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Time and Themes in Nar Play

December 7, 2011

I’ve been thinking about media and the sorts of ways different media can address different ideas – primarily constrained by the time the media has to explore it.

Narrativist gaming can go anything from a short one shot to hundreds of hours of play, which means it could hold the same length and opportunity to explore ideas as the longest epic story or tv series, to the length of a movie or tv show in terms of time.

And, when you look at these different media, you can see the types of themes and depth, is constrained by time. I’m guessing that one of the biggest areas we’ll see exploration in design for Nar play is going to be about how we handle time and coordinate our theme exploration around that.

Right now, we have about 3 means of bounding time:

1. A set number of sessions

Primetime Adventures is the key here, though self-imposed limits(such as a one-shot) tend to work well- the group can pace their exploration with this in mind. You can make sure to place anything your doing with the idea of potentially/probably seeing resolution by the end of the set limit.

2. A mechanical* ending trigger

My Life with Master really started this, though you see it in Polaris, Breaking the Ice, Bliss Stage, Burning Empires, Poison’d and a lot of other games- there’s some kind of stat, event, or score that eventually triggers off endgame for everyone. Since everyone at the table knows what that looks like, they can angle for or against it- how things end is a pretty big statement that wraps things up.

(*obviously, mechanical could also include stuff like “When two players or more decide it’s over” or such)

3. Unbounded

This, right now, seems to be the default in a lot of ways. While this isn’t too bad, and enough games still allow you to regularly hit themes with either group prioritization or mechanics (Burning Wheel, HeroQuest, Riddle of Steel), the big problem is coordinating the scale of theme to address and wrap up. Not to mention the usual problem of unbounded play in general- keeping it going. Committing to indefinite play is difficult for most people.

I’m guessing what we’re going to see over the next 10 years is actual expertise in what themes fit for what time spans and better mechanics to meet those needs. Right now, we hear about people having legendary results of long term campaigns once-in-a-while, because I’m guessing we’re lacking both techniques and mechanics to make more consistent results. (And, of course, the classic time issue)

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