Friday, February 19, 2010

Narrative Control

It shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone after reading this blog that I'm a big fan of telling stories in games. I've played through crappy computer games to get a story, hell I've even enjoyed the near non-existent or non-important stories of some games. When it comes to role playing games, especially table top, is it any surprise that I'm here for the story as well? However, telling a story in a table top RPG can be hard. After all, you don't have control of all the pieces when you're game mastering, someone else is controlling the main characters, even worse it is actually several someone elses that are controlling the main characters. Each with their own wants, needs, and desires for how the story should turn out. That however is a problem that most good game masters work around, and many wonderful stories have been told around the gaming table despite this 7 person mash-up mechanism for years now. Gaming however wasn't finished.

So, beyond the fact you have 5-7 really creative people trying to tell the same story in different ways at the gaming table, most games have another issue. I heard someone (I think it was John Wick, fairly safe assumption to make) call it the 'Whiff Factor' and it is something that has stuck with me ever since. What is the whiff factor? Essentially it is exactly what it sounds like, the sound a bat makes in baseball when you swing for all you are worth...and miss. Even worse, in gaming it happens in the crucial moments. You've just found the man who killed your father and...whiff. You are leading your army against the forces of darkness in the final climactic battle and...whiff. If you don't make this acrobatics check, half the party is going to be squished between the spikes...whiff.

Basically, those really important rolls that heroes in the movies, tv shows, comics, and books always make but gamers rarely do. What advantage to the heroes in fiction have? They don't have a random number generator deciding success or failure. Games have addressed this in a number of ways, mostly by adding ways that players can have control of their rolls. Making abilities like "luck" cheaper or more appealing to take, or ways to spend points to increase your rolls, or re-roll your rolls and this that and the other thing. Mitigating this whiff factor was exactly the reward I was talking about earlier in my post about rewarding your players. Some games though are going a different way, they're moving from rolling for success or failure, to rolling for narrative control.

How narrative control works is, again, much how it sounds. A player wants to do an action, so they tell the GM, roll their dice, and then instead of the dice deciding if the action succeeds or fails, the dice decides who gets to narrate the result. Either it goes to the player, who then gets to decide if he succeeds or fails, or it goes to the GM who decides if they succeed or fail.

This takes a bit of getting used to because you aren't rolling for success or failure. It takes a while for a player to feel uncomfortable describing themselves failing. GMs are generally trained to see a 'bad' roll as a failure as well, and the implication in most systems I've seen with this is that a GM is assumed to give a worse result. This also brings us right back to the problem with the mish-mash of different ideas I mentioned before because of its, in my opinion, reliance on an ideal playgroup situation.

See, the way a Narrative Control game works is that players and the GMs are all fully interested in telling the best story possible (I agree with this) and so will work together to make it happen. As such, players will hand themselves failures when it is more entertaining, and hand themselves success when that is better for the story. The GM will do the same thing as well. Do you see where the problem lies though? 5 different view points of what is best for the story. I mean, how could the story be worse when I, the hero, succeed at all these actions? And how much more dramatic is it when I do well, but my mighty companions come out a little worse. I can make it happen too, I have narrative control after all. Unchecked, the game can then devolve into players throwing each other under the bus, and all semblance of plot being lost.

That doesn't, however, mean that there is nothing to be gained in those games. John Wick is still a major supporter of it, and seems to be refining the craft down into something truly remarkable (I am looking forward to see what Yesterday's Tomorrow brings). I, however, think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I say the middle because I don't think Narrative Control rolling lends itself to co-operative story telling as much as it at first seems. You are passing the author's pen around sure, you are working together on it sure, but there isn't really a control for the story. The GM loses a lot of that power of keeping the story focused because players can dictate the world. Going even further, if you are rolling the dice for something important (and if it isn't important, why are there dice in your hands?) are you really going to expect to claim you fail? I mean, this is an important event and action, most people aren't going to let themselves fail it. More to the point, if you do lose narrative control and others know how important to you the roll is, are they going to make you fail? Probably not, again unless you have an ideal group of players together. When you can't fail, tension goes away, and the RP becomes more bland. It is one of the truest statements I've ever heard of for role playing, "You need bad rolls for good RP". A character isn't tested by the mile high pile of their successes, they're tested by the times they fail.

However, where the exchange comes in is important. Essentially, a middle ground where the chance of failure is always present, the GM has a focus control over the story, but the players can still sway and move it. It's possible in your traditional systems, but you as the GM have to watch out for whiff factor. It's possible in Narrative Control sessions, but players have to concede points to the GM and make sure they don't over step things. I'm not fully sure where the answer lies, I'm thinking I may have a solution in M.A/C.C, but it still needs testing.

Happy gaming

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