Tweaking Gamist Texts to facilitate Narrativism

Started by JB, November 08, 2008, 11:27:00 PM

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Some time ago Ron made this statement: "...[W]ell-designed Gamist and well-designed Narrativist texts (or more accurately, texts that support those modes of play well) are often extremely compatible with minor rules tweaks, mostly those concerning the reward system of the rules."

So we're all talking about the same thing, I read 'minor rules tweaks' to be 'a small number of easily implemented system drifts', and I'm assuming those drifts would be alterations to procedures and mechanics. 

Provided this isn't an outdated concept, I'd like to get some specific advice and ideas on what one could/should alter to use a 'well designed Gamist text' to support Narrative play.

It's not strictly necessary to know any more to address my request, but I'm including the following for those who want more context for the application of these ideas.

I recently moved, and the new 'local gaming culture' basically plays in a style I'd describe as Illusionist/Participationist-Simulation-by-Habit, less due to 'one true way-ism' and more due to a lack of awareness of any other options.  All the games I've played in or observed locally (D&D 3.5, D&D 4, WoD, Shadowrun, Marvel Super Heroes) utilize a set of 'common drift patterns' to achieve a homogeneous Illusion-Sim game regardless of system.

Because of this, a lot of people are dissatisfied with their games - game not satisfying players CA desire, GM burnout from the demands of the style of play, fun disrupted by dysfunctional play caused by CA clash, etc...  and a lot of games are started with traditional notions (perpetual play, unchanging group of players) only to implode and reform after a few sessions.  (To clarify, things aren't that bad socially.  There's no infighting or anything, just a group of people who seem to be investing a lot of time and energy in an activity thats inconsistently enjoyable.) 

Short story short, I've volunteered to facilitate (GM) a few games with the expectation that I use a 'lingua franca' text. (The local scene isn't real interested in trying new games/texts/systems at this point. This is understandable, as from their experience every game plays the same. All that really changes is the shape of the dice and the color of the setting.)  The two most popular games locally are Shadowrun 4e and D&D (3rd & 4th ed).  My understanding is that both of these games are fairly coherent and well designed Gamist vehicles as written. So given Ron's observation above, how do I use these texts to support Nar play?


Simon C

Do you think these people are actually interested in Narr play? My instinct in this situation would be to run some really good, non-illusionist Sim play.  To me, that seems to be the most likely path to a game with a coherant creative agenda.  Tweaking D&D or something else, you run the risk of getting stuck half-way between.  I guess that the problem is that people think they already "know" how to play D&D, so you're going to get the same behaviours that thay always use in D&D, and you'll get the same result: an incoherant mishmash.  No matter your GMing skills, you can't magically transform a group's CA. 

Were I you, I would ignore the issue of creative agenda for the moment, and focus on creating a really great game of D&D, Shadowrun, or whatever, straight from the book.  What I would emphasise is player empowerment and protagonisation.  I've found that these things are essential to both Narr and Sim play, and that once you're used to playing a character with a strong impact on the game-world, it's much easier to understand what's different about Narr games.

I could go on, but first I'd like to know if this advice is useful to you.  If you're set on building a hybridised D&D, I'm sure someone can help you with that.

Eero Tuovinen

Yeah, Simon nails a psychological problem with this plan. People are slaves to their habits, I've likewise found it pretty difficult to get them to change the way they play this game, as compared to taking an entirely different game and playing that with them - if the game is same, then all the rituals tend to be the same, and the players will automatically set themselves into the same ritual space they're used to: the closet narrativist makes another paladin, the princess player plays his 30th elf ranger, the power gamer creates a build he read about in the Internet... whatever it is that they're used to focusing in D&D, say, is the thing they're focusing on now, to the exclusion of real communication and paying attention to what others are doing.

Regardless, what Ron refers to with his statement is the notion that for many Gamist or Narrativist games, player choices are the king. This can be leveraged in Agenda shift simply by ripping out the decision-making matrix related to one agenda and putting in something to reinforce a new value-set for decision-making. Decisions are still made in the same mechanical context over the same things, but instead of making them based on tactical considerations, they are now made from a thematic viewpoint. For example, in the case of D&D, you need to (insofar as you're doing this intentionally and analytically; you could just drift by touch, presumably) recognize what are important decisions in Gamist D&D played with the rules set and GMing techniques you're currently using. Then you can work on making those decisions rewarding as Narrativist considerations. Because there are so many editions and ways of executing D&D it's difficult to say what these things are exactly without knowing more about your D&D play, but that's the general idea.

As an example of the sort of thinking that could go on here, in many D&D versions combat encounters played out with miniatures on a grid are a centerpiece of play. In these instances often one of the most important and common choices a player has to make is how he situates his character on the grid - this has to do with choosing which opponents to attack and which to give an opportunity to attack yourself, as well as setting up flanking for your team-mates in the never editions. To change this choice into a potentially Narrativist one, you need to recognize a potential premise in the fiction and start emphasizing that with your wide GM powers. For example, lots of situations where a player needs to choose between situation his character for his own safety or the safety of non-combatant NPCs require the player to constantly make choices of this sort. Likewise for some enemies who are trying to escape with loot vs. protecting the guy they were trying to rob. Positioning on the combat grid can become a statement of priorities - a character can fall in different boxes depending on whether he values his own safety, the success of his team, the protection of innocent, greed or other values. That's Narrativism, easily enough.

Of course, to make this sort of shift in meaning, you need to use your GM powers to make sure that all value choices are equally rewarding (for the player, not the character; if you're going to conflate xp and gold with "reward", then the players will strategize to get those things). This is usually what frustrates the potential Narrativist in the D&D combat system: it's very difficult and ineffective to throw yourself in the way of the enemies to protect somebody else (in an uniquely assbackward move 3rd edition solved this one by creating a prestige class specifically for characters who want to protect others), death is non-permanent (so ultimate sacrifice really isn't), losing combats leads to game-disrupting contortions, and the culture of play emphasize the idea of team benefit over individual motivations. These macro-level considerations are where the habits of play will cause trouble - a group naturally inclined to Narrativism will drift the rules and procedures without thinking to make sure that the valiant sacrifices and base betrayals are amply rewarded in terms of dramatic consequences, while a group otherwise inclined will get stuck on all sorts of minor details that only hamper this sort of play.

Let us know how you want to proceed here - for all I know your group might be very skilled in adapting to the GM's program, in which case it wouldn't be impossible to get didactic and make them play something like this with some heavy editorial commentary (constantly commenting on the play performance of others is a good tool for getting feedback in early and often, I've found) and clear explanation of what you're doing and what you want others to do from moment-to-moment. But we'll need a better sense of the exact rules you'd be using and your own D&D GMing procedures to give more detailed advice.

(I imagine this sort of thing is possible for Shadowrun, too - it's just that I've never even read that game, so I don't know it well enough to give detailed advice.)
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Thanks for the prompt replies.  I really appreciate the level of involvement that Forgites display.  In response, I have to say the advice is spot on, but not useful as it doesn't address what I was asking about, if that makes any sense.

Either I'm way off base with my interpretation, or I haven't phrased my question adequately to get answers I can use.

Sigh.  I wrote a long reply to Simon and Eero addressing all the points they raised and realized I was just arguing a non-issue.  The local social dynamics are really interesting, and I'm open to discussing them, but they're not the focus here, so sorry for the confusion.

Everything I want to discuss is in the first three paragraphs of my post.  I debated whether to put any more in that post - I knew it detracted from the focus of the thread,  but decided to do so to curtail "Why would you want to do that?" replies.  I didn't put it there to start a discussion about the 'local scene' or the viability of using a Gamist text for Nar play.

My question could be crudely rephrased as, "Given the assumption that 'Gamism is not really that different from Narrativism', imagine you had to make minor revisions to a well written Gamist text you are familiar with in order to facilitate Narrative play. What alterations to the text would you make?" 

Eero Tuovinen

Well written Gamist texts are really rare. I've practically had to write my own when I've strived for Gamist play. Specifically, the best Gamist rpgs I know seem to without fail be incoherent texts where you need to bring the Gamist sensibility to it yourself to make it work. My primary examples in this regard are Runeslayers and Praedor, the first of which can be construed as Gam/Nar incoherent, while the latter is Gam/Sim. Both games are so finely tuned with ample mechanical support that it doesn't take more than a nudge and a sense of purpose to play either full-on with one of two different agendas.

Actually... would you construe Dread: the First Book of Pandemonium as a Gamist text? I haven't really played it yet (although I did prepare a session that got cancelled on the last minute), but it seems to me that it bends pretty well to either Gamism or Simulationism. I'm more inclined to do the former, myself, but that's just a stage I'm in.

Regardless, let's pretend for a moment that 3rd edition D&D is a good Gamist text, just so I can take a stab at answering you. From reading about people's game experiences and playing the game myself I'd say that when Narrativist play or efforts at such have been going on, the players often try to hook the premise with character design - making a paladin character, making a thiefling (a half-demon, essentially) character, making a bard character are all potential flag statements about the sort of societal relationships and situations players want to encounter in the game. 3rd edition D&D comes prepackaged with the idea that character classes determine a wide range of character behavior and opinion - the laughable descriptions of how barbarians are suspicious and dismissive of magic-users, for instance, are faithfully written for all character classes, which you pretty much have to interpret as either intending to define character relationships and other meat for character roleplaying by designer fiat, or as the designers being idiots who think that people are their jobs.

So taking the above and going into D&D with the intent to make it all Narrativist, I'd probably magnify the notion that character class defines the man. This sort of material is really common in D&D setting design, which makes one wonder whether they're trying to make space for Narrativistic support in there: for example, having a setting where magic-users are feared and scorned, or paladins are automatically members of the ruling aristocracy, or where thieves need to either join a Guild or die, all work to nichify individual characters socially in addition to their mechanical roles. Going into this direction, I'd try to set up my setting and tie character classes into it to such a complete degree that a player couldn't choose character classes without making a statement - a guy who's a barbarian is born to it for better or worse, but one who decides to multiclass into it is making a choice to forsake civilization; a guy who becomes a monk has to become a vegetarian, forsake needless violence and start living in celibacy, abandoning his family; anybody who manages to get into that magical elf archer prestige class will be considered a vanguard and hero of the elven civilization. That sort of thing. Ideally, make these identity issues so overbearing that players actively make their character development choices based on them rather than the secondary mechanical effects.

(Heh, thinking about it, I did a lot of this sort of thing in my last big fantasy campaign around the beginning of the decade. For example, I had three different fighter variant classes in the game tied to three different tribal affiliations - taking one of them pretty much meant that the character would have to join the Lakedaimonian military to get the training, for instance, while another was only available from the multitude of expensive martial schools situated in the Akhaian cultural sphere. Lots of this sort of stuff in that campaign - the campaign itself was overall very incoherent, though, and in hindsight the best moments were coherent Gamism that happened when the Nar-leaning players happened to not be participating. Consequently this setting-based stuff attached to the character classes was also mostly used as fodder for challenge frameworks of different sorts; characters would seek old battle-manuals of the masters and make service to mighty wizards to partake of their wisdom, that sort of thing.)

Incidentally, 3rd edition D&D has a range of rules that tend to make this sort of play slightly difficult. Drifting those rules is pretty common, although I myself ended up outright ripping out the guts and redesigning the particulars of the game when I tried to run it, exactly because these rules came to my way. For example, the multiclassing xp penalty rules are pure ass from both Gamist and Narrativist perspectives, so they're often ignored by many groups. (They're weird from a Gamist perspective because almost any multiclass is already weaker than the character'd be single-classed - additional punishment makes little sense.)

In shorter term play the issue wouldn't be so much in who the character is becoming through his character development; in the context of individual adventures I'd run D&D with a sandbox arrangement, paying close attention to the Alignment rules. From a Narrativist viewpoint Alignment works to attract attention to certain thematic issues, and it forces the players to judgment over their own actions and those of others. My Narrativist D&D would probably include a lot of situations where the GM explicitly warns the player about impending Alignment changes - there would also be lots of Alignment-related magical situations floating around, just to make those choices bite the character in the ass later on. Alignment would also probably be an objective force detached from player sensibilities, I suppose - I'd pick some objective rules for determining Alignment and stick to them, even if we ended up with Chaotic Evil protagonists or whatnot.

I'd also try to do something on the level of individual combat encounters, although that'd necessarily have to be somewhat perfunctory in that 3rd edition is somewhat difficult to run without extensive preparation of the combat encounters. My tack would probably be to use Monster Manual monsters as is with no customization and no care for encounter balance, letting the chips fall as they may; combat would only be initiated by player choice in this set-up, though, as I'd always provide the choice of not fighting. As I've never played 3rd edition combat rules by the book, I can't off-hand say how I'd set up the sort of choice situations I intimated above - would have to run some combats and thing about it a bit. Or just run a simplified sort of combat system that removed grid positioning and allowed players to trade combat effectiveness for achieving non-combat goals in some fluid and effective manner.

Sound plausible? Not many changes needed to make the game run Narrativist, I think.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Simon C

This is not my area of expertise, but here are a few links that you might find inspiring for ideas:

Some people have had success using "Keys" from The Shadow of Yesterday in D&D.  Clinton Nixon wrote up some rules for this here:

Otherwise, I had an idea for using the dungeon crawl as a self-contained conflict resolution system, which I wrote about here:

Ryan Stoughton wrote a hack for 3rd ed. D&D (but totally compatible with 4th ed. I believe) called "Raising the Stakes", which while it's not a magic wand for Narrativism, might make the game more interesting for you.  You can download the pdf here:

Ron Edwards

Hi Jim,

Have you seen my series of threads about playing D&D 3.0/3.5 for dedicated Narrativist play? Rather than direct you to them, as they are pretty extensive and include about a bezillion reader-driven crisis points, I'll highlight the single most important rules-change we ended up making, without really planning to: we ignored levelling-up.

To be clear about some of the steps involved, before character creation and play, we'd already discussed "why we're playing" and contrasted a pretty specific form of Gamist play (which I think the text supports very well) and a similarly-specific form of Narrativist play, which might be described as violent adventure that raised moral choices and left them open to player decisions. The players unhesitatingly plumped for the latter. So we already knew, going in, that we were dedicated to a certain CA.

In other words, and consistent with what you're talking about so far (I think), our game wasn't about tricking or converting people to Narrativist play under cover of D&D; it was simply enjoying this set of rules (or subset, given the "guts cut out" impact of not levelling-up) for the already-desired CA.

Best, Ron

P.S. Two interesting threads, among many at the Forge that kick around D&D, mechanics options or alterations, and Narrativist play:
"Save vs. X": Gamist? (the answer being, "not necessarily")
Narrativist game compatible with D&D settings (almost certainly a troll-in-disguise topic, but there are some good posts in the replies)
Narrativist games and "winning?" (during Frank's phase of 'the Big Model fascinates me but I must struggle with it,' which as it turns out was good for everybody)

P.P.S. Let me know if you want to delve into the multi-thread saga of the D&D game; I'll hunt the links.

Ron Edwards

You know, I thought about that post a bit more and decided to clarify something.

I'm not saying that if you take levelling-up out of D&D, you get a Narrativist game in the sense that everyone playing flips a switch in their heads from one CA to another.

I'm saying that if you go in playing Narrativist by preference, and given that we didn't plan to play more than a single several-session adventure anyway, then levelling-up (in our case) just evaporated from the context of play.

So I'm not sure whether that really serves your topic, except perhaps to say that the "tweaking texts" part is not the first-cause priority in what you're talking about. It's best to start with people who really want to play Narrativist in the first place.

Best, Ron


Thanks to everyone who's posted so far.  And thanks for the links. I'd been looking for the Raising the Stakes thing as it was referenced elsewhere without a line a while back.


I don't think I've read your series of D&D 3.0/3.5 for dedicated Narrativist play yet. I'm game to delve into the threads if you're game to hunt the links. I'm slowly working my way thru the Forge forum archives, and have about gotten thru the RPG Theory archives, but the main reference to doing this I've read so far is the series of posts Raven (grayorm) put up about his 3X game - I think that starts with 'Non-Silly D&D'?

And yeah, I'm not trying to trick anyone into playing Narrativist or change their CA.  I just don't feel like I need advice on 'adapting D&D' to play with a Gamist CA and the groups I'm playing with already have a functional style of Sim play.  (Not exactly my cup of tea, but I doubt I'd come up with anything superior in that sphere.) 

The analogy that struck me last night was, "It's like trying to explain how to play a different genre of music to someone who's never heard that kind of music." I can talk about 'modal jazz' or whatever but the only way to 'get it' is to or hear it, or play it.

To extend that analogy, I've met a group that plays... I dunno, jazz... and then I sit in a few times and say, "Y'all want to play some Rock n Roll?" They're interested but have never heard RnR. I assert that I can talk about RnR but the only way to 'get it' is to play or hear it. And the group says, "Cool. Sounds interesting. But I don't want to have to buy a different instrument and learn to play that to play this Rock stuff. Can we do this with the instruments we have now?" My take is that, yeah, we can do that.  Maybe it's not ideal, but if you enjoy it maybe you'll decide to get another instrument later on.   

Ron Edwards

Found'em. Things have lightened up a lot about since the days of (sniff!) "No way, man, D&D rules, at least it did the way Scott used to run it," et cetera et cetera.

[D&D 3.0/3.5] The kid two houses down
[D&D 3.0/3.5] Skill combat and blood drinking
[D&D 3.0/3.5] Spells and swords - fight!
[D&D 3.0/3.5] Undead, real dead
[D&D 3.0/3.5] At long last, a dungeon

Still, even in these, there are a few aggrieved defenses of various rules that I either misplayed or stated in a fashion that matched the text rather than whatever it was the person held in his head. Aside from that, I'm really happy with how these threads created a new knowledge-base that "wow, people at the Forge play D&D too?"

Best, Ron