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Narrativist games and "winning"?

Started by Frank T, July 25, 2005, 07:35:24 AM

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Frank T

In one of my recent Breaking the Ice playtest reports, Tony wrote:

QuoteIt sounds like you're saying that the game would be a failure if these two people decided that they just weren't compatible, and ended up going their separate ways.  But shouldn't a dating game have the possibility of ruinously bad dates, as well as good ones?

I answered, by reflex, that yeah, of course them not finding love wouldn't be a failure. And I maintain that it wouldn't be a failure of the game, becaue, as Tony wrote further:

QuoteThe same way D&D needs the possibility of people going down into the deadly crypt and being eaten alive, every last one.

But as in D&D, I as a player will do everything mechanically possible to prevent that from happening. At least if I have made a likable character whom I want to be happy. I will take a close look at the mechanics and see what I have to do to make those dates a success. In other words: I will try to do my best to win. I'll still be doing the cool scenes and the meaningful stuff, but I will certainly choose my actions according to what gains me dice in an attraction roll.

That reminds me of a conversation I had with a guy from my IRC round. We had just finished a session of My Life with Master, and that guy said to me: "Isn't this game pretty Gamist? You are constantly pushing for that next point of love to Step On Up!" I didn't know what to say to that. I felt he was somehow missing an important point, but I couldn't say what it was.

So, what's going on here? I'm confused.

- Frank

GB Steve

For Narratisivism and winning I'd refer you to this semi-serious article which has already generated some debate on this site.

For me, I'd say that My Life with Master is not about winning, it's about killing the Master in a way that is in accord with the theme "how far would you go to kill the Master". That's about a story rather than an individual goal. Quite often all the PCs are dead at the end, which can hardly be called gamist success but is a wonderful end to a story. There's all the aggressive framing which demands that PCs make choices in line with the theme. Gamism isn't about such choices. In Gamism you've always accepted the mission.

Whilst D&D needs the possibility of everyone being eaten alive, it is only a possibility and probably won't happen if the PCs take an appropriate tactical approach. It still could, if the dice go against you but that's where the tension is: expecting to succeed whilst still having the Dice Roll of Damocles hanging over your head.

Ron Edwards

Hi Frank,

Steve's post is saying smart things. Here's my take.

The whole thing is easy as pie, actually. There are several different angles of attack on this common misunderstanding.

1. "Winning" is undefined in most conversations. It can often mean "successful social fun," as in, we all enjoyed ourselves and would do it again. This has led to many people asking, "But if we make a great story through Narrativist play, then didn't we win? Isn't that Gamist?"

The answer is, No. The group had fun. They succeeded. But they only "won" if winning is defined in that huge, catch-all way.

In a Sorcerer game I ran a little while ago, two of the participants were very competitive people. One asked, during our first get-together, "How do we win?" I knew that saying "No one wins" would only open the door to them seeking some way to Step On Up. So I said, "We win if our story is so excellent that the film studio gives us carte blanche to make a sequel." She said, "Oh!" and went on without a hitch.

2. Strategy-techniques are very often confounded with Gamist play. For instance, people are always saying, "Levelling up is clearly a Gamist phenomenon," and they are flatly wrong. Levelling up is levelling up; it's a Technique. Same goes with crafting the point-structure of your character in many games.

In the case of My Life with Master, the point-structure of Love and so forth is the primary reward system, whose most obvious payoff is the Epilogue. Strategizing those points is part of addressing the Premise; it's how you address the Premise (in addition to various narrations).

Strategy in the service of Addressing Premise is not Gamist. Strategy in the service of the Right to Dream is not Gamist.

Imagine me playing Lord Gravenstone the Wise, fighting the coiling black dragon in the Swamps of Ichorbad. Imagine that whatever there is, there is no Step On Up whatsoever among the members of the role-playing group. But yes, I do monitor the numbers on the sheet. Yes, I do choose combat tactics which accumulate a major bonus at a particular time. Yes, I do choose in-game tactics which are meant to keep Lord Gravenstone from being withered and poisoned by the dragon's evil breath. In this case, I am strategizing like a motherfucker. But if there's no Step On Up, as defined in my Gamism essay and the Glossary, then it's not Gamist play.

3. Character success or failure is not a defining feature of any sort of play. It is very hard for people who don't favor Gamist play to believe this, but most Gamist play is not about keeping the character alive. It's about applying respective strategy and guts toward keeping the character alive. If the character dies, and it doesn't reflect badly on your skills, then you win.

(The absolute hell of Gamist/Sim Incoherence is found when members of a group don't see eye-to-eye on this very issue. There's an "Impossible Thing" hidden in the G/S divide which is very similar to the N/S one, which I shall articulate one day. Note that early D&D admitted to frequent character death and multiple characters per player; 2nd edition D&D did not.)

So don't look for some notion that if you care about your character living, that you're Gamist; or conversely, if you don't care about your character living, then you're Gamist. Neither is valid.

The same point applies for "character success" in terms of the character getting what he or she wants.

Does any of that help, Frank?


Frank T

Thanks Steve, thanks Ron,

I'm afraid I still don't have a firm grip on this. So basically the point is: Not every kind of reward for tactical application of the rules is Step On Up. But that point just makes me stir, because I feel inclined to say: How can I be a clever bastard getting the last bit out of the rules and not display guts and performance as a real person and gain esteem from my fellow players?

This is getting really hard for me now to word in English, but I'll try. There seem to be two ways of looking at the behavior of a player who is, to quote Ron, "strategizing like a motherfucker". One way is the isolated look at the player dealing with the rules, which I've been into so far. If you look only at that layer, you will find that the player is interacting with the system to maximum performance, in order to achieve a goal.

To really qualify that goal, however, you will have to add the layers of the other aspects of exploration, plus the layer of the real people interacting. The prior angle to judge a player's real goal will probably be Situation. So what exactly is my goal, with regard to Situation, in a game of MLwM or BtI, at that very moment when I flip through the rules to think of a way to get more dice for the attraction roll, or some sincerity (?) thrown into my ouverture?

Or am I looking at too short an instance? Would I have to step back and look at a whole instance of play? That might be the actual core of my problem. I do get the concept theoretically, but in practice, I have never ever looked at a given group of gamers and said: "Now, right there, that was the instance of play."

Does any of this make sense?

- Frank

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Yes, you are making sense, especially with your attention to the social/creative side of things rather than just "this one guy."

And yes, an instance of play would be a better unit to discuss for questions like this. As you probably know, I now am very strict about what I mean by this - at least one full reward cycle.

The three games you mentioned are Breaking the Ice, My Life with Master, and D&D (although it would help to specify which one). The reward cycles are very different among these games, not only in terms what actions get the reward, but how long each cycle is relative to the amount of dialogue ("play"), and how many cycles are expected to occur. The first two games arguably minimize the number of cycles, but keep them short (so you get them with relatively little play); the second is typically open-ended and the cycles are typically rather prolonged (levels, or even sets of levels [3 in D&D3]).

And all that structural difference is distinct from what agenda is fulfilled by the reward, which of course depends on the real people and not on the textual rules. So we'd need instances of real play to talk about.



Hey Ron,

For my own edification, can you specify what the reward cycle in MLWM, D&D3e, and say, Trollbabe, is?

- Alan
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:

GB Steve

It's not in the Glossary yet.

What I understand by the reward cycle is from the start of the challenge to the pay-off in some kind of game currency. So for My Life with Master you get it at the end of every scene in which you try for Love. In fact, you always get Love after an attempt in MLwM, just you get something else as well if you fail your roll. I'm not sure where the cycle starts. I guess at the start of the game until the first Love scene and then after every subsequent Love scene.

In D&D the cycle is typically from the start to the end of the adventure, or whenever the GM awards XPs and you do character advancement. XPs on their own aren't really reward, character advancement is.

In Dogs, the cycle is much less clear. You can get rewards every time there's fallout, which may or may not happen in any conflict. It's not so much a cycle as a light rainshower. I guess the message is that you're PC will usually be changed by his experiences but not always in ways you'd expect and not always in the sense of improvement (which rather limits the fun anyways).


When I was playing MLWM, I found myself looking through the final outcome list like it was a shopping list.  "Well, I can't afford that one, or that one, or that one... I'll see if I can get that one."

The one I thought about shooting for was the "Minion becomes a new Master and starts the whole cycle all over again."

Since that outcome requires having very little love and lots of other stuff, I was considering going around and killing all the NPC's that had love attached to them for my character, and arranging my character sheet... but by that time, we were well into the Endgame, and it became clear that without my help, our endgame was going to go on and on and on... so I abandoned that approach and did what I could to facilitate the ending.
"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker

Ron Edwards


Steve's almost got it. The reward cycle in MLWM is two cycles, one fast-rotating one inside a bigger one that's almost the size of the whole game.

The littler, inner one is based on Love. But getting it or not getting it (in response to Overtures) is only half its rotation - the other half is rolling for stuff which includes Love, which if I recall correctly, includes defying the Master.

So the bigger cycle, as I'm sure you all have figured, is the entire game's loop of "Minions are abused by Master, one of them eventually defies the Master, Master dies, how they have dealt with it all throughout sets up parameters for Epilogues." The inner cycle fuels this big one with the consequences of using Love (by someone, or separate someones at different times, not necessarily everyone).

MLWM is one of the rare games that has a special reward for playing through to an ending for the entire thing, for everyone. Many games are limited to the equivalent of the little cycle (which in many would be, use skill, improve skill, use it again, etc). Dust Devils and Sorcerer have the little cycle, but they also have "fate" ish consequences and "story endings" which are limited to characters rather than expanded to play as a whole.

Fred, I recommend considering that looking into one's own head and trying to identify Creative Agenda through "how did it feel" thinking is almost always futile.



I think of Dogs' cycle as starting now, going through the process of taking fallout, and ending when you bring your fallout into play in future conflicts. That is, taking the fallout is the middle of the cycle, the "reward" is when you see its benefits in play.

But I'm just making that up.


Callan S.

I would think it's rather like people riding bikes up a big hill. You can see them peddling like mofo's, that doesn't mean their focus is on peddling. They peddle only to get up the hill.

Same for apparently gamist play...where are they going with all this 'gamist' strategizing/peddling?
Philosopher Gamer

Frank T

The "how did it feel" approach is probably the tricky part. I can only speak for myself, but I do not generally find it easy to identify CA by looking into my own head. Anyway, let me give some details about that game of MLwM. I will boil it down to two players: the one I mentioned who thought the game was Gamist, and myself for contrast.

The master, Charlotta, was an artist without inspiration. She used some funky steampunk machine to steal peoples emotions and wants, using them to create the most intense paintings, but rendering the victims soulless zombies. My character was Jonathan, a mute boy at the threshold of manhood. One of his relationships was Maria, daughter of the town's priest, whom he was desperately in love with. Marcel, the other player, played Milos. Milos was strong as a cow, I don't recall exactly his Less Than Human, but it was something like "dumb like a cow unless he is alone".

My initial approach to my character was that I wanted him to learn to defy the master, to get closer to his relationships, maybe even start some romance with Maria. So I talked back to the master, also trying to protect the other minions from her wrath, and tried my Overtures on Maria. IIRC, I failed every single roll, even though I tried to get as many dice as possible. So Jonathan became more and more desperate, even bitter. When finally Maria called him "monster" and ran away from him, I felt his story take a different direction. Up to then, I had been eying for the "integrates with the village" result for the endgame. But then the GM, Nicolas, did something awesome: He had the Master offer that Jonathan could have Maria once she was stripped off all her wants and emotions by the machine. Jonathan agreed, disgusted by himself and feeling how his dependency on the Master had suddenly become stronger than ever, but yet somehow relieved. That was the end of the session, and unfortunately, I wasn't there for the endgame session.

Marcel, on the other hand, didn't really get into his character all that much. As he felt his relationships and his Less Than Human didn't kick off, he decided to go straight for the endgame. Since he started out with zero Exhaustion, he didn't need all that much Love. What he also did was have Milos support the other characters, providing adversity or help as needed. I don't think he even did a lot of Overtures on his own relationships. He would use any scene his character was in to make an Overture on whoever was present. As Marcel's comment about Gamism indicates, his main focus in the game became to bring about the endgame as quickly and successfully as possible. "I want to kill the Master", was what it was. He achieved it, too, and Milos integrated with the villagers.

So, was there some Drift going on? If you ask me "how did it feel", especially my reaction to Marcel's play, no, it didn't feel like Stepping On Up to me. But then again, you would have to ask him how it felt, wouldn't you?

- Frank

GB Steve

Quote from: Frank T on July 26, 2005, 05:59:49 AMUp to then, I had been eying for the "integrates with the village" result for the endgame.
This to me sounds like a strange way to play the game and something I've not encountered in any of the games I've played and run. Isn't that almost a gamist approach in itself, the challenge being to get the desired outcome to the game? I see this as different from wanting to kill the master which is part of the overall premise to the game.

To clarify: the table about what happens to the minions post-master just seemed like an interesting post scriptum rather than the actual goal of the game which for me is breaking the shackles of slavery and killing the master. I've never seen anyone refer to it in game.


Since killing the master is assumed, people naturally create other goals to go along with it.
"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker

Frank T

It's not assumed who kills the Master, and how quickly. But let's stay focused on the question of Creative Agenda here.

To me, it seemed a logical consequence of the MLwM rules to keep an eye on my stats and the epilogue list to see where I was going, and what I could do about it. Steve's last remark has validated my initial trouble with the whole issue. Let me specify the topic of this thread: What exactly is the relation between having an in-game goal, working the mechanics to arrive at that goal, and Creative Agenda?

- Frank