Gamism and Narrativism: Mutually Exclusive

Started by Ayyavazi, July 01, 2009, 08:35:50 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


So, I started a thread in the Site Discussion, and Ron said I needed an actual play example. Here we go.

When: I'll use a game I played around march of this year.

What: D&D 4e. This was one of my first forays into the system, but the game itself had been going on since the game came out in june or july.

Who: Me, a player (though I wish I was the DM), Paul (player and munchkin wannabe), Gourdo (reluctant DM who doesn't really put as much effort in as he thinks he does, and not half as much as he should, in my not so humble opinion), and Richie (player, good at role-playing, simple).

We played a game set in modern times with all the D&D elements, so a modern magic kind of setting. Every character had to have a religion (whether they were devout or not) and history was more or less unchanged, though there were some changes that DM thought particularly important, (and which I thought ludicrous), including the Japanese controlling a sizeable portion of North america after World War II, and the gold standard and economy resulting in un-realistic prices and rewards.  For example, we were offered 1000 GP for our first mission, a a group, which is basically 200 dollars in equivalence in the 1920s. This is a fair sum, but not the kind of thing I expect people to risk life and limb for against zombies and other supernatural terrors (which is what we were asked to do).

There were several issues of breakdown in the game, most of them my own opinion. What I wanted was more control of the story. I had what I thought to be several great ideas (the other players agreed in private, but were oddly silent during the game. methinks they feared DM. He and I butted heads constantly). The DM remained firmly rooted to "his" story (even though the whole game was designed specifically by him for me [without my input] as a gesture to heal a group fission we had suffered months earlier), and would listen patiently to other ideas, "take them under consideration" and then proceed to ignore and not use them.

D&D 4e has an obviously strong gamist element, and we all enjoyed that part of it, no matter how many social issues amongst ourselves there were. The idea of narrativism as I understand it is story now, or story first in my words.

Needless to say, I did not enjoy this game nearly as much as I could have. I believe it is because the story is not what I wanted it to be, and that our characters could not influence it. Sure, wiping out this group of zombies saved the city and made us heroes, but if we wanted to do things differently, we could not influence the story along another path. It was one line railroading all the way.

So, is gamism mutually exclusive to narrativism? I could not have envisioned these questions at the time I played the game, nor do I see a direct correlation, but I suppose we need an example to work off of.

I wish I had an example game of capes to work with. I recently read the text and believe it easily supports both narrativist and gamist agendas (unless narrativism requires the players working together to craft the story equally, in which case my question is ultimately moot).

It seems to me that in a game such as D&D, (or many other systems and games for that matter) there could be gamist elements that keep the players interested on one level, while allowing them to work together to craft interesting stories. This way the challenge is there within the game world, and the story is shaped outside of it. Or is such a system one bitter gamer's pipe dream?



Just a few things for the moment, because this discussion is key to some of my recent ideas as well. First of all, I see no connection between railroading and Gamism. Even in Gamism, railroading is a poor design. I remember Gygax's introduction to Castle Zagyg 2 : The Upper Works for C&C (which obviously is NOT a Narrativist attempt) stating his scorn for railroading. As far as I am concerned, I've experienced a lot more of railroading and GM-illusionism in Simulationist games than in Gamist ones, I've even read a few weeks ago a player writing (on another message board) "when I play I do my best to understand the implied railroading and to comply with it in order to respect the social contract". I you ever read a player of Gamist games writing that, he's not a player of Gamist games.

What strike me is that you will find, if you read it, a lot of examples about the way to GM a session and to take the other players' version of the game into account in the D&D4 Dungeon Master Guide. Most players I know have simply discarded it as "fluff" and I suspect a tendancy in older D&D players to overlook this kind of content with a "you know, we know what's D&D like" sort of motto. Because if you read it, you'll find whole sections telling you to say yes to the player's ideas, whatever they might be, and to allow them to use whatever pops in their mind in order to face the challenges the game sets for them. I consider these sections as an attempt to empower the players with the course of the story. Meanwhile, the entire game is just a set of resolution systems, challenges and step on up mechanics. I think that what these sections are meant for is to destroy the old fake Simulationist sin of D&D, which is actually great, but not to generate a story now system. You maybe would have much more enjoyed playing the game with a DM having read that.

On the other hand, I don't want to answer directly the theorical question underlying your actual play example but I suspect, having just read Vincent Baker's Storming the Wizard's Tower 1st part that the direction is worth exploring. It gives me hints to a new version of Gamism in which the challenges could possibly be co-designed on the spot by the players together, who would then face them, step on up and use all the crunch made available to them in order to face them. Is that Narrativism? I'm not really sure. Makes me almost think of a web 2.0 version of Gamism actually. If you extend the co-design to the crunch available to face the challenges, the story now element of this Gamist game would lay in its permanent co-designing. I'm REALLY pushing Storming the Wizard's Tower to an extreme here and apologies to Vicent Baker if he feels I'm twisting his game a bit too far. One thing is that if that would allow you to design challenges, adventures and why not, settings and characters, that doesn't give you a story as such because the mechanics aren't at all intended for that purpose. That's why I wouldn't call that Narrativism but it's sure an interesting thing.

Adam Dray

Quote from: Ayyavazi on July 01, 2009, 08:35:50 PM
D&D 4e has an obviously strong gamist element, and we all enjoyed that part of it, no matter how many social issues amongst ourselves there were.

Hey, Norm!

What makes you think you all enjoyed the gamist element of the game? Can you give some actual play examples? Not just examples of "gamist" stuff, but examples of people's reactions of enjoyment of them.

And I think that you're saying that you were mad about your character being deprotagonized, right? This isn't just having control over "the story," but having your input and choices be meaningful in a certain kind of way.

When the group was engaged in those "gamist" things, did the DM make your choices meaningless then? I'll bet he didn't (as far as you know), or you wouldn't be saying it was fun. That's my theory, anyway.

In general, be careful with the GNS terms. It's possible your issues with the game don't even get into GNS / creative agenda clash issues. It just sounds like your DM is railroading you guys, but you didn't give much in the way of examples of why you think that. Maybe that will help us understand.

Narrativism, or "Story Now," isn't about controlling the story exactly. It's about each player having the opportunity to dig into meaty, human issues that mean something to the players at the table ("address of premise"), and having the entire group affirm and reward that kind of play. Is that what you're missing? Do the other players want more than the kick-ass Gamism that D&D 4E delivers so well?
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Callan S.

Hello Norm,

With capes, it doesn't have some sort of 'gamist' mini game in it. There is skill involved in working it's mechanics to affect the story - this results in the story going in unexpected directions. Unexpected for everyone, rather than some GM knowing in advance. The skill used in mechanical play in capes is like the skill used in writing the prose of a book or in handling a brush when painting - it's a skill, but it's not gamist. It's like someone dribbling a basketball with paint on it, to make a painting - just because it appears to be a basketball, something used in so many sports, doesn't mean it's gamist.

In terms of the GM being rooted in 'his' story - what is the set up? I'm thinking 4E has the traditional bit of crappy text that says the GM can do anything. If you've agreed he has, then your handing him authority over the story (and 'anything' else) - you've made it 'his' story - then you resent him treating it as if it's his?

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

Thanks for posting this. Everyone, let's not dogpile him too, too much, OK?

Best, Ron


Quote from: Callan S. on July 02, 2009, 12:27:59 AMI'm thinking 4E has the traditional bit of crappy text that says the GM can do anything. If you've agreed he has, then your handing him authority over the story (and 'anything' else) - you've made it 'his' story - then you resent him treating it as if it's his?

It actually doesn't Callan! D&D4 is the very first edition to make a break in these old time standards. The Dungeon Master's Guide saying that the DM should let go of his authority whenever possible, I consider a DM trying to enforce his version of the story as a very bad example of D&D4 DM. That doesn't make D&D4 a Gamist-Narrativist game, of course, but the direction's worth exploring.

Callan S.

So he still has the authority? And who determines whenever it's possible to 'give it up'? The GM? For myself, I'd feel if I handed that to the GM it's absolutely no different from me handing him 'the GM can do anything' - the only countermeasure to his power, I've placed within his power. May as well say he can only use the authority when he wears a black hat - atleast then a well aimed dicebag or just plain grabbing it off his head and keeping it away, could happen! But I'll stop for now - as yet, I don't know if this helps Norm at all.


Ahey, :)

Quote from: Ayyavazi on July 01, 2009, 08:35:50 PMis gamism mutually exclusive to narrativism?

There's an answer for this, but it depends exactly on how you are tackling the problem.

Between diverse people sitting at the same RPG table, every so often, they can coexist with great success. I wrote up an example of it, a few years back, using Legend of the Five Rings.

On the other hand, they can also clash hideously. I remember one particular HeroQuest where the guy with the Gamist priorities was visibly angry at the guy with the Narrativist priorities having spent his points "wrong", to invest on things which "aren't helping us beat the monster, now, and if it weren't for me saving mine, we would all be dead".

In my experience, extreme moments like either of those two are few and far between. Over the long haul, if there's people with clearly divergent priorities sitting at the table, the game will suffer.

As for having them coexist within a single system, there are designs out there where one can be used in support of the other, interchangeably even. I've played highly successful Capes sessions where that's happened. The thing is, I find it much, much easier for the session to be successful when all the players are aligned as to which one is central and which one is supporting.

Lastly, within any one role-player's mind, they can most certainly coexist. Speaking for myself, whenever I play TSoY or Solar System, for instance, I'm all about making choices and seeing the consequences pile on. (Naturally, the GM forcing me into any particular conflict is likely to be railroady.) But when I play 3.x/4e, I will throw myself with wild abandon at whatever challenges the GM wants to throw at me. (And here, it's not a matter of railroading, it's simple framing.)

Right. The stated question being out of the way, I'd like to take a crack at an assumptions that seems to be behing your post.

"Working together to craft interesting stories" is the staple of all successful role-playing, regardless of agenda. The only difference lies in what people find interesting about the stories. If everyone at the table is on board as to what is interesting, then everyone is likely to have an equal say on the decisions that actually matter, while everything else can be left in the hands of whoever has authority to frame stuff, which is usually the Game Master.

So, you've told us about a session that you found problematic. For contrast, I'd love to read about a session in your RPG past that you really loved. Tell us what happened there, and why you loved it.

Here's hoping to have helped, without having dogpiled it. :)

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer

Ron Edwards

Everyone, please hold up on posting for a bit. I know this is pushing the limits of moderator authority, but as I'm the one who asked Norm to do this, it seems right to give him the reply I promised before things get too focused on details. My post is almost ready and after it's up, the free-for-all starts up again. Thanks!

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Hi Norm,

I'm going to re-state what you wrote about your play-experience in Big Model terms, because only with that stuff in place can Creative Agenda be addressed. I have not lost sight of your basic questions and point, and will get to them in the end.

The first thing I see are a lot of judgments. I say this not to criticize you or say you shouldn't judge, but rather the opposite. Clearly you brought strong expectations or standards to what should be happening at the table, as you saw it, and they were met only marginally.

I'll try to paraphrase them and put them at the right level of the Big Model. (1) Social contract: put in effort, especially if you're the DM; be real if you want something, no "try" or expect to be treated as such if you aren't doing it. To summarize, as you saw it, the Social Contract should include genuine commitment from the person's best effort, and failure to do so should be called out. And also, these expectations were not being met.

(2) Exploration, specifically setting. You expected Setting not to be stupid, with stupid meaning "fantastic is OK, but not violating basic principles of human behavior or certain historical outcomes without at least some attempt at an explanation." This also reaches deeply into the Shared part of "Shared Imagined Space," because here was the DM, imposing X and Y and Z, and your judgment as a participant (i.e. you had to be imagining it too) was clearly not being valued. Whereas according to you, that judgment should necessarily be valued.

I started with these two not only because they are the outermost and next-most layers of the model, but also because they are linked by a very powerful point: if the group does not have "Let's play this game!" as part of the Social Contract, then there is no real door or connector between these two levels.

Many aspects of the breakdown you describe are rooted in these levels. Creative Agenda isn't a level, but rather a connector going through the levels, holding them together. Sometimes problems during play are based on clashing desires for the CA; sometimes they are due to problems with the levels themselves. I am pretty certain based on what you wrote that the Gamist CA was in at least workable, potentially strong shape for your group. The issue lies more with what content the CA was supposed to be working with, and the particular details of how that content was imposed onto play.

That claim of mine will not make sense unless I clarify a number of thing about Creative Agenda.

First, it is abundantly clear to me that you are completely at sea regarding the term Narrativism. It is definitely not "Story First." In fact, a great deal of the first part of my Narrativism: Story Now essay is built to clarify that point. For present purposes, in the play-account you're talking about, neither the story that was either mandated by the DM (as it happened) or generated more through player-character action (as you'd prefer) has anything to do with Narrativist play. It is simply and clearly best described as "the events which fictionally occurred" - the product of play in terms of fiction.

This doesn't invalidate your question, but I think it's absolutely necessary to re-frame your question into meaningful terms. You aren't asking about Gamist and Narrativist play at all. You're asking whether Gamist play can persist or occur when attention to story (as stated above in the simple/clear form) is occurring as well. The answer is yes, which I presume is good news. And also good news, that the attention in question is more enjoyable to you when you get to be involved rather than merely to watch someone impose it, is also compatible with this aim.

QuoteIt seems to me that in a game such as D&D, (or many other systems and games for that matter) there could be gamist elements that keep the players interested on one level, while allowing them to work together to craft interesting stories. This way the challenge is there within the game world, and the story is shaped outside of it. Or is such a system one bitter gamer's pipe dream?

I think that one version of it is indeed a pipe dream, or worse, a delusion (pipe dreams are at least useful in many cases). See discussions of Exalted in particular (e.g., ). The fault of that version is that one person is "story man" and the others are "butt-kick kids," and neither has to pay attention to or respect what the other is doing.

However, that is not to say that Gamist play cannot happily occur upon a bed or foundation of a nifty story happening too. (Again, the presence or production of a "nifty story" does not connote or require Narrativist play.) You might find the thread [Rifts] GNS my session interesting, because although it is more about Simulationism and Gamism, the discussion was illuminated mainly by my distinction between Exploration-platform, or SIS, and Creative Agenda. I think that distinction will be useful to you as well.

So a more functional version of your idea is simply to have story events occur as part of the SIS, without the central thematic crisis elements of Narrativist play being involved to any great extent,* and with player decisions (about what characters do) being instrumental in what happens next, as things go along. That works fine!

Let's hold off on discussing Capes for a number of reasons. The main one is that I think you aren't firing on all (or possibly any) cylinders about Narrativism in the first place, and another is that we'll need some real play to talk about. I have not managed yet to play Capes in any context that I can call "actually playing." If someone has done this, as opposed to simply screwing around with click-and-lock and Drifted freeform, and wants to start a thread to address Gamist/Narrativist issues, then I'd like to see that.

Best, Ron

* If you would like to learn more about what Narrativist play is or looks like, then I recommend Frostfolk and GNS aggravation and [Frostfolk, ] Carrying on.

Jasper Flick

Quote from: Ayyavazi on July 01, 2009, 08:35:50 PM
The DM remained firmly rooted to "his" story (even though the whole game was designed specifically by him for me [without my input] as a gesture to heal a group fission we had suffered months earlier),

Just wanted to point this out, because it really does not sound as a functional basis for any kind of play. Whether it's fact or only your interpretation of the situation doesn't matter. So either I'm reading way too much in it, or you've some issues to work out before you can get any kind of healthy play in this context.
Trouble with dice mechanics? Check out AnyDice, my online dice distribution calculator!


This may help Ayyavazi, and it will certainly help me.

Could one say that  a strong gamist design could support narrativist play, as long as one saw the gamist elements as strong constraints on the possible paths of the story resolutions could include? In a way the system and its outcomes are like the expectations and physics of a genre?

Ron Edwards


Strategy, tactics, gutsy decision-making with mechanical consequences, and all related items may be present in the game - but it's not Gamist unless personal esteem among the real people is actually gained as the point of play by doing these things well.

So to answer your question directly, no, Gamist play cannot serve as support for (e.g.) Narrativist play, or for that matter, any other Creative Agenda. However, strategy, tactics, et cetera can certainly be present as a feature of Narrativist (or any other non-Gamist Agenda) play, to fuel and reinforce the Agenda in question.

Have you checked out the links I provided? Levi in particular, in the first Frostfolk thread, really illustrates what it's like for someone who actually grasps what I mean by "Creative Agenda" for the first time, even though he thought he knew what it meant at the outset (but was wrong). Once you see what I'm talking about, the very idea of pursuing more than one at once becomes immediately and obviously absurd.

Best, Ron
edited to remove redundant sign-off


Thanks everyone.

First, I do feel overwhelmed, but that is not unexpected. I knew going in I would not be able to respond for a few days, so this is only four or five more posts than I expected. I'll try to address everyone's points as they were made, but if I skipped it, let me know. Also, it will take time for me to read the threads Ron has recommended, so I may not be fully on board exactly what creative agenda and narrativism are. I've read all the essays, but I obviously missed something along the way.

For Patrice, I have most certainly read all of that text in the DMG. I was a big proponent of saying yes (many of my players beg me to move back to the area and run their games), and of letting the characters make useful choices outside of their combat tactics. Addressing interesting social dilemmas was always a big part of our games, as well as all of the tactics (at least for our male players).  This Wizard's Tower intrigues me. I will have to look into it.

For Adam,

I hesitate to include examples where I enjoyed the play, because of how Ron clarified what is gamist and what is narrativist. Essentially, the "gamist" things I enjoyed (and still enjoy) are making characters able to totally wreck anything thrown at them, whether skill wise or combat wise. I enjoyed the tactical dance that was D&D combat.

And Ron,

I appreciate your candor. And of course I am not taking the advice personally. I love the concept of RPG theory. And I love learning about exactly what it is I enjoy, because it will hopefully increase my enjoyment. For now, I will try to go through what I understand of your reply.

First, if gamism is about the social esteem, and not the tactics and strategy, then it seems to be gamism I did not understand. As such, I could not say it was the gamist element I enjoy at all. Sure, I love a pat on the back for a good idea as much as the next guy, but I don't play D&D only so I can win and be given props for it, I play any RPG with the intent first and foremost of winning (and losing) in such a way that my victory means something. Its that meaning that I always desire in gameplay, which is why I was so frustrated with the endless filler battles my DMs always gave me. A battle against a bunch of common enemies who are only there to drain my resources/give me new or more resources/fill game time, bore me no matter how badly I trash them (note: a close fight that is tactically difficult does a great deal to lessen the blow, but I tend to find the harder fights are normally the ones that meant more in the first place Or is this just retroactive memory alteration? Maybe I think the battle is more important if it is hard because I enjoy hard, and anything I enjoy must have been important somehow. hmm...)

I will be reading the topics you gave me as I have time, but for now the idea that Narrativism is about digging deep into certain issues seems to be exactly what I want, with a healthy dose of tactical application, the ability to earn an occasional pat on the back, and a deep and engaging fiction that all players can effect equally.

Thanks again, I would still like to explore a hybrid gamist/narrativist model, but I obviously have to study up on the terms some more.

And lastly, Jasper (since Ron handled the last poster's question fairly well).

The issues you speak of are real. The group fission was caused by a lie by the DM in question, which when called on split the group. His feelings were hurt, and he refused to play in any game with me from that point on. The group went on without him for some time, but his best friend was becoming tense because of the seperation, so I bowed out to let the normal group resume play. Months later, DM and came to the agreement that he would not lie so much and I would cut him more slack when he did. And that he would run a game (since I no longer had the time) that I could play in, rather than forcing me into a pre-made adventure, which I tended to hate. Imagine my surprise when the "custom" campaign he had designed was just as rigid as any pre-made! Turns out his style of DMing was very by-the-book. Once an element was decided by him, there was zero flexibility. Sure, our in combat actions determined winning or losing for that fight, but other than that, there was no choice.  Ultimately, when I moved away, it was not a big loss since I wasn't getting the type of gameplay I wanted.

Thanks again all. Lets see where this all goes.


Okay, now that Ayyavazi has had a chance to read all that and respond, I can reply in the thread to Ron and not be muddling things horridly.

The crux of my point lay in strong gamist design and narrativist play.

Not mixing two play agendas in one player in an instance of play.

Much as people playing Kagematsu would not violate the setting constraints (Japan, era, village in peril, the kind of movies that inspired this game), I am asking if you could try to achieve your narrativist goals of play while abiding by the systemic constraints on what could happen.

A poor example might be that if in D&D you must strive to harm a high level person for many rounds (whittle the hit points) before anything dramatic could happen, the nod to this in even the most non conflict resolution based game that was suposed to be set in a D&D universe might say that a fight to the last will be long, no one one shot one kill type narrations. Something as simple as "after much flashing of blades and manuevering for position, one combatant fell."

Another poor example would be "phrase all tales in terms of how D&D would resolve it while playing Once Upon a Time."

My ongoing feeling is that many narrativist agendas are not positive or even neutral with regards to other styles of play, especially gamist play. Why do I think that? Because if you want to experience and enjoy the creation of a story, elements like rules, which sim and gamist play rely upon as almost unbendable agreements, can only be in the way. I could be very wrong and I keep trying to find an idea of how much can a rules set be used to establish the constraints of fiction that the story must follow.

Likewise, I have have to agree with Ayyavazis take on gamism, I've met no one who wants acclaim for doing well at a game really, but plenty who want an involved tactical experience with challenging situations, be it a board game, or any variety of roleplaying game.