[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

The underbelly technique
In the mid-1990s, I regularly went to a friend's house to watch Babylon 5, during its original airing. Various members of our loose social circle had been doing some role-playing together for a while, with different games, one or another of us acting as GM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ron Edwards

And when asked for further detail:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best, Ron
edited to fix typo -  RE

David Berg

Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 15, 2011, 07:18:48 PMIt also happens that I'm re-watching Babylon 5 at this very time, seeing it again for the first time since it aired in the mid-1990s, and I'm all geeked about it. So any questions about this game we played, or about any aspects of that show as it might relate to role-playing, are especially welcome.

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

I do have questions about B5esque roleplaying, but you may have already answered them, so I intend to read through the whole thread first.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Wincing slightly ...

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

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi Ron,

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

Ron Edwards

Ask it here - I'll split it if it seems like its own topic. Can you keep the question as thoroughly simple as you can?

Best, Ron

David Berg

I already judged that elsewhere would be better.  It wasn't a question, just my perspective on the dangers of planning for romance.  I now doubt that it's on topic here.  (Though if you read it and disagree, I'm happy to re-post here.)

Fortunately, I do have something on topic to say:

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

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

Ron Edwards

Hi David,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And near the end:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Shit! Typo!


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

Thanks Moreno.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

So much for rhapsodizing about Story Now (if you want more, see Jamie's thread). Here, I want to get back to incipient Narrativism and its discontents. They come in two forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best, Ron

Tor Erickson

I've been following this thread pretty closely for a number of reasons. First, I find it highly interesting as far as it throws light onto the origins of Narrativism here at the Forge. In fact, it may be the single most relevant thread to the specific and direct roots of how we understand Narrativism, which for me is a pretty damn big deal for those of us interested in STORY NOW.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Ron and everyone for this thread.

- Tor

Ron Edwards

Hi Tor,

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

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

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

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

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

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

You listed (edited for pointedness),

Quoteall of the attention paid to creating a specific look and feel for that game

character creation itself, with all of its 'aesthetic commitment,'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best, Ron


There's a lot going on in this thread.  My responses are going to be a bit disjointed and scattered; pay attention to the ones that interest you and disregard the rest.

Story Now and Story Before Participationism

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

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

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

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

The underbelly of historical fiction

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

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

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

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

Story Structure

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


Frank Tarcikowski

Hi Ron,

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

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

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

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Ron Edwards

Hi Frank and Roger,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Best, Ron