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.