Friday, September 09, 2011 that how it works?

I have never given much thought to the GNS Theory or the Threefold Model or any other theory related to rpg design, for two reasons. One, I don't care. My sole criteria for buying a game is how much fun I think it will be. Typically, I go for games with well-developed rules for combat (as I likes me some hackin' an' slashin') and lots of options for character building. A cool game setting helps too. The other reason is that I've never had a clear understanding of the different components of the models. I have a pretty good idea what Gamism is, largely because the classic example of Gamism is D&D in all its iterations. Typically, we talk about rpgs being non-competitive. There are no winners or losers. Compared to boardgames or CCGs, that's true. But clearly, games like D&D are competitive. You don't compete against your fellow players, but you do compete against the world controlled by the DM. Victory is achieved by gaining treasure or levels or in-game objectives, while defeat typically means character death. So, having established that rpgs like D&D are competitive, the gamism comes into play with issues such as game balance and setting victory conditions. Now sit down, you OSR guys. I played old-school D&D and there most certainly was game balance. Monsters were defined by level and typically, the deeper underground you ventured, the deadlier the monsters became. Game balance wasn't as strictly defined as it would become in later editions, but players still knew that they wouldn't face an ancient red dragon in the first level of the dungeon.

Likewise, I sort of understand what Simulationism means, although the definition seems a bit fuzzy when applied to modern games. Basically, simulationist games try to model the reality of the game world as accurately as possible. In older games, this typically meant modelling reality itself. For example, RuneQuest was more simulationist than D&D because it had hit location tables and armour-as-damage-reduction and other aspects which made combat more realistic (and more deadly). However, the broader definition means modelling a reality defined by the setting. If you had a game based on cartoon physics, for example, you would have to include rules that accurately model the fact that you don't fall after running off a cliff until you notice that you have done so.

Where the GNS Theory really breaks down for me is Narrativism. I have read the definition on Wikipedia and the best I could distill from the verbal diarrhea is that narrativism is role-playing, you know, all the stuff we do between fights. Deciding that your elven character doesn't like dwarves, knowing full well your buddy is going to play a dwarf, then playing up the conflict, that's narrativism. By this definition, every damn role-playing game ever written is narrativist, making it a fairly unhelpful term for defining game design characteristics. Now, there are games like Vampire: The Masquerade which are described as narrativist, or, I suppose, more narrativist than every other narrativist game. So, I assumed that meant you spend less time throwing dice and more time talking about your character's alienation. However, I have recently uncovered some information which suggests to me there is something more to narrativism than I thought. Reading up on the HeroQuest rpg from Moon Design (under license from Issaries), I found this little tidbit regarding the narrativist aspect of the game:

The game's mechanics are focused on quick resolution; Contests are resolved by comparing the results of two twenty sided dice, each tied to a character ability chosen by players and/or narrator. After the die roll, the participants work together to interpret the outcome in story terms.

So, apparently narrativism actually impacts game mechanics and conflict resolution and does it in the most pablum-spewing, self-esteem-building, non-confrontational way possible. It's like playtime at pre-school where everyone wins and ribbons are awarded for participation. Maybe I'm interpreting this wrong. Help me out, Storytellers and indie gamers, what does narrativism mean to you?

And please remember, I'm a science guy, so use small words.


1 comment:

The Bull said...

Seems you are not the only one who has difficulties understanding what "Narrativism" really means. Only a few days ago I wrote to my Co-GM who still struggles with the terms Ron Edwards threw at us, my interpretation of Narrativism but I have also to say that Narrativism is as scientific a term as it goes and I don't even like the idea the try to put something in a box and label it. RPG was and still is for me something beyond labels, cause only our imagination is the limit. And each group has to find out for themselves, what they like and what not. But here I go:

Narrativism is about conflicts. An exciting story only develops when the character(s) have to face conflict, be they inner conflicts, outer conflicts or even meta-conflicts. The big difference between narrativism and simulationism is in my opinion that in narrativism this conflicts develops from the motives, behaviours and goals of the characters and are not part of the setting. One of the best game-mechanism I know which go in this direction is the Burning Wheel with its instincts and beliefs.

While in a simulationism-game the characters interact with the setting the conflicts develop with or without them. In a narrativism-game it is the characters who develop and it is focused on the characters and their development. You can compare narrativism-games with coming-of-age novels. At the end of a narrativism-adventure the characters shouldn't be the same anylonger as they were at the beginning, even when they have reached their goals. New goals, new challenges await them.

I for my part would love to play narrativism in this sense but in the end it will be rather a mix between simulationism and narrativism, as for a consistent narrativism-game the players have to be more willing to take risks with their characters as the average role-player is willing. True narrativism-player throw their characters in impossible situations, seek them out, even if this means in the end, that their character only can die. The rush builds trough the culimnation of the conflict(s) till all or nothing are on the play. And in such a situation it is allowed that even two player-characters who have till to this moment worked together suddenly find each other at the tip of their drawn swords in the final scene, in a situation which only one of them will survive. This is NARRATIVISM as I see it.

Hope this helps a tiny bit to understand narrativism better.

Good luck and interesting adventures.