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Abashed Vanilliaism

Started by Silent Tamatama, February 11, 2002, 06:13:58 PM

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Silent Tamatama

Seen two new terms (new for me anyway) called Vanilla Narrativism and Abashed Narrativism can anyone fill me in on what they are?

Paul Czege

Hey Tom,

I can get you part-way there (she said to my dissatisfaction). I just had a dialogue about this with Ron.

"Abashedly Narrativist" is a phrase Forge regulars use to refer to a game that talks the talk of Narrativism, but doesn't actually provide tools for the creation of story through play. I belive it was coined by Jim Henley. Examples that have been cited include The Window, and Everway. In general, such games have mechanics that avoid deprotagonizing the player characters (no separate to-hit and damage rolls, for instance), so you can actually get story through play. They just don't provide any explicit tools to make it happen, beyond encouragement.

"Narrativist" is the opposite of that, a game that does provide tools, beyond just encouragement, for the creation of story through play.

The tricky one is "Vanilla Narrativist." The definition of Vanilla Narrativism I recently articulated for myself is "low threat Narrativism." And when I used that phrase in my dialogue with Ron, he didn't disagree with it. But just exactly what makes a game low threat, Vanilla Narrativism, has not been discussed at all to my knowledge. My instinct tells me the distinction is somewhere in how the game provides Authorial and Directorial power to the player, but the specifics elude me. I think">The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is probably not a Vanilla Narrativist system. The Authorial/Directorial power delivered to the player is brain-wrench demanding, and it's required, rather than being optional.

Perhaps that's part of a good distinction, required, rather than optional Authorial/Directorial power?

Anyone else?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans

J B Bell

Isn't Sorcerer picture-book Vanilla Narrativism?  I thought that was how the term got coined, for that matter.

What makes it "Vanilla" is that the more intense mechanics for handing authorial power to players are either merely allowed, or merely alluded to.  E.g., the main Sorcerer book allows fate-in-the-middle, but doesn't talk about it explicitly--however, Sorcerer & Sword does describe the mechanic, and also introduces the quite radical idea of non-sequential adventuring.  Directorial power remains pretty solidly in the hands of the GM, though, again, there's nothing in the mechanics that would make it particularly difficult to hand more over to the other players.

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Ron Edwards


The silent, ethnically-cool, exceptionally studly character suddenly looks up, gazing into the middle distance. The somewhat more studly, yet slightly less cool Leading Role looks at him quizzically.

"What's up?"

"The night ... it speaks to me." He leaps up. "South! We must hurry!"

So I trundle my gear together and set off to explain What the Fuck I Meant by "Vanilla Narrativism," R. Edwards, Esq.

Actually, Paul has it pretty well down, and TQuidley as well. I'll just round it out a little.

The first point is that we're not talking about any kind of hybrid - not some sort of overlap with Simulationist play, for instance. Vanilla Narrativism is merely a sub-set of Narrativism, no overlapping.

The second point is the defining one: the conduct of play (which also includes the rules, if we talk about design for a moment) does not jar the player who tends to be used to more traditional modes of play, but it does encourage Narrativist play. The specifically Narrativist-facilitating moments, expressed either by a rule or by the encouragements of others at the table, are perceived mainly as nifty opportunities and not as some overwhelming responsibility. One does not worry, in this mode of play, about "doing it right."

If we're talking about design, then the rules for Humanity in Sorcerer are a prime example. They don't model behavior - they are a gauge at the metagame level which let everyone know the "moral tension level" of a given decision and/or act of sorcery, for that particular character. People latch onto it fast, and they don't realize that they've automatically entered Author stance with every major decision of the character - instead, they just enjoy it.

If we're talking about play (which is more to the point), the example in Demon Cops, taken from actual play, is a good one - a player rolls a Contain against a demon and succeeds, then asks me, "What happens?" I smile encouragingly and say, "You are the animator." She seizes the day and describes a mondo-cool set of special effects(this was before we knew the term "Monologue of Victory," courtesy of the Pool). What makes it Vanilla is not the technique itself, but rather the accessibility.

Thus playing Extreme Vengeance is not Vanilla Narrativism - it's jarring and scary to be told, "Don't want to roll Coincidence? Then sit out the scene, I ain't bringin' you into it. You tell me when you want in." It's hard to figure out how to use an EV "BS" ability; they aren't really skills and they rely strictly on player-aesthetic, not character-actions. Similarly, The World Etc is raving bonkers chocolate-mint with vermouth, not Vanilla at all.

I should also distinguish between Vanilla Narrativism and "Transition" based play, the latter term being a contribution of Fang Langford regarding Scattershot. Transition is a more cunning or directed bait-and-switch, in which trappings of traditional play lure the players into the game, where they are then set upon by Fang who plies them with Narrativist treats. (Forgive me, Fang, I can't help it; I reeeeally like the Transition idea but the opportunity to use scary-funny metaphors for it is too overwhelming.) Vanilla Narrativism, on the other hand, is "one thing" from the get-go.


Le Joueur

Quote from: Ron EdwardsI should also distinguish between Vanilla Narrativism and "Transition" based play, the latter term being a contribution of Fang Langford regarding Scattershot. Transition is a more cunning or directed bait-and-switch, in which trappings of traditional play lure the players into the game, where they are then set upon by Fang who plies them with Narrativist treats.
Careful, I'm not entirely sure Scattershot will get any farther than Vanilla Narrativism when going full bore that way.

Quote from: Ron EdwardsForgive me, Fang, I can't help it; I reeeeally like the Transition idea but the opportunity to use scary-funny metaphors for it is too overwhelming.
I actually like them quite a bit and my partner laughs at every one.  Keep it up.

Although with the "set upon" and "plies them" as well as a name like Fang, I begin to sound more and more demonic.  Who summoned me?

My money is on Raven....

Drofgnal Gnaf Drofgnal Gnaf Drofgnal Gnaf (No that only works in Superman.)
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!


How do you implement these concepts when designing a game?

The term "Abashed Narrativism" was created because some games failed to adequately present Nar in their system. Maybe a good way to prevent this phenomenon would be to formulate some rough guidelines that provide a "how-to" for creating Narrative games. I refrain from using the word "rules" since it's very likely that there is more than just one way to achieve this. These guidelines should be general in character, just enough to give the feeling of how a Nar game works.

For example:

1. Characters should have traits/attributes that represent emotions and inner conflicts.

2. 'Author Stance' should be accessible to players and limited by a pool, trait, or die roll.

3. Players should own white fluffy hats and wear them every time they enter 'Smurf Stance'.

The example above is just an illustration but I think it gives the general idea.    

Any of you Nar experts up to the challange? :)

With respect,

Joe Llama

Ron Edwards


It's really not terribly difficult, based on the GNS essay. The key is simply to remember that for any RPG design, the Premise is the point of play.

So: Narrativist Premises have the distinctive property of being dilemmas - issues which the participants care about. All the imaginary elements of a role-playing game - setting, situation, character, color - are aimed at getting that Premise exposed and resolved.

Point #1 about that: exactly which elements or element are most focused toward Premise construction may vary as you please. I usually distinguish sharply between character-generated Premise (eg Sorcerer) and setting-based Premise (eg Hero Wars); Situation-based Premise can be found in The Dying Earth and Prince Valiant.

Point #2 about that: in many cases, too much focus is over-contrived. It is perfectly OK to use some "less is more" logic and let some of the elements be less focused on Premise, to serve as "brackets" or "spacers" or just a little "rest" from the issue at hand.

The other element of a role-playing game, system, is also to be honed and focused toward that Premise, and here things become tricky for some designers. Some of the issues include:
- IIEE - who says what happens, what happens when they say it, and what an "announcement" means relative to a resolution.
- DFK - what combination of resolution methods
- Character currency - Metagame, Effectiveness, Resource. (See next point)

All of the above are necessary to any RPG design. For Narrativist design, especially of the Vanilla variety, the key is passion - when a player "really means it" then their character's impact on play needs to increase. This is an explicit Metagame issue, and thus the Metagame component of character creation and resolution need to be central to play. Just what heightened impact on play is brought in, may vary widely - it may involve "screen time," it may involve reward systems, it may be an increase in resources or effectiveness scores, or any combination.

Oh yes, that reminds me - reward systems. Always remember that reward systems generate value systems, so whatever commitment to the Narrativist goals are expressed through play, make sure it is that commitment which is rewarded.

Games to check out: Prince Valiant, Extreme Vengeance, Hero Wars, InSpectres, and Orkworld.



So what splits "Vanilla Narrativism" from "failed narrativism", or perhaps more appropriate in the case of The Window, "fucking stupid narritivism"?

Ron Edwards

Hi Knight,

That's an interesting question, because I'm not sure why the two categories ("Vanilla" and "failed") would be associated in the first place. They seem to be operating on two different trajectories and two different scales ... Vanilla as opposed to Extreme (or perhaps "31-Flavored"), and failed as opposed to successful/fun.  I'm also a little leery of automatically discussing design (ie The Window) when what succeeds or fails is play, as affected by design.

Let's see if I can parse your question so it makes more sense to me.

Perhaps ... "Why is the design of The Window not in the category of Vanilla Narrativist design?" My answer would be, Because the former verbally encourages Narrativist play but mechanically undermines it, and a Vanilla Narrativist game mechanically encourages Narrativist play. What makes it Vanilla is that the techniques of encouragement are not enforcing/extreme or jarring. To keep the dairy metaphor going, The Window purports to be ice cream but is not (or perhaps is runny/lumpy ice cream in some ways); whereas Sorcerer, for instance, is definitely ice cream but not a scary or overwhelming kind to those who've never had ice cream.

Well, it's hard, if not impossible, to re-phrase someone else's query into an answerable form and then answer it, as it comes pretty close to talking to oneself, so I'll stop and see if it's made sense to anyone but me. Knight, let me know if I've done terrible injustice to your query, and if so, I'll try to understand it better.



But if The Window gives the appearance of to be trying to be a narrativist game, yet it's mechanics sabotage that aim, then how can it not be considered to have failed? In this case (and in several others on The Forge) "vanilla narrativism" seems to mean not "mild narrativism", but "stated narrativism that is confused by other design choices".

Ron Edwards


I still think we're talking about two different things.

1) I agree with you that The Window, as a design, is not entirely successful. The reason that I tend not to say "it fails" in so many words is that its text is so definite and clear about the goals, much more so than many games. My review still presents my general take on the game - very well-stated goals, various implementation hassles.

2) I really do not see how you associate Vanilla with "failed" or ambiguous in any way, at least not from any of my posts. I can't speak for others; the term met with a lot of puzzled reactions and at least one person seemed to think it meant "Simulationist mechanics with Narrative attitude," which is not at all how I defined it. So if you're using those posts as a basis for your perception, then I can only say, those posts were and are mistaken from the beginning.

Please see my post above for the actual, complete, and only definition of Vanilla Narrativism. Again, it has nothing to do with dysfunctional play or mechanics with any other sorts of goals.


Ron Edwards

Here's the first thread that I began on the topic:">Vanilla Narrativism

You can see where it goes off the rails, first because Jesse brought system design into the discussion with Vampire (which I agreed with, as I was merely considering play, not design), and then with Marco's post about how it just looks like Simulationism to him. I think some discussion since then has clarified the issue, but that's the primary misunderstanding that seems to have stuck.

No, Vanilla Narrativism is not "almost" Simulationism, or a hybrid, or anything else. It is most emphatically not a failure of either system or play habits to support Narrativism. It's Narrativist play, without a lot of unfamiliar mechanics, or if they're present, they kind of "ease into play" without freaking players out.


P.S. Oops! Forgot to do the link HTML correctly. Fixed now.