Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

Is Narrativism rightly restricted to Premise?

Started by Victor Gijsbers, June 21, 2002, 08:28:49 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Victor Gijsbers

The concensus on the Forge seems to be that a Narrativist game (insert all possible disclaimers about using GNS when talking about games instead of decisions) must focus on a Premise, where Premises are defined as "moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest". Yet I wonder if this isn't too great a restriction on Narrativism.

For instance, what about 'Theme' instead of 'Premise'? I might not want to answer a specific morel question, such as "Should you feel guilty for what you did in a period long ago, when you had a different look on the world than you have now?" (which is the main Premise of the Computer RPG 'Planescape: Torment', one of the very few CRPGs with strong Narrativist tendencies), as much as I'd want to explore the concept of 'Guilt'. Not just a specific question about it, but the whole of the concept. Players and GM could work to create story lines involving PCs with different Guilt-based Premises. In this way you'd get an interrelated web of Premise-driven stories, rather than a game based on just one Premise. It seems to me that an RPG, where all player characters are protagonists, is the ideal place to create such a web-like, theme-based story; rather than a story driven by a single Premise.

Another possibility might be not focussing on Premisse at all, but on Emotion. This happens often enough in Literature. The works of Edgar Alle Poe, for instance, contain few Premises - his short stories are all about specific emotions. 'The Cask of Amontillado' is not about Premise; it's about Envy, Revenge, Fear and Loneliness. Players and GM might want to focus, not on a Premise or a Theme, but on trying to create the most 'pure' and intense instances of certain emotions through their roleplaying activities.

What do you think, is Premise-based play too limited to describe Narrativism, or am I completely missing the mark?

Ron Edwards

Hi there Victor,

Your question represents some misunderstandings about the issues of Premise in Narrativist play.

Your treatment of Theme is synonymous to what's called here, "Broad Premise." It's an issue or term that raises many small sub-questions, each of those a Premise. That's no different from what I've suggested - notice that my definition of Premise is not specific to a particular scale. It can be broad or narrow; it could start narrow and get broader through play, or it can go the other way.

(Side note: I take a very classical approach to the terminology, rather than the usage most people encountered in English classes. In my framework, "Theme" refers to the outcome of Premise - an answer to the question, so to speak. It must be coherent and judgmental, although it ranges pretty widely between non-ambiguous and ambiguous. I do not employ the common use in English classes, that a theme is a "thing," like "Guilt," or "Revenge," or some such.)

I also think your treatment of Emotion is synonymous with Premise. Lajos Egri (from whom I lifted the term and usage of Premise, with minor alterations) defines Premise in terms of protagonist passions. Unless someone in the story is passionate about the issue at hand (usually very localized to situation, rather than abstractly), there is no Premise.

In the Poe example, yes, The Cask of Amontillado has a Premise. It is, "How is an ego-slight to be repaid?" It is presented in terms of the character's decision - as a short story, it may be thought of as coming into the story 98% of the way through. The character answers it, "with murder." My reading of the story is that the theme is, "Repaying an ego-slight with murder is insane." It's spooky because it implies that people such as Montressor exist, out there, or better yet, in here, with us.


Victor Gijsbers

Hello Ron,

Thanks for your reply. If 'Premise' is indeed used as broadly as you say, I guess my question is shown to be a non-question, which would more or less end any debate before it started. So forgive me if I try to change the topic a bit.

Which kinds of 'Premise' - broad (what I called 'theme'), narrow - are most often used in RPGs? Can both be succesfully employed, or is one of them distinctly better suited to roleplaying?

By the way, I've got no idea what terms one uses in 'English classes'. I'm Dutch, and my English classes were more about learning the language than about literature.

Ron Edwards

Hi Victor,

I think you can be very, very glad that you were not subjected to what passes for English/lit education in the U.S. Despite a few, thankless, dedicated teachers and even fewer departments, here and there, most of it is unspeakable, at all levels.

Your question is a bit hard to answer, because we have thirty years of RPG texts to work with ... but not very many of those games represent coherent Narrativist design.

For instance, I could talk about Drifted versions of Vampire and Champions with very strong and gripping Premises, but that doesn't mean much beyond those particular groups. Same goes for AD&D, with a near-infinite capacity for Narrativist Premise, considering that the game offers little to none so the group must make its own from scratch.

Let's see, though, for some of the rather solid Narrativist games that I've played or studied carefully ...

Zero: "Who am I? What constitutes a valid community?"
Prince Valiant: "What is knightly honor? When does ego give way to responsibility? When does responsibility give way to passion?"
Orkworld: "What risk is worth gaining honor for? When does gaining honor hurt those around me? What constitutes a 'good death'?"
Hero Wars: "What should be the foundation of an ethical religion? How do I reconcile my culture and my values during a time of war?"

These don't really answer your question, as they're just single examples based strictly on rules text and system, and they certainly don't represent the range or specifications these games would lead to in actual play.


Mark D. Eddy

Here are a few premises (Narrativist style) from some of my games, noted  as to whether they were run by a player or a GM, and the system:

"In an  amoral world, why should I stick to moral values?" (Player, Shadowrun)

"Is loyalty more important than personal goals?" (Player, Laws of the Wild)

"Is fame and fortune worth personal sacrifice?" (GM, Shadowrun)

"Can one person make a difference?" (Player, AD&D)

"Is personal pleasure more important than obedience?" (Player&GM connivance, Legend of the Five Rings)

"Is knowledge worth any price?" (Player, GURPS)

"When forced to choose between two loyalties, which wins?" (Player, GURPS)

"Does an outside threat unify or divide a community?" (GM, GURPS)

There is a wide range of themes that are involved in these questions, some of them in the same campaign, from very narrow and personal to overarching and sweeping. If you want to, and your playing group cooperates, you can explore almost any theme in almost any system. Of course, that doesn't mean that it's easy to pull off.
Mark Eddy
Chemist, Monotheist, History buff

"The valiant man may survive
if wyrd is not against him."

Victor Gijsbers

A friend of mine and I are thinking about creating an RPG, and chances are pretty good we'll decide to make a Narrativist RPG. I'm toying with different ways to define a premise. You can make it very specific, like "Can a person remain pacifistic when confronted with a violent and cruel enemy?", broader, like "Is knowledge worth any price?", or very broad, merely stating a word like "Guilt". So I was trying to find out what was customary in RPGs (so I could do the exact opposite - you've got to be original ;) ), and if one of these things really doesn't work (so I could avoid it, or at least be warned).

Suppose for instance that you let one person create a 'broad' Premise, and you let one person create a 'very broad' Premise by naming a cretain emotion... I wonder if the interplay between two Premises (that are broad enough to have some overlap) would be able to create an interesting story.

Mark D. Eddy

OK, that was a more useful question, and I can answer it fairly readily: There are *very* few role-playing games that address the question of Premise and/or theme directly, and most of those that do only address it in the Game Master's section.

The overlap of themes/premises can be a rich field to play in, and if you want players, and not just GM's, thinking in these terms, you need to include a section on story-building in your character-creation section (at least, IMHO). I understand (sight unseen) that Ron's Sorcerer includes such a section.

I would say that the main difficulty is that your game must remain interesting and useful while allowing people to build their own thematic elements — there are lots of great game ideas out there, but when the final product is in your hands the idea needs to be playable.
Mark Eddy
Chemist, Monotheist, History buff

"The valiant man may survive
if wyrd is not against him."


This is something I read recently, also built on Egri's work.  I found it extremely useful when thinking about Premise and roleplaying: Story Premise   Keep in mind that its not based on Ron's article and created for a self-contained as opposed to Interactive story.  But I found it highly readable and thought-provoking.


(edited b/c of formatting issue)

Victor Gijsbers

I'm reading some of the articles by the writer you linked to, Laurel. They might indeed be helpful, especially since I never read anything about writing stories before. Thanks for the link.


Quote from: Victor GijsbersSuppose for instance that you let one person create a 'broad' Premise, and you let one person create a 'very broad' Premise by naming a cretain emotion... I wonder if the interplay between two Premises (that are broad enough to have some overlap) would be able to create an interesting story.

I take it these people who are creating Premises are the players and/or GM.

I can tell you very simply that yes, this is a great way for generating a Premise for a game or story.  You can plug two (or more, really) themes into any of the following sentences for a good premise:

How do X and Y interact? (the basic one)

Which is more important, X or Y?

What is X without Y? (or contrariwise)

When X comes into conflict with Y, what is the result?

When X complements Y, what is the result?

How can X be made to complement Y? (and the opposite again)

Take any two of the below and plug them into the sentences above:

Love, Death, Hatred, Nationality, Gender, Pride, Progress, Hope, Faith, Technology

I'm not going to do the Combinations and Permutations math right now, but you could build a ton of Premises out of the simple elements above.  The real challenge -- and the fun, in my opinion -- comes from creating the players and story around the created Premise.
-- Josh