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Author Topic: What makes a good Narrativist Premise?  (Read 6054 times)
Seth L. Blumberg
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« on: March 04, 2002, 04:18:11 PM »

There are lots of examples of Premise scattered around in various threads, but try as I might, I can't seem to find anywhere that the question "What are the conditions that a good Premise must satisfy?" is answered directly.

One of the implied requirements seems to be that the Premise must involve a tradeoff or balancing act between two desirable goals which are construed as (at least partly) mutually exclusive. Can there be three alternatives? If not, why not? Can you create a good Premise based on trying to balance two undesirable conditions which cannot both be avoided?

Basically, what are the rules for creating a Premise?
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2002, 04:37:14 PM »

The first and primary answer here is "read Ron's essay" - I think it does a pretty good job of covering this ground.  My paraphrase would something like "A Narrativist Premise should outline an issue/issues of interest to the PLAYERS, as human beings, in a way that allows the actual play of the game to illuminate and perhaps resolve the questions that come up around the issue(s)."

Does that help?

Gordon
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: March 05, 2002, 06:47:58 AM »

Hello,

Gordon's stated the Narrativist Premise perfectly, to my way of thinking.

I'm not sure where the confusion's coming from, though. Perhaps it would help if people would point to a particular place in the essay that discusses Premise, then request discussion about that passage. Without that specific focus, I'm reduced merely to pointing at the essay and saying, "There."

Best,
Ron
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: March 05, 2002, 09:24:22 AM »

Quote from: Metal Fatigue

One of the implied requirements seems to be that the Premise must involve a tradeoff or balancing act between two desirable goals which are construed as (at least partly) mutually exclusive.


I think that's just one way to go, but I personally am getting a ton of milage out of it. And I find that premises made from these sorts of juxtapositions of elements tend to be easy to create interesting rules for. They just seem to present themselves. The interesting part is how the two elements play off each other, which leads to different mechanics each time, I find.

For example, lets create a game about Fun vs. Responsibility. I'm envisioning a sort of Narrativist Teenagers From Outer Space. Give each character a responsibility stat and a fun stat. The Fun stat allows the character to accomplish things as the more fun a character is or is having, the more in a groove they are, and the more things just seem to work out for them. The responsibility stat represents how the character's parents and other authority figures trust the character. If it gets too low, the character will not be allowed out late, and if it gets really low, they may even be grounded (no saucer-spins for you, young alien!). A high responsibility means that teachers will always give you a hall pass. etc.

Anyhow, doing stuff that you aren't suuposed to is fun, and raises your fun meter. But if you're detected, it will lower your responsibility. Doing stuff that you are supposed to raises your responsibility, but will lower your fun if you cannot find a way to make the task fun (which, again, is probably something that you aren't supposed to be doing, which if detected...). See how these stats balance against each other, but in an asymetrical way? With two other principles, you would find that the mechanics produced would feed off of each other in an entirely different fashion.

The recent thread about Truth, Secrets, and Lies is a potentially three way version of the same concepts in action. I think there's probably a practical limit on what's interesting, but it probably goes way further than just three. I can see up to maybe seven or so.like the idea I had for the Egypt game. Possibly more with a really well thought out design.

Mike
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #4 on: March 05, 2002, 10:42:39 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I'm not sure where the confusion's coming from, though.


I can't find the thread now, but I remember someone rephrasing his Narrativist Premise so it was "the way Ron would want it." The original version was a rather open-ended question; the revised version was a very specific antinomy.

In Chapter 2 of the essay, you give a couple of examples of Narrativist Premises, but you never say "this is what makes a good Premise, these are traps to avoid," so I'm wondering what other rules (or even guidelines) there are that I've missed.

(And if there are no guidelines, then please make some up. I'm not finding it easy to come up with succinct, punchy Narrativist Premises, and I'd like some help.)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: March 05, 2002, 11:14:30 AM »

Metal Fatigue,

The Narrativist Premise issue was beaten to death over a year ago across many threads and many topics, at the Gaming Outpost especially.

It may seem odd now, but last year at this time, the prevailing issue at the Forge (from some vocal folks) was that we spent too much time talking about Narrativism and Premise in particular, and that this emphasis reflected contempt or dismissal of other modes of play. A previous essay by Hunter Logan and myself received furious criticism in this regard. For that reason, I soft-pedalled the issue in my essay in favor of the big picture.

To summarize some of the things I spearheaded about Narrativist Premise in role-playing:

1) A situation exists which has aroused passion in a fictional character. A character (NPC, PC, whatever) cares passionately about something, and that is manifested through action (past or present, doesn't matter).

2) The passion in question is accessible to us, the real people, because (a) we identify with it or (b) we at least recognize that a person might feel this way, without being an idiot or a psychopath.

3) The situation in question is recognizable to us, the real people, as a representative of some basic human conflict. That conflict is something we know about, we've seen it in the real world, and we have no instant or obvious solution for it.

Note that the situation may be utterly fantastical, but the conflict in that situation cannot be - it must make sense to us as humans. (Hence in Sorcerer, "demons" are an imaginary game element, but the power/price issues are emphatically not.)

Looking over these three points, the Premise may be stated as a question, which, as you rightly point out, usually involves opposing or contradictory ideals or approaches to life. The situation at hand provides, for lack of a better word, an arena in which the question is addressed. Consider actual play to deliver a story (by "deliver" I mean in the sense of birth, not transference from one person to another), and consider the story to be an Answer to the Premise's question. The name of this Answer is "theme."

4) Narrativist Premise for a game design is necessarily pretty open-ended; otherwise the game is only good for one solid story. In order to play, Characters and Situations must be constructed that bring the whole issue into more focus.

In constructing a Premise of this kind, some people think better in terms of Character, Setting, and Situation; others think better from the abstract end and start with the more philosophical Premise. I think the "pitch" idea is a good name for the former approach.

Example, off the top of my head; this is kind of a hybrid between Game design vs. Scenario design:

(Pitch version) What would an American do? A murder mystery in war-torn Viet Nam!

(More abstract version) Is patriotism the highest source of honor?

(Situation/Setting in actual play) Saigon in 1970, concerning a potential informer to the Viet Cong, media relations, and various combats in the bush.

(Potential system design considerations) Descriptors that permit different nuances of honor, game mechanics concerning rank and authority, conflicts among self-image and group-image, as well as some gritty but fast combat mechanics.

[Incidentally, I keenly agree with many criticisms that American stories about Viet Nam are often narcissistic and politically naive; this proposed scenario idea doesn't sit well with me on that score. However, I hope it illustrates my point.]

Best,
Ron
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #6 on: March 05, 2002, 11:20:37 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
at the Gaming Outpost especially.


Ah. That explains it.

Thanks for the summary--it was precisely what I wanted.
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the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue
Le Joueur
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« Reply #7 on: March 05, 2002, 02:56:49 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
To summarize some of the things I spearheaded about Narrativist Premise in role-playing:

1) A situation exists which has aroused passion in a fictional character. A character (NPC, PC, whatever) cares passionately about something, and that is manifested through action (past or present, doesn't matter).

2) The passion in question is accessible to us, the real people, because (a) we identify with it or (b) we at least recognize that a person might feel this way, without being an idiot or a psychopath.

3) The situation in question is recognizable to us, the real people, as a representative of some basic human conflict. That conflict is something we know about, we've seen it in the real world, and we have no instant or obvious solution for it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this applies to exactly every kind of gaming (as far as I can tell).  Whether Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism, or any other, I can't really see gaming being that engaging without this kind of identification with a character's situation.

It might be weak word choice on Ron's part, but this is no synecdoche.  If you don't recognize the passion of the situation, if you 'know the answer' to the conflict (or if that conflict is too unfamiliar), I can't see you being that intrigued in any mode of play.

I only see this becoming Narrativism when the "basic human conflict" becomes, to use a Lit 101 term, thematically charged.  Just being conflict should not be enough to rise to the Narrativist requirement.

As simply conflict, it could be just about anything (Joe vs. the Dungeon, the professor vs. C'thulhu, and et cetera); I thought we were talking about Narrativist conflicts (which are, more and more, sounding like a zero-sum conflict; power vs. humanity, et alii).

Fang Langford
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: March 05, 2002, 03:10:08 PM »

Hi Fang,

Well, I'm not so sure about the universality of those things I listed, especially as priorities of play. I've had too many discussions with other players who both played and verbalized their preferences along the lines of:

"You shouldn't care what happens as long as it's consistent and if no one cheated on the dice rolls."
Or,
"Oh come on, it's all about strategy and winning, and I feel sorry for any loser who really cares about the characters."
Or,
"It's my world and my story, and no player has the right to screw it up."

These aren't caricatures, they're quotes and actual preferences of play. Nor am I presenting them as some sort of freaks or horror stories. They are committed role-players who simply don't care much about the elements I've described (in terms of actual play).

On the other hand, I'm not sure we really disagree about the Narrativism, though. I agree with you that a "thematic charge" is necessary - I probably should have clarified that my whole outline and example presupposes that people are already committing to that story creation and to the impact of its resultant theme.

Best,
Ron
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #9 on: March 05, 2002, 08:30:49 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
On the other hand, I'm not sure we really disagree about the Narrativism, though. I agree with you that a "thematic charge" is necessary - I probably should have clarified that my whole outline and example presupposes that people are already committing to that story creation and to the impact of its resultant theme.

Exactly true, and as I suspected.

I mostly posted because I thought it was an interesting mental exercise to consider those same three points as they relate to all the myriad ways of playing.  I really do think one of the most important things for anyone who is going to play a role-playing game is that they are engaged by that play.  I felt that was the limit of those three points and without the presupposition, they included all gaming on that level.  I leave puzzling out the various possibilities of how they describe engagement in other modes of play for our readers to ponder.

For me, it's back to the medication and that couch I have been seeing so much of lately; damned sinus infection.

Fang Langford
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