Laissez-Faire Narrativism

On with the gamer hat. The one with the “roleplaying game theory” feather in it.

Still with me? OK. The following thoughts were sparked after reading Ron Edwards’ essay Narrativism: Story Now over at The Forge. I am not fluent in Forgespeak, nor am I a regular Forge reader, otherwise I’d have joined the conversation there. As it is what I have to say has probably been said by somebody there, so I’ll gear this for a non-Forge audience and (hopefully) use Edwards’ essay only as a starting point.

That essay is one of a series that describe the three modes of roleplaying, as they have evolved in theoretical talk about the hobby: Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism. According to Edwards, Narrativist play is roleplaying that explicitly addresses what he calls Premise. Premise = Theme is an oversimplification—it’d be better to say that focusing on a clear Premise produces concrete and meaningful Themes. The point, in a Narrativist game, isn’t to level your character up, or even to play your character truly in a rich fantasy world, but, collectively, to address a Premise. He doesn’t say “collectively tell a story” because he notes, quite rightly, that all roleplaying games, even the most gonzo dungeon crawl, tell a story.

What sets Narrativism apart for Edwards is the conscious addressing of Premise. Along those lines, he quotes Robin Laws’ roleplaying essay “The Literary Edge,” which says, among other things:

Making the artistry conscious is a liberating act, making it easier to emulate the classic tales that inspire us.

It’s that first clause that trips me up, and that ultimately makes me disagree with Edwards’ whole premise about Premise. Here’s why: Consciously addressing Premise is an unrealistic goal for an improvisational, collective, social activity like an RPG. To put it in Laws’ terms, making the artistry “conscious” does not make it easier to emulte those classic tales at all.

Imagine, if you will, a novelist writing away in her garret. She’s working on a generation-spanning historical epic that struggles with issues of betrayal, forgiveness, and the loyalty due to one’s family.

I humbly submit that if our novelist starts every page, or even every chapter, by thinking to herself “How will what I’m about to write incorporate themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and the loyalty due to one’s family?” she will be dead in the water. It is theoretically possible for a novelist to work that way, but by far the most common approach of writers throughout history has been, for better or worse, to get lost in their work—to let the story flow out of them, come what may. Then what they do—almost always more than they admit—is to go back and revise it, again and again, to fix broken bits, but often to reinforce what they see as the themes of their work—whether those themes are ones they had in mind in the beginning, or ones they discovered through the process of writing.

Addressing Premise, then, when it comes to fiction, happens mostly after that first draft is written (and occasionally before it’s written, in the planning stages).

But in a roleplaying game, all you get is the first draft. There’s no revision. There’s just a bunch of improvised play-acting where the creators and the audience are one and the same. Everyone understands that a transcript of the proceedings isn’t going to win any awards, but that’s OK. It’s OK for the same reason that an audience will laugh uproariously at a joke at an Improv show that would fall flat if it were delivered by a standup comic: the audience’s expectations are different when everyone’s making things up off the top of their head.

Achieving elegant thematic cohesion in a roleplaying game is a happy accident. I’m all for setting up conditions (via rules, character creation, scenario development, etc.) to encourage it, but consciously trying to achieve it during play puts a burden on the players that even a single author in control of the whole story would do best to avoid. The lesson here is not that roleplaying games create stories that suck more than regular stories, but that roleplaying games are narrative games, and so what they do should be evaluated by whole different criteria than something you can check out of a library. A serious focus on narrative is the best thing that has happened to the hobby in the past fifteen years, but it’s only part of the picture. At least as important as the question “Is this event succeeding as a story?” are “Is it succeeding as a social activity?” and “Is it succeeding as a game?”

A couple related matters:

1. What about games that are just about storytelling, like Universalis? Even though they’re often grouped in with narrativist-oriented RPGs, to my mind they’re a whole other kettle of fish. Engaging in pure collaborative storytelling can be great fun, but it can be a demanding and even frustrating activity the same way that trying to write a story can be. Or taking part in (shiver) a writing peer group.

I suppose there’s a continuum of creative demand here, from just-you-and-a-pen-in-your-garret to collaborative storytelling to narratvisit roleplaying to come-on-dice-daddy-needs-a-critical-hit roleplaying. I’m currently involved in a superhero RPG (with Jim, among others) that has a strongly narrativist bent, constantly exploring the whole power-and-responsibility premise. And, on a given Wednesday night, the extent to which I’m up for playing at that level varies. Sometimes I’m right in there explorin’ the theme, but other times I’m very happy to fall back on the soft backdrop of “just playin’ my character.” “Here’s what you see: what do you?” is much, much easier to respond to than “Why don’t you frame the next scene” or “What themes do you want to address with your character?”

2. Over at the Forge glossary, there’s a term called “El Dorado,” which refers to ”… the unrealizable ideal of consistently addressing Premise through explicitly Simulationist play.” Sifting out the Forgespeak, what it means is basically “Your game narrative isn’t going to magically become thematically significant if all you’re doing is focusing on the details of character, setting, and genre, instead of the story itself.” Hopefully it’s evident from what I’ve written that I disagree. If roleplayers keep their focus on the nitty gritty and let the story come what may, they’ll be doing what writers have been doing for time out of mind.

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, this has become one of those entries where the material in the comments turns out to be more interesting than the actual essay. Don’t miss it.