Sunday, September 7, 2014

Narrative Control vs. D&D

More posts about the Analogue Goblin-Tribe Simulator will be up very soon (as I have some free time to get things DONE right now), but since we just started the WitchCraft game I talked about almost a year ago, I'd like to share some (yeah, well, I tried to keep it short) of my observations about that in between ...

WitchCraft is a storyteller-game, D&D not so much

While there are several notable attempts to establish some point-buy systems for D&D (starting with the rule of "4D6, drop lowest"), none of them really went beyond giving players some more room in deciding what they're going to play*, because D&D works within a very strict class-system that's way to narrow to allow for a completely unlimited character creation as it is the case with, to name one example, WitchCraft.

The main difference here is the narrative control a player is allowed to have and the impact it has on the game. With D&D the first real compromise you have to make as a player is what function you're willing to play in the group**. This can be a good thing since it (potentially) connects a character to a group. It can be a bad thing if a DM is not very clear that this is how it goes down. You just can't "do everything, because it's a role playing game" as everyone and their grandmother would like you to believe. No, when you're playing games like D&D, you're allowed to move your pieces in a (more or less) very strict game, with freedom only within what the rules allow and the illusion of freedom for everything else. Freedom to choose, for instance, always goes along with the awareness of the possibilities. If a game just doesn't care to produce this kind of awareness, it won't be big about giving players a true choice.

On the other hand one could argue that a more structured game produces fairness and allows a focus on what should be important in the game. And yet, it's not rules that produce or guaranty fairness and "what the game is about" is still (for good reasons) a matter of debate.

But a neglect of narrative control and a narrowing of choices are a merit of their own, if all can agree of what is to be achieved in any specific version of the game. Rules-light variants of The Game, while still being structured, produce a different kind of freedom (less narrative control, more freedom of ... let's say: expression?) because of their lack of rules.

It is something a group can easily agree upon (and it is somehow part of D&D's popularity, up to the bloated straitjacket that is 3E and maybe even beyond that). It's not a bad thing either, but it's gets problematic as soon as it's believed to be the only option. As always, it's a lack of awareness that produces dis-harmonies, so to say.

So what is narrative control?

When I went and proposed to play a game of WitchCraft until I get to a point where I believe I'm able to DM a game of D&D again***, I got 3 Players confirming for the first session: a Newbie, a Veteran (that also is a regular in my group) and a player new to our group that had some experience with other systems (more like D&D, storyteller games not so much). The best mix I could wish for in the argument I'm trying to make here.

This is what they got to work with: A small strange town deep in the woods somewhere in East Germany and near to the polish border (Dirkterwalde, see link above for more information). The year is 1999, the genre is Urban Fantasy (I'm talking Twin Peaks, X-Files and, to some extent, American Horror Story: Coven here). They are free to build their own characters as long as they fit into this setting.

This is what they did:

The Newbie

Being completely new to role playing games gives a unique perspective to the hobby. A conscious DM will use this to his and the players advantage, because whatever approach a DM is choosing when explaining the system, will stick and inform later decisions of said player. So I tell her that the most important thing is to have an idea what person she wants to play, then we distribute the points she got in a way that makes the idea work.

There are 3 basic categories to choose from: Mundane, Lesser Gifted and Gifted (you might want to call them "classes", but they really just shift the available points on a scale from no magic to magical creature). She opts to play a lesser gifted witch, when asked for reasons to live in this town, she offers that her character somehow gives shelter to girls in trouble and she wants to have something burlesque to the character. In the end we agreed that her character owns a small Vaudeville theater that acts as a front for her coven to shelter young discovered witches until they know what's what.

Before she even started to distribute points she had a pretty clear picture of what she was aiming for. Now it was important to stress that for expressing her ideas in a character sheet she needs to spent the points to make it happen. It's where either the player or the DM gets narrative control. She wants a contact in the coven that helps her every now and then? The points she spends decide how effective that contact will be. And so on. She spends points on resources, so her etablissement is quite successful, her character is an artist with a specialization on dancing with blades, so her character can deliver on stage and gets a combat skill in there, too. She also spends the points to get that contact working.

The result is a character with great potential for a DM that does what the player wanted it to do. She has narrative control in the things she cares about, is connected to the setting in a way that allows for some stories that fit the character (a troubled-young-witch-of-the-week-feature would be my first thought ...), which is some sort of narrative control in itself, and offers a social scenario where the characters could have met. I couldn't have wished for a better result and she's quite happy with it, too.

There is one other form of narrative control she exercised: her character is an orphan and single with no children. No emotional links a DM could use against her. Good for her ...

The Veteran

This is a great example of someone that has played his share of different role playing games, because he did what all skilled players with some experience under their belt do: he covered all bases and formed a narrative around it, then he looked for weaknesses in the system to exploit them. It was a bit scary to behold.

Playing a Mundane was his first choice and a good one, at that. As far as points go, all three choices are pretty balanced, so it will be a character that works within the setting without feeling inferior****, plus it cancels the need to learn more than the basics of the magic system WitchCraft offers. He just needs to know how to protect himself from magic and how to hurt stuff (basically).

We wrote a few mails back and forth to discuss the specifics: His parents are already dead (anyone else seeing a pattern here?) and he has loose contact to a cousin that dabbles in the arcane (not a bought contact, but a connection to the supernatural for me to do with as I please: his decision to leave narrative control in my hands). He has a military background and we agreed that he had been in the Nationale Volksarmee (links to the English wiki-page) around the time the German Democratic Republic fell apart. In 1999 he's a sales rep for a sausage factory, living in Dirkterwalde and travelling East Germany. A job he uses as a cover for his real calling: he's a cat burglar, stealing from corrupt politicians and others that made a great deal of cash utilizing the German reunification to their advantage (and the disadvantage of others ...), giving all the money away for charity (again, he leaves narrative control in my hands: all he needs for his character is the skills a cat burglar has to have, not the money, nor the criminal connections ...). He also recently joined a Dojo to learn Karate.

You see, his approach is totally different to the one the newbie player chose. His character is ready to function in the game. He doesn't need narrative control because he's able to face what I'm going to throw at him. The areas where he exercised narrative control, where those he thought important in ensuring that he got the character he had in mind, leaving almost no room for me as a DM to threaten his character with something he decided to have on his character sheet. He wants to be a free agent in the story he's a part of and achieved exactly that.

Of course his character was finished when he arrived at the game.

The New Guy

Entering a campaign as a new player and complete stranger is always somewhat difficult. Knowing a DM is half the battle, in my opinion, so there is that. Add a completely new system with a different gaming philosophy than what you are used to and narrative control is the least of your concerns during character creation. And yet, there is some interesting symmetry to his choices that express exactly the dilemma I described and produce a well crafted character that has to ignore narrative control.

His choices: He wants to play a gifted psychic (so of the three choices the game offers, every player chose a different one). His character had pretty early discovered that he was different and had played it close to the chest. His way of  finding out what exactly was different about him was not by reaching out, but by studying the human mind instead. So he graduated in psychology and learned as much as possible about the occult. As of yet (before the first session) he is completely oblivious of others with the same or similar powers. Being poor, he had to move back to his parents after finishing his studies. So he's fresh back in town with nothing to do but playing computer games (before they were cool) and starting to learn Kendo (in the same Dojo the veteran's character is frequenting ...).

So yeah, it's a Nerd.
Maybe not a picture the player might agree upon,
but it's definitely the right direction [source].
A cynic might say this character is the perfect victim. Or it's Carrie waiting to happen. Either way, it's a fantastic character in that the lack of narrative control (intentionally or not) in nearly all aspects of the character's background should give a good player the opportunity to get a feeling for the new group, the new DM and the new system just because he's the perfect sounding board for all those things.

What does it mean for D&D?

It is quite difficult to see how this could work in D&D. The main reason for that is how players in WitchCraft are able to create a character by using the setting. They know the 1999's and the cultural background (or may google them) and have a fair understanding of what Urban Fantasy might be, so they can make (somewhat) informed decisions about what they want to play. I really like this kind of direct connection between a player and a setting and WitchCraft really does a fine job in facilitating this.

There are fantasy role playing games out there that use point-buy-systems  that work just fine (D6 Fantasy comes to mind) and don't define themselves as storyteller systems (D6 at least is older than the term itself ...). But is something like this even possible for D&D? The short answer: not the way it is done in WitchCraft and similar role playing games. One good reason: the discrepancy in power-levels between normal folks and high level heroes are far to wide a gap to produce a dramatic pressure strong enough to make it count in a game of D&D. Sure, you could do something like getting the mother of a level 25 character kidnapped, but D&D as a system has no connection to drama like that. It would be ruled with either a subsystem or just playing on a players real-life sense for what's appropriate.

The way I see it, a level 1 character in D&D doesn't need more than a club and an attitude. Character-development is something that isn't done during character creation, but by playing the game. The stories that are being told are not serialized events within a structured narrative, but picaresque stories of epic random fantasy that also evolve from the game. And this is what narrative control shifts to in D&D: it's a simulation of all the parts that, when used and interpreted, will result in a story, with the players and the DM working different parts of the machinations that make the game tick. You can play D&D without ever telling a story about your character, but as soon as you play the Game, a story is being told same goes for the DM that just starts with the dungeon crawl and nothing else).

*HackMaster (4E) is the only exception I know of, that bypassed this in allowing for a huge variety of results on the one hand and a  Drawback/Quality-system with an option to buy ability score points, etc. to an extent where class wasn't that important anymore (which means AD&D could be able to achieve an effect like this, too), but still, there's this huge distinction: Narrative Control (see above).

**In accordance to your possibilities, of course, but since there is such a huge variety of rules how to create those stats, the real first choice is the class.

***As in I'm still in the process of building my own Frankenclone and don't wanna do it while we're already playing  D&D(especially because world-building is next in line ...).

****Man, I need to write about this character at some point. His stats are that good, we started to call him "Captain DDR" pretty much from the beginning ...

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