Thursday, April 18, 2013

Breaking into narrative systems

I'm hearing a lot of buzz revolving around games like Fate Core and other Fudge driven systems. These “narrative driven” game systems focus on roleplay and storytelling with simple modular dice resolution systems that are easily modified to deal with multiple types of situations.  Players can compel “aspects” to apply characters background descriptions and other not necessarily quantifiable characteristics to better describe the action with heroic results.

I'm pretty sure that most people reading this blog already know more than I do about these games.  I have to admit, I have not really been on the cutting edge of this revolution so please bear with me if my understanding of mechanic seems pedestrian.  If you want to read a blog by someone who has his finger on the pulse of Fate Core and things like Apotheosis Drive X check out Aggregate Cognizance. This post isn't about Fate in and of itself.  It’s about how people who are used to “physics driven” systems and the growing pains of moving to a “narrative driven” system like Fate.

I firmly believe that there will come a time when roleplayers will finally decide that there is no spoon and play RPG’s that provide little in the way of task resolution and simply provide guides for storytelling. All the while wondering what all this dice hullabaloo was all about. Ever play Once Upon a Time?

I have always been the kind of GM that would simply throw the rules out the window when it pleased me and used them as more or less a way to create tension and drama.  I detested games where the rules were set up to provide some form of adversarial relationship between the GM and the players.  To me roleplaying is a cooperative game and players should never feel that I am out to get them.

I can see that the gaming community, (at least those that I have had contact with) are embracing games like Fate.  A day hardly passes when I don’t find someone on Google Plus telling people about a new Fate conversion they are working on and that’s great.  But I want to reach out to those who might feel skeptical about this new hippie movement in free love storytelling.

I understand why some people would be skeptical. Gamers are generally problem solvers and mechanics.  That is to say that many gamers look at a game system as not only a way to simulate action within a story but as a mathematical structure that can be challenged and sometimes broken. This can pose a problem at both the GM end and the player end. 

In a narrative driven system, the GM gives up some control over the story. It empowers the player to be an active participant in the ongoing construction of the story and gives them tools to take control of the script. This can be a little scary to a lot of GM’s out there, since they believe that they might be giving the lunatics a chance to take over the asylum.

If you can’t trust your players to that extent there should be some other problems you should be addressing. For the most part I think that these fears are unfounded. Once you give the players a reason to invest in the story, you will most likely be surprised by their reaction. When people feel like they are contributing it incentivizes positive participation in and of itself. That is to say that the more someone invests into something the more likely they are to want that investment to pay off.

Players on the other hand are used to leaving the bulk of the work to the GM. That is to say that once a players builds a character and maybe comes up with some background for story hook material, they are just there for the ride. Of course there are instances where players take an active role in their plot and interact exhaustively with NP and P characters, but those are not the players who would be put off by a narrative driven system.  Players who view RP as more of a passive form of entertainment like books or film and don’t think of themselves as especially creative might be intimidated by the heightened level of involvement. One of the great things about Fate is that it structures play in a way where the players and the GM work cooperatively to establish basic aspects. This way a player can lean a little on the mechanic and their friends in order to settle into the process. This kind of thing is not for everyone, but everyone who loves to roleplay should at least give it a chance.

The biggest barrier for people breaking into narrative driven systems is unlearning certain things they have become accustomed to from physics driven systems.  Physics driven systems provide a lot of detail and clear cut binary rules sets to simulate the physics of a game world. 

The focus between the two shifts from “what can I do” in a physics system to “what can my character do to progress the story” in a narrative system.  This can be a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around.

Players are used to being given a very clear yes or no on what a character can possibly pull off. Narrative systems also give you ways of determining what characters are good or bad at, but gives the GM the ability to put a more fuzzy logic into task resolution.  Not only do we have yes and no but we add maybe by trying to find a creative way to push the limits or find more compelling answers to the problem.

Failure isn't interesting (see this really neat blog on that subject by Wil Hutton).  But it’s the unfortunate consequence of having a physics based system where there are very real and quantifiable parameters for success and failure. But, without a very real chance of failing it is hard to build tension? In a narrative based game the same tension exists.  Failure is a possibility, but these games don’t let petty things like harsh reality get in the way of a good story. The focus shifts from “can I or can’t I” to “what price am I willing to pay in order to be heroic.” Some systems do this with “bennies”, “fate points” or “edge” to grant a mechanic to handle unexpected suckattude, but narrative based systems take it a step further by allowing players and GM’s to suspend reality for a while and figure out how things could turn out better not only for the PC but for the story at large. By doing things like compelling the aspects of your character or environment they can use the scene itself as a way to apply heroic resolutions to situations that seem impossible. For example:

Can I jump across to the other side of the chasm? I can’t fight that many Umpleby’s!
You need to roll a 4 to get across this 10 foot gorge.
Ok, I’m gonna try it.
Dice roll…. 3
Well at least I didn’t get ignominiously killed by an Umpleby.

Can I jump across to the other side of the chasm? I can’t fight that many Umpleby’s!
You need to roll a 4 to get across.
Ok, I’m gonna try it.
Dice roll…. 3
Oh no!  Now the fate of those Svirfneblin is sealed! But wait you described the chasm as craggy right? My character also is described as having a “Never say die” attitude.  Can I spend some points to compel the craggy nature of the chasm and my never say die attitude to say that I noticed that I wasn't going to make the jump and managed to grab onto a craggy ledge a few feet down?

Now those fate, bennie or edge points have a meaning and a way to be used that fits within the story in a believable and heroic way thus progressing the narrative.

This is a pretty severe shift in gears to some, but maybe jumping from one to the other isn't the best way to go about it.  I recently played a game that I thought would be a great introduction to narrative game play. S/Lay W/Me is a game by Adept Press written by Ron Edwards.  This twenty page pamphlet leads two players through a series of what can best be described as a series of aspects.  One player is the Hero the other plays the environment.  There are a list of aspects that the hero player chooses to describe the hero and his environment.  Then there are options to describe the love interest and the conflict or villain. Once those are in place, the Hero and the Environment are given prompts and create a story together.  There is a dice mechanic that is used simply to determine when the climax of the story takes place and whether the Hero completes his objective or not. 

Now, you may think that this would lead to the re-telling of the same story over and over. Not at all.  It is particularly cleverly done.  At Orccon earlier this year I played this six times and not a single time did we ever have anything even remotely the same.  We had everything from High Fantasy to Lovecraftian Horror to biblical struggles between heaven and hell to Swashbuckling Musketeers redeeming the name of their fallen fathers.  It’s spectacular and spectacularly easy to do. If you find this at all compelling I highly recommend this game and reading the short essay Naked Went the Gamers in the same site that deals with the inspiration behind this game and how the themes of fantasy gaming have been dumbed down to capitulate to those who would deem horror, violence and sexuality as taboo for games.

This and something like the aforementioned Once Upon a Time are gateway drugs to narrative based systems. Playing games like this on an errant game day will give players a great idea of what it’s like to simply tell a story for its own sake. If you or your players find these concepts and activities interesting, entertaining and/or compelling you might think about checking out something along the lines of Fate/Fudge.


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  2. Fun but you have to have the right group. Over the Edge. As if that weren't enough use their "Gestalt Combat" optional system. Highest skill on the bads makes a hidden roll (or double hidden if you are feeling foxy) vs the players and using that contested die roll you figure out with the players what the hell just happened or what will happen based on a single die roll.

    Have to have the right group of players. I only dipped so far as the gestalt combat once. It was a frikken blast and short of playing the after hours Feng Shui staff only games the highlight of roleplaying at the shop in Kansas.

    Players were in a situation where they had to stitch reality back together by playing out a lost reel of a movie like Casablanca but the main difference in plot was that the Japanese held Morocco and not the Germans.

    They lost the die roll by 2. They had to lose but just by a little bit. They complied, even not knowing the official outcome, and it was awesome.

  3. While I think it's great that you have discovered games which are all about storytelling, I think I'd like to rein you in a bit.

    Many a gamer have been charmed by the idea that you can let the mechanics fade and just tell a story, and it's not the first time that gamer have then amazed at his discovery loudly proclaim that this is The Future. Let's hold that though, and take a closer look at it.

    That is just one aspect of roleplaying games.

    Look at what you said above. You almost equal rules with a confrontational attitude between player and GM. Sure, I'm exaggerating a bit for effect, but please bear with me.

    I'd like to claim that playing a game like FATE, or Once Upon a Time, is totally different from playing, say, Rolemaster.

    The former is not the next generation, it's not an advancement in the art, it's just different.

    I like my games to be just that, games. I like to roll some dice and "play the game" part of it. I might also like to tell a story, but that's another aspect of it, it's not in direct conflict.

    Not all games where you move your character like a chess piece has to be a game where you try to best the GM or the other players at the rules. It can be rich in story, and rewarding. It's another way to play the game, focusing on it as a game.

    I think those who like to "simply tell a story for its own sake" should not be compared to those who like to play the "game" part. That is the basis of so many flame wars and bad blood between "story gamers" and "game gamers", for lack of a better word.

    I think it's great that you see the love of FATE spreading, and liking it. Sure, me too. But, don't contrast that with those who play games more as games than a thespian exercise. It's two different things, done for fun, for different reasons.

    I play old school game mechanic driven games, and Forge style "story games" both.

    Sorry if this was a bit long, but this looked so much like the regular start of misunderstanding that I had to speak up. No offence, I didn't intent to put words in your mouth, but I saw tendencies of conflict, which I though unnecessary.

  4. The mechanics are very, very important in these games, and can't just be hand-waved out, so that's also a big difference from a more "trad" approach. It has exactly nothing to do with if you are using dice (or whatever) or not, it's about the mechanics and rules supporting play.

    Check out Dogs in the Vineyard, which exemplifies this beatifully - or, more advanced and also a Vincent Baker game, Apocalypse World.

    (The term "narrative games" is a bit of a misnomer, as any RPG somehow will produce some kind of story, GM-controlled or not - some call them "Story Now"-games, which I think is better)


  5. Gentlemen,

    It was never really my intent to present any one kind of system or style as superior to another. As I stated, I have had some minimal exposure to Fate/Fudge. Dresden Files RPG is really the only game of that style I have played/purchased. More often I play games like Shadowrun, Mechwarrior, Cyberpunk and good old D&D some of which are defined by their mechanic.

    Heck I have a 90pt. Khador army for Warmachine, 2000 pts of Orks and Space Wolves, 5 Firestorm Armada fleets and have a growing X-Wing squadron going. I know from games that have complex rules that need to be followed meticulously. Heck I almost got in a fist fight in 1992 about how follow fire worked in my game against Eldar.

    Please don't interpret my use of "narrative driven" for "narrative games". All these games are narrative games. The use of my pretty much made up term of narrative driven games was intended to describe a game whose focus is on allowing players to storytell vs. allowing them the tools to create a simulation of events on a tabletop.

    The intent of this post was to give people who have been curious about this style of game a way to explore and suss out if this is something that is for them and their group or not. Using games like Once Upon a Time and S/Lay W/Me can be a good barometer for this. I am by no means encouraging people to stop playing Pathfinder and go to Fate. Thats rediculous. What I am offering is a way to test the waters if the muse takes you.

    Thank you all so much for posting and reading my blog.

  6. As others have said, people play different games for different reasons. And various games, rules and play styles needn't be at odds with or in competition with each other.

    If you're looking for a good introduction to thematic, story-now games then check out the free roleplaying game Lady Blackbird by John Harper:

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for not taking offence. These fields are filled with hidden mines!

    If I may say so, I think what you wrote was an excellent summary what is cool about so called "story games". I really hate that term, by the way. Just as every game has a narrative, every game has a story. Anyway.

    I find it highly amusing and oh so familiar with your story about how follow fire can get you (almost) into fisticuffs. :)

  8. This is a forum for discourse. Your post was insightful and intelligent. I don’t see how I could rationally take offense at that. I appreciate any and all input as long as it’s mature and rational. For some reason Warhammer rules lawyering brings out a special daemon in me.  More blood for the blood glob.
    Along those lines, my blog is never about promoting any style of play to be better than any other as long as it’s entertaining and not abusive. I never intended for this post to be about “Fate is cooler than your game so you should play that!” I have seen that in some instances that it has been misconstrued as that. My agenda here was to A) give people a general understanding about what these games were about. B) How they may differ from more traditional systems. C) Give a way for people who might be interested in this kind of game play a way to be able to introduce the concepts without studying a new and complicated game system, putting together a campaign and then have it stall because the people you game with aren’t really interested.
    I generally assumed that some folks might react by stating, "Although a neat idea this is not for me because of X, Y and Z." I saw a little bashing of the whole idea but that’s fine, this kind of thing isn’t for everyone.

  9. As a game runner you have to know your audience. Is this table full of timid players who need to be led down rails? Is this table full of people who are going to beat you over the head with rule books? Are they combat monsters who want to destroy everything with or without a pulse?

    Across 32 years of collaborative gaming in most every genre there are three rough divisions of players. Those who need to be led, the ones you have to "game to".

    Those who are armed with their books and charts and tables and who will never give you a break. Those who you, sadly, have to "game against".

    Most precious to me are those who can add to your work and preparation as a game runner. Those who can add depth and story and excitement and adventure and fun and sorrow. The ones who from time to time that you are honored to "game with".

    Like a carnie huxster you have to read the room and find a way to make the best evening for all with the audience that you are presented with.

    The highlight to me, as the above is obviously weighted, is the latter. The ones you game with.