[Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents

Started by Ron Edwards, November 03, 2011, 03:15:37 PM

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Ron Edwards

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

Ron Edwards

 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


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


[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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eberron).
- 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.

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

Callan S.

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.


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

Ron Edwards

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

Ron Edwards

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

Ron Edwards

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


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


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.


Callan S.

QuoteThat 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).

Ron Edwards

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,

QuoteComics 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


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?