About Me

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Narrativism Revisited

Narrativism can be broadly defined, and so is role-playing. Lucky for me, I evolved my ideas of what D&D should be in near isolation, and took at face value that DM tells a story of what is going on, and the players tell him what their characters do in that story, and the rules are used to make realistic outcomes.

From the beginning I realized that the D&D rules as presented, were not realistic, too abstract, too based on luck and too linear, so I broke away from it. Over years I realized the moral implications that D&D suggested, an old cop, when  I explained D&D to him, laughed and said, "your D&D adventure is basically an armed robbery - break down the door, kill the owner, take his property". Later still,   I realized that miniatures is not the most accurate way to portray combat or make the characters visualize or experience it. I became  a fan of phenomenology. And so, I became a fan of my very own historically accurate and tactically realistic, thoroughly fantasy sand-box.
Railroad adventures give narrativism a bad name. Most sand-boxes and hex crawls fizzle, because they lack the conflict and urgency of a story. Some DM's call Sign-posting, the practice of telling the players exactly where the DM wants the players to adventure in his sandbox. I reject sign-posting, and boss monsters, and power-players, and make my rules the bane of any power player who tries to figure out the optimal approach, by basing it on what is known in the real world based on research, and nothing is more complex or overwhelming than the real world.

And so, almost all the players I had have been uncomfortable about getting into character and role-playing, and I don't have a problem about players talking in the third person: "Zorg does this... Zorg does that... Zorg". One guy was stammering and was clearly uncomfortable with dying people screaming, crying and begging for mercy, or having to role-play his character comforting crying children who just lost their parents. In his case, the limits of his emotional depth interfered with him interacting with the game world. He stayed. Another quit. My best player never role-played, and when my players got into character and actually role-played, the players' agency (initiative and ability to get things done in the game world), went through the roof. So, I am not forcing the players to role-play, and can get along without any, but I sure am glad, when it happens.

I consider myself a narrativist DM, in that D&D is a storytelling game, mind, not a choose your own adventure, not a scenic train taking people from scene to scene, however, the sandbox will lose all meaning if the campaign doesn't have the beginning, middle and the end game; if the conflict and the march of events does not touch the players, and if it doesn't have some value/reward system beyond the level advancement and the loot. In my campaign, the players are egg-shells floating in the ocean near the shore, and the campaign is a breaking tidal wave that will throw the players on the shore and smash them against it. Where and how the players will end up, is up to the players.


  1. @ Brooser Bear,

    You talk about defining what D&D meant to you in isolation. This mirrors lots of my own personal experience with gaming. I would call it "gaming," where you lump it into "D&D." I got out of D&D a long time ago, because of the various things you cite: not realistic, too abstract, too based on luck, and too linear. Yes, all those things, plus, I found myself chafing at the hero worship directed at someone I felt betrayed me as a kid, both financially, and with his huge ego defending his ineptitudes.

    Portraying realistic outcomes was always my fetish, too. Recently, I'm looking at making meaningful choices based on a context where the PCs have some inkling that there's a seriously upped challenge in one locale, and otherwise, they can face obstacles more closely survivable at or near their current level. If it gets too rough, they can retreat, maybe lose the enemy, maybe they die. Risks, that aren't slaughterfests of PCs, unless they make terrible choices as a routine. Pretty soon, they should smarten up.

    We didn't use miniatures too much. For marching order, mainly. Mostly, we'd go for descriptions. They can be useful, but we never went in for any of this "zones of control" "attacks of opportunity," etc. If we used a battle mat, it was to make mapping and description easy. "You see THIS." and the washable ink on the battle map showed EXACTLY what the weirdo shaped cavern's outlines actually looked like. You see it... now you map it. Just like real life.

    Is that similar to your problems with miniatures being unrealistic?

    A fan of phenomenology. How does that apply to gaming? Causes and Effects, creating a real world in gaming? I've always been all in favor of emphasizing that. Meaningful choices modifies that a bit, but I'll manage.

    Since meaningful choices with more deadly options are new to me, and I'm looking into Justin's approaches for that, and RavenCrowKing's (Daniel A. Bishop), how would you go about this? Just have the PCs run into massively nasty opponents, and hope they don't die? I'm not challenging this, merely trying to get a grip on a system that you have, that Might work, but the devil is probably in the details for pulling it all off. If you don't 'sign post," then what is the alternative?

    I like the idea of a sandbox, and it's pretty much how we'd do things. We did a lot of Gamma World, Morrow Project variants, with Home Rules. There would be hexcrawls, random encounters, dungeons/ futuristic complexes/ ruins, and lairs. If there was a huge party in opposition, typically, the PCs would get some indication of it at a distance and go recon the field. Sure, it's not 100% realistic, but it made for the option to engage the enemy, or flee. Or plan some kind of infiltration, ambushes, getting back-up, etc. That was the closest we came to 'signposting.'

    That comment that most sand-boxes and hex crawls fizzle because they lack the conflict and energy of a story, sounds very interesting. Can you elaborate on that? Our approach was to have some overall big bad guy,or group, and they were the story for the local pillaging going on, and the villagers, etc who needed help. Yeah, it was the eternal wandering-7 Samurai kind of game. But, it was fun. Now, I'd add more elements for background.

  2. @ Brooser Bear,

    The response I just posted above was about twice as long, but I had to delete half of it, since this box told me it wouldn't publish anything over 4,100 something characters. Damn.

    You don't sound like any of the 'narrativist' GMs I've heard of. Sure, everyone likes storylines to their gaming. Most people interviewed like all the elements in about equal mixtures: gaming, narrative, simulation, etc.

    Your approach sounds like you use narrative for a beginning, middle and end. How can you employ that in a sand box style of play? It sounds intriguing, and potentially like something that keeps games from degenerating into mere powergaming, leveling up, treasure grabbing pointlessness. Which I despise. If I can take a stab at it, it sounds like you use national level politics, intrigues, armies invading, plagues, and disasters over huge areas, to set a tone for the players to deal with, or as an ongoing backdrop. Is that your beginning, middle and end?

    * "I consider myself a narrativist DM, in that D&D is a storytelling game, mind, not a choose your own adventure, not a scenic train taking people from scene to scene, however, the sandbox will lose all meaning if the campaign doesn't have the beginning, middle and the end game; if the conflict and the march of events does not touch the players, and if it doesn't have some value/reward system beyond the level advancement and the loot. In my campaign, the players are egg-shells floating in the ocean near the shore, and the campaign is a breaking tidal wave that will throw the players on the shore and smash them against it. Where and how the players will end up, is up to the players." *

    Hahah. There you go getting all lyrical, again! Well, if you are gonna foment wars in the players sandbox, you gotta break some eggs. These tidal waves sound interesting. My experience was always on a much smaller scale of play, rather than the epic. I'm all ears, how do you go about mixing and matching all these elements with sand boxes in your narrativism, that seems to spring out of an isolationist view of what gaming is all about?

  3. Neal,

    To save labor, COPY your post BEFORE you try publishing it! Then, if it gets too big for the size of the field, you PASTE it in Word, save the text, and publish it in sections.

    I will address Ron Edwards' Game Narrative Simulation theory in a separate post, but briefly, I use the literary definition of what a Narrative is. Which means that portion of a text telling a story. As in a character in a story, part of a story, telling a story to another character in that story. What Ron Edwards calls Narrativism is really something else, if you go by the field of literary criticism, which INVENTED that term.

    In the Sandbox, you can keep the scale as small and as non-violent, as you like! Let's say you have a run a sandbox in a game involving martial artists. You set the game in Hiroshima in 1940! Players do not have to join the Japanese army, because of their exemption as monks! They CAN, travel out of Hiroshima, if they choose to, but most of the game takes place in the dojos of Hiroshima. You use the Japanese nickname for the city, so as to keep the players in the dark. Players are free to choose to do the equivalent of open the door kill the monster and grab the treasure until the balloon goes up. But it doesn't have to be THAT global or dramatic. You can set the sandbox in a High School, it will start in freshman year and end with the graduation. You can set you Crusades or Wild West Campaign of Prohibition sandbox and let it run until the historical era stops. Yes, it fomenting wars and plagues in your sandbox to avoid signposting, but that is what it takes to bring conflict to players. Even if it is a SMALL war or a SMALL rivalry in whatever arena between a few NPCs and Player Characters. If I was playing Gamma World or Morrow Project, I will have to think carefully about why I am running that game. What do I try to bring to layers/get out of the experience. And once I know what the theme will be, it will be easier to decide on the Wave and the Timeline.

  4. I never actually new or cared about who Gygax was I bought my first D&D game (Tom Moldway Red Box Basic Set with the spearman and the green dragon).

    Talking about giving players inkling of dangers, you are talking about foreshadowing! That is a very good practice, since the act of looking for and analyzing the clues is what makes the game playable and a positive experience for the players. A good practice would be to edit your adventure, after reading a published module or your own designed one, with regards to clue placement. Sprinkle your clues, and the actions/skill checks required to uncover them, and see IF the players will discover them in a game.

    With regards to danger placement, yeah, there should be some warning given, but not necessarily and not always. The bigger question are the implications of a character's death. For instance, it takes 2 - 4 hours to complete a character for my campaign. The promise of my campaign is that everybody gets to play any type of character they really want to play and they get to grow it to high level over the course of the campaign. So, you spend a few hours talking about the Sandbox and how a player character is really a vehicle for exploring the world. So, you have a D&D player going in a nasally munchkin fashion: "I vant to play a vizard!"

    DM: Okay, there are many different schools of magic, what kind of a wizard would you like to play?

    MUNCHKIN: Magic Missile, Sleep, Fireball!

    Player Character dies. A bit later:

    DM: What kind of a character would you like to play?

    MNCHKN: I vant to play a vizard!

    DM: What type of wizard?

    MNCHKN: Magic Missile, Sleep, Fireball!

    Sigh of the authoritarian DM taking off his gloves prior to beat down.

    DM: You didn't get to learn those spells. Furthermore, nobody would teach you that spell, because you are a woman. That is if you had money to join the Wizards' Guild, which your family doesn't. Your character is a beautiful girl with CHA 18, who sleeps with the older wizards and they teach her bits and pieces of magic that she readily absorbs. The school of Magic that you are familiar with is Enchantment and Charm.

    Actually, this is a very old story. Goes back to Morgan La Fey and Merlin...

    But the moral of this story is that getting the characters killed is a total waste, since the players will tend to recreate the same exact character if given opportunity. Well, most players. Some are open to experimentation. In light of that, I am very liberal with healing and resurrection spells, at least in the beginning. I follow the AD&D rules for resurrecting characters, when they get killed. If they fail a roll, they don't resurrect. Chances of resurrection get smaller with each subsequent resurrection and the higher the advance in level, the farther the players travel from the home base, and the longer the characters stay dead, the lower the chances are, again. I consider this to be the players' training wheels. In 2 years of running the game, I have had a resurrection, sometimes two or three, every second and third game session, roughly. However, once the player character dies and does not come back, time to create another character. Players are allowed to use their knowledge of the setting to create a setting-specific character. You need Death to maintain the element of danger, but its permanence is one element of gaming realism I am willing to drop. Another thing to consider is the player character's party as a living breathing organization. As long as individual members get killed, the organization lives on in terms of its mission, its goals, its memory its culture, much like any team, military unit, or expedition. It is the Total Party Kill that matters a whole lot more - once ALL the players get killed at once, they start with a brand new party, and a brand new story line, and the Time Line can be reset or not, up to the DM.

  5. I use the erasable mats pretty much like you do, to show the players where they are, and I use the miniatures to show party marching order and the enemies, who attacks whom, but I do not use the minutia of the D&D miniatures rules with facings, attacks of opportunity etc.

    Phenomenology comes from psychology and philosophy and it refers to the study of the situation from the individual's subjective perspective. What is it like to be in that person's shoes? I use the phenomenological approach primarily as an orientation for the combat system. That is why I do not use the miniatures or the hit location system. The important things are: Is s/he hit?! Is s/he down?! Critical hits matter a lot because it makes the combat non-linear, a threat of instant death a constant possibility once the fighting starts. I use a hit location table only if the players are partially armored, and a piece of solid metal will prevent or minimize a critical hit. The whole flow of the game is story telling with die rolling. As the character gets hit, an extra roll or two for how hard, another roll to see if the character collapses and/or loses consciousness. Injury and death become dramatic, with characters passing out as they are trying to accomplish something critical in the fight and enemies dropping out of the fight just as they are about to... and the sword penetrates their armor...

    With regards to meaningful choices. Meaningful choice occurs before the combat, with players choosing to point A or point B. During the combat, the combat rules are sophisticated enough to allow the players tactical thinking, with armor, weapon, and tactical decisions influence the outcome of the individual combats.

    With regards to what makes the sandbox TICK, an overall bad guy or a BOSS MONSTER is one and the easiest solution. A problem to be solved or a goal to be accomplished is another. Depends on the tastes and preferences of your players. For a player to become a Shaolin Master or a Master of a knightly order might be valid campaign objectives, and while it might SEEM like a great opportunity for a railroad, it does NOT have to. Player classes like Bards, Paladins, Druids, and Rangers can be self-contained campaign quests for Mastery. A tribe might need assistance in survival by either migrating or standing its ground, another overarching goal. A goal should motivate the players to jump I the sandbox and play. If the payers are generally apathetic, as they tend to be, and if they play for other reasons, then you as a DM should pick the most compelling overarching story. In a way it is very simple -forget your players. Take your sandbox, once you got it mostly fleshed out, and write a story for that sandbox in which the setting is the main character and the elements of that setting are the supporting cast.

  6. @ Brooser Bear,

    That's what I thought! You didn't seem like a typical "narrativist" by any definition those jerks use. Those guys warp the whole game reality around forcing plots onto players and making the game reality unimportant in comparison.

    I'll read through these new posts. I don't know if you get any FLAGS or some kind of indicator that older posts have new commentary? I've been reading through each of your old posts, especially the ones on your GAME SYSTEM, and I'm interested in how it works, and in some cases I had a few observations. Read through the old post comments and tell me what you think?

    So, do you get FLAGS for old posts? I'll put in my comments on those sections about Realism, Skills, Dice Rolling issues, as they come to me. It would save the effort of having to comment on your most recent post, if I knew you were aware older posts were being addressed, too...

  7. @ Brooser Bear,

    The idea to edit your adventure with testing to see if your sprinkled clues are actually uncoverable, is a good one.

    That comment about Morgane Le Fay, was that something from that medieval feminist book, Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley? I own the movie, but it sucks, and probably doesn't match the book, much.

    I agree about the TPK being critical stuff. If one PC dies, even if you really liked him, you can come to terms with it, and create a new PC to join the party, and continue its culture. But TPK's are really bad news for a game. I think too many GMs get a thrill out of setting up lethal ambushes/traps to make sure they have bragging rights on how many players/parties they can mount on their walls like so many trophy heads.

    I agree about Death being necessary for the thrill of danger and meaning. Further, having availability of Resurrection type effects, is a good compromise with realism vs. playability. In my rules, I do something similar about it, too: The more resurrections you undergo, the greater the risk of failure to revive, or you come back with permanent disabilities, or one or two of your abilities are dropped by a point, each. Etc. Meaningful penalties for either stupid choices, or just bad luck in a string of die rolls.

    I don't like instant permanent death. That doesn't serve any real purpose.
    GM: "you failed your save vs. poisonous spiders, and you are dead forever, too bad."
    Player: "Um, and HOW is this supposed to be a fun and worthwhile experience for me to spend my time pursuing?"
    GM: "Well, it sucks that you spent 2 years playing that character, but I'm a sadist, and it's great fun for me to post YouTube accounts of what a dangerous GM I am!" Um, yeah.....

  8. @ Brooser Bear,

    Maybe online groups are more apathetic, why would you suppose that is? My personal experiences were always a group of friends I knew, and we did it face to face. It was chaotic, but everyone was enthused, unless that particular GM hadn't created a compelling adventure.

    I like the possibility in games of the rare rolls that instantly cause incapacitation and removing someone from the fight. However, where most other hits are 'ablative,' and wear you down, and your armor aids in reducing damage. If things are going South, your party can decide it's a clear time to make a retreat. A meaningful choice, with good consequences, and bad consequences if you aren't smart enough to recognize those limitations. On the other hand, the chance that there are incapacitating rolls, that will take you out of the fight. This gives you excitement of instant game-changing hits on the one hand, and the tactical, meaningful choices of slow damage on the other hand, with the knowledge you may need to make a tactical retreat if you plan to live to fight another day.

    If you run a campaign on a story-schedule of a few years, how long does that take to play itself out in real life?

  9. I review older posts automatically and will reply to each of your comments, where you place them, and will continue the discussion into the current posts.