Sep 17, 2012

The Long Narrative: Anti-narrativism

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research goes far beyond the typical Forge nonsense used in theoretical discussion to get into a really useful model for games. It's worth reading, since it bears pretty directly on why I consider myself an "anti-narrative" referee, and what that means.

I want to pull this part out from the beginning: "Fundamental to this framework is the idea that games are more like artifacts than media. By this we mean that the content of a game is its behavior not the media that streams out of it towards the player."

By "anti-narrative", I mean that my primary focus as a referee is not on "telling a story", moving PCs from rising action to rising action until an emotionally cathartic climax is attained, but on presenting interesting and meaningful choices with escalating consequences, and pushing the PCs to decide which option to take. The peaks and troughs on a plot graph for me represent varying levels of PC agency over time. Sometimes they are potent enough to layout all the alternatives and choose freely amongst them, and sometimes they're scrambling to react to a loss of control, and that oscillation takes over from the oscillations of inner character that drive a dramatic plot. The transition between acts tends align between the two models, as an act in a traditional drama is opened or closed by a choice that cannot be undone, whereas under this model, an act is opened or closed by a choice that the PCs must make but cannot exert any agency to layout the options of ("You must either go to war with the Baron or surrender to him. Which will you do?").

I chose this kind of substructure to my games because I find it simplifies the planning for what otherwise appear as traditional story-driven, plot-heavy games. By focusing less on specific events that must happen, and by instead aiming at specific choices that must be made, the substructure is freed from dependence on particular configurations of characters, material, etc. If a single NPC is killed or not, if the PCs steal a specific item, these no longer "sink" a story like they would in a more rigidly-crafted tale. A choice is a virtual entity that can be realised through many possible configurations of characters, material, external events, etc.

In play, this means fewer "cutscenes", fewer invincible NPC badasses, and of course, more meaningful choices (both in quantity and intensity). This method is not "illusionism" - the consequences of PC choice, as the core stake, must be respected, and developed appropriately to the decisions they make. Nor does it have much to do with "narrativism" in the sense of the word used in indie RPGs, which tend to set defined limits on the agency involved rather than varying the agency of the PCs over time (or which vary in only a single, progressive manner encoded in the system itself). "Narrativist" RPGs operate at the level of "mechanics" under MDA, whereas I am talking about doing this on the level of "dynamics" and "aesthetics".

Variance in this kind of substructure is across several factors. First, there is the variance in the stakes of the consequences - some choices are more meaningful, some are less meaningful. I favour being relatively upfront with PCs about which are which in situations where they have more control, and being a bit more opaque in situations where I have more control. Second, there is variance in who has more control, me or the PCs. This is usually obvious - if I'm laying out the options and saying "You have to pick A, B, or C", then I have control. If they're saying "What if we do this? What about this?" then they do. Information, urgency, and resources all serve as subfactors which can be manipulated to adjust their agency.

In any given situation, one structural subgoal should be to vary the level of control and the importance of the consequences across the situation. That is, few situations should start with the PCs at a given level of agency and with a certain set of stakes, and then end at the same level. Either or both factors can increase or decrease, but the change is what produces "dramatic" variety in this kind of structure. The referee is partially responsible for this, but the players are as well. Good play should be capable of minimising the importance of certain stakes (e.g. because you packed plenty of rope, you don't have to worry about falling to your death as you climb the castle walls; because studied the weaknesses of the big bad, the fight is much less risky than it would be otherwise).

Sudden transitions in agency and importance are where surprise comes back in. In traditional dramatic narratives, surprise tends to be driven by misinformation or lack of information, either between characters or to the audience. This is true here as well, but the important thing to bear in mind is that the information in question should relate less to character motivations, plans and plots, and more about the expectations of PCs about how they can deal with these things.

For example, concealing that the big bad is planning to overthrow the kingdom is usually a waste of time. If the PCs don't know what the villain's overarching goal is, they will rarely be invested enough to care about preventing it. Under this model, the surprise is played not in revealing the plan, but in confounding player expectations about what they can do about it. An appropriate scene for this kind of "revelation" would be something like when the players go to the king and tell him about the plot, expecting him to crush the big bad (who is say, an evil minister). Instead, the king refuses to believe them, and insists they stop harassing him with these wild tales unless they have solid proof.

Many times, the kind of story that emerges from this method will be similar to the ones people hope to attain by writing out intricate novelistic plots, but the process itself simplifies and eases attaining these kinds of outcomes while preserving the play experience for PCs. That is, by thinking about the structure of the game in a way that is fundamentally different from being directly concerned with the movements of the narrative, we can incidentally achieve a complex and interesting narrative.

Edit: Courtney and I are on the same page, it looks like. I just saw his recent post on the same topic.


  1. What you've described has a great deal in common with bog standard how-to-run Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shadow of Yesterday, and multiple other forgite games advice. You're not actually disagreeing with much of anything said at the forge. Happy to provide references if you like.

    1. The devil is in the details. It's why I linked to the MDA paper at the start. Consistent advocates of the Big Model / GNS would hold that the things I'm talking about should be represented mechanically, whereas I specifically call out dynamics and aesthetics as the domains for this structure. Power and control are political processes, and reifying them in game mechanics is pretty much the opposite of what my anarchist self wants.

      Narrativism as a specific "creative agenda" tends to cause one to eschew surprise in the dynamic and aesthetic domains, and replace it with tropes, pastiche and meta-negotiation, none of which I'm particularly interested in bringing into my games. A consistent narrativist and I would both agree that we are interested in "telling stories" but mean radically different things by those words. Because the structure I laid out above is neutral wrt the kinds of choices PCs are making, it's true that the above is not hostile to narrativist "creative agendas", it's simply something else entirely.

      I do find "author stance", which is strongly associated with narrativism, to be contrary to the above, because the "author stance" tends to rely on stakes only distantly related to the actual contents of the shared imaginary world (e.g. "Are we telling an interesting story?"), which is contrary to where I'm trying to drive players to emotionally through this process. "Author stance" games also tend to flatten out power structures much more than traditional RPGs, usually by hard-coding that flatness into the mechanics, which once again, is something very different than I'm describing, and requires different solutions.

      Burning Empires does a good job in that kind of situation, by setting up at least one player (the referee) to be opposed to the others which pushes things up from just mechanics, but it's a very different thing to be trying to actively win a RPG like in BE vs. most others, where the GM's exact intentions wrt the rest of the author-cluster are less sharp.

    2. Hey, John, thanks for the thoughtful reply. The MDA paper is interesting, although I will admit I only skimmed it at this point. I will read and digest.

      I'd respond by stating that the definition of "narrativism" or "Story Now" (the more current term) is simply "commitment to addressing premise through play itself." There's nothing there about stances, specific mechanics, stakes-setting, flattened power structures or anything of the kind. It would be hard to find a more consistent advocate of Story Now play than Ron Edwards, and neither Sorcerer nor Trollbabe include any mechanical reinforcement of a specific plotline or story structure, and the prep advice for both games specifically enjoins that kind of play. As far as I can tell, that's what you mean by "dynamics and aesthetics" vs "mechanics." Or am I wrong?

      I think you're absolutely right when you say that "the structure I laid out above is not hostile to narrativist "creative agendas." No one method of prep or way of doing things, mechanically or otherwise, is necessary and sufficient to a creative agenda. They're defined by acheiving a specific point to play. How one goes about doing that is a different question entirely, and also a matter of taste-I can have a great competitive experience with chess or carcassone, but that doesn't mean there's no way in which they're different or reason to prefer one to the other. Your BE example also goes towards this point.

      Perhaps it might be more accurate to say "I prefer games with certain features to facilitate a very high player agency mode of play" and leave poor ol' creative agenda out of it?

    3. I think we're reading the same material in radically different, possibly even irreconcilable, ways. I see things like "creative agenda", "author stance", and the idiosyncratic definition of "premise" Edwards uses as critical to analysing his concept of "narrativism" into a description of actual behaviour at the table.

      My tolerance of low-stakes, high-agency situations is probably the biggest difference in actual behaviour between myself and people I see playing narrativist games. For example, I consider shopping for gear or planning expeditions to be valuable and interesting ways to spend time at the table, provide they are sufficiently rich in detail and offer multiple meaningful decisions, even though they do not directly enact the premise of the game (except in maybe in a merchant trader game).

    4. I'm happy to agree to disagree, since I am also puzzled by your interpretation of some of the texts that I'm thinking of, and I'm not sure we're talking about entirely the same group of texts in any case. That said, I do want to try to restate your point in the first para, since I'm not 100% sure I get it.

      If I read you correctly, you're saying that whatever the surface may say, the actual techniques that one will be required to employ to play "story now" will lead inevitably to the things that you're attacking, specifically metagame negotiation and character play from a "dramatic" standpoint. Is that correct (at least mostly?)

      Your second para would then seems to me to be endorsement of a specific kind of relationship to setting and player agency that means that "dramatic editing" is a violation of verisimiltude, at least in some circumstances, though I may be missing some of the meat of your point. I think, though, that the implicit contrast here is between your style and a style that espouses cutting directly to the conflict, or at least play that drives toward conflict as the primary purpose.

      I still think there are "Story Now" games that meet your criteria, for a fine game in your player agency terms, and I would want to add that the view that "author stance" is a requirement for "story now" is one that Edwards has specifically repudiated, but I'm not sure how much that matters in this context. Thanks again for the essay-I think there are some valuable distinctions in the work, although I have neither a critique nor anything especially insightfl to add to it at this point. I do find it hard to see how it contradicts any aspect of forge theory as I understand it, but again, your house, and no need to argue the point.