Were We Playing Narrativist?

Started by Xose Lucero, March 08, 2009, 10:26:24 PM

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Xose Lucero

Hello, all. As I try to get a grip on RPG theory I've been replaying old game sessions in my mind to try to figure out what the heck was going on. It's like an endless vacation slideshow of mostly dysfunctional semi-Simulationist play. I've had a lot of trouble with the concepts of Gamist and Narrativist RPG play because I'm not sure I've ever experienced them so I'm not sure I'd recognize them in the wild.

Then one game jumped out at me. My friends and I played it in 8th or 9th grade, years and years ago so my memory isn't the sharpest. I'll try to provide details but I'm not experienced enough yet to reliably separate the irrelevant from the relevant. Bear with me.

There were four of us in the group and we were all friends or friends-of-friends who'd gamed together before. Most games were one-shots or fizzled campaigns and almost all of us ran a game (GMed) at some point.

I don't remember the the rules or name of the game but it was set in the Old West. It used task resolution and simple dice juggling. The GM ran it very low force and I don't remember any illusionist techniques. Whatever we as players decided to do determined where the game went (usually off a tangent followed by off a cliff). Dice were rolled openly and what they said was what happened. I think most of us were using pawn stance most of the time but we added lots of in-character color, accents, "roleplaying", etc. There was a lot of metagaming.

I realize now we were just acting out genre cliches. I played a trigger-happy Billy the Kid type, another guy played a grizzled prospector who hit people with a shovel in lieu of shaking hands and was inordinately fond of his mule, etc. It was real Knights of the Dinner Table stuff. We even had a replacement character who was the twin of the dead character come to avenge his brother.

The campaign was just a series of (usually botched) holdups, saloon brawls, shootouts, and other mayhem. One typical moment was when we were camped out on the range and a stranger came into camp. We invited him to sit by our fire and chatted right neighborly like until the GM narrated the man reaching into his vest. All three of us players simultaneously yelled, "I shoot him!" Of course, he was only reaching for his pipe but we didn't find out until after we'd prepared him for a career as a pencil. For us the game could be summed up as, "Oh man, it's gonna be so fun to play outlaws in the Old West riding around shooting anything that moves!"

Enough setup; here's the story. We decided to rob a train carrying a shipment of gold. The plan was to use dynamite to cut the rails and when the train stopped to avoid it we'd hop on board and be gone before they knew what happened. None of our characters had any demolitions skill. None of us besides the GM had read the demolitions rules. We decided to wing it.

Our characters bought some dynamite and rode out along the railroad tracks to a convenient pass where we could make an easy getaway after the heist. We dug a hole under the rails and slipped the dynamite in, whipped up a fuse, then hid behind a nearby boulder to wait for the train which came along soon after. Then things went to hell.

We hadn't known how much dynamite to use (Two or three sticks? Five or six? Let's just use ten...) so we'd packed in everything we bought "just to be sure". Unfortunately, as players, we'd been confused over units of measure in the equipment list so we'd ended up buying and using crates of dynamite by mistake rather than sticks. Also, in our unskilled rolls we screwed up the timing when we lit the fuse and it burned slower than we expected. The crates of dynamite went off just as the locomotive passed over.

I don't know how much of what followed was strictly according to the rules and how much was GM fiat but the explosion of a dozen crates of dynamite created a mushroom cloud visible in town ten miles away. The locomotive and coal tender disintegrated and the next car flipped backwards end over end. The rest of the train piled into the crater. Our horses were smeared across the landscape, the boulder we were hiding behind split, and we all took damage in addition to being permanently deafened by the blast. After we recovered it was time to get the gold! Yes, we were that stupid.

The GM was good at evocative narration. He narrated shrieking mothers cradling mangled children, men vomiting as they crawled through their own entrails as we staggered, bleeding from the ears, through the smoke and dust and debris. When people figured out that we'd done this and were here to rob them the shooting started. In the middle of a running gun battle we realized the gold had been in the front of the train and was now spread across the territory. The able-bodied men fought back as we used women as shields, slaughtering anyone standing.

Then it got weird for a moment. Play kind of trailed off into an awkward silence. Then someone giggled and then someone else did and someone made a tasteless joke and things were back to normal. I didn't play in that campaign anymore. The rest of the group played a couple more sessions with some new guys then quit. None of us ever played that RPG again.

About ten years later I talked to my friend who'd been one of the players and that game session came up. As we talked it over it turned out we'd both had the same reaction. At that moment we'd realized our characters were psychopathic monsters. More than that, we'd thought, "Why am I enjoying this? What kind of a person would think this is fun?" It seems reasonable to think the other people at the table had similar thoughts in that moment of silence. And that, finally, brings me to the point.

Was that, in spite of our ignorance and dysfunction, Narrativist play? Was there some Premise in our play, unbeknownst to us, that suddenly hit us between the eyes with Theme?

Reasons I think it might have been Narrativist play:

  • None of us were trying to make a story happen. Whatever we wanted our characters to do, the GM facilitated.
  • That weird moment arose naturally from the circumstances of play.
  • It fit the definition of Theme as a "point, message, or key emotional conclusion".

Reasons I'm not so sure:

  • Because of our reliance on pawn stance, the Theme (if any) may have come more from player actions than from the fictional events. It may have been about us as players rather than about us as characters (if that makes a difference).
  • The explanation my friend and I came up with was articulated a decade after the fact to explain the feeling we had during play. Had we felt bad because of the Theme, or did we make up the Theme to explain why we'd felt bad?
  • I'm having a hard time reverse engineering a potential Premise (unless it's just "Haw haw! Violence is fun!")

Thanks for reading this long-winded account. I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Eero Tuovinen

Man, that sure does resemble my early rpg experiences from the '90s.

My call would be that it's difficult to isolate a creative agenda from this sort of stumbling, developing play content. I had a lot of similar experiences through my early years, and assuming that the similarities are more than skin deep, I'd say that it's more useful to describe this sort of play as sampling different creative agendas and bouncing from place to place in an incoherent manner - we could say that a given scene or session has a clear creative impetus to it, but that's not very useful when the group in toto is too raw to really hold onto any long-term goals of play. Another way to say this is that I'm not certain of the reward cycles in your play example or even whether there were any. Most likely a major part of your game was simply about baseline Exploration and getting used to the medium of roleplaying. On this stage would then appear flashes of purposeful play as players try out different responses to different situations.

It approaches inanity to try to psychoanalyze your play experiences years ago from here, but the sort of emotional response you describe can certainly be brought about by technique isolated from creative agenda - storytelling, in essence. Just like audiences of literature or film can have strong reactions to content, so can roleplayers, even when they've had their own hand in creating that content. Thus I'm inclined to read your description of the trainjack episode as not so much a purely narrativistic payoff moment as the GM choosing this moment to press home consequences of choices the characters make. The latter is a technique for reaching the former if an unity of creative agenda already exists, but I've seen it blow up on the GM numberless times when he tries to force that sort of emotional content on the players alone. The fact that you apparently didn't much consider the potential consequences or even know that your characters were going to create a bloody catastrophe makes me see this as more of an unilateral push from the GM for an emotional scene than a clear indication of creative agenda. In fact, today in most games I'd call this sort of play from the GM's side a clear show of force  - the characters didn't intend to kill people and wreck a train, the GM twisted their intentions around out of spite or to direct play towards something he found interesting. You'd know better than me what was going on in the group at the time, of course.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Narrativist enough, perhaps?

Ultimately, the fine lines between (a) what we wanted, (b) what we did, (c) what we reflected upon are not accessible to anyone who wasn't involved. But taking all three into account, "the Narrativist end of the pool" seems like a reasonable conclusion, speaking only as a reader. Maybe paddling about instead of confident, powerful swimming, but there nonetheless.

Best, Ron


I agree with you on the subject of Force, Eero. I think the GM's main error was in not at least casually mentioning to the players, "Do you guys have any idea how much TNT that is?"
That would be an opportunity for someone to say, "No, but let's go with it. Our characters don't know anything about demolitions, remember?"
Sudden, huge changes in tone are a violation of Social Contract in my opinion (which is why I keelhaul chronic jokesters, or at least ask them to choose between cooling it or leaving my game).

Ron, to add to what you said: with the pool analogy in mind, it doesn't quite feel like Nar to me if the game is Drifted to achieve that. It feels like the characters were wearing floaties and lifejackets, rather than knowing how to swim or realizing they were gonna get thrown into a pool, but making PC decisions matter to the utmost, and having explicit metagame chatter/agendas, are hugely important to pulling off Narrativist play, no question.

I think that what could have been gained from this experience, if I might be so bold as to conjecture on what you already know, is that players can have way more agency AND more metagame without it "ruining" anything.

I asked some related questions at: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=15621.msg166768#msg166768. The folks who replied were kind enough to help me distinguish techniques that enable Narrativist play from, well, actual Narrativist play. And yet, using said techniques, even for a very Sim experience, was still really eye-opening to me; it made me see the possibilities that were out there, even once I got over my Holy Grail mentality regarding Nar and game design (i.e. when I sort of stopped assuming that the only game designs I should be working on were going to be Nar. I'm still not quite over this yet, but I realized that one of my ideas was pretty Gamist in nature, so that helps).

Your reaction to the GM pulling a fast one reminds me of a vampire RPG I came across at some point, in which the goal of play was to be shocked (as a player) by how monstrous and horrid it is to be a vampire. The goal was not made explicit, and in fact relied on secret GM knowledge of what the game was really all about, but that was the point - to shock your players. I'm of two minds about the utility of this concept, not the least of which because a clear, fixed opinion on a moral question is not a Premise; the Premise can't be answered for you, but must be answered in play.

The whole "gosh, what did we just DO?" feeling reminds me of playing Kill Puppies for Satan back in college; it honestly creeped me out and disturbed me to play that game, and the mechanics (at least the Evil Points) lend themselves to encouraging exactly that kind of situation for the players. Putting my IRL self and family into the game as NPCs only served to heighten and intensify that situation for me. For my players, though, who's to say? (Them, I know. But that's not an option at present ^_^) KPfS, then, chooses to openly and directly accomplish what that vampire game does in secret, and what that GM of yours (perhaps entirely on a whim) decided to do to you, and what the RPG Violence is screaming off the page about: '"adventurers" do some really horrible shit sometimes; reflect on that.'

- Abby
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/