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Author Topic: Narrativism: Theme under the microscope  (Read 7461 times)
Paganini
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« on: June 18, 2004, 07:29:38 AM »

It ocurred to me over the last couple of days as I've been reading and posting to these Narrativism threads that possibly a source of confusion has to do with the level of abstraction regarding Premise. Gareth (contracycle) said in one recent post that he feels the GNS definition of "story" is too general. That sort of threw me for a loop, because to my way of thinking, it's very precise.

What I'm thinking now is that the issue isn't *really* about term definitions or general narrativism at all; it's about Theme and Premise. I propose that the reason Jack keeps gnawing away at this is that he's unsatisfied with the general principle of "premise juicing the players" and wants some more specific methods for getting them juiced.

I'm thinking that what people are really looking for here are not guidelines for "how to play narrativist," but rather more specific guidelines of "how do I make my premise be compelling?" This would make sense to me, and explains why Jack likes to talk about Mckee's "turning points," and so on. To my way of thinking, these are techniques for creating a particular kind of premise that is a subset of premises generally.

Jack, weigh in. Am I on the right track with this?
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2004, 12:16:47 PM »

Quote from: Paganini
I'm thinking that what people are really looking for here are not guidelines for "how to play narrativist," but rather more specific guidelines of "how do I make my premise be compelling?" This would make sense to me, and explains why Jack likes to talk about Mckee's "turning points," and so on. To my way of thinking, these are techniques for creating a particular kind of premise that is a subset of premises generally.


Emphasis mine because I'd like you to elaborate on this a bit. I mean, I know what Mckee says and can follow his reasoning, so I'd like to hear your on this point.
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Per Fischer
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« Reply #2 on: June 21, 2004, 03:24:41 PM »

Quote from: Paganini

I'm thinking that what people are really looking for here are not guidelines for "how to play narrativist," but rather more specific guidelines of "how do I make my premise be compelling?" This would make sense to me, and explains why Jack likes to talk about Mckee's "turning points," and so on. To my way of thinking, these are techniques for creating a particular kind of premise that is a subset of premises generally.


OK, I am venturing into the Great GNS Discussion for the first time, barely having grasped but the mere basics of it all, carefully dipping my toes. So be gentle and don't throw things, all right?

As you, Paka, I think the GNS definition of story is fine. In fact it's not general at all. Story is somehow an end-product. McKee calls it "one huge master event" made up of acts, which again are made up of Scenes, which are made up of sequences, which again are made of beats. And story is not unique to Nar play, just a priority.

I think you are right about Premise and Theme being the issue here. I like Egri's way of pinning down the answer to a well-constructed premise: it should contain character, conflict and resolution. But it doesn't move anywhere before somebody, the players, respond to it, explore it. Premise is open-ended, waiting for a story to be discovered by the authors, ie the players.

Whether a premise is compelling or not must depend on the players in question. "What would you do for love?" might be a functional premise, but not if your players (and you) don't want to go down that road? Or is there a way to generalize a premise to suit any player group? I mean, Sorcerer's "How far will you go to get what you want?" is pretty general, but I could easily imagine players not reponding to it. Or is it AS SUCH compelling?

Hope that made some sort of sense ;)

Per
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Per
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Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #3 on: June 21, 2004, 05:22:14 PM »

Quote from: pfischer
McKee calls it "one huge master event" made up of acts, which again are made up of Scenes, which are made up of sequences, which again are made of beats.


I don't mean to be snarky, but McKee says a hell of a lot more about is, and is not, a story than this. This only follows, actually. He must have had something to say in 400+ pages. Stuff like: Story is life at the extremes. Story is a metaphore for life. Story is the currency of the human condition. Story is an abstraction of life as lived. And so on.

BTW, that's Paganini, not Paka
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Per Fischer
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« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2004, 11:22:25 PM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
I don't mean to be snarky, but McKee says a hell of a lot more about is, and is not, a story than this. This only follows, actually. He must have had something to say in 400+ pages. Stuff like: Story is life at the extremes. Story is a metaphore for life. Story is the currency of the human condition. Story is an abstraction of life as lived. And so on.

BTW, that's Paganini, not Paka


Sorry about the Paka/Paganini confusion, my mistake.

I wasn't trying to devaluate McKee, I really really like his book, and he does put Story into a greater context. I quoted him from page 41 where he writes about terminology of story design. But it is directed at the screenwriter as the author, as being completely in control of the story, from premise to theme, to resolution. In role-playing this task is done by the players/player characters and thus cannot be controlled in the same way. IMO, it doesn't make Story less important to pin down what it is in a simple sentence, just as it doesn't when you define Premise by saying it's a "generalizable, problematic aspect of human interactions".

Per
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Per
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Do not go gentle into that good night.
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contracycle
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« Reply #5 on: June 22, 2004, 04:07:57 AM »

I'm clearly going to have to get the Robert McKee book as analyses of story... let us say, story delivery... of the "... made up of acts, which again are made up of Scenes, which are made up of sequences, which again are made of beats." variety is exactly what I'm after.

So, radical claim number 1 to illustrate what I mean: it is in fact erroneous to apply, for example, 3-act play structure onto a sim plot as we have done to date.

This is because the 3-act PLAY is a single event which the audience attend.  I claim this maps exactly to single RPG session.  A multiple-session continuous RPG campaign is more analogous to multi-performance extravanganzas, like the Ring Cycle.

To say "a story has a beginning, a middle and an end" is mostly useless if the beginning, middle and end are so dispersed amongst actual real-time real-world play events that the structure never impacts anyone.  It would be better, I contend, to see each session as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You wouldn't write a play or a book without some attention to how much time or space you expend say setting up the conflict.  Similarly, we should be able to design starting from the position that the story overall will be delivered in 4 sessions of 4 hours; that the first 30 minutes are dedicated to setting up, the next 30 to NPC exposition, or whatever.  Actual, concrete, stage directions derived from examining the RPG activity as a performance art.  In a manner similar to the rule of thumb that 1 page of script corresponds to 1 minute of action, we should be able to rough out what the group will be doing at a given stage of the session in much the same way as a director would know what is going to be going on immediately after the intermission.

Thinking about this last night, it seems to me that there is a distinct challenge-response pattern to much RPG; the GM spends a certain time doing setup and exposition, and then the players are released for "free play" for a period.  They do their stuff; but the GM will subsequently introduce the next "plot developement" in order to direct the channel the free play, or impose some sort of mandatory conflict.  So at base, RPG could be said to alternate Exposition scenes with Free Play scenes leading to occassional set piece conflicts.

Exposition, Freeplay and Conflict then become three distinct activities describing the action, the movement, of the RPG-as-medium.  Do these correspond to Beats or Scenes?  Acts?  Possibly for a dungeon crawl, its as simple as correlating act 1 with exposition, act 2 as free play (the inevitable shopping) and act 3 (the actual delve) as the set piece conflict.  Arguably, this shows exactly why dungeoncrawls suck; act 1 is nominal, act 2 is frequently also nominal, and act 3 goes on and on and on...  This is bad structural design and perhaps it is no wonder that at the end it often appears pretty meaningless.  I would say that a dungeon crawl could/would work only if it completes in the same session in which it is begun, that is, in which the crawl itself as the third act is the climax of that physical session.

Thus, I do not really think that the point I am trying to present anyway has anything much to do with premise.  Certainly the question 'how do I make my premise compelling' is still good and useful, but premise is only one of the components of which story and drama are made.  Sure, a central part - and I contend that even sim games will benefit from a premise that lurks quietly in the background only to be acknowledged post facto - but not a part that is necessarily of great significance to non-Narr players.  Further discusison of techniques for constructing and emphasising premise will be useful as contributing to my ability to use such, but as long as this premise is stretched out over a vague, non-specific structureless period of action, it is of only limited use.
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Per Fischer
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« Reply #6 on: June 22, 2004, 05:19:16 AM »

I think we have to talk about Premise and Theme, because the author is not the person who has written the material beforehand only, but the players during play. I am talking Nar here, I am not sure about Sim at all, so please forgive me it that's specifically what you're after.

Because we can't apply story control techniques in the McKee-sense, we have to do something else. RP is a total different medium than theatre or film in this respect. I don't think it makes sense to apply a rigid time structure to try and control story creation. IMO the best solution I have seen to this problem is how Sorcerer handles it with Premise, Kickers and R-map, and keeps the story moving and interesting with Bangs, Bobs, Weaves and Crosses. That's story technique, but applied to Nar play, and always driven by addressing Premise.

But story may have another definition in Sim, and I haven't read The Right to Dream yet. But would you like to find the means to control players/player characters like a playwright controls his characters?

Per
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Per
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Paganini
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« Reply #7 on: June 22, 2004, 05:33:24 PM »

Jack,

Well, for some reason, the Forge decided not to notify me when this thread was posted to, so I've been toddling along on the assumption that no one was interested in it. Only happened to notice today that people were conversing here. Sorry to take so long to get back to you.

Anyway, Ron is pretty ambivalent WRT premise, other than the property of its existence (or nonexistence). In the essay, he's basically looking at whether or not premise is present. If it is, bang, there's story. Otherwise, not. He doesn't particularly care what the problematic issue *is,* so long as it's identifiable *as such.* To put it another way, Ron isn't interested in the *product* of play; he's only interested in *what the players are doing* while they play.

I get the feeling that you and Gareth are looking a layer deeper. To your way of thinking, it's a given that the problematic human issue exists. Many of your comments lead me to think that what you actually want to do is legitimize the product of play.

You're looking for techniques to use in *setting up* those problematic issues to maximize their impact. You don't just want there to be story, you want there to be GREAT story. You want your stories to carry potent literary merit.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #8 on: June 22, 2004, 06:35:39 PM »

Quote from: Paganini
You're looking for techniques to use in *setting up* those problematic issues to maximize their impact. You don't just want there to be story, you want there to be GREAT story. You want your stories to carry potent literary merit.


Hmmm... I guess here is where we'll definately have to part ways on it. There is so much that I find myself disagreeing with, mostly based on McKee's take on things, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach anything but agreeing to disagree.

The deal is this: Ron had based his definition of Narrativism on Egri's Art of Dramatic Writing. Egri presented a theory that what he calls Premise (what most other sources calls Theme and what McKee calls Controlling Idea) is a good starting point for writing a story. This is something that many dispute to Egri's work. Check some of the comments on Amazon.com. Ron had used Egri's theories of fiction to help define a style of roleplaying that he would call Narrativism. Had he read McKee instead of Egri, we would not be talking about premise as a defining element of Narrativism. That's because narrativism, as he saw it was about attempting to make a great story, not just a story, whatever that means. "Literary merit", by the way, was something Ron used to use to describe Narrativism to show that it produced something different from the "narrated series of events" of Simulationism and Gamism.

So, since I'm disagreeing with a fundamentally defining element of the model because I think it's based on a source that put an over-emphasis and erroneous suggestion for use of an element of story craft, I really don't think there's anything to say at this point.
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contracycle
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« Reply #9 on: June 23, 2004, 07:21:17 AM »

Quote from: Paganini

You're looking for techniques to use in *setting up* those problematic issues to maximize their impact. You don't just want there to be story, you want there to be GREAT story. You want your stories to carry potent literary merit.


Actually, I'd settle for crap story;  I have yielded the field of great story to Narr.   The point I'm making is that concepts like "rising action" do not come naturally to Sim players - they have to be systematically or structurally encoded.

And that discussion of Story only on the context of narrativist premise-driven story now is eliding the broader role of story and dramatic structure more generally.


See that argument that play constitutes a challenge-response model?  Thats exactly the same as a bang, and a response to a bang.  But I want to look at them procedurally, structurally, rather than in terms of the import to the players.
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Paganini
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« Reply #10 on: June 24, 2004, 07:08:38 PM »

Quote from: contracycle
Actually, I'd settle for crap story;  I have yielded the field of great story to Narr.   The point I'm making is that concepts like "rising action" do not come naturally to Sim players - they have to be systematically or structurally encoded.

And that discussion of Story only on the context of narrativist premise-driven story now is eliding the broader role of story and dramatic structure more generally.

See that argument that play constitutes a challenge-response model?  Thats exactly the same as a bang, and a response to a bang.  But I want to look at them procedurally, structurally, rather than in terms of the import to the players.


Gareth, I have no problem with this as such, as long as we recognize that it doesn't fall within the scope of Narrativism as defined by GNS. Would you agree that any sequence of events can be structured according to literary techniques, regardless of the Creative Agenda used to *produce* that series of events? This is what Ron was getting at in the essay with the story about the dragon shapechanger: the content of the account of play is something separate from the creative agenda that produced that content.

Edit: I should say, a specific series of events can be produced by any one of the Creative Agendas in action.

Jack, all I can say is that you're getting hung up on old stuff. Ron's definition of Premise isn't really based on Egri anymore. If you didn't already know that Egri inspired Ron's thinking on the subject, you wouldn't connect Egri's comments about Premise with a description of RPG theme production. Egri's Premise is just one way of formalizing the required "problematic human issue" content that McKee calls (apparently, I haven't read him) Story Elements. The whole Literary Merit thing was thrown out a LOOONG time ago. As far as I can see, you're attacking illusions. I mean, what exactly is the fundamental defining element that you disagree with? The definition of "story?" The definition of "theme?" The definition of "narrativism?" The concepts may be widespread, but everyone uses different words to describe them. GNS is all about having a common vocabulary with which to converse. The guy who coins the terms gets to say what they mean. If you want to talk about something *different,* you can't use the words that have specific local definitions and expect to be understood.

I'm honestly confused. You keep saying you disagree, but I can't find any point of contention that doesn't connect to outdated content, or misuse of a jargon definition.
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contracycle
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« Reply #11 on: June 25, 2004, 09:23:57 AM »

Quote
Gareth, I have no problem with this as such, as long as we recognize that it doesn't fall within the scope of Narrativism as defined by GNS.


I agree absolutely; I'm confining myself to non-Narr CA's.

Quote
Would you agree that any sequence of events can be structured according to literary techniques, regardless of the Creative Agenda used to *produce* that series of events?


Yes, BUT they very, very seldom are.  There is little inherent to the Sim CA which suggests an investment in formal story structure.  

I meant to explicitly agree earlier with your statement that I am arguing that there is an 'always on' story component of all RP games; and I'd also like to withdraw the statement that I would settle for crap story.  I mean something like this; lets say, out of 50 recorded 'prioritisation events' exhibiting a GNS preference, I had 30-odd Sim, 15 Gam and 5 Narr prioritisations for a given player; this would indicate a strong Sim preference.  But the way I see it this player will still make Narr-prioritising decisions every now and then; it is those isolated events that I am trying to capture and facilitate, not so the Nar CA dominates the sim CA, but so that the Narr CA supports the Sim CA.  Better Story For Better Sim.  Narr pursues story as an End, whiler I pursue it only as a Means.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #12 on: June 25, 2004, 01:08:30 PM »

Well, Nathan, I guess I'm done with this. I was going to explain why on the way out, but it's not worth the effort. We are going to disagree and that's it and before I become the next Marco or Gleichman, I'm going to stop...and maybe do my own thing elsewhere.

Maybe.
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Paganini
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« Reply #13 on: June 25, 2004, 07:09:35 PM »

So, Gareth, what do you think about the Riddle of Steel? It seems like a lot of people are drifting it in a sim-heavy direction, with a minimal, yet still present, Narrativist "nudge" from the Spiritual Attributes.
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contracycle
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« Reply #14 on: June 28, 2004, 10:44:57 AM »

Quote from: Paganini
So, Gareth, what do you think about the Riddle of Steel? It seems like a lot of people are drifting it in a sim-heavy direction, with a minimal, yet still present, Narrativist "nudge" from the Spiritual Attributes.


Quote from: Paganini
So, Gareth, what do you think about the Riddle of Steel? It seems like a lot of people are drifting it in a sim-heavy direction, with a minimal, yet still present, Narrativist "nudge" from the Spiritual Attributes.


Yes I fully expect a lot of people, most of its players actually, to play it in full-bore sim mode for two reasons: first that the topic is one that disproportionately attracts simmers, and second that the text does not challenge this as a default approach at all.

More concretely, what we have here in the terms in which I am looking at it is a single mechanism, the SA's, which serve to articulate and legitimise a player’s ability to address premise meaningfully.  If we had reverse engineered this from the perspective I propose, we would have started by recognising the premise and the requirement for players to actively address it and brainstormed “a mechanism” for this purpose.

I touched on timing above and was asked if I wanted a directors level of control over the action.  Not precisely; but I think we should be able to think about RPG’s in an analogous manner.  Our medium is just as time-constrained as any other; like other media it may need to be punctuated, or can be built around punctuations in its performance, such as putting cliff hangers at add breaks.  In other media, producers can and do constrain their story to specific allotments of time, and can presumably think purposefully about how they can and must use this time to present and execute the action of the plot.  I see no reason to think that RPG inherently cannot do something similar, but I am not claiming it must.

Our systematic mechanisms have been extended from considering only or primarily in game causality and challenge to those that incorporating moral and ethical dimensions, but I think they should be extended further into the actual performance level of RPG.  System design has been divorced from the execution at the table by the universalistic approach of most such design, articulating the how’s of the game world rather than the how’s of the interacting players.  The actual execution is left to the actual payers out of necessity, and there is no method by to communicate staging.

Perhaps you could say, if the characters are in this forest every 15 minutes or so the GM must remember to mention that they can hear or the birds or some other wildlife noise, and then in other locations they vary that with other things or whatever.  That’s a systematic device aimed at reinforcing the setting through colour, a rule drawn from the necessity of story to have its setting relevant to the action, reinforcing that action, and present in the imaginary space – which requires that it be expressed at a performance level in the real world.  Riddle of Steels SA’s specifically let a player address premise right there at the table, and I think that other devices from the architecture of the dramatic arts in general can be further exploited to purposefully design into at-the-table play.
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