Hey there. Long time no see ... This blog is not deserted, it's just really slow right now. So many things to do, like, working on getting my first role playing game published or writing short fiction. Most people don't realize, I think, how much time it actually takes to write a complete game from scratch. Anyway, I'm already digressing. What I want to talk about today connects loosely to the last post I had published here, but instead of talking about how to tact combat a bit differently, I'd like to shed some light on how to narrate stories. Or at least how I do it. This applies to all role playing games ...
We all have a basic understanding of stories and how timing is the crucial element in everything we tell or listen to or look at. Even with totally random occurrences we tend to interpret our surroundings towards patterns we believe to recognize. We are also able to re-calibrate and update narratives as soon as new information manifests.
There is a beat to it, and even if you are not able to reproduce it, we all know how to recognize it. The reproducing part, however, is what's crucial when participating in the games we play, as all participants are helping to make the narrative manifest. Actually, they will do so if they want or not. I guess that is an important point to make: it's not that we are not contributing, it's how well we are contributing that we have to look at.
|Timing is everything ... [source]|
That's why groups "cast" players or why people want to keep the chatter to a minimum or why breaks are necessary or why we can only play for so long before the game starts falling apart at the fringes. That's, ultimately, why DM's need tools and systems to enhance their games.
I've said it before and I'll most likely keep saying it: the way I see it, we use the rules of our games as the extension to what we communicate during the game and as described above, it all actually matters, the lingo and terms, the resolve mechanisms, it all helps shaping the game through altering the narrative. The art of writing proper rules, then, needs to include an awareness how telling engaging stories works and how to improve on that. It always boils down to this.
So that's the basics. Everyone contributes all the time, and we should aim to improve and manipulate the flow of information towards a better game.
How to Weave a Narrative
"Weaving" is the key analogy here, I think. Everything is always everywhere on hand, same goes for the moment at the table and it moves and changes constantly. The game gives you a rhythm to apply (good games do), so you have random encounters occurring either in intervals or when probable. Fights have structure to enhance the tension, there are some fail conditions and recognizable patterns to manipulate and extrapolate from on all levels (not only on a meta-level). You have campaign arcs, quest goals, advancement ... The list goes on.
Rules I like to add to the games I'm designing also generate abstract patterns to apply to the manifesting narrative. Tools to manipulate the flow or weave the narrative. I call them "narrative encounters", as in, not a creature or NPC the characters are encountering, but a twist in the story or an unexpected impulse to the narrative.
There are three, in my opinion, crucial benefits for a DM to extend control over the narrative to some form of external system: (1) it offers changes the DM might not have come up with on his own (as we get stuck easily in patterns we like to reproduce), (2) the sum of those impulses helps to conjure the overall impression of, say, genre and (3) it allows foreshadowing from seemingly random decisions happening at the table, since you not necessarily need to now where things are going and instead know what it's going to shape towards.
The Hero's Journey is a prime example of having a pattern like this, but I like to push it all a little further, actually, as I think it's so abstract that, while obviously working, still will reduce a game to just one pattern. It can be applied to the overall structure of a campaign. Easily and to great effect. But I like a bit more random in there. A bit more Tarantino or Pynchon, if you will. As I see it, our games tend to manifest as picaresque, naturally so due to the different sources contributing to the narrative.
For now, just remember: if you weave something, you don't only do sowith what you have, you also do it towards a goal. However, there is still more to that ...
Recognizing the Elements of Stories
The first thing we need to be aware of, is THE STAGE. It's the concepts that make the world the game is set in or the understanding and knowledge of the pieces that make a campaign. In a sense, it means narrowing down the expected outcomes of certain patterns (we have magic and no modern weaponry, people believe in fatalism, capitalist theories are banned or hard SF versus Space Opera ... stuff like that).
However, as a stage, it needs to be more concrete than that. It needs details about the area the characters are exploring, to a degree that the players can make informed decisions about their characters and so that the DM is in a position to have lots of moving pieces he can use without harming the Suspense of Disbelief (basically informing the players about possible negative outcomes or ramifications of actions, at least in general enough terms for them to have them believing in those pieces interfering as the narrative responses to their actions).
The Stage, in a sense, is the part of the sandbox around a group they can be aware of and the toys they can interact, with some horizon for their expectations.
THE CHARACTERS are the second big element of each story. The player start with the same process of choice eliminations when deciding what character they are playing. Characters come with certain patterns how they interact with their surroundings. When players make characters, they agree to apply those patterns by interpreting their character's actions towards them (not necessary to follow them, but to play with them in a way that is recognizable by all participants ... the cleric falling from grace, the fighter not willing to fight, stuff like that is within that realm of possibilities).
Each player has a pattern (or several, depending on the complexity of the characters) to contribute to the manifesting narrative as part of an ongoing dialogue, or rather, moderated argument what's going to happen next and why.
THE CHARACTERS are the tools with which the players are able to interact with THE STAGE. Their senses, if you will.
The third major element are the NARRATIVE IMPULSES a DM gives to all those interacting pieces. Some of it comes from the system (or his use of it), some of it comes from the hints he provides the characters with (as in "invitations to act"), some of it comes from moderating all the offerings the players make to interact (when he interprets their ideas to his concepts of how things work on THE STAGE), but the main part of his work is, imho, the twists he is able to weave into the story, the timing.
The last crucial aspect is a BELIEVABLE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES, which means that players need to believe that their decisions have real impact. Some of that is carried by the rules (and in that regard, rules benefit from complexity in that they extent the REALM), but a huge part of that is actually down to a DMs flexibility to streamline all the impulses manifesting at any given moment during the game with his own NARRATIVE IMPULSES towards believable outcomes in the perceivable future of the STAGE the narrative is manifesting on. Not only what's happening, but (far more importantly, where it's happening towards.
|Be that bambus ... [source]|
If all the aforementioned are to a huge degree craft (system mastery, planned management of expectations and moderation) and knowledge about how we actually perceive stories (so we can manipulate them towards seeded expectations), that last one is where the art is. It's like Jazz. It's the ability to recognize and weave randomly emerging patterns into a cohesive and ongoing narrative that actually seems to go somewhere, all that on the fly. There's lots to talk about there.
The Taoist Approach: Doing Without Doing
Once things are set into motion, once players start interacting with their narrative surroundings, a DM is best advised to hold back and react spontaneously as the game dictates and offers opportunities. If he has no agenda beyond what is already established and a loose idea how it might change in the immediate future, he'll have it easier to recognize the patterns as they emerge. It puts him in a position where he can react instead of needing to act all the time to keep the game afloat. That's what "Doing Without Doing" means.
In a sense it means the DM is leaning back and observing what is happening, always only adjusting the game towards the established and letting the rest run its course until an opportunity arises to enhance the game in another direction. A bit like fishing, if you will.
|It's all about opportunity ... [source]|
As established above, part of being able to maintain this state, is having an idea where the pattern is going to. Not in a concrete way, but as an abstract narrative encounter area the game is gearing towards. How about an example: betrayal. To have a betrayal, it needs a situation where someone is getting betrayed. The Narrative Generator linked to above will also deliver genre-appropriate agents for the betrayal or vague reasons for it. Conditions, in a way, that need to be met to make the narrative encounter manifest.
So the DM takes his time, letting the game flow, manipulating it gently towards a situation where the betrayal could be placed most effectively. It also doesn't mean that the characters need to be betrayed, it can mean that they hear a story about someone being betrayed, get an opportunity to intervene with a betrayal or even, that they need to betray someone to reach a goal. Just as the pattern emerges and opportunity dictates.
In my games, I have at least 3 such narrative encounters prepared for each session. How it all manifests is the campaign log. The important bit is to keep this as vague as possible to be able to apply it to what is actually happening at the table. In that regard, it doesn't matter what the characters are doing, betrayal will be part of the narrative in the immediate future (just like encountering goblins would be with a random monster encounter). It's all the characters' decisions and the DMs spontaneous reaction to it, guided by some vaguely predetermined shifts in the narrative that are accepted within the realm of possibility.
The amount of tact and timing you are able to put into this determines to a huge degree the quality of the narrative that is manifesting at the table and the stories being told about it afterwards.
The Limits of Control
As outlined above, I firmly believe that we don't need a grand narrative. Not in a sense that a DM needs to know he concrete outlines of a campaign (it is a matter of debate if something like this is even possible without a great deal of manipulation towards what the players want ...). There are limits to the control a DM can (or should) have over the manifesting narrative.
|The course is the campaign, the trainer is the DM. the players ... [source]|
Accepting those limits can open up the game for the DM in a way that has him in a spot where he can play as well. Let's go with the betrayal above and say the DM has a specific NPC in mind that will betray the characters, but they never interact with that NPC again for some reason or another. The DM is now in a situation where he created something he's not able to use unless he forces it upon the characters for some reason.
An easy out here would be to have someone tell the characters a story about that character betraying someone else, which might at least have the characters thinking they dodged a bullet there. However, that's not the point. It rather should illustrate how dependent a DM is on the course of action the players decide on and how prepared he is to deal with it. Or better: where his focus lay in preparation.
The limits of control for a DM are with the specific outcomes of the narrative impulses over multiple instances. If you think something along the lines of:
"A needs to happen, so B can happen and I can hit them with C, gearing the game towards G ..."you are two steps ahead too far, because what will always happen is more along the lines of:
"X will happen and you have A to gear it towards. which will result in XAY and you having a B to navigate towards, which will have, of course, the result of XAYB and you having C already in sight, so ..."ABC and so on is what you have control over. They are impulses, which is what has us coming full circle to the point I made in the beginning, as those impulses will have an impact on the narrative. They inform genre and if that realm of possibilities is chosen well, the sum of the possible results will give you your Grand and Epic Narrative! The play reports I'm writing here can be examples of that, I think. If nothing else, the stories described there are completely a result of what I described above (you want two good examples, check this one out and this one).
And, done ...
That's it, folks. I'm of the opinion that we need to go places with our designs that accomodate A DMs work where it really counts. It's not all intuitive, although it can be, but most of all, needs to be with most games since that kind of support is missing. It can be explained how we tell better stories in our games. And if we are able to explain it properly, other can learn it as well and get beter at it.
I hope I'm getting closer to offer some valuable insight into how we need to push a little harder when exploring what the games we play actually do and how to make that better. It's one area where we still can innovate, in my opinion.
I'll leave it at that, for now. I get a feeling that I circle the same ideas for some time now (for the simple reason that I need answers for the games I write) and I'm not sure that it still makes for endearing reading anymore. One realisation of late I had is that might have to change the direction of the blog somewhat away from writing about my ideas of design and more towards something more, idk, easily digestible?
I have an idea for that as well ... We'll see if I can pull it of. I have to chose wisely what I have to write for the rest of the year, as it already shapes up to be a busy couple of months. However, if things go as planned, you'll have a lot more to read in another format in a couple of months. Until then, friends and neighbours.