a powerful tool in any play which privileges the production of story, but must properly be recognized as a techniques issue, not an agenda issue.

Although I acquired the deep foundation of experiential data during that time, I didn’t process and apply that lessons until the first Sorcerer games began to fire on all cylinders (The First Ever campaign setting ( The real point is simple: shoot the Impossible Thing in the head. What I learned about GMing was articulated and summarized much, much later in Playing Bass (Narrativism essay preview) (, which for present purposes should be understood as looking at techniques and seeing how they can be tuned and applied toward Narrativist play. As it turned out, despite that thread's title, that material did not get incorporated into Narrativism: Story Now after all, specifically because I realized that people would confound the Techniques-based, CA-neutral issue with the focused, applied-to-Narrativism issue.

My next installment concerns a different sort of structural approach that I and others tried in the mid-1990s with another game, The Babylon Project. I’m open to questions or comments as I go along, so post if you’d like.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 11, 2011, 06:17:03 AM
Re-reading those monster posts, I am not sure if I provided the right details to punch my point home.

After episode #20, I lacked the setting-grounding to make open-ended situations, and shifted more toward ending-based thinking when preparing chapters, or toward character-centric thinking which presumed/needed certain things to happen.

The one which may have bugged Mike most, although I think this was an endemic, constant problem for me and the group at the time, concerned the romance that I was hoping to blossom between his character She-Dragon and an NPC, Metalstorm.

Mike was a very, very good role-player as an incipient Narrativist, often somewhat internal insofar as his interest in the material was concerned. She-Dragon (Gwen Collins) was a seven-foot-tall, chromed, gleaming, statuesque babe-and-a-half, sort of a very sexy Colossus without the striations, electric blue eyes, curly red hair (i.e. actual fine wires), with huge oval electromagnetic rainbow wings that manifested somewhat uncontrollably. She was also a classic trope, having been a perfectly normal sixteen-year-old prior to the (origin too detailed for accounting here), basically trapped in this new social and implicitly sexual role and having to grow up fast. Mike cared very deeply about her development as a character, to the extent that pure experiential Actor Stance was his preferred mode of play. He didn't mind if things didn't move along very fast, as long as they eventually did.

The trouble with Metalstorm is clear in retrospect: (i) the character was a hamster wheel in that he had no particular roots in any particular supers or political history; (ii) he was doubly a hamster wheel in that I employed circular logic in thinking that he's there for She-Dragon to be romantically interested in, and assuming she's romantically interested in him, so now we can focus on him and them; and (iii) I proceeded with the relevant breakdown of the romance as if it existed, due to my chapter-based prep.

But the minute that I shifted more toward Story Before (recall the Before/Now balance in our game was already a little uncertain), my role as GM and his more-than-adequate, indeed excellent presence in the game became ... well, immunologically incompatible. And we couldn't figure out why. He knew quite well that a story resulted in great part from protagonist action, but neither of us could figure out how that related to adverse situations and to structural preparation. Thinking back to our conversation, I remember how much it affected me as I worked on early drafts of Sorcerer, and how much it fed directly into the insights I described in the "first campaign" material that I linked to above.

In designing and drafting early Sorcerer, I remember thinking that the relatively limp, unsatisfying later stages of She-Dragon's story were exactly what I was fighting against - I didn't want to provide GM instructions which facilitated that kind of result. But all my skill at GMing Champions, which I immodestly claim ranked as high as anyone's who's played that game, had turned out to be

It shouldn't surprise anyone that all this peaked in the spring of 1992. It so happened that I finished my Master's, caught an insanely horrible case of chicken pox, went to Chicago for the summer, played one last try at Champions to ridiculously bad effect (see Your worst campaign ever? (, and during that time, read Over the Edge for the first time.

Anyway, I hope that clarified the situation with Mike and She-Dragon a little bit better. What I'm saying is that although typically I was "that guy" "ruining" someone else's Story Before game, here, I was seeing it from the other side. It wasn't anywhere near as toxic a situation as I've been in, before or since, but in some ways, our dedication to exactly the same aesthetic principles of characters, comics, and stories was contributing to the problem - and we had no systemic means of addressing it.

Side point: That's why "don't be a dick" is not the panacea solution to problems in role-playing, and why I know, when someone says that everything I've written boils down that, that they have no idea what I'm writing about.

Main point: incipient Narrativism, again, is the enemy of Story Before even in its most functional, Participationist arrangement, with the best will in the world on both sides, with absolutely no disconnect in terms of desired content.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Abkajud on November 11, 2011, 02:57:11 PM
Sometimes the budding Narrativist in the group will pick an arena within play and Story Now the hell out of it.

Case in point: an unintended disconnect between my expectations and the group's expectations led to some interesting and productive tension.
Basically, I was an Abyssal in an Exalted game. During character creation, I had visions of really sharing the gospel of Oblivion with mortals, of taking on a sort of missionary role, dipped in black-metal aesthetics.
The GM had other, complementary ideas - the Deathlords (my bosses) were completely uninterested in any sort of ideology or proselytism. They were just your standard ruthless bad guys with a skulls-and-death motif.
When I, the idealist, butted heads with their bloodless power games, things really, really took off. At first I didn't understand what was going on - I got frustrated (as a player) that these NPCs didn't see things my way, that they didn't care. So what did I do? I decided that I would show that I cared, through play, even if no one else got it (NPCs or my fellow players).
My apotheosis came when a rogue Deathlord crossed our path, with a Solar war party hot on its trail. My fellow Abyssals fought the creature, and somewhere in there I decided, "Fuck it, I don't wanna serve Oblivion any more!"
I crossed the battlefield and threw myself at the Solar's feet, begging them to take me on as a prisoner-cum-faithful servant. The GM gave me a really weird look and said, "Ok, they're willing to trust you for now."

Honestly, if the GM had "cooperated" by making NPCs my allies in my cause, I don't think it would have been very interesting. Conflict was central to my enjoyment of the emerging theme, and it did emerge, in spite of the mechanics and the play group, but it pretty much only happened "to me". And the limitations to this "don't mind me!" approach are obvious - it's unreliable and the game (and the group) will likely fight you if you try to do it this way.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: James_Nostack on November 11, 2011, 04:12:19 PM
Comics fan question: did it turn out that PSI's secret backer was Doctor Chaos, and PSI had persuaded the world that the other 118.8 super humans no longer existed?   Also: lotta Byrne on that list of inspirations.  The structure of those early Alpha Flight stories is interesting (maybe a big get-together every year or so, with a few heroes off on their own the other 11 months of the year, with back-up stories) and one I wish other team comics had explored.  Playing a super-hero team troupe style has never been done in supers games (so far as I know, which isn't much).

Substance point: I had a very similar experience to this in an Alternity game I played back in 2002-2005.  It ended up being more functional in part because I was able to transition play to a much more open-ended thing midway through the campaign, so that we had a large amount of (Story Before) play that we were all passionate about, and then I gave the reins to the players to handle any way they chose.  Which was a hell of a lot more fun than prepping the hell out of everything.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Callan S. on November 11, 2011, 06:36:06 PM
That brings up a lesson I learned about back-story and Premise, which is that they only go so far – endings do matter. In violating this lesson, endless serial fiction has inherent limits that have to be accepted to be fun, and in some cases, doing so is less fun. I’m not one of these people who says “Man, they should have had another season.” I think Holmes should have died in his fight with Moriarty.

It's not as epic, but this reminds me of my groupd 3.5 campaign. After getting to about level 10 on average and having aquired as a group a little keep on our own patch of borderland (as well as some gold and weaponry (well below the books average, though), as a group...we had kind of reached our wildest dreams right there. It was a 'Whoever wants to, GM's' kind of game and I remember my friend Daniel saying "Well, castles need upkeep and you need to adventure for upkeep" and I got this unpleasant feeling. It was like an instant, fairly realistic hamster wheel, so that we were always one inch from forfilling the own your own castle dream. And it felt uhh, because that could be spun out like an american soap - forever. He also asked me to co GM a campaign with those characters, which I took up and we worked on a bit with a guy called Blood Weaver, who was genetically reseting people into beastial forms in an effort to start from whole cloth and get everything right this time. Clearly with an impetus, if unspoken, if him eventually being beaten (pre decided result). But although we ran some game with that stuff in it (with me as a player, even), it never really took off. We had our castle, almost and...okay, some wierd monsters are around. Yeah, it was a primarily gamist game, but I suspect there actually has to be a sort of character motivation spine to it, and we had completed that spine (barring the hamster wheel).

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 11, 2011, 07:46:28 PM
Hi everyone,

I greatly appreciate the feedback. This thread is proving quite harrowing to compose, and ordinarily, I’d merely enjoy the intellectual responses, but it turns out I’m sort of needing them emotionally, for once.

Zac, I know what you’re talking about. I did this to some extent with my character Nocturne in the Northwatch game, although I think the others generally enjoyed it as audience. He was a fun character and I played him with verve, and Ran was able to indulge his wilder side in ways that the other characters (very white-bread) provided no opportunities for. I was a horrible talking-hog though, in that game, and Ran had to shut me up a lot. And the corollary problem, too, was that since “my” movie was the only really thematically adverse one, I tended to be uninterested in the other characters, tuning out during play, and looking forward more to Ran and I hanging out for a while after play.

Also, your observation reminds me of a conversation from GenCon a few years ago. I was approached by two guys seeking a podcast interview, one of whom was so bent out of shape by “me” that he was belligerent. Among other things, he insisted that playing more than one Creative Agenda at the table was totally possible. I swear, this is what he said: "You can too do it! I did it! ... Uh, well, I had to run five separate games simultaneously, but I did it!" One of those moments when you spread your hands and say, “Thanks for winning my argument.”

Hey James,

Comics fan question: did it turn out that PSI's secret backer was Doctor Chaos, and PSI had persuaded the world that the other 118.8 super humans no longer existed?

Nope. PSI was merely ancillary to the real story going on, a particularly severe example of how superpowers were deeply embedded in political history and personal aggrandizement. They were already merely the leftovers of the original PSI, and once they were taken down in that chapter, they were gone.

There was a Humongous Interstellar Entity called the Devourer who was going to eat all life on Earth, and the retired Doctor Chaos diverted its attention to the world’s super-powered people, hoping they’d actually be able to stop it. They weren’t; it ate them; but that fulfilled his Plan B because it turned out to be enough power to sate it; now Raptor was bringing it back.

Doctor Chaos (retired) was a standup guy, and frankly, I never thought of him as a villain, more of an at-least-arguable Third Way fuck-you to the superpowers. I should explain that the latter decade of his career in the handout (post 1956 or so) was actually another guy in his outfit, the Winsington guy. The real Doctor Chaos, who’d retired to contemplate things, was named Hamilton. He was both Raptor’s and Serpentine’s father.

Also, part of the point was that as the world's former premier supervillain, and having sired arguably the single most evil (or at least the most insanely amoral) supervillain of all, Raptor, he was now seeking to mentor real heroes. If not the world's first in terms of individuals, definitely the world's first ideals-based, uncompromised hero team.

Out of order, regarding the troupe-style idea: the closest to that in my reading list was Suicide Squad written by Ostrander and Yale, especially after the two-year mark. A certain amount of the stuff “on their own” turned out to be aspects of missions, but not all of it, especially when the Bronze Tiger and Vixen moonlighted to do stuff with the PLO (unnamed in the book) and took sides in certain African disputes, all of which became relevant later in the story. An obvious example was the four-issue limited series with Deadshot, in which the phrase “all about my mother” took on particularly horrible meaning.

You’re right to spot the Byrne influence, but I must stress that I was openly seeking to redeem Byrne, taking the stuff I really liked (which I thought of as heir to both Lee and Thomas) and excising the ridiculous contempt for the material he seemed unable to quell in anything he worked on except for that glorious run in the Fantastic Four.

I wish I’d been able to let go of the reins as much as you did with the Alternity game. Or perhaps it would have been best for us to call it at episode #20, saying, now that was a fuckin’ good story, and leaving it alone.

Callan, I totally agree that character motivation often has to be at least present, even if not the single most driving force, in a lot of people’s primarily Gamist play. (Per Gareth’s point in a current thread, this is a choice; lacking it doesn’t make people bad or conditioned or pathological in any way.) It looks as if the “OK we did it!” feeling should have been honored by closure, much as “OK, we did it, we’re a real team with a real purpose!” could well have been so honored in the Force Five game.

Also, your description seems tied to an observation of mine that a lot of D&D seems to hit a sweet spot from levels 4 through 8, with 10 being a potential moment of sprawling breakdown.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Web_Weaver on November 12, 2011, 12:22:52 AM
Hi Ron,

With you all the way on this, lots of resonances with my play experience, which is mainly Glorantha based so you can imagine I'm sure.

But apart from pointing out I'm an interested reader, I wanted to pull on a loose thread that is nagging at me.

Your use of Story Before / Story After as terms seems a bit problematic. They work as terms that help define Story Now in the negative, but whenever you or others even passingly apply them to other CAs they just seem to loose their meaning. So the question is really, do you think these terms even have any meaning outside of the context of Story Now play?

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Web_Weaver on November 12, 2011, 01:47:16 AM
Taking it to a new thread, too much to say.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 15, 2011, 11:17:22 AM
The underbelly technique
In the mid-1990s, I regularly went to a friend’s house to watch Babylon 5, during its original airing. Various members of our loose social circle had been doing some role-playing together for a while, with different games, one or another of us acting as GM.

Regarding this phase of my role-playing, after all that Champions, I finally got the grail of “the saga” out of my system, as well as really scratching my superhero itch (it’s never really returned in the same form). That means I wasn’t injecting frustration or needs from failed attempts to do those things into new play, for the first time in my life. I’d put the earliest version of Sorcerer on-line by that point, and since I was embarked on a thoroughly different design strategy, I was reading both old and new texts with new eyes. I was already working hard on systemic approaches to better results, but I had not yet learned about the Threefold discussions.

Therefore one look at The Babylon Project told me it wasn’t going to help us much in terms of system. It wasn’t my pick, but I think my friend Tom proposed it because of its official status relative to the show. This was, for me, the last serious attempt to play toward what I wanted (at this point, still un-articulated) with merely genre expectations as our shared basis for success.

We used an interesting structural technique as well, which I took to calling “underbelly.” My goals in presenting this are: (i) to discuss the thread topic of failing to find our Narrativist feet, although not tragically; (ii) to clarify that the imposed structure of the setting-changes did not itself interfere with that goal; and (iii) to open up the dialogue about how truly wide the range is for the setting-dial, in terms of both its impact on play and play’s impact on it.

I’ve described the technique before, in Meta-plots, Railroading and Settings (, Open/Closed Setting(Pyron's Woe's Take 165) (, and Quandry: using a beloved setting that's highly restrictive ( When reading these threads, if you do, please keep in mind that all of us posting often confounded setting and story. In my case, you can see me trying to claw through the fog by distinguishing between metaplot and changing-setting, which I will bring up again at the end of this post. To avoid too much necessary back-thread reading, here’s my description of the technique from the Pyron’s Woes thread:

The underbelly tactic was inspired by one of my friends' description of an early Star Wars RPG adventure scenario, in which, at the end, the player-characters delivered a crucial recording to a little 'droid who goes "queep" and rolls off to begin the Star Wars movie. This adventure spawned a whole bunch of imitators through dozens of games which I call "Stepin Fetchit" scenarios, ie, the player-characters are couriers for the real heroes and villains, but with a little discussion, we came up with a different application.

The idea we hit was to choose a good ten episodes of Babylon Five (we left which ones up to the GM, although we all agreed on the season first). We all made up characters who were present on the scene, i.e., employed or visiting the station. So we were there in the story, and we were at the center of the action, although we made sure to make up PCs who had no direct personal tie to any of the canonical protagonists.

Tom, the GM, came up with a set of conflicts that related to the later story (with which we were all familiar). As these played out, he "ran" the canonical events simultaneously with "our" events, with all of us committed to the idea of avoiding contradictions, and equally responsible for it. Sometimes, whenever it seemed reasonable and consistent to Tom, our story caused or influenced elements of the canonical story; other times and more often, we'd hear about or see the effects of the canonical story, basically as changing setting.

The story of interest to us was that of our characters, which had conflicts and issues of its own, but as time went by, what we generated was a personal "take" or "complete version" (to put it egotistically) of the canonical story. Basically, we puffed ourselves up to being Strazcinski's collaborators, in our own minds - which if you think about it, was exactly why we were playing in that setting in the first place.

I like the "underbelly" idea. I think it preserves the respect for and interest in the canonical story, while still providing protagonism for the player-characters. The only constraint, and it must be a shared constraint, is to strive for consistency with the canonical story. Given shared commitment to this, even that becomes an interesting and fun creative task.

As you can see, this is pure techniques talk with no particular CA associated with it, merely the desire to hook into a canonical setting without being mere errand-runners. In our game, Creative Agenda was still wobbly, as most of us figured “being good at it” was the only real criterion. I was the exception, having learned such a bitter lesson from the summer 1992 Champions game that I had been almost fully convinced that role-playing was a broken medium, and at this time, five years later, only tentatively convinced that something could be done about it. I know that Ashley was deeply committed to full-on player-authority protagonism (in part from the other games she was in later, like Zero, Castle Falkenstein, and Deadlands in descending order of satisfaction). Tom was the in-play GM with his wife Camille as a prep-consultant co-GM, and I think he found himself making a serious choice about how to GM Ashley’s character. They eventually decided that low-grade telepathy (the only real option for starting characters) was worthless in the setting, and upgraded her into a P10, bypassing all point-structure mechanics to do so, so that her character arc could actually be about something. However, as I described in Can GNS modes be identified outside of GNS conflict? (, specifically page 3, it never gelled for us as a group. In fact, I think I’ll quote myself from that thread:

Our game of the Babylon Project in 1995 [this must be wrong because the game was released in 1997 – RE]; it might be considered my lesson in how badly a couple years of Magic had marred my role-playing skills, but also how well a couple of years of Magic had taught me that role-playing rules were largely bogus, and become more so by the month.

I was playing the Centauri pirate, Zev Cesare. For the first few sessions, it's fair to say that no Force was exerted on me or my fellow players. Result? A hell of a lot of good reinforcement of the primary source material (obviously, the show, second season; we were playing "underbelly" on the Babylon Station, given our knowledge of later season or so). That reinforcement took the shape of very fun character depiction (accents, etc), some runnin' around trying to find stuff on the station, and a few brawls based on inter-race prejudice, simple politics, or misunderstandings.

In other words, not much of any story resulted except for tracking the story we already knew existed (the show's) and using that as a group-celebrated constraint. Did we "do" Babylon Five to our satisfaction during this phase? Sure. But we were also itchy that no story of our own was occurring - at least, the GM and his co-GM/assistant were.

Now, the second half of our game (about six or seven more sessions) were characterized by a mix of aggressive scene framing (not itself Force, usually) and basic Force, usually toward a couple of other players who were looking for cues of the sort I describe above. Not outright "you do this" statements on the part of the GM, but "opportunities" which were essentially "do this" offers that were not intended to be refused. As the players were tacitly complicit in taking such offers, we were off to the races and "a story" occurred - helmed throughout, of course, by the GM.

This is a good example because we can compare the no-Force and Force phases of play, and also because I did have a hell of a lot of fun, most of the time. Most of my fun came from a strong Explorative focus - because I was expressing my fandom for the show via a character whose like was not seen on but was fully consistent with the show. For those of you familiar with it, I'm sure you can see that a flamboyant Centauri pirate is a way fun notion.


Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 15, 2011, 11:18:48 AM
And when asked for further detail:

Due to popular request, a typical early session in the Babylon Project game ...

The characters included my pirate, a young telepath (the most thankless character choice in the system), and one other I can't recall well, but was probably a trader/gambler of some kind. [I remember now, he was - RE] The setting is a space station which fulfills a dipolomatic role among all these different spacegoing races/cultures. However, for us, the show itself was also setting, in the underbelly sense. The GM had chosen a sequence of episodes we were all familiar with, and the events of our game were to occur on the station during those episodes. Our shared constraint was not to futz with the canonical events, and our overall goal was to have a kind of "second show" that a B5 fan would appreciate greatly. We didn't know which episodes they were exactly, starting out, although we knew the season, and as expected and appreciated by all of us, we sussed out which episodes we were in pretty quickly.

Now for the session. There were three things going on in the show during these episodes, one of which was only known to people who were watching the current episodes. A war was brewing between two of the races, a prophecy of some kind was coming to fruition, and very nasty uber-alien, Lovecraftian beings were manipulating things behind the scenes (that would only become clear to viewers during the third season). [editing this in: that description isn't quite right; when composing the original post, I didn't remember the exact sequence. I’ll clarify the precise show components and how they related to the episodes/seasons timing if anyone’s interested. – RE]

Well. The episode I recall best from this period concerned things for all of our characters: the telepath was being chased around the station (unregistered TPs were illegal), and the other two were enmeshed in a big fight in a bar area, during which some gangsters tried to kill my character under cover of the brawl. We got to shoot up a bunch of gangsters. At one point, the telepath glimpsed a terrifying and horrible Lovecraftian alien being deep in the bowels of the station, and it spoke to her in some sort of mind-shattering way. The setting closed with the pirate and the trader/gambler character getting individually interrogated lightly by the security chief of the station (an important character on the show).

The system has a few interesting features; the one I liked the most was the resolution of arms fire, with "misses" possibly still hurting the person, just not where you aimed. Fights were fun in this game. On the other hand, the basic resolution system was a 2d6 TN system dressed up in unnecessary handling-time manipulations to seem like it was "new" (a common thing at this point).

The experience of play had exactly the features you describe, Elliott: not much direction or "do this" from the GM, but also not much in the way of characters actually driving at things they wanted or cared about. We all steered our characters around and had them say things. It was, in fact, action-packed, and we all got to deliver combat or escape tactics, as well as interact with some colorful individuals. But a lot of our actions were "feelers," just doing stuff to see what beeped or hit "the story," such as when my character called his aunt because I simply couldn't imagine anything else for him to do that would discover anything. The beep turned out to be a buzz when this accidentally precipitated a political incident. So our actual activity as people, players, was very much in the realm of "do stuff, find out if it's a beep or a buzz."

Touchstones for the show included tension between the two brawling alien races, a brief glimpse of the terrifying alien, and the security chief. We all took these aspects seriously, such that the fact that we brought them off with no violation of our primary, show-based enjoyment of them was sufficient reward for play.

And yes, the key issue from a larger perspective is that this payoff is insufficient, for me. It palls; two episodes of recognizing that this "don't violate the show, do colorful stuff" process is possible is plenty. The GM felt the same way and went into a more Force-heavy approach (the only approach that to him would yield "story"), and the whole thing took on the sameness of many such games. Yes, things "held together" and our characters "came together and teamed up," and the story ended with the telepath becoming immensely strong and going off to become something important, elsewhere. However, the story only became a story insofar as A led to B; it was a tapestry, but not much else. I can't even recall what we teamed up against.

If we had, on the other hand, gone into a mode in which all of us were issues-oriented, and focused on developing other angles onto the thematic content of the show which mattered to us (and in fact, the show was extremely strong by the 4th season), then I think we would have been astonished. Such a mode might be muted and slow and subtle, or it might have been a slam-bang conflict-conflict approach - doesn't matter. But no such modality occurred.

I think this fits well with the thread topic of not-quite-understood, desired but not entirely realized Story Now play, in the sub-category of no real Agenda clash arising, but not really successful application of that agenda either. This particular group of people and I went on to try to use more systemic means toward what we wanted, playing Hong Kong Action Theater, Zero, Castle Falkenstein, a focused/Drifted application of Marvel Super Heroes, and more. The “discontents” in this case were more like negative results for probes in an ongoing investigation, helping us sort out what we found did and didn’t work, rather than being crashing failures.

The big take-away for the thread topic, I think, is that we did hit upon a genuinely successful means of opening things up for creating a story, but then encountered uneasy tension about what to impose Before which did not interfere with Story Now. Therefore this play-account reinforces my point about the chapter technique.

It also brings up a much more difficult topic. I want to stress that imposed setting does not, in and of itself, impair Narrativist play. Yes, we used a canonical setting, and in fact, our particular fan-fave, geeked-out setting at that time; and yes, we imposed a linear structure upon play which was entirely relevant, indeed an integrated scaffolding, for the plot. Neither of these caused us a bit of trouble regarding Narrativist goals. Our problem was that we didn’t manage to rise above mere satisfaction, which led to productive dialogue among all of us about why not.

It also brings up the very thorny issue of not only setting, but a changing setting. To talk about this, we have to be rigorous with definitions.

Setting should not be a catch-all term for anything that’s external to the characters. It should be restricted to the notion of everything known about everything external to the characters.

So that means two things: (i) characters are inside a Setting, hence encountering only a subset of it; and (ii)Situation is an emergent property of where, when, and how characters are encountering that subset, including who they are as well.

The hard part about thinking about it this way is that Setting beyond Situation is not necessarily emphasized or even considered in many perfectly functional ways to play. You don’t need to consider Setting beyondthe Situation level, but here, in this thread and in my recent essay, we’re talking about when we want to.

With all that settled (I hope), now we can address the fact Situations do change via play – in fact, they have to, or arguably, play hasn’t even occurred regardless of how many dice were rolled or how much in-character posturing occurred. Think in terms of Heraclitus: “No man can step into the same river twice; in the first place, it’s not the same river, and in the second, he’s not the same man.” A given system might emphasize either change in the river more or the change in the man more, but you gotta have either or both.

Whew, and now we can impose upon all this the much larger-scale variable of Setting changing too. How is this done? What are the implications of doing it?

Well, one thing’s for sure: changes in Setting are a very significant algebraic modifier of any imaginable
Situation within it, going forward. Which makes play which directly reaches “up” to affect/change setting a very, very important option to consider. And indeed, which way you flip on this, i.e., doing it or not doing it, also implies entirely different meanings or even purposes for starting with an especially detailed setting

As I mentioned in the essay, historically, dedicated Narrativist play has generally been character-centric, and hence, play is intended to break the characters. It is reasonable to say in parallel that setting-centric Narrativist play is intended to break the setting. Since these two categories do overlap, the degree and means and meaning of breaking one or the other are all untapped discussion topics. I am convinced this is a deep, rich vein to be mined over multiple threads and from multiple perspectives.

For example, in the B5 game, causality only ran one way: the canonical shifts in setting, such as the initiation of a war, imposed changes on our characters’ situation. We didn’t think in terms of our characters’ situations’ outcomes affecting new situations directly, still less whether those outcomes would “hop up” to affect things at the setting level. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, merely that it represents one way to organize these concepts out of many possible ways.

Also for example, Trollbabe is designed to set a very hard limit between Situation (can be affected by the player-characters) and Setting (cannot), and moving that limit upwards in scale through multiple adventures. I’m not saying that’s the only way to parse these things, and especially not that the can/cannot dichotomy in this game is supposed to be definitional. It is, however, one of the few games which tries to give the distinction a functional mechanical utility in play.

Jamie, your current thread hopped into this depth before I was able to get this post up, so that’s why I’ve delayed answering in your thead; I needed this one to reference. To minimize confusion, let’s talk about all issues relevant to the Babylon Project game here, and all issues relevant to your Glorantha games in your thread. If those issues overlap, no big deal; we’ll be redundant and probably benefit from it.

It also happens that I'm re-watching Babylon 5 at this very time, seeing it again for the first time since it aired in the mid-1990s, and I'm all geeked about it. So any questions about this game we played, or about any aspects of that show as it might relate to role-playing, are especially welcome.

Best, Ron
edited to fix typo -  RE

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on November 15, 2011, 02:09:19 PM
It also happens that I'm re-watching Babylon 5 at this very time, seeing it again for the first time since it aired in the mid-1990s, and I'm all geeked about it. So any questions about this game we played, or about any aspects of that show as it might relate to role-playing, are especially welcome.

You know the library in the Dreaming from Sandman, filled with all the books authors dreamed up but never wrote?  The DVDs of B5 seasons 4 & 5 as intended better be in there.  Straczynski wanted to do season 4 about the Shadows/Vorlons and season 5 about re-taking Earth, but the network wouldn't guarantee a 5th season, so he crammed the whole thing into season 4.  I love season 4's plot, but I loathe the pacing, especially of the Shadow/Vorlon conclusion.  10 years later this tragedy still gnaws at me.

I do have questions about B5esque roleplaying, but you may have already answered them, so I intend to read through the whole thread first.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 15, 2011, 05:15:56 PM
Wincing slightly ...

... Everyone, I know I said geeking out is cool, but let's stay with what I asked, talking about the show as it relates to role-playing, please. I'm realizing that B5 discussions are a fandom quagmire, especially of the sort that invites empty quips, links to the music albums Bill Mumy organized later, and debates about Claudia Christian pro or con. This thread and its related ones begun by others are among the most serious work ever embarked upon at the Forge. Can we focus please?

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on November 15, 2011, 07:08:28 PM
Hi Ron,

While reading the first page of this thread, something struck me about the She-Dragon/Metalstorm situation.  My take has everything to do with Story Before, and nothing inherently to do with Narrativism.  Is that on-topic here, or should I take that elsewhere?

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 15, 2011, 07:40:16 PM
Ask it here - I'll split it if it seems like its own topic. Can you keep the question as thoroughly simple as you can?

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on November 15, 2011, 07:53:54 PM
I already judged that elsewhere ( would be better.  It wasn't a question, just my perspective on the dangers of planning for romance.  I now doubt that it's on topic here.  (Though if you read it and disagree, I'm happy to re-post here.)

Fortunately, I do have something on topic to say:

On breaking the setting in B5, yes, absolutely!  I would love to be part of an endeavor to transform that setting from a dwarfed-humans-dealing-with-demigods situation-generator into, say, a demigod-humans-dealing-with-primitives situation-generator.  Or, rather, if we're being Narrativist, an endeavor to achieve that level of transofmration, with it's specific identity to be determined by play.  That sounds fucking great.

I do wonder about the impact of a shift in types of situations on characters, though.  Staying relevant in a new context would be a challenge all its own (maybe one not worth it? just make a new character?), unless the changing setting and changing characters were inter-related in just the right way.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 16, 2011, 10:31:41 AM
Hi David,

There is a final point for my big post above that I probably should have emphasized more. The point of the underbelly technique is that the overall setting is (i) changing (ii) according to canonical knowledge as we proceed down the line of sessions. Those two things are special. The first is important because the situations the characters encounter are going to be changing under their feet no matter what (how is another question); the second is important because it preserves a key point of wanting to play in a canonical setting, which is to honor what we already know and like about it.

Furthermore, they require a third feature: (iii) the resolution of situations by and upon the player-characters does not itself send feedback “up” to the setting level to change the setting. The potential for doing so would undermine the underbelly technique entirely, which relies upon a sequence of pre-established very high-level changes in setting.

I hope that makes it clear that your point, David, that “breaking the setting” is an exciting prospect (which is true, it is), is actually the opposite of what I was talking about. Looking at the underbelly technique today, it strikes me as primarily suited for character transformation, which to their credit is exactly what Tom and Camille did realize when they decided that Ashley’s character’s ability to affect her own life (and the necessary power to do so) would become the focus for play.

I’ve provided a diagram ( for talking about how setting relates to the underbelly technique (all in my local “universe” here in this thread of talking strictly about Narrativist play). The relevant point is that the blue prep arrows that emerge from a resolved situation do not extend up to the yellow setting level. That level is fixed in place as a desired constraint. Again, that’s why if I were to have to choose between setting-centric (i.e. setting-breaking) and character-centric (i.e. character-breaking) given the use of the underbelly technique, the former is the only viable option.

Putting it that way seems backwards, because it is. Clearly one would choose setting-centric or character-centric first (or some useful combined version, e.g. Trollbabe), then decide upon things like underbelly or not on that basis. That leads to two points. (i) Tom and Camille did not have that luxury. They had to choose which way to go with this, i.e., to find some creatively satisfying focus, right in the middle of the play-prep-play process. I therefore suspect that putting it backwards like this is not entirely irrelevant for practical purposes. (ii) At first glance, our completely fandom-driven, enthusiastic embrace of the canonical setting would seem consistent with calling it “setting-centric” play … but here, I’m saying it’s not. The setting is providing crucially desired Color and (as part of our love of it) acting as a crucial constraint – all of which means it is not, and cannot be, the thematic crux of play, i.e., included as a thing to be broken in an as-yet-unknown way.

You wrote,
Or, rather, if we're being Narrativist, an endeavor to achieve that level of transofmration, with it's specific identity to be determined by play.  That sounds fucking great.

It is great. It was one of the finest experiences of my role-playing life, to be GMing Hero Wars in just this way, buoyed by my youthful excitement and study of the Gloranthan material, newly transformed by my design and play of Sorcerer and other games, right in the thick of the heady early GNS debates, confirmed and supported throughout by one-on-one conversations with Greg Stafford, and allied with three mature, politicized, creative, and deeply character-identifying people for players.

As stated in HeroQuest (2003), just past halfway through the book:

Make Your Own Part
All heroes are extraordinary and destined for some fame in the world of Glorantha. This is guaranteed, since they are individually guided by a higher power: you, the player.
Your heroes will have the chance to be involved in the great events of the Hero Wars, such as [several colorful examples - RE]. Such events are not only for the super-powerful; they require the participation of your hero at whatever level of power he has achieved.

And near the end:

Drama in Glorantha often comes from the conflict between what is and what ought to be. Living up to expectations of cult behavior, for instance, is meant to be difficult and limiting. After all, religious requirements are not human ideals. [Wow! Talk about an Egri Premise! - RE] The intensity of the plot comes from the hero trying to fulfil these expectations while living with the everyday temptations and complications of life: a cow is missing, some of your clan died in a raid, your children are ominously ill, or neighbors are poaching the hunting lands. Add to this the imperative of the Hero Wars, where some things will happen no matter what the heroes do, and the heroes have to make difficult choices about what to do and who [sic] to aid.

I was able to find these quickly because they’re the same text I quoted in my Narrativism essay, for reasons that I’m sure are clear.

Now, in Glorantha, there are several levels of setting, including the biggest most-mondo level of bringing the Hero Wars to the level of changing the absolute nature of reality (and as I understand it, ceasing to play, which is what we did anyway). But if we’re talking about certain things like the fate of a province or the elevation/destruction of a given god, then yes, play does in fact impact the setting profoundly.

It’s also tricky because the pre- and during-Hero Wars setting for Glorantha does indeed have scheduled canonical events, with the proviso that the textual accounts of those events are all in-character-in-setting and hence subject to massive re-interpretation at one’s own play-table. Jamie may have already brought this up with his thread, and I’ll probably want to address it there.

I do wonder about the impact of a shift in types of situations on characters, though.  Staying relevant in a new context would be a challenge all its own (maybe one not worth it? just make a new character?), unless the changing setting and changing characters were inter-related in just the right way.

That is indeed a concern, one which most RPG design is poorly suited to solve. In our game, for instance, Julie found herself more engaged in later play with her character’s adolescent niece, and mentioned that she would be happy shifting her own character into NPC status and taking over the niece. Her ideas about this corresponded very well to resolutions about her starting character’s role with the rest of the group; when due to events in play, that role became non-problematic and the character’s own sense of self and purpose was pretty well settled, then it seems logical to “fade” her to NPC-ness and bring forward a more charged, possibly more significant character in the new situations.

I’ve tried to work with this issue too. The game design part of my current Shahida project is effectively complete. In it, play proceeds through a series of phases in the Lebanese civil war, in a way inspired by Grey Ranks. Members and acquaintances of a given family are utilized throughout play, but which ones are “brought forward” to experience and deal with the events of play differ phase by phase. So multi-phase play sees different family members as protagonists at different times. However, which family members get highlighted per phase is not an outcome of what happened in the previous phase.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 16, 2011, 01:51:04 PM
Shit! Typo!


... if I were to have to choose between setting-centric (i.e. setting-breaking) and character-centric (i.e. character-breaking) given the use of the underbelly technique, the latter is the only viable option.

Thanks Moreno.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 18, 2011, 11:51:16 AM
So much for rhapsodizing about Story Now (if you want more, see Jamie’s thread). Here, I want to get back to incipient Narrativism and its discontents. They come in two forms.

1. When someone is trying to organize and carry out play that isn’t Narrativist, and he or she does impose a climactic story arc (to be experienced as the story) upon play for any number of reasons, then anyone with Narrativist leanings who’s involved is going to be either a disaster or at best be left feeling short-changed. All perceived compromises (“set it up with me beforehand”) fail.

2. When Narrativist play proceeds with a set of constraints which include material that, on its own and regarded externally, is indeed a story (but not the story), then the table will get into trouble if they are applied in such a way that they intrude upon rather than facilitate the story.

I described the Obsidian game to show that Narrativist leanings can catch fire and succeed among a group who has not, as a group, made any agreement to do so or shares any verbal, theoretical grounding about doing so. I included that account to show the default, if you will – both the entire lack of Story Before, and the lack of story-type constraints as well. It corresponds almost perfectly to the Setting-centric Narrativist diagram in the essay, to the extent that I think Dav was a little bit surprised at how much genuine impact play like this can have on the setting itself.

#1 and #2 above are the circumstances of discontents. I did not include examples for #1 because the Forge is full of them, and as we’ve seen just now, there’s a fine example just posted by Jamie. I described the Champions and Babylon Project games to show two examples of #2.

I think both of these are of special interest because in both cases, the players were generally enjoying the role of the story-structure constraints as long as they only served as productive constraints, i.e., provided meat and drink for the real story in the making. Whereas when, in the Champions game, they began to intrude upon that and become, effectively, Force techniques, the satisfaction level dropped sharply. And whereas when, in the Babylon Project, they were perceived as if they should be sufficient, the satisfaction level hit a sub-par plateau.

And here’s my big take-home about both of them: the fact that all the people involved greatly valued story integrity and content actually aggravated the problem due to the lack of viable terminology beyond saying “the story!” in anguished tones. In other words, it’s all well and good to “communicate,” but if everyone talking doesn’t know what they’re communicating about, the best you can get is deadlock at sympathetic, frustrated bafflement (and the worst you can get is really very bad).

All true. But the solution is not to avoid such things! The solution is to understand how different sorts of constraints work toward such ends. This shouldn’t really be too difficult, because the most basic concept of “productive constraint” operates as a given in role-playing anyway.

But I’m interested in digging deeper into the details, not only for Narrativist play as in my essay, but for all sorts. Some such details have received extraordinary intellectual and creative attention in the past decade: the scope for character creation, narrational issues, behavioral mechanics, consequence mechanics for characters, and more, and for each of them, the crucial issue of when and how they are not constrained as well. My current take is that both consequences for setting and the role of imposed changes in setting have not yet been understood as well, in part because “setting heavy” is too broad a term (as I hope to have shown above) and because historically Narrativist-inclined people have shied away from detailed settings for a number of reasons.

So that’s where I’m going with this. I want to talk about imposed changes upon setting, i.e., as prep, some more, but I think it’s a new topic and will either join in with Jamie’s thread or start my own.

For this thread, I’m pretty much finished with original input, but I would very much enjoy feedback, comparisons, thoughts, and questions.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Tor Erickson on November 19, 2011, 04:23:14 PM
I've been following this thread pretty closely for a number of reasons. First, I find it highly interesting as far as it throws light onto the origins of Narrativism here at the Forge. In fact, it may be the single most relevant thread to the specific and direct roots of how we understand Narrativism, which for me is a pretty damn big deal for those of us interested in STORY NOW.

The second thing I'm drawing from this thread are the close parallels that exist between Story Now and Story Before play, which I'm wondering is not leading to a lot of the confusion we see in threads like "Sand Box Adventures" (sorry, I don't know how to make the link). The Champions/Bab 5 posts illustrate this perfectly, and I'll try and hi-light those parallels here in a way that illustrates my point.

The original 'sketchy setting' and 'game feel' handout that Ron prepared for Champs, and all of the attention paid to creating a specific look and feel for that game could go either way in terms of Story Now/Story Before. Same goes for my reading of character creation itself, with all of its 'aesthetic commitment,' and then with the follow-up 'new, more detailed handouts' about setting, which incorporates lots of player input and the chargen.

Again, in my understanding, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, ALL of  this could be very successful in either STORY NOW or STORY BEFORE.

Dittoes for pre-planned revelations down the road, with their exact timing to be determined by the game. Heck yeah, could work both ways.

Now, when we get to Ron's breakdown of pre-planned scenes into Drive vs. Distraction and Mystery vs. Confrontation I can start to see some differences shaping up, but comparisons could still be made to Ron's Weaves, Bobs, Openings, Bangs terminology (actually, I'd be curious to hear a little more about how these two groups of terms compare).

Same goes for the Babylon 5 stuff, where can see in practice a lot of techniques that could work in either STORY NOW or STORY BEFORE. I think Ron effectively decouples the whole Underbelly technique from those particular agendas (as a side note, from the point of view of a Story Now GM, this is very, very exciting news because it opens up whole new arenas of play: you mean I can do STORY NOW in a canonical setting? With a canonical timeline? Hell YEAH).

To summarize my second point here, I'm seeing a TON of crossover in terms of technique between Story Now and Story Before. Loads of the same prep methods can be used in one or the other, without tipping off whether or not you're in either Story Now or Story Before mode. And I wonder if this isn't leading to some of the confusion in threads like the aforementioned "Sandbox Adventures."

Thanks to Ron and everyone for this thread.

- Tor

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 25, 2011, 07:22:33 PM
Hi Tor,

It looks like I need to discuss Story Now in a big, big way.

Story Now is a Creative Agenda. Dozens of techniques can support it, some very pointed and structured. But it can be done even if all the techniques are “extra-curricular” in terms of written rules and the overt mechanics. Right now, I’m working up another monster essay-post about a Castles & Crusades module, and how its content can be wonderful raw Narrativist meat. And it could be so even if we used the rules-set for which the module was written (which are free here (, so you can see what I mean).

What I’ve been calling “Story Before” is not a Creative Agenda, and the linguistic equivalency of X-modifier, X-other-modifier, is a pitfall of this whole discussion. David has been careful to avoid it in his thread, staying close to techniques as such and leaving his CA of interest more-or-less off to the side.

Now, it so happens that Story Before techniques are incompatible with the Story Now CA, if – if by “story” we mean the thematically most powerful material. From inside that CA, Story Before is, effectively, defined in the negative in both senses of the terms. I am working up a discussion of how fixed plot components can contribute to Story Now, and I suppose those would be “before” techniques, but not really the story, merely a specialized version of very big Bangs.

What I’m saying is that I disagree with you very strongly. Maybe I should have spent a little bit more time on the discontents of the thread title, such as Ed constantly pre-planning outcomes for his character in Champions in game after game; me in Champions as a player being uninterested in any material except for climactic Claremont opera. Both us were essentially horrible Prima Donnas as players and borderline Typhoid Marys as GMs, in my case because I’d completely had it with Story Before techniques. Or in the Northwatch Champions game, Randy was an interminable wanderer as GM, content to run fifteen or twenty sessions of “nothing happens” and then landing us with eighteen “clues” that prompted the climax. Whereas as a player in our Cyberpunk game, he insisted on pure in-character expression to the point of wallowing in it, relying on other players – namely Sonya – to get the action rolling in a direction. And bear in mind, people like us were the best one another could find to help satisfy one another’s Narrativist goals in the absence of any vocabulary toward that end.

The problems were easily encapsulated in our inability to tell when we were conducting Story Before when we should have been thinking Story Now. Therefore to me, the difference between the techniques involved is a matter of keen interest.

You listed (edited for pointedness),

all of the attention paid to creating a specific look and feel for that game
character creation itself, with all of its 'aesthetic commitment,'

with the follow-up 'new, more detailed handouts' about setting, which incorporates lots of player input and the chargen.

pre-planned revelations down the road, with their exact timing to be determined by the game.

See, I think these are way too atomic even to call “Story Before” or “After.” That makes them similar only in the crudest of terms: yes, we fill a metal bucket with water, yes, we heat it until it boils, yes, we put some stuff in there for a while. But I’m making pasta and you are laundering your crusty jeans. In light of the other techniques and the demonstrated, concrete payoff, and what we do with that, the similarities … well, aren’t. They only become apparent similarities if knowledge of those things (payoff, what we do with it) are left unsaid.

Loads of the same prep methods can be used in one or the other, without tipping off whether or not you're in either Story Now or Story Before mode.

Arrrgh, I would rather poke holes in my own skin with a rusty fork than ever, ever go down that road in role-playing, ever again. If you do this, all you get is incoherence at best, and more likely and unfortunately, Agenda clash.

My argument is that such a situation can only arise when people deliberately elide certain questions like “what does your character want,” or “how did your character get here,” and it makes no difference that such a dodge is standard practice for a lot of role-playing – it’s still a dodge.

Therefore, I suggest that the confusion you mentioned arises from deception: less so of others as in Illusionism, and more so of oneself, as in Ouija Boarding.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Roger on November 28, 2011, 01:21:06 PM
There's a lot going on in this thread.  My responses are going to be a bit disjointed and scattered; pay attention to the ones that interest you and disregard the rest.

Story Now and Story Before Participationism

Here's the thing about Story Before: it's a context in which talking about "'the' story" is sensible and meaningful.

In contrast, when it comes to Story Now, there is no "'the' story".  There is, perhaps, My Story Now.  And, perhaps, there are Stories Now.

Each Narrativist has to address Premise themselves.  They each have to have their own Story, and have it Now.

This fundamental difference between the Participationists and their "'the' story" and the Narrativists and their "'our' stories" is the source of most, perhaps all, of their conflict with each other.

The underbelly of historical fiction

If you know what "historical fiction" is, you probably see what I'm getting at here.  Underbelly lies very close to this genre.

It's also worthwhile considering the various distortions of pure historical fiction and their gaming parallels.

Colour Drift:  The underbelly is Hamlet.  The play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  The facts of the underbelly are respected, while the Colour is altered radically.
  Very easy to do with an rpg -- perhaps too easy.  The two main and opposite directions we tend to see are "much more comedic" and "much more gritty."
  Differences in opinion about the proper amount of fidelty to the underbelly's Colour can result in intense conflict.  Tread carefully.

Bait-and-switch Setting Breaking:  The underbelly is World War Two.  The play is Inglourious Basterds.
  Mostly I'm bringing this up because it's sort of clever in a technical way.  I'm not sure if such trickeries would be appreciated in an rpg context.  Perhaps.

Story Structure

Seems like My Life With Master has a lot of it.  And it seems like lots of folks with Narrativist leanings are fond of it.  So I'm not sure how it fits in with your observations.


Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Frank Tarcikowski on November 29, 2011, 07:38:52 AM
Hi Ron,

This thread was an interesting read, with a sense of some missing pieces in the puzzle that is the Forge, GNS and your work coming together. So this is where you've been coming from. There is something fitting about you posting this very personal stuff now, a sense of closure, looking back at a cycle of work and dedication, here in the late autumn of the Forge. Thanks for sharing.

I would like to pick up on one thing that you have mentioned, how people get confused about the "Before" story sometimes being a sort of not-the-real-deal framework of events, and the "Now" story being the Real Deal, the thing that is the point of play, that is not scripted or forced or otherwise pre-determined by one single person.

Even without the pitfall of both of these things being called "story", I have repeatedly run into a wall trying to explain to certain fervent advocats of "open outcomes" that not all outcomes are equally important, and play can still have an open outcome in all regards that really count when some events are scripted, or triggered, or otherwise pre-determined. This has caused me great frustration as I had to find that evaluated distinctions that seemed no-brainers to me were absolutely, completely lost on many other role-players.

- Frank

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on November 29, 2011, 08:32:06 AM
Hi Frank and Roger,

I think it's time to discuss some design history. I did this earlier this year in the Italian forum Gente Che Gioca: L'Albero Genealogico dei GDR Indie (,4898.0.html) is the direct link. To read it in English, I search for Gente Che Gioca on Google, then hit the "translate this page" link, and then find the thread. For that purpose, its date is June 11, 2011. The quoted material from me and my own posts in that thread are in English already. Somewhat confusingly, to read those, you should view the thread in Italian - otherwise the software translates my English into English with some weird results.

I'm providing that information because the whole thread is worth reviewing. I'll also quote my post from June 16 which includes the link to the diagam and is absolutely crucial companion reading for it:

Five or six years ago, I sketched a diagram of the games produced by the independent, Forge-centered design community up to that point.

I have not made it available on the internet until now because I know it will be read badly by a lot of people. It's based only on certain variables that interested me, and yet I'm sure people will read it as being about every imaginable aspect of every game, toward the end of producing some kind of definitive taxonomy, which it is not. Also, the arrows don't necessarily mean direct inspiration or experience with the earlier games, and I'm sure some author or another will say "But I never played game X!" as an intended refutation of their game being at the end of an arrow from game X.

But Moreno has asked for it, and it seems to me that the Italian GCG discussion community is pretty rational, so you can find it here ( (direct PDF link). Please be careful to read the notes as well. If someone wants to translate it into Italian, please feel free. I ask that you do not post all over the blogs and other discussion pages with links to it. I don't want this to be some huge secret, but I'd like the discussion to be centered here. I also have an ulterior motive for talking about it at GCG in particular, as I'll make clear in a moment.

The rest of my points assume that you've looked at the document. I can't over-emphasize that the branches that I've drawn are very limited and do not create separatist categories for game design. Lots of design variables "jump" around the branches: e.g. Dust Devils narration-rules are Pool-inspired and then hop back into the Primetime Adventures narration rules; Polaris demonics and much other content are Sorcerer-inspired. My Life with Master's fictional content is definitely not typical of the right-hand branch, but its turn structure and endgame are very strong components of that side (stemming from Soap and Extreme Vengeance), both of which feature heavily in games branching from it as well. It might be considered its own full branch growing from both sides of the games under the dotted line (drawing on Sorcerer for its left-hand side), but the games derived from it do belong on the right, I think. That point leads into a related one: that as a strictly historical document, it's not intended to become a categorization tool for further work; nothing dictates that the historical associations need to be preserved.

As I see it, the diagram's value lies in capturing at least some of the relationships and diversity among the independent games of the Forge's most productive era, right at the moment when a surge of newcomers arrived and perceived the games more-or-less as a unit. Until that point, people did not really think in terms of "Forge games," and the games in the diagram reflect that: some of them were made entirely outside of the Forge, then revised upon contact with it (e.g. The Riddle of Steel, The Burning Wheel, Orbit). Others were designed privately after much contact with Forge discussion (The Pool, My Life with Master, Trollbabe, Polaris) and still others were designed through intensive discussion at the Forge itself (Dust Devils, Legends of Alyria, Universalis). The Iron Game Chef was not yet generating literally dozens upon dozens of designs in a short period. Perhaps most significantly, the discussion community had not yet become the primary marketing community yet, as it quickly did in 2006-2007.

I did revise the diagram in 2009 or so, adding games to see what had happened to the categories, but I have apparently lost that file. As I remember, the left-hand side saw a lot of additions to existing boxes and the right-hand side developed a more sophisticated and interesting set of branches, but more importantly, so many games had appeared by then which drew upon the available techniques across the whole diagram (in my case, Spione), that there wasn't much point in trying to preserve the structure after the 2006 mark.

As Moreno mentioned and as my first post to GCG expresses, I think the Italian indie/new-wave discussion community would benefit from more familiarity with many of the games, especially in this historical context.

Specifically, the games that I think would matter most include Orkworld, The Riddle of Steel, Hero Wars (or probably later version, HeroQuest), as well as the literally criminal omissions of Matt Snyder's games, Dust Devils and Nine Worlds. I regret that Violence Future isn't available, to my knowledge. Certainly The Pool (for which I hope my recent essay is helpful essay), Universalis obviously, and perhaps Fastlane.

Now for why I am saying any of this. What exactly do I perceive as possibly missing for the Italian community represented in this forum? As many of you know, I am not famous for tact. So I will say it in the way that I think it. My question is, are Italian role-players wimps, or in cruder English terms, pussies? My answer is, "Maybe, yes!" - but let me clarify. I certainly do not think this is due to personal inclination or to a limitation in creative ambition or ability. I think it's a matter of understanding the available tools at a visceral, emotional level. I will try to explain.

When we were developing the games just over the dotted lines in the diagrams, we did not think in terms of perfect, pure, or packaged items which would provide a neat and well-molded product of play. We were thinking in terms of personal rebellion and making a given system that could be pushed as far as it could in the service of a given emotional need during play. In fact, pushed past the fictional applications of which we, the designers, were currently capable ourselves.

Therefore a game was like a door, or as I like to say, a set of musical instruments. If I designed X, just how far could it be employed? If I invent the electric guitar, that's not because I am Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix is another person, who showed what the electric guitar could do. The goal was to design in ways that might be discovered and developed into such explosive and inspiring experiences through others' play. I see that as very different from many of the so-called story games of today, in which the goal of play is to experience the designer's vision, as carefully packaged and explained for the user. I see them as Rock-and-Roll Hero toys - the music is already written and indeed, already performed.

Specifically, the Italian community did not experience and develop the thematic savagery at the root of the left-hand branch, distilled into pure form in Sorcerer. By thematic savagery, I mean being willing to discover that your character is or isn't a good or successful character, and for that to have its own meaning. Effectively, to discover through play whether your intended or initially-conceived Batman is actually the Joker, or whether your very heroic and wonderful protagonist has instead, through play, become the dead or destroyed counter-example to the theme which emerged. It is clear to me that this desire and ability does exist among Italian players. That's why my compliments to the players at my Sorcerer game at INC were not empty. I was convinced that they were, in fact, able to play this game, even if they had only barely seen a little bit of what it could do at that session. I had seen that they were willing to find out. But I am not at all convinced that people in this community collectively realize that this kind of "breakout" play is even possible, or that games like Sorcerer (or Dogs in the Vineyard) exist primarily for this purpose.

On the right-hand branch, this community did not experience and develop the freewheeling openness of Universalis and The Pool. If the creative freedom of Primetime Adventures seems outstandingly broad to you, for instance, then it's valuable to learn that it is actually a reduction and specification of the vastly wilder and wider freedom of those two games. After playing Universalis and The Pool a lot, playing Primetime Adventures allows channelling and shaping that same energetic freedom in productive ways - but if the first thing you encounter is Primetime Adventures, those forces may not have been "released" among you and your group, resulting in a much more imitative version of play, tamely reproducing the content of television shows instead of literally creating a new kind of television via playing the game. It's also valuable to realize that The Pool is not a game which permits the wild and free creation of back-story among every member of the play-group, whereas Universalis is, and I think it's essential to understand what creative freedom can produce within each game's very different constraints for this issue

So ... is it possible for someone who perceives 3:16 as a "story game" to access its potential for raw and vicious political satire? Is it possible to GM The Rustbelt without realizing that your role is to brutalize and destroy the player-characters, because their very survival is solely the players' responsibility? Is it possible to play Dogs in the Vineyard without realizing that its "mission" context is effectively a lie, and that these characters may turn out to be the very worst people in the story? I think it's possible for the occasional individual person or group to come upon these insights by chance or happy accident in terms of specific personalities.

I apologize for any insulting or patronizing content of this post. As I say, I've presented it as it appears in my mind, and not as a public-relations project. I want to stress that I have in fact seen enormous potential among many of the groups and sessions that I've seen at INC '10 and '11, for exactly the things I'm talking about. My goal here is to show how that potential might find available tools, and I hope that you will find the diagram at least interesting.


Since my diagram is NOT based on direct influences from each designer's point of view, but instead based on particular variables which interested me personally, I want to present this as well: Jonathan Walton's tree of RPG influences using networking software, which IS based on designers' accounts of what influenced them.

Use the "relationship" option to visualize the diagram, then you can play with it by moving "around in" the diagram. I think it's very illuminating as well.

Roger, I hope you can see that the structural features of My Life with Master, for instance, are very significant techniques subsets but not definitive features for a given Creative Agenda. As I see it, a lot of design over the past five years has committed the error of imposing such structure (often imitative) and missing the point.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Roger on November 29, 2011, 10:40:30 AM
Roger, I hope you can see that the structural features of My Life with Master, for instance, are very significant techniques subsets but not definitive features for a given Creative Agenda. As I see it, a lot of design over the past five years has committed the error of imposing such structure (often imitative) and missing the point.

I probably should have provided a better citation of what exactly I was talking about.  Which is:

When someone is trying to organize and carry out play that isn’t Narrativist, and he or she does impose a climactic story arc (to be experienced as the story) upon play for any number of reasons, then anyone with Narrativist leanings who’s involved is going to be either a disaster or at best be left feeling short-changed. All perceived compromises (“set it up with me beforehand”) fail.

And, aha, I see now that I missed the first part of this whole scenario:  "When someone is trying to organize and carry out play that IS NOT Narrativist..."

Which helps me understand why MLWM isn't inherently a counterexample to what you're describing, at least when approached for the purposes of Narrativist play.  But it does leave me wondering why that requirement exists.

So I'd like to hear more about what you would classify as "a climactic story arc within non-Narrativist play", I think.  And why it's problematic for players with Narrativist leanings in ways that "climactic story arcs within Narrativist play" are not.  And, perhaps, why it's problematic for players with Narrativist leanings in ways that "no story arc within non-Narrativist play" is not.

I'm especially interested in cases involving PrimeTime Adventures, which seems especially well-suited to luring unsuspecting Narrativists and equally-unsuspecting Simulationists into conflict.

On the other other hand, if you are feeling inclined to say to me:  Dude, find your own goddamn examples, bring them back here or to some other thread, and we can decide then if they illustrate these principles... I would not begrudge you of that.  Assuming I'm more-or-less on the righteous path so far.


Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on November 29, 2011, 02:12:12 PM

I have a possible explanation for that.  For players who've felt stifled in their Narrativist leanings, pursuit of Narrativism gets conflated with pursuit of agency, and any limits on agency are unwanted reminders of "that other way I hated playing".  See my chat with Zac split from this thread (starting with "Actually... here's a thought" here (

I don't see any way forward other than to acknowledge where they're coming from, verify that you're on the same page, and set proper expectations for what types of agency they will always have, never have, and sometimes have. 

I'd also try emphasizing what they get out of playing with constraints, and showing how your prepped events fit into that.

If they're still not willing to try, I guess come back in a few years when they're farther from their stifling experiences?

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on November 29, 2011, 02:16:44 PM

I like the notes about the right vs left superfamilies on your diagram.  I have a theory that the right-hand techniques spawn more design imitation and pick-up play by being more mechanically obvious about how they produce rising action and catharsis, while the left-hand techniques are opaque on that until you include fictional situation.

If you want to talk more about this here, I'd be happy to elaborate.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on December 01, 2011, 09:50:06 AM
Hi Roger,

I think you are mixing up product vs. process. I want to stress that "making a story" is actually a minor concept in role-playing, despite its wide appeal and its central position in lots of discussions. By "minor," I mean that it's not hard to do once no one in the group is obstructing it. (I can talk more abou tthe obstructions if you want.) When I talk about Creative Agendas, I'm not talking about what is made, but rather, how it's done, and by "it," I mean, role-playing at all. Again, in that context, making a story is merely a fictional variable along the same lines of making enough fights or making it possible to see enough of what's on the world-map map up-close or any number of other understandable content-sets.

Story Now is a Creative Agenda not because of a desired product, but because of a desired process, and as with the other two CAs, this is a big social and creative process which may be met using a broad array of means. Therefore it is potentially facilitated by various combinations of techniques, rather than defined by any particular combination. All of which is a fancy way to say this: Story Now cannot be achievd by any techniques which guarantee the production of a story. Doing so instantly obviates the point of play.

This means that playing Story Now must incorporate (include at a fundamental level) enough thematically intense content to be acted upon through all the techniques being used. As an example from the "far" end of the design issue, you will recall that my D&D 3.0/3.5 game did not utilize explicit or previously-agreed-upon content and structural constraints to focus upon Story Now play, but it did indeed excise (ignore) textual system features which would have impeded it given our scope for play (experience points and levels). At first I was mildly concerned with getting the EPs right simply out of interest in using the rules before me, but by the end of the second session, it would be apparent to an observer that none of us cared - not even to notice that I'd stopped even handing them out, me included. But again, the more important focus is that because we shared the deeply social and creative agenda of Story Now, that's what we did with "softer" techniques like scene framing and character decisions. The classic story structure therefore came about organically, because our priorities (one priority actually) settled upon the thematically-intense components.

But what about designing games such that the system focuses upon and facilitates such play? The core design principle for games intended for Story Now play must be to provide enough content and structure to bring thematic tension into focus and to be acted upon with consequence, but not enough to guarantee that it occurs regardless of participants' commitment to it.

The variety of useful constraint turns out to include imposed structure, up to a point. Let's look at the "near" end of the design issue, which is what you're asking about, with games relying on deep and uncompromising structure. I'm arguing that strongly-structured techniques, if they are to be useful in facilitating Story Now play, must be provisional after a certain point, i.e., subordinated to actual people's decisions about how to use them at the table, and also i.e., potentially unsuccessful. Looking at my diagram, the structured techniques are most obvious on the right-hand side. Let's take two of the most influential games.

1. Universalis has absolutely no explicit mechanism for imposing thematic tension ("conflict" in literary terms) into play. If the group wants to diddle forever by adding and subtracting stuff from the fiction, with no consequence or emotional resonance, then they can. Similarly, once conflicts are in motion, there is no guarantee at all that they must come to a climax aside from group participants' interest in seeing them do so. Playing Universalis can flounder. This is, in my view, not a flaw.

2. My Life with Master has no explicit mechanic guaranteeing either (i) that a Minion will eventually attack the Master or (ii) that the Master will be killed during Endgame. In fact, regarding the latter point, Paul very deliberately left in the potential "break" lying between it and the fact that Endgame only finishes at the Master's death. In other words, a group in which not enough players are committed enough to the Master's death will simply sink into an unplayable pit of unsuccessful noise during Endgame.

(Notice how utterly dismissive the designs are toward players who "don't get it," much in the same sense that football and chess have no provisions for taking care of participants who can't fathom winning/losing as important. The second point reminds me of a key feature in The Riddle of Steel, on the other side of the diagram: Jake has explained that he deliberately wrote the game to slaughter the characters of players who focused too strongly on the nitty-gritty physical combat mechanics at the expense of the motivational, thematic, and metaphysical mechanics.)

Here's my direct response to your inquiry. Any fictional material composed of a conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution is a story. (Insightful/stupid, uplifting/depressing, short/long, simple/complicated, whatever) So I think you have it backwards: the question is not what it would look like when Story Now is not the priority, because the answer is always the same no matter what. The question is why doing it via (or within) the Story Now priority rates a Creative Agenda tag. I hope I've at least set up the answer to that here.

Jason Morningstar's titles seem to me to span a useful range for comparison. Grey Ranks is extremely facilitative of Story Now play. Fiasco is not. Both are good games, and as it happens, both tend to bring stories into existence at the table. But one does so by providing productive, one might even say traumatic story components for the people at the table to use, and the other does so by providing a story to be in.

That idea also leads to my ongoing criticism of many self-designated story games that have been produced over the last five years as wind-up toys. Which is to say, they are indeed guarantors of story production, and as such, little more than canned scripts for people to act-out parts in, much like How to Host a Murder. I do not reference that game with contempt; it does its job as advertised, which is to say, you get to be in a story, which presupposes the story be there. But the veritable ocean of story games we've seen produced in the past few years contains a lot of titles with exactly the same job, with the patently false claim that they are written in the same aesthetic and procedural vein as, for instance, My Life with Master. They simply are not. (I do not include Fiasco in this criticism, incidentally. It performs as advertised.)

I hope this makes sense. I'm making points that are not only related, but integrated, across several threads at the moment. Roger, all follow-up is welcome.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Roger on December 01, 2011, 10:46:53 AM
Any fictional material composed of a conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution is a story. (Insightful/stupid, uplifting/depressing, short/long, simple/complicated, whatever)

Aha.  This is why I've been floundering around.  I've been operating under a different definition for "story".

Previously, I would have said:  Here's a story -- two guys are waiting by the side for someone to show up, but he doesn't.  It's the story of Waiting For Godot, beloved by millions, etc etc.  Now that I know that's not the sort of story you're talking about, I should probably go back and reread everything up to this point.  I'm sure it'll make a lot more sense.

My immediate reaction is to notice the obvious parallel to Gamism:  any system which guarantees success or failure might be an interesting toy, but it is inherently unable to provide any meaningful Step On Up.  That makes all sorts of sense.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on December 01, 2011, 11:37:56 AM
Hey Roger,


I hope I'm not derailing the thread with this, but rather rounding out my point ... I'd like to address your point about Waiting for Godot. Two things.

1. A play on paper is merely a script, which is one of the instruments utilized in the medium of theater. Therefore we'd have to talk about a given production - especially for a play like this one - in order to get at whether it's a story or not. Some productions really work at the "absurdist" thing in order to negate any such experience for the audience, whereas others do not.

2. At the risk of contradicting my point #1, and basing this point on a production which unfortunately you didn't see (at a local community college; my friend played Vladimir) so may not be fair to use here, I suggest that the play's story isn't what you describe, but rather, "Two very-tight-friends guys wait for another guy to come, he doesn't, they have to decide whether it's important to them whether he does or not, this puts the bite on their friendship in a big way, and so their eventual decision is actually more about whether they care about one another rather than about the guy." (I'm also sayin' their verbal decision not to wait, while not budging, is actually a cover for the fact that they don't mind waiting as long as they do it together.) Which matches my model exactly.

Again, I'm not talking about The Play in some huge academic all-ways way, but regarding one way to stage and perform the play which is at least consistent with its script.

Best, Ron

Title: Script vs. Realization
Post by: Erik Weissengruber on December 02, 2011, 07:50:41 AM
Is there some productive way to link the play analogy to gaming out pre-scripted events, or working with metaplots.

A script may be presented in various different ways.  Different actors may rise to the challenge, some will falter but we applaud their brave efforts, etc.  Some folks will just flub lines (a.k.a "fail" or "do it wrong" or "lose").

Don't some people find satisfaction being good actors in presenting the script?  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of challenges to face even in mounting the simplest play.  Learning lines, working out blocking, creating costumes and sets, etc.

Is there a way to make enactment of a pre-plotted sequence of events a fun, challenging, engaging play experience and not just an unspoken social contract, or illusion/social bullying, etc.?

Actual Play Experience:
I took part in a long D&D session where everybody was playing along with the scenario, working with the outlines of the story, groaning when the villain turned out to be the pawn of an even greater threat, etc.  And they were all digging it.

Are there other rules sets that make such a group improvised elaboration of a pre-set structure explicit, full of explicit rewards for doing all the little sub-tasks, really nailing a part, building up a good set, "costuming" the characters in interesting details, etc?

Is Fiasco this game?

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on December 02, 2011, 10:34:21 AM
Hi Erik,

That's what Participationism is all about! David's wrestling away with it in his threads now, regarding the "story before" procedural outline in my latest essay. There is a very distinguished history of discussion about it, regarding how it does rely on Force but isn't Illusionism, here at the Forge.

I've brought it up in this thread in two related ways: when a GM begins to use it, expecting exactly the player enthusiasm you're talking about, only to encounter resistance due to players' desire for Story Now, a Creative Agenda which dedicated Participationist techniques cannot support.

Does that help?

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Roger on December 02, 2011, 12:33:05 PM
So it turns out this is the thread in which I finally "get it."  I'll try to get back to the topic of this thread eventually in this message, but I need to wallow in this a bit.  It's only taken me 7 years to get here, after all.

So, Creative Agendas.  What's the big deal?  Why do people care?  Why do some people so actively resist caring?

I think it comes down to functionality.  At the end of the day, that's what a lot of people care about.  One of the problems with that is that most people are not very well-equiped to estimate how functional their own play experiences are, for a variety of complex reasons.

People are slightly better at recognizing pathological levels of dysfunction, however.  Hence the common reaction:  "Coherence and incoherence doesn't matter -- our group plays incoherently all the time, and we're not dysfunctional.  Theory: busted."

There's two errors in this line of thought.  One of them is their fault, and one of them is our fault.

1.  Incoherence == dysfunctional play.  If people would just read the theory and pay attention, they would realize that no one is saying this.  Incoherence does not always lead to dysfunctional play.  It can be functional.  We can pin this one on them.

2.  Coherence == functional play.  This is our fault, I think.  Maybe every science is like this -- we start off focusing on the instances of broken people (medicine, psychology, etc) and only very eventually get around to considering the healthy scenario.

Coherence doesn't lead to functional play.  It leads to superfunctional play.

If you've never experienced superfunctional play, you probably can't believe it exists.  It sounds like I'm just making shit up to prop up my own theories.  You can't really get away from thinking that functional play is just as good as it gets.

Superfunctional play exists because coherence is a positive feedback loop.  It is synergistic -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The total energy produced is greater than the contributions of the participants.

The metaphors are obvious and useful.  It's like harmonic resonance -- if everyone is marching in step at the right tempo, the bridge oscillates until it explodes.  A laser is special precisely because it is coherent -- and it has radically different properties than incoherent light.  Someone who has never seen a laser will not understand what you're talking about.

This is why incoherence is a problem: not because it leads to dysfunctional play, but because it stone-cold kills superfunctional play.  It's that one guy jumping up and down on the bridge at random.  It's noise and attentuation in the signal.  If there's any truth to the notion that game theory destroys gaming groups, it's this: once you've had superfunctional play, you're not likely to tolerate anyone who gets in the way of it again.

If you believe in superfunctional play, and you desire it, then everything in the theory makes sense.  If you don't believe in it, then the theory just seems like a bunch of nonsense.  And it's all our fault.  We haven't been good about spreading the gospel on this.

Now that I've said all that, I need to also say:  Creative Agendas are the wrong end to start at when you're ingesting game theory.

No one learns how to cook by first taking a year-long course in the theory of how the brain constructs the sensation of flavour from the signals sent to it by specialized receptor cells on the tongue.  They start by learning to chop, fry, hard-boil an egg.

They start with technique.  And this happens everywhere -- musical instruments, martial arts, calculus.  It's obviously the right way to do it.

Consider adopting that mindset for a moment.  Shove theory down and make it a second-class citizen.  Elevate technique to the primary object of study.

What does that look like?  It looks an awful lot like Actual Play should be the most important subject and forum.  Funny how that works.  Of course 'Actual Play' is a compressed way of saying 'Show us your actual techniques and their actual results'.

It provides a way out of the "Hey my steaks always taste awful please help" maelstrom of responses:

"Try cooking only t-bones"
"Is your oven hot enough?  It should be hot"
"Steaks suck become a vegan you bastard"
"Angus beef is the only cow worth eating"
"By 'awful', do you mean overdone, underdone, too salty, what are you talking about?"
"OMG I just had a steak at Outback it was so good"
"Put down the fork you fat pig"

I don't really need to convince anyone how unhelpful all of that is, do I?  The first step has to be determining what this person is doing -- what techniques they are using and how they are performing them.  We must start there.

Smash cut to: what is System?  What does System actually do?  Here it is:  System is nothing more or less than encouraging and supporting certain techniques, while discouraging and suppressing other techniques.  That's it.

Now it all becomes clear.  One example: why it drives people to pull out their hair when everyone talks about any particular game being Narrativist or Gamist or whatever.  If a System relates primarily to techniques, then of course it doesn't make any sense to talk about a Narrativist game.

Another example:  why that old old myth of "System doesn't matter" still persists.  Here's the truth of it -- if you're always going to use the same techniques, then you're absolutely right: System doesn't matter to you.  Or if you confine yourself to 'different' Systems that all share essentially the same techniques, then it again doesn't matter. 

That brings me around to the topic of this thread, which is all about the relationship between Technique and Creative Agenda.  More accurately, it's all about *a* relationship between *a* Technique and *a* Creative Agenda.

All this thread consists of, really, is:

1.  Hey guys there's this technique I call 'underbelly'.  This is what it looks like.  This is how I've used it.

2.  Hey guys turns out that the underbelly technique does not support, and in fact actively undermines, the Story Now agenda.

I'm not trying to be dismissive -- I think the most important work yet lies ahead in really getting into techniques, and how they relate to the various Agendas.  Play Unsafe was a good start, but there's much much more.

Especially since, as I've suggested, that System is a big box of techniques.  There isn't anything in 'game design' other than an understanding of techniques.  (Okay, that isn't quite true, but it's true enough.)

Which brings me around to the part of this post in which I actually contribute something to the actual ongoing discussion in the thread.  Hopefully.

Waiting for Godot:  I'm not sure anything useful lies down this topic of discussion.  I agree with you, but I don't think it matters that I agree with you.

But on the topic of story, let me shoot this phrase into your brain: "Story Never".  Let it roll around in there a bit.  Does it seem intriguing?  What if I told you that it's the key to understanding what the fabled "Sandbox Play" is really all about?  We can spin this off into another thread if it sounds like a productive avenue.

On Mandating Story:  Yeah, turns out that it's not artistically-rewarding to complete a Paint-by-Numbers set.  Of course I agree with you.
  This seems very clearly related to Fruitful Void, although I'm not entirely sure if it is exactly equivalent to Fruitful Void.  But I suspect it may very well be.

I'm going to call you out on something:  you seem to be leaning on the crutch of "theme" and "thematically-intense" an awful lot, and I'm not sure you've really discussed what you mean.  I'm pretty sure I can just search-and-replace it with 'Premise' and get to exactly what you're trying to express, but I'm not entirely sure.

Feeding my doubts are concerns that by 'theme' you might mean something closer to 'Premise + Colour' (ha, did you wake up this morning expecting to be contemplating that?), or possibly something like 'the allowable Premise space'.  The latter bearing a very close relationship to what is traditionally called 'genre', although that term has seen so much abuse I'm not sure it's redeemable.  Anyway, help me out here.

Whew, that's a whole lot of post.  I'm feeling the happiest and most-optimistic about roleplaying that I have in years and years.  Thank you for that.


Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Erik Weissengruber on December 02, 2011, 12:44:22 PM
Yeah, I was hoping to prod the discussion towards the area of application:

* where are we seeing participationism realized well in a few well-known examples?
* who has designs brewing where it is at play
* can we dig down and talk about some reward me?chanisms or examples of currency that encourage functional participation?

I was thinking in autumn-phase terms: pulling together early massess of discourse into distilled insight.

Recent FATE experiences seem to be all about Participationism.  Throwing down a FATE chip to encourage a player to accept a complication in a character's life; spontaneously flipping a player a coin for playing out a character's batshit crazy motivation -- they are functionally the same.  A reward token is being brandished saying "good job, give me more of that to embellish what is going on" and the dopamine reward circutry is getting juiced.

The passing of dice in Fiasco seems to work the same way.  I frame a scene for me to strut my actorly stuff (or storytelling prowess, or descriptive abilities, or knowledge of cannon) and I am angling to have public recognition of my clever invention when someone grabs a die (positive or negative).  The particular ending my partners choose for the scene -- positive or negative -- doesn't matter.  What matters is that someone else at the table has, through the token of the die, given a public validation that, yes, the scene you came up with and played out was engaging enough to get me to want to join in by choosing a category of ending for it.  And with that die in my hand I can angle for future actions on the part of particular players around the table, or reward them for previous actions.  Much reward juice firing all around our monkey brains.

I have enjoyed a lot of narrativist play over the years.  But I have found a kind of satisfaction in Fiasco and FATE as complete as I got from real Story Now gaming.  And Dresden Files couldn't be clubbed into being a Story Now game but there was some nice participation going on there. 

This probably deserves a new thread, but these questions might provide a cap to this one.

* Who out there has come across Participation-friendly techniques where they didn't find them?
* Who set out to do some Story Now, but because of some the techniques and reward mechanisms at work in a particular game, you ended up dreaming away.  And liking it?

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: David Berg on December 02, 2011, 01:05:44 PM
Roger, that bit on superfunctionality is as clear and concise a take as I've ever seen on that topic.  Good stuff!

Erik, I've been meaning to start a Story Before Participationist Rewards thread for a while now.  If you've got some AP to start one from, please do.  If not, I'll try to get to it soon.  You might wanna read this ( and this ( first.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Erik Weissengruber on December 03, 2011, 04:14:17 PM
I don't have much AP to add beyond my FATE and Diaspora APs and the few comments here.

And there I was just recording play experiences.  I never even thought I was doing story before.

But by all means start that thread.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Erik Weissengruber on December 03, 2011, 04:16:40 PM
* Who out there has come across Participation-friendly techniques where they didn't find them?

Rewrite that as "didn't expect them"

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Web_Weaver on December 04, 2011, 03:14:27 PM
* Who set out to do some Story Now, but because of some the techniques and reward mechanisms at work in a particular game, you ended up dreaming away.  And liking it?

This last one has certainly happened to me. We selected a setting and general themes as a group, James Bond meets Magical Victoriana, I set up a situation which I was convinced was grabby and full of thematic choice for the characters. Chose HeroQuest as a game that supported me with player choice in conflicts. And started play clearly aiming for Story Now.

Within a single session it was very clear that the players' were giving far more focus for cool character expression and were seeing my initial mission-like setup as a fun ride. I believe it was the apparent structure of mission brief / journey with incidental intrigue and NPC introduction / arrival in enemy territory, that convinced everyone that the whole point of play was to get their action-spy-steampunk geek on, and not to engage with the difficult and situational conflicts that I had carefully arranged to confront the characters and organisation.

But it was cool, I just switched my expectations once I began to realise they were simplifying the situation and seeing the morally ambiguous stuff as just colour in a game that should be about identifying the bad guys and putting an end to their scheme. Let's face it James Bond isn't full of ambiguity so this was probably always likely without a clear "let's subvert the genre" request.

The only regret in this otherwise fun game was pointing out to a player that was sensitive to CA issues that we were clearly in functional Constuctive Denial territory BEFORE we had finished the final session. This caused unnecessary problems at the table. Nothing too serious, but enougth to wish I had kept quiet until we had finished.

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Ron Edwards on December 04, 2011, 04:13:57 PM
Hi everyone,

I think the thread is fragmenting a little. It might be useful to consider how many related threads are happening at once, choosing which one your idea-of-the-moment fits into best, and starting new threads when necessary. There seem to be two dedicated interests as well, (i) doing Story Now with significant setting content, and (or versus) (ii) doing some other CA with Story Before techniques of some kind, and I think it'd be helpful to remember how different they are.

decoupling Reward Systems from broad-scale Story Arcs (
[Sorcerer and more] A whole lot about setting ( which introduces my essay Setting and emergent stories (
Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after (
Setting and emergent stories (
[Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents (
Story before: the real culprits? (
How Glorantha both inspired and frustrated my play. (
[Feng Shui]Stumbling into Narrativism (
[D&D3.0] Zac's examples (split) (
Story before, Story Now, Bunch of Crap? (

Most of these are actually still current, so again, consider posting very specifically to the one you really should be enhancing, or starting new ones.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Post by: Erik Weissengruber on December 04, 2011, 04:31:43 PM
Thanks for the compilation of threads.