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Playing Bass (Narrativism essay preview)

Started by Ron Edwards, January 30, 2003, 07:04:13 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

So you'll see the Simulationism essay on Monday, and I'm crankin' on the Gamism one. These are mondo-big, so we're talking weeks to wait. I'm also scribbling on the Narrativism one, and this emerged from some brainstorming. Hope you like it, and comments are welcome.


Q: How can I trust my players to stay faithful to the integrity of the story?

A: The real question is how they could have trusted you all this time. They're better at it than you are because they direct the actions of the protagonists.

Q: But I'm the GM!

A: I know.


Q (resentfully): So I just give up, is that what you're saying?

A: Nope - they need you, quite a bit in fact. Tell me, do you listen to rock-and-roll, motown, the blues?

Q: Um, yeah.

A: Good. You know that really deep "bum da-bum" or sometimes kind of motorcycle sound you hear underneath all of the other instruments? That's the bass. You're the bass player.

Q: But that guy just follows along!

A: Nope. Without him, nothing happens - the others wouldn't know when or how to play, in terms of key, pace, or coordination with the other instruments. They're all listening to him, or for him, or in reference to what he played last, at every point of the song. That's why rock-and-roll, motown, blues, and similar music doesn't need a conductor.

Q: I thought the drums did that, keeping the beat and so on. Oh, I know what you mean, though - like - "noww noww nowwww, noww noww nah-nowww," in "Smoke on the Water."

A: Oh golly. No, that is the rhythm guitar. Wait a few bars into that song, and listen under that riff, and you'll hear the bass; it's pretty fast-moving.

And as for the drums ... OK, the bass (goes boom budda boom) is the signaller and pacer for both the drums (goes chikka chikka crash) and the rhythm guitar (goes rroww, rroww); all together they're called the rhythm section. All vocals and lead guitars "ride" on them; keyboards are kind of nifty because they can be either lead or rhythm or both at once.

You should practice parsing out the sounds you're hearing, especially for songs you think you know by heart. Deep Purple's a great starting point; so are Boston, The Beatles, Guns & Roses, and Heart. Anything motown, any blues, ever. Stevie Wonder for sure, Elton John, Warren Zevon ... [begins to rhapsodize about rock history and John Entwhistle]

Q: Hey! What does all this have to do with role-playing?

A: Think of all the verbal exchanges of role-playing which forge a series of imagined events of any kind. That's where "role-playing" exists.

The GM says "Go!" He provides tons of material, some out-of-character as plain old conversation, some as in-character perceptions, that let everyone else know what they have to work with and when they can chime in.

He can cue a single player or several at once, with the latter working together or in counterpoint of some kind. If players want to come in more independently, the GM still sets the context in which it's OK for them to make that choice.

He helps out a player who's really pouring in content (engaged in a conflict, e.g.) by feeding him lots of repetitive material, via the system or not, while not cueing the others. When it's time for everyone to kick in and contribute simultaneously, he brings contextual material together to permit it to happen, or more loosely, he just realizes that the time has come, signals that, and everyone joins as they see fit.

He can also mellow stuff out, playing a bit more slowly, or with more atmospheric rather than driving effects.

Q: So the GM is always talking?

A: That's a tricky issue. In the literal sense, no - the GM actually talks a little less than the players combined. But overall, yes, in the simplest or most basic way to play like this, the GM's contribution is continually felt. In most blues or blues-heavy rock-and-roll, all songs start with the bass hitting a note on the four-count of the imaginary measure before the first measure of the song, and the very last micro-second-long sound of the song is the cut-off pop or "bomp" of the bass. During the song, when the bass is silent, everyone is waiting for another cue even while they're filling in the gap. In role-playing terms, that means that the GM is pretty much setting every scene and nearly every player's statement can be directly traced to some statement of the GM's.

Here's a very important point, though. Just as when you sing along with a song in the car, and you're pretty much vocalizing the singer, the lead guitar, or sometimes the rhythm guitar, "the story" that the role-playing group produces is what the players say. The players' statements are "about more" than the GM's, if you will - they say what the main characters actually do. If someone were to summarize what happened in the game in a conversation, the GM's role would be almost invisible, and his prep material, if we looked at it, would have no pre-determined outcomes for various scenes.

One more point: in more complex play, and you'll hear this in music from bands that have played together for a long time, the bass might not even be involved in the startup, and whole sections of the song might be truly bass-less.

Q: I heard all bass riffs were the same, or that there aren't that many. Is that true? And don't forget to relate it to role-playing.

A: I think that comment is one of those hipster catch-phrases by which someone makes himself look like an insider-music guy. That said, yes, a lot of songs share similar bass riffs, and in fact some pretty famous songs are really just different "riders" on the rhythm sections of pre-existing songs. Listen to "Twist and Shout" and "La Bamba" some time ...

Anyway, I'm getting to the role-playing, but let's talk about the actual variety of bass play first. We have:

- Walking bass - notes played mainly right along the beat either right on it or double-fast, usually repeating a sequence in a single bar and among sets of bars. Walking bass is characteristic of most jazz and blues and r&b, and you'll hear it in lots of classic Rolling Stones songs. These guys are famous for their totally unified rhythm section.

- Atmospheric bass - single bass notes delivered at the beginning of a sequence and held, sometimes wavering, for a long time. A lot of Pink Floyd stuff uses atmospheric bass; listen to "Goodbye Blue Skies" from The Wall.

- Counterpoint - This is kind of interesting; the bass plays a line of notes that are, in pacing and pitch, a kind of reverse mirror to the melody delivered by the rest of the band. Listen to "Life's Been Good" by Joe Walsh; contrast with "Rocky Mountain Way" which is a modified Walking Bass.

- Melodic - The bass plays a melody, just like one of the lead instruments. A lot of Led Zeppelin and Yes songs use melodic bass, as in "Rondelay" for the latter band.

- Undercurrent - The bass plays the same notes as the other instruments, usually the continuously-driving rhythm guitar, so that they sound like one instrument that's at least one part freight train. Most, although not all, AC/DC songs use undercurrent bass, in direct parallel with the rhythm guitar.

- Cues - No one uses just bass cues, of course. Cues are scattered throughout all the other styles during a song. Sometimes they are simply particular notes; other times they are oddly pitched notes, a distinctive riff, or an electronic noise of some kind (squeal, rip, pop).

Sometimes a bass player sticks to one of these styles throughout a song, but sometimes he switches around. You might be surprised, once you get used to listening to music like this, how often you can pick up the bass' cue (a tenor note, an electronic "pop," or a quick scale-riff) right before a lead solo or right before the band all joins in after a solo.

Q: Wait, let me try. I think I see the role-playing now.

- Walking would be the ongoing background of what the NPCs have done so far and what they're up to now, which the player-characters only see as references or effects; the actions wouldn't actually occur on-screen.

- Atmospheric would be setting a mood at the beginning of a session or a scene and just reinforcing it, steadily and without much variety, over a long period.  

- Counterpoint would be kind of like ... um, let's see, maybe bringing events together, so that every player-contribution fitted with one another and they come together quickly, or even better, it's the out-of-character communication among the group, so that people can see how actions taken by each character affects one or more of the other characters, only the characters don't know it.

- Melody, that's easy, it's just playing an NPC a lot like a player-character.

- Undercurrent would be when a player takes on Director power and the GM reinforces it, both socially by giving them the authority and also by providing confirmation, NPC reactions, or background information that makes the player's stuff even more important.

- And Cues would be literally cues handing decision-moments to players, like providing some event (NPC action or whatever) and saying to a player, "You! What do you do?" (pause) Hey, those are Bangs from Sorcerer! This is making sense!

A: Yes, and I think people can probably come up with many other techniques that can also fit into the different types. Clearly, a given GM can concentrate on one of these styles or switch among them in different ways and orders.

Also, within each category might be ways to sophisticate or de-construct any of these things. Plus, none of this concerns the content of the song at all, does it? We could be talking about an operatic revenge-drama like a lot of Riddle of Steel play, a light and sentimental session of Heartquest, or a brutally philosophical and intellectual Sorcerer game. So the potential variety is incredible.

Now that you have the idea, listen to The Who. John Entwhistle is famous for his mastery of all the styles of bass-playing, and how well he musically united three other ego-tripping, highly-talented, and barely-in-control musicians who would probably never have been able to play a song together without such a solid center. Pete Townsend was the band's intellectual center, but Entwhistle was the one who made it possible for them all to play Townsend's ideas and get thousands of people screaming their heads off about it.

Q: How do you play, usually?

A: I'm big on Walking, occasional Melody, and Cues. I try to work on Undercurrent more often, though, and in the last couple of years I've gotten pretty good at Counterpoint, replacing the Walking. I'm pretty bad at Atmospheric, I'm afraid.

Q: Just for fun, could you compare a given song, throughout, to a role-playing session? If we take a song, could we imagine a session that follows the bass-line's techniques and the players' contribution on a 1:1 basis?

A: Yup. Try it with "Sweet Child of Mine" (Guns & Roses), "Crocodile Rock" (Elton John), "Wish You Were Here" and "Young Lust" (Pink Floyd), and "You Shook Me All Night Long" (AC/DC).

Q: What does all this have to with GNS?

A: Speaking for myself, I can talk a great deal about how this concept of GMing is central to Narrativist play, bearing in mind that "heavy bass" with Walking, Melody, and lots of Cues (lots of scene framing, major setting, and actively-played NPCs and intrusive Bangs) can be employed in a Narrativist context just as well as "light bass" with very minor Undercurrent and few Cues (atmosphere, setup, a minor Bang or two once in a great while). I am open to discussion about how it might or might not apply to other GNS modes, but I do find it very useful to help people understand the possible roles of the GM in Narrativist play.


Guys, it's rough rough draft. Don't flip.


M. J. Young

I don't know.

I was able to follow it and make sense of it; but I think I've an advantage--I came close to being a professional musician, and was in demand as a bass player, so I've got most of the concepts down from a musical perspective (and I've got some experience running games, too, so I could follow the analogies). But it was a bit of a rocky ride even with that.

You've used this analogy of the bass player before, and I've wondered: do you play?

--M. J. Young


As someone who doesn't no much about music I can say that using music as a metphor here works well. At least I feel I got the points easily - so you don't have to be a professional to understand the piece.

I have one simple question about it. You talk exclusively about narrativist play but aren't the modes of GMing you describe applicable to all play? At least I could regognize myself and our current GM from the text but as far as I have understanded we are more simists that narists.
Johannes Kellomaki

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

M. J., could you explain a little more about what you mean by "rocky ride"? I really don't know what you mean ...

Also, I don't play bass, but I do have an extensive background in playing jazz, concert, and classical music. Trumpet, if you must know - many years, many venues, many places. But after I did more combos and gigs rather than big ol' orchestras, I realized that I preferred the bass ... but I could never wrap my head around playing any kind of guitar; my fingers and brain don't seem to do "chords."

Johannes, a little while after I posted it, I realized that this piece is extremely out of context. It's written completely in the context of wanting "story" to emerge from play. Think of one GM who works very hard to get the players to conform or cooperate with his story, and of another who concentrates on facilitating the players' author powers.

Those are the only people who are talking; essentially, they're both Narrativists but one is not very good at it. It's not a discussion about any other GNS mode, nor are techniques supposed to be unique to Narrativist play.

It might also help if you review Premise again - the lines of communication and real-people dialogue that constitute "the music," in this piece, are all about addressing an Egri-style Premise, in one fashion or another. As soon as you're talking about addressing something else, then we're not discussing the same kind of communication, and my whole excerpt isn't relevant.

I think that maybe we should hold off on more GNS discussion until at least the Simulationism essay is available on Monday.



Hi everybody,

I'm completly illiterate when it comes to music, I can play the CD player but that's it ;-)  But I think I got your points anyway because I know most of the songs you were talking about...

"Arguing on the internet is like competing in the Special Olympics;
you may win, but you're still retarded."


Hi Ron,

I'm with Frank.  After I read your essay, I came away thinking: "_this_ is what he means by GM as base player!"  And I even have two or three GM techniques to take away: Conterpoint, Undercurrent, etc.  If I understand correctly, Walking, Melody, and Cues are pretty standard tools of any GM.

Thanks for writing this.

- Alan
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:

Jeffrey Miller

Uh... yeah.  Exactly.  I don't get it -- you're explaining The Obvious(tm).  Are you reaching for something special here that I'm missing?

Clinton R. Nixon

Nonplussed humans,

Remember - most of you have been GMing for a long time and are quite good at it. (I know Alan and M.J. are for a fact, and I suspect Jeff rocks on toast.)

As someone who's only been GMing very actively for about a year now (mostly playing before that), I'm shocked at how many techniques I've just learned; and am continually shocked by how many experienced GMs miss out on some of the above techniques.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Jeffrey Miller

Quote from: Clinton R. NixonNonplussed humans,

Remember - most of you have been GMing for a long time and are quite good at it. (I know Alan and M.J. are for a fact, and I suspect Jeff rocks on toast.)

As someone who's only been GMing very actively for about a year now (mostly playing before that), I'm shocked at how many techniques I've just learned; and am continually shocked by how many experienced GMs miss out on some of the above techniques.

I'm officially chastised.  Don't mind me today, I'm cranky because its Self Review Week here at, and I hate the process.

"Describe to us someone who would fit your position better than you.  What qualities and qualifications makes this person a better candidate?"



Something that I appreciated about the sampling that hasn't been mentioned is the dialogue format.  I heartily approve.  I think that this style of writing will go a long way towards making the essay warm and approachable without losing the quality of the content.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Great Wolf
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Another clarification occurred to me.

The "music" does not correspond to speaking. It corresponds to shared, imaginative creativity (the Exploration), along communicative space among all the participants.

Therefore my "invisibility" comment may be throwing people off the track. I am thinking of play circumstances in which the GM provides many cues not only for people to do something, but specifically what they are supposed to do.

- "You sure you wanna do that?" (pause) "You're sure?"

- More extremely, "You don't wanna do that. You don't know whether they left a booby-trap in that safe, or what."

- Glancing humorously toward "faithful" players, such that they spring into action to dissuade the active one.

None of this is playing bass. If that's what you're thinking of when you read "invisible," that's not what I mean at all. I do not mean "not accountable, or you can't prove otherwise." I mean, literally, that the GM does not determine the actions of the characters which decisively resolve the conflicts at hand. He does not write or play the song.

Here's the big therefore:

Many GMs think they play bass but in reality are playing a Moog synthesizer, permitting the players to chime in on pennywhistles. Sure, the players have "freedom" to toot their hearts out, but they can't contribute much to the communicative space in terms of presence or content.

Many GMs act as orchestral conductors, laying out the sheet music and organizing who goes when, keeping everyone all in the same song with its content all laid out.

Many GMs simply oversee a lot of cacophony, but operating "the board," which is to say, editing, increasing and decreasing volumes, rearranging the order of things, adding, sweetening, and so on.

Many GMs seem to play bass, but whenever it's time for a solo, they'll grab the instruments away and play them themselves, or stand behind the player and move his or her fingers for them.



Quote from: AlanHi Ron,

I'm with Frank.  After I read your essay, I came away thinking: "_this_ is what he means by GM as base player!"  And I even have two or three GM techniques to take away: Conterpoint, Undercurrent, etc.  If I understand correctly, Walking, Melody, and Cues are pretty standard tools of any GM.

Thanks for writing this.

Just to clarify my own post: I thought Ron had some good and original posts in his first message.  Those I'm familiar with bear reconsideration in light of his metaphore, and those I'm not familiar with were educational.  Atmosphere and Counterpoint are particularly interesting and I'd like to hear more.  

Undercurrent, I understand, but haven't used much until I started playing games that gave players directorial power.

What would be very helpful, is not just a metaphorical framework, but an actual step by step direction for preparation and execution for each technique.  Ron articles ring with lots of good theory and metaphore, but often lack in concrete directions.

For example, an important assumption in Counterpoint - I think - is that characters can and will be pursuing different threads simultateously, often without knowledge of each other's actions.  This doesn't show up much in traditional, party-as-one play.  Beyond this, I'm not exactly sure what specific things the GM does to produce a counterpoint.  I'd like to know.
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:

Ron Edwards

Hi Alan,

Which is why Sex & Sorcery has a whole chapter full of examples. I use slightly different terminology, but it's about the same stuff. And did I mention, lots of concrete examples?


M. J. Young

Well, I think I may have found a good part of the answer to
Quote from: the question RonM. J., could you explain a little more about what you mean by "rocky ride"? I really don't know what you mean ...
when I read
Quote from: what FrankBut I think I got your points anyway because I know most of the songs you were talking about...
I, on the other hand, haven't listened to Motown, rock 'n' roll, or the blues for rather more than a few years (I've been on a pretty solid diet of classical with sides of jazz since about 1984, and had stopped listening to most commercial stuff a decade before that). Thus my problem is that I'm working more from the descriptions than the examples, most of which are very unfamiliar to me and the rest distant memories.

Don't fix it for me; I'm really on the fringe here.

--M. J. Young

Michael S. Miller

I gotta weigh in with M.J. and Alan here. I don't listen to this kinda music, and don't "get" music theory in general. In an effort to understand what you were saying, Ron, I even subjected myself to the classic rock station on the drive home yesterday (shudder -- how's that for dedication?). I learned that I can't pick out different types of guitars, let alone follow their melodies.

That said, I thought the six methods of GMing are highly instructive and, like Alan, hope that the final draft of the essay will develop them beyond their current 2-line state. Examples in Sex & Sorcery are great and I'm looking forward to it, but you had asked for comments specifically on this portion of the essay.

I also have to echo Seth's applause of the Q&A format. It keeps things moving.

One question. On the second to last question: "Compare a given song to a role-playing session"; I assume this is still in rough draft land and that the list of songs is your notes to yourself on what to use to write up the example. Or is it a homework assignment for the reader? It was a bit unclear, as I read the question expecting a long involved answer, and got a short one.
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