Posts Tagged ‘Narrativism’

Over on the RPG Theory Primer (which I’ll be touting from now till the end of time – fair warning), I mention the idea of “El Dorado”, a term that’s been coined to refer to the ideal some gamers hold where their game is both Simulationist and Narrativist. (Check the primer for links to explain those concepts.)

As I’ve read more about these terms, and been exploring my own games for understanding of the theory, I think I’ve clicked the essential difference between the two – and I’d like to put that up here.

Disclaimer: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve just misunderstood the theory. That’s cool. Whether or not it’s right for Simulationism / Narrativism, I still think the distinction I’m drawing is a useful one as it’s a concrete difference that affects people’s play preferences.

Disclaimer 2: I’m pretty sure I’m late to the party on this. Ah well. Looks like there’s still plenty of cake left.

Ok, so here we go.

The key factor is the point at which the story content is created. Simulationism is about exploration – exploring material that has been created beforehand, often by a GM. A lot of games will encourage players (including the GM) to make up stuff on the fly where suitable, but if that stuff they’re allowed to make up doesn’t include decisions about where the plot is going (for example, because the GM has written the plot before play), then it isn’t Narrativism. Narrativism, by contrast, is about creating the story / plot right there, in-play, through the actions of the characters.

So that’s it. Are you exploring a story that’s already been created? Then it’s Simulationism. Creating a story in play, with no-one forcing it in a pre-prepared direction? Narrativism.

Simple, right? Maybe. A few clarifications, though, as I think it’s quite easy to misunderstand this point.

Clarification 1: Just because a game pays attention to “a good story” doesn’t make it Narrativism. A GM can write a good story up-front and then let the players run through it – that’s not creating the story in-play, and hence not Narrativism. Similarly, games that pay attention to believable in-game causality are not necessarily Simulationist. Most games do this to an extent, to keep the players’ suspension of disbelief active. A Simulationist game is one in which the primary goal of play is to explore simulated material that has been created beforehand.

(Yeah, I think the names are slightly misleading. “Simulationism” to me implies accurate simulation is the focus – but most games need that to an extent. “Narrativism” implies strong narrative – and again, a lot of games want that. Ron Edwards, the developer of much of this theory, realised this and renamed them to phrase-based descriptions, “The Right to Dream” and “Story Now” respectively. Personally I’d refer to them as Exploration and Authorship.)

Clarification 2: Naturally, a game will almost always have a mixture of the two in its flow. Even the most hardcore story-prepared GM will normally allow a bit of leeway in how that story is approached. Even a strongly written-through-play game will usually have bits of content prepared by the GM. However, for the key story-defining plot decisions, it’s rare (in my experience) to see a game pick and choose between the two. Either the GM (or, sometimes, other players) have pre-decided where it’s going, or the group finds out only through playing the game. For any specific decision, the two are mutually exclusive, and how much time you spend on each is a matter of preference.

Does that all make sense? Does it ring true? Anyone think this is accurate, but nothing to do with Narrativism / Simulationism?

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In the last post, I discovered that my inner roleplayer is a Narrativist – I want to find the hard questions that surround the human condition (premise) and address them through play. Now I need to think about how a system might help players do that. I also promised you mechanics. Well here they are.

I consider “addressing premise” to be “dramatic” – that is, the source of the drama portrayed in the game’s events. With that in mind, I wondered if it were possible (and if so, desirable) to use some score or other function to keep direct and explicit track of whether the system is doing its job – i.e. encouraging drama. If we can monitor it, then we can adjust the system to keep the levels high, right? From that were born Drama Points. The central idea is…

When dramatic events go against a character, that character gains Drama Points. When they go in the character’s favour, the character spends Drama Points.

Simple, I know – and I’ve read games with similar mechanics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as explicitly focussed on drama as a measurement. (That said, I’m sure there are some systems out there that do this – just not any I’ve seen.)

This opens up some interesting possibilities, though. For example, to gain drama points, players can define what the central dramas are for their characters – e.g. “I want to overcome my cowardice”; “I want to get revenge on my husband’s killer”; etc. These dramas can then be used to earn Drama Points every time they come up in play. If things go against those goals, the characters are rewarded with Drama Points, which they can later spend on making things go their way later on.

I still need to lay out the possibilities for spending those points. I envisage a mechanical system which is actually relatively harsh, but which is made survivable because the players can use drama to get out of difficult situations. For example, Drama Points could be spent to:

  • “just pass” a task attempt that would otherwise have failed – e.g. hanging on to a cliff by the very tips of the fingers;
  • survive an otherwise fatal blow, but have the conditions of survival be entirely at the GM’s discretion (e.g. Fate Points in WFRP and similar games)
  • be warned before a surprise attack kicks in – “my spidey sense is tingling”
  • buy time for discussion during combat, which might ordinarily be restricted because in-character discussion wouldn’t be possible – but this way the players can set up cool dramatic sequences for the combat, making it more interesting for all concerned.

Essentially, Drama Points could be used to power any and all “cool dramatic effects”.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered – for example, I need to define exactly how they’re spent and earned, and whether there’s any limit on how many points can be moved around in this way. Also some powers (especially e.g. in a superhero game) would probably want to be an innate part of the character’s capabilities rather than needing to be powered by Drama. But it’s a start.

In the next post I’ll expand further on this concept and see if I can flesh out some of these details. Meanwhile, if you know of any games that use something like this already, I’d be really grateful to know about them! That way I can steal their ideas study them for inspiration. Drop a comment in the box below :-)

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…