Changing the way we ‘role’

Greetings and salutations internet! My name is Jason and what I have to say might change the way you think about roleplaying. “How so?” you might ask. There have been some changes in the world of tabletop RPGs that you may not have been aware of. Maybe you've played every version of D&D in existence, maybe even every setting of Gurps, VTM and Palladium. Though this is an impressive list, there is still a huge genre of roleplaying you are missing out on: narrative RPGs.

Let me break it down. In the games I have listed above there are a few common rules that streamline the games into one single category. Each of these games runs on the principle that the GM has complete control of the setting, direction and rules. The level of control in any one of these areas may change depending on your individual group or the style of the GM; after all, Gamemasters need to adapt to their players to maintain interest in the game. This can be stressful for a GM, especially if the players seem to be moving in a different direction than what was intended.

As a GM, have you ever made an amazing dungeon only to have the players sidetrack and run off in a different direction? Have you ever developed an amazing plotline that took you hours to write up, only to have the players kill off a main character or misinterpret your direction and follow an unwritten path? For new GM’s, this can be a game killer and even for experienced GM’s, this can develop into an antagonistic relationship of player vs GM. Once a roleplay changes course, who has control of the directing?

Games that follow this mentality are referred to as traditional games, as it has been the accepted format of official roleplaying since 1974. Since then, roleplayers have run their games according to Rule Zero, an unwritten rule stating the GM is always right and that (s)he has the ultimate say as to whether an official, published rule can be set aside or modified.

A new wave has come and if you don’t want to be left behind I suggest you take it for a ride. Narrative games take the role of the GM and section it up among the players. This gives the actors the ability to input more into the story and get involved in the world creation. It does this by removing the three aspects of traditional games and replacing them with three others. It no longer requires the GM to take full control the setting, it lets the players direct themselves in their own challenges, and Rule Zero is negated. The three rules the narrative system offers are the following: 1. Say yes or roll the dice, 2. Stick with the fiction, 3. Every roll has dramatic results or consequences.

Now before I go on. I am a system matters guy. I love rules and find that true creativity can only come from limitations. Consistency is also a key factor. So how does one achieve this? Well, three ways: make your own system; take a system you know, love and understand then hack at the conflicting rules so they suit your group and play ball; or buy a game that has the rules built to suit your team. And yes, I did use the word team on purpose. In narratives the GM is working together with the players to develop a story, changing the mentality slightly from that of a traditional rpg.

Moving on! So why does all this matter? Why did I write a crap load about this subject thus far? I am passionate about narrative roleplaying games and this is why.

“Say yes or roll the dice” changes the way people view rule systems and storytelling, and refers to the acceptance that certain actions are assumed to be successful, unless otherwise challenged by the GM, or if rolling would make more sense for the plot. You may require a skill depending on the situation, but not always. The fundamental idea is that if rolling the die would disrupt the flow of the narrative for what would be an all-too mundane action, then it is better to say yes and move on. This keeps the pace of the game quick and heightens the sense of drama.

Speaking of drama and the dramatic, narrative games fully concern themselves with the dramatic side of roleplaying. Movies are almost always dramatic; it draws in the crowds and it keeps you in your seat. Narrative games offer the same experience. New Rule one helps achieve this by allowing a narrative flow to develop without too much disruption, but beyond that is the second rule, which states that every roll has dramatic results or consequences. The basic principle is that if an action is sufficiently important that it requires one's skills to be tested, then the result should be equally important and affecting.

A common misconception about narrative gaming is that there are no dice involved whatsoever. This is true in some cases but there is normally always a balance tool. Balance tools may include dice, coloured gems or cards, all used with the intention of making your gut twist before the final result is determined. Either way, the result should be dramatic. Even failure opens up new situations or challenges.

Where this differs from tradition failure systems and the idea of task setup and intent is in the execution. Rather than simply depending on the GM to mind-read and realize what the player's intent was upon attempting the action, the player makes their intentions known in such a way that it becomes a part of the narrative. For example, in a traditional game a player may want to unlock a door and sneak past the guards inside to steal a treasure. A common problem is that the player will simply roll to unlock the door without informing the GM of the intention of unlocking it carefully to sneak inside. The player may break in, but the guards are alerted, causing a disconnect between what the player intended and what the GM understood. This, too, disrupts the flow of the storyline and may result in anti-climax and more wasted time as the player struggles to find an alternative to what should have been a minor story point. In narrative gaming, the player would state their intent as though they were writing a line in a story. In this style, the playing might choose to say something along the lines of, “I take my lockpick and quietly twist it in the lock, hoping not to alert any enemies.” There is no confusion here. You want to go into the room, WITHOUT alerting the guards. In game-speak, what your intention says to the GM is,"If I fail I want to alert the guards." It is clear now that opening the door is not the focus, and that alerting the guards is. This means that even on a fail, the player can open the door required to move on the story, but not before having some browbeating soldiers locked on to your location.

This being said, fighting in narratives isn't the focus, so don't expect to be setting up minis on a table. By the time you've done this, the battle would already have been resolved. To keep up the pace of gameplay, most situations are summed up in a single dice roll, including fighting! Losing doesn't always means death, but it does mean your life just got a hell of a lot more complicated (and interesting).

Twists, bangs and challenges are the tools the GM has to use on the players, suiting the on-the-fly mentality. As you can guess, narratives cannot be planned out in detail like most other RPGs. Much of the time, the players themselves will be asked to add details to areas, items and npcs. A player connects more with a storyline and characters that they help to shape and detail. In particular, naming and describing npcs gives the player a sense of involvement in the overall plot and brings realism to the narrative (for instance, a player's character may be the one to introduce an npc to the rest of the group, so why shouldn't they have some say in what that npc looks like and how their relationship developed?).

This type of gaming isn't for everyone. Some people are more interested in the hack and grind, or games that place the narrative control squarely in the realm of the GM, and both of these preferences are fine. It is what you and your players like in the end that matters. For those that feel like something is missing, or the rules don't quite fit what you want, I would suggest trying another system. Hacking up rules isn't always the way to go when you have people who spent years making systems to suit your game style. Go out and explore the vast wonders of the RPG world. Grab a D. Vincent Baker, Jason Morningstar or Luke Crane game and have at it. For those that feel like breaking the D&D traditional mold, I know you will not be disappointed.

If you would like to know more about the terms used in this article, check out “The Forge” essay on the subject:


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