A neotrad TTRPG design manifesto

To try to simplify,

RE says that when playing a game what matters most ought to be settled by play (leading to the catchcry, play to find out what happens)RE says that what matters most, is P (protagonists resolve premises relating to problematic features of human existence)Therefore, says RE, P ought to be settled by game play

From there

I say that when playing a game what matters most ought to be settled by play. (Agreement with RE.)I am agnostic on what matters most: I call whatever matters most to you, L ("ludically-crux"... it's what you want to play to find out.)Therefore, say I, L ought to be settled by game play.
I don't know of an instance where RE claimed that ALL PLAY centers on 'P' as you put it. He only said that P was relevant to Narrativist play in the original formulation. I think his model, as I have understood it, would mostly agree with you in terms of 'L', that is every instance of play has some sort of 'crux', some premise which it turns on. So, I'm not really trying to reinterpret what you are saying here, I just think RE said it, entirely, 20 years ago. Sorry if I'm nitpicking...

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I've seen similar but different things on occasion in other narrative systems.most ttrpgs are not made with the goal of furthering narrative gameplay though. You could import that type of thing to most any game... But doing that comes with a big catch where you are as likely to wind up with an immediate descent into paranoia chargen vibes or the chaos of fiasco doing it absent the parts of fate that make it work. Even with those fate system elements a player who has mostly or only played trad games like D&D will often approach it akin to old school abusive wish wording in one hand with ruleslawyering in the other to avoid any chance of consequence.

I was very confused originally till I saw the first edit :). I've played/run lots of fate stuff and a bit of pbta among other narrative/story/etc games. All of those tend to be extremely clear about their collaborative nature both with guidance and supporting mechanics to both sides of the gm screen. You even demonstrate that in the eventual completion where you note that the system in the mentioned story game having a lot of say over both sides of the GM screen. After demonstrating that you go on to talk about how neotrad means that the system would need much less say.

In contrast to the up front "this is how it is" clarity on interactions & responsibilities & expectations neotrad and its discourse trends towards a focus on applying power only one side of the gm screen with responsibility falling exclusively on the other. When the obvious problems almost certain to bloom from that disconnect neotrad leaps into questioning mindset of the speaker or talk of bad players as the primary solution until eventually reluctantly gesturing at some vague barely defined broad social contract. That weird one sided focus plays out very much like what you tend to get when a player who only knows d&d starts playing those other games and wants the power over narrative they offer plus the freedom from it that d&d allows. It's hard not to be skeptical of neotrad's goal when it focuses so exclusively on splitting power and authority in different directions. Doing that while relying so heavily on the sort of silent must not be said unstated player responsibilities to the game and fellow players/gm like we keep seeing in this thread it practically begs for neotrad to be (mis)applied as a shield.
I'd feel a lot more comfortable with this sort of analysis being backed up by examples and more of an explication of how examples of FATE play avoided the problems you are describing, while some other systems employed for neo-trad play are running into issues. I think its good as far as it goes in terms of outlining a thesis though.

Thanks for your thoughts!

In answer to

I would say that, yes, much of the in-game activity does not directly relate to answering the crucial question that is settled in play, except insofar as it is putting the player characters in a position where they can answer it.
  • Partly I think this is a matter of design intent, insofar as WotC wants the average 5e table to be able to run through the entire AP without constant TPKs because it hasn't calibrated combat difficulty.
  • Partly, I think that as the first adventure path of the new edition, WotC (and Kobold Press, which actually wrote the AP) were still getting their footing on 5e adventure design. As a result, there are several missed opportunities, you might say, for there to be more that is settled in play. For instance, apropos of the coalition-building, the AP could have had some kind of gameplay structure whereby the players determine the outcome of a battle raging outside of the temple of Tiamat (during which time they themselves breach the temple in order to play out the final climax), independent of the outcome of their own struggle. If they had succeeded in coaltion-building, they could see their hard work rewarded!
This is not to say the activity isn't enjoyable, of course - I certainly enjoyed it, as did my players (so they tell me) - only that it doesn't feel, upon reflection, that it relates to settling the central question of the AP in play outside of preparing the player characters for such settlement. ("Everything we've done has led to this moment!" kind of thing.)

In answer to

the AP does actually expect disaster to occur if the player characters fail. I'll quote at length from the final page of the text proper:

[*] Indeed, during the final battle, if Tiamat is successfully summoned bodily into the world, she spends some time gloatingly devouring the cultists and rogue Red Wizards who made it possible. (That's gratitude for you, I guess.)

So yes, the module does tell the GM what happens if the answer to

is no, and there is no expectation that the GM is expected to blunt the impact. (Strictly speaking, nothing is stopping a GM from doing so, but the AP says what it says.)
I would just point out however, that in this sort of Trad play there are enormous incentives for the GM to do as @pemerton suggests, to a degree that I would expect it to be the norm, in keeping with play of this type which I have observed in the past. Few typical GMs are interested in invalidating a mass of either purchased or self-authored material. The incentives against this are large, and there's really very little reason to enact this sort of cataclysm if you think about it. I mean, at this point the PCs involved are either slain or defeated, and probably reached 20th level in any case. So, given a choice, would a GM not simply 'fix the problem' and start the next campaign as if Tiamat was defeated? I'd expect this to be the overwhelmingly more popular choice! Sure, the option exists to do as the module suggests and usher in further play in a dark future, but since WotC doesn't elaborate on that setting it will require a lot of GM work, avoiding which is the POINT of FR!

I use the definition employed by post-classical narratologists and ludologists, not wikipedia. So far as I can make out, you (and wikipedia) use narrative as a synonym of story. Does that sound right? Classical narratologists might have agreed with you.
Narrative is the presentation of story. In terms that have been used for at least the last 20 years in RPG theory; 'fiction' refers to things established either before or during play; narrative and story are indeed very closely related and sometimes used interchangeably; and 'transcript' is generally used to refer to a literal rendition of an instance of play without regard to its qualities as narrative/story. I would further point out that 'narrative' as a preposition is often used to qualify the TELLING of the story, and the word derives from 'to narrate'. I withhold any opinion on 'post-classical narratologists'. I think someone up thread touched on 'implied narrative' and in some instances that may be a reasonable way to view a piece of fiction, but then questions have to be asked as to how that relates to play. I guess in theory a player could utilize this technique, maybe I've even seen it done to a degree in terms of using backstory to imply things about a PC. Still, this is a rather corner-case kind of thing, but maybe you are advocating for this sort of technique as a cornerstone of neo-trad techniques? It could be interesting!
I've said this a few times, but the issue is not one of any sort of confusion. It is definitional. As I would define it, fiction (as it pertains to narrative) is narrative that involves make believe: that has nothing to do with its inclusion or exclusion from a story. Tolkien's list of kings in LotR is fiction, as is his tale of Smith of Wootton Major. To say that the latter is a (fictional) story is to say that it is narrative and it involves make believe and it extends to a series that has the qualities of apparent causality, temporality, etc.
Nobody is arguing about what Smith of Wootton Major is, so I'm not sure what this even means in relation to my point about the LotR king lists. I also agree there that in RPG (setting authoring) terms the LotR king lists are certainly 'fiction'. What it is not is NARRATIVE, though I'm certainly willing to examine specific cases in the sense of being 'implied narrative'. I don't think if it is implied narrative it changes my argument though in the sense that this will now simply be trad-like pre-authored setting fiction which is agreed to at the start of "lets play in Middle Earth" presumably. These sorts of stories (setting myths essentially) simply form part of the backdrop of the setting, taking on typically some sort of temporal character and being aimed at extending the setting's lore to remote times and perhaps explicating the current situation. Maybe, again, that might become meta-plot, which seems to have potential in neo-trad as fodder for establishing the trajectory of play, much in the way @Manbearcat referred to a few pages back.
I agree with you that "it is quite possible to utilize different game texts in different ways". I'm addressing the design of the game text. Recollect that as cited in my OP, the author of the "six styles" clarified they were discussing OC play (which makes sense, for the reasons you outline) and not neotrad design.
Honestly I am a bit fuzzy on what, in practice, would be the dividing line between these. They both involve player-directed and PC-centered story arcs which generally reinforce and explicate the character-as-defined, rather than challenging that conception. Given that the starting point for this taxonomy was 'six cultures of play' which doesn't distinguish these as separate concepts I've not really seen where they are very distinct!


I'd feel a lot more comfortable with this sort of analysis being backed up by examples and more of an explication of how examples of FATE play avoided the problems you are describing, while some other systems employed for neo-trad play are running into issues. I think its good as far as it goes in terms of outlining a thesis though.
After your analysis of fate compels im 121 and 124 I'll just answer that question by stating that fate can be deceptively complex with aspects despite simple mechanics. Beyond that however... I have no interest in filling the request for providing rpghorrorstories fodder more detailed than what you quoted in a system that you yourself already tried to claim fate can not possibly be used for neotrad simply to demonstrate how a story/narrative ttrpg can have gameplay severely damaged by a player who feels like their character &actions don't need to meet the bar required by more narrative heavy systems. The reason there is simply because people with actual experience in playing/running those types of systems already know how critical player involvement is in them as at least one other poster pointed out around that time

I agree. Cited was a definition for the sort of sequential narrative we recognise as stories. Stories are narratives. Another kind of narrative is description. You give some examples.

"The city of Follen stands at the mouth of the river Tel." "Brand is a bowman". "The Bay of Tel is rainswept in winter. 1-5 on d6." "My character is a bard. Rollo."

A collection of narrative snippets can give rise to a distinctive, shared game world, in which play can unravel its own unique form of narrative. "Brand leads me to the city of Follen, where I take ship for Distar. Her decks are made slick by constant rain, which unfortunately sends me over the side when I assay an acrobatic performance."

Generally, I look for signifiers, a signified, and narration. Where auto-narration is also on the table. Whether to count words on the Ironsworn "Action" oracles table as narrative is something I'm still pondering. I suspect they ought to only be counted narrative in conjunction with the priors going in, which they very obviously adjust (joining as signifiers, leading to adjusted narration through reflection on what is now signified.) It's a remarkable process!
Well, there are a couple things missing from your descriptions here: Rules clearly are constituted in RPGs for the purpose of regulating who, when, and why specific instances of fiction can be incorporated, as you yourself at one point imply. Now, this would seem to fall under VB's rubrik of "stuff you don't need, better handled informally" EXCEPT for the other half of that which you have elided here; which is the bringing in of the unpleasant and unexpected. We can CLEARLY see that this is where VB was leading, as AW exemplifies a rules system which does this quite gracefully! In terms of a neo-trad sort of play unpleasant and unexpected are not elements that are always necessary, so I think the question does become much more cogent here! That is, Given that the players are aiming at exemplifying a theme which is already established before play begins, what is the purpose of rules? I'd say that, to a large degree, they are employed to add color!

Let me try to give an example: You might invent a milieu and corresponding rules which are intended to allow the players to assume the roles of Robinhood and his Merry Men. Obviously fiction will include elements like King John, the Sheriff, Maid Marian, Sherwood Forest, etc. Rules might then describe the attributes of a Merry Man, facilitating the definitions of things like their particular backgrounds (fugitive nobility, impoverished knight, rogue monk, villainous poacher, etc.). The rules might further enumerate various possible bits of flavor, such as the types of weapons (longbows aside) that a given character has expertise with, NPC family members who might be brought into the story, etc. It might also specify some other sorts of color, like what sorts of acts and situations lead to an increase in the reward offered for a given character by the Sheriff (and thus regulating different sorts of fallout like the deadliness of the pursuit or whether their NPC family is threatened). I can see all of the above as potentially useful, but they're fundamentally present in order to elaborate on and ease the player burden of 'getting into character'.

Now, constitutive rules regarding the actual process of play are also going to be necessary in order to construct a true game out of this, but the question is, as Baker implies, are they really necessary? If the participants are in agreement on the nature of the milieu, and the style of play (neo-trad/OC, so presumably whether Robin and Co 'win' or not isn't actually part of the stakes) already tells us the general trajectory of the narrative, then can we not simply fill in the blanks in an informal way? Honestly, wouldn't it be at least a reasonable supposition that rules in this form of game are really present to do this merely because it eases the generation of fiction? So, for instance a structure in which the GM is told to formulate 'adventures' in the form of 3-part stories with a lead-in, a crisis, and a resolution would work reasonably well, with details suggesting specific sorts of each scene, etc. I'd think you could construct a pretty decent game of this sort by these means, but I think VB is still right that skilled participants in play are likely to find the rules more a bother than a help.


Suppose that someone is doing what you describe - being a knight, or a vampire.

What does it add to that experience to have the game tell you to track encumbrance? Or to have a rule for the chance to find secret doors if you search for them. Or to have combat rules appropriate to a miniatures wargame? Nothing.
Forbidden Lands tracks encumbrance in order that what you have on you can matter during forays far from villages. 4e has extensive combat rules. These are not inevitably at odds with flags, scene closure mechanics, attritional conditions, etc.
GUMSHOE tracks clues. But 4e D&D doesn't - it's not a mystery-oriented game. Perhaps Forbidden Lands needs encumbrance, but a game in which I pretend to be a knight or a vampire doesn't seem to need it. (And my reference to combat rules was an allusion to V:tM, which is often criticised for having D&D-style combat rules that, given its professed subject matter, it doesn't need.)

I am simply following the blog on neotrad design, and linking it to Eero Tuovinen's remarks about the unsuitability of AD&D for Hickman's project. As I posted, it is not a mystery why someone wanting to do Hickman's thing, 40 years later, would decline to use an unsuitable "content delivery chassis" and adapt more appropriate RPG techniques.

In previous posts you seemed to endorse both blogs. Have you now rejected them, or departed from them?

Rather I'm interested in the playful/gameful divide you seemed to propose in your example.
I have not proposed any such distinction. You are the one proposing it, in response to some things that I said. I think that, in the context of RPGing, it is a suspect, even spurious, distinction.

Expressing identity and revealing story were described to most matter to the player. To my reading, game rules were described to serve that ends, but not be crucial to it. The obvious question is - what happens in the absence of those rules? Is what matters to the player still successfully achieved. If so, why do they choose to play a game?
I responded to this already. with reference to Vincent Baker on rules vs vigorous creative agreement.

Of course one can't know about a particular player without asking them; but some conjectures are possible. One is that they find vigorous creative agreement hard. Another is that they are part of a culture of play that puts significant emphasis on - even fetishises - a particular ruleset. I've seen both these things in the context of AD&D 2nd ed.

One option is that while game play isn't central, it is supplemental in a way that inspires or elevates the play. What matters most is being shared playfully, but not developed gamefully.
OK, that's your conjecture.

Given that I'm not going out looking for a research grant to take this empirical question - about the reasons people play RPGs with others - any further, I'm happy to leave the conjecturing at that.


It's a digression, but essentially I see ambiguities around inferred versus (putatively) prescribed narrative.
I don't know what "inferred" and "prescribed" mean in this context. I mean, "inference" would be something the reader/audience engages in; but "prescription" would be something that the author engages in. So how do they contrast?

The contention is not that "a single, free-standing assertion can constitute a narrative"
@FrogReaver contended this, and you "liked" the post and replied to in in 614 saying "I agree":

a narrative to me (didn’t realize there was another definition) need not be deep or complex, it can be a single sentence. He was angry. That’s a narrative. It was raining. That’s a narrative. The king decreed that taxes would increase. Narrative again.
So how is this is not an assertion that a single, self-standing sentence can be a narrative?

but that a collection of signifiers, not arranged as a linear story, can. Players traverse the "text" and infer the signified from the signifiers with a consistency that justifies the claim that the non-linear, dynamically disclosed structure is indeed narrative.
I didn't disagree with this (though I did ask what is at stake by framing it in terms of signifier/signified, rather than referring term/referent). But this is not what @FrogReaver posted, that you agreed with, which was the post that prompted me to express my doubt that a single, self-standing sentence can be a narrative.
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I'm not familiar with a notion of narrative which makes free-standing assertions or descriptions count as narratives.

I'm not an expert on "narratology", or structuralist poetics/semiotics more generally, but the notion of structure is pretty key. A free-standing assertion or description doesn't constitute, or create, a narrative structure.

I'm even less of an expert on video games and narrative, but there is some discussion of this to be found on the Wikepedia page on narratology <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narratology> (footnotes omitted):
Marie-Laure Ryan distinguishes between "a narrative" as an object that can be clearly defined and the quality of narrativity, which means "being able to inspire a narrative response”. This allows her to understand video games as possessing narrativity without necessarily being conventional narratives. Astrid Ensslin builds upon this, explaining that "games have the potential to evoke multiple, individualized narrative scripts through world-building, causal event design, character development and other elements that players interact with the intention to solve problems and make progress". . . .​
Murray argues that narrative structures such as the multi-narrative more accurately reflected "post-Einstein physics" and the new perceptions of time, process, and change, than the traditional linear narrative. The unique properties of computers are better-suited for expressing these "limitless, intersecting" stories or "cyberdramas." These cyberdramas differ from traditional forms of storytelling in that they invite the reader into the narrative experience through interactivity i.e. hypertext fiction and Web soap The Spot. Murray also controversially declared that video games – particularly role-playing games and life-simulators like The Sims, contain narrative structures or invite the users to create them. She supported this idea in her article "Game Story to Cyberdrama" in which she argued that stories and games share two important structures: contest and puzzles. . . .​
Nonlinear narratives serve as the base of many interactive fictions. Sometimes used interchangeably with hypertext fiction, the reader or player plays a significant role in the creation of a unique narrative developed by the choices they make within the story-world. Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden is one of the first and most studied examples of hypertext fiction, featuring 1,000 lexias and 2,800 hyperlinks.​
In his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Espen Aarseth conceived the concept of cybertext, a subcategory of ergodic literature, to explain how the medium and mechanical organization of the text affects the reader's experience:​
...when you read from a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.​

The narrative structure or game-worlds of these cybertexts are compared to a labyrinth that invites the player, a term Aarseth deems more appropriate than the reader, to play, explore and discover paths within these texts.​

I don't see anything here that eschews structure, or suggests that a single, free-standing assertion can constitute a narrative.
This certainly seems to speak to my earlier characterization of Tolkien's Gondorian king lists in the appendices of LotR as not being, in and of themselves, narrative in character. As I said later, they might be held to contain an IMPLICATION of narrative, to suggest and perhaps even invite, the reader to imagine some story behind them, but such a narrative would only exist in the case of a reader actually reading the list and doing such visualization, whereas the narrative in the body of the main work is rather more concrete in form (although it is certainly a reasonable position to take that its character as a narrative depends on being interpreted by a reader).


@AbdulAlhazred Your sketch of the Robin Hood game, and the role that rules do and don't play in it, is terrific. I've played that sort of thing using AD&D, and Eero Tuovinen is correct that the rules are not a very suitable content delivery chassis. Adapting better rules - that allow the adding of colour as you describe (Who is my Merry Man friends with? What is the cut of my Merry Man's tights?), and that structure working through the story in a way that is better than map-and-key + random encounter rolls - will make the experience better, without changing the core underlying structure and process of play.

@clearstream: I adopt post 626 holus bolus as an appendix to my post 627.

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