Decoupling "Story Now" from "Narrativism," and rethinking Creative Agendas.

Started by Willow, May 03, 2012, 06:58:44 PM

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Recently I've been pondering the difficulty of explaining what "Narrativism" is.  Ron calls it the "least and most problematic of the creative agendas," personally I don't see where the "least" is coming from.  Narravism is certainly a thing, I've experienced it, and it is awesome, but something about the way we're trying to explain it is completely borked.  I think part of that is the defined correlation of Story Now and Narrativism.  ("Story Now" is even the punchy tag for Narrativist play.)

The Provisional Glossary defines Story as "An imaginary series of events which includes at least one protagonist, at least one conflict, and events which may be construed as a resolution of the conflict," and Story Now as "Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself."

The Narrativism essay further defines Story Now: "Story Now requires that at least one engaging issue or problematic feature of human existence be addressed in the process of role-playing. "Address" means:
Establishing the issue's Explorative expressions in the game-world, "fixing" them into imaginary place.
Developing the issue as a source of continued conflict, perhaps changing any number of things about it, such as which side is being taken by a given character, or providing more depth to why the antagonistic side of the issue exists at all.
Resolving the issue through the decisions of the players of the protagonists, as well as various features and constraints of the circumstances. "
(Italics are Ron's.)
I'm going to offer a counter definition that Narrativism is simply Deep Exploration of Premise, with the emotional goal of Catharsis.
Let's start with Story.  I think Ron's definition here is pretty apt, so I'm going to stick with it.  Story has a protagonist (the player characters), a conflict (you know it when you see it), and surrounding events ("plot").

We all know what Story Before is (and here's the best formal explanation I could find ) Traditional GM prep, where the GM comes up with a preplanned Conflict the the Surrounding Events and throws the Players into it, with the resolution pretty much figured out.  What's important here is that Conflict is preplanned.  Here's two examples:

When running my weekly 4th Edition D&D game, I mapped out a "Temple of Elemental Chaos" (or Temple of Elemental Evil, depending on the translation), that host to weird encounters and fights.  Different paths linked the different rooms, but the players would have to get a Shining Trapezohedron Shard from each of four midboss fights to progress to the inner sanctum.  Players had a lot of choice in what order they took the various challenges, and there were emergent surprises in play.  For example, the party is exploring a hallway with twisted gravity, and finds an hatch in the ceiling, below which is the hallway they came from stretched out, and a serious falling hazard.  (Think of it like a funnel with a lid on it; you can walk on the walls of the funnel but not the lid, and there's a little hole poked in the lid.)  Looking for a way to get up there, Sabe's Bard says to Shari's Swordmage, "well sister, you and I are entertainers, let's try to tightrope walk our way over there."  They both fail their Acrobatics checks miserably, not being trained, take some random damage after an embarrassing tumble down non-conventional space, and then Tim's Sorcerer quips "Oh, so you're CIRCUS CLOWNS."
(Abram's Avenger then flies up, open the trap door, flies out, and promptly gets attacked by a giant dragon.)
That's an example with surrounding events arriving through play, and quite an enjoyable one for everybody at the table, but the Conflicts are all preplanned by myself.  Sure the players have input in what order they tackle things (and hopefully enough clues to make that decision meaningful), but I know pretty much going in what's going to happen.

Story After is a term that gets thrown around occasionally, and might not be an 'official' Big Model term, but it's clearly also a thing that exists: the Players encounter Surrounding Events, but there's never any actual Conflict, so after the fact the narrative of the session is sculpted by either the GM or a player (usually one who writes an in character journal and then shares it with the rest of the group) to retroactively have been actually interesting, except that it wasn't.
For my example here, I cite a Dark Ages Vampire game, where I wisely decided that walking home in torrential rain was preferable to continued play.  I later found out that the session consisted of two of the vampires trying to get children's hair for some sort of hair-growing-ritual.  They accomplished this by throwing a slumber party for the village's children, which is so bizarrely mundane it's actually funny at this point, years later.

So if Story Before is Conflict being determined before play and then resolved at the table, and Story After is Conflict determined after play from scraps of information at the table, what does it follow that Story Now should be?  Story Now is therefore Conflict arising organically at the table.

Story.  Now.

I'm going to use Awesome Adventures is an example.  Awesome Adventures is my FATE game that is more rules-light.  The way I play it is to come to the table with no prep, and do a group setting creation, character creation, scribble down some quick notes, and then play.  All in four hours.  The very first session of Awesome Adventures, featuring Sabe playing Kitty Manx, a female jewel thief with a penchant for villains falling in love with her and the Aspect "I don't want him you can have him."  Crystal played a were-monkey archeologist, and I got to feature Spirit of the Century villain Gorilla Khan.  My 'prep' process consists of going over the characters' aspects and noting common elements, and anything I want to feature.  My notes would have read something like "Monkeys, Mummies, Jewels, Amazon Step Pyramid, Love Triangles."  Additionally, the players spent their own fate chips to activate their aspects, adding more plot elements related to them into play.  The conflicts that resulted were varied: Monkey vs Mummy fights, mad scrambles for the enchanted gem, and Gorilla Khan and the Mummy Lord fighting over Kitty Manx, who loudly protested she didn't want either of them. 
I maintain that this is Story Now, raw primal creation of Conflict at the gaming table.  I also maintain that it is entirely Simulationist play, focusing on exploration of Situation (Jewel Theft!) and Color (Pulp Tropes: Monkeys!)  (You might argue there's a moral premise regarding gender roles and exploitation.  You would be wrong.  The game was all about the Monkeys.)

Let's use Apocalypse World for another example.  "Play to Find out What Happens" is pretty much a direct command to do Story Now.  In Apocalypse World the GM sets up several Fronts, which are basically groups of linked Threats, which are individual things the players care about.  So my game has the Front "Weirdness," which contains weird paranormal threats, like a Snake Cult in town.  My notes for the session consisted of a couple of special moves for the Snake Cult (which hadn't had a lot of screen time, but was mentioned once or twice), a list of names, a couple of hooks (NPC so and so would pay a bunch for one of their snakes, what do you do?) and that's it.
So instead, Tim's Operator uses his start of session Moonlighting to assassinate III, an arms dealer, and employer/owner of Shari's Kid, an indentured servant under III, who had just stolen his boat.  The local authorities (NPCs, but working for Abram's Hardholder, who was not present at the session) decide to lock up the boat until III shows up, not knowing he's dead.  Shari's Kid camps out on the boat, to protect III's stuff from would-be looters (her loyalty is kind of complicated).  The Hardholder's men get bored and decide to board the boat.  Shari goes Aggro on one of them, kills him, and the other retreats for backup.  Backup arrives, including the other PCs, who end up in tense negotiations with the Hardholder's men.  The NPCs now decide to board the boat forcefully.  Shari's Kid has found grenades and blows the boat up, and escapes with heavy burns.  The NPCs that were still on the docks try to take the PCs into custody.  They fight back, first with Amelia's Savvyhead issuing some psychic commands, and then Tim's Operator shooting dudes in the face, including the last one, who was clutching her head, helpless from the psychic assault, and got one right between the eyes.
Story Now, certainly.  My rumors of the Snake Cult were mentioned, and then quickly swept aside as things escalated.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.  But is it Narrativist?  There's nary a moral premise in sight.  You might attach a moral premise to the situation (there are a couple implicit in Apocalypse World)  I argue that this was also Simulationist play, focusing on exploration of Situation (the clusterfuck with III's death and the boat, playing to find out what happens), and exploration of the characters (what the fuck are they going to do next?  How would they react to this?)
Notably, the Apocalypse World text instructs the players to play their characters as if they were real people as their highest priority (an instruction to explore character), for the GM to be a fan of their characters (and participate in that exploration of character), to make their lives not boring (introduce interesting situations to explore), but to Barf Forth Apocalyptica, to introduce elements of Apocalyptic Color to explore, and first and foremost, to Make the World Seem Real, which is Right to Dream if I've ever seen it.
Let's get back to Narrativism and addressing premise.  Narrativist play forms an ethical question, explicitly or implicitly, and asks the players to pass judgment on an individual situation, and explore the nuances of the situation.  Escape from Tentacle City does this.  It's a horror comedy game where you play horrible stereotypes (broadly given to you by the other players), which then get killed off until there's only a handful left, and then you vote on whether they will live or die.  At the end, you are passing judgment on your own character and others, saying if you want to see them die horribly at the hands of tentacled monstrosities, or live to escape.  There's a whole knot of questions, from the most basic "does this character deserve life or death," to the more complicated questions "am I a racist?"/"what are my prejudices?"
But here's the thing: all Escape from Tentacle City games follow the same structure.  City Creation, Character Creation, and then the character groups wander around the city in a very structured manner getting killed off.  You can interface with who gets killed off and how rapidly, and you can make some fine jokes and poignant images along the way.  (In the Forge Midwest game, the three young children of my dead horrible single mother reaching out of the getaway vehicle to Ron's character, who was maybe their baby-daddy.)  You can trigger some extra conflicts along the way (Throwdowns), but the conflicts are all preloaded by the game's rules and pacings.  Even though there's no GM, the conflict structure is inescapable, more so than even my essentially Railroaded D&D game.  Escape from Tentacle City plays the same way everytime, but allows you to plug in new Characters and Surrounding Events (and hopefully push the envelope a little further with your ideas for group and character creation.)  I argue that this is Story Before Narrativism, which by the Big Model definition, should not exist.
I believe that Story Before, Story Now, and Story After are Techniques, and as such do not map 1:1 with Creative Agendas.  (Much as people tried to confusedly assign Stances to Agendas).  I think most Story Before play is Simulationist or Gamist (explore the GM's vision, encounter and Step on Up to the GM's vision), but I can see the ability of it in Narrativist play (explore and address the GM's vision).  Story Now has conflated with Narrativism, but what about the Right to Dream, Now?  (Or Step on Up, Now, where the players call for the adversity and conflicts at the table, instead of encountering GM-determined challenges.)  Story After is most often the result of failed play of any Agenda that didn't result in actual conflict; I can seriously see this happening in Narrativist play that fails to actually engage a premise but circle around it.

Rather, if Gamism is about exploration for the sake of challenges, and Simulation is about exploration for exploration's sake, I argue that Narrativism is exploration for the sake of emotional and moral revelation and catharsis.  One plays Narravisitically to find out more about one's self.    It involves exploring and addressing a Premise in such a way that difficult topics and ideas are floated, and forces difficult thought.  That is the payout of Narrativist play, a shared, deep, intense, possibly spiritual experience.


My 2 cents is slightly different.  My assumption is the best thing about palying a game is making game-significant decisions.  If you arent doing that, then you arent playing a game.  My model of RPG games focusses on the types of decisions the game is offering a player.  For Gamist players, those decisions are strategic (mostly during character creation) and tactical (mostly during play).  For narrativist players those decisions are  'character-based' for lack of a better term.  For simulationist players, Im not sure.  Roleplaying taps into a child-like imaginary play thing that we all did as kids.  And enjoyment of that state isnt really a 'game' as I use the term.  Its more like an experience.  Players who label themselves immersionists are hardcore in that regard, and I think they most desire a state of 'flow' in their imaginary play experience.  I tend to think that games labelled as simualtionist dont really have a firm type of decision they offer offer the player, being more of a semi-random grab bag of historical RPG mechanics.

So my triad breaks down to players who prioritise strategic+tacitcal decisions, players who prioritise character-based decisions and those who prioritise imaginary play and flow.

When I use the term narrative, my own definition is simply games that actively support players making character-based decisions.  I can take or leave the moral-themed play as a subset of that. 


And that's exactly the challenge of Narrativism, that conflating it with a priority for Narratives or Narration causes confusion.

(Hardcore Theory Mode:  Any GNS"ist" or "ism" refers to actual play, not players or game systems.  There are not 'gamist players' or 'simulationist games', only 'gamist play' and 'simulationist play'.  Some people may find they strongly prefer one type of play another, and certain game systems lend themselves more easily towards given types of play, but a given session may actually incorporate different creative agendas at various moments of play.)


Ok, substitute 'play' where you find 'players' in my post -- it doesnt make any difference to what I was saying.

Gordon C. Landis

Willow, what I read here is an excellent point about a Technique applicable across all play confused with a big chunk of classic old-school Big Model discussion synecdoche. Since those were the days I was actually active here, I ought to be able to sort through this, so - here's a try:

I think the synecdoche at hand ("a part put forth as the whole") is looking at the details of when and how decisions about story structure are made (which I'll call "the plot") as equivalent to the "Story" in "Story Now."  You refer to how a story is story is structured Before. After or Now several times in your post, but the key Nar component in "Story Now" is not about structure, but deriving meaning. 

Story Now requires that address of premise be happening now, in play, not just (or at all!) that the plot be constructed now.  Story Before (or After) is only a barrier to Narrativist play when it precludes (as the Big Model definitions would require) prioritizing address-of-premise during play.  The issue is not the GM (or the game design itself) "pre-plotting," but rather if he or she (or it) pre-establishes the meaning of whatever decisions the players have their characters make.  Your Escape from Tentacle City example is a demonstration that these two things (the plot and Story) are, in fact, separate - pre-set restrictions on plot do not HAVE to restrict the ability to address premise, and paradoxically (to some) often can enhance that ability (The Mountain Witch being one of the clearest early examples of a family that by your account I'd say includes Escape from Tentacle City).

But you are of course right that this kind of unpacking (can't believe I just used that word, but it does fit here I think) of the Big Model's "Story" doesn't come naturally to people - but then again, language is a difficult beast and I'm not convinced any other formulation is particularly better.

More importantly, you're right that there are many Techniques around plot construction that are at least potentially CA-neutral, and that if people think "Plot Now" means "Narrativist", they're mistaken.  I personally ran into a version of this problem playing and running several FATE games, where player participation in plot construction sometimes hid the fact that they/we were NOT actually participating in Story construction.

So - we can decouple "Plot Now" from Nar play, certainly.  But "Story Now" is not just plot; it MUST include premise - and addressing premise DURING PLAY, not Before or After.  Plot Now, Story Before or After - possibly fun play, but not Nar.  Plot Before or After, Story Now - just as Nar as Plot Now/Story Now.

Does that make sense?  It's been a while . . .   

Callan S.

I'm inclined to think story refers to some sort of morally problematic issue that's actually uncomfortable for the audience/players and wont just confirm their prior beliefs/the status quo (and so is probably the very opposite of cathartic). Once you remove that, it becomes 'entertainment'. Sure, stories contain entertainment, but that something is entertaining doesn't make it a story (atleast 'story' by the above definition). The tentacle city set up seems no more story before than prepping bangs before a game is story before. The ultimate reaction to the set up still only happens in the very moment of play.

'Entertainment before' and 'entertainment now' could stand to be seperated from 'story now/before', as it has no particular monopoly on spontanious generation of entertaining stuff.


Hi Gordon-

That's a facet I hadn't considered: regardless of the prep happening before play, Nar requires that Premise be actively addressed at the table.  This certainly is something that allows, say, Dogs in the Vineyard to still fall firmly in the Narrativist camp.

I think we're all more or less agreeing more than we're disagreeing: the Big Model definition of 'story' is wrong at worst and problematic at best, since it is unlikely to be what people think of when you say 'story' to them.

Ron Edwards

I'm not seeing it, Willow.

I've always defined "story" as a description of a particular kind of fiction regardless of its origin or (in role-playing) whatever sort of process produced it. Whereas I've also been careful to define Narrativism, or Story Now (a synonym), as a creative priority that governs preferred processes of play.

I do not understand how you think Gordon's point supports yours. Gordon nailed the key error of your argument, which is to focus on where conflict comes from, because that is totally not mandated by either of my definitions. Effectively, he evaporated your entire first post. Your entire Before/Now/After construction is empty, because I'm not talking about, nor ever was, the origins of the adversity, but of the ability to address it through protagonist actions. Story Before and Story After prevent that ability from existing at the table. Story Now occurs when it is the primary expressed creative force at the table.

To continue.

1. You accept my definition of story in your first post.

QuoteLet's start with Story.  I think Ron's definition here is pretty apt, so I'm going to stick with it.  Story has a protagonist (the player characters), a conflict (you know it when you see it), and surrounding events ("plot").

How you can turn around and call that definition "wrong at worst and problematic at best" in your latest post is beyond me.

2. You have not refuted or changed my definition of Narrativism.

QuoteNarrativism is simply Deep Exploration of Premise, with the emotional goal of Catharsis


QuoteI argue that Narrativism is exploration for the sake of emotional and moral revelation and catharsis.  One plays Narravisitically to find out more about one's self.    It involves exploring and addressing a Premise in such a way that difficult topics and ideas are floated, and forces difficult thought.  That is the payout of Narrativist play, a shared, deep, intense, possibly spiritual experience.

That's not an alternate definition at all. That's my definition as long as by "deep," you mean "doing it with the freedom really to do it." By saying this, you're refuting your original claim. I can only imagine that you perceive some un-simple definition that you think I'm using.

3. You've brought up a red herring by hanging your judgment upon what people automatically think when they see a word. That wasn't even mentioned in your first post, nor would I accept it as a criterion for assessing an argument under any circumstances.

Well, that's me being polite. Say what you like from here.

Best, Ron


Hey Ron:

Here's where I feel I'm getting tripped up:

I completely, 100% agree with this definition of Story:  "Story has a protagonist (the player characters), a conflict (you know it when you see it), and surrounding events ("plot")."

What I disagree with is the definition of 'Story Now'.  The Spirit of the Century/Awesome Adventures example I cited is a clear case of all of that arising at the table, but clearly in a Simulationist mode of play.  I see Story happening at the table in all sorts of play.

We are agreed, you and I, on what Narrativism is.  My struggle with Narrativism is not understanding what it is; but rather explaining it to others, since it's fundamentally not about Narratives or Narration.  This is not a red herring; the usefulness of a jargon is based on its being understood.

Gordon C. Landis

On the problematic understanding of Story, I recognize that a lot of people are not very rigorous about the word; one common thought pattern, e.g., is to think of "the story" and "the plot" as essentially the same thing.  I wish that, and other variations, wouldn't happen, but they do.  It'd be nice if there were a better way of dealing with this than explaining to people that they're "not thinking about Story right," 'cause that tends to get people riled up.  But . . .

"Story has a protagonist (the player characters), a conflict (you know it when you see it), and surrounding events ("plot")."

"A conflict" need not neccesarily equate to "a Premise."  If it does, than yes, that's an OK definition of Story.  If it doesn't, then it's not.  The Spirit of the Century/Awesome Adventures example is Simulationist as long as "conflict" rather than "Premise" is what is being generated at the table.

The jargon I used to use for myself (and it did NOT catch on) was to talk about little-s-story and big-S-Story.  Little-s-story can indeed happen at the table ("Now") in all sorts of play, as can little-c-competition and little-d-dream.  But big-S-Story is defined as more than just events and conflicts and stuff - Story includes address of Premise.  That's why (at least as I remember Ron saying at the time) it's "Story Now", in an attempt to have that key, important point driven home.  We're not talking about story in some vague, plot-ish descriptive way, but Story creation (including by neccessity address of Premise) that's happening right there in play.

Story creation (with the understanding of Story to include address of Premise), by the group as a whole, at the time of play, is Nar play.  Sim and Game play might include plenty o' story creation (absent address of Premise as a priority) by the group as a whole, at the time of play.  But that's always the case - the little-lettter version of all agendawords can be present in the other agendas.

Maybe "Premise Now" would be better jargon, but - is explaining "Premise" really better/easier than explaining "Story"?  Willow, if your argument is that you'd like a better jargon-word, I can't disagree.  Years of internet agita indicate the current formulation isn't perfect.  But your post (to me) didn't nail the real key identifier of active address of Premise (and some version of story vs. Story) that I'd want to be sure any new formulation covered - and that, when understood, make the current formulation (again, to me) quite clear.

So - identifying that little-s-story creation techniques can be used "Now" in many kinds of play is quite true, insightfull, and many productive follow-ups can be generated from there.  But I don't see that as an indictment of "Story Now" for Nar.  In fact, understanding WHY it isn't was a key part of my finally understanding what Ron was trying to say all those years ago.

Again, hope this is helpful.

Callan S.

Who's the jargon to be understood by in this case - non gamers or people who've gamed for years?

Ron Edwards

The key to explaining it is to start with the topic: creative agenda. Which is not the product of play, but rather the process. Therefore the issue of "hey! we made a story!" is immediately removed from the conversation. I've found that people are perfectly able to understand the point once that's established.

That's also why I am not pleased by the recent enthusiasm about Story Before, Story Now, Story After, because it holds Story as an equivalent term for all three. Whereas the Before and After terms are expressly concerned with product, and Story Now is expressly concerned with process - specifically the priorities of the human process, i.e., not merely some "when someone accumulates 10 black tokens, the GM initiates the Climax scene" mechanic. I only posed those two other terms as dysfunctional failures of Story Now, which may be snooty and biased of me, but maybe it would have been better to stay with that - and the historically observable fact that attempts at either are not particularly successful - than to indulge David's bandwagon for what is merely an unrealized ideal at this time.

Bluntly, I no longer care about whether the technical and historical way we've talked about it here is clear to anyone, ever, with or without being a gamer, or any other qualifiers. I'm working on the post-Forge wiki right now, and one of its primary features is that initial text of each entry is in plain language, period. You have no idea how happy I will be once the actual Forge discussions of most of the terms become referential library stacks, of interest only to those who'd like to know the history of how we got to the ordinary, plain, and clear material in the wiki. The Glossary was provisional back in 2004, and as of this minute, it is obsolete, obsolete, obsolete. So wrangling over what term in it is or isn't clear without that plain-talk introduction to it, is gone from my mind.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

One think that made this issue click for me is that, in a certain brand of RtD play exemplified in various ways by Spirit of the Century, Fiasco, and kill puppies for satan, a story gets generated during play, but it is frontloaded by system, chargen, and other prep to the point that the participants don't actually address premise themselves. It's model trains, basically; by the time you're starting the actual play, the track has been set up, and playing consists of enjoying the model trains run properly. That's the distinction that the theory makes between this type of play and Story Now.

Gordon C. Landis

Hey, how 'bout that: Ron's point is (no surprise) key. A functional Story Before/After is just a totally different kind of beast than Story Now.  I can imagine lots of useful stuff growing from Before/After, but it is the absence of clearly establishing just how distinct they would be from Story Now that bothered me the most about the initial post.

I'll look forward to plain-talk - developing a degree of skill with old technical terms makes them familiar, but by no means preferred.