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What Narrativism Isn’t

August 6, 2011

This is the partner to Narrativism 101. Actually, it’s more like the “Myths about Narrativism” section.

Not “I can say anything!”, Not revising the world

The biggest confusion I see is confusing rules or mechanics that allow the players to narrate the world or change setting aspects for actual Narrativism. This almost always also ties into the strawman argument that you’d have players declaring their characters are gods, shoot down the sun, and magically have money come falling out their asses.

If you read Narrativism 101, it’s pretty clear that the only “power” the players HAVE TO HAVE is the ability to let their characters act freely within their ability. There’s nothing new about that.

Some games have rules that give players more power to narrate or control the story, but a) that’s not Narrativist anymore than rolling a D6 would be, and b) many of those games also don’t have people doing ridiculous things to break the fiction.

A secondary issue is that while Narrativism puts dealing with human issues as the point of play- that doesn’t mean the “realism” or genre of the game is thrown out – the human issues are addressed while holding TO the fictional expectations for your game. (That is, if it’s completely realistic, then no one will go flying in the air because they’re in love).

Not pre-thinking out a moral of the story or thematic focus

The second biggest thing that seems to be out there is the idea that Narrativism means we all sit down and decide to play a game to tell the story of “War is Bad” or something.

Nope! Part of Narrativism’s freedom to act on and make choices of human issues means that:

a) If it’s an obvious issue that’s not a question, there’s no choices/statements to really make about it, or;
b) If it’s not known, then the point is for us to play the game and see what themes/statements emerge FROM that.

No one has to have a major discussion to “pre-decide” these things.

Not Rules Light

Narrativism can be rules light, or rules heavy. Burning Wheel and Riddle of Steel are two rather crunchy games that are avowedly Narrativist in design.

Even though a lot of their rules have nothing specific to do with human issues, but rather, stuff like combat rules or skills, the overall reward structure of the games means all of that crunch is used in service to the human issues focus.

Not “Part Time Narrativism”

A common mistake is the assumption you can mix Creative Agendas – which ignores the basic definition of “The whole point of play is to do X”. It’s like saying because you had lettuce in your hamburger, you were eating vegetarian.

Either dealing with human issues was the POINT of play or it wasn’t.

Not “Numbers = Feelings”

Towards the further end of extreme misunderstandings, there’s the idea that all Narrativist play requires putting feelings and relationships to numbers, and that you can’t control your character.

Nope! Some games put numbers to feelings, but that’s not a requirement to Narrativism. Sometimes those numbers are descriptive (saying, how MUCH you care/feel that way) and sometimes they’re simply resources/pacing mechanics (“Yes, you totally totally love him, but we just had you spend 3 scenes on that, so the rules encourage you to focus on other characters”).

As I said – “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.” – the whole post above? Is basically cutting out the strawmen arguments based on folks either stuck in one understanding of how games work or One-True-Wayism.

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