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General Forge Forums => First Thoughts => Topic started by: Daniel B on February 24, 2010, 12:20:53 AM

Title: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Daniel B on February 24, 2010, 12:20:53 AM
I'm splitting this post off of one in the Actual Play forum, entitled "[D&D] Hot elves, morality, and the missing initiative roll (". The comments made in it (especially those by Meramec/John and athornton, thanks guys!!) have gotten my mind spinning. The title question has a lot of context behind it regarding a system I'm building, so I'll describe the context here.

I've been slowly chipping away (for the past year and a half, blah) at a system that I want to be as flexible as possible, to adapt to a wide variety of gaming groups. Although I didn't know it when I started, I'd been designing it as a baseline Sim system, where by Sim, I just mean it has a mostly Objective World Description (OWD) as you might find in an electronic virtual world. My latest incarnation of the system is based on a two dimensional model, with the two dimensions being:
  • the horizontal, Bartle's Ladder (or Path), which describes the game over time, i.e. sometimes as short as a single session or as long a year. Although the terminology is my own, Bartle's Ladder is found in his book "Designing Virtual Worlds" and is based upon his work in the article "Players Who Suit MUDs" (
  • the vertical, the Big Model, which describes gameplay at a given moment. The exception is the Social Contract (outermost) layer, which may contain the entire 2D system. It is described here at the Forge, if you look hard enough and have a lot of patience :-D

The player-types described in each model don't really map to each other, but I believe they are complementary. The player types suggested in each model are:
  • Bartle - eight types along three axes, namely (Act On versus Interact With), (Player versus World), and (Implicitly versus Explicitly). They can be placed into a ladder-like structure, such that a given player will follow a path down this ladder over time.
  • Big Model - Gamist, Simulationist, Narrativist. Players behave under any one of these Creative Agendas at a given time, though they'll generally have a preferred agenda and may operate under other agendas in service to this main one.

Despite the fact the types don't map between the systems, the reason I think they are complementary is that, as I've suggested, one describes how players change over time while the other describes the whole system (including players) for individual events, moments of time. The sore-thumb is Narrativism; narrativism is not suitably represented by the Bartle types because of the difficulty in bringing it into an electronic virtual world (for which Bartle's theory was created), given the fact that such a world is already visually and audibly presented.

So be it. My ideal game is, as the above makes pretty clear, heavy Sim before any other priorities. Therefore, I can just focus on building a major Sim (minor Gamist) system and forget about my goal of making a game to appeal to a wider audience, right? Well .. no, it's not that simple. I don't just want my cake, I want to eat it too. A Sim (Gamist) system alone does not adequately describe my ideal system. With purely Sim (Gamist) rules, any trace of the soul of a really good story is eliminated. I want some Narrativist blood running through the veins of the system, keeping the Sim (Gamist) machine alive. Without such blood, Skeletor cannot face-off against He-Man unless he's vastly overpowered to survive it (at least, if you want to keep Skeletor as a main character), and Superman is out of luck when it comes to saving Lois Lane from certain death by pothole, if he runs out of Stamina before he can go back far enough in time by flying around the globe.

My ideal system is, then, one that is Sim (Gamist) most of the time, but which switches to Narrativist "when appropriate", whatever that means. To get narrativist situations mid-game, you need either luck, a system that is set up as Narrativist, or a skillful GM. I don't want to rely on luck, and I've always been hesitant to build Narrativist-like rules into the core of the system because I felt it would limit the flexibility of my system by far too much .. precisely what I'm trying to avoid! Games like Cthulhu? Sorcerer? MLWMaster? Although I haven't read them, the titles of the games make it sound like they carry too many boundaries for my taste. e.g. If you're in a Cthulhu universe, you will, eventually, go insane. What if I want to play in the Cthulhu universe where people find an inoculation to the insanity? Do I need a new ruleset?

My only option was to hope for a skillful GM. Actually I wasn't going to expect this either; I planned to provide structures and systems in the GM's Guide to help him out. I still intend to do this, and yet ..

The "[D&D] Hot elves, morality, and the missing initiative roll (" post made me reconsider my stance on not including any Narrative rules at all. It really would be nice if there were some rules to support the GM when Skeletor himself shows up to fight He-Man, instead of just expecting the GM to run the game entirely because the Sim rules are no longer appropriate. I'm still facing my original fear of Narrativist rules, though; namely, that any system I build will necessarily put boundaries on the limitless variety of narrativy situations that could occur. Is there a single set of rules to moderate a Skeletor-versus-He-Man battle and a Superman-must-save-Lois conflict? How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?


Here's a couple of tentative stabs at a solution. If anyone has other ideas, feel free to suggest them.

Other properties I want for the system that I haven't mentioned yet is that I want to favour playing the game at the table (versus at home), and I want players to feel freer to introduce new content into the game world (but not so free that they threaten the Objective World Description). So I came up with a system of Character Currency that might just allow for it. The Currency system is pretty open-ended in that you can buy just about anything, if you have enough for it. Following is an extensive live of examples -

  • a permanent +2 Strength bought between sessions is expensive!
  • a permanent +2 Strength bought to kill the last remaining foe is less expensive
  • a temporary +2 Strength bought to kill the last remaining foe is cheap
  • permanent control of a powerful King is expensive!
  • adopting a social connection with a King is less expensive
  • permanent control of a 0th level serf is less expensive
  • adopting a social connection with a serf is very cheap
  • “finding” the key to unlock the door of the local Magic Shoppe is very expensive
  • “finding” a lost gold piece in a bar is expensive
  • “finding” a conveniently available empty beer mug in a busy bar is cheap  (possibly free at the GM’s option)

The Currency system wouldn't have rigid costs, so the GM would have to feel his way through it, but hopefully some parameters and guidelines would make it easier. My original purpose for the Currency system was to have larger changes to the continuity of the world be more expensive. Note that the key phrase here is "changes to the world". This Currency system could very easily be made to apply to the story, as well as the world. Changes to the story would become decreasingly expensive over time. Skeletor would be cheapest to engage in combat when "it's time".

Furthermore, we could pull the GM into the Currency system so that any player, including the GM, would need to pay to turn a given situation (which would otherwise be Sim- or Gamist-resolved) into a Narratively resolved situation. So, all narrative resolution would effectively be just a simple bidding system. We do run into a small problem in that the Banker (i.e. the GM) is also the one responsible for his own funding, which is a conflict of interest. Meh, these are just hideously rough ideas at the moment. (No judgments yet, please.)

Oh well, that's all I can think of at the moment. Bed time.
     Dan B

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Ar Kayon on February 24, 2010, 01:13:59 AM
Can I get that in plainspeak, tl;dr format?  The esoterica is choking me.

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on February 24, 2010, 05:26:20 AM
I don't want to be nasty, Daniel, but that is one messed up post. I think I understand what you're looking for here, but to do so, I need to be an expert in Big Model terminology - not because you use that terminology, but because you misuse it.

Now, I have to ask: are you interested in trying to straighten out your understanding of Creative Agenda and how it maps to your game design problem? I'm asking because this doesn't seem like something where it'd be very useful for me to just throw out a couple of pithy corrections; a thorough discussion would be needed to go through the issue in detail, and it'd likely roll over your practical problem. I often suggest in this sort of situation that we just put aside the Big Model terminology - as I see it, your problem here can be phrased in a more productive and intelligible manner without delving deep into it. So it's your call - do you want to discuss how Creative Agenda works, or do we want to look at your actual problem (which seems to be the issue of how to balance world modeling vs. genre adherence in your resolution system, if I understand you correctly)?

(You could also start another thread to "firewall" these two topics and prevent them from overcoming each other, of course - your call.)

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Daniel B on February 24, 2010, 05:24:40 PM
Err, hmm.. haha

Eero, let's take your latter suggestion and stick to the purpose of the original post, i.e. discussing "the issue of how to balance world modeling vs. genre adherence". That's a pretty damned succinct way of putting it.

Actually, I think the nugget of the problem I'm having stems from that: just what the heck is "genre" in an open-ended environment? Even within a single genre, the open-endedness makes it difficult to pull off meaningful results if the rules don't clamp down. It doesn't work too well if one player is playing "He-Man versus Skeletor" and another is playing "He-Man versus Hordak" (and therefore Skeletor is a supporting rather than a main character). I suppose figuring out how to balance things would come a lot more readily if I can get a handle on this, first.


Why all the extra stuff in my first post?  I wanted to avoid this situation -
Me: "I'm looking for help in this."
You: "Tell us more about the project, so we understand what it's for."
Me: "Better not."
You: "Hm, why help you, then?"
Now I've frightened you all away, so it's no longer an issue, LOL .. ah well

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Callan S. on February 24, 2010, 07:56:26 PM
Perhaps on topic - who determines what 'genre adherance' is/involves? Or is it being treated here as one of those 'No, I'm not defining it, adherance to genre X just involves having Y &, the Y& Z requirement is not an invention of my own mind, it's a hard fact!'. At which point I'd normally laugh except I know exactly how seriously people will say that.

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Excalibur on February 24, 2010, 08:57:25 PM
Hmm, let me take a stab at this and see how far off I am.

You want a game where you'd like players to actively develop the world ad hoc by purchasing (by some means) traits that influence that world?

This sounds similar to an anime I enjoyed watching, Eden of the East ( ( Basically, there were 12 "Seleção" (selected from Portuguese) and each is given 10 billion yen with which to change Japan. One of the 12 was secretly the supporter who was to kill off the other 11 should they not succeed. Nobody but the supporter knew who he was.

Using the virtual money on their special cell phones, they could influence Japanese politics, society, whatever they wanted. They spoke with a woman on their cell phone, told her what they wanted to do and she would get it done. Each request cost a certain amount of yen. Small changes (I want a soda) would cost a few hundred yen while large changes (I want to be the king of Japan) could take all their money. Once their cash ran out, they would be marked for death. If they did not use their cash for too long a period of time, they would be marked for death. If they tried to run, they would be marked for death. If they did not succeed in their task, they were marked for death. If someone succeeded, the rest would be marked for death.

Each cell phone was tied to the person it was given using d.n.a. so the others couldn't steal their competitor's phones and use up all the money. Oh, and everyone could see the history of purchases and requests (not what they were used for) in their cell phone's history. So, if you planned to blow up a building, other people could see the purchase of the explosives, the hiring of the demolition crew, etc. But not exactly why those things were purchased. And everyone knew when one of the Seleção had been eliminated through the cell phone, their crest would go dark.

While reading your description of what you wanted to do with your ideal game, it reminded me of what happened in this series.

The players are a selection of these Seleção, each are attempting to change their environment.

Players should be urged to work together and against each other in their goals.

One of the players or an NPC is the supporter who does cleanup. Nobody but the GM and Supporter know who is the supporter (or just the GM if the supporter is an NPC, but it's more fun if the supporter is a player).

Each player has a set of aspects that describe how they interact with the environment with scores ranging from 1-100. They could be stuff like Politics, Religion, etc., as they attempt to change their environment, their aspects increase and decrease.

Now here comes the fun part. Each player is given a certain amount of "change the world points" that are reduced for every request to change the environment. Players make the requests when the need arises during day-to-day activities, they can be as ambiguous or as specific as they choose. It is up to the GM to decide how many points are deducted from that player's amount. The requests are not made verbally, but by passing notes to the GM. The GM will announce how many points are deducted and the materials/resources used to make their request happen. Then, after this has been announced, perhaps at a later time or even immediately, the request is narrated to the group. "Make the President of the United States say 'Uncle'". "Understood. Please keep fighting the good fight." -Player X has spent 2,000,000 points--The Press Office of the White House has been contacted.- [The President is giving a speech about homeless in the country when he's stopped by his aide. After a few nods, the President of the United States clears his throat and says in all seriousness, "Uncle."]

Now, I think I've covered Gamist, Narrative, and Sim all in one shot. I may have even touched on the Bartle stuff a bit.

Is this what you had in mind?

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on February 24, 2010, 09:00:30 PM
I think that the question of genre adherence vs. setting realism is an interesting one. Both of those terms are natural language, vague as hell, and not suitable for nitpicking; both of them are also absolutely central to certain sorts of roleplaying, so a game that can get a fruitful handle on them seems like a worthy endeavour to me. I'm not so hot on this "I'm making a game that is everything to everybody" angle, but we can pretty effectively ignore that for now, too - I'll ignore it, anyway. (I have a personal relationship with this search for the universal rpg, as I worked along similar lines around a decade ago - didn't work for me, ultimately I learned more and realized that an universal game is a contradiction in terms.)

I'll think aloud a bit here... What does it mean that a game is being "realistic"? A simple, and perhaps fruitful, thought in this regard might be that in a realistic game the players are adjudicating the introduction and consequences of events on the basis of their understanding of the setting without utilizing their dramatic sensibilities. A genre adjudication, on the other hand, accounts for dramatic issues like where a story should be going. Looking at it this way (very rough as theory for now), it comes to me that both of these are simply different modes of event introduction and resolution - whether the game is "realistic" or "dramatic" doesn't concern the rules-system, necessarily, but rather the considerations that the players focus on while using the system.

It's an interesting idea that one should like to use realistic and dramatic reasoning in the same game at different times. As I understand your explanation, you're interested in a game where the default consideration were realistic, but when play veers towards the dramatic, a different resolution logic takes over. (Make no mistake, it seems to me that this is pretty common - usually games approach this a bit differently, though.) One method for doing this that might be interesting - and I'm just brainstorming here - would be to have some sort of drama gauge that'd tell us when to switch to a different set of priorities. A simple method could be to have a pile of drama chips in the middle of the table during play, and allowing the players to add to the pile according to certain rules. Then, perhaps when the pile has ten tokens or however many, the game would turn on the dramatic rules.

Ha, I note now that the above idea is almost exactly the one used in the excellent Dead of Night. It's a game that grapples with the same field of issues that you do, in many ways. That game balances the dramatic and realistic concerns by giving the GM an explicit budget that he can use to mess about with dicing to force the results to better accord with his dramatic sensibilities. The funny bit is how the GM's pile of chips grows larger towards the more crucial scenes of the game, so the game swings from a rather value-neutral and "realistic" resolution system to something where at times the GM can outright force the resolution to follow dramatic precepts.

Putting that aside for now, an interesting thought occurs - what do you think Daniel, is it sufficient to resolve conflicts dramatically at times, or do you also need to do other types of dramatic coordination during a session? I'm thinking of something like whether Skeletor comes to the scene in the first place - will the GM determine this based on realistic likelihood or dramatic concerns, what do you think? In other words: do the dramatic moments and need for dramatic considerations run in longer arcs in your game, or do you just find that you need to nudge some individual conflicts now and then, but otherwise run the game in a dramatically unconcerned manner? Can a character get stuck into a story that spans several scenes or even sessions and effectively determines in advance what each scene will be about?

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: contracycle on February 25, 2010, 09:49:07 AM
Sigh.  Yeah, I used the word drama in the other thread quite deliberately.

Thing is though, use of drama of does not IMO really sit well with negotiated interactions.  This is really a form of story telling, with more similarities with plays or poetry than with Story Now narratavism. I point out of the umpteenth time that this is a confusion guaranteed by the fact that the term "story" remains unpacked and refers to such a wide range of things that it is easy to use in totally different senses and contexts.

Dramatic story of the type you probably mean is something that at least substantially must be designed in advance.  And then, it can't be negotiated in play, because the other participants do not know the dramatic necessity or logic underlying an event and will therefore send it down a different path, ruining the effect.  This is precisely what leads to simulationist railroading.  But some sort of currency to pay for the railroad, as it were, doesn't really solve the problem; either it can be enforced, and the GM always has enough currency to do so, or it can't and goes off the rails anyway.

And yet, if all dramatic sense is eliminated, and things just go on "as they would happen", you may well end up with a form of play that is utterrly dull and which nothing of consequence ever occurs.  Squaring this circle at present remains a Gm function; there is very little, it seems to me, that we can say about relevant techniques etc, not lreast becuase there has not been much interest in Sim as a whole.

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Daniel B on February 26, 2010, 12:50:33 AM
Callan: I've been thinking about that "genre adherence" question. I was considering creating different roles for people like "Physics Master" and "History Guide", who would be the authorities if a dispute came up, but I very quickly rejected the idea because it's sucky. I still haven't decided :-S

Excalibur: Very interesting!  I like it!  I'm going to have to check that movie for some serious inspiration. Thanks for letting me know about it :)

Eero: Indeed, what's important here is the reasoning behind decision-making more than the system itself. When I started, I was convinced that a system for dramatic decisions was rather pointless at best and, if you were going to use drama at all, it was best that the GM simply override the rules to make it happen. However, I have since changed my mind on the subject and really want to try and build an actual system to supplement dramatic decision-making. The system you'd described sounds more like a gear-shift, which I may also use, but is not what I'm ultimately looking for.

As for your questions on dramatic moments versus arcs, I don't want to choose ahead of time. My ideal system should allow me to either have the occasional dramatic bursts or long campaign-spanning dramatic arcs. For example, if I'm feeling like playing a dungeon crawl, the bursts are sufficient and the campaign-spanners would be irritating. On the other hand, if I'm playing something out of the Star Wars universe, the long arcs would be better (e.g. Leia and Han, Leia and Luke, Luke and Han, Luke and Vader .. heavy relationships!)

As for the search for the Universal RPG, I feel for ya :-)   .. in one way, I have "given up" too, but in another way I've committed more strongly. I'm no longer trying to appeal to literally everyone. Instead I'm trying to build a game which does what I, as a GM, have always wanted my systems to do. One thing I want is for the system to conform itself as much as possible to my players, rather than the other way around. (I realize it sounds like this is another way of saying "Universal System", but it's not.)


You give only two possibilities; either a foregone dramatic climax, or a negotiated path that will likely not lead to that dramatic climax. I'll use a metaphor because the logical half of my brain works better in pictures. Say the foregone conclusion is the peak of a mountain. It's really fun to see off the top of the mountain, so the GM would like to get there, but it's equally fun to let the group choose their own path and go exploring. Forcing them to choose a path up to the apex of the mountain is the "simulationist railroading" you mentioned, and is irritating from the players'  perspectives because it violates the freedom of exploration they were promised.

I suggest that there is a third possibility, and it is this possibility that I'm aiming for. Instead of the GM choosing a mountain for the players, he just builds a landscape with a lot of "potential peaks". In other words, there are hints of adventures to hook the players' attentions but nothing is fixed, not even the peaks, necessarily; the GM need not know the adventure conclusions in advance, and it might be more fun if he doesn't. The players can grab onto a hook or explore in an entirely weird direction in the landscape. The Currency in this system does railroad something, but not these "lateral" movements that the players make. No significant changes should happen to the world as they move laterally and learn about it.

Instead, I'm trying to make the Currency force the players to move "vertically" at some minimum rate on average. They might ask "which mountain should we climb?" and debate about it with each other, but the system's only answer is "I don't care, but start climbing in five minutes!" As they climb, they may still make lateral movements to other mountains (or even climb down a tiny bit), but their ability to do so will decrease as they go up, and as the system pushes them. Eventually they should be screaming to get to the apex of whatever mountain they've ended up on, racing towards some critical narrative thing, whatever it may be.

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Falc on February 26, 2010, 06:27:51 AM
In regards to Daniel's reply to Callan:

Reading this, I am very much reminded of Dogs in the Vineyard. It might not actually be on the same scale as what you're talking about, but the town creation rules seem to fit your description quite well.

The GM provides the players with a situation, a town where things have gone very wrong and a bunch of NPCs, just like the different peaks you speak of. The incentive to act is also clearly stated: it's the Dogs' job to clean up the mess, period. Now, sure, they could walk away at any point so it's perhaps less forceful in this respect than what you speak of.

Title: Re: How can Narrativism moderate an entirely open-ended situation?
Post by: Callan S. on February 26, 2010, 07:40:59 PM
When I started, I was convinced that a system for dramatic decisions was rather pointless at best and, if you were going to use drama at all, it was best that the GM simply override the rules to make it happen. However, I have since changed my mind on the subject and really want to try and build an actual system to supplement dramatic decision-making.
I think just following the rules procedure at all times can provide drama - in effect, the entirety of gameplay rests on top of a ruleset. What your talking about is a bit of dramatic licence, then some rules, then some dramatic licence, then some rules, etc. In the end either dramatic licence gets in the way of rules, or rules get in the way of dramatic licence.

You'll just end up going to dramatic licence all the time, eventually. It's either rule procedure all the time or just keep doing what you were doing before.