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Author Topic: Being the GM & letting go in Narr play  (Read 8547 times)

Posts: 442

« on: April 07, 2004, 07:34:41 AM »

Over here, we have an interesting thread, which produced:

Quote from: timfire
I think the thing you're objecting to (or at least find unusual) is players injecting objects that have the potential to alter the GM's story.

Speaking for myself (GMing a group of very narrative players who didn't really start to realize they were until we started examining the vocabulary of G/N/S theory, and are thus really open to this kind of play), I know this is still an idea that at least one GM in the group is struggling with.

"I have this overarcing story planned.  How do I keep the storyline coherent when the PCs (essentially ignorant of the big picture) keep throwing stuff in that doesn't fit?"

Which I get.  I don't share the concern, because I'm not working with specific plot points as I am with a theme that I pull out of the events (player- or GM-driven) that occur in a session, but I do understand it.

Has anyone else started out in that 'almost-kinda narrative style, not quite, worried I'll lose my ability to present a story as a GM' place and moved successfully into that scary narrative style of play (with lots of player-input) and lived to tell the tale?

Let me put that another way:  lots of the vets here have probably done this, but it probably happened a bit gradually, as they explored the theories they themselves were helping to develop.

What about the folks who had the theory slap them in the face and shout, "Wake up!"

What happened?  How did that affect your style?  What happened to the stories you'd been planning and they way they ended up coming out in the game?

I hope this creates a discussion that I can then point my friend to and say "here's some thoughts from other folks on this topic", or as a way to help me understand how to answer such questions.

Doyce Testerman ~ http://random.average-bear.com
Someone gets into trouble, then get get out of it again; people love that story -- they never get tired of it.

Posts: 5574

« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2004, 08:02:05 AM »

Doyce, this is one of the best thread topics I've seen started in a good long while.

For myself I went from being primarily a GM of the Old School to being a player in the New School.  Starting as a player and seeing how it works from the player side (and being able to observe GMs using these techniques) I think makes it easier to adjust to being a GM doing it.

But alot of GMs don't have that luxury.  So folks, lets hear some good stories and ideas here.

Matt Wilson
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 1121

student, second edition

« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2004, 08:07:11 AM »

I can testify to it being difficult to adapt to. Here's what I decided, though:  a group's ideas in play are way cooler than my ideas beforehand. The more big empty spaces I would leave, the more cool stuff would fill them up.

Also, I find that if I'm not playing a game that requires a lot of point-crunchy prep, my ability to GM becomes much more fluid. It's way easier to change an NPC in The Pool on the fly than a HERO NPC.

You could also try this: lay out your big plot up front, and use it as a background against which the real story takes place. The real story being that of the characters. You all know you're going to be fighting the evil Lord Poopypants at the end, so what cool choices will you make on the way?

« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2004, 08:13:30 AM »

Hi Doyce,

I ran a 2 year long Feng Shui campaign that went from Illusionist to Nar over the course.  

First, the advice in Feng Shui pretty much declared that the only point of prep was to set up kickass action scenes, which opens up a lot of choice and flexibility as to "what happens" from the Illusionist standpoint.

For whatever reason, I had decided not to force any decisions on the parts of the players, and while at first, they followed stereotypical gamer leads, after a point they realized that there were no rails, and began exploring.

With two years of play, long term relationships built up between characters and NPCs, alliances rose and fell, and schemes happened all around.  The major thematic statements started cropping up when players started making decisions about who to aid, who to betray, what they were willing to sacrifice in the process, etc.

joshua neff

Posts: 949

« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2004, 08:22:57 AM »

Doyce, I used to the conductor of railroading GMs. I ran stuff in college that was horribly railroaded, I'm surprised anyone actually showed up to play, as I could see how frustrated they were. (Although I know one reason they did was I was good at pushing color.) I similarly got frustrated because I couldn't understand why the players weren't "following my plots" & doing stuff I wasn't expecting. (At the same time, I was the player who always did unexpected stuff. As one GM put it, "I know I can count on you to drop kick the plot into somewhere unexpected.")

The thing is, I suck at plots. Really, I love writing fiction, but I love it for the sound of words, the magic of description, & the rhythm of good dialogue. I am the suckiest plotter to have ever tried to plot a story.

So, I gave it up. Now, I come up with situations & Bangs & NPCs who are desperate for things to happen, but I have completely let go of "where I want the story to go."


"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Posts: 202

« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2004, 09:00:40 AM »

After a bit of fretting about this same issue, I realized that I was mostly there already.

I have always been a seat-of-the-pants GM. The step from creating story based on character backgrounds and actions to guiding story that is created by the players is scary--but it is really not a very big step.

I think the hardest part is finding something to invest in. That is, as a GM of a player-guided game you no longer have investment in "the plot", so you have to get your kicks from somewhere else. I find individual situations and color to be good choices.

Jay Loomis
Coxcomb Games
Check out my http://bigd12.blogspot.com">blog.
« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2004, 10:45:38 AM »

It's a very interesting topic.  I wish I could say what works for me... but I'm the process of making that transition now.  Sometimes I feel very insecure, because I don't have that mental "plot-map" to fall back on, just a bunch of Bangs and some rough sketches of further developments.  

So it's like flying without a chart, when I'm used to having a GPS rig.  So far it's going terrifically, but I worry that those pretty clouds up there are hiding mountaintops.


Posts: 650

« Reply #7 on: April 07, 2004, 11:13:38 AM »

I'd been mostly a GM for years. By years I mean... um... 20. By mostly I mean 98.9%. I'd GMed and GMed and GMed and become a master of illusionist simulationism, I could run illusionist games that sang and danced and in which everyone had fun. But at the same time I'd often wanted to play, and made endless PCs that ended up as NPCs in later campaigns, often dying at PC blades. I'd wanted to be a player and have a protagonist character with a strong author roll (though I didn't have the language then).

So eventually I got to play in a long-term superhero (Champions) game. I get really, really hyped. I make my character. I make his nemesis. I make his headquarters. I make his followers. I make his family. I make his family's friends. I make his girlfriend. I realize I may be going too far and ask the GM if this is all okay. He says it's wonderful, so on I go. I make his girlfriend's other paramours, I make his boss and coworkers at his day job, I make his vehicles and find pictures for all of the above, make full color character sheets with professional layout, and... well, you get the point. I made a round, dynamic character that was ready to take on the world the GM had set up and do some Marxist-headbutting against traditional superhero values.

I get to the table, the GM has read all the stuff I've given him. The other players have read most of it too. I'm jazzed, the energy is high. We start to game, and everything goes to crap. My girlfriend is killed in the first five minutes, everyone laughs at anything politically charged my character says and give back lines like “He’s our friendly-neighborhood Marxistman! He’s a live-wire, but we love him anyway!” We end up playing a bog-standard game of superheroes beating up and locking away Supervillians who rob banks and try to blow up the city. The game eventually reaches its conclusion, a huge fight on the moon to save the world, and even though it was a wonderfully deployed set-piece, it tasted sterile. Really, the whole thing would have been exactly the same if you had replaced my Marxist-radical with Superman.

After that experience I sat down long and hard and thought about why I didn’t like the game. It was obvious at first some of the things that had been wrong – my girlfriend being killed just to hook my character in (when he was already hooked in, as I’d given what I’d now call a kicker to the GM to get me in without hassle) was obviously right out, because it crushed a part of my character for no reward. The action was all good, but it also meant nothing to me because none of it ever addressed the themes I wanted. I started focusing on things like that – giving players more say in theme and never taking things from them without their having some say in it. I still wasn’t satisfied though.

So then I come to the Forge, I read Sorcerer. I resisted. But then one day, when I’m thinking about starting up a new game and my players are making up their characters and their characters’ girlfriends, families, headquarters, etc I start really remembering how unhappy I had been with the game when I was a player, how the GM’s overarching plot had meant so very little to me because my character’s protagonism hadn’t helped build it, how I had gone into the game with dreams of things to do, and had ended up doing what the GM wanted to do instead.

Then it clicked.

It was the experience of being a player who wanted to tell a story with a character, rather than just play a character whose abilities (rather than personality) push and are pushed by the world, that made it all hit. I hadn’t gotten into RPGs to be told a story, I’d gotten into it to tell stories. That’s the real reason I’d been a GM so long – because deep down I knew that if I played for a GM like me (and most were like me, just less skillful about hiding the tracks) that I wouldn’t be creating or telling a story, I’d be experiencing it. If it wasn’t what I wanted, why should I assume it was what my players did?

So I sat my players down and talked to them about narrativism, and about what and why it was. They were leery, they were hesitant, they didn’t want to do that much work. But they agreed to give it a try. A year and four long-term games later most of our games are veering towards narrativism, though many of them never get so far to the left as say, Dust Devils or Sorcerer, because all of us have started realizing that we all have good ideas and the game works better when we’re all telling the story.

- Brand Robins
John Harper

Posts: 1054

flip you for real

« Reply #8 on: April 07, 2004, 12:09:54 PM »

My adventures in Nar gaming started with Universalis. I am convinced that this game is the best introduction to the mode for novice and experienced players alike. Without a formal GM, there can be no easy backslide into a traditional, tightly-reined play structure.

I played *lots* Universalis. Probably around 15 sessions. Two novice gamers played in the Uni group too (along with about 6 regular players with no previous RPG experience). Those two novices (Cara and Scott) migrated from Universalis into a regular RPG night with me and Matt Wilson.

We decided to play Matt's game, Primetime Adventures, with me as GM. PTA made the Nar transition a breeze. The fact that we all had heaps of Uni experience helped a lot too. The game was so focused on player authorship and premise-addressing that there was nowhere to sneak in a "GM Plot" or Illusionism, even if I had wanted to.

I should also mention that between Uni and PTA I got to play in Wilhelm's (rafial) Trollbabe game along with Alan and Clinton. This was yet another educational Nar experience that also taught me a lot about conflict resolution techniques and addressing premise as a player.

During this phase, I was reading the GNS essays and loving them. I sought out Nar play experiences after reading the essays since I realized that I had never explicitly attempted that mode before. Universalis, Trollbabe, and PTA were like the training wheels that turned into a 10-speed racing bike.

I "get" Nar play now. I feel very comfortable in that mode and look forward to more opportunities for Nar play, when I'm in the mood for it. I'm itching to play a long term Sorcerer game and I've yet to try Dust Devils or MLwM, which is a crime.

Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!

Posts: 102

« Reply #9 on: April 07, 2004, 12:41:18 PM »

In the second session of a very memorable game, GM'ed by my friend Robert, something just "clicked" - Robert was running a scene that filled in some backstory for a key NPC, by sheer coincidence it fit astonishingly well with my own character's backstory.  And not in just a "Huh, that's cool" kind of way, either.  Robert had basically inadvertently provided my character with the Bang To End All Bangs.  After that session, I spoke with him and told him the backstory I had made, and yielded it to him to integrate with his own vision of the plot.

The important transition point was when Robert said "Yeah, I think I can do something cool with that."  After that, integrating player-authored settings and situations into the canon  - on the fly - became a significant part of the game.  As a player who was normally GM, I found myself gleefully doing that a LOT, even going so far as to write lots of world and setting detail that went far beyond the bounds of just "character backstory", and springing the details in mid-session.  (The joys of playing a gypsy bard - you get to tell all kinds of cool stories-with-stories.)

I'm very fortunate that not only was Robert was cheerfully to accept my additions, but he treated them with the same amount of enthusiasm that he treated his own material.  

I'm positive that this was helped by the fact that I in turn was just as excited about Robert's story material as I was with my own creations.  

Meanwhile, the other two players, while not as heavily involved in authoring setting and backstory, enjoyed the situations created by the me-Robert collaboration, and riffed on those situations in all kinds of wonderful ways.

Without even one of those three elements, I don't think it would've worked.

Hans Christian Andersen V.
Yes, that's my name.  No relation.

Posts: 531

Steve Hickey

« Reply #10 on: April 07, 2004, 02:13:08 PM »

It happened for me in the Buffy game I ran over last Christmas. I've always been either totally improv in my approach to running a game (Cyberpunk 2020) or totally structured (Werewolf, D&D) . . . but what I did here was start with relationship maps and bangs.

And it didn't make a bit of difference. I was still in control of the game, I was still pushing players around the points I wanted them to go. What I had to do was:

1) Wait for the players to really get into their characters, and for them to start to care about specific elements in the game world (fortunately I could see this happening in the first 2 sessions for most of them). I'd define this as - the PC had a clear Want; and

2) I had to relax. I had to listen to them. Watch what made them excited. Keep an ear out for their quiet "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." and "If we had a scene together we could talk about ..." - and then say "Yes" to it. It was following their lines of interest.

I still had my plot, but I backgrounded it and only pushed the elements I knew they were interested in.

The difference in satisfaction as a GM was between "We got to go through my cool story this session" and "I had no idea you were going to do that. Wow. For 15 minutes we were totally in the flow of it, weren't we."



Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Posts: 286

« Reply #11 on: April 07, 2004, 02:47:34 PM »

I'm of a different camp in this thread. Locally, I'm associated with a number of different groups of gamers. Of them all (roughly 30 people all total) only one has actually visited the Forge and he has classified it as "wussy, philosophical stuff." This sucks for me. Like a big, black hole.

But I've been doing "Guerilla Narrativism" for at least the past year, with varying degrees of success. My game of Donjon set in a tongue in cheek world where every lame D&D trope has been extended to its most radical and non-sensical extreme was an overwhelming success. The players not only invented entire parts of the world, including lands, monsters, rulers, etc., but they also introduced their own plots, subplots, etc. It was fun. It was narr. But don't tell them that. They still think I was the one coming up with that. Any hint that it might've all been me just reacting to their input would throw them into twitching spasms that may result in my premature lynching.

My Hyborea-HeroQuest game was going pretty well too. We had one game that was awesome. It hit on theme. The Bangs were right on. We were making stories that *mattered* to us and the setting, all on the fly (the *plot* part, that is). I mean, I had a relationship map, some Bangs and a couple of ideas for set pieces. But the players created the story from all that, not me. The games following that went less well, as players began jockeying for who got more say in how things went. Players began disagreeing with each other and the collaborative creation. It imploded. I limped along with the same group through a brief Cthulhupunk-HeroQuest game, but it didn't go so well either. The players were intent on keeping their characters separate, not willing to share any creation in their experience with each other. This was compounded by the fact that one player was out to prove that the game simply did not work and that his preferred style of play was inherently more superior than any of this Narr crap. For the record, that's also the same person who visited the Forge and called it "wussy, philosophical stuff". Also for the record, I have encouraged all my players to visit this site... Any of them out there? I didn't think so...

So, as long as I keep the Narrativism between the lines, it seems I can *get away* with it. Players LOVE it when I ask them what they think should happen or include their ideas and creations in the game. But if I were to let them think that they were the driving force behind the game, I'd lose my license to drive. At least, that's what's happened in the not-so-distant past. I recently ran a game of Mutants & Masterminds using the same philosophy. It was funny. I did the same type (and style) of prep that I would do for the Pool or Sorcerer. I ran it the same way. I involved the players in the same fashion but (for some reason) because it was d20 it was okay.


I offered to run the same game using HeroQuest months ago and was shot down. Repeatedly. In their minds, HQ is bad. D20 is good. It doesn't matter that I'm essentially running the same game with each system. At least to them. Still they'd rather me row across a river using a bicycle... IME, system DOES matter, but not for the reasons they think it does... For them, system matters in so much as it has hit points or stats. That's REAL roleplaying. To me, system matters because it's much easier to use some systems to play certain styles of games. Sure, you can do Narr with M&M (heck, I'm doing it) but it's much EASIER with HeroQuest or the Pool where dice rolls aren't constantly ganking the player.

What I would really LOVE, in fact, what I would PAY someone to do, is to show up and either run a Narrative game for some of our group as a player OR play in a Narr-based game that I ran. I would honestly spot someone thirty bucks to do this. It is that vital to me.

Why is that?

Because when I run, I can't play. I can't show these guys how to play in a narrative style. What's expected of them. What they can do. I can prompt them. I can persuade. I can (ugh) lecture. But it doesn't help. They still fall back on old habits. Me player -- you GM. Tell me story. I roll dice.

But if they had someone who was *playing* these games. Really playing them. They would jump to the fore, IMO, because they would see it being done.

So much of how we play is what we've learned from this person or that group. Many of these players have never played with groups outside of this small contingent of gamers. They don't know anything else. So when I show up with the Pool, they play it like it's 2nd edition D&D.

Which doesn't work.

For me, it's essential to have at least one other player who either gets it, has played it or something to demonstrate to everyone else how to do it. And also to show them that playing Narr won't kill their brain cells, cause them to sprout tentacles from their forehead or leave them sterile.

Oh, and the offer stands, if anyone here lives near Panama City, Fla., I will pay the above sum for attendance at three sessions of a Narr game of our (yours and my) choosing. I can get (most likely) between 3-5 players to join us. I'm not a wealthy person. In fact, I'm flat broke.

But after playing Narr I'm just not into the Illusionist Sim routine. I'm tired of it. It's like trying to believe in the Wizard after Toto's already pulled back the shower curtain. There's really very little comparison.

For me, Illusionism is tried and true, players show up and manifest their presence as an audience to the not-so-spectacular spectacle of a GM stroking their own ego. Those who already know the gig generally trash the plot often only to throw said GM into a gelatinous tizzy.

Narrative play is engaging, creative, imaginative, and collaborative for everyone... It's play! I just wish someone else around here *got* that. I'd be treated a lot less like an escapee from the GM psychoward if that were the case.


Posts: 74

« Reply #12 on: April 07, 2004, 02:49:03 PM »

Quote from: Brand_Robins

Then it clicked.

It was the experience of being a player who wanted to tell a story with a character, rather than just play a character whose abilities (rather than personality) push and are pushed by the world, that made it all hit. .

BR...your story made me sad. I hope to not do this as a GM. Thank you for the reminder to remember that the players want to tell a story also!

I think that is why my current Hârn game is going so well. I have sat back and presented the world with its amazing background, but the players all have their cultures and motivations and make decisions based on these. I have thrown out several adventure hooks, and the players decide, based on their personalities which road they are going to travel. I guess I have learned to see myself as a facilitator.

We use the TROS rules set, and with each player I sat down and had him develop his Philosophy and Spiritual Attributes. The reward has been for me as the GM with my over-reaching story arcs to watch as the players argue, conspire, or convince each other in character about whose drive, passion, faith, etc is the most important.

A great example was in our last game where one player recruited several fighting men that they had fought with great lethality earlier that day. For him it was a reasonable approach due to his warrior culture, his appeal to theirs and it fit with his Destiny. For another player character it was like sleeping with a hated enemy. He was viscious and scathing and threatened to kill them. I participated in none of the discussion, but only chimed in now and again to give them the reaction of the new recruits.

Events like these have had the players clamoring for more!

Do you know the

Posts: 118

« Reply #13 on: April 09, 2004, 03:39:11 PM »

I've ended up drifting over to this style of play over time, but the point where I realized I REALLY wanted to do things a different way was in a Marvel Superheroes game run by a friend of mine. Much as Brand encounterd, I had a wonderful background for my character and a series of interesting ideas to explore. One of the elements was that my character was tied to the earth, all his powers began to fade if he wasn't in contact with it. (Why yes, I *do* remember my Greek mythology. *grin*)

The GM then plotted the first adventure I joined in to involve a fight on the moon. And got mad at me when my character didn't want to go. Now, instead of playing this out as drama -- which would have been fine -- he basiacally accused me of "holding up the game" and just insisted I bring the guy along for the big fight.  He then rewrote my powers to explain how I could survive my trip (in a way inconsistent with the character conception, actually) so he could have his fight scene.

That's when I really knew I wanted to do something differently. It took a lot of looking to find places like the Forge and find a way to put into words what I was looking for. My last Buffy game was somewhat more Narrative, but I had some players who WOULDN'T go along with it.  I'm currently in a DnD campaign where the GM has narrative tendencies, and so other than a very general sense of overplot he has refused to tie things down, which has let us completely go off on things that are important to our characters.

But d20 is SO HARD to fight against. IT is utterly not designed for that kind of thing, so in many ways the game breaks down whenever we have to use the mechanics.  Which is why I am trying to introduce them to HeroQuest, because I think they will jump at the chance to have the system work with them instead of against them.

Posts: 74

« Reply #14 on: April 10, 2004, 09:10:54 AM »

Quote from: lightcastle

But d20 is SO HARD to fight against. IT is utterly not designed for that kind of thing, so in many ways the game breaks down whenever we have to use the mechanics.  Which is why I am trying to introduce them to HeroQuest, because I think they will jump at the chance to have the system work with them instead of against them.

Yup! My players fight against the d20 simulationist model every session especially when they are using magic, but its what they're used to.

I want to say that they're doing a good job of being 'afraid' of magic and creeped out when they see its use in the Hârn game. That may be because from the beginning I was able to establish social conventions and beliefs and really convey the medieval, almost Dark Ages setting in which we play.

It is harder to do this with d20 since eveyone knows the rules and the worlds. I have more arguments in those games along the lines of "but its in the rules!"

Has anyone sucessfully run a more narrative campaign with d20, especially D&D?...I mean Modern, T20, Star Wars, Wheel of Time use a Wounds/Vitality (Lifeblood T20) system. Hmmm...does a greater character mortality drive a game more towards a narratavist/dramatist approach?

Do you know the
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