Narrative is not a game mechanic, except in roleplaying games

January 23, 2012

Raph Koster writes mostly about videogames, but his Narrative is not a game mechanic post is an excellent read and worth considering in contrast to rpg play and design.

For videogames, IF, or Choose Your Own Adventure games, the narrative is a set thing, a story, to be consumed and enjoyed. He points out that it’s a feedback or reward, because you make choices during gameplay, but you don’t make choices during the “story” (cutscenes, results, etc.).

But, for tabletop roleplaying, the definition of a tabletop rpg depends on the value of fiction/non-mechanical elements being a meaningful part of play (in some games, the primary or sole factor in play).

A bigger, and more valuable consideration from his post, though, is that for those games, mechanics can generate many experiences, but the “set story” gives a single experience – it takes a lot of effort for a limited value, compared to the mechanics which create play.

For tabletop games, first let’s think about combat, mechanic heavy games where the GM is forced to create encounters, every week, over and over. This means the GM is now forced to be a level designer, who has no chance to playtest or edit, but is forced to create, play, and modify on the fly for their group. Is it any wonder burnout is common in this play? Luckily many games have gotten better about encounter creation and management, but it’s still a concern.

Second, consider Illusionism, which is basically creating a story, constantly, and having to engineer it into happening with unaware actors. If player input is blocked, you have the same situation as in Koster’s post- little actual gameplay, but a lot of one-shot story event responses.

The key design element I’m seeing for tabletop games, overall, given the history, is how well do they give the group tools to interact with the fictional/non-mechanical elements they create, and how well does it coordinate the group working together? That whole Clouds and Arrows discussion is the issue.

The sad irony is, for all the accusations that newer rpgs are “basically videogames”, the fact is, in the light of low gameplay high “feed you a story”, that’s pretty much mostly rpgs of the 90’s that promoted that – we’re moving away from that and more towards what rpgs actually do support best.

For tabletop rpgs, narrative (fictional events) IS a game mechanic – the group creates it collaboratively and it feeds back and forth with the mechanics.

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