Narrativism: It’s like this
- Your character has values that are emotionally important to them*.
- During play, you express and wrestle with those values as a key focus of play
- A story arc is fulfilled as part of play
Values – your character’s vs. your own
Narrativist play, in general, boils down to “What does your character care about, why, and what are they going to do about it?” – with the actual playing of the game being where we find out those answers.**
Maybe your character is really obsessed with mastering a particular martial art move – but the emotional reason is that it was the one thing they felt left them a connection to their deceased father. The action only holds meaning by reason of the context. The fun part of play is questions like “Will you work with this sketchy master who will teach you the technique, but only if you help them in crime?”***
So one of the basic things to this is buy-in – we’re agreeing to play characters who care about SOMETHING and we also agree that we, the players at the table, care about how our characters care about those, in some way. We also agree our characters might change, grow, or fall – they’re not 2 dimensional characters who never change.
This isn’t to say you have to agree with your characters’ values – but rather they are compelling. That character you love to hate, but you can’t stop watching/reading about them? They’re compelling. So, you care about what they care about, even if that’s the care of complete disagreement.
It’s also important to recognize that these values are not locked in – it’s not the classic alignment or Paladin’s Code from which your character doesn’t stray. These values are things which your character is going to wrestle over – maybe outgrow, maybe reject, maybe commit harder. We play to find out.
The Starting Values vs. the Real Values
One of the things I’ve noticed in play is that what you often think your characters’ core values are, are only starting as an approximation, or a guess. It’s a direction to strike out in, and usually in a few sessions you find a more accurate idea, or that the real value is something very different than what you started with – but that initial direction allowed you to find it. It’s important to be aware of this idea because people will often over-think their characters initial values or attempt to hold onto them when it’s time to move on.
A Story Arc
What I’m referring to here is not a full campaign, but rather enough of a story that would fit into a TV episode, a comic book issue, or a chapter in a novel.
Enough happens that you can say you felt there was a significant development and something came to a conclusion or consequence. You know how the end of a good chapter or episode hits those notes that leave you fulfilled in some way? That’s what I mean. That doesn’t necessarily mean everything is wrapped up, or that the story has “fully been told”.
Consistently hitting this experience is what makes great Narrativist play. As a player, you can talk about it as “I struggled, I tried, win or lose, but damn, I did something.” When I’ve had people tell me that “we did more in this one session than I’ve done in most campaigns” it’s simply that the story arcs found conclusions – choices had consequences, characters developed and so on.
I’ve found the trick to success here is not so much in the epic long term issues, but delivering on this experience every session. Seeing consistent closure to smaller arcs gets people excited and eager to keep playing, and to shape the larger arc.
Given that the sorts of stories you could create are infinite, how do you get it to hang together well with these different characters with different values and beliefs?
Some Narrativist games give you a single set of values to play from. This is often a code or set of cultural expectations that the characters subscribe to, but not as an unchangeable set of rules, but rather a set you test, live up to, fail, reject, or reinterpret. Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard all do this – the thematic focus is seeing all the different ways these characters navigate these codes they’re involved with and often finding the gaps between what the codes say and what actually makes you a “good person”.
Some other games build the values you need to wrestle with into the mechanics. For example, The Drifter’s Escape has you constantly making bargains with hostile forces of the universe, and having to take a gamble anytime you want to get through without indebting yourself to them. The core question of what will you accept, what will you fight for, and what will you run from is deeply built into the conflict mechanics.
Many Narrativist games, and any other game you drift into Narrativism, however, leaves it wide open. In those cases, I find it’s useful to start with unified situation and draw some rough lines about factions/sides/issues and let that be the focus.
I’ve screwed up a few games by forgetting to get this in place before play starts. Often it’s in trying to run one shots or pick up games without good forethought. Without the focus, it’s like dropping characters from entirely different emotional genres into the same story, and nothing quite clicks (Imagine a game with grimdark Batman characters and Adam West Batman characters trying to interact. It doesn’t work.).
You can get this experience with a lot of different games, or sets of mechanics. However, don’t confuse that for “any and all”. Being able to get that focus on emotional values and playing with them requires focusing the “camera” on those issues scene to scene.
This means any game where you preplan the scene-to-scene events and outcomes stops that from happening. So this often becomes the most important thing to eject from a game if you’re trying to get Narrativist play from a system that doesn’t support it.
Although you can simply go from there, you get more reliable success if you have some kind of Flag Mechanics to help focus what kinds of scenes and conflicts you should focus on. This is also why a lot of people find games like Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel or Sorcerer are confusing as far as Creative Agenda – the functional mechanics are fundamentally the same as many other games, until you hit the point of their Flag Mechanics and how you construct scenes and the events in play – the things the characters emotionally value are what drive the direction of the story.
The second common issue is that if the scene to scene conflicts aren’t attached to the characters’ emotional values, then you don’t actually spend any time playing with them. This is a common issue when the focus of play is mostly dictated by survival and logistics. For example, a common concern I hear from a lot of 5th edition D&D players is that the Inspiration rules often are forgotten or fall by the wayside in play – the scene to scene events are usual D&D stuff – dungeons and fighting, but the Inspiration rules are often tied to much larger story arcs you don’t necessarily get to hit on every session in play.
All of these are reasons why games that are specifically aimed at supporting Narrativism hit this play mode better than “generic” mechanics. You need to coordinate the group on the values, and making them show up in play consistently. Flags make it easy to target the right things in both scenes and conflicts. Narration trading allows players a lot of power in shifting the camera and the outcomes to focus on things that matter.
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* This is a rephrasing of my past use of “human issues“.
** Players who are used to being blocked or denied this opportunity in play often end up making giant character backstories or making the equivalent of fanfic outside of actual play itself. If there’s no actual avenue of expressing and playing with those values in play, then it ends up having to happen outside of play, or not at all.
***Notice that this has nothing to do with whether you get to have control over the plot, world, or facts outside of your character. You can have the usual standard RPG set up of “One GM controls the NPCs and environment” and “Each player controls one character and only that one character” and still get this kind of play. The idea of control beyond your character is called Director Stance, and the usual mechanic which applies it is called “Narration Trading”, and while these are pretty good tools for Narrativist play, they’re not required. See my past post What Narrativism Isn’t.