Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Narrative Flow vs. Player Skill

Well, when I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll. I closed my last post with the idea that players always have the possibility to influence the flow of a narrative by concreting it up to a point where the result is calculable for the players. Here's about how ... Might be my shortest post this year, too!

Narrative Flow

The wobbly core of every role playing game is the narrative flow that emerges when playing the it. It's that picaresque narrative that forms in hindsight our stories and all that forms over time the campaign. Again, because it bears repeating, the perception of our role playing experience is comprised out of 3 levels:
The Narrative 

The Story 

The Campaign
Everything we do in the game informs and/or forms those levels. Player decisions, DM reactions, system responses, idle chatter, movie references, they all become in retrospective the gaming experience. It's how our brain works, I guess. We interpret our reality to stories, because context is a process of understanding.

But that's not the narrative flow. Not per se, anyway. The flow describes that specific moment when the narrative clicks at the table. There is tension and all involved ride the narrative like a wave. You won't have that for a complete gaming session, but ideally you should have it several times during one, bridging the rest as good as possible (and this is, again, where interpretation helps ... the DMs duty).

There is clear distinction in classic role playing games between 
what informs the narrative and what forms it.

On the informing side are system and players, both feed with their intertwined dynamic of attempt and result the narrative with fragments. The DM then, traditionally, forms all that into a coherent interpretation, closing narrative arcs or creating new ones as needed.

All participants of two sides are connected through communication. This is no surprise, of course, but it is very relevant for the game. The system communicates results and the DM communicates context. Both DM and system are somewhat bound to integrity, they function under fixed rules when forming narratives, like arcs of suspense, internal coherence and suspension of disbelief. If rules or a DM produce unlikely results, they destroy (or at least damage) the flow. Maybe we could describe them as agents of harmony towards the narrative.

Players are in a unique position here. They communicate possibilities and this is, finally, where player skill is situated.

Player Skill

Communication is always between all participants. Players communicate with the system to optimize their decisions from a technical side, so to say. With the DM they communicate about the specifics in the narrative. What is possible and how is it achievable. Possibilities, but not necessarily harmony.

So players are, in a way (and going with the analogy above), agents of chaos. A disruptive power, if you will. They are bound to the narrative, but since they are not forming it, as described above, they are free to challenge the harmony instead.

If you think about it, that's all the players do: disrupting the narrative towards a more favorable outcome. And that's it. Sure, some like to immerse themselves in a role and play that and there is a wide range of goals you might associate with role playing games and all those things are legit. But if you look at the game from the storytelling perspective (not just the white wolf variant, but in general) you'll see that this is what it's all about. Anything you want to achieve as a player in a traditional role playing starts with exactly that basic assumption.

Now, where from there? Well, a player could use this for all kinds of things. Recognizing important NPCs or plot devices and killing them off when the DM is careless would be a classic in that regard. But although the ability to destroy a game on a purely narrative basis shows the right talent, it is not yet fully realized player skill at all. It's just destructive.

It might just work ... [source]
So what is player skill? As a consequence of the argument I'm making here, it is using player communication with system and DM to inform a narrative beneficially towards the goals all participants formulated in the game they are playing by narrowing down the narrative options to a manageable scale.

In other words: the best technique to achieve any goal as a player in a role playing game, in my experience, is limiting as many options in the ongoing narrative as possible. A DM is obliged to communicate what a character can know. But every time you get an answer about the current situation in the narrative, the DM also codifies (forms) the result. He has to make decisions and with that he limits his options in the narrative.

Ideally this is a part of the game without dice or system up to the point where a player has enough information to get advantages out of it. No rolls in the beginning, easy pickings afterwards.

Using "blind spots" in a system is another way to make this work. That's how lamp oil and fire or the ten foot pole got so popular in early D&D. Clever usage of the environment that somehow circumvents the system to get an advantage in the narrative. This and limiting DM options obviously go very well hand in hand.

Everything a player might want to achieve starts here and a player being good (skilled) at playing it like that is a real asset at the table. For all involved, actually, as most DM's I know really appreciate a challenge like that.


Damn, I've been writing towards this specific point for a long time now. Never quite got to it until now, though. There are many games out there today that allow players the power to actually form the narrative instead of "just" informing it. I never liked that, to be honest. Another trend is to reduce the system information process in a narrative towards the bare minimum (rules light systems) and I never liked that, too. Now I know why. Balance:
The Triquetra are players, system and DM, the circle is the narrative [source]
I mean, sure, I get it. Playing with those elements has merit (like with InSpectres*, for instance) and helps producing very specific results (My Life with Master comes to mind), but are they fully actualized role playing games? Maybe not. For me at least the beauty of playing is in the balance you can find in, say, the (wait for it ....) D&D Rules Cyclopedia, for instance**. Because all participants (and that includes the rules) play an equal (if different) part in creating the narrative that make the stories we love.

Other games with different emphases do that, too, of course. But it's the "equal"-part I'm talking about here. It's all a matter of taste, of course.

* Which obviously has a movie now? The random things you discover doing research ...

**  There are many, many other games that fulfill the criteria I formulated above. Cyberpunk, Runequest, the oWoD games ... there is a lot of them :)


  1. Whenever I am asked how to become a good DM, my answer is always, PLAY! Be a player and figure it out. Play different styles, different classes, and learn the game from the other side of the screen first. Not to say that you can't learn by fire, but the best way is to play.

    Modern players have a hard time playing these older games, they expect to run into a hole in the ground, in spite of the fact that they have no idea what is down there, and kill everything; just because they are PCs. They call lower level PC's in our games, incompetent, and this is why. They never figured this stuff out, because once you do, once you look at a situation and resist picking up the dice for as long as possible, then you as the player make these characters competent. It is all about calculating risk and reward, and understanding that you can either kill all of the goblins for XP or what not, or you can convince the goblins to let you lead them in search of bigger fish and a better lair further away. Of course a DM who doesn't have this basic mechanic understood won't let that happen, will they?

    1. Thanks, Ripper! Resisting to pick up the dice for as long as possible ... good call there. Left me a bit looking for words there :) The game within the game? Game without dice? All inadequate. You hit it on the head.

      And DMs not knowing this are either inexperienced and getting there or, well, bad.

  2. Excellent stuff as always Jens. I forwarded this on to our stars without number GM because it touches on a lot of the things we have been talking about concerning his game.

    1. Thanks, man! I hope it is somewhat of assistance, then :)