Saturday, March 30, 2013
Narrative Control should not be Monopolized
by Tobie Abad
I will admit, I am not well read on the history of when allowing players to have narrative control began in role-playing games. In the many years that I have been playing games, I must confess to having less of a willingness back then to explore other game lines. Though I started with a wide variety (my first games were under the Dungeons and Dragons colored box sets, Red to Gold, followed by forays into Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP, Top Seceret, Star Frontiers and the like) by the later years prior to this blog's creation, I pretty much stuck to either the World of Darkness, d20, or a few other key lines.
But then I encountered John Wick's Houses of the Blooded, and trust me the idea of wagers that gave players narrative control blew me away. While I have always been a supporter of letting players come up with their own ideas or details to add to the game, to out right hand them the freedom to co-create the story in a much more direct way was a new thing for me. And one which I at first approached with apprehension.
How Can I Keep The Plot Intact?
That was admittedly my first fear. Throughout my gaming history, I would spend days prior to the game session mapping out the possible plot threads to be explored. I would map out the flow of stories, based on the theme, the motifs, the characters, based on the dreams and desires of the cast, the fates and destinies of those they will meet. While I was raised on a steady diet of modules (or in the case of White Wolf, story books) to inspire me, I had roots in both theater and television/film production to know enough that characters can be the central roots of emerging stories. One merely needed to answer "What does ___ want?" "Why doesn't ____ have it?" and "What will ____ be willing to do to get it?"
So my notes would have little cobwebs of interconnections, showing which characters would have desires and dreams that intercepted with others, and which ones would likely support one another, or try to stop one another. The intricate web was flexible, yet delicate, and allowed me to adjust to players and react accordingly.
Narrative control, it seemed, told me NOT to do that. And that idea at first seemed absolutely preposterous. How can I run a game if I don't map out these webs of interconnecting plots? How can I manage it if I don't know what happens next?
The Genius Moment
That's when it occurred to me: Neither do the players.
And that;s where the fun can exist. Since instead of just me thinking of what these characters might be up to, now even the players can do so. And the way Houses of the Blooded did this was through the use of a system called wagers. With good rolls, a player can declare facts that are to be deemed true for the game. Yes, the system was not shielded from abuse. Yes, a "smart" player can twist all facts to favor himself. But that's just like playing a game of solitaire with all the cards spread out from the start. If you're going to cheat, then you're ruining the game for yourself. So, in a way, the game reminded us we are responsible of our own happiness. We are responsible for making the game fun.
And that's a lesson I felt that was most invaluable and important that giving players narrative control accomplishes... the understanding of how we, all of us in the game, are working together to keep it fun.
Satisfactions Don't End
And trust me, the joys of narrative control have not ended from that day we first tried it. If you as a game master once loved how the plots come together and a player goes, "I get it!" You will realize how much more awesome a feeling it is when players themselves come up with awesome twists to add to your game. I've had everything from a lowly female samurai fighting for her father's love, being revealed to actually be the real hidden daughter of a dead Emperor, or a deadly dramatic fight becoming one epic moment when the player was able to define facts which showed why that particular enemy would fail and these kinds of plot twists were purely player created!
In a way, there is also that joy of discovery for the game master! That feeling you loved giving your players when the "Aha!" moment happened is now something you too receive in every game session. And that joy of when players talk with you after the game, and at times end up suggesting ideas you like is now something that naturally unfolds during the session itself!
Then you have players who stop thinking of being "perfect" and instead start loving their character's concepts more because of how the flaws make them more interesting. You have players who are less focused on "how many points I got" and more interested in "what plot lines we can thresh out and develop fully" without them ever stepping "out of character" during the session.
The urge to co-narrate is infectious and very compelling that even when we played other games (like Castle Falkenstein), your players will now sometimes ask, "Can it be that it happened because of...." instead of just being passive until the time comes for combat and rolls (or cards) come in.
Respect the Old School.
In the end, I understand that games that give players narrative control is not for everyone. Nor is it for every game. I doubt I would ever give narrative control to players for a game such as Lacuna, for example. It definitely will not work for a session of Psychosis. And while I can imagine it working for Pathfinder and other Dungeons and Dragons type of games, the number-crunch laden approach of those games don't easily work well with giving players the ability to just declare the assassin to actually be a wizard, or a spy, instantly.
Just as there will always be people who just won't like that kind of a game. I hate basketball. I know its a popular sport and I know its a very thriving business even, but I personally would rather sleep than play, watch, read about or even role-play anything related to basketball. So likewise, I totally understand that for some people, they would probably rather not play at all than embrace a game that allows players narrative control. That's just part of what makes us, the human race, interesting.
My Final Invite
But if you are curious about it, I do highly suggest you go for it. With games like John Wick's Houses of the Blooded (which started with a FATE-like system), Magpie Games' Our Last Best Hope, Bullypulpit Games' Fiasco, Ron Edward's Sorcerer, and other games like Dogs in the Vineyard and the like out there, you have very many games that offer a wide-variety of ranges of narrative control. You might just like it. And if not, then at least you can say you have an informed opinion about it.
Oh and Happy Table Top Day!