The pitfalls of narrative technique in rpg play

This is going to rpg be theory stuff, just so you know.

A thing I’ve noticed lately specifically at Story Games, but also on other gaming fora, is the increased acceptance and advocation of narration authority sharing between players in a roleplaying game. It’s a nice technique, but I also find that it is being recommended and utilized in ways that might have unexpected consequences that need to be considered in depth. I’ll write a short treatise about the topic here – I don’t particularly want to piss in anybody’s cereals if they find that unrestrained sharing of narrative authority brings them happiness, but it’s not correct to call it the universal panacea of roleplaying, either – there are solid reasons for refusing to introduce this technique into every single game you might ever wish to play.

The basic phenomenon of narration

The layman does well to notice that “narration” has basically nothing in particular to do with narrativism, an important theory term on its own right. This is often a superbly confusing matter for the majority of participants in rpg theory discussions, as they either assume narrativism where mere narrative is concerned, or assume narrative technique where only narrativism is indicated.

When we discuss “narration sharing”, we mean the type of roleplaying technique where first one player narrates things, then another. “Narration” here basically means adding to the fiction developed during the game with little overview, or none at all. An author basically “narrates” when he writes or tells things about a story: first this thing happens, then this other thing, and so on. Much of the communication in roleplaying is not “narration” in this sense of the term: for example, when you declare the actions of your character, this is not narration in most traditional games, as those declarations will still have to be processed through the game’s system or GM’s consideration before they will be properly considered part of the fiction. “Narration” is when there is no such constraint; you open your mouth, and what you say goes straight into the fiction because it’s been pre-vetted in some manner – you’ve been given the right to speak as to the fiction at this moment.

Narration is a crucial technique for many roleplaying games. One of the most spectacular games in this regard is Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils. One of the ideas introduced in the game was that while there was relatively little narration in other parts of the play procedure (stuff is introduced into the fiction not as narration, but by consentual negotiation dominated by the GM), a single player would be randomly chosen to narrate the outcome and immediate effective consequences of all conflicts. This powerful technique of suddenly giving plot authority to a single player in resolution of a conflict has since then been duplicated in dozens of games, and with reason: a single voice with authority may ensure that the conflict outcome is resolved in a consequential and suitably dramatic manner in a way that would not happen with nearly as much impact if the details were negotiated.

Narration is also used in traditional games, of course. I would even say that wide GM narration rights are a cornerstone feature of traditional rpg design.  Typically the GM would have you roll the dice and then tell you what happened as a consequence in the fiction; in this the GM is utilizing his narration rights. Some games and gamers would even extend the GM narration rights into full control over all aspects of the fiction.

(Although I don’t describe it, there are other places where narration rights routinely come up apart from conflict resolution. Scene framing is typically an example of narration rights as well: conditional on player veto, the GM narrates directly into fiction the set-piece from which play resumes after a scene change. The difference is mostly in which authorities are executed via pure narration as the concrete activity.)

Conch-passing

“Narration sharing” is when the narration rights are distributed dynamically, such as in Dust Devils. It’s an exciting technique, but one that I see being used in pretty futile ways now and then. Specifically, there is a certain game that is the logical outcome of fuzzy narration-sharing in game design. It’s usually called “conch-passing” in these discussions, and it goes thusly:

At the beginning of a session of conch-passing a player has the conch, and that signifies that he has the narration rights. Therefore he starts telling the story. Certain rules procedures tell us when the conch is given away, and to whom; at its simplest the player just continues as long as he likes and then passes the conch to his left. The player who gets the conch now has all narration rights, so he continues telling the story where the first player left off.

Obviously enough game designers don’t usually follow narration sharing into its logical conclusion in conch-passing; we just say that a game is “essentially conch-passing” if it undermines other, more valuable, concerns inadvertedly by encouraging attitudes and playstyles related to conch-passing. Specifically, conch-passing lacks many features that are mandatory for different types of roleplaying games, so if your game reduces into conch-passing, you might find that the system no longer adequately supports roleplaying of the sort you wanted. There are games that are intentionally conch-passing as well: Once Upon A Time is a well-liked conch-passing game that complicates the conch-passing by introducing player goals, allowing players to steal the conch and by requiring various stock elements to make an appearance in the story.

Backstory authority and character advocacy

I’ll focus on one particular problem that seems to be becoming endemic in Internet discourse. This problem is when narration sharing is introduced uncritically into games that involve strong backstory authority and character advocacy, two very common roleplaying game elements. Let’s define these things first:

Backstory authority
Backstory is the part of a roleplaying game scenario that “has happened before the game began”. The concept only makes sense when somebody has done preparatory work for the game or is using specific heuristics to simulate such preparation in real-time. For example, if the GM has decided in advance that the butler did it, then that is part of the backstory – it happened before the player characters came to the scene, and the GM will do his job with the assumption that this is an unchanging part of the game, even if the players might not know about it. Similarly a player character’s personal history is part of the backstory in a game that requires such. Backstory is specifically separate from what might happen during play itself. We say that somebody has “backstory authority” if he is allowed to determine something about the backstory, simply enough.
Character advocacy
Players can have different roles in a roleplaying game. Typical overarching categories are “player roles” and “GM roles”, which are fuzzy and historically determined expressions of natural language. One type of player role is when the game requires a player to be an advocate for a single player character – this advocacy thing is an exact theory term, unlike the fuzzy concept of “player role”. When a player is an advocate for a character in a roleplaying game, this means that his task in playing the game is to express his character’s personality, interests and agenda for the benefit of himself and other players. This means that the player tells the others what his character does, thinks and feels, and he’s doing his job well if the picture he paints of the character is clear and powerful, easy to relate to.

Both of the above techniques are immensely popular in roleplaying games. For example, Dungeons & Dragons involves clear and strong backstory authority as a crucial part of the game: the GM not only should prepare a dungeon ahead of time for the game, but he is also allowed to amend and expand on his preparatory work during play on the premise that his task is to present the game world as fully as necessary for the players: there is no ambiguity about who gets to decide what is inside a treasure chest: unless somebody changed its contents during play, the GM refers to his notes or imagination and decides what should be in the chest. Only when player character history is involved might the GM ask a player’s opinion on a backstory issue.

Character advocacy is also a common ideal in D&D, although I do admit that there are readings of the game text where advocacy is not present. Still, it is common to claim that the ideal of the game is that each player invents a player character who is a full personality, and then represents this character’s choices and actions in the game for the benefit of the group. (An alternative reading might be that the player’s job is to create a mechanically powerful character that he then uses to win challenges set up by the GM. Thus this is not as entirely obvious as the above.)

There are also roleplaying games that do not involve the above concepts. For example, my game Zombie Cinema doesn’t have unified backstory or a backstory authority as such: the game is explicitly No Myth, as it presumes that the setting and characters and everything else in the game is only thinly present as story elements introduced by the players on the spot. Any backstory presented to the group is handled as an extension of other authorities the players wield, such as the right to describe a scene and thus imply things about the location’s past. To preserve story coherence and provide twists into the story the game doesn’t use a backstory, but rather evaluation of reasonability (if somebody starts spouting some wacky shit, you stop the game and talk about it) and pure imaginative inspiration (assuming your wacky shit is not too wacky, it gets into the game and thus changes the story on the spot, even casting doubt on what has gone on before).

Games without character advocacy can be tricky because traditionally game design has operated from the faulty assumption that all games involve an identical, overarching player role that only requires the player to “play the character”. As I mentioned above, it’s not even entirely clear what you’re supposed to be doing in D&D. My favourite example of explicitly non-advocating game design is the Turku School Manifesto, which is pretty clear about elevating subjective experience as the primary task of the player; the player’s task is not to display his character, but to experience it.

The problem

When we bring the above terminology together, I can finally express my issue: I think that mixing narration sharing uncritically with backstory-heavy games and advocacy-model narrativistic games sucks ass. Examples:

  • My brother Markku likes narration-sharing a lot, narrating stuff is one of his big loves in roleplaying. Now and then he gets proactive about introducing various methodologies into his gaming, which often ends up with him asking his D&D players what sort of monsters they would like to meet in the next encounter. Of course it’s fine if he likes this (no intent to call Markku out here specifically), but to me it seems completely awry and awkward to break the GM backstory authority and allow the players to narrate whatever they want. There’s no excitement and discovery in finding orcs in the next room if I decided myself that there would be orcs there. This fundamentally changes my relationship to my character.
  • Somebody at Story Games suggested in relation to 3:16 (don’t remember who, it’s not really important) that a great GM technique would be to leave the greater purpose and nature of the high command of the space army undefined so the players could make this decision when and if their characters find it out. So maybe they find out that the great space war is a hoax or whatever. I find that this is completely ass-backwards for this sort of game: the players cannot be put into a position of advocacy for their characters if those same players are required to make the crucial backstory choices: am I supposed to myself decide that the space war is a cruel lie, and then in the next moment determine how my character is going to react to this knowledge? Doesn’t that look at all artificial?
  • In another thread a similar claim was made about Trail of Cthulhu – that is, somebody described how he’d played the game with the players having the right to invent backstory by paying points for it. I’m not that vehemently against this in this case, as I don’t know ToC that well. Still, I’m almost certain that this is not the intended reading of the game text, and it definitely deviates quite a bit from how the game works if you assume an objective, GM-controlled backstory. My first instinct would be that I wouldn’t be that interested in playing the game if there weren’t a carefully considered, atmospheric backstory to uncover; it’s an investigation game after all.

The “Czege principle” is a proposition by Paul Czege that it’s not exciting to play a roleplaying game if the rules require one player to both introduce and resolve a conflict. It’s not a theorem but rather an observation; where and how and why it holds true is an ongoing question of some particular interest.

The problem we have here, specifically, is that when you apply narration sharing to backstory authority, you require the player to both establish and resolve a conflict, which runs counter to the Czege principle. You also require the player to take on additional responsibilities in addition to his tasks in character advocacy; this is a crucial change to the nature of the game, as it shapes a core activity into a completely new form. Now, instead of only having to worry about expressing his character and making decisions for him, the player is thrust into a position of authorship: he has to make decisions that are not predicated on the best interests of his character, but on the best interests of the story itself.

This is pretty much just my own opinion, call it an observation – I think that a logical division of tasks is important for a roleplaying game to such a degree that it actually prescribes and explains much of what we find interesting in the game in the first place. Specifically, I find that the riddle of roleplaying is answered thusly: it is more fun to play a roleplaying game than write a novel because the game by the virtue of its system allows you to take on a variety of roles that are inherently more entertaining than that of pure authorship. This is why many people find conch-passing games to pale next to a proper roleplaying game; the advocacy/referee/antagonism division of responsibilities is simply a more dynamic, interactive, emergent and fun way of crafting stories than undiluted and complete dramatic control for many of us. Authorship is work, advocacy is game.

Some games explicitly choose to place players in an authorship mode, conch-passing style. A pretty recent example of a major game in this vein is Houses of the Blooded: I find it a remarkably clear exposition on a game where the author truly believes that a roleplaying game is improved if you require the players to engage the game at all times with the best interests of the shared story in mind. As an example of this thrust in the game, consider this: the conflict resolution mechanic of HotB does not actually resolve a conflict, it only determines which player will have the authority to narrate a resolution. Specifically and explicitly, if you win a conflict for your character, you may determine that the character will actually lose because you find it better for the story. Could the authorship agenda even be formulated more clearly in the rules? Those sorts of rules are completely counter to the idea of character advocacy, which requires a player to think of and express the needs and wants of his character; thus games that take care to formulate a strong advocacy position for the player do not require him to make choices that are contrary to the character’s interests.

As a point of comparison we might consider Dust Devils and Zombie Cinema, both of which make use of narration rights while preserving character advocacy. In both of those games the player’s task in character advocacy is separated by a procedural firewall from his tasks in dramatic coordination. This is drastically evident in Zombie Cinema, in which you might during one turn first be required to frame a scene with dramatic coordination in mind, then advocate for your character in the scene, then take on narrative authorship to describe how a conflict went down. The game makes use of three different “modes” a player needs to engage in rapid succession, but this does not dilute any of them (I think; I’ve met people who disagree) due to how the player needs to only consider each of them separately in different phases of the game.

Naive narration sharing

I’ll segue towards my point here (about time, I’m sure). What I described above as the problem is naive narration sharing, which is the belief that you can just take any old roleplaying game and execute its gamemastering role with an extra dash of mutual cooperative narration. It’s such a nice idea, isn’t it? We don’t want to be evil authoritative GMs, after all, so doesn’t that mean that we should be inclusive and bring everybody in on the authorities available? This is simply wrong as an universal claim: while there are games where narration-sharing is central, and there are games where you can add great dollops without breaking the game, there are also games that do not withstand it. D&D and 3:16 are just arbitrary examples here, there are many others, much more than games where you can make narration-sharing the central element. Conch-passing is not very popular in roleplaying, generally speaking.

In case the reader doesn’t know this, I’ll explain next how narrativistic roleplaying games usually work. This explanation should amply illustrate the problems of naive narration sharing. In case you already know about advocacy + bangs = fun, feel free to skip the next bit.

The standard narrativistic model

I won’t explain what narrativism (Story Now) is here; if you don’t know, find out.

The above discussion on broken advocacy is very relevant to the whole field of narrativistic games for one simple reason: all but the most experimental narrativistic games run on a very simple and rewarding role distribution that relies heavily on both absolute backstory authority and character advocacy. If you introduce shared narration into this model, the game breaks up into consensual conch-passing (a particularly annoying form of conch-passing, that) almost instantly.

Here’s how games like Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, some varieties of Heroquest, The Shadow of Yesterday, Mountain Witch, Primetime Adventures and more games than I care to name all work:

  1. One of the players is a gamemaster whose job it is to keep track of the backstory, frame scenes according to dramatic needs (that is, go where the action is) and provoke thematic moments (defined in narrativistic theory as moments of in-character action that carry weight as commentary on the game’s premise) by introducing complications.
  2. The rest of the players each have their own characters to play. They play their characters according to the advocacy role: the important part is that they naturally allow the character’s interests to come through based on what they imagine of the character’s nature and background. Then they let the other players know in certain terms what the character thinks and wants.
  3. The actual procedure of play is very simple: once the players have established concrete characters, situations and backstory in whatever manner a given game ascribes, the GM starts framing scenes for the player characters. Each scene is an interesting situation in relation to the premise of the setting or the character (or wherever the premise comes from, depends on the game). The GM describes a situation that provokes choices on the part of the character. The player is ready for this, as he knows his character and the character’s needs, so he makes choices on the part of the character. This in turn leads to consequences as determined by the game’s rules. Story is an outcome of the process as choices lead to consequences which lead to further choices, until all outstanding issues have been resolved and the story naturally reaches an end.
  4. The player’s task in these games is simple advocacy, which is not difficult once you have a firm character. (Chargen is a key consideration in these games, compare them to see how different approaches work.) The GM might have more difficulty, as he needs to be able to reference the backstory, determine complications to introduce into the game, and figure out consequences. Much of the rules systems in these games address these challenges, and in addition the GM might have methodical tools outside the rules, such as pre-prepared relationship maps (helps with backstory), bangs (helps with provoking thematic choice) and pure experience (helps with determining consequences).

These games are tremendously fun, and they form a very discrete family of games wherein many techniques are interchangeable between the games. The most important common trait these games share is the GM authority over backstory and dramatic coordination (I talk of these two extensively in Solar System, which is also a game of this ilk), which powers the GM uses to put the player characters into pertinent choice situations. Can you see how this underlying fundamental structure is undermined by undiscretionary use of narrative sharing? The fun in these games from the player’s viewpoint comes from the fact that he can create an amazing story with nothing but choices made in playing his character; this is the holy grail of rpg design, this is exactly the thing that was promised to me in 1992 in the MERP rulebook. And it works, but only as long as you do not require the player to take part in determining the backstory and moments of choice. If the player character is engaged in a deadly duel with the evil villain of the story, you do not ask the player to determine whether it would be “cool” if the villain were revealed to be the player character’s father. The correct heuristic is to throw out the claim of fatherhood if it seems like a challenging revelation for the character, not ask the player whether he’s OK with it – asking him is the same as telling him to stop considering the scene in terms of what his character wants and requiring him to take an objective stance on what is “best for the story”. Consensus is a poor tool in driving excitement, a roleplaying game does not have teeth if you stop to ask the other players if it’s OK to actually challenge their characters.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve outlined my argument in sufficient detail. What I’m getting to here is that I don’t find it convincing how lightly many GMs seem to give away their backstory authority even when playing games that absolutely rely on the GM’s ability to drive home hard choices by using these same powers. There are other types of game that have similar problems (D&D for instance has nothing to do with the standard narrativist model, but it still sucks for slightly different reasons if you make playing the setting a matter of group consensus), but that issue with narrativist games seems exceptionally clear to me on account of how very clearly these games are written and how well-known the theory of their function is – the only reason to introduce extra dashes of shared narration in these games is well-intentioned foolishness, it seems to me.

Towards a theory of player roles

Old hands at rpg theory might compare and contrast this treatise on player roles with the concept of “Stance” in early Forge theory. A player’s stance towards his character describes the decision-making interface he uses in controlling the character; for instance, “actor stance” means that the player only uses in-character knowledge in determining the character’s actions. I do not consider player roles and stance theory to overlap to any considerable degree.

I probably should write a couple of words about player roles, as the above exposition goes pretty deeply into that. This is something that Ron Edwards explicited in 2006 or so, I think; I’ll rephrase the pertinent bits from memory.

The tasks that need to be performed for a Shared Imagined Space to form and play to be executed successfully are various and can be categorized in different ways. There are something like 20 tasks that I could list right now and probably give examples of games that distribute these tasks differently among the players, too, so I think I’ll skip on the list. These are things like “knowing the rules”, “framing scenes”, “playing protagonist”, “playing support character”, “narrating consequences” and so on and so forth.

(There’s also the important concept of authority, and particularly the different types thereby. This post is getting a bit long, though, so I’ll leave that part implicit for now. The backstory authority thing up top should be enough for now.)

The important bit is that these tasks are usually not explicitly dealt with as a list in rpg design. Rather, what you usually do is that you consult your intuitive understanding of how roleplaying games have usually gone about things, you pick one of the models in your experience and then modify it until you get what you want. This is the way you get to something like Mountain Witch, which involves a pretty normal GM role (“normal” is, of course, not the same as standard – there’s wide leeway even within traditional design parameters on what the GM does or doesn’t do), except he doesn’t know the backstory.

Most games tend to go with a blurry game text that references “players” and “gamemaster”, but mostly rely in determining what these roles actually do on tradition and a close reading of what the game mechanics require the players to actually do. For example, almost no game actually says what it means for a player to play his character in teleological terms – what the player is trying to achieve in the short term by playing the character.

For these purposes it is useful to example games in close reading and find out what it is, actually, that the game requires of a player. This whole post has actually been an overview of how certain types of game require players to be engaged in the role of advocacy (“I play my character to express him into the story”) as opposed to authorship (“I play my character to fill the narrative role allotted to him”). Both are called “playing your character” in different game texts, but psychologically and practically they are rather different processes.

What other types of player roles do roleplaying games use and make rewarding for their audience? There are definitely different types of gamemaster roles, but the role of the common player-participant is particularly interesting in this regard: I understand very well how advocacy works psychologically and why it is fun to play the advocate while the GM rains down all seven sorts of shit on the poor character, but what other options are there? Aside from character advocation, I know of at least character authorship (as in The Houses of the Blooded), character substitution (as in a game of D&D played without advocation) and character identification (as in Nordic immersionism). Then there are games where everybody is some brand flavour of GM, like Universalis or the various common conch-passing games.

Sources

As usual, I don’t think that what I write here is particularly controversial in the context of Big Model rpg theory. I’m just focusing on certain aspects of the matter and restating things a bit, not saying anything that wasn’t said by 2006 at the Forge.

14 Responses to “The pitfalls of narrative technique in rpg play”

  1. V Says:

    Huh.

    I like your argument and I would not mind at all to see an article of this sort in one of the (more larp oriented) knutepunk books.

    You would need academica-like references tough ;-/

    —-

    Aside from that, imnsho stances are one of the more useful forge-theory-fallout, and it would be really cool to have them integrated to the Nordic theory base.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Well, that’s the problem for the Knutepunk books, isn’t it? By opting for a certain form and quality guidelines, the institution biases itself against fields of discussion that do not conform to that form. It’s of course perfectly reasonable to make this decision for simple quality-control reasons, but the fact remains that you can’t expect to see the most current thinking present in that sort of book – the current thinking will be in the Internet, in the form of half-finished thoughts and lazy blog posts compiled out of idle inspiration. Lower barrier to publication equals more material, as simple as that.

    (OK, so that’s obviously a separate topic for another time. Still explains why it’s unlikely that I’d write anything for those books in the foreseeable future – I’ve tried it, and it’s just too much trouble for the payoff. I’d need to care more about getting published in a Knutepunk book to actually get myself to set aside the time for writing for it.)

    In what way do you find stances useful? I’m curious because to me they seem like typical sort of rump terminology that comes about because we need exact words for gesturing towards something we want to ignore. As I remember it, stance terminology was developed largely because it used to be that people made a big deal of in-character and out-of-character knowledge in evaluating play – a common mistake would be to ascribe out-of-character play to gamist agenda, for example. Naming the stances and defining them carefully allowed us to set them aside as relatively meaningless ephemera. Nowadays it’s even common for rpg texts (not just Forgista texts, either) to include a silly paragraph about roleplaying and how each player should be allowed to talk about his character in whatever grammatical person he wants.

    The only practical implementation of stance theory that I’ve seen is to use stances as part of the ritual style of a game. Puppetland is the obvious example here – the players are only allowed to describe things in character monologue in the present tense, while the GM is only allowed an omniscient narration in the past tense. It’s an interesting conceit, but I don’t find it very profound; it’s just stylish gloss you use to finalize the colorful feel of your game.

    That’s a pretty common paradox in theory development – naming and defining things so that we can ascertain their insignificance and put them aside.

  3. V Says:

    Many freeform/jeepform techniques use stance-shifting with positive results. If we can talk about stances without confusion – we can use them to derive new ways to play.

    I like theory, when it comes up with something I can use ;-)

    —-

    On KP books: Where you see problem, I see strength. Such is life. I prefer discussion where you can attain the level needed to participate with clear method (academica) – instead of need to activate an omniscient internet godmode just to use the current haute couture terms correctly.

  4. Sami Koponen Says:

    Clear text, again. I’m just a bit sceptical whether the phenomena you describe actually exist. Especially in a sense that someone would promote shared narration (or any style for that matter) as an imperative for every roleplaying everywhere. More likely they are just telling us what makes their playing better (or worse), even if they don’t say this explicitly.

    That is, “processing through the GM’s consideration before they will be properly considered part of the fiction” is an elusive thing. It happens all the time where I play that someone narrates a scene or a twist or an NPC’s reaction or whatever and everybody just go with that. There’s no telling if we are walking over the GM’s authority. Sure, he doesn’t veto, but socially speaking that isn’t much of a proof. I think that “part-time GMing” is totally okay, because it brings variety to the plot (not just the GM’s stuff all the time), is often innovative and is targeted at another player. Czege principle is held intact.

    Second, asking players if something is “cool” doesn’t necessarily mean that the GM can’t make up his own mind. It could be that he checks that everybody is on the same page with the genre (the GM can “spout wacky shit” as well as anyone) or that the game content is okay with the player (some people might have a problem dealing with a theme of patricide / fatherhood / all things related).

    So yes for the theory but no for the must-nots: “Thou shall not ask your players if a plot twist is cool”. But then again, I’m more like further explaining the thing instead of accusing you of not knowing perspectives I just wrote.

  5. V Says:

    @Sami: Advocates of one view above others are a frequent phenomenon in all fields. I would like to think role players to be more open minded – but that would be self deception.

  6. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    I agree, Sami – of course practical play has a priority, and if somebody makes this thing work for them, then no amount of theory will disprove that it works for them. The purpose of this post was more in drawing attention to how I find uncritical advocation of narrative technique to be much less profound than people sometimes seem to think – it’s not a miracle drug that transforms a traditional incoherent game into an amazing narrativistic extravaganza, and the reason for why old-time Forgers do not push it at everybody is not that they want to keep it to themselves. Uncritically applied, narration sharing just transforms the game into consensual coch-passing, a much lesser experience by typical measure. Most of that post then, is examination of some typical theoretical reasons for why naive narrative sharing might undermine key values of a game.

    (What I didn’t emphasize a lot in that text is that aside from naive narration sharing there is a host of techniques for sharing narration in powerful ways. The one I focused on in the text is the Dust Devils idea of leaving conflict resolution in the hands of one player who is not necessarily the GM, but there are definitely other places where consensual and shifting narration have good reason to exist. It’s certainly a topic for another time.)

    This is a quite real phenomenon in my experience. For example, one of the most common corrections I have to make in regards to Zombie Cinema is when people assume that you should play consensually and script your character’s actions in relation to the unfolding drama instead of focusing on your character’s distinct identity and choices that illustrate it. (I think this has its roots in late-90s vanilla dramatism, WoD, Tri-Stat and the like, which advocate consensual storytelling as the highest form of roleplaying.) This viewpoint often comes from collating narrativism and narrative sharing, and from misunderstanding how advocacy is used in roleplaying games. Of course I don’t explain it in these terms when giving practical advice, I just try to make it clear to people that the fun in playing something like ZC is not that you get to decide how a story should go – the fun is in being thrust into a fictional choice and getting to express a human viewpoint with clarity; there is no literary authorship involved aside from dramatic coordination (choosing to frame interesting scenes instead of boring ones).

    Other games that seem to often suffer from the myth of consensual storytelling are Primetime Adventures and Universalis – I think that it’s pretty obvious that games that do not emphasize the emotional bond between a player and his character are more likely to draw misinterpretations focused on this idea. It’s like an extreme instinctual swing from jealous focus on your own character to everybody being responsible for everything in the game.

    So I’m just warning people to not mix up tastes that might not go together as well as they might think. If you know that conch-passing is exactly what you want, then that’s great – I’m sure there are games where that works well, I just haven’t delved into the issue in detail. At least conch-passing games have been pretty common game design competitions lately, so that’s where I’d start looking for modern conch-passing. (The Lil’ Game Chef last year was pretty good in this regard; I distinctly remember lambasting at least a couple of games specifically for being little more than an oracular system for consensual narration.)

  7. Simon C Says:

    This reminds me of a thing I said here:

    http://simoncarryer.blogspot.com/2009/09/for-storys-sake.html

    And a thing Vincent said:

    So: resolution, why?

    The answer is: because interesting play depends on good conflicts, and creating good conflicts means hitting characters you like right where they’re weak, and hitting a character you like, whose player is someone you like, right where she’s or he’s weak – it’s not easy.

    The right rules will show you how to do it. They’ll make it the only natural thing.

  8. Jonathan Says:

    Hey Eero,

    I agree with you, definitely, overall. Can I share an anecdote with you and ask what you think?

    I’m running a Mouse Guard game in which the characters are post-Ragnarök valkyries on hoverbikes. They’ve reasembled the shards of the broken rainbow bridge and are trying to use it to step out onto the World Tree and investigate why the world is dying. As GM, this is a place where my backstory authority should step up, right? Or in a No Myth game I’m at least expected to bring something here, come up with something on the fly.

    But I’ve got nothing. Really, totally empty. So I say: “I don’t know, guys. How do the valkyries do this?” It’s a weak point in the game, I think. The players are less engaged, but I’m not sure what else to do as a GM because I’m burnt out and no sure where this is going. I guess we could have quit for the night and come back to it later, but other than that, floating it out there to the group seemed like my only option, even though it was vacating some of my GM responsibilities.

    There’s a couple other places where I think I naively drifted Mouse Guard a bit, like asking players if they wanted to fail a roll or succeed with a condition (which Luke says the GM decides), but I’m not sure they’re directly related to the point you’re trying to make here.

    • Eero Tuovinen Says:

      It seems to me that the significance of the example depends on what structural role the travel over the rainbow bridge resides in. Consider:

      • If the player characters have assembled the shards and you don’t really have any particular interest in the issue of travel, then it seems to me that you’re just handling color there: any player can contribute that, surely. Somebody just throws out some special effects and then the characters are in Valhalla and ready to kick/kiss ass depending on the current tenants.
      • If the shard assembly was an easy thing and you were planning to make the travel thing a big deal, then it seems to me that this is not really accomplished in the way the game system intends by punting the details to the players. I mean, if a player is really invested in this whole “get to Asgard” thing, then he has a conflict of interest at hand if you ask him to think up some interesting complications to the situation – he needs to balance his character’s needs with the needs of the story. This can be made to work with a nuanced system that is intended to work like that: I’ve myself played D&D-like gamist dungeoneering without a GM by specifically having the players invent challengeful situations for the party; this worked for us because the players were committed to the internal logic of the fictional setting (where monsters should be, where treasures should be, how these monsters should act), but also because they were grandstanding to each other and daring each other to throw out even more drastic challenges. However, as you can see, making player-supplied challenge work requires a specific system framework that might or might not be there in your game.
      • If you’re just wondering what to do as a GM in the game’s procedure, that seems like it’d depend on Mouse Guard (which I haven’t read). Is it one of these games where you’re supposed to engage task resolution at the drop of the hat and then use the outcome as a justification for consequences (Burning Wheel is like that)? If that is the case, then it seems to me that the correct play might be to ask for an appropriate “travelling Bifrost” skill check and then, should that fail, narrate whatever complication first springs to mind. If you can’t think of one, then a player well might once you tell them that you’re empty, anybody have any ideas what this dicing result might mean? Having the procedure first and only then asking contributions seems to me like it frames the question somewhat differently because many GM tasks in this style of game are essentially objective – asking a player to help you out with fulfilling a procedural point where you specifically have to act impartially does not break advocacy that much (or at all, as in Zombie Cinema). Anybody just thinks up a suitable complication, and then the game continues.
      • Finally, asking the players how their valkyries do something might not actually be punting responsibility at all. If the game involves firm player-authority on character backstory (as many games do), then it is an entirely valid question to ask the player to describe how his character could possibly do this thing. The player can tell answer by referencing the character’s background as an architect, which qualifies her as a Bifrost-builder. Or the players can tell you that actually, as they understand this commonly shared idea of “valkyrie”, they should be able to do this thing automatically, with no difficulty at all. Or the player might think that this is a really big thing, he doesn’t really think that his character knows how to do this at all, can we have a bridgebuilding-wise check.

      It can’t be denied that the moment is weakened as what it would be expected to be in this style of game (assuming I guess correctly that Mouse Guard is essentially similar to Burning Wheel in what it strives to be) if the GM runs out of inspiration and asks the players for suggestions on how to do his job. I think that this is only spun into a positive experience in a group that actually has unseen tension over creative participation; a player or even the whole group might relish it when they get a chance to finally actually influence where the game is going. This seems to be the case in many AP reports that describe relinquishment of GM authority in glowing terms; the group has had uneven creative interaction, so forcibly leveling the field by having the GM give up feels good.

      Even admitting that punting on the backstory like that is probably not a good idea, though, the question of how that sort of situation could be handled in practice is difficult. As you say, your options at the moment were limited. Phrasing the question as “how do the valkyries do it” instead of “what should happen next” is probably a good call, though, as I mention above – it could be that the moment of creative lag can actually be bridged by simply resorting on the player’s character authority.

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