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Being the GM & letting go in Narr play

Started by Doyce, April 07, 2004, 11:34:41 AM

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Quote from: joshua neffDoyce, 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.  ... The thing is, I suck at plots.
Yup.  Ditto.  To the letter.

So where did it click for me?


And a little later, here.

Suddenly I actually understood what people were talking about here, as far as GM technique is concerned.  "Use the force," is what it amounts to: "Let go, Luke."  And in the just a couple brief things I've run since then, it's worked well.  I'm looking forward to getting a chance to run a longer thing and really do it up.  I figure, since I can't plot my way out of a wet paper bag, why should I?  Make everyone else do it.  Why should I invent every NPC in the universe?  Make them do it.  If I want to tell a story with a character, why shouldn't I?  If all the hard stuff of GM-ing is now not my problem, what's to stop me?

I do find that sometimes when you try to let go you have this problem that other players don't understand what you're doing, and so you have to use some illusionist tricks to convince them that no, really, you're entirely in charge, but pretty quickly people get the hang of, "Hey, I really can do what I want, and he really won't stop me.  It's not just a bait-and-switch, sort of 'I am the GM now read my mind' thing -- I can do whatever the hell I want."

But you really do just have to let go.
Chris Lehrich


Quote from: DoyceHas 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?

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?
Holy crap, yes, me! You can find alot of the pain and suffering I went through in my transition right here on the Forge, over in Actual Play.

I used to run Illusionist games, horrible, horrible things with pre-conceived plots and pre-illustrated scenes, and I used to be frustrated that my players "weren't doing what they should" or "realizing what they should" and that my games were "boring"...and they were boring, because they mainly involved "sitting around and talking amongst ourselves" instead of going places -- crappy little meaningless inter-character soap operas.

Why? Players were waiting on me to do the plot exposition, and I was waiting on them to "discover" it or do something about it, and it simply dragged on and on.

I currently run a Narrativist 3E game (yes, D&D) and have been for a couple years now. It started out exactly the same as my old style, though I didn't want it to. Even when I began applying theory to practice, and trying to be Narrativist, things still weren't changing -- mostly because while I understood it "technically" I hadn't developed the actual skills to pull it off.

I'm slowly getting better at Narrativism, and the group is slowly coming together in their distaste for the limitations of the d20 system. I don't think anyone is ready to switch to another system yet, but we're regularly bitching about the problems with 3E enough as a group that it's going to happen sooner or later, we just haven't hit that "3E just doesn't work for what I want to do, but THIS will!" stage yet. That is, the players aren't really solid on what they do want, just what they don't like.

On the other hand, I'm growing much better and following player-provided leads, and throwing crisis situations involving "stuff they've shown they care about" at them. And when they turn out not to be into it, I let go and figure out what they want to do.

In fact, my games today will often have a break or two in them where the involved players and myself all talk about what's happening and what could be happening, then go right back into play with those ideas as guides for play. There's a lot less struggling for events to happen, alot more responding to events -- and more importantly, players creating events for me to respond to.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


Quote from: SigurthHas 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?

Our current DnD game I was talking about earlier is creeping ever so slowly towards it.  It's the players who kicked the GM over into it, actually. It started with a small adventure involving getting a potion of forgetfulness to a young noblewoman who had lost her innocence to a dashing rake and scoundrel.

The rake hired the party to deliver the potion. It was a straight wander and grab with a fight scene care of some rivals wanting the scandal to come out.

But one of the players had made a dwarf. And in defining what dwarves would be in this world he gave them racial memory. To be a Dwarf is to Remember.  When he realized what the potion was he refused to give it to the girl. It was a monstrous thing to do, especially unknowing. After much debate he agreed to do this only if it would be given to her freely, with her knowing full well what she was giving up.

That decision (and the consequences from it) have completely changed the tone of the plot the GM originally had. He loosened up his tighter strings and is now flowing more of it around what we've wanted to go explore of the politics and events we are involved with.

As I said, while this has awoken the narrative tendencies lying under the surface for him and the group, we are starting to hit the wall d20 provides in terms of mechanics. It's just that much harder for the GM to wing things when we wander off, since the game is so stat heavy.  And fights take FOREVER, often getting in the way of other good stuff.

But he's trying... gradually. He's in the 'almost-kinda narrative style' place, and d20 is making it impossible for him to let go.

Since it has been so long since I GM'd, I figure I'll be struggling with some aspects of it as well when I get them started in HQ.  I've always been an over-plotter somewhat, although my best games came out of side trips the players took. I realized that once (even if it had been through plotting) the players had a grounding in the world and I had established NPCs with relationships and agendas, the game could go anywhere the players chose to take it. Later, when I discovered places explaining GNS, I realized what was going on.

I figure a long talk with them about what I intend to do and how it works will help me get through the Narrativism fears a bit. I will be setting the world and framing up the conflicts inherent in it, tying them to the characters and such. But then I'm going to try and step back from it all and just load up a belt full of Bangs and let them go.

(fingers crossed)


Like several others who have posted to this thread, my experience with embracing Narrativist play was not so much a shift in expectation as a shift in attitude.  It had more to do with learning more about myself and learning to understand and like the way I go about doing things without feeling like I have to apologize for breathing the same air as everyone else.  The following traces the development of my emerging as a firmly Narrativist player and GM.

A couple of years ago, I'd gotten involved with a gaming troupe that played several World of Dakrness games. Although at the time I did not have the vocabulary to express what I intuited, their roleplaying orientation was extremely Simulationist. They wanted plot and characters to "fit" the setting as much as possible. To them, there was a right and wrong way to play certain types of characters, which was determined by the setting. Their roleplaying goals, it seems, was to give an accurate representation of their characters as it relates to the setting and to follow the GM's plot because of the nature of these characters. For instance, in a Werewolf game, if the pack becomes aware of Wyrm activity and deliberates on how to best defeat it, it would be bad form for a character to question this course of action or even decide not to fight it. If this character questioned the entire werewolf cosmology, that would be unacceptable. After all, werewolfs were designed to fight the Wyrm. A werewolf who does not fight the Wyrm is not a werewolf.

I, on the other hand, had a different view. The text was merely a springboard of ideas. I saw everything as malleable and subject to interpretation, especially from my character's point of view. It was the themes of the game that made it what it was. My roleplaying goal was to explore a premise or a theme, and I used my characters as an instrument to do so.  Predictably, I often felt bored and uninspired because I felt the GM wasn't trying to fit my character into the game. Part of this is my fault because I had assumed that the GM's job was to intuit and anticipate what the players would be interested in doing, or simply ask.  I had not expressed my need to be assisted in articulating my goals for my character (as opposed to my character's goals). Oftentimes, I would feel myself hooked to a particular theme, and in a vain effort to try to get more theme-oriented play, made several characters related to that theme. All that came of it was me being accused of playing "the same character" (though backgrounds and personalties were vastly different). I became increasingly more alienated because I felt I was being criticized for interpreting the text in a different way. I was even told that my interpretation of the text was flat-out wrong.

In addition, there are also my reasons for playing certain types of characters.  Oftentimes, I pick characters who would hit very close to many people's personal experiences and attitudes.  I don't do it to explain and make statements, but to raise questions.  I don't play "scum of the earth" characters for the wicked titillation of it all, or for the angsty goodness. When I do this, I am trying to understand something about human nature, and in the case with this group, I was wondering to what extent individuals had free will. Pretty heavy stuff. Hard to do when the people around you roleplay mainly to escape these ideas.  I naively expected the other players and the GM to understand this and incorporate it into the game, and as a result I was even more dissatisfied.

After that, I was sort of burned out by RPGs and the attitudes most people bring to them.  I got tired of the One True Way of gaming, especially since most proponent of that idea were geared toward character immersion that went counter to my own goals of a player (which I hadn't learned to articulate yet).  I wanted to play a game I enjoyed, something that interested me, regardless of what others said or expected.  I did a lot of sporadic online roleplaying, but nothing worthwhile came of it.  Having not yet burned out on World of Darkness games, I was briefly involved with an online setting, and I STed a little and was more candid about my preference for theme and character over plot and setting.  I was surprised by the amount of interest some of the other players showed.  Unfortunately, time constraints got in the way of a resolution.

Eventually, things started to make sense when I made my first character for Decipher's LotR game.  As with most of my other characters, he had particular goals and motives and issues to address.  Yet, something about him seemed similar to yet distinct from all the other types of character I'd played.  It wasn't until I danced after he was killed that it all made sense.  What made playing this character so satisfying is that I had been allowed the chance to address the issues I raised when I created my character.  Essentially, I was asking to what lengths a person would go to be redeemed and what efforts would they have to make to make their redemption worthwhile.  I was not surprised by the answer I got, but it was gratifying.  That was my favorite PC to date.

So, with that knowledge, I started thinking and researching more, seeking and learning more about people who approach roleplaying the way I do.  I found the Forge, learned some vocabulary, and watched the bouncing of ideas amongst people who acknowledged differences in creative agendas without being derisive about it.  It really helped to sharpen my expectations of play.  In addition, after purchasing Stuart Spencer's The Playwright's Guidebook, my understanding had grown considerably.  Even more importantly, I now had tools at my disposal to be able to craft the games and characters I want to play and communicate them to other players in a way they would understand.  It certainly beats the hell out of waiting and hoping for someone to "get it" after reading my character portrait.  I have grown more deliberate about theme and premise than I had been previously.  As a result, I find that it's easier for others to understand where I'm coming from and to work with what I give them.

This has worked its way into my GMing style as well.  Perhaps it's a bit heavy-handed, but I purposefully try to get characters to focus on things I find interesting.  I'm both hands-on and laissez-faire.  On the one hand, I like to be very familiar with the PCs.  I want to know them as thoroughly as the players do, and I encourage development in areas that I think would be interesting to see in play.  On the other hand, I tend to let the characters drive most of the action.  The only time I use the carrot or cattle prod is when I sense too much stalling, which happens less and less frequently.  IOW, I give the players a lot of autonomy, but they also have a lot of responsibility.  Not to me, as is often the case with traditional attitudes toward RPGs, but to their characters and the story they make with them.

With all this preparation and communication throughout the game (not just character creation), I lose a small degree of spontanaeity.  Thorough knowledge of the characters means that there is little they can do that will surprise me or throw me off.  However, I gain a sense of purpose and significance that more than compensates for it.  As a result, GMing games has become many times more enriching than it would otherwise be, and I am grateful for it.  Now if only I can get the players to understand what that means . . .


Quote from: Sigurth
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?

I have tried, many times in many different ways. I tried WP/VPs instead of hit points. I adopted Hero Points/Drama Points loosely based on those found in Mutants & Masterminds and Buffy tVS. I changed the way magic works. Then I got a real insight and changed the way the system works. Basically, skill rolls did not decide success/failure but, rather, levels of success. A really bad roll often meant that the player failed at the attempted task. A roll that was just under the DC often resulted in the PC succeeded, but it taking him longer than it might otherwise have taken, or a new complication popping up.

I even experimented with players describing how they failed. Or how they succeeded. I gave out Hero Points for good descriptions or especially dramatic or narrativist play. I even took a note from QAGS and used Reese's Peanut Butter Cups as Hero Points.

That was certainly my most tasty change to the d20 system. But, in the end, they all failed.


Because everyone always defaulted back to d20 mode. Always. We might have a couple of shining moments of Narrish play, but overall it always defaulted to d20 tunnel-Sim.

"Ugh. You tell story. Me roll dice. Ugh. Pass chips please."

I don't think it was so much my approach to the matter. Towards the end, I practically made it compulsory that players get involved. For instance, a player would roll a Search check and get, say, a 25. He would immediately turn to me and say: "What did I find?" I would then ask: "What were you looking for?" Sometimes I would get a response. Othertimes I wouldn't. Once in a while, it seemed like a player "got it" but overall I can safely say that anything they "got" was promptly thrown into the Recycle Bin by the end of the session.

I think it had more to do with how they had learned to play. They knew/know how to play d20. That's why they wanted to play it so badly. I could go to the FLGS right now, plop down a stack of D&D books and have a game going with 3-5 people in about 45 minutes. That's not an exaggeration. Players around here are like moths to the warm glow of the familiar. Anything new around here is destined to fail. Even if it's not so new.

If the new Star Wars game was done in the HeroQuest system, I daresay I would have an HQ game going by the end of the night. If Marvel had chosen to use the Pool instead of QED's system, I'd have a Pool game up and running after a couple of phone calls. If White Wolf chose to use Sorcerer for their post-ToJ releases, then we'd be doing Sorcerer after the end of time.

But the problem with the familiar (in terms of my attempts at Narr play) is the same reason why people want to play it. If I pitched HeroQuest as a new type of d20 (D20 Lite, as it were) and then altered the system ever so slightly to reflect that possibility, then I'd be able to get people to try it. But the problem is, and would be, that they would want to play it like d20. That is, heavy, Illusionist Sim with Gamist elements. That's how most people (unfortunately) learn how to play rpgs. And that seems, to me, to be the default mode for most players.

That's why my attempts to play d20 Narr fell flat on their faces. To be honest, though, any other attempts have met with similarly poor results, except (of course) for Donjon.

I have read accounts of people on this thread, however, that claim to be using d20 for highly satisfactory Narr play, which suggests that it is at least possible. This leads me to wonder if it is necessarily the d20 system that is unsuited for Narr play or if it's the expectations of the players faced with a d20 system that makes Narr play with d20 unlikely, if not impossible.

IMO, system does matter. A lot. But what the group wants to do also matters a great deal, IMO. The trick is to create a harmony between what the group wants, what you want, and using a system that addresses that with the highest degree of efficiency. Hence, if I'm going to run with a Narr group, I'll do the Pool or HeroQuest. If I'm going to run with a Sim group, I'll break out D&D or something similar. For me, d20 is an inefficient system for Narr play, meaning that you'll have to do a lot of tweaking and ignoring of the system to squeeze the Narr nectar out of it. But its also, IMO, a bit too convoluted for Sim play. The groups I've known have ignored lots and lots of rules to make it work better for Sim.

If there were two things I'd like to have in my possession right now (other than last night's winning lottery ticket), it would be Johnathan Tweet's original notes/draft on the d20 system and Robin Laws original draft of the HeroQuest system. I'd like to see how their intentions are reflected in both of the resulting games' systems.

I've rambled enough... Short point from long post: If you have to run d20 for Narr play, know that, IME, your player's expectations and past experience with d20 are just as much your adversary as any specific rules in the system itself. If you can con/bribe/cajole your players into trying or using a system that is more suited to Narr play, I would highly recommend that course of action. You'll still run up against some resistance to new modes of play and new synapses firing at the table but at least you'll have the system on your side...