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

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

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Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 29, 2011, 04:32:06 PMRoger, 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.

I probably should have provided a better citation of what exactly I was talking about.  Which is:

Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 18, 2011, 07:51:16 PMWhen 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.

And, aha, I see now that I missed the first part of this whole scenario:  "When someone is trying to organize and carry out play that IS NOT Narrativist..."

Which helps me understand why MLWM isn't inherently a counterexample to what you're describing, at least when approached for the purposes of Narrativist play.  But it does leave me wondering why that requirement exists.

So I'd like to hear more about what you would classify as "a climactic story arc within non-Narrativist play", I think.  And why it's problematic for players with Narrativist leanings in ways that "climactic story arcs within Narrativist play" are not.  And, perhaps, why it's problematic for players with Narrativist leanings in ways that "no story arc within non-Narrativist play" is not.

I'm especially interested in cases involving PrimeTime Adventures, which seems especially well-suited to luring unsuspecting Narrativists and equally-unsuspecting Simulationists into conflict.

On the other other hand, if you are feeling inclined to say to me:  Dude, find your own goddamn examples, bring them back here or to some other thread, and we can decide then if they illustrate these principles... I would not begrudge you of that.  Assuming I'm more-or-less on the righteous path so far.


David Berg


I have a possible explanation for that.  For players who've felt stifled in their Narrativist leanings, pursuit of Narrativism gets conflated with pursuit of agency, and any limits on agency are unwanted reminders of "that other way I hated playing".  See my chat with Zac split from this thread (starting with "Actually... here's a thought" here).

I don't see any way forward other than to acknowledge where they're coming from, verify that you're on the same page, and set proper expectations for what types of agency they will always have, never have, and sometimes have. 

I'd also try emphasizing what they get out of playing with constraints, and showing how your prepped events fit into that.

If they're still not willing to try, I guess come back in a few years when they're farther from their stifling experiences?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg


I like the notes about the right vs left superfamilies on your diagram.  I have a theory that the right-hand techniques spawn more design imitation and pick-up play by being more mechanically obvious about how they produce rising action and catharsis, while the left-hand techniques are opaque on that until you include fictional situation.

If you want to talk more about this here, I'd be happy to elaborate.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Hi Roger,

I think you are mixing up product vs. process. I want to stress that "making a story" is actually a minor concept in role-playing, despite its wide appeal and its central position in lots of discussions. By "minor," I mean that it's not hard to do once no one in the group is obstructing it. (I can talk more abou tthe obstructions if you want.) When I talk about Creative Agendas, I'm not talking about what is made, but rather, how it's done, and by "it," I mean, role-playing at all. Again, in that context, making a story is merely a fictional variable along the same lines of making enough fights or making it possible to see enough of what's on the world-map map up-close or any number of other understandable content-sets.

Story Now is a Creative Agenda not because of a desired product, but because of a desired process, and as with the other two CAs, this is a big social and creative process which may be met using a broad array of means. Therefore it is potentially facilitated by various combinations of techniques, rather than defined by any particular combination. All of which is a fancy way to say this: Story Now cannot be achievd by any techniques which guarantee the production of a story. Doing so instantly obviates the point of play.

This means that playing Story Now must incorporate (include at a fundamental level) enough thematically intense content to be acted upon through all the techniques being used. As an example from the "far" end of the design issue, you will recall that my D&D 3.0/3.5 game did not utilize explicit or previously-agreed-upon content and structural constraints to focus upon Story Now play, but it did indeed excise (ignore) textual system features which would have impeded it given our scope for play (experience points and levels). At first I was mildly concerned with getting the EPs right simply out of interest in using the rules before me, but by the end of the second session, it would be apparent to an observer that none of us cared - not even to notice that I'd stopped even handing them out, me included. But again, the more important focus is that because we shared the deeply social and creative agenda of Story Now, that's what we did with "softer" techniques like scene framing and character decisions. The classic story structure therefore came about organically, because our priorities (one priority actually) settled upon the thematically-intense components.

But what about designing games such that the system focuses upon and facilitates such play? The core design principle for games intended for Story Now play must be to provide enough content and structure to bring thematic tension into focus and to be acted upon with consequence, but not enough to guarantee that it occurs regardless of participants' commitment to it.

The variety of useful constraint turns out to include imposed structure, up to a point. Let's look at the "near" end of the design issue, which is what you're asking about, with games relying on deep and uncompromising structure. I'm arguing that strongly-structured techniques, if they are to be useful in facilitating Story Now play, must be provisional after a certain point, i.e., subordinated to actual people's decisions about how to use them at the table, and also i.e., potentially unsuccessful. Looking at my diagram, the structured techniques are most obvious on the right-hand side. Let's take two of the most influential games.

1. Universalis has absolutely no explicit mechanism for imposing thematic tension ("conflict" in literary terms) into play. If the group wants to diddle forever by adding and subtracting stuff from the fiction, with no consequence or emotional resonance, then they can. Similarly, once conflicts are in motion, there is no guarantee at all that they must come to a climax aside from group participants' interest in seeing them do so. Playing Universalis can flounder. This is, in my view, not a flaw.

2. My Life with Master has no explicit mechanic guaranteeing either (i) that a Minion will eventually attack the Master or (ii) that the Master will be killed during Endgame. In fact, regarding the latter point, Paul very deliberately left in the potential "break" lying between it and the fact that Endgame only finishes at the Master's death. In other words, a group in which not enough players are committed enough to the Master's death will simply sink into an unplayable pit of unsuccessful noise during Endgame.

(Notice how utterly dismissive the designs are toward players who "don't get it," much in the same sense that football and chess have no provisions for taking care of participants who can't fathom winning/losing as important. The second point reminds me of a key feature in The Riddle of Steel, on the other side of the diagram: Jake has explained that he deliberately wrote the game to slaughter the characters of players who focused too strongly on the nitty-gritty physical combat mechanics at the expense of the motivational, thematic, and metaphysical mechanics.)

Here's my direct response to your inquiry. Any fictional material composed of a conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution is a story. (Insightful/stupid, uplifting/depressing, short/long, simple/complicated, whatever) So I think you have it backwards: the question is not what it would look like when Story Now is not the priority, because the answer is always the same no matter what. The question is why doing it via (or within) the Story Now priority rates a Creative Agenda tag. I hope I've at least set up the answer to that here.

Jason Morningstar's titles seem to me to span a useful range for comparison. Grey Ranks is extremely facilitative of Story Now play. Fiasco is not. Both are good games, and as it happens, both tend to bring stories into existence at the table. But one does so by providing productive, one might even say traumatic story components for the people at the table to use, and the other does so by providing a story to be in.

That idea also leads to my ongoing criticism of many self-designated story games that have been produced over the last five years as wind-up toys. Which is to say, they are indeed guarantors of story production, and as such, little more than canned scripts for people to act-out parts in, much like How to Host a Murder. I do not reference that game with contempt; it does its job as advertised, which is to say, you get to be in a story, which presupposes the story be there. But the veritable ocean of story games we've seen produced in the past few years contains a lot of titles with exactly the same job, with the patently false claim that they are written in the same aesthetic and procedural vein as, for instance, My Life with Master. They simply are not. (I do not include Fiasco in this criticism, incidentally. It performs as advertised.)

I hope this makes sense. I'm making points that are not only related, but integrated, across several threads at the moment. Roger, all follow-up is welcome.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on December 01, 2011, 05:50:06 PMAny fictional material composed of a conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution is a story. (Insightful/stupid, uplifting/depressing, short/long, simple/complicated, whatever)

Aha.  This is why I've been floundering around.  I've been operating under a different definition for "story".

Previously, I would have said:  Here's a story -- two guys are waiting by the side for someone to show up, but he doesn't.  It's the story of Waiting For Godot, beloved by millions, etc etc.  Now that I know that's not the sort of story you're talking about, I should probably go back and reread everything up to this point.  I'm sure it'll make a lot more sense.

My immediate reaction is to notice the obvious parallel to Gamism:  any system which guarantees success or failure might be an interesting toy, but it is inherently unable to provide any meaningful Step On Up.  That makes all sorts of sense.

Ron Edwards

Hey Roger,


I hope I'm not derailing the thread with this, but rather rounding out my point ... I'd like to address your point about Waiting for Godot. Two things.

1. A play on paper is merely a script, which is one of the instruments utilized in the medium of theater. Therefore we'd have to talk about a given production - especially for a play like this one - in order to get at whether it's a story or not. Some productions really work at the "absurdist" thing in order to negate any such experience for the audience, whereas others do not.

2. At the risk of contradicting my point #1, and basing this point on a production which unfortunately you didn't see (at a local community college; my friend played Vladimir) so may not be fair to use here, I suggest that the play's story isn't what you describe, but rather, "Two very-tight-friends guys wait for another guy to come, he doesn't, they have to decide whether it's important to them whether he does or not, this puts the bite on their friendship in a big way, and so their eventual decision is actually more about whether they care about one another rather than about the guy." (I'm also sayin' their verbal decision not to wait, while not budging, is actually a cover for the fact that they don't mind waiting as long as they do it together.) Which matches my model exactly.

Again, I'm not talking about The Play in some huge academic all-ways way, but regarding one way to stage and perform the play which is at least consistent with its script.

Best, Ron

Erik Weissengruber

Is there some productive way to link the play analogy to gaming out pre-scripted events, or working with metaplots.

A script may be presented in various different ways.  Different actors may rise to the challenge, some will falter but we applaud their brave efforts, etc.  Some folks will just flub lines (a.k.a "fail" or "do it wrong" or "lose").

Don't some people find satisfaction being good actors in presenting the script?  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of challenges to face even in mounting the simplest play.  Learning lines, working out blocking, creating costumes and sets, etc.

Is there a way to make enactment of a pre-plotted sequence of events a fun, challenging, engaging play experience and not just an unspoken social contract, or illusion/social bullying, etc.?

Actual Play Experience:
I took part in a long D&D session where everybody was playing along with the scenario, working with the outlines of the story, groaning when the villain turned out to be the pawn of an even greater threat, etc.  And they were all digging it.

Are there other rules sets that make such a group improvised elaboration of a pre-set structure explicit, full of explicit rewards for doing all the little sub-tasks, really nailing a part, building up a good set, "costuming" the characters in interesting details, etc?

Is Fiasco this game?

Ron Edwards

Hi Erik,

That's what Participationism is all about! David's wrestling away with it in his threads now, regarding the "story before" procedural outline in my latest essay. There is a very distinguished history of discussion about it, regarding how it does rely on Force but isn't Illusionism, here at the Forge.

I've brought it up in this thread in two related ways: when a GM begins to use it, expecting exactly the player enthusiasm you're talking about, only to encounter resistance due to players' desire for Story Now, a Creative Agenda which dedicated Participationist techniques cannot support.

Does that help?

Best, Ron


So it turns out this is the thread in which I finally "get it."  I'll try to get back to the topic of this thread eventually in this message, but I need to wallow in this a bit.  It's only taken me 7 years to get here, after all.

So, Creative Agendas.  What's the big deal?  Why do people care?  Why do some people so actively resist caring?

I think it comes down to functionality.  At the end of the day, that's what a lot of people care about.  One of the problems with that is that most people are not very well-equiped to estimate how functional their own play experiences are, for a variety of complex reasons.

People are slightly better at recognizing pathological levels of dysfunction, however.  Hence the common reaction:  "Coherence and incoherence doesn't matter -- our group plays incoherently all the time, and we're not dysfunctional.  Theory: busted."

There's two errors in this line of thought.  One of them is their fault, and one of them is our fault.

1.  Incoherence == dysfunctional play.  If people would just read the theory and pay attention, they would realize that no one is saying this.  Incoherence does not always lead to dysfunctional play.  It can be functional.  We can pin this one on them.

2.  Coherence == functional play.  This is our fault, I think.  Maybe every science is like this -- we start off focusing on the instances of broken people (medicine, psychology, etc) and only very eventually get around to considering the healthy scenario.

Coherence doesn't lead to functional play.  It leads to superfunctional play.

If you've never experienced superfunctional play, you probably can't believe it exists.  It sounds like I'm just making shit up to prop up my own theories.  You can't really get away from thinking that functional play is just as good as it gets.

Superfunctional play exists because coherence is a positive feedback loop.  It is synergistic -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The total energy produced is greater than the contributions of the participants.

The metaphors are obvious and useful.  It's like harmonic resonance -- if everyone is marching in step at the right tempo, the bridge oscillates until it explodes.  A laser is special precisely because it is coherent -- and it has radically different properties than incoherent light.  Someone who has never seen a laser will not understand what you're talking about.

This is why incoherence is a problem: not because it leads to dysfunctional play, but because it stone-cold kills superfunctional play.  It's that one guy jumping up and down on the bridge at random.  It's noise and attentuation in the signal.  If there's any truth to the notion that game theory destroys gaming groups, it's this: once you've had superfunctional play, you're not likely to tolerate anyone who gets in the way of it again.

If you believe in superfunctional play, and you desire it, then everything in the theory makes sense.  If you don't believe in it, then the theory just seems like a bunch of nonsense.  And it's all our fault.  We haven't been good about spreading the gospel on this.

Now that I've said all that, I need to also say:  Creative Agendas are the wrong end to start at when you're ingesting game theory.

No one learns how to cook by first taking a year-long course in the theory of how the brain constructs the sensation of flavour from the signals sent to it by specialized receptor cells on the tongue.  They start by learning to chop, fry, hard-boil an egg.

They start with technique.  And this happens everywhere -- musical instruments, martial arts, calculus.  It's obviously the right way to do it.

Consider adopting that mindset for a moment.  Shove theory down and make it a second-class citizen.  Elevate technique to the primary object of study.

What does that look like?  It looks an awful lot like Actual Play should be the most important subject and forum.  Funny how that works.  Of course 'Actual Play' is a compressed way of saying 'Show us your actual techniques and their actual results'.

It provides a way out of the "Hey my steaks always taste awful please help" maelstrom of responses:

"Try cooking only t-bones"
"Is your oven hot enough?  It should be hot"
"Steaks suck become a vegan you bastard"
"Angus beef is the only cow worth eating"
"By 'awful', do you mean overdone, underdone, too salty, what are you talking about?"
"OMG I just had a steak at Outback it was so good"
"Put down the fork you fat pig"

I don't really need to convince anyone how unhelpful all of that is, do I?  The first step has to be determining what this person is doing -- what techniques they are using and how they are performing them.  We must start there.

Smash cut to: what is System?  What does System actually do?  Here it is:  System is nothing more or less than encouraging and supporting certain techniques, while discouraging and suppressing other techniques.  That's it.

Now it all becomes clear.  One example: why it drives people to pull out their hair when everyone talks about any particular game being Narrativist or Gamist or whatever.  If a System relates primarily to techniques, then of course it doesn't make any sense to talk about a Narrativist game.

Another example:  why that old old myth of "System doesn't matter" still persists.  Here's the truth of it -- if you're always going to use the same techniques, then you're absolutely right: System doesn't matter to you.  Or if you confine yourself to 'different' Systems that all share essentially the same techniques, then it again doesn't matter. 

That brings me around to the topic of this thread, which is all about the relationship between Technique and Creative Agenda.  More accurately, it's all about *a* relationship between *a* Technique and *a* Creative Agenda.

All this thread consists of, really, is:

1.  Hey guys there's this technique I call 'underbelly'.  This is what it looks like.  This is how I've used it.

2.  Hey guys turns out that the underbelly technique does not support, and in fact actively undermines, the Story Now agenda.

I'm not trying to be dismissive -- I think the most important work yet lies ahead in really getting into techniques, and how they relate to the various Agendas.  Play Unsafe was a good start, but there's much much more.

Especially since, as I've suggested, that System is a big box of techniques.  There isn't anything in 'game design' other than an understanding of techniques.  (Okay, that isn't quite true, but it's true enough.)

Which brings me around to the part of this post in which I actually contribute something to the actual ongoing discussion in the thread.  Hopefully.

Waiting for Godot:  I'm not sure anything useful lies down this topic of discussion.  I agree with you, but I don't think it matters that I agree with you.

But on the topic of story, let me shoot this phrase into your brain: "Story Never".  Let it roll around in there a bit.  Does it seem intriguing?  What if I told you that it's the key to understanding what the fabled "Sandbox Play" is really all about?  We can spin this off into another thread if it sounds like a productive avenue.

On Mandating Story:  Yeah, turns out that it's not artistically-rewarding to complete a Paint-by-Numbers set.  Of course I agree with you.
  This seems very clearly related to Fruitful Void, although I'm not entirely sure if it is exactly equivalent to Fruitful Void.  But I suspect it may very well be.

I'm going to call you out on something:  you seem to be leaning on the crutch of "theme" and "thematically-intense" an awful lot, and I'm not sure you've really discussed what you mean.  I'm pretty sure I can just search-and-replace it with 'Premise' and get to exactly what you're trying to express, but I'm not entirely sure.

Feeding my doubts are concerns that by 'theme' you might mean something closer to 'Premise + Colour' (ha, did you wake up this morning expecting to be contemplating that?), or possibly something like 'the allowable Premise space'.  The latter bearing a very close relationship to what is traditionally called 'genre', although that term has seen so much abuse I'm not sure it's redeemable.  Anyway, help me out here.

Whew, that's a whole lot of post.  I'm feeling the happiest and most-optimistic about roleplaying that I have in years and years.  Thank you for that.


Erik Weissengruber

Yeah, I was hoping to prod the discussion towards the area of application:

* where are we seeing participationism realized well in a few well-known examples?
* who has designs brewing where it is at play
* can we dig down and talk about some reward me?chanisms or examples of currency that encourage functional participation?

I was thinking in autumn-phase terms: pulling together early massess of discourse into distilled insight.

Recent FATE experiences seem to be all about Participationism.  Throwing down a FATE chip to encourage a player to accept a complication in a character's life; spontaneously flipping a player a coin for playing out a character's batshit crazy motivation -- they are functionally the same.  A reward token is being brandished saying "good job, give me more of that to embellish what is going on" and the dopamine reward circutry is getting juiced.

The passing of dice in Fiasco seems to work the same way.  I frame a scene for me to strut my actorly stuff (or storytelling prowess, or descriptive abilities, or knowledge of cannon) and I am angling to have public recognition of my clever invention when someone grabs a die (positive or negative).  The particular ending my partners choose for the scene -- positive or negative -- doesn't matter.  What matters is that someone else at the table has, through the token of the die, given a public validation that, yes, the scene you came up with and played out was engaging enough to get me to want to join in by choosing a category of ending for it.  And with that die in my hand I can angle for future actions on the part of particular players around the table, or reward them for previous actions.  Much reward juice firing all around our monkey brains.

I have enjoyed a lot of narrativist play over the years.  But I have found a kind of satisfaction in Fiasco and FATE as complete as I got from real Story Now gaming.  And Dresden Files couldn't be clubbed into being a Story Now game but there was some nice participation going on there. 

This probably deserves a new thread, but these questions might provide a cap to this one.

* Who out there has come across Participation-friendly techniques where they didn't find them?
* Who set out to do some Story Now, but because of some the techniques and reward mechanisms at work in a particular game, you ended up dreaming away.  And liking it?

David Berg

Roger, that bit on superfunctionality is as clear and concise a take as I've ever seen on that topic.  Good stuff!

Erik, I've been meaning to start a Story Before Participationist Rewards thread for a while now.  If you've got some AP to start one from, please do.  If not, I'll try to get to it soon.  You might wanna read this and this first.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Erik Weissengruber

I don't have much AP to add beyond my FATE and Diaspora APs and the few comments here.

And there I was just recording play experiences.  I never even thought I was doing story before.

But by all means start that thread.

Erik Weissengruber

Quote from: Erik Weissengruber on December 02, 2011, 08:44:22 PM
* Who out there has come across Participation-friendly techniques where they didn't find them?

Rewrite that as "didn't expect them"


Quote from: Erik Weissengruber on December 02, 2011, 08:44:22 PM
* Who set out to do some Story Now, but because of some the techniques and reward mechanisms at work in a particular game, you ended up dreaming away.  And liking it?

This last one has certainly happened to me. We selected a setting and general themes as a group, James Bond meets Magical Victoriana, I set up a situation which I was convinced was grabby and full of thematic choice for the characters. Chose HeroQuest as a game that supported me with player choice in conflicts. And started play clearly aiming for Story Now.

Within a single session it was very clear that the players' were giving far more focus for cool character expression and were seeing my initial mission-like setup as a fun ride. I believe it was the apparent structure of mission brief / journey with incidental intrigue and NPC introduction / arrival in enemy territory, that convinced everyone that the whole point of play was to get their action-spy-steampunk geek on, and not to engage with the difficult and situational conflicts that I had carefully arranged to confront the characters and organisation.

But it was cool, I just switched my expectations once I began to realise they were simplifying the situation and seeing the morally ambiguous stuff as just colour in a game that should be about identifying the bad guys and putting an end to their scheme. Let's face it James Bond isn't full of ambiguity so this was probably always likely without a clear "let's subvert the genre" request.

The only regret in this otherwise fun game was pointing out to a player that was sensitive to CA issues that we were clearly in functional Constuctive Denial territory BEFORE we had finished the final session. This caused unnecessary problems at the table. Nothing too serious, but enougth to wish I had kept quiet until we had finished.

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

I think the thread is fragmenting a little. It might be useful to consider how many related threads are happening at once, choosing which one your idea-of-the-moment fits into best, and starting new threads when necessary. There seem to be two dedicated interests as well, (i) doing Story Now with significant setting content, and (or versus) (ii) doing some other CA with Story Before techniques of some kind, and I think it'd be helpful to remember how different they are.

decoupling Reward Systems from broad-scale Story Arcs
[Sorcerer and more] A whole lot about setting which introduces my essay Setting and emergent stories
Sandboxing - story before, story now, story after
Setting and emergent stories
[Obsidian, Champs, Babylon Project] Incipient Narrativism and its discontents
Story before: the real culprits?
How Glorantha both inspired and frustrated my play.
[Feng Shui]Stumbling into Narrativism
[D&D3.0] Zac's examples (split)
Story before, Story Now, Bunch of Crap?

Most of these are actually still current, so again, consider posting very specifically to the one you really should be enhancing, or starting new ones.

Best, Ron