Narrativism 101

August 6, 2011


Narrativism is a style of roleplaying where the whole point of playing is to have player characters freely make choices* and actions based on human issues.

There’s your one-sentence definition. It’s pretty simple.

Most of the confusion and complexities about this mostly sit around narrow assumptions about how roleplaying games can and can’t work.

You cannot predefine choices

You can’t have the players freely make choices if the choices are already made. This means techniques like Railroading/Illusionism will not work here. It also means “preparing an adventure with multiple paths” also doesn’t work, because freely means just that- freely.

You may have restrictions about the situation or the characters that somewhat confines things (“You are all police, dedicated to protecting the public – no one should be, or become a crooked cop in this game”), but that’s the buy-in to the situation, not the same thing as preplanning situations and having a limited idea of how it can be solved/dealt with.

There’s a second important thing that comes of it- if the responses and choices of the players are freely available, there’s no way to really predict where things can or will go – which means play (and the role of a GM) has to be based in improvisation and flexibility. This stands in sharp contrast to many games which assume the only way to play is to have a pre-defined story or outcomes.

Human issues must be the overall focus of play

This means that the problems that show up for characters, and situations, eventually aim towards producing situations that require choices on human issues.

While any sandbox type game might allow characters to freely make choices, the focus on the human issues is a second, and critical aspect.

This focus on human issues can be, and often is, a playstyle choice of the group- and can be done with anything from freeform rules to GURPS to whatever. That said, most of modern Narrativist game design focuses on rules to help keep this focus.

These first two issues are pretty much the big hurdles for folks not familiar with Narrativist play. Many groups find their way into Narrativism even without knowing it had a name, or playing any Narrativist games. (My high school Feng Shui game did this, and we had a ton of fun).

Next: What Narrativism Isn’t.

The in-depth look at Narrativism is Ron Edwards’ Narrativism: Story Now article.

*Obviously, I mean the players make choices through using their characters, but as far as the fiction is concerned, it’s the PCs “making choices” within the fiction.

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